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Story and Photos by Sophie Hills

“Rhino.” Our guide’s voice pulled my eyes from the branches of the trees back down to the water of the Rapti River to rapidly scan. I saw the top of its back, ears, and horn just above the surface of the water. They like to stand in the murky river, our guide told us, and let the water flow lazily around.

We’d been told that rhinos were aggressive, but our small canoe kept drifting closer. It was standing still, occasionally blowing bubbles. As we got closer, it lifted its nose out of the water and looked at us. There was something impervious and majestic about it, maybe because its skin resembled literal armor. It seemed unfazed, and flopped its ears up out of the water, staring at us.

Then it lifted its whole, enormous head above the surface, water droplets running down it. For several long moments I stared, eye-to-eye with a rhino, completely lost in the surreal experience.

The next night we 17 Principia students learned our Nepal and India Abroad was ending early due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and I thought of that rhino, utterly calm and confident in its environment, and how different my own environment would be in several days, back in the US.

In India, particularly Delhi, there’s an undeniably chaotic rhythm. But it is a rhythm. It drives life – people, rickshaws, tuk tuks, horses, motorcycles, and cows move through the streets in different directions and at different paces. I had to be repeatedly pulled out of the path of an incoming something-or-other during any given outing. But I didn’t see a single crash. People assured us they happen, oh yes. But I didn’t see any.  

The spice market in Old Delhi was packed, shoulder to shoulder, with people and rickshaws.

Instead, I watched how no one hesitated. Someone would step out into a street teeming with movement and steadily cross it, ignoring the tuk tuk speeding toward them and the rickshaw clipping their heels. If it really appeared as though they might collide, the person or vehicle might adjust course, but never stop or second-guess.

This immediate embrace of life, and intention to live it now, without hesitation, is something I continue to think about.

We jumped straight into the fast pace on our first day when we visited a Jain temple and bird hospital, a Hindu temple, Jama Masjid (the biggest mosque in India), two NGOs in Old Delhi serving children and women, and lunch at an Old Delhi eatery. There was so much to take in as our rickshaw drivers wove through the packed streets: food stands with sizzling paranthas, colorful fabrics draped on storefronts, wandering dogs, monkeys swinging across power lines, people talking on steps.

Everywhere we went in both countries, there were things growing – potted plants outside doorways, vines planted in pots to climb up overpass pillars, trees filling medians. No matter the socioeconomic level of the area – in India’s Old Delhi, Agra, Amritsar, Chandigarh  and through Nepal in Kathmandu, Chitwan, and Pokhara – there were plants being tended there.

It wasn’t until we were nearing the end of our time in Nepal that I realized what the attention to plants in these two countries demonstrates: care for life.

Nepal, particularly Chitwan National Park, was quite a contrast to India. While the constant movement of India is how it breathes, Nepal seems to have more moments of stillness punctuating each day.

Our first full day in Kathmandu, we visited Swayambhunath, or the Monkey Temple. Sitting on the top of the mountain, it is a white Buddhist stupa with a gold point, and prayer flags flying above, standing out against the bright blue sky.

Principians who were on campus this semester may remember Nicky Chhetry and
Bhagwati Pun, two Nepali women who visited us for a month before our trip.  Reuniting with them in Pokhara was bittersweet, because we had just learned that we were returning home early and wouldn’t be trekking with them. But Nicky, Bhagwati, and everyone else who welcomed us in Nepal embodied the embrace of life, hospitality, and openness that I’d been observing in India.

We were each gifted a traditional Nepali scarf when we arrived and when we left. And our two days in Pokhara were filled with views of the Himalayas, learning to make momos (a kind of steamed dumpling), and visiting with Empowering Women of Nepal, an NGO founded by Nicky and her two sisters, Dicky, and Lucky.

Out of everything I expected when I applied to the Nepal and India Abroad, staying in a jungle and seeing a rhino, 15 feet away, was certainly not included. But while I had anticipated some of our other experiences, like visiting an Indian spice market, the Taj Mahal, the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), the Attari-Wagah Border Ceremony, or Swayambhunath (The Monkey Temple), I had no idea of what I would learn and how I would carry those experiences forward.

People packed a stadium to witness the daily border ceremony between Attari, India and Wagah, Pakistan; the body language between the Pakistani and Indian guards can say a great deal about the tension level between the two countries.

We spent almost four weeks in India and Nepal, but the impact on me was as though I had been there for several months.

The abroad group traveled to the top of a mountain in Pokhara, Nepal one morning and spent the sunrise there, looking at the Himalayas.

From the peaceful, natural cycle of Chitwan National Park, to the constant chaos of Old Delhi, to the humbling stateliness of the Himalayas, to the serenity of various temples, we observed landscapes, religion and people – and witnessed values practiced and manifested in different ways.

The sound of Om mani padme hum, a Buddhist mantra, filled the air outside of this stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.
 In Amritsar, India, to enter the Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib, the holiest Sikh Gurudwara, people must remove their shoes and walk through water to clean their feet.

Conducting interviews in India and Nepal for our individual research topics and for our group storytelling projects opened us to a wide spectrum of lives in both countries. In India, we interviewed a young man who started an NGO to support street children, an elderly man who was in his 20s at the time of Partition, and survivors of acid attacks.

When we observe external things, we often apply knowledge and empathy separately. But I began to experience the two combining. As I listened to these people’s stories, my ability to process experiences so different from my own began to improve and my understanding deepened.  

 One of our last outings in our curtailed Nepal stay was to the Chanti Stupa, a peace pagoda on top of a mountain at the edge of Phewa Lake, overlooking Pokhara. There are signs as you approach the stupa that ask guests to be silent, and that contributed to an atmosphere of peace and clarity.

As I stood there, looking over the lake and valley, at the Himalayas on the other side, it was hard to imagine any kind of panic, let alone pandemic, spreading below. It’s still strange to me that, from up there, the world could appear so peaceful and yet be experiencing the current confusion and fear.

I’m grateful for the calm I found in so many places – from the eyes of the rhino to the view from the peace pagoda.

Nepal, we have much more to learn from you, and many members of the 2020 Nepal and India abroad are already planning to finish our trip.

The sun rises over the Himalayas, seen from Pokhara, Nepal

Image courtesy of Sophie Hills