We crossed a line.
That fuzzy, indeterminate, unfixed space between tourist and local. Between outsider and insider.
It’s a bizarre, privileged and delicate place to be.
When a project or opportunity invites your full immersion, the stakes are higher. The lessons are steeper, your participation in all types of activities is acutely important, and your ability to connect, empathise and generally jive as a person with the wider community is absolutely paramount. It requires you to open your heart, to practice flexibility on a moment-to-moment basis and to be deeply aware of the assumptions, misconceptions and expectations that you, as well as the community you are immersed in, bring to the table.
This was the case when we were ushered into the homes, businesses and lives of the Kulung while filming Carrying Everest during September/October in Nepal.
Cholochhaa and Dilip Kulung, our guides, translators and researchers (aka, all-round miracle workers) were our bridge. They helped the film crew transition from inquisitive travellers to pseudo-residents, even if for a brief moment in time.
When you are gifted the unique opportunity to hear the stories of a community and to bear witness to their day-to-day lives, you are also indebted to a great level of self-responsibility – a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
In this second story about the Carrying Everest journey (you can read the first one here), I share with you the lessons and insights of immersion.
Connection takes time. If you want people to trust you and to open up to you, you have to be willing to do the work. I’m not referring to the background research, getting the lighting or the speakers accurate, or even asking the right questions. I mean respecting who you are spending time with and showing your generosity by drinking the tea that they offer you, making eye contact and listening with intent, even if you don’t speak the language (you will be surprised by how much you pick up on through expression, body language and tone/speed of voice), and not rushing the process because etiquette is just that – a process.
For most of the interviews we did, we spent just as long or even longer beforehand speaking casually in the person’s home or business about their day, explaining who we were and where we were from, playing with their children, trying their food or talking about the photos on their walls. There were times however, when we had a schedule to meet and the etiquette got sloppy and as a result, their answers to our questions were shorter, more matter-of-fact, and difficult to prize open.
We were told of a mother living in Bung who had lost her son to altitude sickness when he was portering almost a year ago. We had the evening as well as the morning to meet with her and see if she was comfortable to talk with us and share her story before we had to continue climbing on the trail. She lived a little out of town, closer to the river, and it was starting to get dark. We visited her daughter who lived nearby to explain the documentary and gauge her interest in taking part. A little unsure at first, she advised meeting with her mother that night in preparation for the next day. Cholochhaa made the visit to her home where he stayed for several hours chatting about their connections (everyone in the Kulung community knows each other!) as well as the film.
The next morning, the mother met us at her daughter’s home. We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, helped the family peel the garlic they had dried in the hot sun, and laughed and played with their ever-so-cute children who were very fascinated to have a group white foreigners in their backyard with some pretty fancy filming equipment.
The mother spoke effortlessly for almost two hours, revealing some of her darkest and hardest moments since loosing her son. “I feel alone. I have my daughter, but she is busy with her family. Now that I no longer have a son, my community doesn’t respect me anymore. The boy child is the most important in the family [in our culture] and now he’s gone. I’m lost without him.”
Without Cholochhaa’s support and the time to connect, this would not have happened.
Lesson learnt: Connect, human to human. Etiquette is supreme, always.
One of the biggest challenges to immersion in a foreign culture and community is language. Even with the support of translators, messages and meaning will undoubtedly get confused and lost. Speak slowly and simply. Over pronounce and don’t assume someone understands you. Repeat what you have said several times until it lands, using different words and gestures. And above all, be patient. Translation is hard work.
I have so much respect for people who can speak multiple languages. The way the brain rewires to find an appropriate or equivalent word in an alternative language at speed, and in the case of this project, lots of eyes, ears and pressure with cameras rolling and a team of people hanging onto your every word.
A question we desired answered but found very difficult to communicate was: ‘What does it mean to be Kulung?’
Words like ‘meaning’ and ‘feeling’ didn’t correlate in the Kulung world, no matter which angle we tried to take.
A father spoke to us at length about the many months at a time he is away from his wife and five daughters, transporting millet and gasoline from one village to the next upon the backs of his Gopas (a mix of a yak and cow). His face became sullen and he dropped his gaze to look down at his feet. Instead of probing, we let there be silence. With misty eyes, he looked back in the camera and said: “I hate pushing the gopas and making them carry very heavy loads because I know exactly what that is like from my many years as a porter, but I don’t have a choice.”
Life is difficult in the Mahakulung. It’s physically hard and emotionally waning, but that doesn’t mean people are not happy. It is easy to focus on what needs to change and be improved, especially when speaking to some of the most remote people in the world.
We quickly learnt that it was extremely important to be mindful of our personal assumptions, which ultimately informed the questions we asked and therefore, steered the conversation.
The ‘champion porter,’ who you met in the first story, was quick to remark that he was happy. That he adored his family and enjoyed his time in the mountains working alongside his friends.
A young woman who had recently opened a new teahouse in Namche missed out on school because she had to work to help her parents put food on the table. Instead of talking about her lack of opportunity, she was abundantly proud of her many years of hard work, which have allowed her to be an entrepreneur at age 19.
It became immediately apparent to us that this film holds great expectation in the hearts of the Kulung. It represents hope – hope for change. Luckily this expectation is shared with the film crew too, but expectation and outcome are two different realities. We continually discussed how we mindfully communicated the film’s purpose, how long it would take to produce and how we intended to platform their stories for change with their consent while not promising outcome. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk.
Some of the expectations include:
- encouraging change in government policy to better support porters and their families
- promoting development and investment in the Mahakulung region
- attracting tourists to travel through eastern Nepal via the many home-stays
- pushing the Government to formally recognise their Indigenous identity and rights
The moment we visited Chheskam’s Elementary School was when this became most apparent. We thought we were holding a small presentation in front a class or two. Instead, we were greeted by 300+ students from schools all over the valley and draped in flower garlands and silk scarves by each student who lined the school’s lawn. The excitement was rife and the expectation – even higher.
Gauge the situation. Change plans and then change them again. Trust your intuition. And debrief – always, always debrief.
On the same day that we were greeted by the hundreds of students at the school, we were told that a woman with four children under the age of 13 years at the school wanted to share her story with us. While people slowly arrived at the school for the ceremony, we set up the camera at a distance on the field. As we chatted, the lady broke down in tears, explaining how life was incredibly hard since losing her husband in an avalanche last year. Children, teachers and family members were intrigued by what was going on and started to form a circle around us. There was no privacy and the lady understandably became quite intimidated. Her children sat by her side, visibly emotional too. The timing and the space was inappropriate. We ended the interview, took the lady aside and thanked her for her openness, offering our words of condolence. We reminded her that her story mattered and deserved to be heard.
Take off the expert hat.
This one is a biggy. Regardless of your niche, your educational background, your technical know-how, your confidence, in an immersive project like this one, the experts are the Kulung. Consult the real experts, ask their opinion, include them in meetings and debriefs, and make it clear that you are working in collaboration with them – that they are integral members of the team.
We were fortunate to have a team of eight Kulung guides, porters and cooks with us at different times throughout our journey, and we made it our priority to speak to them on the trail, at meal breaks and during down time to seek their opinion, ask for their advice and make them feel comfortable to approach us with any concerns they had along the way.
Understanding why you are driven to do something and the intention behind your motive is absolutely integral. It might sound simple, even obvious, but it actually isn’t in a lot of cases and a conversation (and probably several of them!) need to be had.
As a team of mixed Australian and Kulung people from different cultures, communities and industries, this was crucial to understand. While there is a core drive that united us all – to support the Kulung to get heard and seen, there were also discrepancies. Differences to be honoured and discussed.
And when you’re especially close to a project, this question, even if it’s a difficult one to sit with and answer, needs to be asked with each decision or change of plan: Is my ego driving this?
The answer might be yes. It definitely was sometimes on this trip. We’re all human. The ego is going to take the lead from time to time, and hey, that’s a-okay. Just know when it’s the ego speaking and be careful not to disguise it with altruistic motives.
Cholochhaa towards the end of the journey told me that many of the Kulung we spoke with during our interviews and interactions referred to me as Ridomaa, which means ‘the youngest daughter’.
I really couldn’t have dreamt up a better testament to this.
This story is second of a five-part series sharing my experiences as the storyteller on the film project Carrying Everest. Stay tuned for the next one! Support and follow the creation of this documentary on Facebook and Instagram.