Getting to Nepal
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One of my favorite sayings is “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan!” So, when faced with 40 hours of flying, there are plenty of opportunities at God’s disposal to foul up a potentially restful flight. So, I was not surprised when three days prior to departure, we received a phone call from Som in Nepal: “Expect a delay. The radar is broken at Tribhuvan Intl Airport (in Katmandu), and there have been delays all week.”
Anything can change overnight in Nepal, so I took the news with a grain of salt and didn’t even mention it to Mary Jane (Second thought, I probably simply forgot). I felt we were fortunate to have the most direct flight to Nepal in all our years–thanks to a new Mid-Eastern airline Etihad Airways. We had just two connections: GR to Chicago to Abu Dhabi to KTM. But again, to presume it would be so simple was an invitation for divine intervention.
Sure enough! We departed on the very day of the volcanic eruption in Iceland. We weren’t even aware of it until we reached Chicago and witnessed the many flight cancellations there. All flights to and through Europe were canceled. We lucked out (God was merciful!) as our flight could still dodge the volcanic ash by detouring south of the Great Circle Route, passing over Gibraltar to Abu Dhabi, extending our flight 2hrs and 1000 miles. We had plenty of time with which to play since we had a whopping 14 hour layover in Abu Dhabi. In Abu Dhabi, one of the newly emerged, oil-rich emirates, all the rooms were taken because of the canceled flights to and from Europe. However, we could pay $128 and luxuriate in a comfortable lounge for 8 hours with a fine buffet, free bar, and even a shower room (the rooms are prohibitively expensive).
We chanced upon this airport lounge because we met a young Nepali man escorting an empty wheel chair, and so MJ took him up on his offer to wheel us around, and even tried his best to get Etihad to credit a room to us, but no luck: too many cancelations and all the rooms were taken. This young man is part of 200,000 plus migrant labor force from Nepal working in the Persian Gulf for slave wages….which is still more than they can make unemployed in Nepal. In the exclusivity of being in a first class lounge in an Oil Emirate, Mary Jane and I were out of our league in a sea of white robes, hajibs, burqas, and custom-tailored and designer wear; and although we enjoyed people-watching, I couldn’t help but feel that we, clad in fashionable Goodwill togs, were the objects of others’ people-watching.
With T minus 6 hours to go, MJ’s heart opened up to a woman in a burqa with 3 small kids trying to make it from the lounge to her gate. With bags, a stroller, a babe in arms, a toddler and a wild rapscallion who was running and bouncing off of the furniture like a bee in a meadow. MJ quickly recruited me, transcended the language barrier, and began parceling out the children and belongings to the obvious relief and appreciation of the mother. Unable to slow down little Abdullah, I took his in hand, and steered him towards the gate about 10 minutes away. MJ and mother embraced at the security check in front of the gate. Meanwhile, I released the boy who ran through and back, and then around the metal detecting pass-through, setting it off each time—great fun! The guards exasperated, mother embarrassed, and we were in hysterics. Mother quickly grabbed hold of Abdullah and sat down at the nearest set of chairs inside to wait the boarding call. As we turned away, we again noticed that there is not just free wi-fi in Abu Dhabi International, but rows upon rows of laptops for travelers to use free of charge to catch up or wile away their waits. We’d done that already, so it was back to the lounge.
The remaining hours ticked off slowly until finally, it was our turn to report to the gate, and we proceeded to board for the relatively short flight to Katmandu (4-5 hrs). We were flying against the sun so the day was well-spent when we landed on time at 430 PM and the sun low in the sky was reflecting back up at us off of tin roofs, and Katmandu sparkled like a diamond. The clear skies and go visibility did not necessitate the airport’s radar which had been repaired by that time.
We passed straight through Immigration, Customs, and Baggage Claim without a hitch, and even our friends from the Guest House were there to meet us, greet us, and deliver us. Now that we had made it, we had several days to adjust our biorhythms before our sponsors began arriving, so we had a light snack and crashed early. Great in theory, but God had protected the dear dog out behind the Guest House over the past year, whom I affectionately call Midnight…so named for his penchant to begin barking intermittently all night long at about that time. After a good nap, we were now awake, unable to go back to sleep, during the long, early morning hours. Before long came the pre-dawn crowing of cocks all around the city, reinforcing the intermittent barking, and a little later this was supplemented by the cawing of the crows near sunrise. Our insomnia could easily be treated with a good book….except that the electricity was being rationed, aka “load-shedding”. So, the room stayed pitch black until dawn. Lying awake in bed, one of us would end up waking up the other by tossing and turning. By morning we were exhausted. Daytime hours are lengthening this time of the year, but in actuality, they were being truncated by our naps from midday narcolepsy. For two weeks we struggled with our day-night schedule.
Getting into the Swing of it and Tripping out
After a few days of recovery, however, we decided to get to work despite our jetlag. So, Som and I engineered a trip north to the Langtang National Park on the Tibetan Border. We would visit some schools in the Highlands of the Himalayas…new territory for us. Som, his new wife Nisha, MJ and I, and two of our “ANSWER children” Uma who is now a nurse and Sujana, a second year nursing student would be escorting us.
The trip, which was intended to be fun and scenic, turned out to be a nightmare. We hired a large Indian Jeep cum driver as we knew there were unpaved portions of road. We soon learned that the greater portion of the way is still in total disrepair: it was 4-5 hrs of “bumpy, dumpy roads”, as Som calls them, which even our jeep had a hard time navigating. Half way there, in Trisuli, we all welcomed a rest stop (to scout out a school) as much as we dreaded climbing back in for another 2 hours of bumpy-dumpiness to Dhunche.
Finally, in the late afternoon, tired, stiff, and weary, we made it to Dhunche, unloaded our bags in a rustic hotel, and marched down “main street” to a very nice school where we met the principal and recruited another set of candidate children, two prospective nurses and one doctor wanna-be! The Question for us is….do we want to spend two days traveling on jarring roads two to four times a year, for just a half dozen children? We soon rationalized that we could probably do this in rotation with our staff, so everyone bares the onus. With schools both in Trisuli and Dhunche, we could probably make it a dozen children and even pick up another school somewhere else along the way.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that we do this outreach into the interior. These children in the remote areas are the ones who are totally out of the flow, totally overlooked, and forgotten. If we made sure that the bright ones get good educations through college, they would set the example for others and promote rural development as well. Only within the past two years or so have TV and cell towers linked them to the happenings of the rest of the world. This means educational and career opportunities beyond farming, shopkeeping, or portering supplies in and out for trekkers are now conceivable. With TV they are now aware of how the other half lives, but with no hope for improving their own lot, their once contented lives would soon transmute to despair and resentment, and possibly even violence and rebellion.
On the other hand, TV has a wonderful way of modernizing thinking. I read a nice piece in Super-Freakonomics (the sequel to Freakonomics, a must-read) about the frustrating experience family planning programs have faced in rural India. With bazillions of illiterate peasants, everything India has tried, from educational programs to making injections and devices available, including sterilization, nothing has made a dent in the population growth outside the cities where the vast majority of Indians dwell. Nothing that is, until TV towers and cables began to penetrate the interior. Once rural women were finally able to see well-to-do women on TV with small families and careers and enjoying “the good life”, the birth rate plummeted and attendance in family planning programs began to swell. This is now happening all over the developing world.
And so it is in Nepal, too, with additional ramifications. For example, we used to see EVERY little girl expressing her desire to be a doctor, and we still do, but now one in ten or twenty is now saying, “I want to be a pilot!” One girl this year told Som she wanted to be a lawyer! Where did that come from?” I asked. Som pushed it aside with, “Just a TV program.” But the point is that boys and girls now have a new source of information and they are paying attention to options beyond just what daddy wants. That’s a huge step in individual choice and independent thinking!
Anyway, as dusk was setting in and around Dhunche, things were getting a bit chilly. Dhunche is at 6200 feet and things cool down quickly after sunset. In Katmandu we slept under sheets. Here we had several heavy blankets (albeit, the cheap Chinese rayons have replaced the wool and yak hair ones even out here). The next morning, with no hot water, we skipped our showers, had our tea, and all went out to explore the town some more. With the goats running around everywhere in a bucolic, alpine setting with children running all around, I couldn’t help but think of Heidi and Grandfather! And yes, the icy peaks of the Alps, or rather the Himalayan range, were visible at last. Dhunche is built on the north side of a mountain facing the Himalayas, but we needed to hike higher to appreciate the full majesty of the range. Even so, it was a glorious morning with jagged, glacier-ladened peaks jetting up beside us.
The splendor, however, was short-lived as we had to jump back in the jeep for a long “bumpy, dumpy” and uneventful ride back to Katmandu. Uneventful is a good thing: Som’s wife Nisha is “a little bit pregnant” and in the throes of morning sickness, MJ couldn’t help but focus on her condition.
Our Sponsors Arrive and the Political Turmoil Begins
Within the next day or two, our sponsors began to arrive: Mary with her two teenage boys Pat and Duncan from Michigan, and a couple from Maine, David and Marty, who had visited Nepal with us in 2007. With their arrival we switched to a more upscale hotel to be rid of Midnight’s barking, and it made a significant difference.
However, as our sponsors were recovering from jet lag, a nationwide strike was called by the Radical Student Union ANNISU-R (Maoist) against all 6000 private secondary schools for tuition hikes. AND, no sooner had the Private schools agreed to roll back the increases to appease the Radical Student Union, than the Maoist Party called for a nationwide, general strike to get the current Prime Minister to resign and hand them the reins of power. So, for a week and a half we were ready to roll, visiting our schools and students, reading and writing letters, etc., but completely thwarted by the political situation.
To describe what all this entails would require another one of my ten page letters, so enough to say that this is one of the tightest lock-downs Som and I have ever experienced. In this case essentially, many rural Maoists were bussed into Katmandu, and coalesced with urban Maoists in the streets in such numbers that shops were afraid to open and defy the strike. All transportation except Army, Police, Ambulances, and a few Tourist Buses were forced off the road….if not, a barrage of stones, or worse, would pummel the vehicle. Roads were blocked off in the cities, the villages, and the highways running between them. Only the airports remained open, but taxis, buses and even rickshaws are all verboten.
This was one of the most effective strikes ever…nothing was running, nothing was open. Som and his brother had to walk 4-5 miles each way to and from their homes to visit us. Usually, taxis run after sunset, but not this time….it took Som well over an hour to walk home after dark. Graciously, from 6-8pm the tourist area is allowed to open for dinner…the Maoists recognize that this is not our dispute and do not want to alienate a large portion of those who bring in tourism and foreign aid. Even so, few restaurants wanted to go to the trouble of opening for only two hours, and soon the exodus began and the arriving tourists began cancel ling their visits. Even Mary and her boys got tired of waiting it out and left to finish their vacation time in California. We were so disappointed, but no doubt they were even more so.
During this time Prachanda, the Maoist Leader, made a speech to his cadre saying it was time for the rural people to bring the aloof urbanites to their knees. This essentially alienated a good number of Katmandu citizens, especially the intellectuals in the press. Prachanda had cut his own legs out from under himself which led to his having to lift the strike. Since then, the Maoists have been surprisingly conciliatory and haven’t even mentioned reinstating the strikes.
Nowadays, with the heat and impending monsoon, there are few foreigners left. I am now one of the few remaining bideshi (or foreigners) which makes me the sole object for every shoe shine boy, open-hand child wanting a rupee, and itinerant street hawkers of tiger balm or hashish. I am so fed up with it all that I even bought the classic Katmandu tourist t-shirt that reads: “No Rupee, No Hashish, No Rickshaw, No Tiger Balm, No Problem.” Before, I tried to be polite, now I simply say, “NO!” and point to my shirt.
To continue with the saga, while the schools and highways still closed due to the strikes, we had to delay our plans to tour and visit schools for the time being. Because the planes were still flying, we flew out to Pokhara simply for a change in venue. Like I said, the airports were open, but nary a taxi or rickshaw to be found. All of us had to walk nearly 2 miles to our Lakeside Lodge. MJ and I arrived on a later flight and were lucky to have two bicycles available to us. MJ hadn’t ridden a bike for 3 or 4 years and was a bit nervous, so she sat sidesaddle on the back of a hard, bare bicycle rack and survived. It turned out that there was a bicycle rental store just up the street from us, so we did one or two school visits in Pokhara pedaling, and while we were at it, there were pedal-boats and paddle-canoes and hikes to keep us further occupied.
Finally, after a few days, the strike was lifted, and we made bee line to the airport to fly into the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas to the village of Jomsom at 9000 feet of elevation. This was really a stark, rocky passage between two tall mountains through which the Great Kali Gandhaki River flows southward into India and the Ganges.
Mary Jane and I were accompanied by Marty and David, Som and Nisha, Bal and Sanoj, an ANSWER graduate in Accounting and our newest staff person. We had no trouble finding a room for all of us…a large party of tourists had just canceled their trip to Jomsom!
We had at last begun our visits to the schools, and for the next two weeks needed to visit more than 100 schools, or at the very least all of them outside the Katmandu Valley, and be back by the 28th of May, Constitution Day. It was pretty clear that the interim government had not produced the Constitution over the last two years, as was promised, and the Maoists would have a field day once again, demonstrating and most likely, it would mean more strikes. We had to make record time! No telling what God was going to throw at us next.