Walkabouts and wonders

"A life not examined is a life not lived" – Socrates

Tag Archives: Nepal

Faces

I had a lot of great times in the six weeks I spent in India and Nepal and there are still a couple of blogs I want to write about places that I went, but this one is a selection of some of the pictures I have of some of the people I met on my travels. Enough said.

A workman who passed me on my morning walk to the office.

A workman who passed me on my morning walk to the office.

A stall-holder in Pedong market

A stall-holder in Pedong market

A moment of relaxationfror mother and child - otherwise beggars in the main square at Bhaktapur.

Mother and child in the main square at Bhaktapur.  A little while earlier, they had been begging on the steet corner.

A monk in debate at the monastery in Lava.

Making a point – the daily debate at the monastery in Lava.

Preparing a rice paddy in Chitwan

Preparing a rice paddy in Chitwan

Getting up close to the action at a car workshop in Kalimpong

A car workshop in Kalimpong

A stall-holder in Kalimpong who regulalry supplied me with packets of cookies and bottles of water and pepsi.

My regular supplier of snacks and soft-drinks – a roadside shopkeeper in Kalimpong

Wash day in Kathmandu

Wash day in Kathmandu – just three more buckets out of shot.

 

Pictures of dedication

My visit to the Nepalese city of Bhaktapur coincided with the country’s New Year celebrations (it is now 2070 in their calendar) and the nine day festival of Bisket Jatra. As a Northern European, used to private and quiet religious celebrations conducted oncwe a week, this was a bit of an eye-opener, on all three fronts.

The chariot of Bhairab at rest in the main square.

The chariot of Bhairab at rest in the main square.

We arrived in the city on New Years’ Eve (13 April’ this year) which is also day 4 of the Bisket Jatra celebrations. Initially, it seemed like nothing more than the usual might be going on – we strolled around, took a couple of pictures, exchanged pleasantries with the flute peddlers and generally relaxed. But then the crowds started growing and moving and we with them. I have no pictures of that evening, so I shall just have to do my best with words.

Bisket Jatra is a nine-day celebration around a romantic story involving a couple of gods, a king’s cursed princess, several dead suitors and a hero. Intertwined with this story is one another, mystery tale, of the principle God and Goddess of the city being the wrathful aspects of Shiva (the destroyer) and his consort. Okay, so far? During the festival, the Gods are placed in great big wooden chariots that are dragged through the streets by groups of young men, who win the privilege in a giant tug of war that is held at the start of the festival. Moving these things on the cobbled streets is no easy task, either to do or control. Our hotel manager told us that the day before we arrived, two people were crushed to death under the wheels of Bhairab on his way to the upper square. He seemed quite excited about it.

The erect "pole" - the crosspiece is supposed to represent an evil snake that has been speared before it could bite the hero, before he could rescue the princess. Um.

The erect “pole” – the crosspiece is supposed to represent an evil snake that has been speared before it could prevent him rescuing the princess. Um.

That evening, we went to see the fourth day of ceremonies in the lower square. Here, literally hundreds of young men, surrounded by a crowd of thousands, worked to erect a 20m (60′) tree trunk on a plinth in the main square. I am afraid my picture from the morning after gives only a slight impression of the size, but imagine, if you can – around 200 men, dragging on eight ropes that are tied to the cross-piece. Their efforts are timed to the beat of a separate tree trunk being lifted and then dropped on the plinth (it takes three men to do just that) amplified by the shouts of the crowd. “Urah! Urah! Urah!” X frames built from the branches of the same tree (and held together by hand-made rope) are pushed into place to provide support, between bouts of effort. But with no guide ropes the pole frequently swings sideways, threatening the mass of onlookers who run away, screaming and laughing, returning in a few minutes when the panic has passed. True; there are armed police attempting some crowd control but any health and safety officers have quietly crawled away to be sick in a corner.

All I can say is that the excitement generated by this event made it clear that our English Maypoles and Morris Dancers have a thing or two to learn about Spring fertility rites! Especially, given that none of these things seemed to be organised in any systematic way. This is a festival of and by the people – while Hindus have their priestly caste, the Brahmins, their Sadhus and temple attendants, the life of their religion is carried in the blood and the dedication of the people. As demonstrated by these other scenes from the day after.

The throng aroun the base of the pillar, doing puja.

The throng around the base of the pillar, doing puja.

A plate of oferings to the gods.

A plate of offerings to the gods.

Morning offerings - take on New Years' Day, but something you might see at any time.

Morning offerings – take on New Years’ Day, but something you might see at any time.

Boys doing their thing - what else.

Boys, meantime, do what they do.

A shrine in the middle of the main square.

A shrine in the middle of the main square.

And if you need a nap, well, take it - and where better, but in the lap of the God.

And if you need a nap, well, take it – and where better, but in the lap of the God.

In closing, this one 24 hours probably taught me more about the true nature of India (and Nepal) than I could ever have expected. What unites these places is not their national boundaries or their politics, or even the religion. There are two main features I keep returning to. There is this irrepressible quality of eagerness and an appetite for living that is quite capable of sweeping all and everything before it; it runs throughout their society – vibrant, wilful, open; unmoderated and therefore dangerous, but exciting and captivating. But there is also this deeper seam of quiet, insistent and persistent dedication which expresses itself in the daily rites of puja that I witnessed everywhere I went – a core of value that seems to speak of something truly ancient and universal in humanity.

The Chitwan – a few more images

Looking back at my last two posts, I have realised that I am probably putting too many photos into some of my blogs, making for a bit of a messy experience for the reader. But, on the other hand, I really like some of my photos. So, for a while, at least, I am going to try putting less pics in with my main blogs, and supplementary picture posts, where I can’t resist. Let me know if you have any comments.

Only four this time, on account of the above –

A close up of the mother monkey from Chitwas Pt 1.

A close up of the mother monkey from Chitwan Pt 1.

Buffalo being herded home i the evening - I just loved the umbrella.

Buffalo being herded home in the evening – I just loved the umbrella.

A baby elephant at the brreding centre, struggling with that pesky thing, gravity.

A baby elephant at the breeding centre, struggling with that pesky thing, gravity.

Taken from the hotel's observation hut  - a great place to relax in the evening.

Taken from the hotel’s observation hut – a great place to relax in the evening.

The Chitwan, Part 2 – Surrounding lives and other gems

In part 1, I described the fantastic time we had on our jungle excursions. In this part, the focus is on the surroundings – the villagers, their livelihoods and interactions with the national park.

Wood enough for another day; an elderly woman on the way back from the forest.

Wood enough for another day; an elderly woman on the way back home from the forest.

We arrived at our hotel (The Hermitage) by the river in Sauhara at about 1.00pm and after a bit of time to get settled, set off for a visit to the elephant breeding centre, with a tour of a local, tribal village, en route . I have to say that I didn’t expect much from the tribal visit, but the histories described by our guide, the ever patient Mara who acted as our jungle guide the following day (see part 1) made it a bit special.

Cattle being driven home in the evening, to the safety of the village.

Cattle being driven home in the evening, to the safety of the village.

Villagers ploughing the rice paddies by hand, ready for the rains - the distant hut a nighttime lookout for marauding rhinos.

Villagers ploughing the rice paddies by hand, ready for the rains – the distant hut a nighttime lookout for marauding rhinos.

Drawing water from a household pump.

Drawing water from a household pump.

Buildings in the village - note the transition from mud, dung and thatch, to concrete block and tin roof. Sad, one might think, but the thatch has to be replaced every year and mud-walls rebuilt every three - are you going to do it?

Buildings in the village – note the transition from mud, dung and thatch, to concrete block and tin roof. Sad, one might think, but the thatch has to be replaced every year and mud-walls rebuilt every three – a tough job.

Before the 1950s, the Chitwan wilderness spread across a vastly larger area; home to tribal forest people who are collectively known as Tharus. With a peculiar genetic resistance to malaria and other insect borne diseases, they claimed virtually exclusive rights over this part of the Terai (the Nepalese lowlands). Here, for centuries, they maintained a physically demanding but independent life based on a shifting cultivation of rice and other grain crops, supplemented by hunting, fishing and gathering the fruits of the forest, right up to the 1950s. However, elsewhere in Nepal, since the 19th Century, as non-Hindu tribals, the entire Tharu nation was consigned to low-caste exploitation by the ruling Nepalese in Kathmandu. They lost land and other rights to become a source of bonded labour, a practice only outlawed in 2000. In the meantime, in the 1950s, the Nepalese  government embarked on a campaign to eradicate malaria from the area. Though Mara is only in his mid-30’s, as a Tharu himself, he vividly described how the government sent in inspectors to spray the area every two weeks for over ten years. Though we could not use such insecticides today, the fact is that the Chitwan has been malaria free since the 1960s.

two month's supply for cooking, gathered by hand, the old way.

two month’s supply for cooking, gathered by hand, the old way.

A replacement for forest-wood? Gas from manure deposited in the covered pit in the foreground, is piped into the houses for cooking through the year.

A replacement for forest-wood? Gas from manure deposited in the covered pit in the foreground, is piped into the houses for cooking through the year.

But that, of course, has cost the Tharu dear. No longer threatened by this mosquito born disease, and attracted by the fertile soils of this wide valley area, hundreds of thousands of Nepalese and Indian peasants flooded into the area, converting much of the former wilderness into productive farm-land.  Given their low-caste status, many more Tharu were pushed out of their old villages in this process and became increasingly marginalised in a fast evolving society.

Happily, since the turn of this century and the end of the civil war, Tharu rights have been improved and the survival of their village culture in places like the Chitwan has at least been respected in managing the park. Thus, while the villagers are no longer allowed to hunt in the park on the scale they once did, some individuals retain grazing rights for cattle and buffalo, while others are still permitted an annual quota of wood for firewood, at least for now. Hopefully, the flow of tourist dollars and government grants will continue, allowing the Tharu to move to more Chitwan friendly fuel supplies (either electricity or the natural gas production referred to in my picture) and to better paid activities in the burgeoning tourist industry.

River, man, fish - a 10,000 year old story.

River, man, fish – a 10,000 year old story.

Which reminds me of something which my host, Norden, in Kalimpong said, concerning his own conservation efforts. “We started out wanting to preserve this unique habitat [the Teesta river and surrounding hills and mountains] but after a while we realised that we couldn’t solve the environmental issues, if we didn’t solve the people issues, first”. And chief amongst those issues is overpopulation and its effects. For the moment, the Chitwan is being maintained by a close cooperation between the government and the local community, both aided by tourist and overseas dollars. But stories we heard from locals suggest that other areas in both Nepal and India are still suffering rapid loss of habitat to the pressures of population and farming. Nepal has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. Yet, this remains the least discussed issue on the environmental agenda; the one that no one seems to dare talk about. The Chitwan and the traditional ways of the Tharu seem safe for now, but for how long?

The Chitwan, Part 1 – Jungle encounters

Before this trip, I had always thought of Nepal as a mountain country, dotted with monasteries and small, isolated villages. Those things exist of course, along the Northern border with Tibet, but on this occasion, my instincts took me into another terrain altogether – the Chitwan.

The Chitwan National Park is one of the largest nature reserves left in lowland Nepal and is generally regarded as the most important. A vast area of flood-plains and swamps surround the East Rapti river which, because it doesn’t arise in the Himalayas, is much warmer than most rivers in this area and therefore supports a wider range of tropical wildlife.  After the end of the civil war, the army has cleared the area of poachers and many rare animals including the Bengal tiger and the Indian rhino are growing in numbers again. It is one of the most succesful conservation programmes in the  sub-continent. There are also wild elephants, sloth bears, deer and monkeys, and many smaller animals, too.  To aid their conservation efforts, the Nepalese government recently banned overnight stays in the park itself, and most of the hotels are now concentrated around the riverside town of Sauraha, where, we spent a total of two days. There was so much to take in, that I have divided this posting in two – part one relates to the wildlife, and part two to the life of the villagers.

Part 1 – Jungle walks and encounters

A rhino seen crossing the river - a first day sighting by our eagle eyed guide. The figure to the right is an uber-confident ranger

A rhino seen crossing the river – a first day sighting by our eagle-eyed guide and a terribly lucky one. The figure to the right is a park ranger – one of the 3,000 or so rangers, troops and policemen who keep the wildlife safe from poachers and the villagers (sort of) safe from the wild-life.

Our timing was excellent; arriving in a gap between larger parties, we had the undivided attention of two guides on our second day, the ever calm and unflappable Mara and his shorter, quick moving colleague, Nitesh. With just us two people to shepherd, our guides enjoyed the walk more themselves. They explained that if there are more than, say, five in a party, they rarely have the time to track things properly and in any case, the noise become too much for most of the animals.

The day begins with a trip up-river by dugout canoe - this a picture of another party

The day begins with a trip up-river by dugout canoe – this a picture of another party. Just one guide – I wonder if he’s told them about the crocodiles, yet.

Mara, leading us into the jungle; the stick he carries his, and our, only defense.

Mara, leading us into the jungle; the stick he carries his, and our, only defense.

After a journey up-river, bird spotting along the way (the colours on the kingfishers were magnificent, but beyond my camera skills to capture) we alighted on the opposite bank and entered the jungle proper. Now, the reality is that you can easily go a whole day on one of these walks and never see any of the larger animals at all. They are wary of humans and will tend to hear (or smell) you and move away, long before you get near enough to see them. To add to that, we were there pretty late in the season. The long jungle grasses had already reached two metres in places  – so we were pretty happy just with the odd signs of passage that Mara and Nitesh pointed out along the way.

The mark of a passing rhino? So reckons Mara.

The mark of a passing rhino? So reckons Mara.

But then, after a steady walk and a couple more photos of smaller beasties, our guides both froze at the sound of a loud rumble forwards and to our right. So began our first encounter with the rhinos that day…..

Mara shows me where two rhino were catching a little sun, before we (evidently) got too close and disturbed their rest.

Mara shows me where two rhino were catching a little sun, before we apparently got too close and disturbed their rest. Just behind us, the grass was still wet with a little wee – the rhino’s by the way – in case you were unsure.

I never actually saw the rhinos – but later worked out that Mara had got me within 30 m of this spot when we heard them get up. This is not far. This is in fact, rather close. Very close – an angry rhino can cover 30m in less than three seconds at full pelt. The above picture, by the way, was taken by Jules. She was up a small tree at this point – a doubly smart move really, because it put the best photographer in the tree and the best runner on the ground!

So, although we waited and Jules watched for a while, we didn’t see to o much of these two, nor the next two that we heard a little while later, fighting some way off. By that time, we had left the open grass lands and were threading our way along woodland pathways, pausing every so often as Mara or Nitesh pointed out the tracks of wild boar and deer, or the holes left by sloth bears rooting for termites.

Nitesh with Julie

Nitesh with Jules

Rhino tracks in a small wallow, overlaid with boar, deer and wildcat,... apparently.

Rhino tracks in a small wallow, overlaid with boar, deer and wildcat,… obviously.

A gray langur female and youngster

A gray langur female, her baby and a youngster. And a first for our guides – the youngster had previously been in the arms of the younger (sister?) the first time Mara had ever seen such group care, amongst these monkeys.

Eventually, about an hour late, we made it back to the river crossing (nah –

perfectly on time, bhai[1] – this is the Nepalese jungle, not Times Sq) thence to a late-afternoon ride on an elephant.

Two of our party following across the river. Happily, our mahout (driver) persuaded ours NOT to give us all a refreshing bath half-way across

Two of our party following across the river. Happily, our mahout (driver) persuaded ours NOT to give us all a refreshing bath half-way across

Those three grey bits sticking up out of the water are the ears and horn of a young rhino. Honest.

Being on the back of an elephant means that the animals generally ignore you – This a taken from about 5 m – those three grey bits sticking up out of the water are the ears and horn of a young rhino relaxing in a water hole. Honest.

We were incredibly fortunate and priveliged to see all this in just a single day and a bit. In total, we saw or heard five of these incredibly rare rhinos, besides deer, boar, monkeys and wild chickens. And it was a real eye opener to walk and talk with our guides. They are all highly trained (it takes about two years to get a licence as a guide, and it shows). They patiently pointed out and explained all sorts of things, from tracks to tree species and how to tell the difference between the two types of crocodiles on the river (one can eat you – the other can’t). And it was a real education to watch the way they moved through the terrain – not so much silent as “with-it” – always alert, but equally at ease – armed with only a metre long stick and a lot of nous. And yes, we did ask them about tigers, and yes, there are some in that area (we saw the evidence in the skull and rib cage of a long-dead, but large male deer) but yes, unless you have the time to track them (like a three or five-day trek) there is little chance of seeing one.

Thank goodness there are those in this world – governments and people – of sufficient vision and care to intervene and save these habitats and the beasts that live in them, despite the many pressures to do otherwise.

Part 2 in a few days time.


[1] “a familiar term of address in Nepalese – it means “little brother”.

Bengal or bust!

Follow the blue arrow.

Follow the blue arrow.

So, there it is. My trip to India has just taken a massive step on the journey from intention to realisation! Three months in West Bengal and Nepal, beginning in February, most of it working in a group of schools that are supported by a British charity! Today, I met with Anthony, who started the Mondo Foundation some twenty years ago and Hirsh, one of the Trustees who has special responsibility for the work in West Bengal. Both are charming, committed and articulate – our lunch-time meeting in a Nepalese restaurant by Euston served up a feast of anecdotes, character sketches of key personnel, stories of successes (and failures) and some pretty quick corrections on any of my ideas which they deemed unhelpful.

And I have to say that I really admire and am very inspired by what they are doing. It’s all about providing funds and help for specific projects that support the growth and improvement of locally run village schools in the Himalaya foothills, on both sides of the India/Nepal border. (e.g. new buildings for the schools, teacher training, work-packs for the children).

And what will I be doing? Yes, I will be doing some teaching – more on that in a later post – but most of my time will be spent on establishing an agricultural programme to provide extra, independent income for the schools and a new stream of educational opportunity for the children.  By the standards of Oxfam or Save the Children, it’s very small, but the assistance it provides to the villagers in their commitment to their children’s future is massive.

And of course, I will also get opportunities to explore and get to know the area and visit local places like Kathmandu, Darjeeling and Sikkim, as well as the cities I am likely to travel through – New Delhi, Poon and  Kolkatha over the three months I will be in India. It looks like being a very exciting time, with lots to do beforehand, the wonders of which I will blog, on the way.

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