Archive for the 'Nepal' Category

July 23rd 2008
The Price of Petrol

Posted under Nepal

This post contains a reference to recent medical problems with our pregnancy while traveling through China and Nepal. We originally omitted the stories so as not to worry our friends and family but since the pregnancy has come to an end we have decided to share the details of our saga.  We have added some additional posts and have pre-dated them to appear in chronological order.  To follow the story from the beginning, start with “The Grand Finale” and the story of our visit to a Chinese emergency room.

We returned to Kathmandu on an air-conditioned minibus, still anxious to leave Nepal. Due to our medical issue, we’ve been confined to Nepal’s two major cities and their nearby medical facilities, exacerbating our anxiety. This precluded us from trekking in the Himalayans or going on safari in Chitwan National Park to stalk Bengal tigers, but it was our reality. After the relative peace of Pokhara, Kathmandu was like a splash of cold water on our faces. The incessant honking horns and chaotic, traffic-filled streets made us reluctant to leave the serenity of our room at the Tibet Guest House. On the occasions when we did venture out, there were shopkeepers who expectantly greeted us as we passed their stores, hoping we’d stop to look at their tired wares. And there were beggars and rickshaw touts and trekking guides and a laundry list of others eager to separate us from our remaining rupees. After spending five of the last seven months in Asia, the majority of time in poverty-stricken developing countries, our patience and tolerance has worn thin. It’s unfortunate that our “Asia fatigue” has so negatively colored our last month of travel through China and Nepal. We’ve both agreed that had we visited Nepal or China as “two-weekers”, or without the anxiety of managing an impending miscarriage in a Third World country, our perspectives might have been different. C’est la vie. So with the exception of a quick day trip to the ancient city of Bhaktapur – the oldest and most pedestrian-friendly of the three cities in the Kathmandu valley – we hid out in our room, forced to bide our time until our flight to Paris.

But our time in places like Nepal has given us a different perspective on world affairs. Like everyone else in the world, we’ve been anxiously following the subprime mortgage debacle and the US economy spiraling downward into a recession; banks are defaulting on loans and deposits and gas prices have soared to record highs. We certainly aren’t immune to these affects even as we travel; the exchange rates of the US dollar to many major currencies are at all time lows, the interest accrued on our ever-shrinking pot of travel money has slowed to a trickle, and the cost of petrol has made every mode of transportation more expensive. We are, in fact, planning to return to the US by the end of the year, shortening our intended itinerary, because we’re over budget, though it is as much attributed to our own decadence as to the fuel prices or dollar’s decline. But let me paint a picture for you of how the fuel crisis is affecting Nepal, this tiny country on the other side of the world.

The increasing global oil prices have created a nightmare for one of the world’s poorest nations. The Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) is a state-run company and the sole supplier of petrol products for the country, sourcing the majority, if not all of their oil through contractual agreements with India. But with rapidly rising oil prices, the cash-strapped corporation has been unable to continue purchasing petrol from their Indian partners. The result of this price increase is unbelievable. Petrol stations in Nepal are closed during the day, opening only in the evening; and that’s only if the daily petrol truck arrives. Lines begin forming early in the afternoon and swell throughout the evening, lining city streets and congesting the already narrow roadways. Drivers wait in lines stretching more than a mile long, often waiting five or more hours for their turn at the pump. Traffic slows to a crawl on the crowded streets. The lines are guarded and traffic is tightly controlled by the Nepalese Army – tensions are high.

If a driver actually reaches the pump and petrol is available, it costs the equivalent of $9 per gallon – double what it costs in the US – with the price increasing each week. And that’s if it’s even available! Our last week in Nepal, the NOC announced that they no longer had enough cash to continue purchasing petrol and they were trying to secure interim financing just to continue operations. As a result, less than one-third of Kathmandu’s normal petrol needs were being met, crippling Nepal’s infrastructure. For a nation already dependent on handouts from the world to keep it functioning from one day to the next, the immediate future doesn’t look very bright.

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July 20th 2008
A Tale of Two Rivers

Posted under Nepal

Tina wasn’t interested in anything involving camping but I was eager for another outing, so I ventured out alone on an overnight rafting trip. One of the local rafting shops, Paddle Nepal, put together a two-river, one night camping package; a surprising feat in the off-season. With our experiences on the Zambezi setting the standard, I was keeping my expectations low. Our party consisted of one guide, three safety kayakers, and six rafters: four twenty-something British girls – volunteer teachers at local schools – and a young professional woman from San Francisco on holiday.

After brief introductions and the short bus ride to the drop point, we were briefed on the requisite safety procedures and set off down the Seti River. The lower Seti, normally a slow-moving, tranquil flow dissecting a lush river valley, swells significantly during the monsoon rains. The cold murky brown water ran fast and delivered a thrilling ride with big waves and long, washing-machine rapids. The Class III-IV rapids were fun, but markedly calmer than those on the Zambezi – a relief for the fearful first-timers on our trip. We survived the first day without a single casualty – nobody fell out of the raft – and we arrived at our sandy riverside campsite in the early afternoon. Our campsite was at the confluence of two rivers, the Seti and the Trisuli, which we would raft the following day. Our guides set up camp and cooked a wonderful spaghetti dinner; and I fell asleep early to the pitter-patter of rain drops falling on my tent. This was my first night apart from Tina in almost a year.

The next morning we were surprised to learn that we would be taking local buses instead of chartered transport. It wasn’t a big deal but I soon realized that it was going to be a lot longer day than I had anticipated. We hailed down a nearly full local bus heading upriver, and after loading all our gear onto the roof, we were off toward our drop point on the Trisuli. By the time we reached our stop and descended to the river’s edge, the rain was pouring down, really pouring, like where’s-Noah-with-the-Ark pouring. The Trisuli River was significantly colder than the Seti and with no sun, torrential rain, and violent rapids; I was chilled for the entire ride. The trip downriver was fun but underwhelming as our guide steered clear of the more menacing and fun-looking rapids. Our short two-hour ride was over as quickly as it had begun.

After waiting a frustrating three hours for a suitable local bus to deliver us back to Pokhara, we loaded up and were once again on the move. We’ve taken plenty of local buses during our year on the road and while they’re always a fascinating looking glass into the local culture, they are also slow, uncomfortable and otherwise miserable. The 100km trip back to Pokhara, with a chartered vehicle and normal traffic, should have taken little more than two hours. Our local bus took five hours. This is completely explainable of course – the local buses stop at every town and small village and every place in between where someone’s standing on the roadside waiting to be picked up. We were also delayed by a local strike – an everyday occurrence in Nepal where people go on strike for every imaginable reason – which blocked the main arterial road linking Pokhara and Kathmandu for nearly five hours. Luckily, we arrived as the strike was dissolving and only waited for about thirty minutes before traffic began moving once again.

The return trip, while long, was still incredibly interesting. Every local who boarded the bus argued ferociously with the conductor about their respective fares and I stared in amazement as the negotiation unfolded, wondering if, somehow, I could absorb some of the natural negotiating prowess each possessed. I watched through the bus window as a live chicken was decapitated before my eyes by a Nepali man preparing dinner on the doorstep of his rural home. On another stretch of road I saw a group of knife-wielding men huddled around a fresh buffalo carcass, skinning and carving up the dead beast. While it is decidedly more difficult to shock or impress me at this point in our adventure, there are times when I’m still amazed by the things that I see. But then again, it’s just another day in Nepal.

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July 18th 2008
Confessions of the Undercover Cootie Police

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A few days passed before we received a call from the white water rafting shop, informing us that a trip was going on the weekend. It was an overnight camping trip and before booking it, Aaron wanted to get another ultrasound to make sure that everything was okay with the bean. I had been experiencing some questionable symptoms but nothing definitive. We had inquired that morning of the Canadian raft shop owner which hospital was the best for foreigners. She recommended Manipal Teaching Hospital, which was also listed in our guide book. As we stood in the lobby of our hotel seeking help from the front desk clerk to arrange an ultrasound by phone, Aaron happened to spy an article on the front page of that day’s local newspaper reporting a strike of the entire Nepal Medical Association. The article stated that throughout Nepal, all non-emergency medical facilities were shut down until after the weekend. Hospitals were seeing patients on an emergency only basis. Well, this ridiculous situation called for a little emergency then. Determined to get our ultrasound, we exaggerated my symptoms a bit and the front desk clerk confirmed by phone that we could be seen at the hospital.

Anxiously we walked outside and hired a taxi for the thirty minute drive to Manipal Teaching Hospital. We arrived at the front entrance and slowly found our way to the Emergency area. I was almost immediately shown to a room with three beds – one was occupied by a young local girl and the two others were empty. The room was spacious but old with stains on the ceiling and faded paint on the walls. One of our first observations was that all of the windows were wide open, something you’d never see in an American hospital. Aaron completed the paperwork and we explained my symptoms with only slight exaggeration, to the young nurse as she checked my vitals. Then we waited an inordinate length of time for the ultrasound until my bladder was literally about to burst.

The ultrasound tech was a very serious middle-aged man with thick-framed glasses. The procedure was tedious and inconclusive; the tech’s most worrying utterance being, “Did you take a positive pregnancy test?” With his abdominal ultrasound he was not able to detect a discernable heartbeat, though both he and Aaron noticed a flickering on the ultrasound which could have been the minute beating heart. The good news was that a fetal pole had developed and the bean had increased in size at the appropriate rate since the last ultrasound. That was something. When you’re holding on by a thread, when your sanity is fragile, you grasp hard onto the slightest glimmer of hope. We later learned that the hospital did have a transvaginal ultrasound machine, but of course, that tech was on strike with the masses.

Back in the room, I grabbed a packet of tissues and made my way to the restroom. Yes, here we go again. And what, you may be wondering, were the findings of the Cootie Police this time? A bowlful of inexplicably vile bodily waste, droplets of blood on the floor, and the expected absence of paper and soap. I really cannot find the words to describe the magnitude of my revulsion, my natural instinct to run out screaming bloody murder and demanding to speak to the person in charge, and channeling all of my pent up germophobic frustration into a lengthy diatribe on the need for sterility and cleanliness, especially in a hospital, but in all the world as well. I had to put the lid on that madness and screw it on tight. God forbid a genuine emergency could bring me back here, my life in the hands of these filthmongers. Better to keep quiet and get out of here as quickly as possible.

After some time, a young medical understudy came in and reported that we should be admitted to the hospital for observation. At first, her words didn’t quite register and she continued talking about the recommended treatment. When suddenly it occurred to me that she had used the word “admittance”, I stopped her cold.
“Excuse me, when you say admittance, do you mean that you want me to stay here? Like overnight?”
“Yes. We have private rooms.”
“Oh no, I don’t think that’s necessary. If the situation worsens, we can just come back.”
Visions of the vile restroom ran through my brain like a film strip.
“In this situation, we usually keep pregnant women here for observation for a day or two. We can give you some shots.”
“No, I don’t want to stay here. We can do the shots or whatever you think is necessary but I’ll be fine in our hotel.”
To Aaron: “You’ll have to sign a medical release, saying that you are checking her out of the hospital against our advice.” Because I can’t sign the release for myself, apparently. Ugggh!
Aaron: “Fine.”
There was never any point in the conversation when either of us entertained the idea of leaving me overnight in that germ zone. For one thing, we had exaggerated my symptoms to create an “emergency” simply so that we could get the ultrasound. In reality, I was feeling fine and the ultrasound had given us some hope. We left the hospital and returned to our hotel. Aaron signed on for his rafting trip and we retired early, mentally preparing ourselves for our first night apart on the road.

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July 17th 2008
Pokhara

Posted under Nepal

After Kathmandu, Pokhara was like a breath of fresh air. Set against a backdrop of the Annapurna Himalayan mountain range and surrounded by lakes, the unabashed tourist town is a jumping off point for a host of outdoor and adventure activities. The streets were wide and the town had a very intimate, laid-back feel. Children played in the streets. Shopowners sat in their doorways. Everyone smiled and said “Namaste” as we passed by and there were as many cows and bicycles on the streets as cars.

We took a room at Hotel Snowland in the Lakeside area and negotiated a smokin’ deal for a deluxe room with A/C. It is monsoon season in Nepal, which means scorching hot days, wet evenings, and few tourists, so everything’s negotiable. We even witnessed a penny-pinching traveler haggling over the price of his latté. Our room was excellent and we stayed for a record nine nights, much to the hotelier’s delight.

With trekking off the table, we spent our days wandering the streets, eating lavishly in Lakeside’s cozy patio restaurants, wiling away the oppressive afternoons with HBO and A/C, shopping for knockoff North Face gear, reading, writing, and fretting madly over this temperamental little bean inside me. I’ve been a basket case at times and Aaron has been unconditionally patient, understanding, and supportive.

I was in the frame of mind to lay low in Pokhara and do everything possible to stay relaxed and prevent any further emergency room visits. As Aaron was feeling physically fine and needed some good distractions, we signed him up for a few adventure activities, the first of which was paragliding. I rode along for that one (in the truck, not the chute) and watched him leap from the top of the mountain and glide through the air over the breathtaking Pokhara Valley. I knew he was okay shortly after take off when I heard an ecstatic “Woohoo!” echo through the valley to which I replied, “You’re flyiiiiiing!” I excitedly snapped a dozen pictures of my falcon-like husband. As the driver and I made our way back down the mountain, we stopped to pick up an amazing sixteen locals, mostly women and children, to carry them down to town. I saw one woman pass him a bill but most paid nothing. There is just an unwritten rule that, if you have an empty truck and people need a ride, you stop for them. Though the extra stops prevented me from reaching the landing point in time for the landing, I was very moved by this beautiful yet commonplace Third World gesture.

The next morning, Aaron left early on a guided mountain biking adventure. One look at the incline of the surrounding mountains told me that I should sit that one out and the fact that the ride began at 6:00am just sealed the deal. He came back about four hours later, sweaty and covered in mud.

Mornings in Pokhara are a special time. All of the restaurants serve up hearty hot breakfasts, the air is cool, and the town shows its organic side as the farmers push their wheeled carts through streets and business owners step out to purchase fruits and vegetables fresh from the field. The farmer carries an old-fashioned scale: a wooden pole with a metal pan hanging from each end. He balances the scale on his shoulder, loads small lead weights on one pan and produce on the other. We noticed that he always erred a bit in the customer’s favor.

Women walk the streets with freshly caught lake fish dangling from a hook. They walk to each hotel and restaurant, opening the gills to display the red freshness of their insides, until they find a buyer. The town awakens slowly as shopowners groggily arrive to raise the doors of their garage-style stalls and set out their colorful displays. In the low season, there may be days where not a single customer comes in but still they go through the motions. Many of the shopowners live above or behind their shops. I stopped into a small garment shop to look at some shirts. An antique but very operational sewing machine sat on a table at the rear. When I asked the proprietor – a soft spoken, middle-aged man – if there was a place where I could try on the shirts, he led me through a small wooden door at the rear of the shop. Behind the door was a claustrophobic little box of a room with a bed, a small window, a two-burner stove, and some makeshift shelving. On the shelves were neatly arranged pots, pans, dishes, cups and utensils. Above the stove was a single shelf lined with canisters of tea and spices. It was clear that someone lived in that room. After seeing it, I bought three shirts and barely bargained at all.

On the main street in Lakeside, small-statured Tibetan refugee women walk all day long, peddling Tibetan handicrafts, which they keep in their backpacks, to all of the tourists. They are the meekest, most unimposing women with genuinely sweet smiles. They don’t harass in the slightest but they ask every time you pass if they can show you there wares. I sat down with them once in the beginning of our stay and let two of them unpack their booty of silver and beaded jewelry and traditional Tibetan trinkets. To be honest, it was all junk and I didn’t want any of it. I inquired about a couple of pieces, just to be nice, but that’s when I learned that their sweet smiles were those of savvy little extortionists. They wanted serious rupees for their wares and after a few minutes of haggling in the sun over things that I didn’t want in the first place, I thanked them both and walked away empty handed. After that, they still smiled and beckoned me to have another look every day, as did all of their friends, but the first sitting was painful enough and I couldn’t bear it again. Still, I can’t help but to think of them with anything less than total adoration.

As in India, there are many Hindus in Nepal. As such, the crime of killing a cow can land you in prison for up to two years. Cows walk, lounge, and relieve themselves wherever they like. We have grown accustomed to them by now. They’re docile, harmless, and they eat the garbage that people toss in the streets with reckless abandon. After only a few days, I had picked out my two favorites – a lookalike mother-calf pair – that walked our street each day. Strangely, and this is in stark contrast to India, you see beef on almost every restaurant menu. Not only that, there are steakhouses! This can only be explained by the synergy of Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal. There is no religious tension and religion does not factor into politics. The peaceful synergy is most strongly evidenced by the fact that Buddhists and Hindus often worship at the same temples in Nepal.

Pokhara, in its hazy mountain splendor, owes its most remarkable beauty to its people. Their vibrant colors brighten the valley like a blanket of flowers. The joy of Pokhara is in watching and interacting with the people; reciprocating their gentle smiles and humble manners and witnessing the beautiful simplicity of their lives.

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July 14th 2008
Kathmandu

Posted under Nepal

We arrived in Kathmandu after a long travel sequence feeling surprisingly rested. We took a taxi into the touristy Thamel district, where we had booked a room for two nights. As we rode into town, we took in our first glimpse of Kathmandu from the taxi window. The broken and pothole-ridden streets bore a striking resemblance to the streets of India: women walked in brightly-colored saris; the air was putrid from auto emissions and burning rubbish; rickshaw-wallahs snoozed between fares; farmers sold fresh produce by the roadside; the only traffic laws are 1) cows have the right of way and 2) it’s every man for himself. It felt good to be back amid what we feel is one of the world’s most fascinating cultures. At the same time, in my current state of volatile first trimester pregnancy, I yearned for the sterility of the Western World.

The hotel room was adequate, if not a little stuffy and cramped. It had Wi-Fi and satellite T.V. – a luxury that we haven’t had in months. We settled in and had lunch at the hotel before calling the travel medical clinic to see if we could do the ultrasound that afternoon, a request that was granted after some coaxing. We took a taxi to the clinic to pick up a referral for the ultrasound and then another taxi to the ultrasound lab.

The technician was capable and thorough, explaining everything he saw and speaking frankly. After the ultrasound, we returned to the travel medical clinic and waited while the clerk read the results to the OB-GYN by phone. After that, I spoke to the doctor directly. She explained what the ultrasound tech had already told us – things didn’t look promising. She said that I would probably be fine for the night but she would come to see me that day if I was upset. I told her that I was fine. She gave me her personal cell phone number and told me to call day or night if I needed to. Otherwise, we would meet at my original appointment time the next afternoon. We confined ourselves to the hostel that night and the following day, preparing ourselves for bad news.

Back at the travel medical clinic, we had arrived early and waited patiently for the doctor. She was a soft-spoken, middle-aged Indian woman sporting a nose ring and colorful sari. We introduced ourselves and moved into one of the examination rooms. We discussed the ultrasound results, which didn’t look promising, though it was too soon to tell for sure. The symptoms that I was experiencing pointed to miscarriage and we discussed our options. She suggested that we come back in ten days for another ultrasound. In the meantime, I could resume my normal activities, though trekking, rafting and travel to remote areas far from emergency medical services were out. We asked a lot more questions, taking full advantage of our English-speaking, Western-trained medical professional. Just before we left, almost as an afterthought, the doctor decided to do a pelvic exam.

There were no stirrups in the exam room. She asked me to lie back on the examination table and touch my heels to my buttocks. With a flashlight and a speculum, she gave me my first Third World pelvic exam. It was quite uncomfortable and I struggled to relax. When she finished, she said that, were it not for the ultrasound report, she would say that I was having a normal pregnancy. It was a glimmer of hope and though it was probably false hope, it was something to hold onto. Before we left, she gave me some painkillers for the cramping and a referral for the next ultrasound.

We tooled around Kathmandu for another day, taking in the city sights. We started with the Garden of Dreams, a splendid estate built by a young field marshal with funds won from his well-to-do father in a game of cowrie shells. The walled gardens were English-inspired, a nice contrast to the Asian gardens that we’ve admired in recent months. The property included several stately white buildings of European design and the pleasant terraced gardens with arbors, elephant statues, and a grand fountain full of carp. Young artists sat on the lawns, absorbed in their drawings. Families posed for photos and fed the fish while others lounged on shaded benches, enjoying the quiet oasis in the middle of bustling Kathmandu.

Next, we visited Durbar Square in the older part of town. Once the site of royal coronations, the square has more temples and shrines per square meter than anywhere we’ve been. Most of the buildings date back to the 17th and 18th centuries and little has been done to preserve or restore them. What I found most interesting about the religious structures in Durbar Square was how casually they were treated. People climbed all over them, lazing the day away on the upper levels and watching the world go by.

As we walked through the square, we were hounded by men offering guide services, beggars and saddhus, the “holy men” who live on alms. While Aaron was taking a photo of one of the temples, a spry old saddhu in a bright orange tunic and red turban scurried into his shot with a big smile on his bushy bearded face. We knew that he wanted money, of course, and Aaron put down his camera, asking the saddhu to move out of the way. “No money! No money!” insisted the saddhu. “No money.” Aaron repeated, and snapped his photo. Sure enough, the saddhu followed us around for a good five minutes after that, trying to extract a donation.

Next, we acquired another little follower, a boy of about eight or nine who walked alongside us, hounding me with questions despite my best efforts to gently discourage him. We knew that his interest was purely financial and he persisted for an impressive twenty minutes before finally getting up the nerve to ask me to buy him a biscuit. In hindsight, I probably should have. He was a sweet, shy little boy in an impoverished nation. This is the most emotionally difficult aspect of traveling among Indian and Nepalese culture. I group them because they are basically interchangeable, based on what we have seen so far.

The people of Nepal are truly impoverished and almsgiving is an integral part of religion and society. Still, it is disconcerting to see the way that any white face is perceived as a walking dollar sign. We experience the phenomenon time and again, both personally and as third party observers. The truth of the matter is that, despite or current status as homeless vagabonds with an ever-shrinking bank account, we are rich in comparison to the average Nepalese citizen. We tell ourselves that we should not reward the vile practice of begging so as not to perpetuate the white-face-as-dollar-sign stereotype. Sometimes I think we tell ourselves this to protect our own hearts from breaking when a filthy, barefoot, wretched-looking child or an elderly person or a severe cripple begs a handout and we look the other way. I think about all of the money and time that we once donated to American nonprofit organizations without a second thought; to organizations benefiting Americans who have access to social and welfare programs and opportunities beyond comprehension for a Nepalese citizen. Can I really not spare just a few rupees for everyone who asks? There are just so many people in need here, so many outstretched hands, so many desperate faces. Occasionally, I crack and start handing out money to everyone who asks until Aaron puts his foot down and reigns me back in. When I give, I never regret it. When I don’t, I mask my heartbreak with indifference. I think that, for the rest of my life, I shall remain conflicted on this matter. In the presence of dire poverty, I am plagued by my good fortune. I want to be good, to do right by my fellow man, but how much is enough?

Kathmandu was like a long awaited return to India. The vibrant colors, noise, traffic, pollution; the raw, unmasked hardship of life; the natural inquisitiveness of the people, the lack of personal space and the holy bovines together revived that familiar overwhelming shock of our senses. But things were different this time; I was different. I was in the first trimester of a presumably doomed pregnancy. Walking the noisy, congested, polluted streets was exhausting. The smells, the filth, the smoke and the spitting were nauseating. My senses of tolerance and patience were greatly diminished. I was overcome with a terrible homesickness, a desperate yearning for the First World, and I could tell that Aaron felt it too.

We decided that three nights in Kathmandu were enough and that the time had come to make our way to Pokhara. Our doc had given us her blessing to travel to Pokhara, though she strongly recommended the thirty–minute flight over the seven-hour bus ride considering my fragile state. The flight was more expensive and the scenery between Kathmandu and Pokhara was reputedly gorgeous but we were feeling more risk-averse than usual so we heeded the doc’s advice and ponied up for the plane tickets.

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