‘Mountains are where my heart really belongs’Outgoing US Ambassador Randy Berry on his love for Nepal’s nature, culture and food.
In his two terms, first as the deputy chief of mission (2007-2009) and second as the ambassador (2018-2022), US envoy to Nepal Randy W Berry enjoyed many things in this country such as nature, culture, festivals and history. Berry also learned to cook Nepali food and developed a taste for Dal Bhat. Besides his two tenures as a diplomat in Kathmandu, he has some fond memories of his Nepal visits in the late 1980s and 1993. As he concludes his ambassadorial assignment, Jagdishor Panday asked him what image he was carrying home.
When did you first come to Nepal and how did you find Kathmandu, the capital city, and Nepal in general?
I first visited Kathmandu when I was in my twenties. I came as so many Americans and Westerners do—with a backpack and lots of hopes to see spectacular mountains and really interesting cultural structures and practices. I spent a little time here in Kathmandu Valley; I visited Basantapur and Patan Durbar squares, and Pokhara on that very first trip. And I was just amazed, as so many people are. The drawing card is often the view of the mountains but in fact, it’s the people who keep visitors coming back. I’m so thrilled that I’ve had the chance twice in my career to come back and work here. I returned to work here in our embassy in 2007. Of course, I had been watching from afar, and through news reports, the progress and challenges in reaching the comprehensive peace agreement. Then I got the wonderful opportunity to help form US policy and support Nepal’s rebuilding and move forward from civil conflict. So after I returned, in 2007, I spent the next two years supporting democratic institutions for economic growth and to re-energise the people-to-people ties.
If you didn't come then, would you have come to Nepal again?
Yes, so I came one other time also, but just as a tourist. It was my first return visit, because there was something about the architecture and cultural practices here in Nepal that were really interesting. So my first assignment in foreign service for the United States was in Bangladesh. So I had a chance to come up and revisit those places. I came back to Nepal for the second time in 1993. The first time was in the late ’80s or early ’90s right after I finished my education.
What brought you here for the first time?
I am a child of the mountains. I grew up in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado on my family ranch. I’ve always felt that I am a mountain person. When I got out of the university and had another chance to travel a bit, I had a natural gravitation towards the great mountain ranges. And the chance to come here and see the Himalayas in person was too good to pass up. I remember when I was a little boy, I was fascinated with maps and my parents bought me a very outdated globe and a series of flash cards where you could look at a country and its outlines and major cities. Even at 10 years old, I memorised them. Nepal always struck me for a number of reasons. I could not understand, for example, the unusual shape of Nepal's national flag. I thought it was interesting for a country that was landlocked and you know how that reflected its people. It was mainly just the process of curiosity on my part.
What places in Nepal have you visited so far?
At this point, I should maybe give you a list of places that I haven’t visited. I can give you some of my favourite spots. First of all, I got the chance to travel all the way from Humla district down to Bhadrapur (Jhapa) and Ilam. So I’ve been to the Tarai and the hills and the mountains as well. But a couple of places that really impacted me though include the Kathmandu valley itself and the remarkable cultural treasure that you have in its traditional Newar structures; I’m in awe of these magnificent temples and the artistry of the idols in the Valley. I also was really deeply touched in my first visit to Muktinath, which is a highly spiritual place and it was really impactful for me because of what it stands for—peace, coexistence of faiths, and you see it in action there. That was pretty impactful to me. To see all of the innovations and energies down in the area around Banke district and in Nepalgunj opened up a new understanding, as did my time in Janakpur, to look at this tremendous diversity, this patchwork of cultures that make up Nepal. And finally I’d be remiss by not noting the area around Mustang, from Jomsom north to Lo Manthang, which is unique and is such a remarkable cultural treasure for this country.
What is your favourite place in Nepal and what place would you recommend to your colleagues back in the US?
It’d be the place that I have visited most frequently with greatest interest—that is the area around the Baudhha Stupa. Again because I think it is a remarkable piece of history, culture, and faith, wrapped up in one incredible place.
You also visited Rara with your colleagues from other countries. Was that your recommendation or theirs?
Well, it is a collaborative decision that we made. Of course, for my Australian and British colleagues that I went with, we were talking about how similar our country’s view of this critical issue of climate change is. We all have similar approaches, similar conversations with the government and also we were looking at ways we can support Nepal on climate mitigation and ambitions. Because of that similarity, we decided on doing something together to demonstrate that this is a global problem that requires global solutions. Of course, there is also the other part of this—that to see a really pristine, beautiful part of Nepal that few people get a chance to go to, was a rare opportunity. Also what struck me was that kind of pristine beauty—whether it’s in Nepal or my home state of Colorado—is at risk if we don’t get climate change policy correct. For me it was the perfect combination of looking at policy and how we promote and work on a positive policy. But also, of course, get back to the mountains and the higher altitudes, which is where my heart really lies.
You’ve been participating in many of Nepal’s cultural events and festivals—be it Dashain, Tihar or Indra Jatra. What inspires you to do that?
What I have always adored about Nepal is the unique quality of its culture. Through these Jatras, through these observances, one gets an incredible insight into what is important to people and how a culture operates. So, I am eternally curious and I find I am still even today after many years in Nepal, every day I got something new to learn that deepens my understanding. And I really enjoy these Jatras and also the welcoming nature in which outsiders are welcomed to observe and watch these events unfold. There is nothing like it in the world. This is a completely unique ecosystem of cultures and diversity. It's an absolutely remarkable place. But I felt so blessed to be able to witness the ones that you mentioned but also many others—the Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur or the Nava Durga or the Chhath celebrations in Janakpur. If the job of a diplomat is to learn about and understand the place, this is a fundamentally important part.
Your active presence on social media, where you post about your participation in cultural events, has led many to quip that you are the ‘cultural ambassador’ of Nepal. What do you think about that label?
Well, I am honoured and I’d hope that I’d deserve it. One thing I wanted to do with our social media is to share the news and reality of this vibrancy. The key part of Nepal’s economy is tourism and a key part of that sector are tourists from the United States. So my ability to share my experiences here increases interest in Nepal. And I think that as I’ve had a chance to work on this 75-year-old relationship just for my small piece—the power of this really is the understanding between people. So, the more we can do to promote that mutual understanding the better.
In Nepal, there are a wide variety of castes and ethnic groups. How do you observe this diversity, this variety of demographics?
I think, like in my own country, the strength of the people in a diverse society is how it honours and respects the rights of everyone. I think there is great space to be proud of culture, tradition, ethnic and other religious traditions, to really embrace that as an aspect of identity that’s critically important. But I think also in a democratic society, it is important to look at those things which divide us or don't allow that equal participation with a realistic eye. In a diverse society, equal opportunity of citizenship is really important, irrespective of all these other markers of identity.
You have visited all of Nepal’s geographical regions, from the Himalayas and the hills to the Tarai. How do you observe the customs and traditions of the people there?
I think with a great understanding of the enormous diversity of this country, you can go from one valley to the next and be experiencing something that is entirely different in terms of cultural practices and traditions. I think I have been very honoured to not have stopped my knowledge of Nepal with a visit to Kathmandu and Pokhara. I’ve had a chance to visit so many communities that it has really deepened my understanding of just how remarkably diverse this country is. There is beauty in diversity and other relationships are bound by respect to those traditions. I would mention that in a couple of weeks, something that we’ve always done with our United States mission here is we close before Dashain for a cultural event. So, we close our embassy right before Dashain begins. Our locally employed staff spend a lot of time with cultural dress and music, and food and songs to really put together a show which our American staff can experience. What I’ve seen that do with our own people who are new to Nepal is, again, this astonishment of just how diverse these expressions of culture can be.
Can you share any of your recent interesting trekking experiences?
I have not trekked as much as I would like to. But the most recent, I have had a chance to trek a trail I have never seen between Muktinath and Lomanthang. There I was able to see a degree of remoteness that I had not experienced. I love that feeling on the trail. I was very blessed to have some very remarkable guides and people who can explain what you are seeing. But I like that sense of complement together. In this case, I have done the hardest hiking I have ever done. It was more than I thought, I loved that experience. I can remember, in fact, a relatively high mountain pass, a mass of people, fluttering prayer flags, and an aspect of altitude that is incredibly emotional to be in such a place.
Do you enjoy Nepali food? If yes, what are your favourites?
I love it. Dal bhat and momos are a source of power. But I also know how to cook Kukhura ko masu [chicken]. I have had a chance to experience food right from the high mountains. One that is sticking in my mind is going down for a tremendous Biryani in Nepalgunj, and having Lassi in Janakpur. And I have had several opportunities to taste Newari food here in Kathmandu Valley with some very skilled cooks. I feel like I’ve had such an amazing exposure to Nepali food.
I eat Nepali Dal bhat with my hands without using a spoon. First time I had rice and dal was a long time ago, when I made my first visit here.
You have been closely working on the preservation of Nepali cultural sites, isn’t it?
I do a lot of things as an ambassador and one thing I really love the most is the work we are able to do in the Kathmandu Valley and all across the country to support Nepali artists and architecture and re-building and preserving these historical monuments. I have always been in search of more money because I know the need is great all across the country. I think preserving these structures is highly important for preserving our history. So you, people of your age, your children and youths are also able to see and understand the structures. A key part of that work also involves preserving the stone art. So back in the 1980s I know clearly that so many of Nepal's precious treasures and gods were stolen and sold in international markets. So, my team has worked incredibly hard in the last few years to raise the profile by working with local organisations, and I am very much pleased with the results here. It's not just the return of the Laxmi Narayan to Patan [from the Dallas Art Museum]. We are now tracking dozens other such idols and statues and cultural items that were stolen from Nepal. Those items don't belong to Western museums, they belong right here, where their function is not simply artistic but also spiritual. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to walk around Patan on an unscheduled personal visit, without journalists around. I was dying for that. And, with my kids I sat outside the Laxmi Narayan temple and explained to them about the importance of the temple. It was amazing to see that work of art occupying its original place after years of efforts to repatriate it. So, I certainly hope that these works continue.
Will you miss Nepal after going back?
I am already missing Nepal.
Do you have any plans to return to Nepal in the future?
This is one thing I am certain about, that I will be back. I think I will look forward to a chance to be one of the thousands of American faces coming here every year to visit Nepal and trek the trails.
How’d you define Nepal in one sentence?
That might be an impossible task. It might be a very long sentence with many commas. Nepal is an amazing tapestry of culture, practice, tradition, politics, and people; Nepal is a country marked by extraordinary diversity of landscapes, people and culture. How’s that? But I think the important part is about the people and their extraordinary hospitality. Whether you’re here in Kathmandu or in the most remote villages, one thing that is common is this idea of hospitality to a stranger that I think touches most Americans very deeply because this is not a reality in many other places in the world. But here, there's genuine warmth and hospitality. So that was way more than a sentence.