Perspective is a powerful thing. It renders you a specific point of view with the aim of changing your mind. And nothing in the world can prepare you for that kind of change.
Before I travelled to Nepal in 2016, as part of a small group of students practising journalism in the field, I did plenty of research about the country. I learnt that it was a developing country, I learnt that tourists ought to be careful when travelling there, and I learnt that the country was recovering from devastating earthquakes in 2015. But those facts never prepared me for the culture shock.
We grow used to the world around us. The customs we learn, the habits we undertake, the way we live. From our politics to our spirituality, from lifestyles to vices. Visiting another country, especially one that houses a different nationality to ours, rearranges the contents of who we are. And that’s why we travel.
The featured image of this post is taken at the Swayambhunath Stupa, an ancient religious monument atop a hill in western Kathmandu. It is colloquially known as the Monkey Temple, for literal reasons.
As you wade through the lower half of the area, under the shroud of a thousand Tibetan prayer flags, you bear witness to a local monkey habitat. They’re wild, of course, and need to be treated with caution, but they’re not savage beasts as I’ve been taught. In the right moments, they’ll naturally pose for the camera. You will see them on your self-guided tour of this temple. And then, making your way to the crest of the hill, you see the golden stupa pointing to the sky.
I love this photo for its interesting juxtaposition between the glistening spire and the worn buildings surrounding it. You also get a glimpse of how influential the tourist dollar is, with locals selling paintings, pictures and wares.
When we arrived in Kathmandu, we saw plenty of damage to infrastructure, monuments and homes caused by the earthquakes that happened the year before. A lot of buildings were in the process of being rebuilt. When we saw these two women collecting bricks, we were wondering what was going on. They said they were fixing walls inside.
Even in a country where inequality between the sexes is apparent, they still see women as hard workers. Women will do what they have to, to rebuild and look after the home.
It also shows a contrast between our OH&S rules and their optional guidelines. I’ve taken dozens of pictures of builders standing on scaffolding that I wouldn’t be caught climbing, or men hammering away on the third floor of a skeletal building with not even a rope to secure them.
When you're with little, you do whatever you can to continue.
The wealth inequality in Nepal is what struck me the hardest, even though I knew to expect it before flying in. Walking through the streets of Kathmandu, window shopping and taking in the surrounds, we would occasionally encounter beggars asking for money and scammers doing their tricks. A clever one was a mother nursing her weary baby and asking tourists to buy formula. The unsuspecting ones would do it, and after they leave the woman would return the product for a cash refund. There were times where I wish I carried a backpack filled with food to give them.
On the second day, we came across the woman pictured, sitting on a porch step and counting her coins. Our accompanying university lecturer Dr Asha Chand, who spoke Fijian Indian, could barely make out the woman’s Nepalese speech. We could only presume she was displaced.
During the exchange between us, the woman pointed to the bottle of water in my hand. I gave it to her and she hovered the lip over the top of her gaping mouth and drank a few gulps before lidding it an handing it back. I waved my hand at her and told her to keep it. She seemed to need it more than I did.
Kathmandu has a lot of stray dogs, and to help care for them is a local charity organisation called Street Dog Care who will set up a little stall at the Boudhanath Stupa every month to collect and treat dogs. This is done to both help look after dogs and to stop the spread of diseases within the community. When we heard about this, we had the natural journalistic curiosity to see it.
Street Dog Care came equipped with all the veterinary essentials, including a beach umbrella and two tables. All they needed was dogs to treat, which there were plenty.
I was once told by a pet carer that dogs smile when they’re happy. I’m sure she’d agree too that dogs show more facial expressions than just smiling, which is exactly what I saw this dog doing when I photographed him. I see weariness blended with relief and sprinkled with a slight smile.
Despite its size, there is plenty to see in Nepal. We could not stay cooped up in Kathmandu, we had to see more. There are stories out there that need to be told. So we drove to the tourist destination of Pokhara.
I quickly snapped this picture on the way to show the effort people go to in order to learn or work. Even in the countryside, where the school may be a few kilometres away, students will learn. Not just for their sake, but for their families too. They learn to work and learn to provide.
Right now, as I write this, it is raining outside. I can’t help but wonder how many people in Sydney, Australia would avoid going to the shops or going out for lunch because it’s raining. And yet, in a downpour, these kids pictured will make sure they go and get educated.
It was taken through the windscreen of a car, and it’s wet look captures the powerful message it conveys. It needed not to be clear to get the message.
In Nepal, it’s religious custom to sacrifice goats to the gods. Presumably, these men are on their way to a nearby temple to do just that. But just because they sacrifice them, doesn’t mean they treat them with disrespect. The man sitting behind the driver could have tied them up, but the man decided to freely nurse them.
The nearest place they could sacrifice these goats is at The Manakamana Temple, which is situated high in the clouds on the top of a mountain. The easiest and best way to get there is by cable car, where they have a specific cable carriage for goats, and will cost you 240 Nepali Rupee (~AUD$3) to send one up.
Hidden among the crippling buildings and desolate infrastructure that you see when travelling through Nepal are various manmade sanctuaries opposing that perspective. Even in Kathmandu, there are hidden sanctuaries, namely the Garden of Dreams.
I love this photo as it shows the vibrant greenery surrounded by generic Nepalese dwellings and businesses. You can see the difference between the vividity of the gardens to the somewhat bleak surroundings, but as you look closer you can see the colours coming through on many of the buildings. I find it reveals the underlying truth about Nepalese culture and community. That even among the desolation and despair, the Nepali people have colours to share. Cyndi Lauper will know exactly what I mean.
While you can find beauty on the ground, sometimes you need to go up high. As I said, perspective is everything.
It took the seven of us 2 hours to canoe across Phewa Lake and clamber up the side of this small mountain, breaking plenty of sweat along the way. The day was humid, and the clouds were generous enough to let through the rays.
I think it’s fitting that atop this mountain they constructed the World Peace Pagoda, and not placed it somewhere down there. Great things shouldn’t just be freely taken or given, they should be earned. They should be justified through time with a bountiful expression of energy. Climbing the mountain was a breathtaking experience, in the literal sense, but reaching the top was the metaphorical sense of breathtaking.
Nepal is beautiful, and Pokhara is a gem.
Back to Kathmandu, or better yet: back to reality, we can finally witness this country from a fresh perspective. We can see the beauty in the little things. Here we have a man weighing the people of Kathmandu as a source of living. Ask yourself this: would you ever see a homeless person in the western world doing this? Would those with the money spare their time to get weighed by them?
I’m not sure if this man really is homeless or not —for all I know he may have a place to stay and this is how he makes his living — but that’s not the question this photo poses. The question it poses is how we in the western world can learn from this particular act.
Beauty, as always, is short-lived. You will find beauty in Nepal if you look well enough, but no matter how well you look you’ll still find the other side of it. This picture captures that side perfectly.
Nepal needs to properly rebuild if it’s going to thrive as a developed nation, it needs to untangle the infrastructural mess with help from the government. Nepal has everything it needs to thrive, including a collective human spirit that drives compassion and life, it just needs to look that way.
And if you’ve been looking hard enough, you’ll see it’s not a hard concept to consider.