Experiences are gifts. While experiences have tangible elements, the intangibles last longer. What lasts are the memories relived, relationships developed, and insights gained. We spend time finding the perfect gift, only to give up and buy a gift card. What people remember more is the lunch to a unique place with an engaging, full-attention conversation. People remember the remote hikes or the beauty of a new city.
We try to give our sons different experiences, from developing teenagers to young adults. During this past summer, our youngest son, Cole, went on a journey of a lifetime to Nepal. He spent half the trip hiking in the Himalayas and the other half living with a family in a small village. For Cole, this was his fifth summer adventure and one with the biggest impact.
Cole is attending the University of Oregon now as a freshman. Surprisingly, he agreed to do an Q&A with me about his experience in Nepal.
Nepal: The Experience
Jon: Let’s jump right in. So you’ve been on several hikes now, from Alaska to the Himalayas to the Alps. How does being on hikes either change or refresh your perspective or outlook?
Cole: Every time I come back from one I always feel like I have a better grasp on what the natural world around us is like. We take it for granted mostly. I think about 90% of Americans live in urban centers these days, so you don’t really get to see the wide-open green world that is still available to the public.
Jon: As you were hiking through the Himalayas, what struck you most about what you saw, just in that hike?
Cole: In my trip to Nepal, we did a reasonably famous trek called the Annapurna Sanctuary, not to be confused with a circuit that is almost a month-long hike. We hiked for eight days up into the massive Annapurna mountain range, which is one of the world’s top twenty tallest mountains and five of them, or something that, are in this range. So I got to see the world’s tenth tallest mountain, Annapurna 1, but the entire site was just amazing.
It’s actually a religious site for Hinduism. You’re not allowed to bring any meat into the Sanctuary. You’re not allowed to spit. Just a bunch of random rules that you probably wouldn’t even think twice about. For the first time in my life, I think, I was a forced vegetarian for about two weeks because there’s no meat products anywhere due to the religion.
My takeaway from my hike, which was like – Wow, that was some mountains! Lots of leeches, though. Those suck.
Jon: Again, you’ve seen a lot of different mountains from Alaska to the Alps to the Pyrenees and so on. Anything that really made the Himalayas unique?
Cole: The thing about that is the Himalayas are that they are the tallest mountain range in the world, but it’s also situated, I think, 20-ish degrees north of the equator so it’s very, very close to the equator. What this means is the tree line never ends. The usual mountains, like in Colorado, the tree line ends at 8,000 or 9,000 feet. Well, the tree line just keeps going in the Himalayas, so it is very dense and jungle-like. Even if you’re at say 15,000 feet, which is a big surprise.
Also, just the grand scale of things. Everything is just so massive, all the mountains. You could see Mt. Everest from Kathmandu, the capital city in Nepal, if you’re sitting on top of a hill in the city on a clear day. That’s over 70 miles away, so it does give you some scale.
Jon: Part of that experience, five weeks in Nepal, what about the surroundings and the people stick with you?
Cole: The people of Nepal, at first glance, can seem very homogeneous and welcoming, but they are comprised of over 100 different specific ethnic groups. The majority in Nepal speak Nepalese, but there’s also many, many different dialects, depending on the caste that you are in. I think in the 1950s, India abolished any caste system and all the discrimination that came around it, but it’s still very practiced, kind of like how racism America is still there but still isn’t.
The class also defines what the religion is. The Newaris, which is the biggest ethnic group in the Kathmandu Valley, they practice Hinduism. The Sherpas, which is another group, I’m sure you’ve heard of them. They’re in tons of movies. They’re most famous for porting in Mt. Everest and around that region. They’re Buddhist. There are a lot of religious diversity because Nepal was basically founded on the principles of practicing whatever religion you want. The Buddha was born here, too.
Jon: Given the surroundings, the cities, and villages that you were in, what stands out?
Cole: I have a first-world bias as, most likely, whoever will be reading this, too. We landed in Nepal at nighttime, so I didn’t get to see that much initially. The next morning I went to the rooftop at my hostel, and I was just amazed of how sprawling it all was. It seemed like every building could fit onto another building. They’re all just concrete squares, except for the temples that have been there for thousands of years.
The housing and construction material was a little bit shocking and alarming to me considering there was a seven or eight magnitude earthquake. It just decimated the entire country, and it’s still very prevalent everywhere you went.
There’s no really definitive ending or beginning to any city there. There’s always houses of brick, kind of like the game Minecraft. It kind of looks like a Minecraft brick house. It’s kind of weird.
Jon: You spent about two weeks living with a family in a small village, helping them with their farming and rebuilding the school and doing other activities. What was your typical day living with the family?
Cole: Usually, Nepali families wake up around 4:00 or 5:00 am because 99% of the country is in the agricultural business. They wake up. They don’t really have a traditional meal structure in Nepal, like where you see the three meals we have here every day. It’s right next to India, so they have tea any hour of the day, mostly in the morning and the nighttime.
For breakfast, they don’t really eat besides eating flatbread. I forgot the Nepali names, forgive me for that, but it’s kind of like naan. Around 6:00 or 7:00 am, they usually hit the rice, corn, and potato fields. That’s mostly what they grow there. A little millet when they want to get a little tipsy at night. Besides that, most of them live simple lives, and they seem to be way happier than most Americans I meet.
I don’t know if it’s just exclusive to my village, but it seemed like most of them also had secondary professions. The family I lived in, the dad is a lawyer in Kathmandu during the winter time. He showed me his bar certificate and everything. It was an unexpected surprise.
Jon: So after they’re in the fields early in the morning, do they typically break for a lunchtime?
Cole: Yeah, they usually go back to the house for an hour or two, maybe around 2:00 or 3:00, but they never eat lunch like a typical, huge American lunch. They eat what they think of as fast food, such as ramen, boiled eggs, stuff like that.
Jon: Then in the afternoon do they go back to the fields?
Cole: Yep. They usually remain the fields up until about 8:00 or 9:00 pm, at least the men do. The women go back to cook because it’s a very patriarchal society.
Jon: Then what are the evenings like? They have dinner and then what happens after dinner?
Cole: They go to bed. That’s about it.
Jon: So no games or that kind of stuff?
Cole: I’m sure they do. My experience is a bit skewed because I’m a Westerner and obviously not a Nepali, but we used to play card games. Play a Nepali version of gin rummy. I don’t know; I’m not a card person, but it was a fun game.
All of them have cell phones, smart phones, to be specific.
Jon: So they’re still connected then?
Cole: I read in a book that the three biggest things that brought culture and the spirit of Westernization to Nepal, from like biggest to least, and the first one is satellite TV, which is actually pretty surprising to think considering how poor it is.
Jon: You had a chance to spend a reasonable amount of time with a family. What habits did they have that you found appealing and why?
Cole: Probably just the general sense of camaraderie among everyone in their respective villages. People seemed a lot more connected and actually care about the well-being of others. Obviously, it’s way less individualistic from America’s consumerist, capitalist culture, but it’s slowly seeping in. I can definitely tell that people there are very materialistic now, from seeing all of the American ads and whatnot.
Jon: You said that they always seem very happy.
Cole: Yes, I don’t know. Even though about 85% of the population lives on less than $2.00 a day, they find some way to do it. I wish I knew the secret to happiness but apparently it is not money.
Jon: How about you, do you think there’s any new habits that you’ll try based on what you saw and experienced in Nepal?
Cole: Not really, not off the top of my head. I mean, it definitely changed my perspective on things. Before you leave your own home country, you don’t really have a perspective on what the other 6.5 billion people that live on this planet do, live, and interact. It was a very great experience, and I am glad I got to see the other side of the world.
Jon: Ten years from now, what do you think you’ll look back on that will still resonate with you about this trip?
Cole: Probably that I actually did something that may have helped. During our service trip, we ran into a lot of problems, such as not being able to build anything, just general workflow stagnation with communicating with the Nepali contractors. Overall, my main takeaway is just be very grateful for where you live in the world.
Jon: Final question. So as you start and continue at the University of Oregon, how has that trip helped you as you start to dive into political science and other topics?
Cole: I guess for starters, since it is the University of Oregon, I’m sure I will encounter people in my major with loud opinions on how things should be run in our country and maybe even in other countries, as we’ve seen. Just knowing that I’ve been able to experience how the another part of the world lives will give me a unique perspective in our discussions.
People complain a lot about what the government doesn’t do for us and what the government should do for us, especially where we live in Texas, a very conservative state. I’ve seen the absence of proper government support in Nepal, and it just leads to chaotic turmoil of mass degradation of infrastructure and the inability to actually solve problems on an effective basis.
Jon: With that perspective of government serving a basic role, how do the Nepali people work to make a better society and community?
Cole: Definitely. Nepali people do their best to survive every day. They walk in a quasi-poor state, but they are rich in history and spirit. Geography plays a role, too. On one side, there are the Himalayas. On the other side, they are between two world superpowers, India and China. Nepal becomes somewhat of a lost buffer state than a real country. I’m feel they’ll get there eventually. China’s pouring tons of money into Nepal right now, building dams and infrastructure. Part of this effort is to support the Chinese tourists.
The spirit of the Nepali people is something we can all learn from, and I know I have.
Jon: As you were talking, I was just thinking about your group. Through Global Routes, ten kids came together for this experience? We’re two from other countries?
Cole: Three. There’s three. One from China, one from Israel, and one from Turkey.
Jon: So here’s a group of ten individuals that didn’t know each other, four different countries represented, how did you figure out how to work together?
Cole: I guess the way we did find out how to work together is finding our common interests and trying to relate to them. We definitely got along and had a good time. All very different people, for sure.
Jon: Okay. Any closing thoughts?
Cole: Focus on experiences that broaden your perspective. Explore nature and different cultures. Hiking clears your mind and opens you to possibilities. Participating in different communities keeps you grounded in what works and what matters most.
Jon: Do you recommend taking a trip to Nepal?
Cole: I would. Nepal is definitely one of the most beautiful places on this planet.
Experiences: Big and Small, the Best Gift
Experiences broaden our perspective. They do not have to be big ones, like going to Nepal. Smaller experiences can have big impacts, too. By their nature, experiences take us to new places. Going to a different neighborhood and contributing to make it better is a smaller experience with a large impact. Reading to a struggling child is a smaller experience with a huge upside.
Experiences keep our minds youthful, and our souls refreshed. Keep new experiences on the forefront of your to-do list. Position others for new experiences, too. We will all be better citizens, students, and leaders with each new experience.
What experiences changed your perspective?