When The Facade of Affluence hides Cast Discrimination

What if you were born to be poor? Your status in life was predetermined by cast?

I’ve just left Ladakh, a predominant Buddhist part of India, where there are many poor people. My trekking guide came from such a poor family. He was handed over to a monastery at age eight so he’d get fed and educated. He left the monastery at age 34, married and developed a business. He’s no longer poor; his children have a university education, his wife has a steady job at a hospital. In Ladakh you can work your way out of poverty – religion and societal status don’t keep you poor.

In Nepal I’m staying at a B&B in a small merchant town, populated by Newaris. The Newaris are traders from way back, the little town was a trading center on the route from India to Kathmandu. As the Prithvi highway eliminated their trading monopoly, the Newaris turned from goods to tourists and created an old-world ambiance with modern amenities to attract their clientele. The Newaris do well for themselves; it’s obvious in the wellfed happy children walking to school and the chubby men and women running their small businesses.

But there is another side to this story: the B&B has partnered with a Scottish Rotary club and uses the profits of the business to help children of a nearby village to get an education. The Bhujel who live here are of a lower cast, most likely Dalit, untouchables. The men drink, the women make bamboo products for sale; not enough to make a living. Living in a fertile, land rich area the Bhujels miss the skills to be farmers and most likely were never allowed to own land. They live in predetermined poverty.

Our young guide Roshan tells us that at the end of the civil war in 2005 between rebel Maoists and Nepali royalists, the cast system was abolished as a condition for a constitutional Nepali government. “Everyone now has the same opportunities, we can marry across cast”, he says, confident that the change is real. When a group of Nepali tourists introduce themselves to me that night as Brahmin (the superior cast), I’m not so sure I can share his optimism. Just as with the abolishment of slavery in the US, the attitudes and prejudice do not get stamped out with the passing of a law.

The Newaris in Bandipur exude confidence; they know they can avoid poverty if they work hard. The Brahmins draw their confidence from privilege; what we call ‘white privilege’ in the US.

Roshan worked in Qatar for a few years. The money sent home from Qatar is 20% of Nepal’s GDP. Many of the Nepali migrant workers are the new slaves of the modern world as they work in construction for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. They are indentured servants; often don’t get paid for months and owe a debilitating recruitment sum. Roshan was lucky, he’s not a Dalit; he could get back to the shelter of family with improved English language skills and have a new start in the tourism industry.

Will western thinking and secularisation change the cycle of poverty? Probably, slowly, it will. Maybe, just maybe, my travel and presence here shifts the balance a bit more to opportunity for all. I tell a young Newari woman, named Jun-ko after the first Japanese woman to summit Mt Everest, to go climb a mountain. I tell her what I’m doing on this trip. She looks at me and asks my age. I tell her, “I’m 72”. I can see the glimmer of possibility in her eye. She thinks, if you can, I can too! Dream Jun-ko, you live in a country of magical mountains. Go make ’em your own.

A Life of Doing Nothing

Cut off from the internet and phone we enter the Zanskar region, a half day drive over a brand new dirt road full of potholes, bumps and switchbacks. My eyes strain to find the trail I walked 14 years ago, the camping spots where I pitched my tent. Tears well up when I see the enormity of the bare and craggy mountains displaying bands of color that remind me of the painted hills in Oregon. This is a wild land where I’m a speck on the palette of Mother Nature.

We arrive in Lingshed, my end point last time, now starting point of a trek deeper into a roadless region. We set up camp and take a rest/visiting day and wait for the packhorses to arrive from a nearby village. I have to correct, my hiking friend and I don’t lift a finger to set up camp. As guests we are waited on hand and foot; a new role for me, the practice of receiving. The morning starts with chai delivered to our tent, followed by a basin of warm water for washing. Once we’re up, breakfast waits, we drink more tea and have more cups of tea throughout the day as we eat in our mess tent or get them delivered in a thermos along the trail.

We visit the monastery and nunnery, and notice the electricity and solar hot water set-up. We listen to an all-night hammering as a visiting monk directs the last effort for building a water storage tank. Progress and change cannot be stopped even here so far from the faster paced world.

The next day our work is to pace ourselves as we climb to greater heights, stop – catch our breath on the switchbacks, allowing our body to make the most from the 60% oxygen we’re getting with each inhale. The mind is empty, or in slo-mo as we take in the heights and depths with awe. We need a focused mind on some stretches, one misstep and we will slide into the depths. Fear sits on our shoulder and we have our conversation with god, or more culturally appropriate, we recite our Om-mani-Padme-hum to appease the forces around us.

Our guide, a friend and contact from long ago, is our guardian angel who watches us closely, adjusts the pace, reaches a hand when needed and asks us about our altitude symptoms. We’re lucky we have few, part due to taking time in Leh and going slow on this trek. When we reach Hanumala-la, the highest pass (15,200 ft) on day 3, we feel triumphant and grateful at the same time. I’m older and slower but not less capable! On the downhill I think of all the people in my life who’ve been instrumental in getting me to this place on the roof of the world. I’m without worry as Karma is constantly anticipating and taking care of my needs.

We walk, but the place to go is arbitrary. We relax to the sounds of the water rushing by our camp. We widen our horizon as the clouds drift in a brilliant blue sky resting briefly on the tops of the tallest mountains in the world.

Every so often clarity about issues back home rises to the surface and we know that this life of doing nothing, going nowhere is doing its deep transformative work. Step, breathe, step, another switchback up; step, focus, step, another downturn on the path. With our hiking poles we become four-legged creatures who, like our pack animals sway our way to the next stop, the next moment of ‘doing nothing’.