It’s 9am and I’m waking up in Hong Kong on Christmas morning, looking out the window on the 27th floor of our rented apartment. I see a blue hazy sky with a grey layer of pollution, towers clustered at different levels, the harbour with speed boats zipping across the window in all directions, a collection of working trawlers that turn direction with the tide, but everything looks pretty much the same as it did yesterday. So what makes this Christmas Day different?
Is it about the journey home, decorations that twinkle and sparkle, Christmas music that resonates and drifts you into childhood memories, the smell of turkey, the touch and embrace of a family members, the clinking of the glasses or general chorus of voices and laughter? I thought I wouldn’t miss Christmas, being on the adventure of a lifetime with the man I dearly love, but I do miss the lights, the smells and the touch, something that Skype and a keyboard hasn’t managed to successfully replicate yet.
Picking up where I left off the last time I wrote, we continued our journey into the greener pastures of Nepal following a steep decent from the Tibetan Plateau. Instantly the Nepali Hindi people looked different from the Tibetans, draped in pinks, purples, greens and blues. There was a frenetic social liveliness that was verging on chaos as we crossed the boarder and entered Nepal. We boarded a taxi and hoped our bags would remain tied to the roof, as our jeep accelerated through the villages and meandering roads, overhanging the river valleys. Amidst the chaos, the jeep missed a small child by a sliver as he darted across the road. This is a normal days driving in Nepal.
The orderly modest homesteads that we saw in Tibet were now replaced with attempts at palatial dilapidated concrete ‘mansions’. The closer we got to Kathmandu, the more expressive the buildings became, featuring colonial hangover motifs with arches, paneled windows and all painted fantastically bright colours, of green and pinks similar to their dress. There are few international companies advertising along the route, but a noticeable one is Berger paint, they say life can be uplifted with a bit of colour.
As we travelled through the landscape we noticed that people seemed to have very little materially, but they did have abundant water (not drinkable for you or I), warm sunshine and fertile soil, luxuries in comparison to the hardship of Tibet. Also, most people seemed to have a mobile phone. Although the transportation infrastructure is woefully underdeveloped, their mobile communication is less so, with most of the tourist restaurants and hotels offering free Wi-Fi. I thought to myself, how might they use these communication ‘tools’ to improve people’s lives, could it assist in the understanding of building technology, to control the environment in which they live, to improve energy conservation or to improve foreign investment into the country that was only $1 million in 2008 and climbed to still an insignificant $39 mil in 2009.
On the outset of this journey around the world, we thought the trip would take eight to nine months, that’s always been the endpoint in our minds. So, when we reached the arbitrary halfway mark of the trip, I felt really exhausted for the first time. My throat ached and my body shivered feeling the approach of some kind of flu. I also felt that I was lacking the enthusiasm to look forward to the next big thing, when you hit such highs, it’s difficult to keep repeating the exhilarating feeling of being completely in the moment of travel. I lay down for almost two day, slept mostly and just let my body and mind catch up.
After a couple of days we set of into the hinterland to hike in the renowned Annapurna region. I didn’t know what to expect, although it had been recommended by friends as one the highlights of their trip. We decided to get a guide, who also served as a porter. As we settled into our seats for the long bus journey, we were amazed that several men had to push start it for quite a distance, less amusing though were the site of locals throwing rubbish out the window to an already littered street. What makes people think it’s ok to throw rubbish out a window? Is it that people become accustomed to a dirty environment, expecting someone always to clean it? Driving out of Kathmandu, the pollution was astonishing, the banks of the rivers that should have been formed with rocks were compacted with plastic bottles, bags of rubbish piled up with children playing along side, this over-crowded generation is so new, but what makes the situation more damning is that what’s discarded does not disintegrate.
As we passed though the many bustling streets, I noticed that life is mostly lived in the open air. From grooming, washing clothes, breast feeding, playing cards, cooking food to settling up small shops on their front steps. Life is a social interaction with few barriers, where as in the suburban life that we are all familiar with, conceals all the ‘private activities’ within the comfort of our homes. I wondered as we passed a young girl looking back at our bus, how and why does someone fall in love in Nepal? What does a young woman desire, when she has to contend with traffic, dusty roads, cold water and over crowding?
It’s interesting to see how advertising communicates to different markets. On our journey, we noticed the repetitive ad for coca cola with a beautiful man and woman drinking from the bottle, coke also one of the cheapest drinks at any restaurant, even cheaper than water. A brand of whiskey projected a meticulously toned topless man being caressed by a beautiful woman, all his because he was able to choose luxury. This approach to advertising I believe would not pass in a developed country, but the innocence of the market leave them open to obvious persuasion. Much of the advertising is hand painted on the sides of houses, becoming a semi-permanent fixture. One home could be sporting two different brands of beer and become inadvertently a drinking establishment as a result. A huge amount of the signage and advertising is also in English, the aspirational language of the prosperous.
It’s never acceptable or mannerly to talk about bouts of diarrhea, but in Nepal because it’s so prevalent to get sick, even for the locals, everyone has empathy and understanding if you get struck down. On the first day of the hike I got that worrying cramp that only leads to misery and lethargy. I can normally cope well in the comfort of my own home, but in this ‘wilderness’ with only an outside ‘squat’ toilet, this really stretched my coping mechanisms. What’s amazing though is that the body is able to mend itself and it will tell you subconsciously what it can and can’t do, so after one day of rest and I was back walking.
Our walking route was the Annapurna Sanctuary, a route that ascends into the mountains up stone manmade steps and terraces. To my surprise, people are living and working along this ancient route, mostly farming the mountain terraces that have been shaped by many generations. The fields are a hive of activity, cutting hay by hand, drying it horizontally on the manmade ledges. One of the mornings involved hiking in the darkness in order to see the sunrise on Poon hill. This involved waking up at the ungodly hour of 4:30am and walking into the darkness, with only my flashlight illuminating my feet and flagstones in front of me. When we did arrive at the summit, an orange glow blazoned behind the thick horizontal band of the earth, turning around we could just make out the silhouette’s of the surrounding range of mountains and we knew we would be in for a spectacular treat.
Astonishingly, education still happens in the mountains, there are no four-wheel drives on the school run though. Children walk with their siblings and friends one hour down the mountain and one and half hours back. It was very cute to see a five year old hold the hand of a three year old, as if she was the older and wiser sister. All the children are neatly dressed in their school uniforms, perhaps a hangover from the British Empire. The private schools in the cities are taught through English, recognizing the path to opportunities.
I have a friend that volunteered in a Nepal school for several months and he asked the children where would they most like to go on holiday, an overwhelming majority thought their ideal holiday would be to go down to the river in the valley to wash their clothes and themselves and maybe swim and play with friends for an hour or two. Holidays in our sense are definite luxuries.
We met an abundance of travellers on our hike, in the evenings we exchanged stories of our journey and shared the common difficulties and good experiences. On one evening the guesthouse dining room resembled a gathering of the UN, with one side of the room occupied by China, South Korea and Nepal and the other Switzerland, Australia and Ireland. It was particularly cold and damp that evening and the young Swiss gentleman took it upon himself to represent us and request from the manager heating for the room. To set the scene, the walls were constructed of plywood and stone and the single glazed windows had numerous gaps at the junctions. There was no fireplace in sight and my feet were placed on a cold concrete floor, so I guessed the owner was not going to flick the switch for the under floor heating! Our Swiss representative returned with what was on offer from the owner, a kerosene heater for two euro per person in the room, the rent for the night was costing us six euro, so we considered this highly overpriced, also our Chinese colleagues were not interested in joining in on the deal, leaving more expense on us. Considering what we were bargaining was very little compared to our ability to earn. Sometimes it was easy to lose sight at how difficult it must be for the owner to make money with only two tourist seasons per year sandwiched between monsoon and winter. Also the main transportation to this location is by mules or Sherpa’s, many of the latter wearing little more than flip flops, carrying three times their weight tied from their forehead to their back.
To set Nepal’s economic situation in context, the county has been blighted by political instability. The monarchy were dethroned in 2008, leaving a vacuum of leadership, with the new Government occupying itself with the maintenance of truces between Maoists and other political parties, with little time left for consideration basic services and infrastructure. Meanwhile, raw sewerage flows into the rivers and rubbish piles up with nowhere to go. There is only a 50% employment rate, with the majority of those involved in agriculture (and this is seasonal due to monsoon). Tourism although effected by the uprisings is the panacea to their ills, but the majority of small businesses operating in the tourist areas have an almost identical offering with little differentiation, pashminas, crafts, knock-off outdoor clothing, guides, currency exchange, laundry, massage, café and book shops. Any kind of need that a tourist could possibly have will be satisfied for a price. There is even a pharmacist doctor who will take a stool sample given the prevalence of stomach sickness. Previously, as we entered Nepal across the Chinese border, lines and lines of dilapidated trucks cued up to bring cheap goods for re-sale across the boarder and on our departure from Kathmandu airport, tourists had amply filled knock-off ‘North Face’ bags full with cheap goodies. On viewing this cycle, I wondered was there something perverse about the benefits of global economics.
2011 is supposed to be official year of tourism for Nepal and officials are obliged to do everything they can to attract tourists. The beauty of Nepal lies in it’s majestic scenery and traditional way of life and the exuberance of the people. I would question the role of government to enhance these existing valuable assists. On exiting the country from what felt like a provincial airport, the last smell I got as I entered the gate was of urine, from the overflowing toilets adjacent. Although I was greeted warmly by the army with guns at the airport entrance, I was then frisked intimately three times at different points. At the last check, I was sent back to the check in as my hand luggage was missing a tag, the bureaucracy of the system insisted I had to, although the check in staff had no uniforms or what seemed any management in sight.
Flying back into ‘civilised’ China, we were amazed at it’s airport infrastructure, but we still experienced an exasperated bottleneck at the security transfer, with strict adherence to protocol. I wondered, comparing the two systems, were Nepal’s problems down to poor governance and thought what variations of communism actually work? Considering Hong Kong where I’m now sitting, the British handed it back 13 years ago, but has anything changed? There is no democracy, but it is governed independently from China. This lack of accountability is acceptable as long as people have plenty of money and the comforts of everyday life are unaffected.
I’m enjoying the ‘rest ‘in Hong Kong, looking out at the harbour of what I thought was the 27th floor, but is actually the 24th floor in reality. There is actually a superstition in Chinese culture with the number 4, as it has an association with death, so the 4th, 14th and 24th floor have been omitted from the elevator! Finding myself now in this rather unfortunate numeric location, I have to say I’ve never felt more alive! And I’m trying to balance in my mind the desire to stay still with the perpetual need to move forward. I know in a few days I will be happy to pack my bags again and move to the southern tropics of Vietnam and celebrate their lunar new years festival -TET. We look forward to discovering this fiercely independent place and hopefully gain some understanding of how it maintains it’s communist zealous with a burgeoning capitalist economy.