Saturday, December 26, 2009

around dec 20th

We never hear from you, you never write....

This is incredibly long, as explained below, but please read all the way through. Please comment if the pictures don't work.

From Robin: We have a good excuse why we haven't blogged. The only access to the internet is through internet cafes, but every internet cafe – and in fact every business, every school, every activity in Nepal – has been shut down by a nationwide strike. So we couldn't have blogged even if we wanted to, and we have wanted to, all the time... so much to tell, so much we've seen and done.

The strike, which is to end Wednesday, impacted most of our choices and activities the first week. We only spent a couple of days in Kathmandu and then raced, and we mean RACED to Jeny's hometown of Pokhara out in the countryside (more on that later). There, the town was largely shut down for three days – no driving was allowed and no commerce of any sort – so we went for long walks, ate, wrote, went for more walks, ate some more.

One walk was particularly memorable; we got up at 5 on Monday and walked a couple of miles to a hillock at the edge of town where we watched the sun rise over the Annapurnas. It was the kind of thing we can only do because we are with Jeny – she knew all the twists and turns and guided us through the darkness to the light as she has been doing throughout this trip.

The walk up the hill was like all of Pokhara, undeveloped, rough, and littered. After walking a circuitous route through the edges of town, we started up a hill, mostly by path, with a couple of heave-oneself-over-the-ledges. At the very top of the hill was a single tree, shrouded like the rest of the town in fog and nearby there were yogis either doing yoga positions or chanting Om, and some very funny odd yogis doing “laughter yoga” where they would shout with laughter over the hilltops. There were also a few small groups doing typical athletic exercises, pushups and situps and whatnot and a small number of joggers who hit the top of that hill like “Rocky.”

This was the path we traversed in total darkness (Coop and Jeny's dad on right).

This was the tree at the top of the hill just before dawn with fog everywhere.

The mountains began to change around seven. Their tips began, one at a time, to turn pink and then yellow and then golden, and then the color changes would slowly seep down the sides of the hills. It was only much later that the sun actually began to rise, and it was amazingly quick, a matter of just a few minutes until the sun was high in the sky and most of the fog had burnt off. It was truly magnificent beyond all words.

Cooper found a huge spider between two trees which was nearly as big a thrill as the mountains.

All told, a wonderful morning.

And then we went home to tea and toast with Jeny's mom.

Walking in Pokhara

Walking down the main street

Love the juxtaposition of the holy cow and the holy cellphone.

Yummm, lunch!

Wonderful signs everywhere.

Visiting Ranjan's Family

We spent Saturday morning visiting Ranjan's family in the village of Char Ghare in the town of Kirtipur just outside of Kathmandu. His family lives in a small agricultural village and farms ancestral lands they have had for over a hundred years. We visited and they served us a wonderful meal made in their tiny kitchen with no counterspace at all; all food is prepared on the floor and cooked on two burners supplied by a cooking gas cylinder. The water comes from a public cistern at which women were washing each other's hair, gossiping, and staring at us. The area is tremendously fertile and famous for its cauliflower; all farming is still done by hand including carrying the harvest on one's back. They are surrounded by absolutely gorgeous small mountains. The whole family (three brothers, four sister-in-laws, four kids) lives in the same house and shares everything.

Ranjan's Dad

The Maoists by Kenzie

From Kenzie: On December 20th, one faction of Nepal's Maoist (Communist) party planned a nationwide transportation strike. They blocked the roads for cars and trucks and closed all shops, except for official vehicles and buildings. If you were driving or opened your shop on that day, the local Maoist party would attack and burn your shop/car.

On the night of the 19th the Maoists had big rallies in the center of every town. We had been driving for 7 hours to Pokhara, where more of Jeny's family lives. The main highway from Kathmandu to Pokhara, besides being very narrow and windy, passed through 5 rallies. All the Maoists had torches and were chanting. They also stopped cars and then let them through, one by one, probably as a threat to show “We have power.” Plus, they had big bonfires. There was 3 rallies in one town, and one group let us through, the second did too, but the third said “Who let you through!?” The third group was very angry and didn't want to let us go.

Driving to Pokhara: Saturday Afternoon, trying to outrace the strike

From Robin: We left Ranjan's family's house around 1:30, hoping to get to Pokhara in the usual four-and-a-half hours, thus avoiding the more dangerous driving after dusk. A set of unfortunate circumstances led us to instead crawling into Pokhara after 9:30 pm having gotten a full dose of what “lack of infrastructure” means in Nepal.

The road to Pokhara (a ten-day pony ride as recently as 1952) has only improved slightly. It remains a narrow winding barely two-lane road, which sounds like “oh, interesting, winding,” but in fact it means that when there's an accident or a breakdown traffic is wrecked and I mean wrecked. There's no breakdown lanes, no passing lanes, no room for error at all. Jeny says she sees one or two accidents per ride, and we saw our share. But one can't guess when they happened – “no infrastructure” also means there's no tow trucks, so wrecked or broken down cars or trucks just sit until they're repaired or slowly (piece by piece) carted away, a process that can take weeks. In the meantime, traffic has to get around them so somehow some police-less process is worked out with five or ten cars going around the wreck in one direction, and then five or ten (or twenty) cars go around it in the other direction.

We hit one of these right away and traffic stalled for over an hour, slowly and painfully inching forward first around a broken down truck, and then around an ill-advised car who had tried to outmaneuver the traffic jam and had himself ended up a penned-in obstacle in the road.

So the first ten miles took 90 minutes and it was hot and irritating. The last ten miles also took 90 minutes but were uncertain and scary. About 10 miles outside of Pokhara, after over six hours in the car (with one brief stop at a “rest stop” complete with open-air restaurants, small stores, public restrooms and a fabulous farmers' market), we encountered the first of three groups of torch-bearing Maoist demonstrators in the middle of the highway at village centers. The first group was just sort of eerie, a group of about thirty young men carrying torches and standing in the middle of the highway in the now-complete darkness. We crawled through with Jeny cautioning us not to take pictures and saying, “Oh, what a hassle.”

The second, a few miles down the street at another village intersection, stopped the car completely and said we couldn't pass. Jeny's dad and Jeny both argued with the men, and tried to push the car through anyway. Several torch-bearing men shouted at us and came close to the windows. Jeny's dad put the car into park and got out and talked to some of the guys. I don't know what he said (it felt like he was saying “Are you kidding, come on, the strike hasn't started yet, I've got children in the car, you can let me through, right?”) but whatever it was, it worked, and we plowed through most of the crowd until the very end when the car was again blocked by men saying we couldn't get through and who gave us permission anyhow? Jeny and Jeny's dad kept talking out the window and we made it through the edge of the crowd.

Cooper had (blissfully, blissfully) slept through all of this but Kenzie was sitting next to me rooted to the spot. At one point he asked me what was going on and I tried to explain as quickly and succinctly as possible, which was probably not terribly illuminating. During the second crowd he said something like “What can we do here?” and I said, “You know, we really have no control at all over this situation, it's all up to Jeny and her dad.” Then after we got through the second much more scary crowd we drove along in silence and then he said, “It feels to me like you feel troubled.” What a sweet word! I said, “Yeah, this is a troubling situation. These guys can stop our car, they can delay us if they want to. We don't have any choice but to obey them.” There was a long silence and then we talked a little about communism and what not and then I said, “So what do you think would be the most important thing to take with us if they made us get out of the car?” And he said what and I said “Passports. You always want to have your passports.”

So I asked Jeny to pass me back my purse and I got out the passports and gave them to Kenz, and then got out all our money and my credit cards and asked Kenz to carry half the money and I secreted the other half away. And I think we both felt a little better having a little plan, that little bit of control. And we tried to wake up Coop a bit but then decided to let him stay asleep, and I think we both felt a little better making that decision, too.

It was good to have that little period of peace because then we drove into another village with the biggest crowd of all. They were more organized and bigger and had already started redirecting traffic so that cars couldn't drive through the middle of the highway but instead had to go to the left onto a dirt road that went around the crowd and headed back on to the highway. There were already cars and buses being forced to take this detour, and some of them were having trouble maneuvering over the potholes of the dirt road. Jeny explained that we might have to get out of the car in order to lighten the car up so its low bottom could get over the rocks and Kenz and I agreed we would get out together and leave Cooper behind. I don't quite remember how it came to pass, but suddenly Kenz and I were standing on the side of the road while Jeny directed her dad over the rocky path. We were on the edge of a group of women and children who stared at us with big eyes reflected in the torchlight. I immediately began smiling at the children and saying “Namaste” and Kenz followed my lead; the kids auto-responded with uncertain smiles and ritual bows; I then started making eye contact with the beautiful confused-looking women (one moment they're living by the side of the highway, the next moment they're watching nervous foreigners being ordered around by men with torches). I figured it never hurts to have the women on your side, and it felt like the only way to have a personal contact in an utterly foreign situation.

The incident was over in less than a minute, the car made it to the road, we opened the cardoors, jumped in, and slammed all three doors at once. Cooper never once moved. We made it home without seeing any other gatherings, and pulled into Jeny's driveway thankful and beat.

This is the broken-down truck that caused all the trouble in the first place. The driver, who unfortunately can't be seen in this shot, looked remarkably calm for having backed up traffic for hours in both directions.


  1. The pictures didn't work on my end. Great great story though! What an adventure!

  2. Wow! Thanks so much for sharing your adventures. That is quite a story. (and I couldn't load the pictures either...)
    - Susan M.

  3. Intense! I'm happy I'm back here in Arlington.


  4. Oh, the pictures don't work here either. Just gray boxes. :(

  5. alright i cant fix that now due to the slow internet and amount of time I have at this cybercafe and the sheer number of pictures, but ill try to figure something out soon