Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Fun with Maoists

So, when we last left our heroine, she was trying to get to Katmandu. Yeah, it took 42 hours of continuous travel to get from Agra, India to Katmandu, Nepal. And Bhairawa, Nepal is right up there with Po, Burkina Faso in border towns that should be stricken from the earth if god has a spare minute. While waiting for the overnight bus to Katmandu, I met two British travelers who expressed condolences that I would be spending the night on the road. It was “absolute shite” in their opinion. I beg to differ. The BQE is shite. The Yako-Tougon road in the rainy season is shite. This was like driving a golf cart full speed across the moon. And my leg room was taken up by some bigwig’s suitcase, so I spent most of the journey in the crash position again. But I lived, and arrived in the cool clean backpacker friendly air of Katmandu at 4:30 in the morning.

After a much needed nap, I wandered around the city for a bit before going to the main tourist attraction of Durbar Square. Since my knowledge of Nepalese history is sadly deficient, I decided to hire a guide to give me a quick rundown of the numerous temples. I got one that was pretty mediocre but not terrible. He pointed out some interesting things in between trying to sell me hash: like that the Nepalis are into carving the 84 positions of the Kama Sutra into their temples. In one place, the Monkey God Statue (the bachelor god) had a cloth draped over his eyes so he couldn’t see. I thought that was neat. Anyway, after the two hour tour, I gave him 200 rupees, a couple bucks, and a little on the high side of what the tour book suggests. He flips out. Goes completely mad. Had he not been a Hindu, I would have sworn it would have taken a steady diet of weeks of mad-cow beef to get this out of control. He starts screaming that I need to give him 2000 rupees. This is $25 and roughly 10% of what the average Nepal makes in a YEAR. I look at him incredulously. Everyone on the street has turned around because this behavior is considered grotesque in Nepali culture. You never raise your voice in public and this guy is having a full out meltdown. He threatens to take me to the tourist police. I hesitate. I just need one corrupt official to make me pay and then split it with him. Eventually I have no choice. I start to calmly explain the problem to the officer, but crazy guide guy interrupts, screaming in Nepali. The tourist cop just stares at him, offers him the 200, which he doesn’t accept and keeps on screaming. The cop gives me a “where did you find this loon” look, then tells me to just go. I leave.

It is raining now and I grab the first rickshaw I see. I want to get out of the there before the cop lets him go. No luck. Crazy guide chases down the rickshaw and grabs it, still screaming. He demands the 200 rupees. I give it to him. He curses me and my family and my children, telling me that he knows many more Westerns that I ever will and that I am a money hungry bitch. I shrug and we leave.

The next day, no guides. Just me and a rented bike, going to see the sights on the outskirts of the city. The guy who rented me the bike assured me the route was paved and flat. [Editor’s note: “Paved” and “flat” have slightly different meaning to someone that grew up in the Himalayas.] My first stop is the Monkey Temple, so named because it is crawling with rhesus monkeys. Everywhere. Ratty pesky like bastards if you ask me. The temple was pretty, though I was dying when I got to the top of the 365 steps to the temple. I had just ridden up a hill, through one of the world’s most polluted cities, and the air is a little thinner up there.

Then I rode about 13 km to Patan, Katmandu’s southern sister city. It was smaller and prettier, with one of the best museums I have seen anywhere on my travels. I spent just over an hour there, reading everything I could find on Ganesh (more on that in a minute.) And, I had some really good momos for lunch. Momos are Tibetian ravoli, and I ate a ton of them in Tibet. Except the ones in Tibet are filled with yak, because nothing grows in Tibet except yak and lichens. Yak tastes like wet rancid shoe leather. These had vegetables in them and were much better. It had started to rain at this point so I decide to throw my bike on a transport for the next leg of the trip. I only have one pair of pants, so can’t risk getting them wet! As soon as the very complicated process of tying my bike onto the car is finished, the sun comes out. Oh well, at least I get a break. The next temple was Pahupatinath, which was unremarkable except that I arrived in time to watch the afternoon cremation ceremonies. It too was infested with monkeys. (Too many “Ands” can get tedious).

Now all I need to do is ride back into the city. 5 km. No sweat. Except that Nepali roads don’t have street signs. And, this is typically the response I get when asking directions. “Go down two roads,” holding up three fingers, “then turn left,” pointing to the right. I got HOPELESSLY lost. Eventually I started asking traffic cops and police officers only and started to make some progress. They were on every corner so it helped.

Why, might you ask, are there cops and riot police on every corner? Well, I’ll tell you. I go down a hill and run into an “opposition rally.” I believe a more descriptive term though is a “small scale riot.” They (the thousands of them) are between me and where I need to be. I could try to forge the crowd. Nah. Large excited crowds have not been historically kind to the “other,” so I got the holy living hell out of there. This still left me trying to find a way home. I continued to ask directions, at one point riding my bike up to, and pacing, the last riot cop jogging in a flying wedge formation. He was a little surprised but helpful, gesturing with his nightstick. Eventually I made it back, but it took two hours and I was exhausted! Too tired even for dinner, I went shopping.

The next day I decided to take the “luxury a/c” coach to Pokhara. It is a 7 hour trip and after my adventure from the border, I’m worth it. But it costs $12, 10 times what local transport would cost. No matter, I am worth it. It drove three hours before dumping us at a restaurant on the side on the road, saying we had to change buses. We sat there for 5 hours waiting for another bus, watching the local buses whiz by... Eventually the Nepalis started getting very excited. If we didn’t leave in the next half hour, we would get caught outside Pokhara when the 8 pm curfew hit. Not good. 15 minutes later I found myself on a local bus. The last few kilometers of the trip were pretty rough. The bus started to fall apart. Screws fell out of the ceiling, support poles clanged to the ground. Paneling popped of the walls. I was happy to get there.

Then the good news. Today, my first day in Pokhara was also the first day of the two day long Maoist ordered general strike. All the businesses were half open this morning. The Maoist threatened to torch anything open, and the army (which has a VERY visible presence) threatened to bust the locks of anything closed. All the metal shutters where half closed for most of the morning, with the owners sitting in front to make adjustments accordingly. The army had just started to encourage the closed shops to open fully when I came in to write this. This involves breaking off the padlocks with the butts of their automatic weapons. I’ll keep you updated.

And finally, my favorite segment here on the show, stupid things that someone else did for a change. I was hanging out with a British couple one afternoon and we decided to grab lunch. I order a sandwich, she orders a salad, and he, being the culturally conscious traveler he is, orders a cheeseburger. We look in horror. We ask if he knows that he is in a Hindu country and cows are sacred here. He insists that this is a tourist joint, they got to have beef. We are hours by any sort of reliable transportation from anything. I can’t really picture a Nepali, no matter how hard up, leading of a sacred cow to its earthly and his spiritual demise. Long story short, he was sorry. We never quite figured out what it was, but are fairly certain it never mooed, clucked, baaed, neighed, or bleated.

Time out for Culture : Ganesh

(OK, so I am a Ganesh freak as well!)

So, like I mentioned, I am completely enamored with Ganesh. He is the elephant headed god of knowledge, wisdom, literature and fire, who is the also the giver and taker away of obstacles; which is great because it is difficult to curse someone for your suffering when you have to turn around and ask the same guy for help. He also has be best story of any deity I have yet crossed paths with. Here goes: So there was this divine couple right, Parvati and Shiva. Parvati is your typical god-mother type matriarch, but her main squeeze Shiva has a bit of a temper, being the god of destruction and all. Well, Parvati likes to take baths alone. She had tried to impress the alone part on Shiva, but he just wouldn’t listen, barging in whenever the heck he felt like it. So she eventually gets sick of it and decides to take action. She scraps the sandalwood soap off her body from bathing and makes it into a beautiful boy, who she names Ganesh. She tells Ganesh, welcome to this world, now look, your job is to guard my baths. NO ONE comes in, get it? He gets it and off she goes.

Now Shiva happens by and wants to see his wife, but Ganesh stops him. Shiva roars that it is his wife and he will see her when he wants and no little sandalwood pipsqueak is going to stop him. Ganesh looks at him and says, look buddy, I don’t care if you are Ed McMahon(?) and the Prize Patrol, no one bugs Mom while she is in the bath, capeesh? Shiva, like I mentioned, being the god of destruction and a bit of a hot head, gets P.O.’d and cuts off the kid’s head. And, oh man, when Parvati gets wind of this, she is MAD. Flowers and a foot rub ain’t fixing this one. She starts yelling about how this is it, she’s had enough, she’s destroying the world… Shiva realizes his predicament and decides that in the interest of not sleeping on the divine couch until eternity, he better make this right. So he tells her, yeah, yeah, he’ll bring the kid back to life, and sends his army out to bring back the head of the first animal it finds facing north. Which is an elephant. They bring back the head, Shiva attaches it to Ganesh’s body, and breathes life back into him. There, are you satisfied now? Parvati gives him the “look-don’t-think-you-are-off-the-hook-yet-buddy” look. “Okay fine fine, In addition, I will make him the god that people pray to before all others in their endeavors. How’s that?” She relents, and Ganesh, with his elephant head takes his place among the mythology.

But it doesn’t end there. Ganesh is also a really cool guy for a god. One night he was out at party, indulging his famous appetite. He was on his way home, riding his faithful mount, the rat Mooshika, when they come upon a snake. Now rats are understandably a little skittish around snakes and Mooshika bolts, tossing Ganesh to the ground. Ganesh has eaten so much sweet cake that his stomach bursts open. He quickly grabs the snake to use as a belt and gets himself back together again. He is dusting himself off when he hears someone laughing his ass off at him. It’s Chandra, the moon god. Well, Ganesh is pissed, so he looks for something to throw at Chandra. Finding nothing suitable, he breaks off one of his tusks and hurls it at the moon, putting it out. Then continues on his way home. After a while though, humanity gets upset because they really liked the moon. They appeal to his compassion to bring it back. He relents, but only partly, saying the moon must wax and wane in the sky, achieving its previous glory only once a month. Now tell me, is he a deity after your own heart or what?

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