“Namaste from India” – OR – “Religion is Business in Varanasi”

Our last station in Nepal was a very special one: Lumbini – birth place of Lord Buddha. After having seen the popularity of other holy places like Muktinath, we expected tons of pilgrims bursting out in enthusiasm at this site. But surprisingly, the contrary was true. There were nearly no pilgrims, only a very moderate amount of tourists and the place convinced us with its relaxed tranquillity. Contrasting other holy places, archaeological evidence suggests that Lumbini indeed might be the site where Buddha was born. It was visited by Buddhist believers in the first centuries after his death but then forgotten for over a millennium. Not before 1896 it was rediscovered and for about 30 years it is a so-called development zone: every nation can build a Buddhist temple here, so you get a good impression of the diversity of this religion’s architectures. You can find temples and pagodas from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam or Japan but also Germany and France. On the other hand, construction work is still in progress, it seems that the tradition still lacks. However, we really liked the quiet atmosphere and spent the days with three other travellers we met there, who in turn were international. All were doing an internship in Mumbai but they came from Mexico, Brazil and Turkey. And we stayed at the comfortable “Lumbini Village Lodge“. The next day we had to leave Nepal towards India and on the way to the border we conducted some research of tremendous importance. Whoever has asked how many people can fit into a car like a “Citroën Berlingo”, we now can provide the answer: 25 persons, if the roof is occupied by two huge backpacks …. but you need years of experience in taxi-tetris to achieve such a result! Continue reading

Lots of things have happened here…: Summarizing Nepal

We are not naive. We know that we are tourists, not guests. We are aware that for many people we are nothing special, that tourism is their business and that foreigners are their daily bread and butter. Not surprisingly, in all countries we have been to so far, at the tourists hotspots people were less friendly and more prone to cheat you. However, Nepal differed in two ways: where there were tourists, in general people were much more awful than anywhere else, and more important, it was a lot more difficult to escape from those areas. Whereas in China walking two blocks further is enough to get in normal and human contact, in Nepal you better cross the whole country for that.

Nepalis can be so charming, but whenever money is involved, things become complicated. And Nepalis almost always find a way to involve money. Our first guess to explain our different experiences was referring to the ubiquitous poverty. As mentioned, Nepal is among the 10 (!!!) poorest countries in the world. It still suffers from the civil war which ended in 2006. It is one of the very few countries were school is not mandatory at any age, resulting in sad levels of child labour. And just in case we forget the underdevelopment, the exhausting bus rides on terrible roads and in vehicles you can find in European museums will remind you.

That does not mean that every Nepali is poor. For instance, government imposes a 200% tax on foreign cars. Nonetheless, in Kathmandu’s chaotic traffic, you can discover many of them, implying that every 20 seconds, you see a Nepali who can afford spending more than 30 thousand Euros on a vehicle. But for most locals, we must seem incredibly rich and a great opportunity to earn a huge amount of money. We do not want to judge anybody in a desperate situation, but we do not think that this can be the only reason. We have been to other poor countries, e.g. Bolivia, which is a bit richer but still the poorest country in South-America, and there people were not like this.

But we also have seen that you always have a choice: especially annoying was the fact that, when Nepalis were friendly, it was often a calculated friendliness. To give you a typical situation, in the bus on our way to Bakhtapur, the ticket collector smiled at us and pulled faces to the music. When it came to pay the 70 Rupees, we gave him 100 but he just returned 25 Rupees. After we kindly asked him to correct the change (we do not appreciate the 5 cents so much but we appreciate sincereness), he did so rudely – and the friendliness vanished never to return. On the other hand, we also experienced the opposite. While buying a bottle of water during another bus ride, we gave the boy 25 Rupees, as 20 is the fixed price for water and the 5 Rupees were for the special service of buying in the bus. The boy looked at the money, took 5 Rupees and gave them back – and that was definitely not because he was richer than the other.

Also thanks to Tamara, we have learnt that there may be other reasons for our experiences. Mainly due to the caste-system, Nepalis are used to judge people by the color of their skin and treat them accordingly. For most of them, this is simply normal and they do not feel anything bad about it. Of course, we cannot complain about being in the wrong “caste”, but being the “tourist” makes conversation unnatural. Second, they behave not very differently among each other, for many people pure racism is part of their culture. To see how reckless they can be, consider what they call a “banda”, which happens quite often. It is often translated as “strike”, but this is not accurate. Actually, during a “banda” a certain interest group does not only refuse to work themselves, but forces EVERYONE not to work. And hires some violent gangs of thugs to beat up everyone who is outside or – according to mood – execute them. So “curfew” might still be the better word.

Further, we have heard from many people that they do not like Pakistan, Iran or even China, due to the situation of women there. Seldom such objections are risen against Nepal but for comparison, that’s how it is here: nearly all marriages are arranged, at least this is the traditional and still widely practised way in the mountains. Wedding day is a sad day, especially for the very young girls who usually see their family for the last time, because under any circumstances she has to move to the village of her spouse. Her rights are rare but her duties abundant. She has to care for her parents-in-law and for the family in general. Often, we saw women carrying dozens of kilos of stones while the men were playing cards. According to the most conservative studies, at least 80% of Nepali women are victims of domestic violence. To enable their daughters such a life as servant, the family has to pay a high marriage-portion. Therefore, daughters are considered as financial burden and Nepal is one of the very few countries where life-expectancy of women is below that of men. This is not just due to bad health-care, but also to the fact that they are not seldom neglected and die much more often than boys in early childhood.

Having said this, it could seem we do not like the country at all. This is by no means the case, quite the opposite is true, we feel pity for Nepal. We have met so many nice Nepalis and also had so many good experiences, especially at the remote areas, with young persons or people who had lived abroad. For all of them, and partly for the others, who are prone to bad behavior caused by their poverty, we really wish that things in Nepal change. That the countries enjoys economic growth, a better working democracy and above all, that they change their way to treat each other. The younger generation is usually better educated (if the parents can afford it), more open, informed and they should be the ones to change the country. But given the wide-spread corruption, the extreme population growth of 2.5% per year and the power of the Maoists, there is not much room for optimism. And sadly enough, this view is shared by the best in the country.

It’s the Eye of the Tiger

Thinking back about our previous entries about Nepal, we had made very mixed experiences. To give the country another chance, we wanted to find out how they would treat us at the less touristy spots. Thus, we made our long journey to the north-west to visit “Bardia National Park”, the remote alternative to Chitwan, the latter being a popular place on the standard route to India. The dialogue preceding our decision was like follows:

“Hey Thomas, that sounds cool. In Bardia we can do a walking safari.”
“Mmhh, okay ….”
“Wow, and here in the travel guide it is said that sometimes rhino and tiger attack. Hence, they say the walking safari can be a real danger.”

But of course, this was an exaggeration. We were heavily armed, all of us carrying a massive bamboo stick. Our guide had done a 7 days training program and gave us a 30 seconds introduction about what to do in case of an emergency:
rhinos –> run zigzags and find a tree to climb on
tigers, elephants, crocodiles –> normally won’t attack at all …. let’s go!
Speaking seriously, there has never been a casualty caused by wild animals in Bardia and the guides are all really experienced, having grown up and worked there for many years. Continue reading

And all due to plate tectonics

Yes, we admit it. We did it. We just did what everyone does – we went trekking at the Annapurna. And we can say: Everyone is right, the Annapurna region is just an amazing hiking area.

The physically most exhausting part we had to endure at the beginning and at the end of our excursion from Kathmandu: Riding the bus is hard work in Nepal: The seats are designed for people of maybe half the height of ours and probably one third of our leg length. On the other hand, in order to enhance blood circulation, the Nepalese build their roads as bumpy as possible and carefully avoid to construct cars with shock absorber. Nevertheless, on Saturday evening we safely arrived at our hostel in Pokhara, shaken like a Polarroid picture. “We”, again, are not two, but three: Tamara took holidays from her internship and we travelled together. We benefited a lot from her, because she is physically fit and a great travel mate with whom you can joke and talk about nearly everything, except the most important topic on earth: football (soccer).

Since Tamara had only limited holidays, we decided to go on the “Annapurna Circuit“, do one half of this three-weeks-trek and return by bus. On the first day we started from Nayapul, walked some hours and were really lucky in the choice of our lodge: They had satellite-TV with an Indian channel that broadcasts the German Bundesliga. So we were able to watch the match “Eintracht Frankfurt” against “Mainz 05″ while sitting in a lodge in the middle of the Himalayas! With the match itself we were not so lucky, it was deserved 0:0 with an entertainment factor on the level of cricket …. Continue reading

Mixed Impressions in Kathmandu

So many things that characterize our time in Kathmandu already happened in the first hour in Nepal. At the arrival you have to pay 40 US$ for the visa. When I put the money on the desk, one official took it away and then an other one asked me to pay the fees. I told him firmly that his colleague already had taken the money, which he first denies before – by miracle – remembering he had put the 40 US$ in his pocket …. welcome to Nepal!

Out of the airport, we were soon surrounded by taxi driving touts, who wanted to bring us for a huge amount of money to a hotel of their choice. We got so annoyed that we decided to look for a public bus instead, and indeed, one person explained us where to go. Entering the bus, all the locals looked at us extremely surprised, obviously wondering whether we were on the wrong bus or whether they were. But anyway, they kindly offered us their help to find our way to Thapatali.

Everyone knowing Kathmandu may now be attempted to ask “Thapatali? I thought the name is Thamel?”. Exactly that was the reaction of all the taxi drivers and their enthusiasm faded remarkably when realizing that we do not want to go to the tourist-ghetto of Thamel. Yes, we were going to Thapatali, because there we met Tamara, Steve’s former fellow student in Mannheim, who is currently doing an internship at the GIZ, the German organization for development aid. And luckily we had the chance to stay at their guest-house, because this Kathmandu upper-class district was much more original than Thamel’s “Europe Town”. Continue reading