Australia has given me a dose of reverse culture shock - I'm not going to lie, friends. Nepal was tough. Incredible, but tough. Let's be honest, it's a third world country. I'm a sunshiney, silver-lining kind of gal, looking for an applying a positive spin to every situation and circumstance. Which, in Nepal, I did. And for still do. But to appreciate all the amazing things Nepal has to offer doesn't neccisitate turning a blind eye toward the rough edges. And one of those rough edges was the pollution. Air, land and water; all bore signs of misuse and abuse, and all could use a through clean-up all across the tiny country.
I want to look at the places I visit with clear eyes. In my short time in Nepal, I saw that the country faces very real, very pervasive social and environmental issues as the tourism industry booms through the country. In 1969, shortly after opening it's borders to foreigners, Nepal hosted a grand total of 6,179 visitors. Just 40 years later, that number has increased to 804,000. According to the 2012 Nepal Tourism Statistics Report, tourism has grown into a 30 million dollar (USD) industry, up from $8 million just ten years ago. These kind of numbers indicate promising growth to boost the country out of poverty, to raise quality of health and standard of living a considerable amount, but certain questions nag at me: will the wealth be distributed fairly? What kind of toll will this rapid growth take on the environment? On the people? Will their national treasures, including their culture, be preserved?
Visitors want comfort, and Nepalese working in the tourist industry benefit financially from providing these comforts, including convenient, safe (read: bottled) water and familiar products and foods. While some travelers opt to purify water in reusable bottles and bags rather than purchasing liter after liter off the shelf, the majority don't. Imported products like chips, cookies, crackers and candies of all types are available nearly everywhere. All of this might make foreigners happier during their Nepalese travels, but it also creates an enormous amount of waste.
On our way to Besi Shahar, the girls and I passed hut after hut with garbage spewing down the hill out back. I'm not entirely sold on the Western practice of tossing all our non-biodegradable garbage in a heap and burying it, all out-of-sight-out-of-mindish, but, in the US, once the garbage truck comes to pick up our trash, we never have to think about it again if we choose not to. It's gone. Taken care of. Done and done.
In Nepal, you can't ignore it. Trash is a problem you're reminded of every day. Wrappers, plastic bags, packaging of all types were all over, particularly in Kathmandu and on the Annapurna. Garbage is everywhere, and in the more rural, poor areas, I could discern no system for it's removal. So out the back door it goes. Tossed out the bus window. Absentmindedly dropped on the trail to be kicked around. Or, in some cases, heaped into a pile and burned. The more the tourism industry grows, the more Western packaging and products will creep into the country, the more Nepal will be pressed to address the issue of garbage.
That's not to say they haven't. As I write this, disparate organizations such as hospitals, NGOs and other organizations work toward finding sustainable solutions for the Nepali trash issue; addressing it will take political support, educational initiatives, and a vast amount of resources.
I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to trek in both the Annapurna Conservation Area and Sagarmatha National Park (home to Everest). The Khumbu hosted a Diamond Jubilee Celebration this past May, marking 60 years since the first ascent of Everest. I'm sure this had something to do with the 2011 clean-up efforts that lead to the sparkling condition Shay and I found the trails to be in - we saw the odd wrapper here or there, but, for the most part, enjoyed Nature at her cleanest and finest all the way from Lukla to Everest Base Camp. This experience was in stark contrast to the amount of garbage Hannah, Molly, Shay and I witnessed in cities, roadsides, and on the Annapurna Circut - we hiked roads, we hiked trails, and everywhere we saw garbage. Sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes very little, but I was always aware or conscious of it. Part of this might be due to the sheer volume of visitors (Annapurna hosts 130,000 visitors annually, while Sagarmatha sees only 35,000), part of it might be education regarding pollution, part of it might be laziness on the part of locals and visitors alike... contributing factors are likely numerous, varying and nuanced. All I do know is that the trash situation, among other things, broke my heart.
But this simple truth remains: to see the joy and awe on my friends' faces, to experience the wonder and humbling effect of the fascinating mountains and landscapes we hiked... well, that has to count for something. To gaze upon the awesomeness and size and beauty that Nature has to offer in places like the Himalayas is to fall in love with the world all over again. And though we may not have perfect solutions to the problems that exist, trash and otherwise, not just in Nepal but all over the world, being aware of those problems is half the battle. Committing yourself to being part of the solution while you're there just one tiny piece of the puzzle, by doing what you can, where you can. Every little bit counts. (Could I get more clichéd? I know. But it's what I truly, truly believe.)
Wherever we may roam, whether near or far or in our own backyards, if we're mindful and conscious, maybe we can figure out a way to visit without altering, to enjoy without disturbing, to reach without touching the countless jaw-dropping places Earth has to offer. And, if we're lucky, maybe leave them in better shape than we found them. And that's definitely something to ponder along my journey.
Until the next post, happy trails!