19 January 2008

From Himal to Mahabarat to Terai

With all the scheduled power outages in Nepal, it can be hard to find time to use the Internet, so forgive me if this post is longish to make up for lost time.

I couldn't wait to get out of Pokhara. It's an amenable enough place, especially after weeks in the mountains, but it's also an extremely fake place--the tourist quadrant anyway--what with all the fat, white families; Korean trekking parties; (overly)fashionable Japanese (over)dressed like hippies; Westerners dressed like Nepalis (they often look like clowns); Nepalis dressed like Westerners (they always look like casually-attired teenagers); and everyone wandering dazedly back and forth along the lake between kayaking or paragliding outings. The last straw was when Guitar Dude appeared at my hotel. Are you familiar with Guitar Dude? He's the relaxed, sensitive guy who, for some reason, brought a guitar with him on his trip to Nepal/Thailand/Peru and, for some other reason, feels compelled to sit on his (usually *my*) hotel porch and strum tunelessly for hours. If he had talent and could play folk songs, that might be alright, but Guitar Dude seems principally interested in making a spectacle of his coolness, which invariably attracts the attention of the overexcited backpacker chicks--they flock to Guitar Dude. Maybe I'm just cynical, but I really do want to know *who* carries a guitar halfway around the world with themselves. If he were an entertainer--trust me--he'd be staying at a better hotel.

Anyway, I quickly booked a seat on a "tourist" bus heading past Tansen. The travel agent's wife was about to perform "puja" (prayer) when I showed up, so she kindly dabbed a tikka onto my forehead, blessing me for the day. I thought it must be a good omen when the wife of the bus ticket seller blesses you in a country in which you are 30% more likely than usual to die in a bus crash.

Tansen was formerly the capital of an independent kingdom but was annexed once-upon-a-time by the powers from Kathmandu. Today, it is a quaint, medieval sort of town with mostly Newari inhabitants. I don't yet understand the difference between the subcontinental divisions of caste, tribe, and ethnicity, but I gather that the Newari caste, like many others, is endogamous enough that it basically constitutes a race. But I don't know. I think they have their own language, too, and they certainly have unique culinary delights (broiled duck with ginger and bone bits, flattened rice grains eaten with potato curry, stuffed lungs). After trying a few of these at the best (really the only) restaurant in town, I subsequently had a veggie burger and then a pizza. Tansen musn't see too many tourists, because the locals constantly asked me the most increasingly personal questions: country, name, profession, marital status, which hotel I'm staying at, etc. I forgave this, though, because Tansen (unlike Lakeside Pokhara) also had plenty of Nepali eateries serving up those delicious, milk-based sweets also common in India. Every morning for breakfast, I had a samosa slathered in curry with masala tea and several of the more artery-hardening desserts. After downing a few antacid pills, I was ready for the day.

The two noteworthy things I did while in Tansen were visiting Ridi Bazaar and hiking to Ranaghat. Ridi I went to because the tourist office told me a festival was on. Pilgrims would be flocking to the town, at the confluence of two rivers and three provinces, to bathe in the sacred waters of the Kali Ghandaki. For this reason, Ridi Bazaar is called the Varanasi of Nepal. When I got there, it was a bit more carnivalesque than that. There were stages, games, vendors galore, and even a hyperactive Ferris wheel. A mendicant holy man told me he was cold, so I gave him my superfluous pair of long underpants. Accepting these, he then asked for money. Few bathers were present--was it wrong of me to visit just to watch people jump in a river?--but I was assured they'd come out in the evening. Not wanting to risk taking the 2 hour return bus trip at night (these rides would tighten even Guitar Dude's sphincter), I skipped it. On the way back, I had to switch from the bus to a jeep. In the back of the jeep, the driver crammed about twelve people and three goats. More people wanted to get on, though, so the goats were relegated to the roof, from where I had to listen to their plaintive squawks for the next hour, the poor things. There isn't much to say about Ranighat. It's an Edwardian palace built where two rivers merge. The tourist office considers it a mandatory stop for all visitors to Tansen--and the all day hike out to it does, indeed, pass through some pretty areas. From a distance, the palace is also quite lovely. Up close, however, you can see how unromantically dilapidated it is. Every inch of accessible wall space is covered in graffiti, including a nice "Fuck you!" right out front. It is often called the Taj Mahal of Nepal. That evening was pizza night, and the pizza was excellent! I sat inside in traditional Newari style--on floor cushions with no shoes. Luckily, it wasn't until the end of my meal that the mouse ran across the soles of my feet. I chose that moment to leave.

This morning, I finally left the Mahabarat hills for the Gangetic lowlands known as the Terai. After changing buses only twice, I arrived in Lumbini, the UNESCO World Heritage (and therefore real) birthplace of Siddharta Gautama--the Buddha! With the afternoon already on the wane, I only had time to peek in at the birth site itself--a stone slab with a sign next to it reading, "This is the exact spot of Buddha's birth." I am credulous enough to believe this. Why not? I saw a gold star stamped onto the ground in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. If it wasn't really there, I'm sure it was somewhere in the vicinity. And if these people never really existed, precision is irrelevant. Fiction always rang truer to me than fact, anyway. Later this year, I hope to visit Troy. I won't fault the archaeologists if they've failed to uncover the exact site of the Trojan War. I *do* fault the caretakers of Lumbini, though: there's trash everywhere, and I can't describe the toilets without using the speech of the damned.

Quick note to friends from Mito: Namche Bazaar is the name of the major village of the Mt. Everest region of Nepal, hence the name of our favorite overpriced outdoor goods store. In case you were wondering.


Mel said...

Can you describe the toilets in the language of Lacan and Zizek? Or will that be more horrific than the language of the damned?

The Steve said...

If you refer to the Hegelian triad of German/contemplative; French/revolutionary; and English/pragmatic, I would have to say that Nepal is paranoid. Most toilets are of the squatting variety, so the waste remains inches away until disposed. Any fault in your balance produces dire consequences. Also, most toilets don't flush mechanically. Sometimes you have to pour water into the basin (repetitively, to make sure it's gone!), sometimes it just falls away into a dark place (leading one to dread an eventual "return of the repressed" so to speak), and sometimes it just doesn't go anywhere, and it's in this last case that you run away from it as fast as possible, lest someone force you to clean up your mess. In all cases, you are forced to be much more confrontational with your excrement--it remains a tactile quantity in your psychic landscape--and this is traumatic.