Namaste and welcome back to life in the far and slightly mystical East!
Well, since my last letter from Nepal, I can report that life here has been absolutely normal (for Nepal) i.e. interesting to the point of overwhelming in an oh my goodness can it get any worse / what a wonderful and amazing place I live in sort of way. What with pylon-cracking thunderstorms, tenacious tummy bugs, emotional big-mountain moments, heart-rending send offs, strikes and shutdowns it's all been a bit of a rollercoaster recently.
Having survived the car crash incident and bounced back in true Indian Rubber Girl styley I succumbed (once again) to an irreverent and irascible bug of the gastric kind and was duly confined to bed (and bathroom) for a few days. I was all for putting it behind me (no pun intended) but luckily I have friends with more sense and experience of these things and they sent me off to the clinic for a check up and testing. The tests were all positive - I am definitely alive! However I've also been overly-generous with my resources providing a home and sustenance for a whole colony of small intestinal creatures and the relationship had become a bit clingy. The doc advised me to kick them out immediately and gave me a whole bundle of drugs to get me started. And, contrary to what those boys in the Verve said, the drugs do work but they have a bloody horrible and nauseating way of going about it.
Luckily I managed to get all my un-wellness out of the way in time to lead a training programme for some lovely and amazing people from the World Food Programme (WFP) and was therefore able to take full advantage of the delicious and plentiful lunches and snacks provided throughout the three-day course. WFP may be struggling to deal with food security across Nepal but they did a cracking job of keeping this trainer well fed and nourished! On a more serious note, Nepal has some major food security problems: many people in the remote Western regions are in a critical state suffering with low crop yields after the rains failed last year, a situation compounded by the enormous costs of flying in essential supplies to these largely cash-less hill communities. The WFP fieldworkers that survey and monitor these far flung places do an incredible job in difficult and isolated conditions - and they're a dynamic and cheerful bunch too!
And from there it was on to WFP of a different kind - Waiting For Planes: planes to get to Lukla and another fabulous trekking experience leading for KE. Actually the wfp wasn't too bad this time - just a couple of hours lolling at Tribhuvan Domestic terminal before we got out into the clean air and big skies of the Dudh Khosi. After a brief sojourn in Namche to collect our breath (literally) and sneak a peak at the big E from the appropriately named Everest View Hotel, we escaped the well-beaten EBC trail and headed off to Thame. After the hustle bustle of the capital with all of its recent stresses and strains the morning's meander through the luxurious blooms of dripping rhododendrons, past gurgling streams in grassy green meadows with colourful strings of prayer flags adorning crags and crests was an absolute tonic.
We all thoroughly appreciated the relative solitude of this beautiful valley as we picked our way slowly ever upward. The short days provided lots of opportunities to explore the magical scenery and also to meet the locals. We spent a few hours at the house of Pasang Sherpa, a former climber who had lost his fingers and toes to frostbite after an expedition went horribly wrong. Pasang now paints wonderful, delicate canvases of mountains and monasteries so we went to take a look at his work, drink chya and play games with his kids.
Our final day in this valley took us up to the stunning lakeside high camp nestled at the foot of the Renjo La. We spent the afternoon catching up with various chores in the cool spring sunshine, exploring the high crags and feeling the anticipation of our first big pass build. We set off early next morning picking our way up a giant stone stairway through massive towers and icy slabs to reach the top of the pass - and probably the most impressive and startling views I've experienced. You can come enjoy all of this too on the Everest the Hard Way (or actually Everest the slightly longer way) trek. I won't spoil it by describing anymore..........
And so our weary bunch came back to Kathmandu and the big shutdown. On May 1st the Maoists marched and protested then shut the entire country down for a whole 6 days. About 300,000 villagers (mostly men, mostly young, mostly illiterate) were paid to come in and form the blockades and rallies (a bande). And they did a good job - everything stopped. It was a strange life in limbo after the companionship and vibrancy of life on trek: no work, no communication, no shops, no banks, no traffic, no nothing, even the sun gave up and we had a week of cloudy stormy skies. The only thing we did have was electricity. Loadshedding was on strike too (normally we have no electric for 12 hours a day). I'm not sure whether it was a government ploy to keep us in our homes and off the streets stupefied by an unlimited dose of daytime telly or something more pragmatic - like an energy surplus as all industry had stopped. I prefer the former - it fits with the times better.
So being TV-less and having run out of work, laundry, cleaning, reading, running activities the only options were to take a stroll down the central highway in search of a friendly face and some conversation. Happily the Shanker Hotel still had a good supply of coffee and biscuits and we had a few rather old-colonial style expat gatherings blathering about politics and pretty nothings whilst the world fell apart outside the gates. Towards the end of the week violence had erupted as beleaguered shopkeepers tried to open their doors only to be beaten and smashed by angry young men with big sticks acting in the name of the ‘people'. On Friday the real people of Kathmandu stood up to be counted - all 30,000 of them (and me) - marching through the city demanding peace and an end to the thuggery and intimidation of the bande.
Uncannily that evening the strike was called off. The electricity went off, empty-shelved shops re-opened, medicines were allowed in to re-stock hospitals and the Maoist boys left to find their own way back to their villages, rotting crops and untended cattle. Political talks have resumed but there is still a mighty long way to go before a real peace and development come. Watch this space for more!