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Reflections from Nepal: On elephants, religious studies, and human nature
May 19th, 2023 | SIT Study Abroad
Jashua Jacoves studied abroad on SIT Nepal: Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples in fall 2022. This story was originally published on the blog of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. It is reprinted here with permission.
A half a world away from the urban landscape of Hartford, Trinity College student Joshua Jacoves ’23 spent the fall 2022 semester in the mountains, jungles, and farms of Nepal, learning the Tibetan language and studying elephant tourism.
Jacoves—an anthropology major from Tinton Falls, New Jersey, with minors in community action, Jewish studies, and religious studies—didn’t know a word of Tibetan before choosing to embark on the experience through Trinity’s Office of Study Away.
He learned about School for International Training’s Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples program in Nepal, which includes three months of classroom instructions and one month of research, while he was looking into social science field schools. “I knew Nepal had Mt. Everest and the Himalayan Mountains, but other than that, I didn’t know much. It sounded like a cool place that probably would be hard to explore for four months at any other time in my life,” said Jacoves. “Plus, I like cold weather.”
Jacoves shared memories of his time in Nepal:
Where did you stay during your semester in the Nepal program?
For the main portion I was staying in Kathmandu with a Tibetan host family that was also Nepali. I had a host grandmother, mother, sister, and brother. The brother and sister both spoke English and Tibetan fluently. I had to learn some Tibetan really fast, and I’m trying to keep learning the language now that I’m back at Trinity.
I lived in the Boudha area, near the gorgeous Buddhist monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Bouddha Stupa.
I lived in the Boudha area, near the gorgeous Buddhist monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Bouddha Stupa. I also spent two weeks in Ladakh, India, right by the Chinese border, and two weeks in a northern region of Nepal by Langtang National Park. In the final month, I did an independent study on elephant tourism in Sauraha, a small jungle village in Nepal, where I lived alone in a bungalow and worked with elephants in Chitwan National Park.
What kind of research did you do with the elephants?
I decided to study elephant tourism because I felt it was an extremely understudied area. In recent years, news headlines have mentioned potential animal rights violations and were placing the blame on the trainers. I went to study if this was actually the case, and found it to be an extremely complicated issue that the news has poorly written about, which was the point of the paper I wrote following the project. Elephant tourism in general is the main selling point for Chitwan National Park in Nepal, and while there is some awareness there about animal rights concerns, the main sense is that it is just another vehicle for the local economy, in the same way owning a Jeep for safari tours is.
I was studying the tourism industry through the people who work in the industry and through the elephants themselves.
I studied interactions between elephants, their trainers, and the network that allows elephant tourism to happen. In Nepal, elephants are either government-owned, wild, or owned privately for tourism. I was studying the tourism industry through the people who work in the industry and through the elephants themselves. It was kind of a multi-species ethnography project. I spent every other day for a month at different elephant camps, working with their owners and trainers, walking in the jungle with the elephants, and helping them get food, which takes up about 40 percent of their day.
What classes did you take?
There were 14 Americans, one South African student, and two local Nepali students in my program. For the first three months, we had a program center in Kathmandu. Half the day was Tibetan instruction, followed by classes with teachers and guest lecturers. We learned about religion in the area; since Nepal is sandwiched between India and China, we were looking at Buddhism, Hinduism, and the indigenous system Bön. Another class was in geopolitics, talking about Tibetan exiles and about Nepal being in between two superpowers. There was also a general research methods course.
Where else did you go on excursions?
We stayed in the Changtang Valley, a nomadic yak-herding region in Ladakh, at about 18,000 feet elevation. We spent a week with yak herders, up in the mountains, where we could see the Karakoram mountain range and K2, which was incredible. We crossed one of the highest motorable roads in the world, zig-zagging up these Himalayan peaks in a little Jeep.
With climate change and the high elevation, the Himalayas warm at about three times as fast as the rest of the world, so they’re facing some serious water issues.
We spent a lot of time looking at climate change in the region, where all the water is glacial-fed. With climate change and the high elevation, the Himalayas warm at about three times as fast as the rest of the world, so they’re facing some serious water issues. We visited three different villages looking at how tourism influences how the villages are set up, and we looked at the recovery from the 2015 earthquake.
What was a typical day like for you?
In Kathmandu, I’d be woken up at 6 a.m. either by the monks chanting at the monastery across the street or by the goats at the apartment next door. I didn’t need an alarm clock. After breakfast with the host family, I’d walk around the Bouddha Stupa three times in observance of the Buddhist ritual. I spent enough time there to form relationships with local shopowners around the stupa, so I could get a cup of tea and they’d practice their English while I’d practice my Tibetan. At the program center, I’d have classes, then in the afternoon get coffee with friends, do some homework, or help my host family brother study for his school exams, which were in English.
Every other day, I headed out on the back of a motorcycle to one of the elephant camps I was working with. I made food for the elephants with the trainers, and we’d take the elephants out to the jungle and help them get some food by chopping trees if they needed.
When living in the jungle village, I found this little shop that sold the Indian version of corn flakes and could sit on the porch during breakfast. Every other day, I headed out on the back of a motorcycle to one of the elephant camps I was working with. I made food for the elephants with the trainers, and we’d take the elephants out to the jungle and help them get some food by chopping trees if they needed. In the afternoon, I could help out the neighbors who were beekeepers and farmers, and then make dinner and eat with them.
What were some of your favorite memories or experiences?
People ask me mostly about the elephants, but really the most impactful part and what I miss the most is living with the host family. When I needed a haircut, my 9-year-old host brother brought me to get a haircut where he got his cut. I had to completely trust him to tell the barber what I wanted, and afterwards I took him to buy bubble tea. I love to cook, so I spent a lot of time learning Tibetan or Nepali recipes through my host family. I still keep in touch with them. And I’m a big hiker—I do Quest here at Trinity—so being able to climb a Himalayan mountain was a highlight. The mountain we summited, Ama Yangri in Nepal [pictured in the photo at the top of this page], wasn’t technical, just a trekking climb.
Was there anything that surprised you?
I learned a lot. I understood how easy it is to get processed or prepared food in the United States, but I didn’t realize the extent of that until I got to Nepal. I think that was the thing that shocked all Americans. The other thing I picked up on was how privileged we are in the United States with our water. If I want to eat an apple at home, I might wipe the wax off and then just eat the apple. In Kathmandu, their tap water isn’t really safe to drink. You had to wash an apple with tap water and soap, rinse it with bottled purified water, let it dry completely, peel it, and then you could eat it. We’re lucky that at home we can go to a sink and get a glass of water.
What did you learn from this semester about yourself and about the world?
My thesis at Trinity is in religious anthropology. Before I went to Nepal, I just assumed I’d do a PhD with research that is religious-focused. Being in Nepal changed that by spending time with people and with the elephants and studying human-wildlife conflict. Now I’m rethinking what I might go to grad school for, which is a good thing. On the personal side, I’ve hiked, camped, and backpacked most of my life, but I know now I have the skills to get dropped off somewhere and figure things out. It’s okay to just show up somewhere; you might butcher the language, but you should still try to use it. Even in places that seem so remote and so far from the lives we know, there’s a lot that’s still the same on the base level. We’re all human at the end of the day.