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.