Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Welcome to Nepal!

Hello all! Unlike most of my other blog posts I haven’t been inspired to write this one about something specific. I just have some spare time :-). Internet access is good in Kathmandu and I’ve decided to spend a few days in the city just hanging out, meeting some people, trading books, getting a haircut etc. before going to the farm I’ve chosen.

I will be going to HASERA farm 40 km to the east of Kathmandu. It’s a permaculture farm run by someone who seems to really know what he’s doing. I went to the Nepal Permaculture Group office and he was there so I met him and we talked about the farm. Unlike a typical WWOOF situation where you trade labour for room and board at HASERA you pay for room and board and there is more focused learning which may or may not include the usual farm work. I like situations like this because I feel more free, even though they are quite a bit more expensive than WWOOFing. HASERA is charging 450 Rs per day which is about $6.50.

Two days ago I learned about something which may disrupt my pleasant farm stays and romps through the Nepali Himalayas. A Latvian woman is being held incommunicado and without due process as a prisoner in a Nepali jail. She has been held there about 5 months after what seems to essentially have been what Amnesty International would call an “enforced disappearance”. Nepal is known to have a problem with enforced disappearances, as reported in the AI 2008 Annual Report. We only learned about her existence through informal channels. She was apparently arrested for being in a national park without a permit. Because she doesn’t speak English she cannot speak to her jailers and it seems they have decided to simply keep her in jail because of it. Obviously I want to learn more about what’s going on and see what I can do, including contacting Amnesty International. The Russian Embassy has known about her for two weeks or so, and has not freed her. There is no Latvian embassy in Nepal so this is another problem for her. Her family has sent the Russian Embassy money to buy her a ticket home and help with getting her out, but the Embassy apparently has just kept the money. Yesterday I was supposed to have had a meeting with a Russian/English speaking tourist who has spoken to her but it didn’t happen. I hope I don’t have to stay in Kathmandu any longer than I already have because I am getting anxious to go to a farm after almost 20 days in cities and travelling. But I can’t just leave her to the mercy of the nation states who would apparently just as soon let her rot in jail than go home. If I don’t hear from the person who has spoken to her by tomorrow I will go to the farm and be in touch as much as possible from there. When I remember what the Canadian state does, torturing people in specially built torture prisons in Syria apparently for kicks or electrocuting Polish people at the airport because they don’t speak English I am concerned about this person who has wandered into the grip of an irrational, powerful, brutal and uncaring organization.

On the bright side Kathmandu is much nicer than Delhi. The streets are more thoroughly paved which cuts down the choking, eye itching dust. There is a level less honking although it’s still annoying. The streets tend to be smaller and more pedestrian friendly, at least in the Thamel neighborhood where I’m staying. The food is less greasy and less spicy (spicy food makes me sick, I've discovered). Accommodation is a bit cheaper. It’s just generally smaller, quieter and more functional. Although taxi transportation is a lot more expensive you can generally walk where you want to go. This is the relatively nice area.

When I’m in some of the bad areas of the city I begin to compose poems in my head about the bad things and the insanity of city life, the rotting rats on the street, the masks people wear to escape the pollution and the con artists who will take advantage of your vulnerable and confused state to steal whatever they can.

Like most asian cities I’ve been to, locals in the tourist areas love to play Harass The Tourist. The goal of the game is twofold: make tourists dislike being in the tourist area, and get money from the tourists. Players are stationed every 10 to 5 meters and their goal is to thoroughly badger any foreigner to buy a tibetan violin type instrument, umbrellas, hash, hire a rickshaw or any number of other things which they probably have no interest in. I’ve realized that communication with such players or “touts” is not on a conscious level. If you look at them in the face and say “I’m not interested in buying what you’re selling” then this will actually encourage them, even though they understand English perfectly well. Paying attention to them at all is taken as a signal to become more persistent. This is really unfortunate because it shuts down rational language-based communication. I can dream up a number of humorous counter-games to play with the touts because their behavior is so predictable but I try not to be a jerk like that :-).

If you score well in the Harass The Tourist Game then you can play the Rip Off The Foreigner Game. Fewer players get to this level but it is also a popular national past-time. Rickshaws take you to (closer) places you didn’t pay them to take you to, and people are constantly trying to charge inflated prices or lying about various things, coming up with various schemes. The goal is to try to get as much money as possible for as little effort, of course. I come across this sort of thing at least twice a day. No wonder I don’t like cities. I think these negative social behaviors which appear in the city are symptoms of something really wrong with this way of organizing a society. Of course people who follow Buddhism don't do these things and I've met some great people in Kathmandu. Approximately 11% of the population identifies as Buddhist.

Note: When I speak about “India” or any other country name in the following writing, I mean the government of the state, which I don’t assume even represents the interest of the majority of citizens.

Through the Couch Surfing network I’ve been able to meet some interesting people, including some Nepalis who know a bit about the political situation here and a French person working on political documentaries about the country. The recent political situation in the country is very unstable. It seems that India wants to control Nepal so they have killed the royal family in an attempt to set up a puppet government, (in concert with the US; India and the US seem to work together). It is in India’s interest to keep Nepal politically unstable with a crippled economy and therefore a dependent trade partner. China and Russia are concerned about the threat of a strong US (Indian) presence right next to them so they have started meddling in Nepali politics as well.

India is a controlling power in Bhutan as well. I had an image of Bhutan as rather picturesque, with a benevolent King interested in “Gross National Happiness” rather than GNP. But I’m told that Bhutan’s Finance and Defense departments are almost completely controlled by India. The Royal Family has a deal where they can have their family, wealth and image of control as long as India can control these two key departments. In the early 1990s many people were ejected from Bhutan because they did not support the King; India was a major force behind this ejection because India to a large extent controls the King.

Someone I met yesterday shed some light on the Tibetan situation. He said that the main reason China invaded Tibet was to prevent it from being controlled by the US. So the idea of a Free Tibet, is more complicated than simply ejecting the Chinese. Any sovereign Tibet would have to defend itself constantly from incursions both by the two giants US and China.

On the relatively bright side if people in Tibet can manage to escape into Nepal - although many of them get injured very badly crossing the mountains - then they are generally given sanctuary here. Also they can freely enter India, going to Dharamsala or a different place. Recently the Chinese has put pressure on Nepal to send Tibetan people back for imprisonment/torture etc. but the Nepali people have protested and so far have sent nobody back.

I’m getting to try some Tibetan food which has been interesting. Momos are like a thin walled perogie. Thukpa (pronounced more like tukpa) is a noodle soup with lots of garlic, and Thenthuka (pronounced more like tentukpa) is another kind of soup with flat, square noodles, sliced potato, greens, onions and grated carrots. Momos are generally steamed and often not very spicy.

The number one thing to do in Kathmandu as far as I’m concern is to go to the Garden of Dreams. It’s a fairly small walled-in garden which you have to pay to enter and it is beautiful. There are so many little beautifully designed areas, with waterfalls, stepping stones leading through ponds, huge trees, and beautiful flowers. It reminds me of the scene in Lost in Translation when Scarlett Johansson walks through a beautiful park in Tokyo. The whole garden is has Wi-Fi access.

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