Being born in England, and later immigrating to America, I've always considered myself to be quite a lucky bastard. The two weeks I just spent in one of the most pretty but miserably poor places in the world has solidified my sense of winning the birth lottery, and may have permanently changed (and apparently improved) my perspective on life.
I was one of five "Americans" selected for the State Department's Legislative Fellows Exchange Program to Nepal. I'm terribly afraid of flying (what a shit way to die) and despite the five Old Fashioneds at a vanilla airport bar in Newark, the 20 plus hour flight was obviously horrendous. The large gulp of Nyquil didn't help me sleep and the smell of other people in a confined space was something I'd need to get used to, pretty soon.
Arriving in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu was unnerving, to say the very least. People tried too eagerly to escort my bags to the car, they asked for tips and after dispersing about $15 dollars to whoever had their hands out, they lightly hit on the car window wanting more.
Driving to the five-star hotel was my first introduction to South East Asian traffic and the roadside scenery will always be unforgettable. The written word cannot do justice to the anarchy and shock of my initial exposure to traffic norms in Nepal; cows and street dogs walking around eating from piles of trash on the side of the street, hundreds of people/pedestrians walking purposefully in front of traffic from anywhere in any direction, men holding hands everywhere, what seemed like thousands of scooters and motorcycles carrying entire families, including small children and a legitimately constant and unemotional honking, with no traffic lights, turn lanes, etc. This drive really smacked me in the face and made certain I knew I wasn't in "Kansas" anymore.
We spent the majority of our time going to various meetings, informal and formal (and man, they do formal a lot). We met with American embassy staff, various NGOs/ advocacy groups, Nepali government bureaucrats and officials and journalists and journalism students. After a few days I started to get "politician-itis" -- running between multiple meetings, with my opinions as currency, with people treating me with a lot of respect was not particularly healthy for my ego. At least now I better understand why most politicians are so gross.
We visited the major tourist spots in Kathmandu and the Nepali version of Santa Fe, Pokhara and saw monkeys, Buddhist and Hindu temples, burning bodies and a wide gamut of colors and people selling trinkets at the "best price for you." I got my first haircut in a place without electricity and at the same shed-like structure my first (and last) face massage from an eager Nepali barber, whose hands were at least twice as rough as my bricklayer father's.
On my down time I spent too many (all but one) nights in different bars getting a lot of personally interesting off-the-record opinions on topics including Americans, black people, gay people, Muslims, etc.
Nepal has eight of the world's 10 tallest mountains, no constitution, a government in transition and some of the friendliest people I've ever met. After a 10 year conflict between Maoist and government forces, there was a bloodless overthrow of the Monarchy in 2008. In the last election the Maoists became the majority political party (one of 33+) with the majority of the popular vote. This small country is sandwiched between China and India, which both exert their gigantic diplomatic and economic influence with a wide brush. Twenty-three percent of the entire Nepalese economy is based on their people moving out of the country and working in low-skill jobs.
In most conversations I had with Nepalis, more time was spent on the past than on the future. Whether that's a characteristic of the culture or a consequence of my question-asking I cannot say. Many people I spoke to, and it's an opinion I came to share, feel that Nepal presents a unique opportunity to "western" (America and Europe) interests in the region. They also feel slightly overlooked and somehow abandoned by the west. I am optimistic about the future of Nepal, if the ruling class can just get their shit together, this strategically important country will have a bright and prosperous future.
The Neplai people deserve it. Their gentleness, openness and charm is undeniable. Only time will tell, but I am beginning to feel like this broadest of experiences may have cured (at least tapered) my cancerous misanthropy.