Nepal and Bhutan: The backstory

I am never really sure who reads this. Nor if anyone finds it interesting or amusing. And certainly my last month was pretty incredible. It still seems surreal when I look at the pictures. It is a dreamland for me up there. However, there is so much more to this place than trekking. It is my spiritual homeland (meaning the Himalayan region) and I just feel at home here. Even though I know it is not a place I will ever call a permanent home.

Maybe that is the gift it always gives me. Impermanence and the appreciation of the impermanent nature of our existence. We are all gonna die. So live your life the best you can.

If you have heard the story of Sagar and his family here in Nepal, indulge me, it is a nice one.

Gary Chantrell, an old friend of mine from Canada, was a kayaker working the rivers back in 1995 when I first set foot in the country that stole my heart. We became friends and linked up again in 1998; planning to travel to Tibet. He had to cancel, but still met me in Kathmandu. He asked me if I wanted to go to a tea shop he frequented that was across from the hotel he used between river trips. It was then I met Sagar and his family.

Sagar and his family and I started a relationship over the next 20 years that continues to get stronger. But my main relationship and friendship has been with Sagar. I think he was 12 back then.

We corresponded over the years. He got to see me go thru life changes and losses. I got to see him try to deal with life growing up in Nepal. I returned several times and always sent friends visiting Kathmandu to see the family. Always sending a bit of love along the way.

Between 2000 and 2019 I saw Sagar a total of three days; including 1 day two years ago. Yet somehow we have maintained this strong, surreal bond. He now is married with a child and is living with his family after many years of working in Dubai and sending his earnings home to help survive in Nepal.

I stayed with the family, even though Sagar was gone, in 2017 for nearly a week; getting to know his wife and daughter and re-connecting with his parents. He arrived home for his twice yearly leave the day before I left Nepal to come home. One night.

This year I got to stay with them for a week and enjoy their lives and struggles and laughs and re-connect. Settling into daily Nepali life before my trek. It truly is a luxury to get close to people here when you started out just as a dirty backpacker. It is also sad as you have to say goodbye after you get close and glimpse their lives firsthand. Good and bad. But it is the nature of travel for me. And I feel lucky to drop back into my friend’s lives and drink up the closeness and connection; knowing I must leave. Impermanence again. Enjoy it while you can. And I do. I will miss them til next time.

Bhutan is a different story. Chhimi and I became friends in Grad School at Humboldt in 2009. He knew my love for the Himalayan region immediately and as a Buddhist, I had a lot to learn. We have stayed friends of course and this most recent 11 day stay before I come home was my 4th.

In September, I came here attempting to use my background to be more useful to the land I know and love. It took awhile. My whole month here before Nepal was spent living with Chhimi and his family. I mean, I have adopted families all over. And since everyone but his wife’s parents speak English, I was in full Uncle Bob mode with his three kids. And they are all tons of fun. And i got to get close with his wife Seday and strategize with her on her travel company. I adore them all. And I am sad to leave.

I came back these last 11 days to try my hand at “formal” consulting. As you may have read in one of my previous blogs, there is a new microfinance firm here and after meeting them in October, we agreed I would help them develop a strategy in exchange for them covering my costs; mainly flights and hotels.

Well. IT. WAS. AWESOME. Having caught a cold my last day in Kathmandu, I connected with the main microfinance firm in Kathmandu (referred by a fellow trekker i met up near Everest) to bounce some regional ideas off of him before I hopped a flight from Kathmandu to Paro to pass right in front of the incredible mountains where I just spent nearly a month.

I landed in Paro, Bhutan, grabbed a shuttle bus, and returned to the capital Thimphu; 6 weeks later and many degrees colder than when I was here last! My cold intensified. Two nights in Thimphu for meetings then, as my cold shifted into an upper respiratory shit show, I grabbed my five hour bus to Phoensholing; my all-time favorite border town near India.

Getting denied by the Bhutan banks (again) had me walking the streets of Jaigon, India late at night, looking for a damn ATM that had both money AND would take my ATM card. Denied! But at least its warm as P ling is only at about 1200 feet in elevation. Nice.

My six hour bus to Tendu (that was where I was going to meet with the microfinance guy I met before, Ugyen) left late enough in the morning for me to grab some rupees at an ATM (wandering the streets with a nice local guy looking for the same) and avoid a bus problem or something that would require more than 5 dollars in rupees. Which is about all I had left. And I am glad I did. Because the bus broke down and me and my now wheezing body had to figure out a way to get to Ugyen’s town. But not before I played some music with my fellow stranded passengers.

Getting picked up by a local and his family we pressed on to the remote town of Tendu, right near the edge of the “chicken neck”; a strategic stretch of land near Sikkim that both the Indian and Chinese militaries find important.

It is a really beautiful valley that is green and mountainous at about 3000 feet. Still nice weather and a mix of Indian, Nepali, Sikkimese, and Bhutanese cultures. As we pulled in right around sunset, Ugyen met my sick, travel-weary body and ushered me into his home.

He wife and adorable 2 year old met me with friendly smiles and served me up my favorite dish (well really only dish) Emma Datse. Rice and chilis!

I lamented my cold was on day 5 now and I was concerned the cough was getting worse. Ugyen suggested a home remedy of whiskey and ginger tea. Why, of course!

The next two days was spent with me and my new friend strategizing, me sleeping when tired and just enjoying his cool little farming town.

Ugyen and I see eye to eye on many things in life. And he was gracious enough to connect with me intellectually and emotionally when I wasn’t coughing up my lungs between naps. Somehow, I was able to get what I needed to perform my services.

Finally starting antibiotics on Day 8, the ride back was easier and i settled into recording my ideas for my presentation to their management team.

In short (as I did in my thesis), I advocated for the microfinance company to work with fewer communities, but to make a commitment to those communities and to go deeper. To use finance as a tool to solve community problems and to reside in the community as Ugyen does. To develop such a strong bond of trust within the community that you can act as an advisor and, since the person would know the community so well, become the point person for all NGOs and government liaisons that want to work there. The community wins and you win. They loved it. And they are going to implement it.

So finally, with all of my “informal” work I have done both in grad school and Mexico and Guatemala and my community, I got to sink my teeth into something “formal”. And it felt great.

My love for this area (and the desire to work with indigenous populations) was a big motivation for grad school. Many of my ideas are lost on climate change folks or they are disinterested. But the ideas work in many communities. Relationships. Small markets. Win-Win. And man, Buddhist economics.

Bhutan is truly a unique country. As I get to know the folks there better, the deep richness (and the closed feeling) of their culture becomes more and more understandable. It is hard to “break into” the culture as every day there is some sort of ritual it seems and it is a family-centric place. Yet, I felt incredibly welcomed there. It seems everyone in this 800,000 person nation is related!

Somehow, this place felt super familiar to me once I was leaving. Again, it is hard for me. I love it there. I connect with the people. I have friends. I understand how things are done. But I know I can’t live there. It wouldn’t work. But I can continue to return and now feel super useful. And celebrate my impermanence. And the impermanence of everything. Enjoy!

I have had people ask me, “are you gonna go back to work?” Well, I AM working in my own way. Or “how do you DO this? Are you made of money?” Well, no. I have no kids (and no ex-wives) and simply saved my money and spent less than I made. And I have no investments in the market. While in Nepal, we trekked for about $8-15 a day. I use air miles to travel when I can. My place in Bellingham is financially self-sufficient and I rent to friends at below market rates while I travel. I am healthy. And feel empowered. It seems simplistic and normal for me. I live pretty light but can splurge once in awhile. I feel fortunate.

The people of this region have given me so much. And I am finally giving back. Finally. And my next move is Colombia for Spanish in my quest for fluency. In a perfect world, I can consult in both the Himalayan region and Latin America. A dream.

Kuzudgonpola. Tashidelek. Namaste. And now, Buenos dias!

I love you all.

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