Up from the rubble

Three Nepalese men circling the globe on bicycles share their thoughts about the environment, world peace - and Israel.

August 3, 2017 14:55
Nirmal Baral, Anish Dhakel and Dilip Chhetri

From left: Nirmal Baral, Anish Dhakel and Dilip Chhetri arrive by bicycle at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station last week.. (photo credit: YAKIR FELDMAN)

A devastating earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck Nepal in April 2015. On one of the blackest days in that nation’s history, the quake and aftershocks killed nearly 10,000 people and injured more than 22,000 – razing entire villages and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

While much was destroyed by the quake, something was also created – a resolve among three friends to cycle across countries and continents to advocate awareness of social and environmental issues.

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On December 30, 2016, environmental activist Anish Dhakal, then 21, and social workers Dilip Chhetri, 21, and Nirmal Baral, 38, began pedaling from their hometown in Nepal to launch their “World Bicycle Tour for Environmental Protection and World Peace.”
Their goal: to infuse their lives with meaning by meeting people around the globe and encouraging them to “contribute to the welfare of their fellow human beings and Mother Earth.”

Eight months into their five-year mission to boldly go and interact with people in more than 100 countries, the three friends have so far covered more than 15,000 kilometers, promoting care for our planet’s fragile environment across India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and South Korea.

They arrived in Israel from South Korea on Monday, July 17, and their itinerary in the Holy Land includes Jerusalem, Haifa, Tiberias, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and Eilat.

In the spirit of Marshall McLuhan’s iconic adage that “the medium is the message,” the trio stresses that their mode of transportation is part of their message.

Dhakal, the best English-speaker of the three, did most of the talking during our interview.

“We chose to cycle because it is both healthy and eco-friendly. Instead of burning fuel, it burns our fat.
Bicycling helps to promote the environment and one’s health at the same time.

“Environmental degradation has become a big issue for our planet. The environment is like a vital body organ.
If we can save our environment, we can preserve our dignity as human beings. We have been enormously greedy, taking everything from the planet and giving nothing back.

“Luckily, it is not too late. The planet is still strong and thriving, so we should make every effort to protect our home from human recklessness and save it for the generations to come.”

How can you afford to take five years out of your lives to do this? Don’t you think about earning money, advancing in your careers, buying a home, having a family? Nirmal is married with two children – how do his wife and kids feel about what he is doing?

We are doing what is important to us. Had there been no earthquake, we probably would have continued advancing in our careers. But after witnessing and experiencing what we did, we felt that we should contribute in some way to the welfare of human beings and Mother Earth so as to make our lives meaningful.
We felt that it is important to set aside some time in our lives to reach out to others. Nirmal’s wife and kids support his goals in this journey, and don’t worry – they are not starving; they have enough income for their needs.

You guys are not naïve; you realize that people already know that the environment and peace are important. How do you think your message is different? How can you get people to change their behavior in a meaningful way?

Although peace and the environment are universal values that nearly everyone will readily give lip service to, there is a gap between what people say and what they do. Beyond the grand vision of environmental mindfulness, we encourage people to take on specific achievable goals, such as reducing their carbon footprint by recycling; avoiding disposable plastics; eating less meat; driving private polluting vehicles less by biking and walking and taking public transportation – things like that. We find many listeners to be responsive, particularly among the youth. In addition to meeting with individuals and talking at schools, we try to get our message out in each country’s media.

Is there something special about Israel to you? What are some of your impressions about our country and our people?

There are definitely differences from country to country. We find Israelis to be particularly friendly and quick to smile. We wanted to make sure to come here for several reasons. One is that Nepal has the highest point on Earth – Mount Everest – and we want also to experience the lowest point on Earth – the Dead Sea.

But beyond that, Israel is very highly regarded by the Nepalese. We admire your spirit and your inventiveness – particularly in the fields of water treatment and agriculture. My father told me to make sure I visit examples of both. And it is important to me to add that the Nepalese are very grateful to Israel for the friendship, love and assistance you provided by coming to help us cope at our moment of most urgent need, in the aftermath of the earthquake.

We mentioned the environment. Can we talk about your other goal, to promote peace? Israelis often feel that we have been trying to make peace with our neighbors for decades, but that our overtures are too often met with violence, incitement and inflexibilty/unwillingness to compromise. What do you recommend to the two sides?

People are not born hating other people, so education eventually will have to be part of the answer. Israel has managed to make peace with Egypt and Jordan, two strong former enemies, so perhaps there is hope for reconciliation with the remaining hostile parties. Israel is a tiny nation in a difficult region with many powerful and belligerent adversaries, so peace will not come easily. There is no guarantee of success, but I think Israel is doing the best it can and I would recommend that Israel continue on its path, always trying to reach out to others.

Did you have any funny or scary or memorable moments in your travels?

Every day is an adventure. I [Dhakal] was hit by a bus in India, but luckily suffered only minor injuries. There have been times when we have been extremely hungry and thirsty in isolated places with all of our provisions and our last drop of water gone; we have had to cope with extreme heat and cold; we have scaled steep uphills so overwhelming that we weren’t sure we could make it. Last week I had tonsillitis, and we have no medical insurance.

The funniest moments were probably related to communication – trying to express ourselves to people with whom we had no common language. Sometimes our hand signals were interpreted in wildly different ways than we had intended. We are not sponsored; luckily, we have countrymen in every country we visit who treat us like extended family. I would like to express profound thanks to the Non-Resident Nepali Association and to the Israeli people and government for the warmth, friendship and generosity that they have demonstrated to us and to our country.

WILL DHAKAL, Chhetri and Baral succeed in their mission to help protect the environment and nudge the planet closer to world peace? They have four more years to work toward that achieving that goal. Meanwhile, they may take encouragement from a traditional and inspirational Nepalese adage that is mirrored in Pirke Avot, attributed to Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”

We bid the trio Godspeed.

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