Who is going to pay for that? Who has so much money?
Who has so much pinke-pinke?
Who ordered it, anyway?
—German drinking song.
I was sitting by the fire in the tea room of the old Windamere Hotel in
Darjeeling on a cold winter afternoon. The Windamere is the sort of faraway
place where travelers whose paths happen to cross tend to talk to one
another unless they are British.
The pleasant looking woman in the next chair was Danish. She worked for
the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, UNFAO, and had come
out from their Rome headquarters to check on a project they had underway in
Sikkim to improve the lot of the farmers in rural villages.
This interested me for several reasons. For one, I had just come down
from Sikkim, a nearly vertical little place in the Himalayan foothills,
bounded by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, where the snows of Kanchenjunga, the
third highest mountain in the world, tower over everything. Sikkim had been
an independent kingdom until 1975 when it had been swallowed by India in a
move which the rest of the world appeared not to have noticed.
To my surprise, Sikkim was a relatively modern and progressive place,
much better off than anywhere else that I had come across in my travels
around India, and, unfortunately, much less picturesque than I had expected
such a far off place to be. I could have named, offhand, a dozen places in
the region — anywhere in Nepal for example — that seemed to need
developmental aid much more than Sikkim.
Another reason for my interest was that I had happened upon another,
unforgettable, help-the-rural-farmers project in Nepal fifteen years
earlier, which I had been told was also UNFAO sponsored. After seeing that
one I wondered what these people had in store for Sikkim?
In Nepal someone from UNFAO had realized that apple trees would grow well
at altitudes of around 2500 meters in the steep valleys leading up to the
high Himalayas. In such a valley below the Annapurna massif, with the help
of politicians in the capitol, Kathmandu, they had taken over the painfully
terraced fields where the villagers grew grain and cabbages. There they had
planted specially selected apple trees, carried in on human backs, brought
from somewhere far away.
The aid-givers realized, of course, that during the following six or
seven years while the apple trees were growing big enough to bear a crop the
villagers would have neither grain and cabbages to eat (because their fields
were planted in apple trees) nor apples to sell~ so money would be provided
to support the local economy until the apple crop came in. In accordance
with established UNFAO policies this money was handed to government
officials in Khatmandu for distribution to the affected villagers.
When I walked up through the valley ten years later the apple trees were
producing a bumper crop in virtual isolation. Most of the local people had
abandoned the valley years before because they no longer had enough land to
grow their food and because the promised support funds had, somehow or
other, gotten lost in Khatmandu.
So people were brought in from another valley to harvest the apples
which were put in handsome stone barns UNFAO had built and then left to rot.
A few were fermented into a rather unpleasant liquor which was consumed
locally. Some nearby tea houses on the trail to Jomoson offered apple pie
with their dhal bat. That was all.
The UNFAO officials who had planned the apple scheme had neglected to
find out if Nepalese villagers liked to eat apples — they didn’t — or if
they would be able to carry their apples somewhere and sell them for enough
money to buy the food which they used to grow for themselves before their
fields were planted to apple trees. They couldn’t.
The nearest town with road access so that apples could be shipped off to
market was three days walk away over the ridges and apples are heavy. The
most apples that a man could carry on his back for that distance could not
be sold for enough money even to pay for his journey. The few apples that
were for sale in the little town at the end of the road had been trucked up
from India at much lower cost. And so it goes.
The UNFAO project for Sikkim, as the nice Danish woman explained it,
proved to be considerably more complex than the apples for Nepal project of
yesteryear. It was to benefit the rural famers of Sikkim in three important
ways: more grain, more meat, and improved ecology, and it was already in
progress. More than a year before seeds of improved strains of grain,
genetically engineered for local conditions, had been shipped to the
Sikkimese capitol, Gangtok, for distribution to the rural villagers.
Alas, this had not yet been done. The Sikkimese Minister of Agriculture
had wanted to check the safety and quality of the new grains before
distributing them to his farming community. Accordingly he had planted them
on farms that he controlled himself to see how they grew. They had produced
a bumper crop. So much so that this year the Minister had planted the new
seeds on as much land as he could get his hands on. He planned to do this
for as long as it would take him to be certain that there would be no
harmful long term effects from the new varieties. After which the improved
seeds, fully tested, would presumably be distributed to those farmers who
hadn’t been driven out of business in the meantime. One of the purposes of
the Danish woman’s visit, she said, would be to urge the Minister of
Agriculture to speed up the distribution process.
The main purpose of her visit, however, was to try to locate a shipment
of motorcycle helmets which had gone missing somewhere between Rome and
(I am afraid that I asked her to repeat that.)
It was a little complicated. The UNFAO wanted to increase Sikkimese meat
production by the introduction of an improved breed of goat. This new goat
is larger and meatier than the indiginous Sikkimese goat and will eat almost
anything and thrive on it. Obviously, this last quality, unattended to,
would have unfortunate effects upon the local ecology, so UNFAO was taking
steps to avoid such damage. The Sikkimese villagers would be encouraged to
pen up their new goats instead of letting them run free as they do their
current, less meaty, goats. The villagers would now, of course, have to grow
goat fodder in their fields and carry it back to feed the penned animals.
Unfortunately these fields are often quite far from the villages. It can be
a long way to carry goat food.
The UNFAO had thought of how to make this new task easier for the
farmers. The UNFAO was going to give them motor scooters.
I swear to you that is what the pleasant woman told me. If I hadn’t seen
the Apple Plan in Nepal I would have been certain that she was putting me
There is more. Shipments of the motor scooters had already arrived in
Sikkim but, alas, they could not be distributed to the farmers. The shipment
of safety helmets which were to be handed out along with the scooters had
gone missing. The fact that in Sikkim protective helmets for motor scooter
riders are nowhere to be seen does not matter. The UNFAO has decided that
motor scooters may not be operated without protective headgear. And that is
that. The scooters cannot be distributed until the missing helmets can be
found or replaced.
Officials are looking into the matter.
I don’t know what has become of the meatier and more voracious goats.
Are they penned up and hungry or roaming free and ravaging? Maybe the
Minister of Agriculture is keeping them until the missing helmets are found
and the whole scheme can be properly put into motion.
I told the nice Dutch woman that I had just been traveling in the
countryside in Sikkim, that the villagers seemed well fed and well housed,
that the countryside is green and forested and that most of it is simply too
steep to farm. Fields are scattered here and there wherever a slope will
permit a terrace to be built to hold some soil. Most such terraced fields
are high above or far below the cliffside roads and can be reached only by a
steep and dangerous footpath. Not exactly motor scooter country. I pointed
out that motor scooters need gasoline which is very expensive in Sikkim and
that gasoline is available only in the towns, far from where most villagers
live. I told her that the little Sikkim goats run free and take care of
themselves while the farmers use their fields to grow food for their
families and that I hadn’t seen any evidence of goat damage to the
Then I got going on apples in Nepal.
And then I stopped and apologized and said that I hoped I hadn’t offended
She smiled and said that I hadn’t. She didn’t make UNFAO policy, she
said. This was done in Rome by UN appointees, many from third world
countries far away from (and far different from) Sikkim. Even if she didn’t
always agree with what was being done, her job was to see that these
policies were carried out in the best way possible. Right now her concerns
were to convince the Minister of Agriculture to pass along some of the
improved seed to the people for whom it was meant and to check on the search
for the missing helmets.
I said that both of these seemed like good ideas and I didn’t ask her
which local politician would be entrusted with the distribution of the motor
scooters once the essential helmets had been delivered. Then we changed the
subject, talked of shoes and ships and sealing wax for a while, and went off
to our rooms to change for dinner — something which you do at the Windamere
if you know what’s good for you.
What brings this all back, poignantly, is that I am seated at my desk
preparing my income tax return. Some of the money I must pay will certainly
go to the UN, as well it should, and some of that will certainly go to the
UNFAO. It makes one think a little. I wonder who got my motor scooter?
Want to bet?
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.