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In October 2008 Jeff Rasley led a trek to a village in a remote valley in the Solu region of Nepal, where trekkers and mountaineers do not go. In Basa Village he found a people thoroughly unaffected by Western consumer-culture values. They had no running water, electricity, or anything that moves on wheels. Each family had a flower garden and they lived in beautiful, hand-chiseled stone houses. All they seemed to want, beyond what they had, was education for their children. And electricity. And roads. And thus ...
In October 2008 Jeff Rasley led a trek to a village in a remote valley in the Solu region of Nepal, where trekkers and mountaineers do not go. In Basa Village he found a people thoroughly unaffected by Western consumer-culture values. They had no running water, electricity, or anything that moves on wheels. Each family had a flower garden and they lived in beautiful, hand-chiseled stone houses. All they seemed to want, beyond what they had, was education for their children. And electricity. And roads. And thus began Jeff's crash course in philanthropy.
Bringing Progress to Paradise chronicles Jeff's adventures through remote Nepal: the thrill of reaching mountain peaks and of getting a good night's sleep in a warm hut; the inevitable mishaps that are part and parcel of the climbing life; and a few tragedies, as well. But what you will find here is much more than an engrossing travelogue. Throughout, Rasley reflects deeply on the tangled relationship between tourist and locals in remote locations. In short, the locals seem to want what we have, and we want who they are. How do we promote change and exchange while doing least harm?
I turned forty in 1993 and began manifesting symptoms of a midlife crisis. I whined about the responsibilities of marriage, two kids, a law business, and a mortgage. All the responsibilities and obligations were sucking the life out of me. Buying a Harley didn't cure it.
One evening my wife slapped a brochure down on the coffee table in front of me and said in a steely tone, "Why don't you do this? Go climb a mountain." The brochure advertised a Himalayan trekking expedition. I'd lived at sea level in Indiana most of my life and had no trekking or climbing experience. But I had done a lot of rugged outdoor activities, so I was intrigued. Alicia may later have regretted her "go take a hike" therapy, because I fell in love—with the mountains.
My friend and chiropractor, Long John, and I went trekking along the Everest Base Camp trail in Sagarmatha Park, Nepal, in the spring of 1995 in a five-member group through an American expedition company called Snow Lion. The group had an American guide but was really led by a sirdar (chief trekking guide) named Ang Nima Sherpa, and it was staffed by Nepalese mountain dwellers. I had never met anyone as strong, kind, and admirable as Nima, and the spectacular beauty of the Himalayas turned me on like no other place in the more than thirty countries I had visited in my travels.
* * *
Adventure travel was part of my life before travel companies packaged it in brochures. As a teenager I hitchhiked across the United States and traveled around Europe on buses and trains. In my twenties and thirties, I motorcycled around Mexico, scuba dived throughout the Caribbean, went horseback riding and four-wheeling in Belize, and kayaked around islands in the South Pacific and the Ionian Sea. From each of these experiences, I was enriched through encounters with different lands, cultures, and people. But my encounter with the Himalayan mountains and Nepalese-Tibetan culture on that introductory trek in 1995 touched me so deeply I could hardly wait to return.
During the next two summers, I took introductory and intermediate climbing courses at Seneca Rock, West Virginia. I joined my first mountaineering expedition to Ladakh, India, in 1996, led by the renowned American climber and writer John Roskelley. I went back to Nepal on increasingly challenging expeditions in 1998 and 1999. I didn't climb 8,000-meter (25,000 foot) peaks or attempt extreme climbs requiring oxygen tanks and hanging off sheer walls in bivy bags. As a father, husband, and attorney with staff and family to support, I knew becoming a climber bum wasn't in the cards; and I'm far too cheap to spend $65,000 and six weeks to attempt Mount Everest. Trekking for a couple of weeks and climbing 20,000-foot peaks was sufficiently challenging and wonderful for me.
For a middle-aged Hoosier flatlander, Himalayan mountaineering and trekking is difficult in terms of the conditioning required and the physical and emotional stress of a long trek followed by twelve to twenty-four hours of climbing. It's grueling, and when weather conditions are bad, it's dangerous. But I loved it. The Himalayas pulled me back each year. That is, until the disastrous expedition to Mera. The experience of advanced acute mountain sickness, barely escaping an avalanche, and seeing three porters disappear broke the mountains' grip on me.
Off the Mountaintop
Six months after my return from the Mera Peak expedition, I was driving home from my office in downtown Indianapolis. Without warning, tears started streaming down my face, and I had to pull over to the side of the street. I sat in the car and cried. I could no longer hold in the feelings of guilt and shame. The picture of the three porters just before they were enveloped in the tsunami of white snow was seared in my mind. I had done nothing to try to help. I could do nothing to help. But the memory wouldn't release me.
The author of Ecclesiastes (1.14–15) wrote, "All is futile and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight." I found myself overwhelmed with existential despair, feeling the unfairness of life and the futility of trying to do anything about it. It was unfair and awful that the lives of those three hardworking men could be snuffed out in an instant. I had no more thirst for adventures in the Himalayas; my throat was dry.
I had participated in four Himalayan expeditions in five years. But after the avalanche, I did not return to Nepal for four years. It was no longer safe to visit anyway. SARS had broken out in Asia, and Nepal was undergoing a violent Maoist revolution against the king. The army was shooting demonstrators in the streets of Katmandu, and Maoists were blowing up buildings and bombing buses. In a shocking incident in June 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed his parents and siblings as they sat down to dinner, and then shot himself. Political instability followed, because many Nepalese distrusted the new king, Gyanendra, brother to the murdered Birendra. Some even suspected that Gyanendra was involved in the murders. Nepal was put on the U.S. State Department's travel warning list. Then came 9/11.
The allure of Nepal as a magical kingdom for Western adventurers was lost. In 1999, more than 500,000 tourists visited Nepal. By 2002, less than half that number entered the kingdom.
Religious people equate a "mountaintop experience" with a spiritual awakening or a transcendent connection with God. Why equate being on top of a mountain with experiencing God? Because feeling the awesomeness of the natural world on top of a mountain is such a glorious feeling that the limitations of language force us to call it "God." Every day of a mountaineering expedition or high-altitude trek, that feeling is available.
John Muir described "the ecstasy of the surrender to nature." He meant that by opening oneself to natural beauty, the soul is magnified to a point of transcendence beyond the ordinary consciousness of task-oriented living. During each of my Himalayan expeditions, I surrendered to the ecstasy of nature. I learned and lived what John Muir described.
But after the disaster of the 1999 Mera Peak expedition and what followed, I'd had enough. The dark side of nature then got a hold of me. I was sick of being tired, cold, and sick. To hell with the Himalayas. I was done with mountains. So I went kayaking and diving in sunny Palau, a remote archipelago near Micronesia.
May 29, 2003 was the Golden Jubilee of the first recorded summit of Mount Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary on that date in 1953. That first summit of Everest, the highest mountain on planet Earth, turned the world's attention to the Kingdom of Nepal.
Nepal's economy badly needed tourists to return. The Maoists and the government, at war with each other, declared a truce for the Jubilee. Sir Edmund Hillary's family put its considerable resources to work at bringing tourists back to Nepal for the Jubilee celebrations. Sir Edmund would cohost with the King of Nepal a black-tie affair in Katmandu. Hillary's son, Peter, would cohost with the Rinpoche Tenzing, the Incarnate Lama of Tengboche Monastery, the "highest party in the world" on the monastery grounds at 12,700 feet. Mountaineers around the world were invited to return for the celebrations.
I was born in 1953, just a month before the first summit of Mount Everest. It had been almost ten years since my first trek along the Base Camp Trail. As the Jubilee approached, the magnetism of Nepal pulled me back.
The last three weeks of May 2003, I trekked with my friend and translator Hari Pudasaini through Sagarmatha National Park in the Khumbu region of Nepal along the Everest Base Camp Trail up to base camp at 18,000 feet. Along the trail, I interviewed many Sherpas and mountaineers to do research for an article about the celebrations and the effect of tourism on Sherpa culture. Members of the Hillary family were making a pilgrimage along the Base Camp Trail, which became the most famous hiking trail in the world after Hillary and Norgay hiked it on their way to Mount Everest in 1953. The Hillary clan stopped at the Hillary School in Khumjung, the first of several schools built by Hillary's foundation, the Himalayan Trust, and inspected Kunde Hospital, the first medical clinic established by the trust.
After Sir Edmund Hillary became rich and world-famous, he devoted much of the rest of his life to philanthropy for the Sherpa people. He greatly admired the unique character of strength and Buddhist gentleness he found in the high mountain people of Nepal. The assistance of Sherpas employed by his climbing team led to him becoming one of the most famous people of the 20th century, and he gratefully returned many times to the Khumbu, home to the Sherpas. His philanthropic efforts brought schools, medical clinics, and eventually hydroelectric projects to the Sherpas. And the Sherpas loved him back. They called him "King of the Khumbu."
The Two Sides of Tourism
I hiked to Phakding with Sir Edmund's older sister, June, who was then 86. During dinner, the intrepid octogenarian reminisced, "When Ed was young, he loved to personally work on laying brick and stone to help build schools and medical clinics in Sherpa villages. He had so much fun!" But not all of the dinner talk was so sanguine about the last fifty years for the Sherpas of the Khumbu. In response to my question about how the Sherpas had been affected by tourism, a grandniece of Hillary exclaimed, "It's bad!" She argued that the renowned toughness of the Sherpas had been softened by material gain from tourism, and the Buddhist gentleness had been hardened by the pursuit of money. At breakfast the next morning, Hillary Carlyle, June's daughter, confessed, "It's hard for us to judge whether the Western influence and tourism has been good for the Sherpas. My uncle has been such a significant part of all that." She told me she'd been to the Khumbu five or six times, "but it seems like I'm always here— it's the family business, you know."
The enthusiasm of the Hillary family for helping to better the lives of Sherpas was inspiring, but I was conflicted about the overall impact we Westerners have had on Sherpa culture. The Western influence can be seen in the villages along the trails that have become popular with trekkers and climbers in the Himalayas, especially the Everest Base Camp Trail. The lives of the villagers changed dramatically in the fifty years following Hillary's "conquering" of Chomolungma (the name of Mount Everest in the Tibetan language). Tourism in the Khumbu has affected Sherpa culture by turning many Sherpas from yak herders to lodge owners, or to guides, cooks, or porters working for expeditions. Tourism has brought trash and garbage into the majestic peaks and valleys of the Khumbu. Before the climbers and trekkers came, there was no metal, paper, or plastic in the Khumbu. Everything the Sherpas used was recyclable, because they had no manmade or manufactured products. Everything they made or used came from the yak, earth, or plants: clothes from yak hide and fuel from yak shit; shelter from stone and wood; and food grown in plots of rice, barley, corn, and potatoes. The mountaineers and trekkers brought packaged products and trash along the Base Camp Trail. The trail has become a potpourri of international litter—tobacco packs from India, beer bottles from Spain, blown-out boots from China, and ripped t-shirts from the United States.
Yet Mahendra Kathet, the headmaster at the Hillary school in Khumjung, told me in 2003, "Without tourism, we couldn't survive here." He has taught at the school since 1976. He flatly stated that no one in Khumjung thinks the changes brought about by tourism have been bad for the village. "Even the old people who maintain traditional dress think changes are good, because they have better food, like salt. Life is much easier." He related that before the Himalayan Trust built the school in 1961, people in Khumjung lived at a subsistence level. A guide employed by Peter Hillary's company, Ang Temba Sherpa, put it simply, "If you had the choice between walking two hours downhill and then back uphill carrying a bucket of water for the day, or having water piped to your house, which would you choose?"
The Highest Party in the World
Lama Tenzing is a small slight man with white hair. His skin is a soft mahogany. He wears a mango-colored cloak. He is revered by Sherpa Buddhists as a lama and the abbot of Tengboche Monastery. Lama Tenzing receives visitors every day and considers welcoming visitors one of his most important duties. He sits placidly on his divan looking at his guests with kindly interested eyes. His facial expression rarely changes. Decorating the wall behind him are brightly colored thangka paintings (sacred Buddhist paintings on cloth) draped with lengths of red silk.
A few days before the "highest party in the world" took place on the grounds of the monastery, Hari and I shared tea with Lama Tenzing. When I asked him what he thought of the effect of tourism on Sherpa culture, he responded through Hari's translation that he was "not happy and not upset about Western influence on Sherpas. People should do what they want."
As I walked across the grounds of the monastery back to the lodge where Hari and I were staying, cumulus clouds to the north cleared and the Everest Massif emerged in its spectacular majesty. A single cirrus cloud trailed like a kite tail from the pinnacle of the highest peak on Earth. The sound of monks chanting in the monastery echoed across the valley. I was looking at perfection. The aesthetic bliss of the Himalayas and Buddhist chanting was working its magic on me.
Pilgrims from all over the world endure the strenuous trek to Tengboche to be rewarded with this experience. Peace and harmony emanate from this beautiful human creation, developed by the ethics and aesthetics of Tibetan Buddhism and refined over a history of 2,500 years. Surrounded by the most magnificent natural scenery in the world, visitors apprehend the resident monks' harmonious discipline and are invited by the Incarnate Lama to participate in the peaceful character of the community.
But the night of the Jubilee party, the character of the monastery changed.
The official party commenced in a big blue tent erected on the monastery grounds at 4:00 p.m. There were many speeches, a fine dinner of yak steak and champagne, and black bowties for male attendees. Ladies wore long evening dresses over hiking boots. Peter Hillary, Sir Edmund's son, served as master of ceremonies. I know this not because I was inside the tent, but because I was outside looking in. About a hundred of us uninvited guests who had not paid $400 for an official invitation stood outside the tent for over an hour trying to eyeball and listen to the festivities inside. Employees of Hillary's trekking company were stationed around the tent, and a particularly burly fellow stood at the entrance with a lethal-looking two-foot-long club in his hand. Sherpa hospitality was not the order of the day for the official celebration at Tengboche.
Eventually, most of us impecunious voyeurs drifted into the meal room in the nearby Gompa Lodge. Pints of Mount Everest Whisky, a quite nasty drink brewed in Lukla, appeared. The manager, who wore monkish garb, brought out a cassette player and blasted techno music at full volume from the little recorder. A few porters entertained the crowd with a Nepalese version of techno dancing. We clapped and hooted for the dancers and passed the pints around.
After an hour or two, someone burst in and shouted that the tent was open. Everyone dashed out of the lodge and into the big blue tent. Two porters began to thump out a beat on gourd drums as others chanted the erotic lyrics of a Nepalese folk song. The crowd began to clap and sway to the beat of the drums. The rhythmic beat, clapping, and singing got more frenetic. Women were hoisted onto men's shoulders as Nepalis of all ethnic groups and trekkers and climbers from all over the world shouted and clapped to the pounding beat. Loose-limbed Nepalis, longhaired trekker girls, scruffy sunburnt mountain climbers, and spiritual seeking trekkers got down and the dancing got wilder.
Excerpted from BRINGING PROGRESS to PARADISE by Jeff Rasley. Copyright © 2010 Jeff Rasley. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1 PTSD 1
2 Jubilee 5
3 Rape of the Mother Goddess 15
4 Walking to School 27
5 Shattered Peace, Poverty, and Politics 35
6 Organizing for Basa 45
7 Goin' to Katmandu 55
8 On the Road to Jiri 67
9 Trekking without Porters 75
10 First Day on the Trail: Death March to Deorali 85
11 Meltdown in Deorali 97
12 Second Day on the Trail: Lost One 105
13 Third Day on the Trail: Morning in the Shadow of Lamjura Danda 119
14 Over the La: Karen Is Narayani 131
15 Fourth Day on the Trail: Lost Two More 137
16 Down to Three 147
17 Basa 155
18 A Day in Basa 167
19 A Night in Basa 173
20 Leaving Basa 183
21 Basa Magnetism 189
22 Night in Phaplu 205
23 Out of the Mountains 211
24 Back in Katmandu 219
Posted October 29, 2010
Bringing Progress to Paradise is a solicitous combination of high adventure and soulful enlightenment. Rasley's internal struggles about helping the people of the isolated mountain village of Basa, Nepal, become your own as you share his experiences and contemplate his interactions. The warmth, love and trust bestowed upon him by these remarkable people has sparked in him a transformation that will likely influence every aspect of his life.
Part memoir, part travelogue, part documentary, this true adventure captures your interest in the opening pages and leaves you yearning for your own personal pilgrimage through the remote villages of Nepal.
Posted May 18, 2011
No text was provided for this review.