I hope to get caught up to the present soon, but, for now, here's what I wrote yesterday (which seems like ages ago) but was unable to send until now....
Sylvia, a solo traveler from Switzerland, gave me good advice yesterday. About Nepal she said, "Expect nothing ... except that things will work out." I realized in less than 24 hours that those are words I'll need to live by for the next three months.
Yesterday was like living 10 days within the space of one. And now it's 2:15 a.m. on the next. What will this day of surprises bring? The plan is that it will take me from Kathmandu to the much smaller city of Pokhara, also known as the city of lakes. Thankfully, Sylvia is going there, too. I'm glad to have such a confident travel companion who knows I'm unsure of myself and is gracious enough to help.
When I wondered aloud how we'd get a paper plane ticket—little is done electronically here, so it seems, and Yolanda had arranged for our travel by phone with an agency—Sylvia patted me on the arm and said not to worry, it would work out. I paid Yolanda (cash only, no credit cards accepted) for the ticket but received nothing tangible or digital in return as one would expect in the U.S., where we'd get at least a confirmation email or receipt.
At 8:30 a.m., give or take some Nepal time, which could be a while, Karna and his friend and cyber cafe partner, Dikpal, will return to the guest house to walk with me and Sylvia to the airport. They know a shortcut, they said.
But that's still hours away, so back to yesterday...
Like tonight, I couldn't sleep for long after I was dropped off in the middle of the night, showered, and rearranged my belongings. I was awake at 2 a.m., listening to dogs bark, which they did again at 4:30. Soon after, the sky began to lighten and a nearby rooster started to crow, so I climbed out my window onto the veranda again and watched my surroundings materialize and people begin to stir as the morning progressed. A man in a nearby open window began tap-tap-tapping, and the tapping continued for hours. What he was working on, I'll never know. Children played with a puppy in an adjacent courtyard, while their mother (I assume) was busy sweeping around them. A motorbike zipped by in the alley. Later, a man carrying a large load of newspapers announced his presence, or perhaps the headlines, as he passed outside the hotel gate.
At 6 a.m., I ventured downstairs. The guest house was quiet, but I found three of the staff—two brightly clothed women, one in vibrant blue, the other in fuchsia, and an orange-shirted man—sweeping and tidying in the courtyard. I sat at a table, just watching them and two resident dogs until Yolanda appeared and sat down with me.
"How do you know Ingo?" I asked her. And in her Swiss-accented English she explained, "A friend introduced us. I was looking for property in a remote area, and Ingo is trying to sell the resort at Shyauli Bazaar. So I went there in January. It is a beautiful place—you will love it—but it is too big for me alone. Maybe if I had partners. I believe Ingo told me about you then."
Yolanda went on to explain a bit about the Maoist rebels (I'm really trying to understand what's happening here in Nepal) and the current strike, now five days old. For those five days and who knows how many more, businesses have been forcibly closed and driving forbidden, with the exception of ambulances, the police, and some leniency for foreigners, of which there are relatively few right now in the city. People can't earn a living with this going on. ATMs are running out of money, and people are running out of food. Schools have been shut down for weeks, well before the general strike began.
"Why do they comply?" I wanted to know. The answer: because they risk certain punishment if they don't. As I also read in the newspaper, the Maoists will vandalize the shops and beat shopkeepers who ignore the rules of the strike. Same for those who defy the ban on driving.
Later, as I walked with Karna and Dikpal to their cyber cafe, I asked them how everyone knows these rules (and there are others). "They are announced," Dikpal replied. His English is quite good, easier for me to understand than Karna's. "They tell it on the streets, in the paper, and on the news."
"There's more electricity right now, " he added, "because businesses and factories are closed, so it's not shut down as much."
I said, "It must be difficult to run a cyber cafe when the power is shut off for hours twice a day."
Karna agreed. "Oh, yes. Very difficult. It makes it hard to pay the rent." He meant both the rent on the shop—about 1000 rupees per month, which is equivalent to approximately US $150—and rent on the nearby 10x10-foot room he shares with several other young men.
I later saw that room when Karna and Dikpal invited me up for tea. (And I must say, I've never had tea as tasty as the Masala I've had in Nepal.) When we arrived, I followed their example and took off my shoes before entering. My trail runners looked out of place among the pairs of flip-flops and quite a bit larger. I noticed the big window was covered with cloth, but there was no glass. Inside, I found others seated on two single beds, watching the news on a small TV. A girl and boy got up, and Karna motioned for me to sit in their place. I felt odd about them giving up their spots for me as they left the room.
The reporter was speaking Nepali, but I didn't need to understand the language to understand what I was seeing. It was amazing what had been going on in the city just a short time before, some of it right outside the cyber cafe while I was tucked inside. The storefront was closed, but we'd entered through a side door from an unlit hallway. From inside the small, dim space where I found several computer cubicles but nothing that resembled a cafe, I occasionally heard commotion out on the street: sirens and shouting and chanting. Karna and Dikpal would go out to look.
"Come see," they urged, but I shook my head and continued looking through my email, which was comforting. It was my connection to what I was familiar with.
While I waited for my video to upload—slow, slow going in Nepal—I asked the boys... well, they're 24 and 26 years of age, so despite their much younger appearances, I should call them men... I asked them about how they came to know Ingo.
Karna did some of the explaining, but, thankfully, Dikpal helped me understand what he said. I think he'd realized I was having trouble making out Karna's words.
"We are grateful to Ingo and respect him very much. If it were not for him, we would not have this education. Maybe 2nd year only. Ingo found us in our village not too far from Shyauli Bazaar and brought us to his school. It was wonderful there."
I wanted to ask the young men more details about their lives before Ingo came into them, but I admit I was shy about what felt to me like prying. I'll have to get over that, I suppose, if I'm to write the book that is the main purpose of my time here.
"When the Maoists came, when we were young boys," Dikpal explained, "we had to hide in the jungle, so they wouldn't take us."
I asked if the Maoists still do that—force children 12 and over to join them... or else—but Karna said no, not since the end of the war.
After a few hours, I gave up my cyber-connection to the world at large and, despite their offer of free service, paid Karna and Dikpal the going rate for their internet and a bit extra for their help, coming to get me from the airport and today from the hotel and walking with me through the city. We talked some about how far foreign currency goes here in Nepal, and I told them the equivalent in rupees how much we'd pay for certain things in the US. Of course, things are at least somewhat relative to income levels, but Karna and Dikpal looked quite surprised.
Karna and Dikpal wanted to take me to Boudha Stupa, a nearby Buddhist temple. Dikpal explained that he and Karna are a combination of Hindu and Buddhist (if I understood him correctly) and pointed out a Hindu god portrayed at the temple. We couldn't go inside, but large numbers of people walk clockwise around the outside as a form of religious observance, and some lie on the ground—"prostrate themselves," Dikpal said—especially in the morning and evening. Among the many awkward things I said throughout the day, I replied, "I guess people have to be careful not to step on them." Karna and Dikpal laughed.
We walked in the rain for a bit, then spent a couple of hours at Karna's room. While I was there, a taller young man came in, and I recognized him from Debra Kaufman's documentary, "A School of Their Own," about the Riverside School whee Karna and Dikpal also grew up. I'll have to find out his name, but I was shy to talk to him, and he seemed not to notice me. He was quiet, intent on watching the news of the strike. He smiled only when a little girl came in and danced in what little floor space there was in the room. Maybe I'll have the chance and courage to speak to him when I return to Kathmandu at the end of the trip.
Why does asking so many questions feel strange? How do I draw people out and encourage them to tell me details about their lives—lives that are so much different and difficult than my own. Will they feel like I'm judging? What questions should I not ask? What's too personal? If they know I'm writing a book, will they be reluctant to share things with me? Will they tell me the bad with the good? And how do I get used to the idea of exposing people's lives like that? Yes, I have much to learn and get used to.
At 6 p.m., Karna and Dikpal deposited me back at Yolanda's guest house, seeming unsure about being there and hanging back when I went inside. After speaking with Yolanda and learning the few details about the flight to Pokhara, I made arrangements to meet the young men in the morning. They laughed when I suggested a time—far too early and too long in advance of the flight, I'm sure they were thinking—but they agreed with a smile to come fetch me and Sylvia too.
Well, I suppose I should try to sleep again for a while. I'm anxious for the sun to come up and can't wait for breakfast. I realized too late yesterday that I'd not eaten anything but a little Nepali snack of dried rice and some kind of bland but appealing, crunchy, flour-based thing (thanks to Karna) since breakfast yesterday. Amazing how you can completely forget your hunger for a while when your other senses are close to being overwhelmed.