A grueling life on top of the world

Nepal, June 13, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nepal's terraced fields, scraped from the rocky soil one shovelful at a time, carried one basketful at a time on someone’s back. Photo: Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps

Yes, Nepal is so, so beautiful.

It’s that rugged kind of beauty — it doesn’t soothe you like some landscapes do; somehow it challenges you. Rough peaks jut up tier upon tier. Beautifully, and strangely, they are decorated — a seemingly endless pattern of undulating horizontal lines is shaved into their flanks. Lines on the mountains? There are so many lines it bogs my mind to acknowledge they are human-made.

They’re terraced fields, of course, scraped from the rocky soil one shovelful at a time. Carried one basketful at a time on someone’s back, so a rice or maize or soy plant can grow, so a daughter or son can eat.

It’s humbling to look at those lines, to consider the intense labor this land requires in order to put one very basic meal — a little rice, a little dal, if you’re lucky a small bit of spiced cabbage or potato — on the table.

No one we’ve met eats meat or eggs or more than a tiny dollop of dairy or vegetables on any regular basis. It’s a meager and starchy diet.

We’re way, way out in Far West Nepal, just a few miles from the border of India and not far from China. The farmers here are as wiry and nimble as the goats that scatter freely over the trails and fields as their owners work the land. Women and men start working when they’re small, helping their parents hoe and weed and tend those frisky goats, as well as cattle and buffalo. As they get older, they take on harder jobs, tilling and planting and harvesting.

Theirs is a grueling life we could never keep up with.

And yet I keep having this mixed-up feeling that the incredible beauty around them should somehow mitigate their daily struggle to survive. “But you get to live…here!” some naïve part of me wants to say.

Yeah, they get to live here. But to these hardy Nepalis, “here” is the place they were born and the place where they are toiling to feed their families. It’s not a postcard from a tourist on holiday, or a side trip on a trek to Mt Everest, or a soupçon of the exotic to tell their friends about. It’s just them, and the beautiful — but harsh — land.

These days, they do have a little help from Mercy Corps.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be sharing some stories from Nepal. I hope you’ll tune in for a view of life from the top of the world.