Book review: ‘The Two-Year Mountain: A Nepal Journey,’ by Phil Deutschle
Special to the Daily
More than 50 years ago, President Kennedy inaugurated the Peace Corps program, in the hope of encouraging Americans to serve overseas at the height of the Cold War in a new kind of army, one committed to service and to reaching beyond America’s borders, helping others to learn to help themselves. Young people stepped forward, eager to experience the far reaches of the world, some for idealistic and philanthropic reasons and others merely for the opportunity to travel on the cheap.
Author Phil Deutschle was motivated by a sense of altruism and a determination to live a life of meaning and purpose, all while adventuring and exploring a distant part of the world. He documents his experiences as a young man in the late 1970s in his recently reissued travel narrative, “The Two-Year Mountain: A Nepal Journey.” It is an eye-opening account of the challenges of volunteering in a remote village in the far reaches of Nepal, in the deep shadows of the looming Himalayas.
The major component of his Peace Corps assignment was teaching in the Nepali language, which meant that first he had to participate in a brief but intensive language training session. In the process of his training, Deutschle observes for the first time the challenges that loom before him. In many of the rural villages of Nepal, no English is spoken, and it is there he will be expected to assimilate and bring his math and science skills to the young people, all in a language he’s had only three weeks to perfect.
He quickly feels overwhelmed and he is convinced that he will never be able to complete the two years for which he has committed himself. Making matters worse, he spends the greater part of his first year pining for his girlfriend back home, resistant to the possibility that it is these lamentations over distant loved ones that keeps him from fully engaging with the experience. Culture shock is a daily assault, as he struggles to come to terms with the food and the living conditions, which are very alien to his Western sensibilities.
These shocks to the system make him sick, and dysentery becomes a constant problem, contributing to the nagging doubts that continue to haunt him throughout his stay. But in spite of the setbacks, he eventually begins to embrace the experience. Accepting the fact that he has as much to learn from his students and the village as they do from him goes a long way in moving him along the path to growth and to gaining confidence in his abilities as a teacher and as an individual who has a lot to offer his hosts.
Deutschle weaves in a parallel story of adventure and high-Himalaya mountaineering, for very few people can resist being so close to those giants without tackling even their most benign routes. His climbs, most of which he chooses to do solo, serve as a catalyst for his eventual acceptance of his role as a teacher and friend to his assigned village, and it is while alone on the hazardous flanks of the mountains that he comes to terms with the changes that will inevitably greet him when he returns to the United States. His lightbulb moment comes when he has a close call on a dangerous descent, where is becomes clear that he overextended himself.
“Every moment of life — not just every two years of life — I must create myself for the next moment.” Life lessons can come in any form and at any moment, and for Deutschle, the real value of those two years of teaching and living in that small Nepali village becomes most apparent when he returns more than 30 years later and is overwhelmed by the emotions and the sense of connection he feels to the people he left behind.
“The Two Year Mountain” is a fine example of the need to be present in every moment of life. Kudos to Deutschle for his time served and for sharing his talents with those young students so many years ago. Many have gone on to be teachers themselves, a reminder that the simplest acts can change lives. Deutschle took Kennedy’s ideals for the Peace Corps to heart and became “less of an American and more a citizen of the world,” which is a worthy goal, indeed.
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