succumbing to peer pressure

Friday, January 29, 2010

Megan and Mom's Big Maoist Adventure
(sorry for the delay*)

Nepal's civil war may be officially over, but the Maoists still don't get along with others, and in May of '09 they were kicked out/left (depending on the source of the story) the coalition government. Since then they've been staging periodic bandhs, or strikes. All businesses are closed and no cars (except tourist vehicles) are allowed on the streets. These are typically peaceful, one day affairs, though, as I linked here before my trip, in November they took over a political office building for three days. Riot police and tear gas ensued.

So. On Saturday night we returned from our lovely day of hiking to a hotel all a-flutter. Apparently a bandh was scheduled for the following day. This wouldn't be too big of a deal (as tourists, the Maoists are particularly uninterested in us) except that we were supposed to fly from Pokhara to Kathmandu the next afternoon. We could delay, except that my flight from Kathmandu to Seoul was scheduled for Monday.

My SIL was pretty worked up - I don't know her well enough to judge if she was actually nervous about the security situation or just because she felt responsible for our travel arrangements and was worried our flights would get all messed up. She made a flurry of phone calls and our plans for the next morning evolved - the hotel would take us to the airport in a well-marked tourist van (which should be allowed on the streets), the local police would meet us in the morning and provide an armed escort (not the best idea, since they're part of the ongoing conflict and, um, we're not). We finally decided that we would have a better handle on the situation in the morning, but packed and prepared to leave at a moment's notice at dawn should that be our best option. My brother, SIL, a friend, and I all settled into the Gurka bar to drink whiskey and make morbid jokes about my brother and I being able to get out of the country on account of our skin color.

The next morning we woke up early but ended up lingering over breakfast at the hotel while news of the bandh trickled in. We finally decided our best option was to walk to the airport. We found two local men who promised to show us the pedestrian shortcuts to the airport and helped us carry our luggage. We walked for about 30 minutes (google maps claims the hotel is 1.5 km from the airport, but I honestly have no idea how far we walked) and then SIL managed to flag down a tourist bus. She loaded all of us and our luggage on, then told us to meet her at the airport, and to be sure not to linger outside. Since she's the only Nepali speaker in our group, the scariest part of the day was watching her wave from the side of the road as the van pulled away. (the bus was really crowded and I guess she figured she could handle herself better than herding us around, but I honestly have no idea why she didn't get on the bus with us)

The bus drove for about 10 minutes, then stopped on a back road, around the corner from the airport. Even though tourist vehicles are allowed on the road during bandh's, main streets are still best avoided. So we walked the last bit, past soldiers milling around intersections and clustered in public squares.

We managed to uneventfully meet back up with SIL outside the airport (she had our tickets, so they wouldn't let us in until she arrived with our paperwork) and proceeded to spend a surreal couple of hours sitting in the sun on the roof of the airport, drinking beer, eating fried cheese balls, waiting for our flight while trucks full of soldiers drove past in one direction and 'Maoist movers' went by in the other.

We were greeted in Kathmandu by a crowd of hundreds of other tourists, all semi-stranded at the airport, all waiting to cram on to a tourist bus like the one pictured above. Fortunately for us, SIL knows everyone in Kathmandu, makes a few phone calls, and not only gets us on the next shuttle, but makes the driver stop at our hotel first!

We took mostly narrow back roads back to the hotel, thus missing the intersections blockaded by burning tires (according to the next morning's newspaper), but we did pass one crowd with arm bands and flags and a speaker shouting into a megaphone.

We spent the rest of the evening regrouping at the Yak and Yeti. The next morning (my birthday!) we stopped by SIL's family's shop, where I was treated to my birthday present:

This was followed up by the sending-you-on-your-journey ceremony back at SIL's family's house, featuring (of course) more rice wine (= moonshine), boiled eggs, and fried fish. Fortunately for me, the actual meal after the ceremony was delicious - rice, daal, aloo gobi, yogurt, etc.

I spent that night at the transit hotel inside the airport in Seoul (a pretty lovely place to be stuck on long layovers), then rejoiced the next morning when I set my watch to US time and discovered that it was my birthday again! Seoul to DC to SF in one day isn't the most fun thing ever (especially not when all the mucous membranes in your body are busily evacuating all the air pollution you've been taking in) but it still seems a small price to pay for the amazing experiences of travel.

*previously, I understood the whole salary work thing in an academic, theoretical way. Sometimes you get paid despite not working, but other times you're essentially working without pay. Optimistically, everything balances out. After the past few weeks, I get this concept in a much more concrete way. And in the future, no more feeling guilty on the days I work somewhat less than 8 hours. You know, should they ever happen again.**
**I'm only complaining a little - work is generally really good. But wow. Exhausted.