1) NATIVES ON THE TOURIST BUS
In the “exclusive, air-conditioned” Kathmandu-Pokhra bus, a young foreign woman asked me how much I had paid for my bus fare. When I told her, she screwed up her nose in disgust and spat out, “That’s SO unfair. Totally unfair! It’s the same everywhere. We foreigners always end up paying more for everything, officially and unofficially. For airfare, bus fare, hotel rooms…you’d think now, for once, they’d lower the prices, since there are NO tourists, thanks to the Maoists…”
I interrupted her. “Did you know that until about six months ago we Nepalis were not allowed to ride in this so-called ‘tourist’ bus?”
No way! That’s discrimination. They can’t do that.”
“Well, they did.”
“Why would anyone do that? I mean, you are Nepalis, this bus is owned by Nepalis and—”
“Something about our government policy. You see, our local buses are often in terrible shape and thus not the safest way to travel. And if everyone was allowed to travel in these so-called tourist buses, the local bus owners would probably become bankrupt. At least that was how it was once explained to me.”
“But now that there are almost no foreign tourists in Nepal, Nepalis who can pay the price of the ticket are allowed to ride in these buses. So we rich, privileged Nepalis are like those Japanese tourists who used to be considered ‘honorary whites’ in apartheid South Africa,” I joked.
“Yeah, I guess it’s unfair all around. You know, the last time I took this tourist bus, the air-conditioning didn’t work, so we demanded compensation. You know how much they gave us? Five rupees! Five rupees! Can you believe it?”
The price of a one-way ticket to Pokhra from Kathmandu for tourists like her was ten dollars, nearly 800 Nepali rupees. In a “local” bus, the roundtrip fare would cost almost half the amount. Her name was Ann and she was an ex-Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. She had come back to visit her Nepali family and friends, and to find out for herself if the Maoists were really causing as much mischief as everyone claimed. Her first stop was Pokhra, then a trek in the Annapurnas, and if time permitted, a few days “doing the jungle thing.”
During the six-hour, 200 kilometer journey, besides stopping for tea-and-pee and lunch break, the bus was occasionally stopped for security check. A six-year Maoist insurgency has been going on in Nepal, and so far, it is estimated that nearly 3,000 people have been killed. During these checks, all bus passengers have to step out, carrying their belongings with them; they often have to walk a couple hundred yards to the check point or the local police station where they are frisked and their bags examined. These checks are especially difficult for the sick and the elderly, and depending upon the number of people on a bus, the check can last anywhere from a half hour to an hour. But we were in an exclusive tourist bus, and since tourism has declined drastically lately—between 50 to 80%, depending upon destination, according to government statistics—there were just under a dozen on our bus, and half of them were foreigners. So when our bus stopped for security checks, an armed security person stepped in, scanned our faces cursorily, and left. It seldom lasted more than fifteen seconds.
2) BEST-DEAL HOTEL
Ann led the three of us to her favorite hotel. She and her Peace Corps friend often stayed there. “Nothing fancy,” she said, “but clean and comfortable. Attached bathroom in every room, and the deluxe room has a color t.v. But you know something even better? It has running hot and cold water all the time. I once stayed at a different hotel in Pokhra, and even though I paid more and hot water was promised, it didn’t have any. The next morning, I deducted one hundred rupees from my hotel bill. The owner tried to argue, but I told him in Nepali that I’d go and complain to the Pokhra tourist office, and that was the end of the discussion. You can’t let people walk all over you, know what I mean?”
It was a family-run modern lodge by Lake Fewa, the tourist ghetto of Pokhra. The three-story concrete structure was empty. Ann didn’t recognize the man behind the counter, but he offered us his “best deal.” Three hundred rupees per night, color t.v. included. We took four rooms, and true to his words, each had a color t.v. I noticed that there was no toilet paper or soap in the attached bathroom (which was quite large and quite clean). When the man brought a freshly laundered towel, I pointed out the absence of soap and toilet paper.
Pretending to be somewhat shocked, he demanded, “Oh, you need toilet paper too? We normally give it to foreigners only.”
I waited for him to say something more, but he gazed at the ceiling lackadaisically. It was late May and the weather was hot and muggy. I noticed that my window looked out into a marshy paddy-and-corn field and a bamboo grove, which to me was a sure sign of bloodthirsty mosquitoes running amok as soon as the sun set. “Umm, what about a mosquito coil or some kind of an anti-mosquito electrical gadget?” I inquired with trepidation.
“There are no mosquitoes.” The man uttered those words with such finality that I became convinced that every mosquito within a hundred-mile radius of Pokhra had been eliminated “with extreme prejudice.” “There is hot water in the bathroom, of course?” I said stupidly. I felt I had to have the last word, and not let him walk all over me. Ann would disapprove of my wimpiness. The man marched into the bathroom and turned on the shower. I was glad to see a fountain burst forth. Treacly showers have to be one of the most annoying features of any given hotel anywhere. You’re afraid to soap yourself for fear that it will be the next millennium before the soap is washed away. “Here, test it for yourself.”
“No, it’s okay. By the way, do you have a restaurant here? I would love a cup of tea.”
“I’m sorry, these days, there are so few tourists that we have abandoned cafeteria facilities. You’ll have to make such arrangements yourself.” He left abruptly. I turned on the t.v. and was rewarded with the hiss of electronic snow on the screen. I didn’t have the heart to summon the man.
3) CONVERSATION WITH A GUIDE
I was in Pokhra to meet Mohan, a trekking guide. His sister’s education was being funded by two American friends of mine. I was there to give him money. Mohan didn’t have a phone, but his neighbor did, and acted as a messenger whenever necessary. I called the neighbor and told her to tell Mohan to meet me at our lodge in a half hour.
Mohan arrived with his young sister, Shanti, whose education was being funded. He had also brought with him her report cards and other school documents indicating that the money was being put to proper use. Shanti was a bright-eyed girl of about thirteen and was about to begin seventh grade. Her report cards showed that she was an intelligent student and was doing well in school, although Mohan muttered that lately she was not working as hard as she used to, and that her grades were beginning to slip.
I looked at her and made the usual noise about the importance of hard work and good grades for one’s future success. But even to me, my brief exhortation regarding the importance of academic excellence for future success sounded hollow. I noticed that she was smiling slyly, her dark eyes darting mischievously. While examining the report cards, I noticed that Shanti’s last name was different from Mohan’s. I knew he had two mothers, but I now wondered if Shanti was his own sister or a cousin. Mohan’s explanation about the discrepancy in the family names was a bit of a shock. Mohan belongs to an untouchable caste. When he took Shanti to be enrolled at school, the teachers there advised him to register his sister under an upper-caste Brahmin name, so that the other students in the school would not discriminate against her if they found out that she was an untouchable. Here we were in Pokhra, a hedonistic Mecca for the Western backpackers as well as the Nepalese elite, but just under the veneer of this mock modernism lay the rigid prejudices of Hindu orthodoxy and suffocating traditionalism.
I asked Mohan how many tourists he’d guided recently.
“Oh, three or four—it’s very difficult these days. There are so few tourists. If this continues, I’m not sure how I’ll make ends meet. In fact, I was going to ask you about something.”
“I’m thinking of leaving Nepal and going to Dubai or any Arab country. Can you help me?”
Three years ago when I first met Mohan, I had asked him if he had thought of going abroad to work. He had said his hope was that someone from America or Europe would sponsor him and invite him, as had happened to so many other tourist guides, but he had not been so lucky. What about the Gulf countries? Saudi Arabia? I had asked. No, he had said, he had no desire to go there. He was better off at home. I had the impression that he didn’t like Arabs. I detected in him a trace of the Hindu’s distaste combined with superiority over the Muslim. Perhaps the irony escaped him that he himself was a so-called “untouchable” within the Hindu society. But now things had become so desperate that he was willing to overcome his prejudice against Arabs and Muslims and work in their countries.
“I really don’t know anyone who sends people to Arabia, but I can check. But you’ve been a trekking guide. What will you do there? Usually they look for waiters, drivers, brick-layers, carpenters, that sort of thing.”
“I know a little bit of accounting. After all, I have a Bachelor’s degree in business. Besides, I’m willing to work as a waiter, a security guard, anything, as long as I can make some money.”
“You know that these ‘manpower’ agents ask for a lot of money from those who want to go abroad. And there are so many stories about these innocent people being cheated by unscrupulous agencies. Newspapers have published stories about this.”
“But there are honest agencies too. I will find the money if you can find someone who will help me go to Arabia. I’m not very hopeful of the future.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.
4) AN EVENING PROMENADE
In the evening, we went out to buy the necessities that the lodge had not provided—toilet paper, soap, mosquito coil. The muggy afternoon heat had been replaced by a cool evening breeze wafting from Lake Fewa, if not the mighty Himalayas themselves, which at the moment were totally hidden behind towering banks and vast, plump, pillowy gray-black monsoon clouds. As we traversed the Lakeside area, I was quite rattled by the overwhelming atmosphere of inertia and lethargy, even a surging undertow of hopelessness. Just over a year ago, when I had last been here, there was still an aggressive commercial bustle, the kind that makes both ‘travelers’ and tourists complain with mock exasperation, “I wish there weren’t so many tourists”; when sensitive “ecotourists” are forever fretting about the loss, if not grotesque distortion, of the local culture and tradition because of the invasion of the Western hordes who litter the town and the trekking trails with empty plastic bags and empty plastic mineral water bottles, And as for the women—well, the less said of their scandalously provocative clothing, and sometimes their behavior too, the better.
There was little traffic on the newly-paved road; taxi-drivers leaned out of their windows and made half-hearted attempts to attract our patronage; hollow-eyed, gaunt looking shop-keepers, restaurant waiters and fruit juice vendors watched us silently as we walked by. There was little bantering or playfulness, as there used to be. Lake Fewa was as empty and still as the brightly painted wooden boats abandoned at the shore. It was sad to be a tourist in a resort town where the pervading atmosphere was that of a grim funeral.
After our purchase, we followed Ann who was taking us to her favorite “Happy Hour” restaurant. Perhaps indicative of that thick fog of hopelessness that hovered over Lakeside, her favorite restaurant didn’t have the tongba (home-made brew) that she so craved, and the bottled beer, the waiter told us, was “not so cold.” The ganja-induced, trance-like reggae rhythm echoed forlornly, adding to the hollow emptiness of the restaurant. Dejected, we returned to our lodge.
5) LAKESIDE BREAKFAST
We awoke to an overcast sky, punctuated by sleep-inducing drizzle. The man was nowhere to be seen, but an old lady had taken his place at the reception desk. She appeared kind and hospitable, so I asked her if it was at all possible to have a cup of tea for the four of us. We would’ve gladly gone out, I explained, but since it was early in the morning and raining…and of course, we’d pay her.
“Not to worry. I’ll have tea and biscuits for you in fifteen minutes,” she said. “I was going to make tea for you all yesterday too, soon after you arrived, but my son-in-law, you see, he’s running the hotel because my son is in America and my daughter is in Japan, you know how it is these days, there is no business, no work, no money, so they’ve gone abroad, well, anyway, he, my son-in-law, said you were going out to eat in a restaurant, so I didn’t have the chance to make tea for you yesterday. I’m so happy you’re here. Did you sleep well? We get so few people these days. For weeks, we get no guests, and I become afraid of the house because it’s so empty, and I begin to think of ghosts and evil spirits. I’m so glad you’re here. You’ll stay a few more days, won’t you? But first, your tea. Don’t go anywhere. Nothing is open just now. I’ll be right back with your tea. Make yourself comfortable. Think of it as your own home and not a hotel, okay?”
After her excellent, hot milk-and-sugar tea, we went out to have a proper breakfast. Besides, the man had returned, and he gave us a dirty look as we languorously sipped our tea and nibbled at the biscuits on the balcony. The rain had stopped and the sun had poked holes in the oppressively gray cloud blanket. Patches of blue appeared where the clouds had begun to drift apart. We were beginning to feel lighthearted and frisky.
We chose a popular Lakeside garden restaurant. It was empty; the waiters were playing cards. Two of them hurried over to us and pulled out the chairs and made a fuss as we sat down. Another waiter brought the menu, and all three of them hung around to serve the four of us.
“How is business?” I asked one of them.
“Oh, Sir, don’t ask.”
“Tell me, anyway.”
“It’s terrible. Never been like this before, at least not that I can remember, and I’ve been a waiter for a long time.”
“What kind of money is the restaurant making these days?”
“Oh, very little. We’ve laid off half the staff, and may have to lay off more soon. It used to be that we used to easily make over one-hundred-thousand rupees per day during the normal tourist season.”
“Oh God, let’s see, we’re happy if we make ten thousand per day these days. Have you decided?”
A foreign couple arrived just as we were finishing. The card game broke up once again, and three waiters rushed out again to pull out the chairs and set the table.It turned out there were bargains galore in Pokhra, especially if we wanted to stay in luxury hotels (meaning they had swimming pools). Ann was going on a trek later that day, and we were hanging around with her in a local travel agency where she was arranging a three-day Chitwan jungle safari. I asked the agent what it would cost us Nepalis for a one-night stay at, say, the Shangri-La Resort or the Bluebird Hotel.
“With or without breakfast?” he asked and reached for the phone.
“With, of course. But don’t call just yet. I’m just curious. I’m not sure we can afford it.”
“I’ll make sure you can,” the agent said confidently and began to dial.
“Hello, hello? Oh fine, just fine. Look, I’ve got some friends of my boss here, yes, they’re from Kathmandu and they want to stay one night, possibly two, if the price is right, with breakfast, naturally.”
Well, for friends of the owner of the travel agency, it was only going to cost us two thousand rupees per night, deluxe room, with breakfast. The normal rate during normal tourist season was four thousand rupees per night, breakfast NOT included, etc. It was a tempting offer, but we declined. After all, for three hundred rupees, we were quite happy in our modest lodge, even if it meant buying our own necessary supplies. And I didn’t have the heart to leave after the old lady’s excellent tea and her fear of an empty, ghostly house.
6) THE SUFI OF POKHRA
Perhaps you pride yourself on knowing that Cheerapunji in India is the wettest place on earth, in terms of rainfall, that is. Well, my friends, there are occasions when you’ll be convinced that in fact the wettest place on earth is in Nepal—in Pokhra. We experienced one such terrifying downpour on our last night in that forlorn resort city. We had just finished our dinner at a Chinese restaurant, surprisingly busy because it was patronized mostly by locals, and not the jholes (a rather derisive vernacular term for the foreign backpackers; a jhola is a bag), who, after a basic diet of daal-bhaat-rice and lentils on the trek, will descend like the proverbial locusts to devour pies, ice cream, “steek” and chips, spaghetti in “bologna” sauce, pizza, hamburgers, gallons of beer and other Western delicacies in the Lakeside restaurants.
Even as we stepped out of the restaurant, our lips still tingling with the after-taste of the fiery Szezchuan sauce, a stiff but cool, welcome wind stirred us. Within seconds, it seemed, a whirlwind was approaching us. It whipped up the detritus by the roadside—loose sheets of paper, multi-colored plastic bags, candy wrappers, dried dog droppings—and scattered it in its wake. As it passed us, it almost stripped one of the women of her sarong.
Raindrops fell, drops as large and round as the famous oranges of Pokhra. The drops became a slanted sheet so that they hit our eyes and faces, forcing us to cover our faces and bend our heads. The power of the downpour appeared to create an ankle-high mist hovering over the pavement and the road. The green, verdant hills—and the mountains that still remained hidden behind the mass of dark clouds—reverberated with the sound of thunder, even as streaks of lightning lit up the darkness. Suddenly there was total darkness. Electricity had failed. Rain fell in torrents, and we knew we’d be soaked to our skin if we tried to run to our lodge, perhaps a three-minute walk.
A shopkeeper lit a candle, and we dashed towards that flickering glow. It was a tiny jewelry shop, as cramped, cluttered and tiny as a studio apartment bathroom. Behind a glass-topped display case, the single candle glow illuminated a youngish, stubbled face with crow-feet-lined, bleary eyes. It appeared as if he had not slept very well recently. A Kashmiri merchant, I thought. He got up from his low stool as we rushed in, exaggerating the clutter and the cramped space. He bowed slightly and said, “May I get you something to drink? Something hot—or cold?”
“You must be joking!” I exclaimed. “In this weather?” I waved outside at the downpour that threatened a deluge that might require yet another Noah to rescue every creepy, crawly organism on earth.”Is no problem. I have an umbrella, but—” he paused dramatically, “perhaps you would like to use my umbrella to get to your hotel, no?”
“There are four of us,” I said.
“No problem. I have other umbrellas.”
“No, thank you. You are very kind. We just had dinner, so we don’t want anything.”
“Hot tea? Good in this bad weather,” he persisted.
One of the three women I was with rescued me. “How much for this bracelet?” she asked, grasping urgency in her voice.
He took two steps over to where she was bending over and peering into a glass case. “That one, Madam? Oh, well, just for you eight thousand rupees.”
“Is it emerald? It’s too dark for me to tell.”
“I’ll be frank with you. No, it’s not genuine emerald, but it’s very high quality, well-cut polished glass. Foreigners will happily pay me three hundred dollars. But you are a Nepali.”
“Are you Kashmiri?” I asked him.
“How long have you been in Pokhra?”
“Nearly fifteen years?”
“Soon after troubles began in Kashmir?”
“How many of you are here?”
“Many. There are many of us.”
“But now we are having problems in Nepal too. Has it hurt your business?”
“No. I’m doing fine. But you see, I leave everything to God. I’m not greedy. And God has been kind to me.”
“Are you a Sufi?” I asked gingerly. I assumed he was Muslim, but not all Muslims like to be identified as a Sufi.
He nodded his head vigorously in assent. I had just finished reading a book about some Sufi saints, and we began to talk about Sufism. I should say “Pro. Ali” (as his card identified him, and the “Pro” I assumed was for “Professor”) spoke and I listened. He loved everyone, he said, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jew. Sufis hated no one, not even Jews. They wanted to live in peace and let others live in peace. He had a Sufi guru, somewhere in Kashmir, whom he visited once or twice a year.
“Isn’t it dangerous for you to visit Kashmir?” I asked.
“Is it dangerous for you to visit Pokhra?” he retorted.
“But we hear about Indian and Pakistan armies killing civilians on both sides.”
“I’m a simple man. I hate no one. I’m not afraid when I visit my home. There are many people who go about their daily lives undisturbed. I have no problem when I visit Kashmir. You see, Kashmiris don’t want Indians or Pakistanis to rule us. We want to be free, just like Nepal.”
A female voice asked, “And what about this necklace?” The women had been examining the jewelry display while Pro. Ali and I had engaged in Sufi talk. He hopped over to them. Earnest bargaining followed. Pro. Ali’s convincing—but repeated—line being “For foreigners, Madam,