The Road to Pokhara / “Nepal Este Ho”

To recount the tale of our four-day trek through the Annapurna range well, I have to start by describing how we got there. The day before we left was a Friday, and we had still not obtained the necessary permits and registrations one must have for trekking in Nepal. It was our last chance before leaving for Pokhara early the next morning, and wouldn’t you know, there was a ‘bandh’ (strike) that day. A transportation bandh. No taxis, no buses – nothing! (Oh, Murphy’s Law will I ever be rid of you?!) And of course we lived quite far from the permit office, so with no other choice we set out on foot.

After about 30 minutes of walking in the hot sun, and crossing over the Bagmati bridge into Kathmandu proper, we were lucky to find a rogue rickshaw driver who offered us a ride. So there we were, riding down the virtually deserted four-lane avenues of Kathmandu… in a RICKSHAW. Picture it if you can… it was quite a funny sight, I’m sure. Here are a few shots I took during our ride…

Rickshaw

Rickshaw

Police

The military police, on the streets to keep the peace.  Luckily, when we rolled through, all was quiet.

We spent the rest of the morning running from the permit office to the tourist district to gather last minute trekking supplies (on foot, of course), and back to Patan to make it for my farewell lunch with my studio mates. It was hot and we were tired and cranky, but miraculously, we were only 10 minutes late for lunch. Thank goodness for rickshaws!

We learned from friends and neighbors that the transportation bandh would still be in effect the next day, which left us with another problem: How would we get to the bus stop the next morning? The tourist bus to Pokhara was scheduled to leave at 7:00 a.m. When the taxis were operating normally, this would have been no problem, but of course that wasn’t the case! We realized that we would have to leave the apartment by 5:00 a.m. so we could walk all the way to the bus stop with our packs (of course, the stop was quite far away). We hadn’t even made it to the mountains yet and already we would be ‘trekking!’

So rise at dawn we did. I was up until almost 1:00 a.m. the night before finishing a blog post (see- there was a time when I was more dedicated to blogging!), so I wasn’t exactly a happy camper. We set out walking, back over the Bagmati bridge into Kathmandu, all the while trying to hail a potential rogue taxi who was breaking the bandh. And after about an hour of walking, we got lucky! We picked up a taxi and made it to the bus stop with time to spare. (It wasn’t until we were in the taxi that we realized how far from the stop we were, and that we never would have made it in time if we had stayed on foot. Thank goodness for people who break the rules!)

We met with our friend and trekking guide, Dorche (pronounced “door-zshay”) who is the father of Drew’s friend, Sunil. He also had to wake very early that morning in order to walk to the bus stop from his home. Speaking with him about this, I learned the phrase “Nepal este ho,” which translates to “Nepal is like this” – a phrase we would continue to repeat throughout the day, in fact. (Yes, yes – a bit of foreshadowing there).

Our bus, a “tourist bus” that was not part of the bandh and permitted to operate, was a bit rickety and plumes of black exhaust spilled out the side as we made our way up the mountain slopes (our carbon footprint getting worse and worse as we went along), but it wasn’t crowded and we were comfortable enough. The views along the way were absolutely gorgeous (not captured adequately here, unfortunately – shooting photos from the road is never very fruitful for me)…

views from bus

views from bus

How would you like to cross THAT bridge!?

views from bus

views from bus

views from bus

We stopped for lunch at what was possibly the cutest of all ‘highway rest stops’ ever. And there was a full buffet of warm, homemade dal bhat waiting for us… now THAT is good road food!

rest stop

rest stop

dal bhat

We made a second stop a few hours later for about 20 minutes, and then clambered back onto the bus for the last leg of our trip. We’d be in Pokhara in another 2 hours or so – hooray! OR SO WE THOUGHT…..

We were approaching the main drag of a small town – unfortunately, I can’t remember its name – when we spotted a crowd of men in the middle of the road, blocking any vehicle that tried to get through. Of course our bus was forced to stop and directed to pull over onto a side street. Naturally, not understanding any Nepali (and Drew not being able to hear clearly enough to understand either), we were quite confused and alarmed.

tourist bus stuck

The man we soon established to be the ‘leader’ of this group came aboard the bus, had a heated conversation with the driver and his ‘bus boy’ (the young man who collects tickets, keeps track of passengers during rest stops, etc), and was shouting, “Why are Nepalis on this bus!?” He was angry and aggressive, and I disliked him immediately (a snap judgement, I admit – or maybe just good instincts, it’s hard to say).

After a few minutes of sitting on the bus confused, the engine was cut off and the driver and bus boy exited the bus. The rest of us followed suit. We spent several minutes standing around, trying to understand the situation, when we finally learned that the transportation bandh we thought was only in Kathmandu was actually country-wide. Ah-ha. And these men were supporters of the bandh (taxi drivers mostly, I think), and apparently, self-appointed ‘enforcers’ of the bandh.

Now the strange thing about this situation was that the TOURIST bus we were on was privately owned. The bandh was for public buses and taxis only, so our bus was not in violation of the bandh! About half of the passengers were bideshi (foreigners/tourists), the other half middle-class Nepalis who could afford the higher priced tickets. These ‘enforcers’ didn’t have a problem with letting the tourists through, but they were upset with their fellow Nepalis who – quite frankly – outsmarted their bandh. There was nothing illegal or even in violation of the bandh about these Nepalis taking a tourist bus to get where they needed to go. You say no public buses or taxis? Fine, we’ll take private buses. But of course, from the ‘enforcers’ perspective, actions like this by Nepalis weakened the effectiveness of their bandh, and they weren’t about to let that happen!

So it was decided that they would let the tourists through once all the Nepali passengers had been removed from the bus (and stranded in this town, hours from their destination!). Dorche, our friend and guide, was faced with this ridiculous ‘eviction’ because he is Nepali, so we walked with him into the thick of the crowd to where the leader was barking orders. We told him that Dorche was our guide and that he would be staying on the bus with us. The leader asked to see Dorche’s trekking guide license (which luckily he had), and then immediately said “OK, One guide.”

This was one of the most disconcerting things about this entire bandh experience – our foreignness was Dorche’s passport in his own country. If he hadn’t been with us, he would have been (quite unfairly) kicked off the bus with the rest of the Nepalis and stranded. Since he was under the ‘protection’ of bideshi, however, he was given a pass and able to move about freely IN HIS OWN COUNTRY. What a sorry state of affairs! But more analysis on Nepali bandh culture to come – first I’ll finish the story…

So after we ‘saved’ Dorche from eviction, we proceeded to stand around for another 45 minutes in the blazing heat, waiting for permission to be on our way. In the interim we watched the crowd of men stop several cars and buses, and even an ambulance! I mean, really… an ambulance?!

bandh crowds

There was ONE good thing about our time there: I was finally able to see the famous Newari braid I had been hearing so much about in person (not many women in Kathmandu wear their hair like this anymore, it seems)…

newari braid

Finally, we were told to get back on the bus and were allowed to leave. Of course, the bus was now half empty with all of the Nepali passengers having been kicked off, left to complete their journey on foot. On our way out of town, we saw a group of them waiting for us (out of sight of the ‘enforcers’), but the driver didn’t stop because we were being followed, as we were soon to find out. After a few minutes of driving, a couple of ‘enforcers’ on motorcycles stopped our bus AGAIN, and proceeded to have more heated conversation with the driver.

the enforcers are back

Dorche translated, telling us that the ‘enforcers’ were accusing the driver of planning to pick up the Nepali passengers once out of town (which we learned later was actually the plan – and rightly so!). Of course, the driver denied this and we were permitted to go on our way, once again…

After about 7 km, the bus abruptly pulled off to the side of the road with no word from the driver or bus boy. We all disembarked after a few minutes, confused and growing increasingly impatient and frustrated with the situation. Again, after waiting for various language and cultural barriers to be crossed, we learned that the ‘enforcers’ had been following us all that time (even after stopping us outside of town), and they had just turned back. We were now waiting on the side of the road for the ‘evicted’ Nepali passengers to catch up with us, either on foot or by getting rides from sympathetic strangers on motorcycles.

waiting on the side of the road

We waited there for close to an hour, but honestly, it could have been much worse. We were in a shady spot, overlooking a beautiful field of rice with a stream running through it.   We watched children and women dressed in red crossing through. When the wind blew, the blades of rice bent under its force, making it look like water – a vast, fluid green ocean. It was truly beautiful sitting there with Drew – talking, laughing at the absurdity of our day, and looking out over this lovely place. My impatience and frustration melted away, and I was actually thankful for being there in that moment. It is one of my favorite memories of my time in Nepal, in fact…

waiting by the rice field

waiting by the rice field

women crossing

After the Nepali passengers finally arrived, we made our way to Pokhara without any further disturbance. The quiet gave me time to reflect on the events of the past two days and bandh culture of Nepal in general. And I say bandh “culture” because that is exactly what it is – strikes are not rare, isolated events in Nepal, they have become bigger cultural phenomenon. They happen often and are organized by many different political and industrial groups for a variety of reasons. I’ve mentioned them on this blog before – in the two months I stayed in Nepal, there were FOUR (that I knew of)! Of course, I have only scratched the surface of this phenomenon and certainly don’t understand the complex cultural and political circumstances that have brought these practices to such prominence. But I do know how this experience made me feel, and it was simply NOT GOOD.

Here is my take (insert the typical “I’m-not-from-this-culture-so-this-is-merely-my-own-opinion” disclaimer here): Yes, of course this bandh was inconvenient for me personally, but that is certainly not why the whole thing left such a bad taste in my mouth. It simply baffled me that these ‘enforcers’ felt they had the right to cross over into other industries (private bus lines) to meet their own ends. Their bandh was meant to stop taxis and public buses from operating, and they accomplished that, effectively shutting down Kathamandu for two days. Did it really weaken their cause so much that a handful of Nepalis were traveling to Pokhara on a PRIVATE bus!? Those passengers are individuals with rights and should be able to move about their own country as they choose – even if taxis and public buses are not available. If they find a way around the bandh so they can get on with their lives, good for them! Who were these men to strand their fellow country men and women en route while giving all the privileged bideshi an instant pass – what kind of message does that send about the rights and inherent value of their fellow Nepalis!? One of the women on our bus had two young children with her, and they kicked her out right along with the rest. I mean, REALLY!?

Now in fear of causing a bit of a stir amongst my diverse readership, I will say that I am generally in favor of labor unions and the right to strike as a last resort when in conflict with employers – I generally believe that the scales are not balanced when it comes to the workplace and employees should have the right to use their collective power to ensure that they are treated with respect and dignity (yes, of course this can be abused and has been – but I’m talking in generalities here). HOWEVER, the situation in Nepal seems to be a bit more complicated than that. From my perspective, the ‘bandh’ is abused to the point where it’s not even effective. It seems to be a constant case of “the boy who cried wolf” or a mere display of power/strength by various groups – not a targeted strategy to achieve specific goals. Most of the time many businesses won’t even observe the bandhs – and the organizers know it, but do little (i.e. the restaurant you find on a bandh day with its front gate half raised, but clearly still open for business). It seems to me that bandhs in Nepal have become mostly hollow shows of force that ultimately hurt the people of Nepal much more than they help. For example, schools close on bandh days – in the two months I was there, the children probably missed 5 or 6 days of school. How does this help children who are trying to learn within an educational system that is already in desperate shape?

(Oh, and I have to mention one of the demands the taxi drivers were making to the government because the irony is just so stunning: They were calling this bandh in part to demand some sort of ‘bandh’ insurance because their windshields are often broken during other bandhs! Think on that for a moment – it makes your head spin).

But with all of that said, I realize that I am coming at this from a decidedly Western perspective, particularly an American one with strong roots in concepts such as Individualism, Freedom, Liberty, Revolution, etc. All of these thoughts led to interesting conversations with Drew about ‘universal morality’ versus ‘cultural relativism’ – something we discussed a lot during our travels. It’s amazing how quickly the waters muddy when you begin talking about Culture (with a capital “C”). It’s all interesting food for thought, anyway…

But any how, enough of my rant….moving on now!  Back on the bus, we neared the city and found a delightful surprise in the clouds…

Mountain clouds

Look closely and you’ll find the Himals in there!

Mountain clouds

We arrived in Pokhara hot, exhausted, and ready for a big ol’ nap. But of course, the transportation bandh was still in effect, so we had to walk to our hotel. Sigh. After about 20 minutes, we made it to the (quite brilliantly decorated) Hotel Plaza Annapurna and into our room with a view of the beautiful lake…

Plaza Annapurna

Plaza Annapurna

Plaza Annapurna

Plaza Annapurna

Plaza Annapurna

I know, I know… a picture of your hotel bathroom, Brenna?  But just look at those colors!  I love ’em!

Lake view

Pokhara is one of the larger cities in Nepal, but it’s not huge. The area adjacent to the lake is full of bideshi tourists, all finishing or about to embark on a trek in the mountains – hippy clothing, hemp jewelery, and outdoor gear stores abound. Finding a restaurant was no problem in such a touristy destination, and we spent most of our evening on the patio of one relaxing, looking out on the lake and the large park between it and the street. Bustling with activity, I found this to be my favorite spot in Pokhara – watching kids play football (soccer) and fly kites, silently routing for the teenager learning how to drive a motorcycle, and cheering on one of the best games of ‘baseball’ I’ve ever seen (where the number of ‘outs’ didn’t mean as much as the other team’s decision that it was their turn to bat). ‘People watching’ at its best against an amazing backdrop…

Lake park

Lake park

Lake park

Baseball game

After our evening on the lake, we headed back to the hotel to turn in early – we would be setting off on our grand trekking adventure early the next morning. Huzzah!

And just like us then, now YOU have to wait for the adventure to begin… Back with more soon! Namaste!

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