Travel: Into post-Neolithic Nepal: David Nicholson-Lord observes - and, hopefully, helps to protect - an ancient way of life in the Himalayas

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The Independent Culture
WE ARE about 9,000 feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas and we cannot get warm. This is surprising as we are indoors: about two feet of solid stone separates us from the snow and the rain. But the cold sneaks in through the gap between ear and hat, hoists itself up the trouser leg, steals into the soul. One begins to understand the workings of hypothermia. By mid- afternoon many of us have given up the struggle: we have retired, fully clothed, woolly-hatted and swathed in rugs inside our sleeping bags - positioned on the floor.

This is a holiday. No, wait, let me correct the punctuation: this is a holiday? In fact, it is an Earthwatch project, for which, as the advertisements tell us, tourists need not apply. Are we tourists? We have plenty of time to debate that. We are not sure. But at least talking about it warms us up a bit.

Welcome to the Karnali Institute in the remote Chauda-Bisa valley of north-western Nepal in early spring. There is Jun, from Japan; Julie, from California; Holly, from Illinois; and Spencer, from Omaha, Nebraska. There might have been Ralph and Lucille (Chicago) but they are stuck in Kathmandu with a mystery bug. This may be no bad thing since Ralph and Lucille, who are in their 60s and enjoy life's little comforts, would probably not like it up here. In fact, since Lucille is a well-built lady, has an artificial hip and is not the best of walkers, there is some doubt as to whether she would make it up here. From the airstrip at Jumla it is a 2,000ft, three-hour ascent up narrow, rocky mountain paths. Would she come up by donkey? On the back of a porter? By parachute?

We are, as you may judge, a mixed bunch. Jun is at university and did not think to bring boots: she confronts the mountains in her trainers. Julie and Holly are in their 30s - respectively a charity administrator (and aspiring PhD geographer) and a nurse(and aspiring fiction writer). Spencer is 80. We celebrate his birthday at a hamburger restaurant in Kathmandu, admire his determined progress up the mountain pass (in galoshes), marvel at the supplies of high-fibre breakfast cereal he has brought in his baggage from Nebraska. Spencer tells us that he passed his Earthwatch medical 'with flying colours' but has been doing press-ups just in case. Nevertheless, the descent to Jumla through snow, ice, water and mud, when the project is over, takes him seven and a half hours.

What are we doing here? Well, we are playing cards, singing bits from Hollyood musicals, nuzzling up to the wood-burning clay stove, the house's sole source of heat. Occasionally, we venture out but then the sky darkens and we retreat indoors again. The Himalayas are at the head of the valley but they seldom emerge from the mist. This is our ill-fortune: the bad weather is unseasonal. Soon after I leave, it clears up.

What we are not doing is counting snow leopards or examining the courtship rituals of the sloth bear. The object of our study is another endangered species - the human being, and particularly that sub-species of it found in the Chauda-Bisa valley. Our aim, through 'action research' - questionnaires, teaching, nursing - is to compile an ethnography of the valley, a detailed account of its way of life before it vanishes. By studying this, we may be able to protect it from the outside world - in other words from ourselves.

Since its foundation in 1971, Earthwatch's reputation has been founded more on its work with wildlife and the natural and earth sciences. It was an emphasis which coincided with most people's definition of conservation, and helps to explain the big surge in volunteering since the mid-1980s. It was what being green and 'saving the planet' was all about.

But 1993 is the UN Year of Indigenous Peoples, and Earthwatch has moved with the times. 'Conservation' now includes people - notably native peoples whose homes, culture and livelihoods are being washed away by a tidal wave of tourism and development. While everyone hears about the threat to biodiversity - the extinction of plant and animal species - the less-publicised threat to cultural diversity is equally urgent and far-reaching, according to Earthwatch's annual report. 'The notion of the global village notwithstanding, the planet is still a culturally heterogeneous place - proof of the very adaptability that has made us so successful as a species.'

You can see the global village in Jumla, the small and grubby town at the base of the Chauda-Bisa valley, where it takes the form of a television aerial. This receives Star TV by satellite from Hong Kong. In a place where people defecate on open ground, wash their dishes in street drains and walk several miles for firewood, you can watch soft-porn films. But even satellite TV has failed to intrude on the Chauda-Bisa valley itself. Here, according to Dor Bahadur Bista, the culture is 'just post-Neolithic'. In British terms, this would date it to about 2000 BC.

Professor Bista is probably Nepal's most distinguished anthropologist, and the Karnali Institute is his brainchild. In time, he would like it to evolve into the world's first high-level research institute promoting integrated rural development (IRD). IRD means a happy middle way between opening the gates to the 20th century and freezing the Chauda-Bisa valley

in the New Stone Age. It is another version of sustainable development, the environmentalist's holy grail - progress in well-being, health and education, which preserves local culture and does not destroy the environment.

Through their contributions - pounds 995 for a fortnight (this excludes travel to and from Jumla) - Earthwatch volunteers fund the institute: it receives 45 per cent of what they pay. But Professor Bista says he does not want the volunteers for their money alone. For the people of the valley, he says, they offer 'the best possible educational exposure' to the modern world.

Chauda-Bisa, he explains, is Nepal's 'forgotten valley'. There are 19 villages with a combined population of about 15,000, most of them belonging to the Khas people, which in the Middle Ages controlled one of the largest empires in the Himalayan region, but has since sunk to the bottom of Nepal's complex caste system. To the visiting Westerner, they present a sorry sight, dressed in ragged cotton clothes and thin Chinese tennis shoes, squatting round fires in one-roomed clay huts with no chimneys. Entering their houses is a Dante-esque experience, of smoke and blackness and swaddled babies sleeping invisibly on mud floors. Dysentery, diarrhoea, eye and respiratory infections are common, infant mortality high, survival beyond the age of 60 exceptional. The men never bathe, the women do so only once a month.

Yet crime is virtually unknown, family and community ties are close, the people are cheerful and hospitable and the gods are comfortingly near at hand: small wayside shrines, often with offerings of fruit or the carved and unsmiling image of the local deity, dot the mountain trails. Religious toleration goes hand in hand with a rich fusion of religious belief: shamanism, animism, Tibetan Buddhism. Here, in fact, is the choice facing the valley. Can it retain its social heritage while improving its welfare? If you import Western rates of infant mortality, do you have to import high crime rates and junk culture too?

We do not know the answer, partly because we do not know much about the Khas people. Hence the first task of volunteers, using questionnaires and interpreters, is to compile an account of its culture and lifestyles. Why can't local researchers perform this task? Because, says Professor Bista, Earthwatch brings fresh eyes, a different perspective. The Khas also have a huge inferiority complex about the outside world: like most Nepalis, their attitude to the West is uncritical. Bringing them into contact with Earthwatch volunteers - who are, says Professor Bista, a 'very special kind of people . . . sensitive, concerned' - is a way of introducing them gently to the 20th century.

But there have been more practical results. In the year the project has been running, volunteers have taught lessons at schools, introduced children to washing with soap and water, instructed adults in personal hygiene, designed a secondary school, given lessons in rehydration and baby care. Earthwatch teams have included architects, lawyers, teachers, nurses, microbiologists, clinical psychologists.

Why have we come? Certainly not because of the 'brochure', a sober EarthCorps briefing document which tells us we will have to sleep communally and do our own cooking. It cautions us more generally about dirt, dung, human excreta, rodents, altitude sickness and the distance from shops, restaurants and hospitals. (The warnings seem unnecessarily intimidating: the valley, despite creeping deforestation, is beautiful, and the institute, though unheated, has flush loos, a degree of privacy for sleeping - and a cook.) What Westerners on the project seem to share is a disenchantment with conventional travel, a desire for 'something different', an opportunity to experience, learn and - possibly - help.

Will the Chauda-Bisa valley and the Khas people succumb to Coca-colonisation, following so many aboriginal cultures into extinction? According to human diversity theory, each culture lost is a subtraction from the world's stock of wisdom: some day, like the Madagascan rosy periwinkle - saved from the devastation of the rain forest and now providing drugs to treat leukaemia and Hodgkin's disease - it might have proved valuable.

But whatever the destiny of the valley, Earthwatch seems destined to help shape it, for the next few years at least. It is a race against time - to educate the Khas people in the ways of self-reliance before the tourist lodges and trekkers' tea-houses start to appear.

Back home a month or two later, Holly writes of the 'enriching experience' and Spencer says he will 'never forget Nepal'. As for Ralph and Lucille, who spent their dollars 3,000 ( pounds 2,000) in vain, they have told Earthwatch to keep it: it was, after all, a good cause.-

TRAVEL NOTES

Earthwatch Europe, Belsyre Court, 57 Woodstock Rd, Oxford OX2 6HU (0865 311600). Volunteers pay pounds 995 for a fortnight in the Chauda-Bisa valley, Nepal; a fortnight protecting pangolins in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, near Victoria Falls, is pounds 970; a fortnight tracking dancing birds in the Monteverde cloud forests in Costa Rica, pounds 820; a fortnight logging humpback whales off the Dampier Archipelago, Western Australia, pounds 995.

None of these prices includes transport, but Earthwatch recommends the following travel agents: Wexas International, contact Chris Donohue (071-589 3315), return flights to Kathmandu from pounds 455, and flights on to Jumla around pounds 147 return; STA Travel, contact Graeme Kirk (0865 792800), return flights to Kathmandu around pounds 530, and flights on to Jumla around pounds 147 return.

(Photograph omitted)

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