Cover story: Up and away -- Horizons expand for local teens filming a documentary about their Himalayan peers
In Nepal, the air is thin, the mountainsides frequently unstable, and the yak meat is tough. Very, very tough.
For a group of local teens studying video and film, traveling off the beaten path for a month in Nepal proved an eye-opening and thought-provoking experience.
Not only did the journey illustrate the contrasts between the Bay Area and the remote country in the Himalayas, but in getting to know Nepalese teenagers, they also discovered the similarities.
To prepare for their trip, the 15 teens, led by Menlo-Atherton High School alumni Kenny Meehan and Matt McCroskey, spent the summer studying photography or filmmaking at the Riekes Center in Menlo Park, as well as Nepali culture. They spent the month of July in Nepal, and have been hard at work on a feature length documentary and a companion coffee table book about their adventures. A preview screening of the documentary is tentatively scheduled for next month.
"The heart of the documentary was looking at what life is like for high school kids (here) and then going to a high school deep in Nepal and looking at what life is like for those high school kids," says Mr. Meehan. "And then, there's the whole adventure of getting there, too."
There were no climate-controlled tour buses for these travelers. The group made its way through Nepal's Annapurna region via long treks on foot and by horseback, and was stranded for several days when landslides blocked the route. It was thanks to the good graces of the Nepalese army and their helicopters that the group made it to their next destination.
"As a tourist, it can be really hard to see what it's like for normal people who live in the area, what their everyday lives are like," he says. "We had friends who could open the door to what it was really like to be a Nepali person."
And Nepal seemed the perfect place to take kids out of their comfort zone and turn them into travelers, not tourists.
"I think you learn and grow when you are that much out of your comfort zone. These kids are pretty cool, so it was great to see them lose their cool," says Mr. McCroskey. "I'm sure it's presumptuous of us, but just from what we experienced, we felt we could almost guarantee that if they were willing to keep their eyes open, it would be a life-changing experience."
And that certainly seems to be the case.
Despite the language barrier, it was actually easier to make friends in Nepal that it is at home, says Greg Starling, a Portola Valley resident who is a senior at Summit Prep.
"Kids there are way friendlier," he says. "We just met these kids on the street and they just adored us, and we adored them."
Greg says he was struck by how much easier it was to make friends in Nepal than it is at home — even despite the language barrier. In Kathmandu, a pickup game of soccer or a conversation with someone you meet on the street leads to being invited home for lunch with the family, he says.
At the moment, he's one of a handful of teens working on organizing and editing film shot on the trip in the "video barn," a low-roofed shed tacked on to the end of the labyrinth-like Reikes Center compound in unincorporated Menlo Park. Beyond the sliding pocket door, the sound of young athletes rolling medicine balls, practicing volleyball serves and running drills is a constant clamor.
"American kids are always brainwashed by their parents about murderers and stuff. Don't talk to strangers," says Greg. "I don't know if it's the same in Nepal, but it didn't seem that way. It was like, oh, I'll have lunch with you, I'll take you to my house."
Greg says he enjoyed Nepalese food, despite the tensile strength of yak meat.
"To chew it takes twice as long as it does to chew steak or chicken," he says. "But it had some flavor. I dug the flavor."
He even watched a yak get slaughtered, which gave him an appreciation for how Nepalese people are not removed from the sources of their food, he says.
"They don't go to a butcher shop, and they don't have machines kill them, and then slice and dice it," he says. "They do everything themselves, so I thought it was amazing to see them."
For Sarah Charley, a Menlo-Atherton's senior who lives in Portola Valley, a defining moment of the trip was an excursion to breathtaking Lake Tilicho with a group of Nepali kids. She and five local girls spent the night sharing three narrow beds that they pushed together, Sarah says. In her thermals and sleeping bag, perched on the end of the beds, she says she felt very foreign and very far from home.
"In the middle of the night, I had an arm flop over onto my head," she recounts, laughing and demonstrating. "And at another point in the night, I rolled off the bed, which woke everyone up."
In the morning, she found that the awkwardness she had felt had disappeared.
"We were actually able to sit down and laugh about it," says Sarah. "I didn't think that was possible, just because humor depends a lot on speaking the same language, but we were actually able to sit down and make jokes about it."
Leaning over a computer where she's editing a sequence showing the group's second helicopter trip, this time heading home from the remote village of Manang, Sarah tells the story of the colorful medal she has hanging around her neck.
"Tashi's reincarnated grandfather gave it to me. He gave one to each of us when we went to his monastery," she says matter-of-factly.
Tashi, a Nepalese friend of Mr. Meehan and Mr. McCroskey who came along as a guide, had a grandfather who was a much-respected Buddhist teacher, Lama Gyalpo. The group met Karma Lungtok Tenpe Nima, the young boy who is believed to be the lama's reincarnation, at a monastery in Kathmandu.
"When (Tashi's) grandfather died, I guess a few years later, this little kid kept on recounting memories that weren't his," she says. "I guess they just found out that he was Tashi's reincarnated grandfather, because those were all things that happened to (him). It was really peculiar for me, because it was something so different. I didn't really know whether I believed it, or didn't believe it."
Ultimately, she says, she just accepted that there are unexplained phenomena in the world, and that reincarnation might be one of them.
Looking around the Riekes Center video barn one can see that almost everyone who went on the Nepal trip is wearing one of the medals, along with prayer beads or necklaces they acquired there.
Delan Tai, an M-A senior from Portola Valley, has been putting in long hours working on documentary footage since he returned from the trip.
"This was probably the most intense and view-changing experience of my life," he says. "You know how people would say, 'Traveling is really good and you should spend a semester abroad?' Now that I've come back, I think I'm really starting to understand that it helps you look back on your life. It gives you a really different viewpoint on society's morals."
Comparing his life, full of stress about doing well in school and getting into college, with the lifestyle of the teens he got to know in Manang was eye-opening for Delan.
"They're much simpler, they don't have as much money, and their lifestyles are pretty much like (those of) farmers, but they're also really happy," Delan says. "I think college is important, but I don't think worrying is healthy. Time is a big issue here, and in Manang, they were on what's called Nepali time, which is usually two hours off the mark. It was way more laid back, and it kind of connected me more to ... what's really the point of life, in a way."
Plus, there's nothing like a life-threatening experience or two to make you reconsider your priorities. For Delan, who hastened to add that they were "not that life-threatening," coming across recent landslides and avalanches made him philosophical about his mortality.
And there was also a brush with an electrically charged string of prayer flags during a thunderstorm that shocked his head and set his hair standing on end.
"It was enough to get you excited and to change your view of what you should be fearful about," he says. "Because I definitely have come home now and noticed that my mom or my friends' parents will start freaking out about really little things."
The perils of trekking through a mountainous developing nation like Nepal weren't lost on Mr. Meehan or Mr. McCroskey, either.
"It was like being a parent for 15 kids in a Third World country while trying to direct a film," says Mr. Meehan.
While being able to combine three things that he loves — traveling, filmmaking and teaching kids — was a dream come true, he says the experience was not exactly relaxing. While the students could rest after a long day of hiking, he and Mr. McCroskey had their hands full.
"The whole time they were relaxing and going to sleep, it would be us running around, getting food, making sure people were hydrated, pulling leeches off of people, bandaging swollen ankles, renting horses, renting porters," Mr. Meehan says. "And that's just keeping people safe."
Keeping video equipment running, making sure the documentary was on track, and being stranded by the occasional landslide added to the stress, he says.
"It was definitely a transition into adulthood for us," Mr. Meehan says.
He came away from experience with his own revelations about the difference between American and Nepalese teens.
"The Nepali students bend like grass in the wind," he says. "But if we got behind schedule or had a change in circumstances, for the majority of (our) students, it completely threw their world off."
Mr. Meehan and Mr. McCroskey say they came to Riekes Center to help get the film department established, and they feel they are leaving it in good shape as they embark on the next phase of their lines. With a rough edit of the documentary in hand, the two men are leaving Menlo Park and heading to Los Angeles to pursue their filmmaking careers. They plan to polish up the editing, work with a composer on the soundtrack, and then enter the documentary in film festivals and shop it around to public television stations.
"The editing the kids did was more for them than for the movie," Mr. Meehan says. "It was a good experience and really empowering for them, but they're not a professional crew of editors. Matt and I are going over what they started. It's a little bit better than starting fresh, because it gives Matt and I a different perspective than we would've had."