By Seraphina Mallon-Breiman
While traveling to Nepal, my main form of research came from practicing ethnography and using methods such as participant observation, self reflection, interviews and field-journal entries.
Upon arrival in Kathmandu, we were immediately greeted as the tourists we were. We had signed onto the services of the Shambala Trekking Agency. Our first experience with this agency was being welcomed onto a bus at 12:30am with necklaces of marigolds placed around our necks. We would get to know this bus very well over the course of the next three weeks. Porters began hoisting our bags onto the top of the bus to secure our luggage during travel- a sight that was shocking at first but quickly became routine. Waking up the next morning in our hotel, we were all as sleepy and confused as ever. ‘Hotel Tibet’ was so beautiful and so foreign. I arose on the fifth floor, looking over rooftops strewn with drying laundry across brightly lit verandas. Mountain peaks peeked between clouds in the distance. We were greeted by a guide who immediately began shifting our views of consciousness and identity. When we inquired about his name upon being introduced to him, he responded by saying “Name is ego, I am not my name. I am not even really here.”
After a quick run down of our schedule with this man, we boarded the bus and headed into the city. Homeless animals such as wandering cows and goats scattered the streets. Traffic was unorderly and fast-paced, yet everyone seemed to know what they were doing. Our bus jutted in and out of the right lanes, quite nearly hitting something or someone every other moment. Were we dreaming?
Our first stop as tourists was in a nearby temple called Swayambhu, littered with hundreds of monkeys on every surface. This temple immediately began to elicit confusing, yet ironic thought. We were given so many lectures explaining the significance of certain Tibetan deities and colors of prayer flags – dwelling seriously on the Bhuddist concept that “you cannot take anything with you” and that “we’re born with nothing and we will die with nothing.” Yet we were also consistently targeted as American tourists by vendors who claimed, as if utterly shocked, “You don’t need anything?! No, you must need something,” as we kindly turned down their offers for a purchase. During our first day of the trip, my friend Bella exclaimed in response to the vendors “Okay okay I’ll come look, I’m not going to buy anything but I’d love to see your work!” This promoted an unfriendly and frustrated response. A tangible disconnect existed here between vendor and non-Nepali person. One had to wonder: do tourists have to remain unfriendly and guarded in this space to get through each day? Doesn’t this perpetuate the awful American tourist stereotype? Is there any way around it?
There was also the question of touristic perceptions of Bhuddism. It seemed that it was common to easily adopt this religion based on the minimal information tour guides offered. Why not? Touristic Bhuddism encompassed such beautiful romantic concepts such as, “Come with nothing, leave with nothing”- it just made sense! But was this rightfully authentic?
…to be continued