The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Very Merry Christmas; if the Maoists allow it

3 days to go until our second Christmas away from home. Things have been getting interesting in Kathmandu. The Maoist party in Nepal have called a 3 day nationwide bandha (strike) forcing all traffic off the roads, all businesses to close and our movements have been restricted to within walking distance of our house. It's been a surreal experience.

The Maoists, who won the majority of votes in elections in 2008, resigned from government after the president overruled their decision to sack the army chief. The former rebels say the president's move was unconstitutional. Their programme of civil and parliamentary disruption is aimed at forcing the government to debate this issue, something the government refuses to do. We got our first real taste of this when returning from town on Saturday. We were making our way towards the central bus station, which is enough of a test of the nerves at the best of times, when we saw smoke rising in the dusky light. Coming round the corner to Ratna Park we witnessed a mass protest with thousands of people marching the streets with flaming torches, chanting and shouting anti-Government slogans. The effect was dramatic, but thankfully the mood was not. Nonetheless, with traffic grid-locked and darkness falling, we decided being inside a taxi was a safe bet and so we jumped in one and waited for the roadblock to lift. A sudden revving of engines temporarily transformed the street into a Formula One grid, however, the illusion only lasted for around 12 seconds as everyone bolted off the line only to grind to a halt 50 yards further on.

Our sighing taxi driver wove his way through ill-lit backstreets, clattering over discarded flaming torches whilst ghostly figures loomed out of the haze of smoke, dust and fumes. Occasionally we saw flickering faces deep in discussion, until the road eventually disgorged us somewhere on the outskirts of town. 2 hours later we made it back. Exhausted, but glad to be in more familiar surroundings.

Since then the mood has lightened with 3 days of strikes feeling more like a holiday than anything else. 2 nights ago there was suddenly cheering and hooting and we thought the strike might have been called off, but last night we were woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like air raid sirens. In the absence of up-to-date news, this has meant just making do. We have spent the last few days welcoming in heaps of volunteers, playing with the kids at the orphanage, painting new classrooms and planning Christmas. And this morning, when one of the volunteers needed to get to the airport to fly home, we just walked. Jason and I set off in the thick morning mist to walk the deserted main roads into Kathmandu. The usually choked streets were devoid of any vehicles save for speeding UN vans, Red Cross jeeps and ambulances. It felt like a war zone, but the peaceful smiling faces remain the same as those welcoming us when we arrived in Nepal. You just want to know what the people are talking about as they huddle round their small roadside fires to keep warm. Is the talk full of political opinion and dissent? Or is it simply people enjoying three days off to catch up with family and friends? Exactly how people are responding is unclear, although it is unquestionable that this is crippling the economy of Nepal and can only make things worse.

However, we now have a bus ticket that should wing us to the slightly warmer Pokhara tomorrow morning. Asking Rupa about whether there would be much traffic, her response was simply, "After bandha... Ha, ha, ha". Indeed. After two days of leisure including HOLLY'S BIRTHDAY on the 24th (Ahem) we are planning to guide ourselves up into the Himalayas to Annapurna Base Camp. I can not think of a better tonic to the claustrophobia of the bandha than a couple of days of lounging, bathing and feasting before strapping on a pack and heading into the snowy mountains. We just hope we aren't sat at the same desk tomorrow evening with no prospect of getting away.

In the meantime... Merry Christmas to one and all back home. Not (that) long until we are back and this time next year we hope to be sharing yule logs, booze and crackers with you all.

Latest photos:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Not Christmas, but almost as good

Today was the closest we will probably get to a big family Christmas this year, in the form of a Hindu house blessing ceremony. Tej, our boss, and Rupa, his wife, have been living in their new house for a couple of months now. A recent bout of bad luck (hopefully nothing to do with us being here) has persuaded them to get the house formally blessed. So the Brahmans were summoned and they declared Monday 7th to be the lucky day for the blessing. From here on luck should flow freely around the house and all those living within it.

Preparations started early yesterday morning with the grinding of grains to make flour for about 300 donuts. Such culinary expertise continued late into night, only to start up again early this morning. It later became clear that the importance of this feast was not only to serve up to 200 hungry humans but to also please the apparently quite greedy gods. At the crack of dawn today it was all go; the party tent arrived, giant cooking pots got steaming, vegetables turned up by the bicycle load and the household put on their finest.

The blessing ceremony took place in the form of Pooja (Hindu prayer), which started at 8am and went on for an extremely dedicated 6 hours. This all took place in a room on the bottom floor of the house, which was transformed into a den of holiness for the day. The once mundane room was filled with incense, offerings of money, potatoes, flowers, rice, 5 very stern looking Brahman, the family of the house, a huge bonfire, holy water, every spice under the sun and never-ending chants. At the end of the ceremony the Brahmans walked around the house blessing everyone and every corner with a sprinkling of holy water chanting 'peace here' (in Hindu). For the finale a huge sheet of white silk was hung from the roof and water and flowers were poured down it to Tej, Rupa, Riza and a very confused Tiya (2 years old) waiting 3 stories below. Chains of flowers, bananas and donuts were hung around the house and then everyone got stuck into the vegetarian buffet, curd, sweets and milky tea (at last!). You cannot help but be entirely captivated by the mystical sounds, smells and colour of it all. So laptops were shut and we soaked up a day of blessings, feasting and entertaining the little ones. I am now particularly excited about instigating all of the above traditions for our new pad warming party on return to the UK.

We have been in Nepal for five weeks and now feel very at home. Our home is a remarkably peaceful suburb of Kathmandu called Pepsi-Cola Town Planning, inspiringly named after the adjacent Pepsi factory. Time has raced by at an alarming rate, reminding us of the woes and joys of routine, staying in one place and having a job to do. No doubt a gentle reminder of what to expect on arriving home in about 5 months time. Despite some initial trauma linked to space (lack of it), snot (an overload of it) and smog (trying to train for a marathon in it), things are now looking very rosy. Not only have we been blessed by the gods, but our adventure tales got published in a real magazine and we achieved our first work related task in 14 months. VSN's new website is now up and running at

To have completed the website feels like quite an achievement, especially since the process only involved one or two 'storming out' moments. All this burying ourselves in html and entering the world of cyberspace nerds compensates a little for ample time spent away from computer screens in the last year. Our next challenge is to send the website racing up search engine rankings (any advice much appreciated!) and to spread the VSN word around Nepal and beyond. But its not all work. Between teaching kids to talk proper and all the marketing faff many an hour is spent sipping whiskey at our local, The Hut, dodging rabid dogs on runs and watching the world go by from our roof terrace. And then weekends (only Saturdays off shock horror) take us to such cultural delights as Kathmandu zoo, the tailors, the best fried eggs in town and guesthouses with fire places in remote hillside villages. So with all this we should remain nicely occupied until trekking and feasting time in Pokhara come Christmas!