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Peace Out, America

It is a weird, uncomfortable experience to nurture a deep appreciation for nature and eastern philosophy in a time when pop culture tells us we should get back to nature. “Try Yoga,” they say. “It will revitalize your spirit. Eat probiotics, your body is a temple. Listen to guided meditations on YouTube, they will reduce the stresses of Western society.”

I don’t have my chakras aligned, my yogurt is sinfully free of beneficial microbes and I have yet to follow the advice of any mindfulness gurus.

But I have a tip for you. If you want passersby to assume you do all of the above, just tell them you are studying abroad in Nepal. It doesn’t get more hipster than that. Maybe I am overthinking it (I’m not), but when I tell relatives and acquaintances where I’m going, they frequently get this amused look in their eyes, or a hastily masked smile on their faces. No one says it out loud, of course, but the thoughts behind the façade are clear:

Bet he does yoga, too.

Look: I love trees. I have hiking gear. I bailed on school for a bit to spend 12 weeks camping around the country visiting national parks. I love reading books like “The Quantum and the Lotus” on the intersections between theoretical physics and Buddhist philosophy. I have a very surfer-dude approach to life. If that makes me a hipster in your eyes, so be it. But, in my eyes, it’s just … well … me.

That’s the funny thing about prepping for Nepal — anticipating what awaits me hasn’t been stressful. The stressful part has been the pop culture stereotypes that I can’t wait to leave behind.

There is a reason I go to the University of Maine. People here do not care what you do, as long as you’re not a detriment to yourself or others. When I tell UMaine folks where I’m going, the only look I’ve gotten was genuine excitement on my behalf. I really appreciate that.

I am going to Nepal for two reasons. The first is to learn more about Tibet, the focus of my program. Tibetan monks used to visit my high school every few years. You knew they had arrived from the swarm of excited people clustered outside the cafeteria, watching them work all day on a vibrant, colorful sand mandala. During class, I would “go to the bathroom” on the other side of the school, to watch from a distance without the crowds. They were so … still. So patient. And it blew my little mind that, every year when they completed the mandala, they would unceremoniously (but in reality, quite ceremoniously) dump it in the nearest river. I know now that this act represents the impermanence of all phenomena. These memories are the foundation on which my respect for Tibetan culture has grown, a culture about which I still know very little.

The second reason I am going there is to conduct a month-long scientific research project on climate change. I hope to establish a professional network among non-governmental organization leaders and government appointees both in and outside Kathmandu. Climate change is really complicated, and addressing it, above all else, requires collaboration. That’s why I want as many peers as possible in the Himalayas, where the effects of non-coastal climate change are exacerbated as you gain altitude.

The idea of leaving for Nepal is surreal. A part of me doesn’t believe that signing paperwork and paying my tuition to the study abroad program instead of UMaine is all I had to do to spend three months in the Himalayas. But here I go.

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