Posted by: Tommy | April 27, 2011

Nepal Wrap-up

Reflecting back on my time in Nepal, the things I enjoyed or found notable were little things that made each day interesting, rather than huge tourist attractions.  And I’d say that’s fairly typical of Nepal.  There’s not really that much to do, but there are thousands of tourists there doing nothing.

We spent a week or so in Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal, after the trek – memorable only for the delicious lasagna at Sibani (a small restaurant where we ate every meal for the entire week.  I ate 10 lasagnas and put back all the weight I’d lost on the trek.)  We (I was still traveling with Alex and Jay through the end of Nepal) spent 2 days in Bandipur (a small village) and then 4 days in Kathmandu before I flew out.

The maker of fine Sibani lasagna. She's smiling because I ate so much.

Nepal was similar to India, only a little more rural.  We stayed in 1 place with a Western toilet the entire month.  The power was extremely inconsistent, even in Kathmandu.  On the trek, I wasn’t surprised to find the power cutting out at night or during the afternoon.  But in Kathmandu?  It’s a real city and the capital of Nepal.  To save power, Kathmandu lost power from 5-8pm every evening and for a few hours in the morning.  In the villages, like Bandipur, it’s worse.  You might have power for 2-3 hours per day.  To compensate for this, the internet cafes actually charge a different rate when the power is out.  It might be 60 rupees when there’s power and 80 if they have to use the generator.

Nepal is probably the most rural place I’ve ever been.  There are 30 million people that live there.  1 million live in Kathmandu.  600,000 live in Pokhara.  And that’s it for sizable towns.  That leaves 28,400,000 people that live in small villages spread across a tiny country.  There’s not much bare land – even in some seriously inhospitable mountains, there are settlements.  There are settlements, like Lubra, that require an hour of walking just to reach a road that could get to another town.  Lubra is not on the main tourist route – it’s just a regular Nepalese village.  And the people there walk at least an hour to get anywhere.

These thoughts lead me to the most interesting internal debate I had in Nepal.  The road that leads from Beni to Muktinath is one of much controversy.  I tried to figure out my stance on the road, but couldn’t.  On the one hand, the villagers that live there have better access to medical care, the children are able to get to schools and there is more industry.  On the other hand, the road has basically ruined the entire western half of the Annapurna circuit.  It hasn’t necessarily been a godsend to the villagers – the lion’s share of the village economies depended on tourism, but fewer tourists are stopping in each village on the west side now that a bus allows you to skip several days of walking.  The establishments that depended on Western people paying Western prices for their goods and services are really hurting because of the road.

Additionally, there are very few unspoiled places left on Earth.  Do the Nepalese people have a duty to protect the amazing natural resource that exists on their land?  Can’t the people that want the convenience of a road move to Kathmandu and leave the people that want to live in the mountains without the road alone?  Their desire for a road has ruined the opportunity for the rest of the world’s people to walk around the Annapurna mountains in tranquility.

But, not too long ago, America had plenty of unspoiled nature.  And we desired progress, so we cut down trees, built roads and bridges and developed infrastructure that has contributed to the lack of unspoiled places.  There was more unspoiled nature in the world when we did it – does that make it ok?  Or different from what the Nepalese villagers want for themselves?  I still haven’t resolved it in my head.  Selfishly, I hate the road (even though I’m thankful I could take the bus when I did).  I’d love for my children to be able to come back in 30 years and walk the same route I walked, but by that time there’ll probably be an asphalt highway running over the Tharong La.

The lack of electricity in Bandipur led to one of my favorite experiences of Nepal.  Jay and I planned on going to the internet cafe (there was even less to do in Bandipur than in Pokhara) but found the power was out and the internet guy had locked his doors.  So we got out my frisbee and began throwing it on the street in Bandipur.  Bandipur is laid out like most of the small villages I saw in Nepal – one main street, paved with large stones, surrounded by all of the shops, restaurants and guesthouses.  Jay and I stood in front of our guesthouse, throwing the frisbee back and forth in the street.  It wasn’t very wide, so we couldn’t stand too far apart.  Although there are no windows on the street (everything is open-air, so there’s no need for windows), we didn’t want to get too wild and throw a frisbee into someones shop.

Every few minutes, a Nepali would stop and watch us.  A few times they asked to throw once or twice.  We’d let them.  One guy walked up in a suit and asked to throw.  He was terrible, so Jay gave him a few pointers.  He tried again – better.  He stood with us, in his suit and dress shoes, for about 20 minutes.  I’d throw it to Jay, Jay’d hand the disc to the guy and he’d heave it back toward me.  I’d run after it, trying to catch it or at least knock it down before it crashed into another shop.  After 20 minutes, he gave up and went on his way.

But we’d attracted a group of children by this time.  The bravest one motioned toward me and I threw him the frisbee.  He threw it back to Jay, fairly well.  We kept throwing and every 10 or 15 throws, he’d motion that he wanted to try again.  He couldn’t master catching the frisbee – partially because it was 3 times his size – he’d just let it hit him in the chest, then pick it up off the ground and throw it to Jay.  Soon, a few of the other kids wanted to try.  Some could catch it, some could throw it – but they all wanted a turn.  2 kids in particular were taken with the game.  Eventually, all of the other kids went back to playing with their WWE wrestling cards (pro wrestling is very popular in India and Nepal) but these 2 small boys stayed to play frisbee with us.

One stood by Jay, one stood by me and we threw back and forth down the street.  It was a lot of fun, just hanging out with these 12 year old Nepali kids.  At the end of the game, I gave one of them my frisbee and made him promise to share with the other kid (and immediately emailed Anna, back in Texas, asking her to bring me a new one).

Frisbee with Nepali children

I also got my first straight-razor shave in Nepal, and in doing so confirmed what had seemed to be true during my first 3 weeks.  During the trek, I didn’t shave at all.  Hot showers were hard to come by and Anna had kept our razor, anyway.  By the end of the 16 days, I had a truly hideous neckbeard that would only be acceptable during the NHL playoffs.  Walking around in Pokhara after the trek, I’d walk by barbershops who would solicit my business.  They’d point at their own necks and ask, “Shave?”.  I’d ask how much – and they’d say 100 rupees (70 rupees = $1).  No way.

When I finally decided to get the shave, I started to bargain with one guy.  He came all the way down to 40 rupees.  I wanted it for 20.  He wouldn’t budge from 40, so I walked off.  And he let me go.  He wouldn’t do it for 20.  40 was his walk-away price.  The next day, I was waiting on Jay and Alex near the same shop and had 15 minutes to kill.  I tried bargaining with the guy again and again he stuck at 40 rupees.  I agreed and sat down in the second chair, waiting on him to finish with the guy already in progress, a Nepali.  And when that guy finished his shave…he whipped out a 20 rupee note, handed it over and walked out.

This was not an isolated incident – in Nepal, there is Nepali price and Tourist Price on everything.  Bottled water, haircuts, bus rides, taxis – you name it, it will cost 2x to 10x if you’re not Nepali.  I knew this was the case on the trek – guides and porters pay a fraction of the prices set by the Annapurna Conservation Authority – but I was surprised that the practice was so prevalent in cities, where pricing is not government-regulated.  It’s not a novel concept (tourists pay more all over the world), but in Nepal they take it to an extreme degree.  The barber was willing to let me walk away at 40 rupees – fine, that’s 50 cents.  But he was willing to shave a fellow Nepali for 20 rupees.  He’s happy to have the Nepali business at 20 rupees, but is unwilling to have my business, even at 50% more (30 rupees).  He demands an extra 100%.  Why?  Why would he rather stand there with no business than shave me for 20 rupees?

And it’s not just him – everyone works the same way.  And that’s what makes it so effective.  It is literally impossible to get Nepali price on anything, and so all of the tourists pay the exorbitant (relatively, again, Nepal is still incredibly cheap) markups for goods.  You can’t just not eat, not buy bottled water, not get a haircut.  And since everyone selling anything in the entire country has decided to markup stuff for non-Nepalis, we just pay it.  You can still negotiate, but any time you find out what Nepalis are actually paying for the exact same thing, it makes you mad.

And it’s not a scientific system.  They arbitrarily pick a number that is higher than it should be, then charge that.  Jay and I took a bus out to a temple in the Kathmandu valley (check out the Flickr pictures of this one.  They behead dozens of chickens and some goats as part of the ceremony, so there are lots of headless animals lying around and rivers of blood running along the floors) and sat with a Nepali family on the ride back to Kathmandu.  The family of 5 paid 70 rupees for their bus tickets.  We got on at the same place as they did, traveling to the same stop.  The ticket guy demanded 75 rupees.  We refused and offered 50 (there’s no way we’d get tickets for 14 rupees, as the family had).  He told us that everyone pays the same and that we owed 75 rupees.  We asked the price of 1 ticket.  He said 2 for 75 rupees.  We pointed out that each ticket would be 37.5 rupees – and since there are no half-rupee coins, that was unlikely.  He said one ticket is 35 rupees – so we handed him 70 rupees.  The same price as the family of 5.  It didn’t bother me too much – the Nepali economy depends heavily on tourism and I can certainly afford the extra 10-15 cents, everything there was still really cheap.  But their system was both interesting and annoying.

And now, my Nepali haiku:

Breathtaking vistas;
Walking amidst tall mountains;
Blisters still not healed.

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