Thursday, August 26, 2010

Modernity of Acceptance Versus Adaptation

It wasn't the crowds of hawkers that followed me fifty feet down the street, the horns soaking the air with an opera of calls, the blood in the gutters or the fleshy stink of faeces that I will forever remember about Nepal. All the things I couldn't see, couldn't understand, didn't know; these were the ingots of gold appreciation in the piles of muddy confusion. They made me, for the first time, seriously consider if I could ever live in a country with such enormous cultural and religious differences. Three weeks was enough time for me to accept what I was experiencing but not enough to adapt myself. I recognise the difficulty with a word like 'accept'. It suggests that there is something negative we must become accustomed to, or else ignore in order to function. To adapt is to become one with what surrounds you, to live without second-glance or surprise. We, the foreigners with an open-mind, accept due to our limited amount of time in one place. They, the locals, are adapted from birth to the condition of their country. And so where we see, they are blind. We are visible, they and their view of the world is invisible. The face of Nepal is changeable depending on who's eyes are looking.

We arrived in Kathmandu in the darkness of a Friday night and so were eased into streets that during the day are near impassable. On our first walk we went only two blocks and were overwhelmed by our own senses. Everything smelt of incense, smoke, skin, blood, cooking food and body fluids. People were crouched on the crumbled edges of the road and cars navigated by the bouncing echoes of their horns. We got to the corner of the street and felt so vulnerable in our backpacks that we retreated like rabbits frightened by a nest of hawks. Never in my life have I felt more visible than in those ten minutes. I was illuminated as though my bones were glowing. I am Caucasian but there have always been levels to this distinction; in Spain I am pale, in Australia I have a healthy glow, in England I'm extremely tanned but in Nepal my skin was simply white. I was white and the people were not and there was a tangible hostility in the stares directed my way. Their eyes tagged me as a privileged foreigner and disallowed the other facets of what made me, me. My discomfort accelerated into a powerful feeling of threat that had no basis but my own visibility. Their attention was nothing but focus being given to a figure that stood out physically. Psychologically, I was invisible. There were hundreds of me passing every day, all white, all displaced. These Nepalese women with food loads on their backs and men on tuk-tuks whistling people out of their way had adapted to the presence of foreigners while I hadn't yet accepted my placement as one. Because of this I interpreted the atmosphere as dangerous. After three days this feeling abated. I accepted the tension of the street but had not adapted to the point of neglecting it. I still saw the starving dogs, roadside shrines, burnt-out homes and rickety bamboo scaffolding but they no longer frightened me. My skin had darkened just enough for me to hide from my own vision. I accepted what I saw but the emotions tied to these sights were still those of an outsider's.

Culture shock is a dangerous thing because of its power to change our perceptions of an entire country. Even after we accept cultural differences, we still judge them from a place of misinterpretation. Whilst discovering the religious sights of Kathmandu we visited the largest Shiva-dedicated temple on earth. As neither of us are Hindus we were only allowed to stand at the river but from our vantage point we could make out an infinite line of men and women entering through the white double doors and crowding onto the balcony overhanging the courtyard. There were exhalations of smoke and drums and so many voices humming I could feel them on the back of my neck. These were beautiful details with basic meanings at their roots to which I could connect; sweet smells, music and rejoicing. But in the river, something very different was occurring. Evenly spaced along the water's edge were pyres of grey stone and built up on one was an intricate layering of wood, straw and a body burning tall and bright. I couldn't smell anything but the fumes were so thick and black I found myself putting a hand to my nostrils. I sat for a time and watched the Nepalese people around me talk, walk, eat, and noticed the lack of attention they gave to the body. If this was the equivalent of a funeral, there were no mourners; only men keeping the flames lit. Our guide explained that bodies were cremated every week at this spot and people came here to pay respect. When I asked what they did with the ashes, he frowned as though I had asked him if it were day or night and pointed into the water. This grey river took on a horrifying aspect, made worse when we walked further along and saw a group of seven or eight boys playing ball and leaping around in the waist-high shallows. Once again I turned to our guide and he smiled at how haunted I appeared and simply said, they are local boys, they're used to it. And it was his choice of words, 'used to it', that made the most sense to me. Their particular adaptability wasn't an ongoing development, it was fixed and solid and as I sit writing this piece, I still shudder at the thought of that water and those boys' black bodies touching the last remains of men taken too early, women passed through pain and children young enough to go unmourned.

There was an easiness to leaving the city and disappearing into musky wet quietude of Himalayan earth. I assumed this area of Nepal would be less challenging if only for its lack of inhabitants but the natural environment more than made up for this absence. Halfway through our first day of trekking we came across an open field beside the path and growing there, in public ground overhanging the sloped walk, was a marijuana plant the size of a single garage. For long moments both East and I stared at it like we'd never seen one before and of course we hadn't ever seen one like this before. Not only in size but freedom. It belonged to no one and so owed nothing to anyone. While the plant seemed public property we asked our trekking guide if there were rules to roadside hash. He assumed a great deal of ignorance on our behalf by explaining what effects we could achieve by rolling some dried buds in paper and smoking them. Which we did, in the company of several Nepalese lodge owners who, when offered some, refused based on religious integrity. While it took me until morning to put my thoughts together I immediately realised that people in the mountains were no different to those in the city: adapted to the point of objective desensitisation. They lived surrounded by a free-growing substance that we the foreigners were accustomed to hiding and controlling in order to enjoy, yet they omitted its use due to cultural practice. While we giggled and danced like children each time we came across another plant, they had it growing next to their lettuces and peach trees with barely a look in its direction. No cultivation or care but for them it was nothing more that weeds popping up amongst their food; by the end of the trek, most of the bushes we came across had seeded and gone to flower for want of harvest – little yellow sparks that fell apart when we touched them.

So where does our ability to accept leave us? Are we, as I suspect, committing the awful crime of looking without feeling? Are we widening our world with snippets only the adapted can truly appreciate? Or, if you prefer a more promising outlook, maybe we're opening up. If acceptability is the first step towards an adapted lifestyle then every time we step outside our narrow perspective we slide inextricably closer to becoming a different person with varying degrees of cultural ambiguities. But once we have adapted we run the risk of losing the beautiful horrors that make us struggle to reach the centre of another world. And so perhaps we are creatures of singularity only able to exist on one plane as adapted or accepting. Maybe we can choose which one we will be. Maybe we risk being accepted by our world, or adapted into non-existence.

Lara has learnt many truths in this world but the most important remains just inches from her fingertips.

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