Sunday, December 16, 2007
Friday, December 14, 2007
corruption free zone
I come to the Department of Immigration in Kathmandu to renew my visa. As I enter through the monumental gate a big sign catches my attention: WELCOME TO A CORRUPTION FREE ZONE
I smile, inwardly congratulating the Department of Immigration on their efforts, and walk the 50 meters to the entrance door.
The first person to meet me in the door takes a look at my papers. “You want two months stay?” he asks. “If possible,” I answer, knowing full well that the general rule is 1 month at a time. “I can fix that,” he says, “you just pay a little extra.” “A little extra?” I say. “You know,” he answers, “the visa fee, plus then a little extra,” gesturing with his hands to show money paid under a table.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
deep into maoist heartland
As I walk through the hills together with three of my colleagues, following the majestic Bheri river, there is little outward sign that these areas have been the battle ground of such a recent feud. Villagers are out ploughing the fields with sturdy pairs of oxen, noisy children run around the houses, and along the paths everyday goods are carried along on the backs of sweating porters.
There are some tell-tale signs, however. For every house we pass, dodging looks are thrown at us. We greet with namaste, but get little or no response. My colleague explains: the conflict has made people extremely sceptical of strangers. You never quite know who you are facing. (Well, I can’t really quite blame them for being sceptical of our little group which includes two pale white, blond women in splash orange t-shirts.)
School children performing dances and songs
Our little trek coincides with the Hindi festival Tihar, and along the way we meet numerous dancing troops – some seriously organised with matching outfits and elaborate performances, others more ad hoc school classes running around – presenting dances and songs at every small cluster of houses they come to.
It turns out that many of their songs are home-made, put together by the youth themselves. They sing of the conflict, of friends they have lost or who have fled, of the fear they can remember feeling, and of the peace accord. Some echo the promises they have heard from political leaders for many years now: “In the new Nepal there will be books and pens, in the new Nepal there will be education for all!” I can’t help feeling quite cynical about when they will see the new Nepal come true, as their political leaders bicker over when they might hold elections for a constituent assembly.
Later we are gathered for a community meeting in an area where many families have now returned back and are rebuilding their lives. The local Maoist leader is invited and sits down next to the Nepali Congress leader, old time rivals. As people introduce themselves around the circle, their stories also come out. Some have suffered at the hands of the army, others at the hands of Maoists. Some tell of how they were badly beaten after refusing to pay “donations” to the Maoists. I watch the Maoist leader as the stories are told. He wasn’t the Maoist leader here during the conflict, I am told, but still, I think, something must be going through his mind as he hears what people have suffered under his party.
Maoist leader addressing a sometimes sceptical audience
I ask one of my colleagues about it afterwards, wondering whether people are not afraid to tell their stories so bluntly when they are at the same time accusing other people in their community for what they have suffered. She seems almost surprised at the question – don’t I know that the conflict is over now?, things have changed – and tells me that she took the Maoist leader aside herself after the meeting and asked him if he wasn’t ashamed at everything he heard.
I have to smile at the ease with which she says it, as if this is the most straight forward thing. Maybe a new Nepal is growing in the hills after all.More pictures from the Mid-West hills here
Monday, October 29, 2007
taking in kathmandu
I can't help seeing a picture everywhere. Now and then my camera comes up - sneakingly, trying not too disturb people in their daily life, trying to capture something exotic in its essence. I realise my own obsession with everything that feels surprising from an Oslo perspective - the three-wheeled tuk-tuks that line the streets, looking like ramshackle hybrids put together in the neighbour's backyard, the saris and teekas (hindu red dot) and sadhus (wandering holy men), the shrines in between the hustle and bustle of people going somewhere.
These scenes have become some of the trademarks of Nepal, part of it's exterior image of stunning Himalayas, smiling people in colourful clothing, and age-old temples decorated with marigold-chains. At the ancient holy centres of Kathmandu the tourist groups dawdle, admiring the craftmanships, shooting pictures of sweet kids hanging on the corners, staring on as the holy sadhus wander around, wrapped in clothes of orange and red and warm yellow, and with their faces painted in decorative and startling patterns.
It is Dashain-festival time, the biggest Hindu festival in Nepal, and the sadhus have been busy giving out their blessings - I have seen them on the streets, spreading flowers and incense wafts over children and bicycles and tuk-tuks, and getting some coins in return. As I stand looking down at the large Pashupatinath temple area - one of the most visited pilgrimage sites by Shiva-followers from all over the Indian subcontinent - one sadhu decides that I must be in need of a blessing on this Dashain-day. Before I know it I have a large teeka in my forehead, and some special leaves behind my ear, "for long life".
A bit taken aback, I pay him my dues and walk on, not quite sure what to think. I get the strangest looks - I think I might as well have written STUPID TOURIST all over my forehead. I leave it on for a while, but then try to take it off in the end, in secret, not quite knowing whether it is gone or if there are still marks of red there, telling everyone that I've been messing with my teeka. I don't know which I prefer the least: being tourist-wannabe-hindu or tourist-consecrates-holy-blessing-sign. Sigh, I tried them both.
Just downhill from my viewpoint over Pashupatinath runs the holy Bagmati river. For a Hindu it is an honour to be cremated on the banks of this river. In 2001, after the royal palace massacre, the bodies og the king and queen, princess and prince were burned here, and pictures went worldwide of the rituals that followed, colourful and mystical and teeming with oriental fantasies. One of Nepal's celebrated writers, Manjushree Thapa, recalls how Kathmandu sat in shock at what they feared was a coup in disguise, while international media were drawn in by scenes of a priest on an elephant, crossing the Bagmati rive, wearing the king's old glasses.
What pictures come out of Nepal? What do they say of the everyday lives of people living in a frail democracy? I suspect that my camera will continue to take in what it finds exotic, itching, charming. Still, I hope that some everyday people shine through. Nepal is not all about royal elephants.
The web album is here - welcome to have a look.
oh, and maybe I'll get to telling about what I'm supposed to be doing here soon, as well.