I’m frequently asked why I live in Nepal. I know a lot of other long-term expats are asked the same thing. Whether we came for work, love, or Dharma, I think that once we cross a certain number of years of precarious ‘non-resident residency’, the only logical answer seems to veer towards “because it’s there”. In this 100th anniversary year of the birth of Sir Edmund Hillary, there has been a lot of press coverage, both good and bad, about Mount Everest. So I thought I could also get my penny’s worth in. But with perhaps a different twist rather than the ‘should or shouldn’t people still be climbing this mountain’ debate. A mountain now more iconic than technical, more personal demon than abode of the gods. So here goes.
It has been 66 years since Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay stood on top of the world. In those days permits were given out at the rate of one per year. Today permits are given out in much larger numbers. With results as we have seen in the media over the last few weeks. This can perhaps be a reflection of our journey in Nepal: at first quite rare, we expats are now ‘ten-a-penny’, as the saying goes. Seen perhaps as taking up space or being a necessary evil? Quality and quantity getting confused over and over, and regularly turned around. The sweet and sour.
I had always known there was a database of climbs, appropriately called the Himalayan Database, which records feats of mountaineering madness—the record breaking attempts, the successes, and the failures. I have even met the original keeper of this record—the Late Miss Elizabeth Hawley. This fierce woman was one of the group of early expats to the country. However, it was only very recently that I learned that the database started basically as a hobby for the freelance reporter that she was in 1960s Nepal.
I think like many of us, Liz Hawley arrived on a whim, stayed with a passion, and remained longer ‘because it’s there’. I also learned recently that renowned mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits, who has summited Everest and all the 14 eight-thousanders, is reported to have said when asked about why people today still climb Everest, “because everyone is there”.
Perhaps that is the answer then. Do long-term expats stay in Nepal because “everyone is there”? Certainly there comes a tipping point when you have more friends in one country than in another. As we age we lose parents and siblings. Children are no longer dependent on us and strike out on their own adventures. Or we stay because we have a Nepali partner and children who are here. As I have mentioned before, the transient nature of expat life means that friends come and go on a regular basis.
At some point I stopped trying to make friends with people who are here on a two-year contract. More heart-wrenching perhaps is the number of Nepali friends who have left to find their own Shangri-La in another country. On the other hand, one well-known American in her 80s who has been here for considerable time, recently recalled arriving at Kathmandu airport (air-strip back then) in 1958. While being driven towards her new posting in the American Embassy, gazing around at the ring of snow-capped mountains and greenery of the Valley, she thought to herself, “Wow, I am going to be here for two whole years!” For her it might be she wasn’t here so much on a whim, but definitely she stayed on a passion and continues perhaps because “everyone is there”.