I had very few expectations coming to Nepal. I have to admit that other than geographic location amidst the epic Himalayan mountains, where the illustrious Sherpa people live, I knew very little about this small Asian nation before my visit. During our time there however, traveling between Nepal’s gorgeous southern jungles, to it’s smoggy concrete ones, I feel like I got to see a true portrait of a new country… both the beautiful side and the ugly.
My favorite destination, other than the draw card of the Himalayas themselves, was Chitwan National Park. This is a beautiful laid back area, surrounded by stunning farming villages. We spent our days lazing in the shade, walking around neighboring villages, taking a jungle safari to see Rhinos, swimming in the river and bathing with elephants. We even got to see a 2 day old elephant at a local breeding center. Chitwan is the kind of place you can easily forget what day of the week it is, or how many nights you’ve been there. It’s a place with all the creature comfort trappings that have tourists coming back again and again.
The tourist circuit in Nepal is quite small. I was appalled at how little information the Lonely Planet guide book has on the country outside of the 5 main tourist destinations of Kathmandu, Pokara, Chitwan and of course Everest and Annapurna regions. Straying not too far from the “main trail” we visit Lumbini, home of the birth place of Gautama Buddha, a small village set next to a large walled salutary housing not only the monument of Buddha’s birthplace but also a number of Buddhist temples built by, and representative of, various nations from around the globe. The sanctuary is huge and most tourists spend a day cycling or scootering around to each site. Unfortunately, a place like Lumbini lacks that drawing vibe that keeps tourists more than a day or 2. I can’t help but wonder if they will continue to develop their tourism or if this one road town, where no one seems all that interested in you one way or another, will always be a stand offish place, that to me seemed very uncharacteristic of Nepal.
We had plans of roaming from one small Nepali place to the next to catch more of the charm of the countryside… a charm that is much harder to find in the city. While boarding a bus one morning we learn that all the National highways were closed as a result of another Bandha, a day of political striking where everything shuts down, businesses, transport, highways, you name it… these strike can sometimes stop life in Nepal in it’s tracks. We experienced about 10 days of Bandha during our stay and our trip was hugely reshaped by these strikes.
The recent past of Nepal is a sad one. Just over 2 years ago did they come out of over 10 years of civil war and they have been without a constitution ever since. The days were counting down to their constitutional assembly this spring, scheduled for May 28th, and it was quite clear that the new constitution would not be ready in time. There are more political parties in Nepal then you can imagine, all with their own agenda. As the days drew nearer to this momentous political assembly multiple parties started to stage more and more Bandhas as a form of protest regarding their governmental grievances. All business are expected to shut down for the day, transportation is expected to stop, schools to close, ect. and unfortunately those who do not comply run the risk of the repercussions that could await them. We read each day in the paper about incredible violence and vandalism that befell businesses and factories who decided to stay open during Bandha days.
Being a Canadian I am always well aware of how lucky I am… in every sense of the word. I enjoy freedom and liberties that most people in this world only dream of. It is hard sometimes telling local people we meet along the way about our crazy year of travel, knowing that no matter how hard they work they could never take even a short holiday to another country… It’s incredibly humbling and sometimes sad. I have never in all my travels been in a place where there has been any kind of conflict or political turmoil, so this was a real first for me. Our plans to bus around the country, and to travel back to India over the land crossing were changed considerably. Due to circumstance we spent far longer in Kathmandu then anticipated and as a result we had great opportunities to try to learn about the political landscape in Nepal and how it affects it’s people… I still don’t really understand much, but what I do understand is that most people dream of a government that will work for them, of life without Bandha that will allow them to work and provide for their families, and all in all a brighter future that will allow their country to grow and recover from all the dark years it’s faced. I really feel for the people of Nepal and though I often find politics at home terribly frustrating, situations like this sure give me a different way of looking at things.