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“We’re out past curfew. If the police see us, we’ll be arrested,” my friend said to me. The truth was he had a point. And the only reason why we were out so late was because I’d talked him into going in search of the perfect Nepalese steamed dumplings, which are called MoMos. I’d heard about a food stand across Kathmandu, Nepal from where we were living.
Still, we were out well past the military enforced curfew. Just then, the sounds of automatic gunfire cracked through the air, followed by the low growl of a diesel engine. Things were not looking good for us.
I arrived as a student in Kathmandu, shortly after the Maoist insurgency had begun in this Himalayan kingdom beginning the Nepal Civil War. A study abroad opportunity through my university brought me to the rooftop of the world to study high altitude physiology and Buddhism.
So, as we were running through the streets that night and ducking around corners to avoid being caught in the headlights of the speeding trucks, I was beginning to second guess my decision to come here. While I doubt the police would confuse us with combatants in the guerrilla war given our complexion, I was more worried they would shoot first before learning they were dealing with a couple of dumb American college students.
Thankfully, we arrived at our host’s home that evening with nothing but a few scratches after having to scale a large wall and received a serious scolding from our host mother, Kusum. So began one of the most adventurous experiences of my life.
The next morning, the acrid smoke hung in the Kathmandu Valley – just as it did every morning. The Nepalese would burn off their trash – partly for warmth, partly for efficiency – and the smoke would linger for hours, only clearing around lunch time.
My classmates and I would gather on the roof of the school and listen to the gun fire around us, judging the distance of the danger. As we drank our warm chai tea, avoiding the sticky film that would accumulate on the surface of the drink, we would recount our evening adventures or rumors of the rebel activities in the Kathmandu Valley. This was a far cry from the idyllic quiet of my home in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
My host family had one child, a bright but mischievous 12-year-old boy who went by the name Charlie. One day, I managed to spring Charlie from school and dragged him with me to explore the Kathmandu Valley – a long valley with several important small cities and collectively recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He translated for me and we were able to secure transportation on a local bus to the city of Bhaktapur.
As we boarded the local bus, we squeezed in between an old woman and a crate of chickens. The bus ride took us through several military checkpoints. I wondered how the army would recognize a combatant in the Nepal civil war.
The bus ride delivered us to Bhaktapur – a city with an impressive collection of temples, ruins and historic buildings. The entire city was under renovation and UNESCO supervision – and was the only city I’ve ever been to that had an admission charge. It was worth it! Charlie, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as impressed with his country’s culture as he was with the pack of bubble gum I had bought him.
While in Bhaktapur, I took my little host brother to a restaurant at Durbar Square in the town and ordered pizza – the first time he’d ever had this western delight. After eating, we were stopped by a western man with a European accent, who wanted to know where I found my “little friend.”
Being young and naive, I didn’t understand sex tourism. It was only years later that I would reflect back on that moment and understand exactly what the guy was asking me as he leered at my host brother. It was also my first understanding that tourism and travel changes the places we visit, and sometimes not for the better.
During my time in Nepal, my other University students and I trekked part of the Annapurna Circuit – a strenuous hiking route through some of the world’s highest mountains. Our two-week trek was pretty comfortable compared to how the local population lived. We had Sherpa porters to carry our bags, set up our camp, cook our food and ensure we were completely comfortable. [Check out our related article: A Beginner’s Guide to Trekking]
These Sherpas made just a few dollars a day, which was good money for them, but spare change for us – even for a struggling American student. They looked on us American and western students as incredibly wealthy. At the time, I didn’t feel wealthy at the time, but wealth is relative.
One day during our trek, a few of us broke off from the group and got lost. There was a fork in the valley and a couple of us took the wrong fork. The relative easy trail turned rocky. The ubiquitous Coca Cola signs on buildings on the Annapurna Circuit trail disappeared.
As the trail climbed up the mountain, the children became fearful of us foreigners, compared to the friendly kids on the main trail. Near the top of the mountain, we realized our mistake when we encountered a road. Our options were to hike hours back down or the mountain, or hope a car would come. As we stood by the side of the road debating our fate and eating oranges we had purchased from a local, we wondered how we would get out of this mess. As luck would have it, our salvation came in the form of a brightly painted bus that had rounded the corner. We flagged it and took up the only available spots – on the roof with the luggage. As the bus rumbled down the mountain in the direction of the river, we held on tightly to the ropes so we wouldn’t bounce off the top when we hit potholes and dodged tree branches.
As the bus descended back into the valley we had just hiked out of, we wondered how in the world we were going to find our group again. When the road came down from the mountain into the valley, it crossed a raging river. Standing on the bridge was the rest of our group. How in the world were able to find them in the middle of the vast Himalaya Mountains was a huge amount of luck. I reflect back on that journey with a sense of wonder.
To this day, every time I eat an orange, I’m transported back to that mountainside. Unfortunately, our trek was cut short due to violence in the region relating to the Nepal Civil War and we had to head back to the relative security of Kathmandu.
Weeks later, I was back in Kathmandu and with my host family. Our house had indoor plumbing (i.e., a sink which drained), but no running water. We bathed in cold water which we poured out of buckets. We used an outhouse contraption (an outdoor toilet which had a hole and piping, but you had to pour the water in to “flush” it). And we huddled in our sleeping bags to escape the cold Kathmandu nights. I came to realize that my host family’s only source of income was hosting us exchange students. It was a moment of sad realization for me. That weekend, I went into Kathmandu’s shopping district (this time observing curfew) and bought warm clothes for my host mother for Christmas.
Christmas arrived in the Himalayas without much fanfare. We celebrated with MoMo dumplings, Chai tea and a cauliflower/chickpea medley. I was still vegetarian at the time, which was probably a godsend to my host mother – she wouldn’t have been able to afford meat anyway. On Christmas morning, my host mother got up and turned on the radio. Most days, my daily wake-up call came in a language I could not understand.
But on Christmas, they played songs in English and the first thing I heard was the Band Aid song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” I was homesick and cried lying in my sleeping bag. This was the first time I’d ever been away from my large extended family for Christmas. I missed them and thought about what they were doing 7,700 miles away. Kusum sensed my sadness and made Nescafe for me – one of only three times she dug into the cabinet and brought out the expensive coffee. She couldn’t afford this to be a regular occurrence, but this was a special occasion.
On my free days, I would ride my bicycle around Kathmandu before curfew. These were the days I loved the most! Riding bicycles in Kathmandu is a cooperative endeavor. I would ping my little bicycle bell every 10 seconds or so as a kind of echo-location system. Everyone is ringing their bicycle bells and car horns, so the noise is maddening. But it serves a proximity function and everyone knows where everyone else is located, so the system seems to work. Like most places in Asia – it’s madness, but there is a beautiful order in the chaos.
I would go to temple for my morning prayers. The Boudhanath Stupa is located about 5km from downtown Kathmandu and less than 2km to my host family’s home. The Stupa serves as a meeting point, tourist attraction, holy site, shopping mall and focal point to dozens of monasteries. I would walk around the Stupa and spin the prayer wheels, repeating my daily incantations. The tourists would gingerly approaching the Stupa and spin a prayer wheel or two “for good luck.” Occasionally, someone would circumnavigate the Stupa prostrating themselves as they went. I would occasionally be stopped by tourists and asked to explain what was happening.
Several times, in the late mornings, I would head over to the Bagmati River. On the banks of the river, the bodies of the recently deceased were created in funeral pyres and the ashes were set adrift on the river. The bodies were wrapped in brightly colored fabrics and adorned with flowers and tokens from this life. Some tears were shed by the bereaved, but these end-of-life events were generally peaceful affairs, reflecting the views of the people. The end of this life is just the next step towards the next life.
In retrospect, these cremation rituals were a metaphor for the country. At the time, I didn’t know it, but the turmoil of the Nepal civil war was in its infancy. Ultimately, it would plunge the country into a decade of chaos, violence and bloodshed, while destroying two decades of economic advancement in this poverty stricken country.
On one of our last days in the country, our entire group of foreign students plus other guests visited the royal residence for an audience with the royal family. About one hundred of us were in the grand hall and we listened to brief remarks from the royal family on the importance of tourism to the development of Nepal (part of the Visit Nepal ’98 tourism campaign). I remember the sense of optimism and joy I felt listening to those words and the strong sense of attachment I had developed to the Nepalese people.
Sadly, less than four years after my visit, nearly the entire royal family was murdered in a bloodbath at the Royal Palace. The official version of events was that Prince Dipendra went into a drunken rage at a party at the Royal Palace after his father the king asked him to leave. Another version was that the prince had been brainwashed into believing the Maoist agenda as part of the Nepal Civil War. And yet another version was that pro-Democracy forces in the country staged a coup with the prince killing his family to bring about political change in the country. Regardless of which version is true, it was a defining event in the country’s history and brought about significant changes.
Reflecting back on my time in Nepal always makes me extremely emotional. Nepal was not my first trip to Asia (I’d spent a summer in South Korea a few years before), but Nepal was my wake-up call as a traveler. I encountered a poverty I never would have imagined possible. I experienced firsthand a civil war that would take thousands of lives. And I came to understand how travel changes everything – it alters the local economies while transforming those of us who make the journey.
Special thanks to our friend Susan Green for allowing us to use some of her photography.