It was in the small Tarai town of Thakurdwara near Bardia National Park, that I began realizing I had arrived in a unique country. It happened through football.
During my nine-month cycling journey across Europe and Asia, I had played football in a dozen countries. Traveling taught me that music, food, and sports are universal languages. They let me connect in a meaningful way with local people whose languages I didn’t speak.
Therefore I was quite excited when a group of young men and children invited me to play with them at the end of my third day in Nepal. The football field lay at the edge of the jungle, the sun was setting, and the scattered golden and orange light created a perfect theatre.
We started playing and from the beginning something struck me: in this game, nobody touched the ball more than five times and everyone – no matter age or skill – was involved. Scoring didn’t matter and, most peculiar of all, the team’s possession of the ball was paramount. In every country I had traveled through so far, games had been the same: players with no eye for teammates had dribbled straight towards the goal, lost the ball halfway, and stopped moving.
But Nepal was different. I saw proper position and pressure play, collective effort. In other words, genuine teams were playing, not merely a bunch of individuals… and it was truly beautiful. Later, I spent the evening with several of these players. We smoked sheesha and drank rice beer and they sang Nepali songs to the strumming of a guitar. I began to notice how important community ties were here. Gestures of affection between these young men suggested to me that they mattered to each other.
This unexpected and welcoming introduction would mark the beginning of a three month stay in which I would cycle up and down Nepal. Before arriving, I hadn’t planned on using all three months my visa granted me. However, during those early days an intangible calmness took over. “I really like it here; this place has something,” I said to myself while pedaling somewhere between Bardia and Pokhara.
The feeling, comparable to taking a warm bath after a long day of work in cold weather, stayed. For the first time, a specific sensation remained with me throughout my travels in one and the same country. The calm I first felt in Bardia was there whether I was walking the crowded, dusty streets of Kathmandu Valley, or living on a family farm in a small forest village next to the Arun River. Wherever I went, I felt at ease. Throughout my travels, I had found that no matter how nice a place is, after a while the urge to discover new places and cultures trumps the wish to settle. In Nepal, though, I felt I could spend a good amount of time, more than in any country so far.
I was advised by a Tibetan monk not to think too much about this feeling, but I could not restrain myself. So I thought, and I concluded that Nepal provided a strong confirmation of a few discoveries I had made along my journey. For one, I had learned during my 14,000km bicycle ride that despite the omnipresence of human beings, beautiful nature remains that we can and must fight for. On my journey I saw the pine and oak forests of the Balkans, the clear lakes and beaches of Greece, the Caucasian mountains of Georgia, the desert oases of Iran – some hardly directly touched by humankind – all important homes for many beings, and all being watched over and taken care of. In Nepal I found nature again, in the form of wild rivers, lush jungle, grasslands, densely forested foothills, and the towering snowcapped himals themselves. Especially the presence of the latter moved me deeply.
Nepal also provided confirmation of the fact, witnessed throughout my travels, that nine out of every ten people are sincere, generous, kind, friendly, and helpful. And that what keeps us from positive change is not who we are as peoples but rather a power-hungry system responsible for causing turmoil, polarization, and corruption.
I sensed a growing movement of people across borders who are fed up both with corrupt governments and with the dominant capitalist system that thinks that people, animals, forests, and mountains are merely resources to be exploited and used for profit and growth. People want change, whether it’s in Nepal, Iran, Turkey or Bosnia, and they are showing it publicly. Look at the recent Nepali elections where a third of the elected politicians didn’t belong to one of the traditional political parties. This, surely, is a sign that Nepal is a part of this worldwide movement.
People I met across Europe and Central Asia not only want change, but are actively working for it. Often collectively in communities, they are seeking solutions for challenges like climate change, deforestation, pollution and soil depletion, working on creating an agriculture more in balance with nature and the environment, on the full participation of the disabled, and so much more. People not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk.
A lot of the countries I traveled through have the opportunity to quickly take not one but two steps into a sustainable future. Countries like Nepal, India, and Pakistan – where a great part of the future infrastructure of roads, schools, hospitals, government buildings and electrical grid have yet to be built – have no or almost no fossil legacy. They can build from scratch self-reliant, sustainable and well-designed cities and villages, for instance with electrical transportation powered by locally and collectively owned fields of solar panels, wind turbines, or other renewable energy sources.
Of course, my travels also showed me degrading poverty, the hopelessness of complete generations as a result of a lack of livelihoods, extreme and harmful pollution. No, I am not blind, nor naive.
Nevertheless, what I saw during my travels increased my optimism and hope for a more harmonious planet. Especially in the case of Nepal and the Nepalese. That is, as long as you are able and willing to play together like the children and youngsters from Thakurdwara, then I believe things can change quickly for the better, and in a big way.