If a wild rhino charges you your only hope is to climb a tree, and since we were on the river bank no trees were to be found. She was with her baby so we had to be extra cautious. We approached from downwind but the jungle guide, my sole companion, said she was starting to smells us so we had to go. It was good timing since a large male elephant was grazing through a field nearby. We hurried off and were soon face-to-face with the giant.
My trek through the Himalayas was great, but it was time for me to get off the tourist trail and start seeing the real Nepal. My first stop was a national park in the west called Bardia. Three times further from both Kathmandu and Pokhara than Chitwan National Park, Bardia is not highly touristed. When I was there I got the feeling I was the only tourist in the entire park.
Still, Bardia was a place that tourists do go. During my first visit to Kathmandu I was fortunate enough to stay with a local guy that I met on CouchSurfing. Aabhash(right) lived with his mother(left), wife, sister, two brothers(center), niece and nephew in two small rooms behind their storefront. The short glass case in their little shop had a wide variety of neatly arranged snacks and cosmetics. The long glass case had cell phones. There were tables on the sidewalk out front where fresh tea was served. Being the eldest male, Aabhash carried a lot of responsibility. He worked all day doing any manner of task from circuit-level phone repair to giving private mathematics lessons. Aabhash was without a doubt one of the smartest, friendliest, most tech-savvy people I've met on this entire trip. His family was likewise kind and intelligent. Aabhash had friends and family in the east of Nepal but had never had a chance to visit them. Our auspicious meeting presented him an opportunity.
The bus dropped us off in the darkness, a 45 minute walk from Aabhash's village. When we arrived, his relatives were sitting in front of the simple wood-and-mud house, faces illumined by cell phones. The village got power a couple years ago, but like everywhere in Nepal they were experiencing a corruption-induced brown-out (think Enron but everyone knows what's going on and nothing is changing). Dinner was served early. Everyone in the village were farmers so they woke up and went to bed earlier than people in the city. Dinner was prepared over a wood fire and eaten with our hands while sitting barefoot on the dirt floor. It was a typical meal called Dal Bhat, consisting of rice, dal(lentils), gundruk(a cooked green similar to chard), and potato curry. For lunch they made a special preparation of the meal with dhindo, a corn paste, instead of rice. Everything we ate during our entire stay in the village except for the salt, was grown right there. For the rest of my stay in Nepal nearly everything I ate was locally and organically grown.
After dinner we went to sit in a different room. All of a sudden the power came on. The TV flickered, a snake curled up on the thin wood divider between the next room snapped at a bug, and the thick, flat, sand-dollar sized spider on the wall crawled closer to the guy sleeping on the bed with which we were all sitting. A white guy sensationalizing a safe drive through mountains in some foreign country appeared on the screen. They switched the channel. The local news was reporting on a bus that just went off the edge of a cliff. Buses and jeeps go over the edge of cliffs killing everyone inside (though not usually those riding on top) on a weekly basis in Nepal, and garnered no special attention. They switched the channel again. A reincarnation of Steve Erwin was jumping onto a large snapping turtle from the safety of his canoe. They watch The Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and National Geographic all over the world. "People like you are always going into the jungle and jumping on poisonous animals. [They pointed to the nearby jungle] Do you do that?" They're interested in other foreign cultures and exotic animals everywhere, but mostly what they see on TV is a stupid white guy tackling a deadly animal.
Aabhash and I pushed further east. We stopped in a place called Janakpur where Ram (first incarnation of Vishnu) and Sita were married, and took pictures at the only railway station in Nepal (with all trains going to India). Then we dropped in on Aabhash's friend who's a doctor at the most prestigious medical school in Nepal. The university hospital where Aabhash's friend worked was an old British-built military recruiting compound and very little had been altered when turning it into a hospital. Low, windowless, concrete buildings comprised most of the pediatric ward where Aabhash's friend worked. Pigs, sheep, cows and stray dogs roamed the hospital grounds.
"What's the biggest obstacle facing health care in Nepal?" I asked Aabhash's friend. "Political instability." He replied. Nepal's political system has been tumultuous for the last 62 years, alternating between a monarchy and a multi-party democracy (and pretty much every variation therein), and full on revolution including a royal massacre. The people of nearly every country I've visited on this trip have complained about corruption—which tends to be out in the open in Asia, rather than just beneath the surface as it is back in America—but it seems as though the Nepali people have good reason to complain. Corruption in Nepal ranks #2 South Asia.
"One party starts building a cardiac center, then the government changes and the building stops. Parties gridlock over where the hospital could best use money, and in the end it all gets embezzled." Aabhash's friend told me. There's a big election coming up in Nepal and you can see evidence of it everywhere. Bamboo doors and wooden power poles were adorned with political posters, earthen homes were decorated with party flags. Frequent parades delayed traffic all through the countryside. Instructions on how to vote and explanations on why to vote blanketed government buildings and public spaces.
Nepal's current political system is a little different than any I've experienced so far. During the election each person gets to cast two votes: one for a person and one for a party. 240 of the 601 seats on their Constituent Assembly are directly elected, 335 are nominated by the winning parties, and the remaining 26 are appointed by the current council of ministers. There's no Primaries as in America, so when the elections come each party usually has several prominent leaders. There's around thirty-three parties total, but most of the power lies in three of them: The Communist Party of Nepal/Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), The Nepal Communist Party/Unified Maoist (UCPN(M)) and The Nepali Congress (NC), with the latter being the primary incumbent.
As Aabhash and I continued east we dodged a political protest which halted traffic in an entire region the previous day. The next day we weren't so lucky. Political activists led by a group which broke off of the Maoist party about a year ago, called "The Losers" by most Nepali, and "The Sore Losers" by me, was staging a violent protest which shut down transport on our way to the tea fields of Ilam. They were mad because some of their guilty party members had been arrested. Despite having more domestic military bases than any country I've ever been too (including the US), all the Nepali government could do was stop vehicles from going to the problematic areas and send them through in groups when things settled down. We waited it out and finally made it to Ilam.
"Hopefully soon we have a stable, uncorrupted government." Aabhash's friend had told me. "I hope so too." I echoed. The side of Nepal that I experienced in the last couple weeks was radically different than the side I saw during my first month. Jungles and plains offered a stark visual difference to the towering mountains of Annapurna. Villages in the low-lands were more basic than the tourist-driven tea-houses high up in the Himalayas. Political interest went from a few scattered posters to physical demonstrations. My two-week trek has already started fading from memory, but the people, animals and events of Real Nepal have made a lasting impression. At this point it's hard to say what will result from the upcoming Nepali election, but one things for sure: the country is due for some quality stability.
It's an old joke which is better said than read, but: "What do you get when you mix an elephant with a rhino?" See title for answer.Soundtrack: Rhino (Ken Lonnquist)