REVIEW OF A BALCONY IN NEPAL: GLIMPSES OF A HIMALAYAN VILLAGE
Sally Wendkos Olds, Art by Margaret Roche
[Published in the Himalayan News, The Newsletter of the International Mountain Explorers Connection—formerly the Himalayan Explorers Connection, March 2003, Issue 19]
Many of us first went to the Himalayas because of the mountains—then returned time after time because the people and the culture touched us in an unexpectedly transforming way. We returned from our trips to well-meaning friends who insistently urged us to “Tell us ALL about your trip”—and we were struck speechless. Fortunately, two remarkable women have captured in words and drawings this experience of transformation while at the same time giving us an intimate, detailed picture of life in a small Himalayan village.
A Balcony in Nepal by Sally Wendkos Olds with art by Margaret Roche is an engrossing book on several levels: Anyone interested in the people of Nepal will find intimate details of village life rarely captured in words or images; anyone who has been changed by their experiences in the Himalayas will find a description of transformation that is movingly familiar because of the candor of Olds and Roche.
The spiritual odyssey captured here began in 1987 when Sally Olds and her husband, Mark, trekked with Peter Owens and his staff near the Annapurna range. Her last journal entry from that trip was “Sometime, somehow, I know I’ll come back.” Four years later, Sally and Mark were again trekking with Owens and many of the same staff, this time near the Everest range. At the end of that trip she was sharply aware that her old self had become a new self, but she wondered just who this new self was and how much the changes were due to the people of Nepal. Within a decade she returned four more times seeking answers to these questions. Fortunately an extraordinary synergistic encounter had occurred: A mutual friend put Sally in touch with Marge Roche, an artist whose love of Nepal had taken her there many times. As they shared experiences about Nepal through letters, Marge proposed that they travel there together and spend time in a small village. They recorded their growing understanding in words, journal excerpts, and drawing during not one but four visits to Badel, a small Rai hill village three days walk from the closest airstrip.
The “pilgrimage” to Badel was arranged by Owens, and their chief guide was Buddi, a bright young college graduate who speaks excellent English, and they lived during their visits with the family of another guide. During their stays, they were welcomed as family members, as grandmothers, and had opportunities for rare glimpses into village life. Some of these experiences involved everyday with village women, visits to schools, and a description of helping to create the first library in the village. Others were as unusual as the blessing of a new house by a shaman, death rituals, spending time with a midwife, and joining the celebration of Dasain, the largest Hindu festival in Nepal. The details Sally and Marge recorded are an exceptional picture of a side of Nepali life very few Westerners ever see.
One of the greatest strengths of these glimpses is not just the details but also the responses they elicited in Sally and Marge. Many visitors to Nepal assume they understand what they see and superimpose Western cultural values on things that are unfamiliar to them. Other visitors in Nepal become disoriented because they realize that they have absolutely no frame of reference for what they are seeing. In A Balcony in Nepal the details observed are always balanced by Sally and Marge’s candid self-explorations of their understanding—or lack of it—of what they experience. Their pilgrimage led them to the understanding that the word primitive applied to such villages refers only to things like electricity and highways, for they find Badel “more civilized than any other spot on earth that we know of in terms of human values.” They come to understand the subtleties of why Nepali languages lack a word for “thank you.” And we too can be changed by their pilgrimage.
Editor of the “Beginning Buddhist Practice” book series for Tricycle magazine
and author of three Beginner’s Guides to various aspects of Buddhism
WHAT PEOPLE SAY ABOUT A BALCONY IN NEPAL
“Whether you explore the world in hiking boots or a comfortable chair, A Balcony in Nepal is the perfect companion. Wonderfully written, smartly illustrated, the book discovers a universe in one small village. This is a book for the mind and the heart.” —Susan Isaacs, Author of Compromising Positions and other bestselling novels
“Sally Olds and Marge Roche became part of the vibrant, exotic, and difficult life of a rural Nepalese village. They observe the life and the poignant dramas of Badel villagers and, as participants themselves, interweave their own western-based hopes and fears. This poetically-written and beautifully illustrated tale of East-meets-West raises many issues of deep personal meaning.” —Broughton Coburn, Bestselling Author of Everest: Mountain Without Mercy and other books about Nepal
“A wonderful account from two American women who trekked through the Himalayas to a remote mountain village, shared the primitive life of village women and their families and became adopted grandmothers.” —Evelyn Kaye, Author of Active Woman Vacation Guide and other books about unusual travel and women travelers
“A rare and intimate glimpse into the lives of the Rai people in a small village in Nepal. The words and art of Sally Olds and Marge Roche are filled with respect and affection. By frankly relating how their experiences in this village affect them personally, they take us with them on their journey.” —Jean Smith, Author of three “Beginner’s Guides” to various aspects of Buddhism
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