Communists, rabies and how to accidentally get locked in a brothel...
When I was "planning" this trip, one of the most important things was not to plan much at all. The intention to just wing it and make it up as I go. Which is just as well, as whenever I do plan things they don't quite work out...
After trekking the Annapurna circuit I had a few rather uneventful days in Pokhara. There really isn't all that much to say about those days. It was good meeting up my parents there for a few days, and generally being social. Hera and I had a good day cycling up to the "bat cave" just north of the town. It didn't really live up to the name, as we only saw one small bat. It was fun though, if only for the climbing and squeezing involved. On the way back we had probably the best meal I've had on the trip at a tiny local place. This is one of those places not used to western tourists where the locals can't help but stare while you eat. We had a large meal of curry, roti, samosas and things that defy description, tea and even a selection of sweets for desert. And all for 140 rupees for the both of us (2 aussie dollars.) Half way through the meal we heard some chirping and looked towards the roof. Sitting on one of the girders was a birds nest with four hungry chicks. It was feeding time as the parents had just arrived to regurgitate their food. Most entertainingly we realised a few minutes later that directly below the birds nest was the bubbling pot of curry. Bird flu anyone? So that was the secret ingredient, birds feathers and regurgitated insects...
The big talk around Nepal was the increasing political tensions, with the Maoist party calling on the current Prime Minister to resign. They were planning huge rallies for May the 1st in Kathmandu, and an "indefinite" Bandh (strike) following that. Not a very encouraging word at all, something that makes travelling a touch more difficult. My original plan was to head west to Bardia national park, but the possibility of getting stuck there, and reports of a large diahorrhea outbreak with overflowing hospitals and a number of deaths were not encouraging. So sad that in this day and age that people are dying from diahorhea.
So I made a snap decision to belt it back to Kathmandu on the 29th, then bus to Jiri at 6am on the 30th to start the Everest trek. The plan fell in a complete heap after the bus from Pokhara was late into Kathmandu, and I failed to get the required trekking permits that evening. This meant no chance of getting the bus to Jiri (they all leave before 9am, when the permit office opens.) Given that i didn't want to drop for return flights to Lukla for the Everest trek, I was stuck in Kathmandu. Not a place I really wanted to end be if it turned as bad as a lot of people were expecting. Luckily it didn't. Though as an aside tourists have never been in any danger in Nepal. Everyone here realises that tourism is the backbone of their economy. It’s quite surreal to see hundreds of angry chanting communists marching up the street, who suddenly spot you and start smiling and waving and shout “Namaste!”
After realising i was most likely in Kathmandu for the long haul, i hit the town with another Aussie guy i met on the bus from Pokhara. After a couple of drinks we decided to look for another bar to drink at. We saw a sign for the "Nowhere Pub." Worth a shot we thought, and proceeded down a small alleyway and up a dark set of stairs. It didn't seem quite right, but sometimes the most interesting venues are in odd places so we kept going. We went through a gate, with a few Nepali guys standing around it. "Pub? Beer?" we asked. "Yes, up!" they said, "Beer!" Then they closed and locked the gate behind us, the key disappearing into one of their pockets. By this stage we were getting pretty nervous, but as we'd had a few drinks already we thought "maybe it's just a really underground pub..." It was only when we started passing rooms containing double beds and scantily clad Nepali girls beconing us in we realised what we'd stumbled into. So the "Nowhere Pub" turned out to in fact be nowhere. We quickly backtracked down the stairs, only to be obstructed at the now locked gate. "You stay. Woman! Good price!" It took some arguing for them to finally let us out. As we stood back out on the street we just looked at each other "What the ???" Certainly the first time I've been accidentally locked in a brothel!
As I was expecting to only be there one night, i went for the easy option and stayed in Thamel, the main tourist district. Whilst it's easy in Thamel, its such a fake tourist wonderland. Nothing local remains, just hundreds of trekking shops, guesthouses, bars, restaurants, bookshops and internet cafes. The next day, I escaped and moved down to the Durbur Square / Freak street area. Freak Street was named after the Hippies that congregated in the area during the 60s and 70s. Whilst much of the hippy element has disappeared, Freak Street is much more peaceful and alternative than Thamel. It also was much more active during the Bandh, with a thriving street scene just up the road. I also found the boys I was trekking with and decided to stay in the same hotel as them, especially if we had to hole up in a hotel for a few days it if all turned nasty.
So the Bandh. What is a Bandh you may ask? A Bandh in Nepal is a full strike imposed by the Maoists. No buses, no non-essential vehicles are allowed on the roads, and only two hours of trading are allowed per day; 6-8pm. And even during these hours only a few places were open, as the Maoists were asking "donations" from any shops open. Nepal is still recovering from over a decade of civil war and tensions. The last couple of years had been relatively peaceful, but tensions have again flared. The major issue being the lack of progress on the new constitution, which has a deadline of May the 28th.
Tensions were high before the May 1st rallies. Over 100,000 Maoists had come from around Nepal to protest in Kathmandu. The streets were filled with thousands of flag waving chanting Maoists, and waiting police and army. The government had mobilised the army to "prevent" violent clashes. The air was pulsing with tension, you could see it in the faces of both sides. The locals were worried. Violence was expected.
May the 1st was peaceful. The protests occurred with minimal violence. It was quite a sight, tens of thousands of chanting flag waving communists. I was surprised as to the make-up of the crowds. Lots of women, and a large age range-including children and the elderly. I'd always thought of these "uprisings" consisting of a majority of young men. It was surprising on the evening of the 1st. The whole city breathed a collective sigh of relief, shops reopened and the mood was jubilant.
The next day things had changed. The Bandh was in full effect. The odd tourist place was open for those first couple of days, but most of the city was closed. The streets were empty, except for the odd tourist, groups of hundreds of protesting maoists and of course the hash dealers.
By day three though the mood had changed again. The streets had a festive atmosphere. The street vendors were the only places allowed to open so we were living off a diet of street samosas and pineapple. The streets were full of people playing soccer, cricket, volleyball and hackey sack. Something that is usually impossible on the clogged streets of Kathmandu.
Though day three was also when the maoists started cracking down on anyone defying the Bandh. My local cafe, which had been about the only one in the area staying open, was threatened with smashed windows and beatings if they were caught open again. There were some reports from elsewhere in the city of shop owners bashed and shops trashed for defying the strike.
After a few days tensions had returned. Violence was spreading and everyone had had enough of the strike. A few people were killed, food was getting scarce, the poor were struggling with no income, and disease was spreading. "Peace" rallies were staged, consisting mostly of normal people with no political affiliation urging an end to the Bandh and for the political parties to reach an agreement. One of these rallies was staged in the Kathmandu Durbur Square, one block from my hotel. We could here the chanting, and could see on the TV that tens of thousands had filled the square. This one was peaceful, but as i left the hotel i was met by hundreds of waiting riot police armed with shields, batons and tear-gas launchers. Luckily they weren't needed that day. I tried to bypass the rallies, but they had spread into surrounding streets. The sound of 100,000 people chanting is quite impressive. Unfortunately a couple of these rallies in other parts of Kathmandu turned into violent clashes as Maoists attempted to shut them down, leading to overturned vehicles and numerous hospitalisations. The newspapers were full of quite graphic pictures of injured maoists, protesters and police.
That evening people were worried again. Things seemed to be going downhill rapidly. The Maoists seemed to be digging their heels in, stating during the afternoon that they were nearing their goal, that the prime minister was close to resigning. It was then a complete surprise to everyone that that night the Maoists unexpectedly called an end to the strike.
The next day things were back to normal, all the shops were open and the streets were full of traffic. Everyone was relaxed and seemed to have forgotten the still simmering tensions brewing just off the radar. We were reminded when a violent clash occurred only a few blocks away, with numerous vehicles overturned and scores of maoists and police taken to hospital. In fact we were lucky not to be caught up in it, as we heading for the cinema. We ended up going to the wrong one (but stayed and watched a movie anyway.) The one we were aiming for would have taken us through the heart of the rallies. We did see heavily armoured riot control vehicles and tear-gas armed riot police heading that way.
Even with the tensions here, it still has that rather laid back Nepali style. We passed a group of police one day, decked out in full riot gear brandishing their bamboo sticks. The guys at the front were marching in formation, their gear in perfect order, faces serious and determined. At the back however were two guys with face masks up, body armour hanging open and having a play fight with their bamboo sticks. Quite a contrast. The Maoists are the same. We passed one large group of Maoists marching down the street. The guys at the front were waving their flags, angrily chanting and throwing fists in the air. The guys at the back were all jokes and smiles, two of them good naturedly grabbing my arms and trying to drag me along with them. As much fun as it would be to join a communist rally i thought it was prudent not to get involved. I could just see the headlines back home "Australian joins communists."
It's funny how much Western culture has intruded into Nepalese life. During the Bandh we were reading the youth section of the local newspaper. It had a collection of tips from the "hip" youth of Kathmandu on how to survive the Bandh. Now I would have imagined these would be things like "Avoid large groups of protesters, don't break the curfew etc. But no. This is what the tips were.
- Get on facebook as much as possible
- Stay close to your mobile phone
- Get your friends together and watch movies all the time
- And most importantly party, party, party
I was shocked to discover I've been in Kathmandu almost two weeks. It's been a fairly social time, hanging out with a good crew of people. It's been a surprisingly stagnant time. Lots of wandering around, especially during the Bandh. Their are even some sights within striking distance that I wanted to see and somehow failed to get too. Everyone I've been hanging around with is the same, "We've been here two weeks? But I haven't done anything!" Even things like updating the diary and the blog, and even playing the guitar i bought have failed to happen. I guess it's because it's been quite a social time, and has more of a semblance of normal life, hanging around with the same people for a while. Strange though. Everyone was hoping the Bandh would end, but we are all still here, not achieving much. But their have been reasons keeping me here, first their was the Bandh, then I was waiting for my Indian visa, now I'm waiting till tomorrow for a follow up rabies shot...
Why the rabies shot you ask? I had an unlucky couple of days. Firstly I stupidly fell down a set of stairs resulting in a set of bruises and grazes. The next night I was walking home along a darkened deserted street, with only a few of the Kathmandu street dogs wandering the streets. I was strolling past one of these dogs, I heard a small growl and suddenly it had sunk it's teeth into my hand. Completely unexpected. I quickly whipped it out of the way and the dog went for my leg, getting a hold of my trousers. I tried to shake it off without success, and then eventually sent it away whimpering with a couple of kicks to the ribs. I was then surprised when a local appeared, yelling at me for kicking a dog! Whilst the bite wasn't serious it did break the skin, presenting the very real danger of rabies. It's quite common in this part of the world amongst dogs and monkeys, especially as the dog had attacked me completely out of the blue. So the next morning i had to find a clinic to get my follow up rabies booster. I have had the pre-exposure vaccine, but the booster is required. This proved harder than expected, as due to the Bandh all the clinics and hospitals had run out of the vaccine. It took a while to find a clinic with supplies. Unfortunately i do need another one tomorrow, and have figured it's much easier to do it here where i know i can get it than try down in the Terai or in India.
I did end up spending a few days at a local orphanage. I met two girls who were volunteering there, and decided to tag along. We ended up repainting their dining room, and painting an educational food pyramid on the wall. When I arrived the kids were going stir crazy. Preceding the strike, the Maoists had imposed a school strike, so the kids had effectively been stuck in the orphanage for three weeks. So a lot of time was spent just playing with the kids. It did get rather chaotic when we were painting. Everyone was so enthusiastic to help, and paint went everywhere. Most of the kids their aren't technically orphans. It's a home for kids whose parents are in jail in Nepal. Like many developing countries, the way the prison system works here is that kids usually live in the jails with their parents, usually very unpleasant places. The woman who set up this orphanage is an impressive woman. She has three orphanages and a range of programs set up for helping women and children in the jails. Not a bad effort for a 35 year old unschooled village woman, especially in a country like Nepal. I did enjoy my few days there, and will certainly do some more volunteering somewhere down the line.
As nice as it's been hanging around with a crew, I'm looking forward to hitting the road and setting out on my own again. For a "solo" trip so far I've spent surprisingly little time travelling on my own. In fact I've actually spent little time "travelling" and have covered only very few kilometres during the trip so far. Though that will be changing in the next week. Now I'm heading toward India, in the middle of the scorching Indian summer. Bring on the heat!