The news has been horrific. Many of us have seen the images and videos of the destruction in Nepal as the country shook repeatedly over the last several weeks. The wonders of an interconnected world bring the heartbreaking losses into all of our lives.
Yet, I am struck by how different this disaster feels to me than the others that have come in recent times. The difference is, of course, that the people hit this time are my friends. I do not say this to take away from the many people who endured the horrors of the tsunamis in Japan or Thailand, the earthquake in Haiti, or any other natural disaster. I say this, because I hope that in sharing the stories of my friends in Nepal, you too will be touched by their humanity and help them.
This is the first of many posts I will be making where I will tell the stories of my Nepali friends pertaining to the earthquakes. While it has been difficult to wake up every morning to countless messages from Nepal recounting the tragedy (13 hour time difference), it is nothing compared to the challenges that they face every day. In a country where life was difficult before, the earthquakes have taken everything from many.
One of my friends who has asked for help is Suman. I smile every time I think about the first time I met him. I had just strolled through the temple complex in Changu Narayan, a 4-th century village in the hills outside Kathmandu, and was meeting my travel companions at the little open-air restaurant just outside the temple gate. As I was walking up the stairs leading to the elevated pavilion, I was greeted by the warm smile and boundless energy that Suman is never without.
Suman explained that he would be our waiter and chef. It turns out, this 22-year old runs the entire restaurant by himself in addition to managing the small wheat, rice, and potato fields his family relies on for food. He supports his mother, father, and three younger siblings. He learned to cook while working in restaurants in India before returning home to work at the restaurant at a small guest house in Changu. Did I mention he can cook? Suman made, without a doubt, my favorite chicken dishes in Nepal.
As we got to know Suman more, he invited us into the community to experience their culture like we were family. Whether he was bringing us to the evening Puja (prayer session that is mostly a musical jam session by a local family of musicians) or taking us on picnics, Suman made us feel at home.
A great honor came one day when Suman invited all of us to accompany him on a 3-hour hike into the hills to attend the village’s annual festival to honor the hindu gods Ganesh and Vishnu. We were treated to a traditional ceremonial goat sacrifice that culminated in a delicious roasted goat feast. As we were walking back to Changu in the golden sunset over Kathmandu valley, we learned that we were the first visitors to attend this ceremony.
The messages I received from Suman in the days following the earthquakes were heartbreaking. Like many people in Changu Narayan, Suman and his family lost everything. His family’s home was destroyed. The restaurant he worked at is gone. He has no income, and he is the sole provider for his family. They are now sleeping under a tarp at the village’s Bus Park. Suman tells me that it would cost $3000-$5000 to build a new basic mud home for his family. Considering that his salary was about $35 per month before the earthquake eliminated his job, he has no way to pay for it.
In the midst of all of this tragedy, there is a positive note. Suman just got married May 8th. Amid all of the loss and destruction, a glimmer of happiness still shines through.
Suman is one of the many people in Nepal that will receive help from the donations you make to our GoFundMe fundraiser. Please contribute today.
When visiting another place, it is common for us to project our own version of ‘familiar’ onto our new surroundings. We fall prey to our own rituals and tendancies, inadvertently drowning out little cultural discoveries along the way. Whether that takes the form of frequenting western style restaurants, hotels, or bars while in an exotic city like Kathmandu, or seeking an espresso or cup of coffee in the morning in lieu of milk-tea, the results are the same. Countless little cultural treasures with the power to grow our insights about life can be missed. The chance to find our similarities through examining our differences is stifled.
I was thinking about my own morning coffee, gulped down moments ago, as I hurried out of the guest house to meet my new friend, Balkrishna. I was supposed to meet this complex and intriguing fellow for tea in his shop, where I was to interview him about tourism in his idyllic 4th-century village, Changu Narayan. I chuckled at my obvious addiction to coffee. Although I had been in Nepal for over a month, I still had not fully embraced coffee’s more gentile cousin. I gladly took the warm milky cup of tea from Balkrishna when he greeted me, however. I was beginning to come around.
After starting the cameras and beginning our interview, I was struggling with trying to tap into Balkrishna’s personal perspectives. As he enthusiastically and thoroughly explained the geography, history, and cultural high points of Nepal, I puzzled over why my normal questions were not on target. His answers were interesting to me, but I wanted to learn how tourism touches modern Nepali’s daily lives.
A couple of things finally dawned on me. First, Balkrishna was telling me what he thought I wanted to hear, because I had not given him the opening to speak on a personal level about his life’s devotion. As someone who has worked in tourism for over 20 years, he grew accustomed to answering the typical questions of tourists – for example, “How old is Changu?”, “What Caste are you?”, “What religions do Nepalis practice?”, “What is your favorite (fill in the blank)?” His depth of knowledge of typical ‘tourist’ information would impress any travel guide editor, but it was his experience with the daily grind of trying to support his family, grow his business, and build his community that I wanted to hear. The second realization I had was that Christen was right. Balkrishna is a gold mine of information about the inner workings of the tourism industry in Changu Narayan, and in many other places all over the country of Nepal.
“Balkrishna, I am interested in learning more about tourism from the Nepali’s perspectives. How do average Nepali people view tourism?” With that question, his eyes lit up. Just as I saw a great opportunity to learn more about these generous and kind people, Balkrishna saw an opportunity to tell his own story on a larger stage.
As Balkrishna started to explain the depths to which tourism has impacted life in Nepal, I started to realize the size of my task for the first time. It is one thing to hear that tourism is the second largest source of income in Nepal, behind foreign remittances (money sent back into the country by Nepali Ex-Pats abroad), it is another to visit person after person whose livelihood relies upon tourism. Once he realized the mission of our film, to tell the story of tourism from Nepali’s perspectives, Balkrishna’s mind went into overdrive, planning out the next four weeks of filming. “We need to go visit the sand quarry, where they are digging sand for hotel construction projects, and the chicken farm that supplies many restaurants, and the pashmina factory, and the silver smith, and the blacksmith, and the tourism college, and the….” The list went on, and on, and on.
Once again, I learned the value of shedding the Western-bred desire to control the agenda of the film. Over the next month, Balkrishna would be my guide, interpreter, production manager, teacher, and friend. Christen was right. She encouraged me to let go of my rituals and tendencies and let Balkrishna guide the story. The stories that he and I lived together, and the footage we captured are the proof. We look forward to sharing more of it with you!
In this clip below, residents of the 4th-century village of Changu Narayan, Nepal go about their jobs supporting tourism.
Please consider donating to the film. Any and all contributions make a difference. Sincerely, no amount is too small, as we need to raise $25,000 just for this stage of the project (and approximately $75,000 in total), and every dollar counts. (Either through the Paypal link or send to Luke Mislinski Photography at
How can you tell when you are in the midst of change? How do you know when it is time to surrender to the unfolding of a story, a journey, an experience? Why is it hard to let go of instincts? As I climbed the nearly endless stone stairway to the fourth-century temple of Changu Narayan, I thought about the unfolding dilemma I was facing. To explain, I have to rewind a bit. When I was originally invited months before to join the inaugural trek for Karma’s fledgling tourism business, I thought the trek would provide me opportunities enough to get sufficient footage to tell the story of sustainable tourism in Nepal. I would spend one week post-trek in Kathmandu valley after the trek, I had reasoned, to focus on getting the blog up to date with Christen. Then, she would return to Seattle, and I would travel to India to visit a friend. Life and the universe have a funny way of having their own plans.
As I neared the top of my climb, a nagging feeling crept from the murky part of my mind I do not like to visit. I started to worry whether we had captured enough footage to tell a complete story. I knew that, given this is our first film, there would be a significant learning curve – especially for me. My minimal experience with video combined with my novice abilities as a Himalayan trekker took their toll. Christen has said many times, “I wish you would have captured that moment on film!” I have said it far more times to myself. Many days, it felt like all I could do was simply finish the day’s mileage, get some usable footage, somehow charge my fleet of camera and laptop batteries, transfer hundreds of gigabytes of footage from cards to external hard drives, do my laundry, eat, rest, interview others in the group, and stay up late with Christen to take star photos and giggle at silly jokes acting like kids. It felt like I was frequently missing key moments during the trek when I would try to take a moment’s break.
When I reached the top of the stairs in Changu Narayan, I knew. We needed more…I was not going to India. I was going to spend my remaining four weeks in Asia in Nepal. I met up with Christen, Jenn, and Tatiana for lunch. Jenn (my wife) and Tatiana (an old friend) were joining us for this part of our trip in Changu. I was chewing on my new realization the whole meal.
After eating, Christen did what she does best. I was interviewing the master teacher at the Thanga painting school in the village when Christen came over to tell me that she had a couple more people I needed to meet. I had learned that when she says something like that, it is best to trust her instincts. Within minutes, I was sitting on the floor of a wooden mask shop and dodging shards of alder wood that were flying by my head at surprising speeds as Christen smashed a wooden mallet into a chisel. The owner of the shop had decided to teach her some of the finer points of mask carving.
As we explained our film to the him, he was very excited and insisted we meet his family members who help him with the shop. “Tourism,” he explained, “is the life of the village. There are few other forms of work here besides those supporting tourism.” It was easy to see, as we strolled down the cobble-stone streets of the little village. Shops lined both sides of the streets offering all manner of crafts, clothes, and souvenirs. The villagers who were not working in shops were working on the wheat harvest. They would carefully lay out their harvest on the street every morning to dry, and pick it up in the evening. After several days of drying, they would thresh it by hand on the same streets.
As Christen and I finished at the mask shop, she told me about another shop owner she had met earlier in the day. “You have got to interview this guy named Balkrishna, the owner of the singing bowl shop,” she insisted. “Really,” I asked? I had passed by his shop the previous day but was not drawn to it. I have no idea why. “Jenn had mentioned she was in there and wanted to go back to buy something.” “Trust me,” replied Christen. “You will be glad you talked to Balkrishna.” Did I mention I had learned to trust Christen’s instincts?
I returned to Balkrishna’s shop later with Jenn and Tatiana. Balkrishna is a great man. I immediately liked him and felt like despite the vast cultural differences between us, we shared something important: we both want to see our communities thrive and strive to devote our lives to that mission. Our conversation that afternoon spanned from the explosion of tourism in the village over the previous couple decades (and subsequent recent decline), to the complicated political situation in Nepal following the civil war (1996 – 2006) and shift from a monarchy to a republic. However, the most important part was how his eyes lit up when I explained that we are making a film about tourism in Nepal from the viewpiont of local Nepalis.
I was about to learn over the next several weeks that Balkrishna is a person with a big vision. I barely finished explaining it before Balkrishna was running off an impressively insightful and diverse list of people and places that he could introduce me to for the film. I was looking for anyone to help me understand just how far the tendrils of tourism reach into the economy and lives of the people of Nepal, and here was Balkrishna, my new Nepali production manager whom I did not know that I had, waiting right there for me with an ambitious production schedule. Even better, an amazing friendship started with Balkrishna that I will cherish the rest of my life. I owe a large debt to Christen for my friendship with him.
As I write my next posts about filming in Nepal, I will shift from the trek phase of the trip to the second half covering several other major parts of the country. I hated to see Christen go back to America. I felt like I was losing my right arm, and I was worried that I would not capture the same depth of story without her. Once again, I learned to trust her judgement. Although she could not stay in Nepal, Christen somehow found the right person in Balkrishna to help me uncover the rest of the story…The more one learns about tourism in Nepal, the more it becomes clear just how vital it is to the Nepali people country-wide. The best part about meeting Balkrishna? I was starting to learn how to surrender to the story, and there could not have been a better teacher than he was.
If you would like to donate to the making of the Karma Documentary, please send money to Luke Mislinski Photography via Paypal.
First, I want to apologize for leaving you without any recent blog updates. Christen and I have been very busy behind the scenes working on storyline development and the official Karma Documentary trailer. The official trailer is not quite finished yet, but expect an announcement soon about its release!
Now that we are nearing this next post-production milestone, expect to see regular blog updates about the continuation of the story. I will share my experiences from many other areas of Nepal, ranging from the hills around Kathmandu to the plains and jungles of the Terai region. There are many more behind-the-scenes photos, videos, and stories to share with you!
What is a Traveler?
Before I left for Nepal, knowing very little about what I would experience in Asia, a very wise friend, Fredric, discussed with me the differences between a tourist and a traveler. He said that, “tourists are people who start at home, create a bubble around themselves, and then go look at other things and compare. Travelers are people who go someplace else and find out things that they never really expected.”
I thought I already understood what Fredric was trying to tell me on that cloudy April day in Washington. After all, I had traveled out of the country many times before. I pride myself on having an open mind and rarely turn down the chance to try new things or expose myself to different cultures. I like to interact with locals wherever I go, try strange food, listen to unfamiliar music, and ask about people’s daily lives. Surely, Fredric was not telling me about the virtues of being a ‘traveler’ for my own benefit. He was just explaining it so that I could use his explanation for the film, right? I was almost four weeks into my time in Nepal before I understood that Fredric was absolutely talking to me.
“Did you hear back from the lady with the guest house?”, I said groggily over my breakfast to Jenn while the assorted noises and smells of Kathmandu wafted in from the street. We had been in Kathmandu for three days, and while exciting and exotic, the noise, pollution, and hectic pace were starting to wear on us. “Yeah, I finally got an email from Amanda confirming the rooms, but the directions seem a little sketchy…”, she replied.
For the next week, four of us – Jenn, Tatiana, Christen, and I – were planning on exploring the outskirts of Kathmandu valley. In search of a quiet retreat from the melee of the Thamel neighborhood, we were all excited to get to the guest house Jenn booked in Changu Narayan, “a sleepy little village outside Kathmandu.”
I was looking forward to the change of pace, but I secretly worried whether there would be enough to see in Changu Narayan to keep us busy for a week. Jenn had originally booked an apartment in Bhaktapur, a popular and bustling ancient Newar city in Kathmandu valley. We learned the day before that the Bhaktapur apartment was no longer available. The property manager, a retired American woman named Amanda, recommended the alternate place. Normally, the twist would not bother me at all, but I was a little apprehensive no longer having the experience of Glen or Karma to guide us. I would soon learn both how wrong my worries were and how right Fredric was about my needing to learn what it means to be a traveler.
“Are we really going to fit all of these bags and ourselves into one cab?”, puzzled Tatiana as we gathered at the front of the Lhasa guest house, my on again/off again home base in Kathmandu. “Well, I asked Nwang to call for a van…”, I trailed off, taking in the almost ridiculous amount of luggage piled up. (Who knew that shooting on-location in Nepal would require so much stuff?). As the “van” pulled up, I said a silent thank you that there was a roof rack. Regardless of it’s vehicle class, the van looked like it would barely fit the four of us, let alone our luggage. We set to work loading our gear.
“Can you take us to Changu Narayan?”, I asked the cab driver, hoisting the last bag up to him on the top of the van.
“Changu? Hajur (yes). Where are you staying?”, he grunted as he deftly hopped off the roof of the van.
I glanced at Jenn. “Amanda said in the email to call when we get to the village, and she would give us directions”, she replied. “We can use Tatiana’s phone. She picked up a Nepali SIM card.”
“I guess we will have to get the location of the guest house when we get there”, I explained to the driver. With that, we all crammed into the tiny van and started off on our next phase of the adventure.
Changu Narayan, located high on a steep hillside overlooking Kathmandu from the east, is home to the oldest temple in Kathmandu Valley. It is believed to date back to the 4th century. As our taxi labored up the frighteningly narrow and twisting road, Jenn tried calling Amanda. “That’s weird”, she puzzled. “The call won’t go through. Here, listen to the message.” We would later learn that Changu was experiencing one of their regular coverage outages. We could not get through to either Amanda’s mobile or land lines. There was a message playing that made no sense to me.
“We can try again when we get there”, I said, wondering if we would have to wander the streets of a remote village, struggling beneath more bags than anyone should ever try to carry. I asked myself, “What would Glen do?”
At that moment, I remembered Fredric’s words. I realized I had only come part way on the journey to transform from a tourist into a traveler. The experiences high in the Himalaya kick-started me on that path. Yet, having Glen, Karma, and the rest of the staff there to call the shots when plans went awry prevented me from fully letting go of my western-bred travel tendencies. Christen just shrugged and said, “So, we will just ask people when we get there where the older white lady lives.” (She learned the difference between being a tourist and a traveler years ago while traveling solo in Italy.)
As we pulled into the bus park at Changu Narayan, the villagers welcomed us with open arms. After some local kids pointed the way to “Grandma’s house” (Amanda had made quite the impression in the village), we settled into our next little paradise. Amanda welcomed us into the guest house with the perfect blend of good old American Southern Hospitality (she retired to Nepal several years ago from Arkansas) and Nepali reverence for guests. I can see why she calls this place home now.
I felt my earlier apprehensions melt away, as I strolled onto the rooftop terrace at Amanda’s guesthouse and took in the sweeping views of Kathmandu valley. Over the coming days, I would make new Nepali friends in Changu Narayan who would prove to be pivotal in helping complete filming over the next five weeks. Most importantly, they would help me discover the path to complete my personal journey, transforming me from a tourist into a traveler.
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