Oda: The Last Place on Earth

Part III: The Final Destination

If you’ve been generous enough with your time to follow this blog, by now you must have read about my experiences on a trip Soo and I took to Nepal this past January.  You must’ve followed the journey from Beijing to Chengdu to Kathmandu; the flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj; the drive from there to Surkhet and thence to yonder destinations. This far, the journey has brought us to the final destination. In this last of a three-part entry of blog posts, I want to tell you about Oda itself. Who, really, live in Oda? Why do they choose to live in so remote a part of the world, beyond the reach of any practical government help? And how do our lives interconnect with theirs?

Forgive me if I’ve made a big deal out of this visit to Oda; but anyone who travels to this remote destination would likely express the same shock and awe. When I was growing up as a young child in Cameroon, we didn’t have plenty too. But more than a decade later, I would find myself working for one of the world’s biggest financial institutions. Based on this background and experiences, I often felt a little too reassured about how much I could relate to people from different socio-economic dispositions. But perhaps I had put a little too much faith in how much my upbringing had prepared me to face the world.

Fast-forward to January 2017, and I’m hit with an urgent awakening. Oda opened my eyes to see anew what life really is like at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum. Far from the material comforts of New York and Beijing, even Kathmandu, I witnessed privation on a level that made me reassess what things I should hold dear—what things should matter in life.

Just three days before arriving Oda, I was living in Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. The newly-built college is one of the fanciest academic buildings in the world. Scholars eat, sleep, and study in the same building, which boasts a state-of-the-art air filtration system and a fully-equipped, modern gym. Each student lives in a single en suite – to say nothing of the weekly room service – that’s more akin to a hotel than a student dorm. Combine this level of comfort with the company of students from the world’s most elite universities and you have an experience that is as far removed from Oda as your imagination can conjure.

At the risk of painting too simple a picture of the Schwarzman Scholar experience, we weren’t preoccupied with where the next meal would come from; or whether strong winds would blow off the thatched roof above our heads while we slept; or how much crop yield we’d harvest if the rains came late. We weren’t worried whether we may ever again hear from our child/husband who has left to labor in India. No. Our worries were different. And this isn’t unique to the Schwarzman Scholars community. Pretty much anyone reading this blogpost lives in a world totally different from Oda. We live in the world’s fanciest cities: Singapore, New York, London (Bamako? No, maybe not Bamako). We worry about the size of our bonus checks at the end of the year; about when we will take the next vacation; whether we should go to business school or quit and work on that start-up idea.

Such is our reality. But are we to blame anyone? We belong in a society where these things have been made to matter, no one and everyone bears the responsibility.

But back in Oda, I was neither a Schwarzman Scholar nor a Goldman employee. All what we would consider achievements on our resumes counted for little in this part of the world. At the quarry where we dug up huge boulders to build a chicken coup, Bim Singh, a middle-aged gentleman who became my best friend in Oda, had far more utility than I did. I knew how to price options. He knew how to dig up and split huge boulders weighing hundreds of tons. In Oda, his skills were infinitely more useful. If Oda were all the world, he’d be the boss. And I’d have to earn my bread from him.

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Oda’s children are freely giving of their smiles

I do not mean here to sound dramatic. Neither do I mean to romanticize the anxiety that can be life in Oda. I’m sure many Odans would relish the opportunity to trade places with you or me, perhaps oblivious to the fact that modern life has even bigger cares and worries. However, I just want to illustrate how our notion of what matters shifts when we are uprooted from one socio-cultural/economic context and implanted in another. Usually, aid providers travel to these far-flung destinations with the best of intentions. They think their education equips them to bring happiness and turn desolate communities into tiny havens of prosperity (Let me point out here I am not talking about The Oda Foundation, whose founders have ensured that it is community-centric and are there to stay). Growing up in Africa, I had borne witness to this.  But alas, I, too, had fallen into this line of thinking. I was ostensibly going to help out in Oda; to build a chicken coup, as it were. But despite the economic despondency I witnessed, I found the people of Oda were among the happiest people I’ve ever come across. The kids, especially, were charitable with their smile and freely giving of their laughter.

To pick up from the last blog post, after an arduous two-hour trek up the mountain, we finally arrived at an open clearing nestled among a few mountain ranges. Oda Foundation’s office, a green-roof two-storey building of bamboo reinforced with mud and stones is the most impressive structure in the village. Look out from the balcony, behind the building, and you would see tiny mud huts dotted along the hill slopes. The view is picturesque, almost idyllic, until you actually visit.

 

Many of the villagers live in these tiny mud shacks, often sharing the same dwelling quarters with livestock: sheep, goats, and cattle. I do not exaggerate. Because of their Hindu tradition, the villagers take greater pride in tending their cows than in looking after themselves. The animals are well-fed and fattened, but never slaughtered for their meat, even though Oda’s staple diet, dal bhat, is severely deficient in protein. Soo, John, Rebecca, Nick, and I took a tour of the village after spending our first night in Oda.

We walked past old women squatting outside their shacks; children who had come to fetch water (with outsize containers) playing by the pump; a crippled man, said to be a so-called untouchable, mending clothes with a hand-operated sewing machine; little girls cleaning their houses; and old men idling about their sheds. The footpath along the village was traced out like a labyrinth. First, we ascended the hillslopes, jumping on huge boulders, stepping over dirt and squalor, and crossing rice terraces as we made our way through the village. John knows almost everyone in every homestead. He calls all the kids, who are most fond of him, by name. He’s become sort of a breadwinner for the entire village, as The Oda Foundation is the largest employer in the community. To the extent the villagers have jobs and earn a monthly salary, that job is provided by The Oda foundation. It is the heart and lifeblood of the village. Almost all able-bodied male villagers have either left to find work elsewhere (India is the preferred destination) or they work for the Foundation. The rest are either too old or too young to lend their labor to the local economy.

The Foundation provides an array of jobs: teachers, nurses, guards, cooks, cleaners, and porters. Bim Singh, my good friend, works as the Foundation’s guard. But he also helps around with an assortment of other tasks. He is porter, a builder, and a farmer. He only speaks Nepali, so communication was difficult between us. But he told me that he worked in India as a security guard before falling on hard times (he got seriously sick) and returning to the village. He has a wife and one beautiful baby girl, who unfortunately was sick the day we were leaving Oda. I joined Bim and a few other laborers in the quarry after our first morning in Oda. We wanted to build a chicken coup so the Foundation could grow chicken and provide a cheap source of meat and proteins to the villagers. To do so, we had to dig huge boulders and break them into brick-size pieces. For this task, we had just a chisel, a huge hammer, a crowbar, and a plastic tube used to steady the chisel on the rock.

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And elderly gentleman looked on as we walked pass

The chisel was nailed into the tube so that both were perpendicular to each other. One person would hold the other end of the tube, placing the chisel up against a (natural) crack on the boulder (widely fluctuating temperatures heat and cool the rock, causing cracks to form due to expansion and contraction). A second person would nail the chisel against the rock until it widens the crack and is firmly fixed into the rock. Then we would take turns hammering the chisel in order to split apart the rock. It usually took us between fifteen minutes to two hours to break a single boulder. When we had split enough rocks, everyone, including John, Soo, Smitri (Smitri is a soft-spoken nurse who works for the Oda Foundation. She comes from a middleclass Nepali family in Kathmandu) would come to carry the rocks up to the site of the building. Soo is a much stronger woman than her frame suggests, judging by the size of the stones she carried.

Over our seven days in Oda, we split about a dozen boulders. After that I never looked at rocks the same way again. On our way back to Kathmandu, I kept looking at the cracks on the huge boulders along the roadside, telling Soo how the cracks on the boulders could be exploited to split the rock into smaller stones.

In Oda, the daily temperatures fluctuated wildly. The nights were freezing to the bone. We had brought plenty of warm clothing—thermal underwear, sweaters, sleeping bags, gloves, and hats—to protect against the elements. But we were not quite ready for what the cold mountain breeze had in store for us. Taking a hot shower in the village is a luxury. Becca’s grandma had donated a water-heating system that harvests the suns energy to heat water. But you have to fill up the tank and also have good sunshine to have enough hot water for everyone at the Foundation. On many evenings, the water ran out. During this time of the year the sun sets quite early, before 6:00 PM. Once the sun goes down, the temperature plummets to the single digits (Celsius). The water installation is about 100 meters walk from the main building, where we slept. As such, when you’re showering and enjoying whatever little warm water you have, there’s something at the back of your mind to worry about: how to brace that two-minute walk in freezing weather back to the main building.

But when you succeed and make the dash to the building, the concern doesn’t end there. The entire time in Oda we were virtually exposed to the elements. At day and night. Both in and outdoors. The days are very hot. But starting at dusk, the temperature drops precipitously and continues to fall throughout the night. The cold, dry mountain wind compounds the misery.

Each evening after eating dinner (dal bhat), we’d stay and talk with our new friends. Sometimes we made a huge bonfire. In our second night in the village I asked to buy and kill a goat to supplement the diet. I was concerned that in this day and age the villagers subsisted on nothing but white rice and lentil/bean soup. However, much like John, Soo and I also came to appreciate dal over the course of our stay in Oda. We ate the same thing every day twice a day. John was always very appreciative, as we were. But it was just rice and bean soup. So, Soo and I wondered how John always found the food so appetizing… however we came to realize that when you eat the same thing every day, twice or thrice a day, you begin to appreciate subtle little differences in taste. John would say “the dahl today is so good.” “But John, it’s the same food you ate this afternoon, and yesterday evening, and yesterday afternoon, and…” you get the pattern. So how is it “so good today?” Ah, but the viscosity of the soup is different! (Not John’s exact words, but he alluded to the thickness of the soup) I still laugh out loud writing this line. But to the people of Oda, this is no laughing matter. Food security is their primary preoccupation and the Oda Foundation provides enough food for its employees, but it cannot feed all the thousands of people dotted in small communities across these mountain ranges.

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Dal bhat

Thus, one cannot help but wonder how the villagers’ nutrition can be supplemented. Of all the problems the village has, this is one of the first that any visitor confronts. I tried to think about potential solutions, if only as an intellectual exercise. What about a fish pond? Surely if the villagers had a big fish pond there are easy-to-grow species of fish that could be used to feed the village, I thought to myself. But it’s not quite so simple. Where do you get the water? Water scarcity is an existential problem for the village.

According to Karan Singh, this did not used to be the case. Three decades ago, all the mountaintops around Oda used to have glaciers that melted to provide water throughout the year. But over the decades, the glacier had retreated from all but two of the mountains around us. Due to man-made climate change, the village’s water supply had severely dwindled, threatening their livelihood. When they had plenty of water they could grow about three times their yearly food needs and sell the surplus in the market. But these days they cannot even grow enough to feed themselves. They have to rely on government handouts and NGOs like The Oda Foundation. When Karan told me this I had to pause and reflect for a moment. Here were a people whom I thought lived on the edge of the world, as far removed from me as one could possibly get. Yet, their way of life was being threatened because of my actions and the actions of billions of people like me around the world.

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Panoramic view of the village

After work most evenings, I lingered in the kitchen to talk with the workers. I brought out my laptop and played music and showed them photos of different parts of the world. They were always more excited to see the photos I had taken of them (like many city-dwellers around the world, if they had smart phones the people of Oda would just be as fond of selfies as we are). After leaving them, Soo and I would join the rest of the team in the main building for an evening conversation. By 8:00PM, almost all the village would be asleep. No nightclubs. No bars and restaurants. No street lights. No department stores or supermarkets. Certainly, no movie theaters. The rhythm of life in Oda is strictly dictated by nature. In the absence of sound and light pollution, you could stand outside and marvel at the constellation in the sky, if you could brace the cold. Such are the simple pleasures of nature that we’ve traded for the trappings of modern life.

But I dreaded the nights. All the gear we had bought to shield us from the mountain cold were no match against the elements. I’d wear so many layers of clothes it’d be hard to slip into the sleeping bag. But even after getting into the sleeping bag, I could still feel my feet freezing out. The strong winds blew right through the building via gaps in the window, which couldn’t close well. This means it was usually harder for me to fall asleep. I’d spend the night wondering about the people of Oda, why they live there, why they can’t move, and what could be done to help.

In my conversations with Karan, I realized just how naïve my thinking was. First, his ancestors had escaped Muslim and British persecution in India to settle the plains of low-lying Nepal. But the plains were often too hot and mosquito-infested. Many people died from diseases and poor hygiene. His ancestors kept moving further into the hinterlands, choosing to settle high up in the cooler mountains where they were isolated from disease-carrying populations, invaders, and plagues. That is how they came to settle in what is today their home. As for leaving, where would they go? Their ancestors are buried there. Back when they settled the land, they could grow crops twice a year because they had plenty of water. It made sense to settle in places so remote then. Today, however, their fortunes have reversed. But their roots are firmly planted on their land. It is the land of their ancestors and there’s no leaving it.


When I had first arrived, I wished for nothing more than for the villagers to modernize. You know, get some civilization—paved roads, indoor plumbing, electricity, etc. But then I realized that despite their seeming desolation, they had plenty of laughter and happiness to share. Certainly happier than many people on the streets of New York or Beijing. So, if happiness is the end that we all seek, if all our achievements and bank accounts are a means to some higher end, and if that end be finding meaning and purpose in life, then surely the people of Oda have found a simpler way to it.  What purpose, then, does “civilization” serve? I began to see Oda more as a community that should be protected from the corrupting onslaught of modernity rather and less as a community deserving of help or pity. To the extent that Odans can find food, grow their crops, find grazing pasture for animals, and live healthily, they may not need to add to their simple way of life the worries and anxieties that are a permanent feature of modern life.

It is then that I realized that I hadn’t come to Oda to help the people. Rather, I had come to help myself. Or, more bluntly, I had come so that the people of Oda could help me. To help me take a step back and think more fundamentally about my value systems; what I should hold dear.

Time Square in New York is sort of where the world meets; the polar opposite of Oda. Imagine yourself at Time Square, perhaps on a floor high up in one of the skyscrapers. Look down and see all the all the humans below busy about their lives. Where are they going? What are they doing? What is driving them? What is their purpose? How happy are they?

My next destination after Oda was not Time Square, but Singapore. However, these questions lingered on my mind when I stood on the rooftop of the Marina Bay Sands and looked down at people going about their lives. I wondered if they knew that the people of Oda exist and if the people of Oda knew that these city-dwellers exist. Did they know how distant, yet how intertwined, their lives were? Did they know that they had the same hopes and dreams and aspirations? That they all liked selfies? As I pondered these questions, it was clear in my mind which one had more material comfort, but not which one had found more meaning and happiness.

In a certain way, all of us living in modern cities want to return to Oda. Singapore leads the world in building green-city technologies. It has created a man-made biome, replete with artificial giant trees in the Garden by the Bay. To build the concrete jungles that are our cities today, we had to tear down forests and drain swamps only to replace them with artificial ones. In this ironic sense, perhaps we all long to return to Oda.

Thank you for coming along this journey with me. If you have any questions about the trip, do feel free to reach out. Please also consider donating to The Oda Foundation by clicking here. The people of Oda would be in your debt.  

 This concludes my series on Oda. But don’t abandon the blog. Next, I’ll be writing a series (Going East: The Trans-Siberian Express) of shorter blogs about my adventures on the Trans-Siberian Express.

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