I came to Oberlin in the fall with the notion of being notion-less, trying new things, and, spreading my arms apart in a V, exploring. I visited a swing dance class, took up squash, declared a Neuroscience major and, feeling I could combat any declaration of lunacy, decided to go to Nepal. Now, this idea wasn’t entirely random, in the scientific sense of the word. I’d read a few books about summiting Everest (or almost summiting Everest, Mr. Weathers), but other than that, I was at a loss. Visiting Nepal was such a vague impulse that I never expected it to manifest itself into anything.
But then I took a Rhetoric class with Professor Laurie McMillin. Now, the great thing about a Rhetoric course is that the focus is how to write - not what you write about - so I took full advantage of the opportunity. I wrote papers on Nepali Poetry and how it relates to the people as a whole, on travel narratives, and on how Nepal, strangely enough, seemed to spark paradigm shifts in its erudite adventurers. A paradigm shift, in all its Kuhnian splendor, sounded like exactly what I needed. So, with the help of the writing associates and Professor McMillin I applied for a Shansi In-Asia grant. I designed a project to collect local folklore with a two-fold reasoning: 1) preservation in the face of westernization and 2) emulation to bring about that philosophical shift.
The proposal was rough. It relied heavily on meeting new people in a foreign country, though I had never been abroad before. By its nature, my idea required a lot of fluidity and trust on the part of the Shansi Board. To be honest I didn’t think it would pass, but much to my surprise, it did! By Christmas, I was en route.
I spent a week in Kathmandu, exploring and helping some friends of friends with their US college applications. I figured this was my “acclimation” period and that I would soon get onto story collecting. I was told countless times by my professors, “It’s not going to be all that easy,” but I still had this fantastical notion that I would just walk up to someone, and be like, “Hey man, you have any stories?” Then, I would sit back, regaled by their idiosyncratic tales. This was not to be the case.
I met a monk on a hill and had a non-verbal string of miscommunications. No stories. I met a Jhakri, a local medicine man/exorcist, who gave me an impromptu lesson in linguistic anthropology. No stories. I hitchhiked back to Kathmandu with seven people in a compact Suzuki. No stories.
Then it hit me: this was the story. In a sense, this entire trip was an exercise in creative non-fiction in which I, the lowly protagonist, set about the cringe-worthy metafictive task of story collecting.
From then on out, the trip was fantastic. I hiked to a base camp, swam in the hot springs of tato pani and took an elephant-back safari in the Sauraha; all the time, asking quite directly for stories. One of my favorites was a quadragenarian man who took my desperate plea for stories quite seriously. We were crammed in a small car where I literally sat on another man’s lap, labeling the parts of his story: intro, conflict, etc. The man lowered his brow and whispered: “I am a Brahmin. That is my caste. That is my culture. And it is part of our beliefs, that we cannot eat poultry. No poultry.” (Intro!) “But, when I was younger I had friends who were Newari and I,” he looked side to side as if telling the biggest secret of his life, “I used to go out and eat the poultry! (Climax!) But now, I am older and I do not do such things anymore.” (Let down?)
At first, I was bummed. This was not the quintessential story with a capital “S” that I was after. But, after a brief bout with dysentery, malaria pills and dehydration, it hit me: this was it. This wasn’t just a mere anecdote. When asked to tell a story, this man thought to tell me a secret. The opportunity for him was one of confession and I, a never-to-be-seen-again acquaintance, was his sounding-board, a brisk interaction instantly transmogrified into the most intimate of discourses.
I returned home in a state of utter harmony. Looking back through my journals, I found that paradigm shift I was looking for. The same story, the “Poultry Story” began disappointing, a let down, but by the end of the trip in the hopelessly Buddhist “just be” fashion, it was an insight into the art of story-collecting and the cosmology of the teller. But it wasn’t the story that had changed.
Back on campus, I gave a talk and published a creative non-fiction piece in a campus publication: Wilder Voice. Now, along with two other Obies, we are undertaking a social development project in the northeasternmost Taplejung district &mdash the Phakumba Social Development Project. One of our main goals is to start a clinic, as well as setting up a microlending system to build the local economy. We recently ventured out to Phakumba to research the viability of our ideas, and recorded our expedition here. We’ve also started ASDA, the Applied Social Development Association, to help foster similar projects here on campus. Medicine had always been the game plan, with writing as a lowly second and adventuring playing foundation to this totem pole &mdash but now, I have a chance to do all three.
My idea was far-fetched, ludicrous, and absurd. But in the course of a year, it had transformed from a vague notion of Everest and Yetis to a complex, interdisciplinary microlending procedure. That is Oberlin for me: a place where such ideas are shaped, molded, and always given the time of day.
For more information on the Phakumba Social Development Project, check out our website.