The 411 on Nepal

October 29, 2015
Currently: Sitting 100 yards away from a rhino chewing grass under the stars. Well played, Rhino Lodge. Well played.

Bye bye Bhutan! Hellooooo India! The change between Bhutan and India is immediate. You cross that border, and you know you’re in a different country. Bhutan was its usual beautiful self. India was hot, stuffy, loud, crowded, dirty, and cheap. And I gotta say… I missed it! Lunch was crispy, warm-in-your-belly, satisfying samosas off the street. Which, just to mention, cost a whopping $0.14. But our stint in India was short lived ;(. Within twenty hours of leaving Bhutan, we had entered and left India for Nepal. Before I get into the cultural traveling bit I usually write about, I have to dedicate a bit of time to an introductory explanation into Nepal’s political and economic climate. The country is going through some pretty serious riots. Plus a national fuel shortage. And don’t forget the devastating earthquake that shook the country in April. But to truly understand the story, we have to back up a little.

*Disclaimer: I am not an expert on Nepalese politics and am giving a quick overview of incredibly complex issues. Much of this information comes from personal experience, stories from my Dragoman tour guides, and online news articles. Please let me know if I’ve made any misrepresentations or mistakes.

In 2006, the government began to shift into its current state when the king finally yielded to national demand and restored parliamentary democracy. That parliament then promptly voted to reduce the king’s power to that of a figurehead and essentially ended the 200+ year monarchy. The big problem now is parliament has recently signed in a new constitution, and particular groups (read: Indians) are not happy. The new constitution restricts Indian access to residency. Indians, especially those currently living in Nepal, view this as blatant discrimination. One particular region within Nepal has resorted to violent rioting tactics. Seven police officers, a two-year old, and three protestors have already lost their lives because of this violence (read more here). The evidence of these riots is present in what seems like half of the buses. Rioters throw rocks at buses transiting from the border to Kathmandu, so it’s become incredibly common to see entire front windshields missing or with broken windows.

Not an uncommon sight (and thanks to Dutchie for the photo!)

In an effort to increase the safety of this route, police stop all transportation going through the region until nighttime. Around midnight, police then lead convoys of all buses, trucks, and cars. These convoys race through the night, spending 5-6 hours careening down potholed streets and passing each other dangerously. And unfortunately for the Drago group, that road was our only reasonable path to Kathmandu. Dutchie, our fearless truck driver, braved the convoy and drove Daisy through the night to meet us at Chitwan National Park by himself. I’m happy to report that no riots occurred and he and Daisy are both safe!

But worse than bus routes is the blockade India (allegedly, they are denying everything) has placed on entrance of fuel into Nepal. India has had a four decade monopoly on fuel into Nepal and is taking advantage of its position to punish those politicians in support of the new legislation. Nepal is only receiving drips and drabs of fuel at this point. Naturally, black markets have popped up and are charging three times the going rate. All vehicles have to wait in lines miles long for days at gas stations.

One gas station with motorcycles waiting…and waiting…and waiting

It’s gotten to the point where buses are once again allowing passengers to sit on top of the bus in luggage racks to make up for the far fewer bus rounds. This, of course, has been leading to higher fatalities in accidents. And fuel affects more than transportation of people. It dislocates the entire economy. In Kathmandu, restaurants have limited menus and are adding 10% charges onto food items to account for these higher prices. Kathmandu’s streets are also eerily quiet for such a large city. This Daily Signal article is the best one I’ve found to clarify the entire situation in the broad context, specifically how these problems converge to affect the lives of the Nepalese.

Now, relations between India and Nepal are much, much, much more complicated than what I’ve outlined. The Kathmandu Post article, Impossible Dream, does a lot more justice to the situation and explains the complicated nature of that relationship. As of October 29, Nepal has signed a huge oil trade deal with China in an attempt to end its fuel shortage and cut off India’s supply monopoly. Hopefully this deal will bring a sense of normalcy back to the country and the economy can begin its recovery process…once again. In much more positive news, I also wanted to mention the naming of Nepal’s first female President. I’m excited to hear of her mission to create a gender equal society and remove historic patriarchal tendencies ingrained in the culture!

Needless to say, it’s an interesting time to be in Nepal. It’s all a part of traveling – be flexible and also aware of what’s going on in the country. It’s all a learning experience, but I’m glad to have been affected by this. It forces me to learn more about the country than I would have previously. And isn’t that the whole point of traveling?

Lots of love,

Lena

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