On my recent bus ride from Dang District to Kathmandu, I noticed two teenagers, eating several packages of potato chips. As I dozed throughout the bus ride I noticed that the packaging always seemed to disappear, but it wasn’t on the floor and I don’t think that it had been eaten. I tried to watch until I saw the packaging being thrown out the window, but I never quite got to that point in order to engage the teens in conversation about what they were doing and why.
I was reminded of my three years in India and New Delhi, where littering was quite common place, even in hill stations such as Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh, where I spent a few weeks on different occasions. I remember a number of times in which I spoke to people about littering and sometimes I was laughed at and people would throw things directly in front of me. But most of the time people would apologize to me, although I’m not quite sure why. I do remember the time when I was walking down the steps of the Delhi metro and the person in front of me threw a box over his shoulder. I very quietly picked up the box, caught up to the gentleman and handed it to him. He smiled almost apologetically, took the box and threw it away. I also made it a point to get all of the participants in the many capacity building workshops that I facilitated to make a pledge not to litter and to also engage their family and friends.
At times I thought how can I, a foreigner, have more respect for the public streets than those who are citizens? I constantly found myself saying to people, “but this is your country and how can you do this”? I know that I grew up in a society that prioritized keeping things clean. That is not to say that the US is a perfectly clean place, but on the whole garbage is not strewn wherever one wants, especially given that one can be fined and possibly serve jail time for this type of behavior. I remember once when I was driving in Connecticut and some young men in the car in front of me threw some Styrofoam cups directly in my path. I noticed them laughing as they did this. I wrote down the license plate and forwarded it to the local police, who contacted the owner of the car. I soon received an apology from the culprits and I wouldn’t be surprised if they also had to do some community service.
Before my bus reached Kathmandu I decided to talk to the teens and in my very direct way asked them why they threw the potato chip bags out the window and there literally was no explanation. The teens were a brother and sister and the young woman apologized to me and said I won’t do it again. I encouraged her to talk to her friends as well. We ended up having a nice conversation and exchanged some small gifts.
Born and raised in the US and now having spent almost four years in India and Nepal, which I’m thoroughly happy about, I do notice the many differences. In some sense it is very difficult for me to understand why people would throw their garbage into the public arena. I almost asked the two teenagers what they would think if a busload of people threw all of their garbage into the teen’s parent’s front yard, but fortunately I thought better of this. Of course, as anybody would , they would be aghast if someone did this on private property.
But this begs the question as to why people don’t take more responsibility for the public arena? Maybe a formal garbage pick-up would help the situation, but somehow I can’t really imagine this given the huge issues facing this country. Maybe it is also more of an urban kind of thinking, as I have noticed that in the villages that I’ve been able to visit, they are fairly clean. People definitely kept their homes clean and spent a lot of time sweeping. Although on this same Dang trip and in a visit to a village, I bought some candy for a few children and they immediately threw the wrappers on the ground, but after some prodding did throw this into a dust bin which, when asked, the shop keeper provided.
In many ways this all comes down to a mindset, i.e. how do we treat our country, i.e. the public arena? Far too often I hear people saying to me, “my dream is to go to America”. I also often heard this statement in India. My response is, “ yes you might go and get an education, learn some other types of thinking, but come back and build your country”. My fear is that all too often once people leave, they won’t come back. But I also recently met a young man who told me about getting his PhD. at Brown University inn the US and that his wife to be was being educated at Harvard. He said that he and his wife might work in the US for a few years but then they would hopefully come back.
But it doesn’t take going to school in the west to change how we treat the public areas in Nepal. All it takes is one person saying I won’t throw my garbage out the window of a bus, and I will also talk to my friends and family. Maybe I don’t really understand, but my hope is that, things will change and as I travel none of us will have to look at potato chip bags spread over the landscape.