Sunday, 18 February 2018

The House that Buddhi Built

This is the house that Buddhi built.



 As some of you know, I went to Nepal soon after the earthquake in 2015 - invited by friends who wanted me to see that the country was still up and running and open for business. And it was - hotels were still open; guides were ready with their kit to take trekkers up the mountains; restaurant kitchens still smelled of oil and chillies. There was damage - and an urgent need to get on with the rebuilding - but more than anything the country needed its economy to get back on its feet. And that meant the return of tourism.

But I couldn’t avoid seeing the damage, the families living in tents in Kathmandu, the homes propped up by poles or bits of corrugated tin. And among these damaged home was Buddhi’s.

Let me tell you a bit about him. Some years ago he took me into the mountains. I hufffed and puffed up the slightest incline and he was beside me for every step. He phoned ahead to find me the best rooms in the tea houses. And when I flagged he took my rucksack and carried it. He is funny and kind and he kept me safe.

And he has a hearing problem. He was born with only one ear, and his hearing in that ear is beginning to fade. Life as a guide is becoming impossible. He cannot take a big group (and get the big tips), and has to rely on single trekkers or couples. It is barely enough to keep his family - and certainly not enough to rebuild his broken house. It would cost £1500.00 to replace it.

And so I wrote After the Earthquake and all proceeds went towards a new house for him, and appealed to anyone who had a penny or two spare, and we raised the money. I thank you all. 

But really, we did the easy bit. We didn’t carry bricks up the mountain. We didn’t work in the blazing sun, nor in the monsoon, to build the walls and put on a roof to keep the family dry. We didn’t wield a paintbrush go make this new home look beautiful. Buddhi did all that himself.

I won’t show you a picture of Buddhi’s old house, nor the drawn look on his face when I saw him just after the earthquake. But this is how happy he is now.


Sunday, 11 February 2018

A walk by the lake

Nepal, as you know, is home to the Himalaya. I can gaze at their snow-capped enormity from the rooftop in my apartment in Pokhara. It is also home to tigers, rhinos and leopards, to drongos and vultures and soaring golden eagles.

And it has beautiful lakes and rivers. It is an easy drive from Pokhara to visit Begnas or Rupa lakes, to sit by the still waters with a plate of mo-mos and watch men fishing from low-lying canoes. But, closer to home, Pokhara has a lake of its own - Fewa Lake - and I’ve spent many happy hours wandering beside it. 
   
I take the dusty path into the park, pause to watch an indeterminate number of young men playing cricket on the football pitch, and then turn to stroll beside the lake. The water is murky - and I know there are problems with weed and falling water levels, but from the path it looks unruffled and peaceful. I reach for my camera ... making sure that the picture doesn’t include the young woman who must wash her hair in this lake. 

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I stroll on, with an detour round an army base, to rejoin the lakeside path beside the ghat where pilgrims gather to take boats across to the little temple on an island.    




Buses turn round here; hawkers sit beside white clothes filled with trinkets: necklaces, earrrings. Women sell oranges (it is the orange season here and they are wonderful); a man offered fresh-cut coconut. One man, his limbs grossly distorted, begs beneath a holy tree. There is even a public toilet, 5 rupees for a ‘short stay’ and 10 if you need longer, and a little whiffy, so I’ve not investigated.


I leave the general mayhem behind and wander on north. When I first visited Nepal this was nothing but a narrow path. Now it is paved, with plenty of garden cafes to sit with a lemon soda or mango juice (and maybe cake) and watch the world go by. Local families walk here, stopping to buy juice or nuts or water from the Tibetan women who trade beside the water. 

There is a fish farm - the water in the concrete pools is stagnant and surely unused, but there are nets in the lake and local restaurants offer ‘Fewa Lake’ fish. I shudder to think what else might be in this water. For, looking closely, there are still makeshift shacks here where people live. Women do their laundry in the lake, and drape shirts and trousers and blankets over fences and hedges to dry. What water must they use for washing themselves? And for cooking? I pass a couple of outflows but don’t investigate them.

It is a conundrum. I love this lake, and walk beside it almost  every day. I love its ripples and its green reflections and the crowds heading for the temple. But, although I will not photograph them, I cannot ignore those who eek out an existence on its shores.

But I do love its little boats. Shall I go boating? ... maybe not today.




Sunday, 4 February 2018

The Day I Jumped off a Mountain.

For young people who spend their holidays looking for adventures on white water or leaping off bridges attached to an elastic band, my jumping off a mountain will seem tame. But, in general, I prefer to keep my adrenalin under control. The most alarming thing I do deliberately, here in Nepal, is cross the road in Kathmandu. That is enough excitement for one day.

Do why did I jump off the mountain on a zip line?   It looked fun ... is that good enough?

Nerves began to breed as I filled in the disclaimer form. Who is my emergency contact? (Oh Emergency Contact people, do you need to know I’m doing this?) Provide the details of your travel insurance. (Does my ‘no dangerous sports’ exclude a zip line?). 

Then, please, sit, the jeep will come for you soon. Watch the video ... of people launching into nothingness ... But still I didn’t say, I’m sorry, I’ve changed my mind. Even though my stomach was so full of butterflies by then it had clearly decided that this was a Bad Idea.

The jeep to the top of Sarangkot takes about 45 minutes. The driver knew every bend and pothole, and paid only fleeting attention to anything coming the other way. With every metre we climbed, I knew I was going to come down it much, much faster.  

We stopped,, eventually, and I had a five minute climb up sandy steps, stopping twice along the way to ‘look at the view’ (catch my breath). Everything was getting a bit surreal. The cloud was thin up here; the valley looked slightly muffled. Paragliders circled the mountaintop. Kites flew high on the thermals. An eagle flew across the hillside just below me.  

I was led to a metal platform and strapped into a canvas seat, my feet pressed against a metal gate. I was beyond thinking by then. A man with a huge smile gave me the same instructions five times, presumably in the hope that they would, at some point, go in. Pull this rope if you see a yellow flag and that rope if you get stuck. Neither of which was reassuring.

And then, the gate had gone and I was on my way down the mountain. 

It was BRILLIANT!

For two minutes I dropped 600m over 1.8km. But the statistics don’t tell you how it feels. There is little sensation of speed - rather the sense of rushing through a resistant wind (the wind did make me sway a bit). My eyes watered but I didn’t care. The forest drifted by beneath me, thick and green. Beyond the forest, the river - with its sandy shoreline and women washing in the glacial water - and on I flew till, oh no, I could see the landing site. I wanted this to go on forever. 

But there was a man waving a yellow flag and, miraculously, I yanked the right rope and my hurtling journey eased to a stop and I was pulled in to a small concrete platform where I was unbuckled and bounced off to greet the friend who had taken pictures. 

So here I am, swinging high across the valley. I know it’s not elegant, but believe me - this was magic.



Sunday, 28 January 2018

Prizes, and speeches, and huge mountain skies.

Last week (scroll down if you missed it) I wrote about our minute’s silent reflection for those who lost their lives in the earthquake. Now to tell you a bit more about where I was.

Thulaswara is a small village, close to Chitepani (where Tika grew up). Their main school building collapsed in the earthquake and the Chitepani Trust (a small charity - more of that another time) had made a huge contribution towards the rebuilding. We (Tika and Ann - a friend who is also here at the moment, and me) went to the village to join the celebrations for the anniversary of the rebuilding. (Please bear with the brackets!)

We took a jeep up to the village. (I wasn’t sorry - I’ve walked up here many times, and it’s a long, hot, dusty climb.) The villagers were assembling as we arrived. Benches were set out in the school yard - children at the front, men behind them, and the women on separate benches at the side. I settled at the back.




But not for long. Tika was called to the front - rightly, for the administrative work he does for the Chitepani Trust that made the rebuilding possible. Ann was called to the front - rightly, for her tireless fundraising that made the rebuilding possible. Then I was called to the front - why? Because I have a white skin? I have done nothing but cheer them on. But up I went, to be given a garland of marigolds and white scarf and a tika of red powder on my forehead, and take my place at the top table. 



Then all other visitors to the village were given a comparable welcome and seats at the front - so it felt a bit less uncomfortable. But I still think my precedence over local people whose ties to this village are much stronger than mine does not sit easily with me.
Nevertheless, there I was, as the speeches began. To be fair, there were occasional breaks for children to march by with flags, or dance, or come to the front to receive prizes (writing books), and for those of us at the top table to pay our respects the education goddess. But these interludes were breaks in the main performance - speeches. Children shuffled on their benches and pulled faces at each other. People got up and went to the loo and slipped back into their seats. 

I looked around. The sky was a deep blue, the buildings low and functional, the benches resting in the dust. Small birds twittered; kites took to the thermals. Prayer flags fluttered in the breeze. (This is the view from a nearby hilltop).




Yes, this went on longer than any prizegiving I had to sit through as a child. But when I was a child we had plenty to celebrate - school sports, school plays, school fetes. Here in the mountains people have barely enough to see them through the seasons. Every achievement is precious - and deserves its moment in the limelight. And if that means I have to sit through hours of speeches, and have no idea what on earth is going on, that is fine. It was an honour to share it with them.





Sunday, 21 January 2018

Surviving an earthquake

I thought I understood the impact of an earthquake. My last visit here was three months after the devastating earthquake in 2015 - and I saw for myself the fields of tents in Kathmandu, where families had nothing but a flimsy tarpaulin between them and the monsoon. I saw the crumpled temples in Durbur Square, the sacred Boudnath held up by scaffolding. I met one of my guides, with a brave smile failing to hide his worries about the cracks that made his home uninhabitable for him and his young family. (Many of you will have contributed to help him rebuild it - more of that another time).

But last week, in the middle of celebrations in a school in Thulaswara, a small village in the hills north of Pokhara, I got the glimpse of how shallow my understanding had been. Even now I understand no more than a nanodrop.

For one minute we were asked to stand and remember those who died. There we stood, the might of the snow-capped Himalayas behind us and the sky a deep summer-blue, to remember. That’s where I saw it - etched on the lined faces of the old women, in the old man leaning on his stick, even the children stunned into silence as they remembered the events of that day. And their faces showed, not memories of buildings collapsed into dust and rubble - but fear. 

The very ground beneath their feet is no longer reliable. In a few terrifying minutes they learned that the  foundation on which they build homes and schools and small farms and temples, on which they teach their children to walk, can rumble and heave and reduce their lives to nothing.


Yes, temples and homes still need to be rebuilt. But that feeling, that fear, was stamped on every face, that day, in the sweet January sunshine. And what I noticed, what I felt, is nothing compared with the feelings these brave people live with every day.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A welcome in Kathmandu

The plan, in coming to Nepal, was to spend some quiet time recuperating from the events of last year. Maybe I should know better than to think life here could be quiet. So much has happened in this first week I can’t condense it into one post, and so I’ll give you snippets, and then more snippets when I get home.

The airport in Kathmandu no longer alarms me. To be fair, the airport itself has never alarmed me, and the computerised visa system now makes the arrivals process significantly easier and quicker. No, it is the landing, in the mountains, which had been a bit breath-holding. One minute you think you are several hundred feet above the ground and then, a quick circle with mountains crowding on all sides, and you’re down. (It’s still alarming if it’s windy!)

But I hadn’t expected all the Nepalis on the plane to stand up and put coats on. I’ve been here in January before, and know it can be chilly in the evening, but this time it was actually cold. Not England-cold, not the raw, bone-eating cold of home, but still cold. And cold enough for poor people without warm clothes to die in Nepal this winter. So, I tell myself, put your fleece back on and stop grumbling.

Besides, after the usual preliminaries at the hotel I was invited to join the group of young men cooking potatoes on a fire in the courtyard. We sat close enough to get hot knees. The flames fizzed and crackled, smoke wafted into the night sky, and the potatoes were delicious. Welcome, I thought, to Nepal.

I had just one full day in Kathmandu. I wandered out in the morning, armed with a map and the sun in the south. So how did I get so lost, so often? Yet each time I ended up on a street corner, clearly bewildered, someone took my trusty map and relocated me. Each time I’d set off again, with confidence, only to get lost again. (Once a lad was sent to run after me, as I’d taken the wrong turning within half a minute of leaving the man who had sorted me out!). 


I’m rarely fazed by being lost. And it matters not one jot in Kathmandu - the streets are teeming with people and motorbikes and cars, small shops spill their wares onto the pavements, the air is so thick with diesel you can taste it, icons at the roadside exude wafts of incense, there are potholes and storm drains and the occasional dog - but the Nepalese are unfailingly kind and generous. If I had to choose one city in the world to get lost in, it would be Kathmandu!

Sunday, 7 January 2018

By the time I get to Kathmandu ...

By the time I get to Kathmandu you’ll be having your Tuesday lunch ... yes, it’s that time of year again.

I’m packing. As a process it doesn’t faze me - I just gather everything I need and tuck it into my suitcase. (What? No rucksack? Sadly my knees have, finally, rebelled at being asked to carry a quarter of my body weight on my back. And so I’ve found a lovely wheelie suitcase with plenty of pockets and I am beginning to forgive it for not being a rucksack.)

But packing is so much more than just shoving things into a suitcase. It comes with that tingly feeling that precedes every trip. Even returning to somewhere I know and love, like Nepal, it is impossible to predict what might happen. 

Last time I visited just after the earthquake. There was devastation everywhere, but almost no tourists. How much has been rebuilt? Have the tourists returned? What has been built to lure them? I know that Pokhara now boasts the longest zip line in the world (a drop of 600m over 1.8km) ... shall I?

Last time I had too close an encounter with a crocodile. The time before that it was a tiger. Is it time to settle by the riverside and steer clear of the wildlife?

Last time Tika’s children were aged 6 and 14. Is the little boy too big for balloons now?

I know I need some recuperative time after the challenges of last year. And I know the country well enough to be sure I can find some restful places. I also know that it is full of the unexpected - and  to go with too many plans means I miss the opportunities that might leap out at me (metaphorically - I don’t need leaping tigers!)

These are the sort of mumblings that accompany my packing. It is a glorious dialogue between the familiarity of last-minute preparations and possibilities that lie ahead. 


Enjoy your Tuesday lunch. While I unpack in Kathmandu.