Field Notes: From Nepal to Detroit (Vol. III)


My host dad sells bananas. He piles them by bushel or two onto the back of his bicycle and hits the unpaved road. He bikes about ten rocky miles into the nearest town, which is just a few miles shorter than what most kids in his village walk to school. He doesn’t do this every day, but when he has enough bananas to spare, he’ll make about 25 cents per dozen sold.

In our home, there is my host dad, his wife, his daughter-in-law and his 1-year-old grandson. His son, like many in the community, has gone to India to work. He’ll be back. And thanks to his absence, the family is able to host me and my co-worker in his bedroom.

Neighborhood around my host family’s house in Philliarphrata, Nepal.

Neighborhood around my host family’s house in Philliarphrata, Nepal.

One night we are sitting on a woven bed under the banana palms and the moon. It reminds me of a hammock and camping and we are looking at the stars between the tree branches outside of the house. I am with my friend (and fellow buildOn Nepal Trek Coordinator), Jharana, who is from Nepal. She is translating our family conversation for me after we finished bowls of dahl, rice and a chile pepper for dinner.

“Do you have any land?” asks my dad.

“Jharana, can you tell him that I live in a building with many people in a city so I don’t have any land?” I respond.

“How do you eat if you don’t have any land?” Jharana translates from my host dad.

I paused.

While Jharana explained to me a bit about what a grocery store is (a big building with many foods to buy…), I remembered the community was busy harvesting wheat. This season is critical for families so that they can gather enough wheat before the upcoming monsoon season. The harvested wheat would fill bellies for months, and be especially yummy with a warm bowl of spicy dahl, just like we had eaten earlier.

I thought about my friends back home. I would be seeing them in less than a week. I had already invited them over for dinner, and I knew I would cook them something especially American (macaroni and cheese) with food I would buy at the grocery store (Meijer). I thought about what they were doing, where they were exactly in that moment when myself and Jharana were explaining what a grocery store is to my host dad.

Were we in the same world? Were they ever grocery shopping the same time my host dad was harvesting wheat? How is it possible to be on the same planet and consume so differently? How can we reconcile these extreme differences in our consumption?

My apartment building in Mexicantown, Detroit, MI.

My apartment building in Mexicantown, Detroit, MI.

Just the other night I was at my friends’ house near my apartment building I once described to this host dad. My friends were using their new Amazon Dash Wand, and I was imagining being in Senegal in a village somewhere in a week at the exact same time. As these pals explained the impressive convenience of the Dash Wand, they showed me how scanning it on a can of La Croix, for example, would sync it into their Amazon Prime Shopping Cart (to be delivered in just two days!). I couldn’t stop laughing. I was thinking about this host dad, and whether the concept of a Dash Wand could ever be properly translated. What would he think if it ever was?

I have no actual answers today for how our parallel lives stretching from a village in Nepal to Mexicantown, Detroit, could be so contrary, particularly in how we buy things, how we feed ourselves and sustain our lives. I have plenty of theories and ideas, but I’m not sure where that actually leaves us. Maybe it leaves us back to what I was there for in Nepal with team of dedicated staff and volunteers: creating access to education, breaking cultural stereotypes, giving voice to our different perspectives.

But in each of these moments, I felt stuck. I felt pulled to tell a story that I believed neither perspective would really understand. I felt challenged to even simply describe a world where aisles and aisles of packaged food were within a 5 minute car ride from my house. Likewise, how could my friends conceptualize harvesting wheat, tending to livestock, growing bananas as their main sources of food?

I want to know which pattern of consumption makes humanity better for the long haul. Should we all move into tiny houses and farm more and grocery shop/use Amazon less? Should we equip remote villages with wifi and Amazon buying power/grocery stores? Which extreme do we start with? Where do we begin?

But first, I want to try and be the storyteller. I want to explain to my host dad what a grocery store is like, and to my friends that my host dad would be lucky to have just a few minutes of wifi, let alone an Amazon Prime account. That seems like a start. Lately, however, I feel like this is all lost on me, and I wonder, what are we left with other than what we are given?