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Travel and World Culture   
  Photo: Irina Efremova
 Photo: Irina Efremova

Nepal: The God Of Fire, Sacrifice, Lightning And Renewal  
By David Hammerbeck

Waiting in the sparse, worn provincial air terminal, I examined the names of the airlines posted over the temporary ticket stalls: – Air Buddha, Cosmic Air, Yeti Air, Air Agni.  The latter airline, named after the Vedic god of fire, sacrifice, and lightning  (not a particularly auspicious name for an airline), would be carrying 18 of us in a small prop plane in around an hour.  Agni additionally, I later found out, was the God of digestive power, ironic, I thought, as something in my stomach had been wreaking havoc for the past two days.  But the fact that I was even there at the airport with money, with a ticket and would get back to Kathmandu and hopefully out of the country before the political standoff escalated into a civil war or a revolution was in itself no small feat.

My first inkling that the political situation really might be reaching a breaking point came on the bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara.  Another bandh, or general strike was due to start in two days, which meant that all ground transit would be halted.  So I had to get to Pokhara and then hire a taxi to get to the base of the trek at Phedi. 

I had been keeping abreast of the deteriorating situation courtesy of online editions of The Himalayan Times and The Kathmandu Post; however, the true situation remained murky, confusing, with contradictory accounts of events coming almost hourly.  It was difficult to ascertain just exactly what was going on.  Did the Maoist rebels really pose a threat to my personal safety, or had Western news sources distorted the reality on the ground? 

Many trekkers and climbers in Nepal, or those who had recently returned, routinely denigrated the alarmist Western press, stating that when encountered, the Maoists were friendly, polite, and when they did ask for a “donation,” 100 rupees a day for each day of your trek (about $ 1.40 a day), they would issue you a receipt.  If you encountered other Maoist groups on the trail, your receipt would testify to your previous generosity, and no further contributions would be necessary.  They collected this fee as the government demanded a 2000 rupee per person fee for trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area - an area they no longer controlled.  Many Westerners posed for pictures with the “rebels” – a bit odd to call them rebels, since for years they had controlled most of Western and Central Nepal and were providing social services that the King’s government had been unable or unwilling to provide for years.  The axiom “good government is local government” seemed to indicate that it was the Maoists, not King Gyanendra, who were most able and fit to govern.  But since various Western democracies insisted on labeling the Maoists as terrorists, to the world audience they appeared to be some sort of Himalayan Al Qaida, or descendents of the Khmer Rouge.  My mind wandered over images of pastoral terror as the rural countryside, hazy with smoke, deforested and impoverished, flitted by outside the bus window.

The highway from Kathmandu to Pokhara, an eight hour white knuckle ride through twisting mountain valleys, was dotted with army check points replete with bunkers and machine-gun nests, patrols, army blockades where the traffic would slow down and weave sinuously through barbed-wire and steel obstacles, Maoist road blocks fashioned from rocks, tires, and charred heaps of god knows what, and the occasional burnt-out bus or car by the side of the ride, served as a reminder to drivers or transit companies of what happened to those that refused to honor Maoist strikes. 

Near Dumre a large army patrol crouched, fanned out on a hill to the right of the highway for about a hundred meters, alert and on the ready, their eyes scanning across the valley for the unseen enemy, the threat of an imminent attack.  The peaceful and verdant lower hills of the Himalayas, the homeland of the Buddha’s philosophy of compassion and enlightenment, now played host to the constant threat of violence and death.

The situation in Pokhara made manifest the paradox of political unrest in this Himalayan kingdom.  This small hill station resort, with its placid lake, forested hills and the Himalayas lurking unseen behind the springtime haze, should have been the perfect, idyllic resort town.  And though some locals and tourists still strolled languidly on the Lakeside roads, the streets bristled with heavily armed police and army squads; and the King’s palace squatted behind machine guns nests, barbed wire, sand bags and armored vehicles.

UN Human Rights vehicles drove along the lakeside drive past shops and restaurants sparsely populated with Western tourists; the economic stream of dollars that sustains this impoverished nation had virtually dried up.  I could not reconcile the dichotomy between the natural setting and the political situation: a mountain paradise armed to the teeth, a serene spring day that set everyone on edge.  Sitting on the roof top terrace of my hotel, with the lake a block and a half away, revolution and violence seemed far away.  But occasionally, the sounds of crowds demonstrating and shouting would echo up through the streets, and in the distance echelons of camouflage blue clad policemen could be seen, gathering at an intersection.


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