It’s easy to miss the details in Nepal. A trip that only focuses on the most spectacular scenery and the highest adrenaline rushes can resemble a 3-D action film. A journey that includes day to day life with Himmalayan experiences feels more like a novel. Its detail rich plot flows through joy and sadness towards twists and epiphanies. Nepal lingers after the trip like an epic that revisits a reader’s dreams.
My partner Kate and I entered our Nepal narrative in Kathmandu surrounded by temples, motorbikes, people from all parts of central Asia, poverty, and politics. The Annapurna region section included mountains that made the word “huge” meaningless, traditional music and dance at the Pokhara street festival, friendly highland children who loved my bird field guide and binoculars, politics, and poverty. The Terai, Nepal’s southern agricultural region concluded the story with contrasts that left us yearning for more.
This relatively flat region flooded us with unexpected images. Tropical and subtropical forests, grasslands, and rivers coexisted with agricultural land. Farmers in brightly painted horse carts shared rocky roads with bicycles while occasional motorbikes swerved to pass them. Some locals rode elephants and bathed them on riverbanks. Mynahs called to us from sal trees while water buffalo watched like impassive sages. The Terai’s contrast with the Himalayas would have overwhelmed us without an organizing perspective.
Sapana Village Lodge centered our tale. We thrived in our warm room’s spacious bed and loved the tree covered lawn where we wandered, surrounded by the Terai. We nourished ourselves with dahl baat (lentils, rice and curried vegetables), mo-mos (dumplings with spicy fillings), mango lassis and Everest beer at the thatch roofed restaurant. Guests gathered at a bonfire on foggy January nights to laugh and share details of their adventures.
Dhurba Giri, Lodge’s manager narrated and structured this section of our travels. Giri told us how his father brought his large family from the mountains to the Terai to increase their economic opportunities. He carried salt from the Himalayas and earned enough money to buy a cow, a water buffalo and a goat. He sold their milk and eventually earned enough money to send his children to school.
Giri described how three teachers worked with one hundred and forty children in one room and slapped their hands with sticks if they gave wrong answers. He had to work in a local restaurant to earn money to buy pens. School seemed meaningless; Giri dropped out after the fourth grade and worked in local restaurants.
Giri’s professionalism as team captain at KC’s Restaurant impressed a visiting Dutch couple who asked him about his life’s goal. He answered that he wanted to work for himself and to support the local Tharu community. The couple offered to fund a business he would manage if he agreed to use a percentage of the profits for community projects. Sapana Village Lodge eventually emerged from this contact.
Giri described the Tharu people, whose apparent genetic resistance to malaria has helped them live in the wet Terai for centuries. Nepal’s government initiated a malaria eradication campaign in the 1950s.
Business people from India and more developed parts of Nepal now saw new opportunities in the Terai. Their arrival marginalized the Tharu; many lost their land and had to find jobs in restaurants and hotels. Others became debtors who worked on loaners’ property in slave-like conditions. This long established kamaiya system persisted after slavery was nominally abolished in 1924 and became more rigid during the mid and late twentieth century.
The government abolished this arrangement after a kamaiya uprising in 2000, but many former debt slaves still find themselves with no means of support. Some have no home; others own a house but no productive land. Many lack necessities such as sufficient pots or cooking tools necessary to feed their families
Sapana Village Lodge gives twenty local residents jobs such as chef, van driver, operations manager, waiter, bookkeeper and naturalist. Profits fund free medical check-ups for Tharu children and their parents. They provide clean drinking water, toilets and hand washing facilities to Shree Chitrasari Secondary School and new roofs and toilets to Badrani Primary School. Thirty-eight women make local handicrafts for the Tharu Day Women’s Skill Project.. Giri plans to provide local children with a twenty first-century education when Sapana School opens in May of 2011.
Kate and I also learned how the carving of the habitat for large agricultural holdings has impacted on the region’s biodiversity. Many species live here and natural beauty remains, but it is as fragile as any wild place. Tigers, one horned rhinos and fish eating crocodiles called gharials are endangered and protected in Royal Chitwan National Park. Scientists and local naturalists keep a close eye on the region’s ecological health.
Giri offers guests close contact with Tharu communities and with the wild places that surround them. He believes that educated visitors will share their intimate knowledge of the Terai when they return home. Giri placed us in the care of Sanjaya Dhakal, a guide and naturalist who lead us through the Terai’s complex story.
Dhakal took us on a morning bike ride on rocky roads through a community forest. We rode slowly and swerved to avoid huge piles of rhinoceros scat. A black ibis sat atop a sal tree and stretched its long neck to the sun, flanked by two ospreys. Woodpeckers pounded on tree trunks while rhesus monkeys gathered leaves. Green parakeets with long tails flashed past and a barking deer greeted us with a loud “Arf! Arf!” A young marsh mugger crocodile sunned on a lakeshore and ignored us.
We passed a group of Tharu people who gathered firewood. A grinning man wore a t-shirt that announced, “A woman is a man’s best friend and I’m the world’s biggest liar.” He teased his female companions until one laughed and waved a long blade his way. He later helped Dhakal repair the brakes on my bicycle; he surprised me when he only asked for 200 rupees in return.
We rode through a Tharu village of concrete houses with thatched or tin roofs. Fields of lentils, mustard and potatoes surrounded the town. Busy adults gathered to talk about the day’s work. Some built small woodfires to offer comfort in the cold, foggy morning. Others sold groceries and sodas from stores in their houses.
Groups of children waved and called, “Hello! Namaste! Bye-bye!” Nepalese hip-hop tunes drifted from several of the houses. Dogs, chickens and goats scurried as we passed while the ever-present water buffaloes stared. This community appeared to be thriving, but Kate and I were left with many questions about its history and the peoples’ situation.
The next day, we met a Tharu family in a more remote settlement. No electricity reached this village; silence and bird songs replaced the hip-hop. Our hostess showed us how to gather radish leaves and potatoes from her garden. Dhakal helped us tear the leaves into pieces and showed us how to grind massala into a paste with a mortar and pestle. He translated our questions and our hostess’ replies as we worked.
We learned how to slice potatoes with a small scythe. An amused older woman and a curious five-year-old girl shyly agreed to let us take their pictures. They laughed loudly at their images on our digital cameras!
Kate and I later sat on mats in a candle lit room while our blue sari clad hostess served us dahl baat with pickled tomatoes, spicy potatoes and greens. We ate the delicious food with our hands while curious teenagers and adults watched from the doorway. Dhakal mentioned that Tharu people consider it a complement when guests eat several large servings at dinner. A local rice wine that tasted like sake with a subtle hint of local fruit complemented the feast. We thanked the gracious family many times and Dhakal shared our program payment with them. We only saw a few small parts of these people’s lives, but they remain with us.
Dhakal now led us on a walk past sal trees covered with bracket fungi and gold lichens. We spent the night in a three-story concrete wildlife observation shelter in the community forest. A peacock squawked at us as the cold fog descended; a barking deer replaced it when dusk stained the mist pink. Two rhinos wandered into the clearing as night arrived. Dhakal described how they mate for three hours; the male mounts the female and follows her as she grazes. This female ignored her suitor who wandered about grunting. Cool silence and fog filled the field when they left. Dhakal shone his flashlight around the clearing; a green flash reflected from a tiger’s eyes startled us.
We felt grateful for the spiral staircase that would keep the tiger out. Dhakal advised us to wake him if we needed to use the restroom. These moody, honey-loving omnivores, who are agile enough to climb spiral staircases sometimes attack people who startle them. We settled onto our bunks and gratefully slept until almost 5 AM.
Our afternoon adventure began with a dugout canoe ride into Royal Chitwan National Park. Dozens of marsh mugger crocodiles basked on the riverbank and ignored us. Dhakal is a self-educated naturalist who exchanges knowledge with visiting scientists. He helped us distinguish between stork billed kingfishers, who are iridescent green and the blue common species. Egrets watched us from trees as gray herons foraged among the marsh muggers. Dhakal yelled gleefully and pointed at a long-snouted gharial, an animal that few visitors get to see.
We put the boat ashore near a clearing where a mother and baby rhinoceros grazed. Dhakal made sure trees we could climb were nearby before we approached. Rhinos can’t lift their heads to see objects that are more than six feet from the ground; a tree can save a person if they charge. At first the rhinos looked like grey lumps rising above the grass, but assumed their distinct shapes as we approached. The mother watched us as the baby grazed, but seemed to decide we didn’t merit the effort of a charge.
We ended the day with a walk through the diamond clear forest to the elephant-breeding center. Park employees ride these domestic animals deep into the jungle. One baby ran to us like a dog who had missed us for weeks and wiggled its trunk, begging to be petted. We wondered how we could close the book of the Terai!
The Terai story reached an unexpected climax the next morning. We left for Kathmandu by bus, hoping to catch a plane to Tokyo in two days. Giri told us how a group of landless Tharu had seized part of the highway to the capital and blockaded it with piles of burning tires to press for local autonomy. He predicted that we would be back at the Lodge by dusk.
Our bus slid to a stop in a traffic jam ten miles from our Lodge.
No one could see the front of the line of traffic. Drivers and passengers relaxed beside their vehicles while vendors selling oranges, bottled water and roasted peanuts in newspaper cones worked the crowd. The scene smelt like diesel fuel mixed with curry and warm dust. French tourists chain-smoked and joined the debate about whether traffic would ever move.
We happily returned to the Lodge after our driver decided the blockade would prevent us from reaching Kathmandu. Giri, Dhakal and the rest of the staff sang and laughed with us as we returned. The blockade ended the next day; we reluctantly departed and made it to Katmandu in time to catch our Tokyo flight. Many travelers talked angrily about the disruption but we’d read the Terrai’s story. Its beauty and sadness stay with us; we look forward to the sequel.