We’re back in Kathmandu. We’ve been here for about six days after resting for two weeks in Pokhara following our Anapurna trek.
It has been a very interesting few weeks. We are about to leave the city for Dhamma Shringa, the main Vipassana centre here in Nepal, where we will be spending some time volunteering. The internet remains pitifully slow and it means posting to our blog is an hours-long process of mostly waiting for images and pages to load. Then there’s the ever-present risk the power will cut out suddenly and you’ll lose the hours of work you just put in. But here goes.
Since we returned from the mountains, our travel plans have changed several times. Originally, we planned to travel from Pokhara to Tansen on our way to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. But in the final weeks leading up to the May 27 deadline for the current government to produce a draft of a new Constitution, there have been many nation-wide political strikes, called bandhs.
These bandha shut most things down for days at a time, including transportation infrastructure. We were warned by local Nepalis not to risk getting stranded in southern Nepal with no way out. The political situation is unstable. There are frequent protests and occasional communal violence in the Terai region (where we would be headed). So we decided just to come back to Kathmandu.
The current political climate here piqued our interest enough to connect with a former colleague living in Pakistan. We asked her whether there might be a need for volunteers at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) here in Nepal. NDI Nepal provides capacity-building for Nepal’s major political parties and their parliamentary caucuses. After a brief email exchange with NDI Nepal’s national director, and explaining our background and experience, we went to meet him and the staff at the NDI’s head office here in Kathmandu.
It turns out we may be able to provide some assistance with a particular project the NDI wants to get off the ground. We would do this for the Institute in June, which is why we are going to head off now to the Vipassana Centre and do some service there. Another bandh has been called by ethnic minority organizations here in Nepal this morning. So no transportation is running. Now, we’re waiting until we can get a taxi to the Centre. We’ll post another update when we get back from our service. Plus, we’ll know more about our NDI project when we return from our service period, so we’ll update you on that front then.
The dramatic political climate forced us to postpone a quick exit from Pokhara. Without a way to get to Tansen and Lumbini (or straight back to Kathmandu) we spent our days exploring the beautiful region around Pokhara, the gateway town to Nepal’s most famous Himalayan recreation area.
Pokhara lies along the large Phewa lake. There are restaurants and cafes along the shore of the lake, as well as farms, houses, and a place to rent boats. We walked along the length of the lake one morning to an early yoga class taught by an Indian yogi. The place was a bit of a flake factory with the usual tourists looking for some kind of spiritual outlet, but the teacher was very good and we felt great after 90 minutes of yoga. We also found a lakefront cafe where we would spend a couple of hours each day. It’s become a favourite of ours.
One morning we got up early and trekked around the far side of the lake and up the mountain to the peace pagoda overlooking the lake and Pokhara. On the way, we encountered some trouble. A local group of protesters had a run in with a group that resented their protest and tensions were very high. There were many police officers watching closely nearby and people looked angry. We put our heads down and walked through the crowd politely and quietly until we got to the other side of the village. We took a path that led up into the hills. At that point a child appeared out of nowhere and began to follow us a few steps behind. We’ve seen this movie before and knew it wouldn’t be long before he started chatting with us and offering help. Though we knew he was on the make, he was a precocious and amusing kid, and after he was convinced we’d been in the country a while and wouldn’t be giving him money as a guide, he just offered to take us on a shortcut. So we did.
The shortcut actually entailed cutting straight up the mountain along what appeared to be a goat path or something, but it did shave 20 minutes off the trek. We popped out of some tangled bushes and suddenly we were on the ridge atop the mountain. On one side we could see Phewa lake below us and the town of Pokhara. On the other side we saw a couple of houses and the large white pagoda off on the peak. We headed for the houses. They turned out to be a guesthouse run by a Englishwoman and her Nepali partner. She’d been in the country for 20 years. We had a great chat with her. She filled us in on the story behind our young guide. We had given him a couple of dollars when we reached the top, for his “help”. She told us his father was a vicious alcoholic who was physically abusive. The kid was never in school because his parents were never around. The English woman looked out for him, and cared a lot about him, but she did feel a little helpless to do much to change his destiny. He had already started sniffing glue and drinking at the age of 10. It’s a common story here. The most disturbing thing she told us was about the misguided volunteer groups who came through Nepal. We’d seen them in droves, a large group had been at our hotel in Kathmandu on their way to Pokhara to build houses. The problem was that the houses were totally inappropriate for local needs. The volunteers would show up, make a big deal of building these places, take a bunch of photos of themselves doing god’s work, then hop back on planes and go back to Canada or the US or wherever they were from. In the meantime, the houses they leave behind were abandoned within a year as they succumbed to the weather and were now left to rot. What a wasted effort. The volunteers are not to blame, of course. They are motivated to do good, after all. The fault lies with the organizations who take their money and labour. It was an eye-opening conversation. And a reminder of how the reality of our actions in developing countries is often at odds with the fantasy of our aspirations.
We eventually made our way to the pagoda, looked around for a bit, then began a steep descent on the other side of the mountain back to the lakshore. We’d have to get a rowboat taxi to the other side and back to our hotel. The one problem was a storm was brewing quickly. We practically ran down the mountain in a race against time. The taxis would stop running across the lake as soon as the storm arrived, so we had to hurry. Luckily just as we arrived on the beach, a taxi was dropping off a family coming home from the other side. He waved us on and we all laughed as the storm came crashing down on us as soon as we pushed out into the lake. Our pilot rowed liked the devil was chasing him. We were soaked to the bone, but it was so much fun and the shower was refreshing after the pent up heat from the day and the sprint down the trail from the pagoda.
Once morning, suddenly the strike ended. We were told to go on the bus now, before another strike was called. We hurriedly gathered together our things, paid our bill and hustled over to the bus depot.
So now we’re back in Kathmandu. We’ll update you in a few days.