Friday, March 02, 2007

Yak yak yak

Random thoughts on Nepal

The first afternoon I was there, I wandered jetlagged and exhausted through the city, in that sort of semi-dreamlike way you do when you’ve had no sleep. It may have been good, in some ways, that I did, since the all out assault on your senses of downtown Kathmandu may have been easier to cope with what with those senses being so dulled. It’s something of a manic place, which seemingly gets increasingly frenzied the closer you get to the middle of it. By the time I reached Durbur Square, the heart of the city, I was being constantly assaulted by monks wishing to bless me (for money), small boys begging, men attempting to sell me hash, shopkeepers shouting out to come and look at their wares, blokes wishing to guide me, and still others just wanting to have a conversation. All while attempting to avoid the crazy motorbike /rickshaw /taxi /bicycle traffic weaving in and out of each other on the narrow and crowded streets, and beeping incessantly. Buddhist chanting humming in the background, pigeons ducking and diving, and the heavy smell of incense all add to the sensory overload. All this and when I got to the square there was a Maoist rally going on, with red-bandanna-ed cadres of people chanting and raising their fists in support of the angry invective of the speaker. Just off that square I stepped into a quiet courtyard, with a group of Chinese tourists (wonder what they made of the Maoists) looking up at a wooden window, at which emerged a young girl – the Kumari, Nepal’s very own living goddess.

The political situation is bizarre, and not what one would describe as stable – a government that includes Maoists, while the country is still a monarchy. Mind you I didn’t meet a single person who actually liked the king, and in a couple of cases the most mild-mannered, sweetest people opined quietly but vehemently that he was “a bastard”. This in a country where English is used in such a way as to be as roundabout as possible (see below).

At this propitious juncture, having mused to myself self-consciously and devotedly for some hefty and generous epoch, as the clock hand ticked its way unceasingly and perpetually around the dial, I have resolved, decisively, to humbly offer up to you, kind reader, this finely crafted sentence by way of a light hearted spoof and benign lampooning of “Nenglish” the locally enhanced rendering of my own dear mother tongue.

One of the other features of Nenglish, Nepali English, is the use of English words in odd ways. The front page of the Nepali Times for example, seemed to have a daily report on some deadly road crash, which was unfailingly referred to as a “mishap”. The day before I left, for example, a mishap had killed 15 people in the south of the country. The other interesting one while we were there was the daily practice of “load shedding”. The hotel was filled with warnings about “load shedding” and how various facilities would not always be available because of it. Load shedding, it turned out, was the phrase used for the daily scheduled power outages that rolled throughout the capital. Never have I heard such an excellent euphemism – the power is not being cut because the economy is fucked, you understand, but because we are somehow unburdening the system of its unnecessary charge, or something like that. Inspired.

We were working with members of the Nepali English Teacher’s Association, who were a fantastic bunch of blokes (in nearly 20 years of working the English teaching “industry”, I have never before met a group of practitioners who were all male). On the first day, I asked some of them how far from Kathmandu they lived. One responded “Not far. It’s just a three hour bus ride and then a 5 hour walk” (at which point one of his fellow participants snorted and said “5 hours for him. It would take me about 18”). Another said “Oh very close. About 100km by road and then a 24 hour walk”. What I’m getting at here is that much of the country is pretty remote. It’s also fairly traditional in many ways (In the context of Nepal, Maoism actually seems a pretty futuristic political ideology). You may remember 6 years ago when the entire royal family were massacred in their home, ostensibly by the drunken crown prince who then turned the gun on himself. I’ve been reading a little about that incident and the whole background to it hangs on various family feuds stretching back about 300 years. It’s like the play Shakespeare wrote but shelved because he thought it would be a bit far-fetched. [I use the word ostensibly above, because it’s really not that clear that the official story is that accurate, and any number of more-or-less believable conspiracy theories abound – a number of which point the finger at the new king – the brother of the murdered one].

The last, and only free, day of my trip was on Wednesday. Obviously I was looking forward to doing all the touristy things I had been unable to do on other days. However, I learned on Monday evening that this would not be as easy as I had hoped as a bandh had been organised. A bandh is a kind of general strike with added features – everything shuts down, traffic is stopped, demonstrations happen, and there is often accompanying violence directed at anyone seen not obeying the bandh. This obviously meant that the chance of doing things like shopping for presents would be somewhat curtailed, for example. Even getting to the airport might present a tricky problem. As it happened, it turned out to not be half as bad as it had been painted, and for a few hours in the afternoon it was actually quite nice to be able to wander around the streets without being mown down by weaving honking vehicles.

All in all, I had a good time. A lot of work, but Kathmandu was fascinating, and very different from anywhere I'd been before. I even managed to have the traditional tourist experience of getting a severe case of the runs. I bet you're glad you know that aren't you? One of the things I mused upon while spending more time than usual in the bathroom was whether there was a blog somewhere out there on which someone just documented his bowel movements. Please don't take that as a prompt to link to one.


Anonymous said...

Nice. "Load-shedding" kicks butt. I've had three big outages in my part of London in the last couple of months, but was unaware it was all to do with load-shedding: from now on, I shall no longer refer to my EDF providers merely as "fucking arseholes," but rather as "fucking load-shedding arseholes". Way cooler. BTW, what happened to the promised musings on Bucharest? Andre

Anonymous said...

Great stuff Andy.

I hit Kathmandu 2 months after wandering the highways and byways of northern India and in comparison it was a cosmopolitan heaven-clean bed sheets, San Miguel Beer, hostel receptionists from Ballymena!!

It wa so sad to see what developed in the late 90s onwards in places I had so fond memories of Pokhara etc.

BTW I saw the Asian Police Football Final at the national stadium, when I get round to writing my memoirs it deserves a chapter on its own!

Anonymous said...

I wish there was enough fibre in the average Romanian dinner to warrant a blog about bowel movements.

Ian Plenderleith said...

There was a match report from Kathmandu in a recent issue of the fine German football mag 'Elf Freunde'. There were 400 fans in the national stadium for a double-header, in which the writer theorised that football in Nepal has the opposite purpose of football in other countries: elsewhere, people go to football to vent and scream, whereas in Nepal people go to the stadium to chill out and get away from what he called the "stress-plagued" city. Oh, and Ranipokhari Corner beat Sankata Sports 2-1 in the San Miguel National League.

Andy said...

Hi Andre

Unfortunately the thoughts I had in my brain about Bucharest got crowded out by Nepal. I remember thinking that I ought to write about how expensive it seemed (10 RON for a coffee!), but beyond that I'm afraid it's been filed in the draw marked "never started blog posts".

And I'm dead into all these fotball stories, but sadly I missed the chance to watch a match. It was the last weekend of the season too, I noticed when I read the match reports in the local press.