Friday, January 18, 2013

Thoughts About Nepal

All in all, Nepal was a pretty eye-opening place. More than anything, it showed me how different another country can feel and operate, yet ultimately how similar its citizens are to those in parts of the world I am more familiar with. EVERY person, whether in the UK or Singapore or Nepal or the USA wants to be able to live comfortably (food, clothing, accommodation etc), have a fulfilling job, provide for their family, and have enough time and money to enjoy themselves once every now and again.

Certainly, we have a lot more time and money in the Western world, which would make you think that we have more fun. But really, we just have a more expensive, segregated kind of fun - it is rare to spontaneously 'go and have fun' which is why I think that alcohol has become such a key part of our social culture. Chatting, laughing, joking and piss-taking is the only self-created fun that we are 'taught' to have, and of course alcohol makes that so much easier. Whereas when we were waiting to fly in Bandipur, the Nepali guys created their own board game using a rock slab, and went to climb a tree. See the difference?

Which leads me on to my strongest observation of Nepal, or rather the Nepalese people, so far. Surely, they think, life will be so much more fun if they had more money? And compared to Nepal, with its corrupt system, with an inconsistent education and so many manual and 6-day-a-week jobs, surely they will have a better life in a better-paid country? Like Saudi Arabia or UAE, or even Europe or the USA if they can work out how to get there? But we all know that's not the case. In our country, our materialistic quality of life is much better and there are far fewer low, degrading jobs. We have warm, comfortable houses and most people have motorised transport and we can generally on authority to be both impartial and reliable. But do we have more fun? Probably not.

And what chance does an immigrant - especially one who has defrauded his way into a country - have of having a good life in Europe? Without a primary skill (such as videography - one of the Nepali guys on the paragliding course was a successful film-maker in the USA), a fulfilling job is unlikely and then they will be trapped in a system in which food and accommodation is 10x as expensive as they are used to and they can rarely go home and see their families. But that doesn't stop the FLOOD of young, talented Nepalis seeking exploitative jobs in the Middle East or underhand ways of trying to gain asylum in Europe or the USA. And it does Nepal no favours at all.

So this is what I perceive to be Nepal's biggest challenge - the brain drain of young, clever people to countries which really don't need them. I spoke to a lot of people about this, and many are absolutely convinced that they will have an excellent life if I could somehow get them to the UK. They describe salaries where you earn 150,000 rupees a month (that's £14k per year before tax) with wide open eyes, not realising that it is barely enough to live comfortably on. And they just don't believe you when you explain it. If only I could show them their life in the UK, and compare it to the difficult, manual but free and fun life they could have in Nepal, then I think their country would have much better prospects.

There are many other things, of a lighter mood, that I observed about Nepal. Here are a few:

You can buy anything from a man on a bicycle. Rugs, religious monuments, cooking fuel, anything you can name. "Nicky, where did you get that orange?" "Oh, a man on a bicycle sold it to me." "Uh OK, shame I missed him!" is a perfectly valid exchange between volunteers in Nepal...

Time really is a very flexible commodity. Not so much in IDF, which is run on more western standards, but in schools and work and shops everywhere, nothing happens much on a timetable, just 'when it happens'. It also amused me that the children in Amy's orphanage only had one word for the entire past, which was 'yesterday'. If it didn't happen today, and it's not happening in the future, it happened 'yesterday'. Slightly confusing.

Dogs are everywhere. Now, I didn't see any that obviously had rabies, but I think that the £100 jab I had was a good investment. The strange thing about the dogs in Nepal is how they are almost all the same breed and are clearly neither neutered or spayed. Alfie didn't like it too much when I kept pointing out the 'eight-boobed hounds' that we saw on our runs - I think it weirded him out a little bit. And sometimes of course, these dogs come close to peoples' homes seeking food (occasionally the domestic chickens, as well). At which point they get stones flung at them with the full force and accuracy of a well-trained sniper and, although it sends them scurrying, it means you see some very battered dogs around. I was walking back from school once and there was a dog walking around with a loop of intestine poking out of a wound in its abdomen. Now I'm no dog lover, but I don't think that this is a way to treat any pest. Especially one that you worship for one day a year.

The children of Nepal are just so much fun. I need only point you to the pictures from the orphanage of the fun that they are able to have for themselves. Amy tells me about when she gave them one of her old water bottles, and the amount of fun they had with just that... But they are happy and enthusiastic and completely unfazed and absolute daredevils. A pleasure to be around.


I know it's not common in the west, but it's not unusual in Nepal to go into a shop looking to buy something or complete a transaction, and be served throughout by a woman holding on to her child with one hand, who is happily sucking at her breast. A little bit weird... But there's no childcare so what can you do?

These tractors are just so awesome. I think the front half was designed to be used as a plough or basically a motorised ox, but most people hook them up to a trailer thing which they can sit on and are employed as a van, a car, a truck or a people-carrier. This one has just been blessed during Tihar, hence the flower sticking out of the radiator.

If you ask a stranger a question, you will get an answer. It may be complete nonsense and made up on the spot, or it may be the complete and honest truth. But they will never say they don't know, they will just say whatever they think they need to to make you go away appearing to be happy! This happens all the time when asking for directions. Sometimes they will give you very elaborate directions going in the complete opposite direction. And this also applies to after-sales service - for instance, 'can I wash this in hot water?' always gets answered with a 'yes'. Always.

In a bartering culture such as this, you really have to learn the true price as things. Being in Lokanthali, we were generally treated like locals and so would get charged 5Rp for a banana, for instance. But in central Kathmandu, if the grocer sees you have pale skin, the price can have a 300% markup in an instant. 10 bananas for 200Rp (£1.60)? Seems like a good deal! Unfortunately this makes life no easier for the locals - if vendors can sell something for a huge profit markup to the never-ending supply of tourists, why sell it to locals for less?

Which ultimately means that you have to learn how to barter, which can be really good fun, though you need to know the price of things. Never ask how much something is unless you're willing to buy it, otherwise you will find yourself being stalked by the vendor, who keeps dropping the price and gets annoyed when you still won't buy it. The bartering culture means that for any given commodity, someone will pay more than you, and someone else will pay less. Somehow, Nicky always got ripped off (even paying 110Rp for a 100Rp topup card!) and Donny was the master of driving the hard bargain. Amy and Archie also got good deals and I was somewhere in the middle.

Nepal, probably more as an extension of India than anything, is somewhat Anglo-philic - much more than some parts of the globe are America-philic. Lots of the trucks have Union flags on them, British football team brandings are omnipresent, people play cricket and also drive on the left. More than one person, upon finding out my nationality, said "ooh, lubbly-jubbly!" to me which is quite bizarre. But this extends to the school system, where British spellings and pronunciations are taught, and most people seemed to know where Scotland is (as opposed to, say, Alaska). I thought that this might be useful for trade in the future. British brands were also in evidence, from TV shops clearly trying to imitate the BBC's brand to, of course...

Corporal punishment was in evidence, though I think that in my time in the school they dialled it back because they knew I wouldn't like it. I don't disagree with using physical force to emphasise a serious disciplinary point with your own child, but slapping one of your students in the face because she had the courage to come and write something on the board and it was wrong, is a terrible way to educate youngsters. This happened right in front of me and I was very angry with the teacher for doing this. But although the Nepalis are so aggressive in action, also in the way they drive and the way they abuse the dogs, they are so passive in language, quite polite and very rarely aggressive in their language. Though I don't understand much Nepali, even I can see that.

If Nepal is going to continue to market itself as a singular tourist destination, especially given that it is sandwiched between the two countries in the world with with fastest-growing middle classes, it really needs to do something about the litter situation. Rubbish is strewn everywhere, but there is literally no system for clearing it up. No bin men, no dust carts, nothing. You can burn it if you like - hence those random small 'pavement fires' that can be observed everywhere in Kathmandu. But most people just dump it. When I saw Nepali friends of mine just walking along and throwing away a paper bag, or a plastic wrapper, I could not just stay silent. I picked it up and reprimanded them. I know it makes 'no difference' to the massive pile. I know it's not my culture. I know there are few better options. But when you have to run along beautiful valley paths that look like this, or cross the sacred river in Kathmandu, you may feel my disappointment.

Oh yes, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with Swastikas here! I think they are a sign of wisdom or something. Go look it up:

Some of the people with the jobs hardest on the feet, such as farmers and porters, seem absolutely content to walk around all day long in flip-flops. I can't think what this would do to the web between your big and index toes, but they seem immune to this particular physical pain. I know that trainers cost a lot more in comparison to your daily wage in Nepal than here in the UK - but surely the benefits would pay off in terms of durability and comfort over the life of the shoe? Compared to breaking a flip-flop half way round a trek and being stuck? But this got me thinking into the way that Nepalis use money overall. To them, the cheapest thing right now has to be the best option. The sum of paying twice as much for something that lasts 3 times as long just doesn't seem to have been occurred, or taught, to many people. Also, the fatalism of just 'making do' is very strong. Why sharpen a knife when it still just about cuts? Sharpeners are expensive! Cars don't need two headlights as long as you have one that still works, right?

If you have a Nepali friend (or relative), there is no need to say sorry or thank you! Just take them for granted in the same way that they take you for granted! I can see a certain symmetry in that. It also explains why we get funny looks of over-exaggerated "Swagatam" (you're welcome) when we say thankyou for even the smallest things. Like buying bananas.

If you were born at home, there is no legal requirement to notify the government of the birth as soon as it happens. In fact, why not wait two years and notify them that your toddler is actually a newborn? Most Nepalis have a 'biological' birthday and a 'legal' one, so they can commonly be a couple of years older than their documents say. Adi was born at home and has a fake birthday like this, whereas his brother Arun was born in a hospital. According to the Government, they would have had to have been in their mother's womb at the same time (as their birthdays are 6 months apart). But no-one checks these things...

My most amusing and frustrating experiences always seemed to be in the Pokhara hotel I stayed in. I found it very amusing to come down and await breakfast one day, and then the manager turned up and cooked my flobby egg and coffee which was all distinctly unappetising. Plus that jam that tastes like jelly! Also the staff had a party in the hotel room next to mine, at 2am. In fact every single day I would awake and go downstairs to find that the gate is locked and I physically couldn't leave the hotel - I had to find the owner to open it! And when I asked if my belongings could be locked up while I was in Bandipur, he just said "of course!" and left them in the lobby. Then I said "are you going to lock these?" and he replied "what means 'locked'?". So I paid for another two nights in my room and left them in there, chained to the TV table. But despite that it was the best hotel I stayed at in Nepal! Awesome hot shower and soft mattress! And friendly staff! Because those are the things that really matter.

But finally, and this is a huge redeeming factor for Nepal for me that helped me fall in love with the country for what it is - just look at these clouds!! :-)


  1. Very much enjoyed this though=provoking (almost-last) post of your mammoth trip, Colin.

    I loved some of the stories - especially of you renting a room for 2 nights so you could leave your bags in salubrious comfort....

    I look forward to meeting maybe meeting Amy when she gets back to UK - she seems to have shared a lot of your latter-time adventures.

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