Pokhara, Nepal – I was going to head to Kathmandu today via mini bus, but there is a national bus strike, maybe tomorrow. I woke up late and lounged around. It was really warm today, so warm that for a minute I thought it was a Sacramento type spring day. Brought two more T-shirts and now I am finished buying clothing. Walked down towards dam side again, then back to the room to figure out which photos I was going to give to Ram.
Labeled the photos, ate lunch, and saw Tracy and Cam to arrange our time for dinner again. I met Som later in the afternoon and we played carrom board for a while. In talking with him, I learned that Ram is married to Som’s cousin. I also learned that he and his brother paid two hundred and fifty rupees a month for the room at the hotel. When I told him that it was $5 in my money he started laughing. He could not believe how cheap it was for us to come and travel in Nepal.
Met Cam and Tracy for dinner and we set up a few meeting points where we were going to leave each other notes. They are heading through Southeast Asia on their way home, so I am sure we will bump into them again along the way. Kathmandu Guesthouse and the New Mary V, Bangkok were the two stops so far. Said good-bye to them and crashed out for the night. Som woke me up at 6 o’clock this morning so I could catch my bus to Kathmandu. I went over to the bus station and asked if there was going to be a bus today. Som had said the drivers want strike again. The folk at the travel agency said there would not be a bus today and to come back tomorrow morning. The cause for all this chaos is that late last week the Nepalese Government lifted all price subsidies on major foodstuffs such as rice and sugar and on fuel. The government had to lift the subsides to become eligible for some IMF and World Bank funding, as both those organizations oppose any price subsidies at all. With the prices going up on all subsided items namely fuel, the bus companies said they were going to raise ticket prices to account for the jump in the fuel prices. The government transport secretary said they could not raise their prices and would have to just adjust their books to account for the increase. The Communist Party here thought this would be a great issue to cause public outcry upon, so they began a publicity campaign telling all truck and bus drivers to strike nationwide on March 29th. So 29th March, no buses or trucks went anywhere throughout the Nepalese Kingdom. They announced yesterday that this strike would continue today also including all taxies, motorbikes, and bicycles in an attempt to paralyze the country.
I waited around for the bus for a short time and in talking to other people there as well, I heard there was a roadblock on the outskirts of Pokhara to ensure the prevention of any rebellious truck drivers from getting into the city. In talking to one of the travel agents here, he said the bus owners were waiting for a ruling from the transport minister allowing them to raise their prices. Another rumor I heard was that the transport secretary was out of the country and had to return to Nepal before a decision could be made.
A short while later, a lone vehicle equipped with a loudspeaker attached to the roof went driving slowly down Pokhara’s main street. I found Som and asked him to translate and he explained that the man in the car was saying things like, “Give those who do not have jobs, jobs, too bad, Royal Air Nepal is still flying today.” The strike could go on for three days or three weeks, great.
On that note, I am headed up to Som’s house for the Chaitra Dasain festival tomorrow, as it does not look like I will be leaving Pokhara anytime soon. Went and changed my bus ticket to April 2nd, do not know if buses will be going by then, but I am getting a little bit tired of Pokhara, not much to do once you have been in the city for three or four days. Met Som about noon and we rented bikes, then headed off towards his house on the hills above Phedi. He said it was not far and I had no idea how far we were heading, but this seemed like something interesting to do while this strike was on.
We rode out of Pokhara on the opposite side of the ridge from Sarangkot, so I was seeing an entirely different set of terrain in the Pokhara Valley. We rode uphill for about two hours, passing through the most amazing sections of outer Pokhara. True Nepalese villages with women cutting the wheat with scythes and the huge covered stacks of dried straw for the animals, great photographic material. Once we had reached the village of Phedi, we left the bikes in this chai stall and began the 30-minute hike to the top of the ridge overlooking the city. Little did I know, I was on another trek and this hike certainly rivaled anything I had done on route to Tatopani.
It was all almost straight up, but through the most beautiful jungle, tall moss covered trees with a bed of furns covering the ground everywhere we walked. We hit the crest of the ridge, where Som’s house sits and had to rest for a few minutes before actually going up to his house. His house is one of those made almost entirely of mud with earth beaten floors and thatched roofs, plus it has got the most amazing view looking out over the valley down towards Pokhara. There are terraced wheat fields surrounding their home with about four other houses sitting up on this ridge.
Inside Som’s house, there was a fire burning in a pit in the middle of the room and a little bit of smoke around the level of your forehead. Most of the smoke goes up into the thatched peak of the roof, but as smoke does when there is too much, it gets lower and lower to forehead level before pouring out the door. The ceiling had very very low cross beams and I could not stand up fully in any section of the house. Above the cross beams, they had placed some planks and Som told me that two of his sisters sleep up there at night. That explains the plank balanced against the beams in the corner that the girls climb up and down every day.
We relaxed in his house resting after the ordeal of getting up there, drinking sugared tea with the added flavor of salt, many Nepalese people like salt and sugar in their tea, a very different tasting cup of tea to say at least. It reminded me of drinking sea water like when it goes gushing down your throat when you are bowled over by a wave. After our rest, we walked across a couple of terraced fields to a neighbor’s house where I was introduced to them. These people had another incredible view from a different angle and from their house we could see Naugdada over on the next ridge across the valley. The place had taken me the entire first day of my trek to walk to. I had no idea I was going so far.
The front yard of this man’s house was covered with freshly cut wheat and a woman who appeared to be his mother decorated with ornamental nose rings like a bull was taking the wheat, beating it with this thing that looked like a short sledge hammer to get the husks loose. Then taking the whole lot and putting it in a basket to shake around and make the husks fly out. Cows, chickens, goats, all the houses up here seem to have one or all of the three tied up in their front yard. The man at this house started asking me questions with Som translating. The first one being what my caste or title was.
I told him we did not have a caste system and then cleared Som about it. He explained that there were 13 castes in Nepal. His and Ram’s being Gurung, one of the larger ones with a group of people who did not specialize in one trade or profession. In their caste, there are a lot of people, both rich and poor and it is one of the ones in the middle, not a bad one at all. The lowest castes are those of tailors, shoemakers, and porters. I asked a bit more and confirmed that these people are born into their caste and there is no way to change castes, not even by marriage.
People also use their caste as their surnames as well. Ram “Gurung”, Som, Kagi “Gurung” interesting. Som left me and went back down the hill to put the bikes in a safer place for the evening leaving me here sitting on the edge of a wheat field overlooking the valley to right. Som’s entire family is coming up here for the festival and Ram and his wife may be coming up here as well. Finally figured out how those two are related. Ram married Som’s cousin. Tomorrow is the festival and we are going to the market to see some goats and buffaloes sacrificed. It should be really interesting, gruesome but interesting.
Of all the places I have visited so far, I am beginning to think Nepal is my favorite. Right below is Malawi, then Zimbabwe. The people are so friendly and it is pretty together with their politics and tourism. If I managed to find work in Hong Kong, this would be my first return destination.
When we first arrived up here, we went to Som’s friend’s house and the woman there mentioned to Som that she remembered the time she brought a French couple up here, and I guess the man did not like his dal bhat because he literally tossed it aside. That couple was taken back to Pokhara the same evening. “Bola manchi”, crazy man was the woman’s response. Som is a lively 17 year old not too unlike myself at that age and I met him while trekking. It was great of him to invite me up here to experience this festival the Nepalese way.
How I keep hitting these festivals at the right time and hooking up with locals who are willing to show me how they really celebrate is so amazing. I would love to show Ram and Som America for 10 days, some in Sacramento, some in San Francisco. Ram could not believe there were films shown on international flights, and I described how large an American supermarket was to Som and he had a hard time believing it. It would blow their minds and I would love to see their reactions. Give me five years and I will see if can afford it.
Som returned and we sat in his house eating rice and vegetables and this really amazing pumpkin soup for dinner. Som has got three sisters, one 25 who was doing all the cooking and one 19-year-old brother. His family is more than cordial and even though I speak pidgin Nepalese, there was not really a language barrier because they are really patient and with Som’s help to get their point across. We were exhausted from our ride up here, so everyone bedded down to sleep shortly after dark. Sleeping at Som’s house was a real experience. His mother went outside and brought in the mother and baby goats and tied them to a post in one corner of the room. The hen, the cock, and five chickens were all under a basket not too far from the goats and Som’s mother laid down a mat in front of this mini farmyard to go to sleep.
The girls climb to their plank up to their bunk rather smoke yard, imagine above the fire. Som’s other sisters laid down on another mat, Som and I in one bed, Som’s grandmother in another corner, and Som’s father and cousin in the other bed. It was a real treat being able to see how these people live.