Monday, December 19, 2011

Kathmandu and Bhaktapur: Growth and Conservation

Kathmandu had changed in the 21 years I had not visited. The city had swelled with migrants from the countryside and was now home to more than 4 million people. In the meantime, the valley in the Himalayan foothills where the city is located had not miraculously expanded. Consequently, the place was now crowded. It was no longer the quaint village-like old town it had been in the late-1980s and early-1990s when I used to come here. On my first morning back, I went to the New Road area in the center of the city. Most of the buildings were still the same old ones, now distinctly rundown, although new commercial buildings with glass walls that reflected the scenery and shiny malls had sprung up here and there. The Chinese center looked particularly impressive. The leisurely pace was gone and the place was bustling with people hurrying to get wherever it was they were going. There were peasant looking women and men carrying huge loads on their backs and heads, their sun-drenched faces lined and leathery making them look old (although many were probably younger than me). Women wearing colorful saris mingled with young people dressed in jeans. A couple of farmer women sat on the pavement selling fruit from baskets amidst the busy pedestrians.

Most obviously, there was the traffic. Where there had been lots of bicycles and few cars, the bikes were now almost gone—I only saw one pedicab that morning—and cars, motorbikes and scooters ruled the streets. A lone traffic police stood on the pedestal of a status at an intersection trying to create order in the chaos. The officer’s mouth and nose were covered with a cloth mask, wisely, as the exhaust fumes would choke anyone standing in the middle for any length of time. The driver from our office who had taken me downtown had things to say about the traffic and the pollution. “These people are from the rural areas. They have never lived in the city and don’t know anything about traffic rules, nor did they ever learn to drive in the first place,” he lamented. As we waited at another junction where another officer, this time a woman, made valiant efforts to directing the crowds, the driver had a long story about futile efforts to control air pollution that had been in place for the better part of the past decade. The bottom line seemed to be that the government did not want to enforce the rules, as it would have meant replacing all the official vehicles that the city nor the national government could never afford. Consequently, everyone continued to use the noisy motorbikes and old cars without catalyzers, and the antique buses continued to belch thick smoke into the mountain air. It’s not that there were no new cars, as well, just that these had been added to the existing fleet of ancient vehicles.

Even under normal circumstances, developing country cities grow at breakneck speeds. People move to the cities for the economic opportunities that exist in them, even if it means living in a slum. At the same time, they continue to have many children, as if from an old habit, although the children in the city no longer provide the same useful workforce they were on the farm. With improved healthcare, sanitation and nutrition, child mortality has decreased and more children survive. All this contributes to a huge boost in city sizes. Now more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, many of them enormous mega-cities. Out of the 10 largest cities in the world, 6 are now in the developing countries (and 7 in Asia).

Kathmandu’s growth was still a special case. A long-lasting Maoist rebellion had chased people away from the countryside. Originally, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) declared an armed rebellion on February 13, 1996, with the objective of establishing a communist state. The Maoists opposing what admittedly was rather a feudal system prevailing in Nepal terrorized people for a decade. There were forced ‘land reforms,’ whereby poor farmers lost their lands to collectivization, and plenty of violence against perceived enemies of the revolution, as well as between the Maoists and the government forces. Many people died during the conflict. At the same time, as so often happens, some revolutionaries descended into criminality, while criminals saw the opportunity to make money by pretending to be revolutionaries (think of similar cases in, say, Colombia or the southern islands of the Philippines). Kidnappings for ransom became common and the victims often got killed by the bandits whether their family or company paid up or not. In the Terai region in the south, gangs would haul their victims across the border to India not to be seen again. The situation only changed when a comprehensive peace accord was signed on November 21, 2006, which allowed the Maoists to join the transitional government. While they later emerged as the largest party in the Constituent Assembly, they never gained the majority. Instability in Nepalese politics has continued.

The purpose of my trip related to an evaluation my office had conducted about UNDP’s contributions to national development results in Nepal over the past 8 years. These had been particularly turbulent years in the history of the country. Apart from the internal conflict that had peaked during the period, an extraordinary event had added to the extreme political turmoil. On June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra in an alcohol fueled craze shot and killed nine members of the royal family, including his own father King Birendra and mother Queen Aiswarya. It is said he was mad at his parents for opposing his marriage to a girl from a rival family. The revered royal family had been virtually the only institution that had kept the kingdom together. Following the regicide, a new king, Gyanendra, was crowned. This signaled the beginning of the end of the monarchy. Gyanendra dissolved the parliament and suspended elections indefinitely in 2002 following the failure of peace talks with the rebels. The state of emergency was lifted only in April 2005 under international pressure and the parliament was finally reinstated a year later. Immediately afterwards, the newly established parliament, quite understandably, voted unanimously to curtail the king’s political powers. In December 2007, the parliament voted to abolish the monarchy altogether and the constituent assembly declared Nepal a republic on May 28, 2008.

During this period, UNDP had done its best to support post-conflict recovery and a transition to democracy. Things were peaceful now and Nepal had been turned into a parliamentary democracy (with the Maoists learning to play by the rules in the parliament) with an emerging federal structure. Local elections had not yet been held—the security situation did not yet allow for it and there was too much uncertainty in the government—and consequently appointed local officials did not feel accountable to the electorate. We heard lots of complaints about rampant corruption in the rural areas.

One afternoon I had free time and joined one of our local consultants, Kanta Singh, who had promised to take our South African consultant Angela Bester to visit Bhaktapur, a World Heritage Site just half an hour’s drive to the east from Kathmandu. Half an hour, that is, without traffic. Including the driver, we were four people crammed into the tiny Hyundai as we hit the traffic. We started in Lalitpur, a peaceful neighborhood of small streets on a hill where I was staying, and headed across the city. The road towards the airport was being widened. For already two decades, apparently, there had been a ban to construct buildings within a certain limit from the existing road because of the eventual plans to widen the road. However, people had ignored it and now, finally, when the road project was underway, the authorities were in the business of leveling illegally constructed houses. We passed official buildings heavily guarded by police in camouflage uniforms and riot gear armed with guns and long sticks. The congestion got worse before we reached the city limits. In one spot, hundreds of small vans and buses transporting people seemed to stop to let off their passengers and to attract more, thus creating a near standstill. The road passed just below the landing route to the airport and several planes appeared to be heading straight towards us only to roar past almost touching the rooftops.

Once we hit the highway towards Bhaktapur, the traffic eased and our car picked up speed. “Ten years ago, this was an agricultural area and we came here to get our vegetables directly from the farmers,” Kanta explained. Now the entire road was lined with new construction, buildings of up to 5 stories high. In between there were still small patches of agriculture. Rice paddies could be seen on the slopes leading to small creeks. What struck me was how shoddy the construction looked. Most buildings seemed to consist of red bricks piled up on top of each other, often in a seemingly haphazard way. Nepal did have a building code, according to Kanta, but nobody really enforced it. Sitting on the edge of the Indian and Eurasian plates, this was earthquake country and I suspected most of the new buildings would not stand a chance if a big one hit the area.

Bhaktapur, just 13 km east of the modern capital, is considered the cultural capital of Nepal. It has been restored with technical cooperation from Germany and is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Originally an agricultural market and artisan town, its history can be traced back to the 7th century C.E. It is built on a hill with narrow winding roads. According to tourist information, it is “geographically shaped as a conch-shell and geometrically designed into the Tantric fabric shaped Shree Yantra.” I take them at their word on this. Suffice it to say that the city is lovely and wonderfully preserved. It is still a perfectly living piece of history. The artisanal legacy of bronze-casting, carving, masonry, painting and other crafts lives on, while much of the economy seems to have turned to the tourist industry, with numerous small shops lining the streets. As we headed towards the Durbar Square in the middle of the town, we met with a wedding celebration. The proceeding was headed by a brass band that was blowing away with abandon, the trumpeters, other horn players and drummers dressed snappily in red jackets. Old men and women carried traditional items and candles in front of the small car wrapped in celebratory decorations that was carrying the wedding couple. The guests—men dressed in Western suits, women in gorgeous saris of deep red, yellow, green and gold—followed behind on foot.

Separating ourselves from the celebrators, we explored Bhaktapur on foot for the next 3 hours. Here in the town between the fabulous squares, like the Durbar, Taumadhi and Dattatreya Squares, that housed all the incredible temples and palaces, regular people lived. Their houses were old and many still not renovated. We could see signs from old earthquakes that had bent and twisted old brick walls into odd shapes. Even the amazing five centuries old Fifty-Five Windows Palace was badly damaged in the powerful 1934 earthquake. A beautiful little girl was leaning against the wall of her house—several stories high—that had cracked so badly that the residents had erected a pole in the adjacent alley to prevent the side wall of the building from collapsing.

One of the beauties of Bhaktapur and Nepal in general is how for hundreds of years Buddhism and Hinduism have existed peacefully side by side. Bhaktapur has temples for both religions, but sometimes they seem so mixed that it is hard to say which religion they really belong to. I suppose the correct—and most beautiful—answer would be: they belong to both. On another morning when we had a few hours of free time between appointments, Angela and I walked over to Patan Square, another restored World Heritage Site in Lalitpur. In its museum I again reflected with fascination upon the intermingling of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Not only were they practiced side by side, their very deities and sacred texts were intertwined. (Similarly in Japan, where it is said 90% of the people are Shintoist and 80% are Buddhist, religions—or perhaps more correctly traditions—coexist. One cannot help wonder what it is with these Middle Eastern religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—that makes them so intolerant of what each sect perceives as the only correct orthodoxy.)

We had a good guide in Kanta’s driver whose home was close by and he was quite familiar with Bhaktapur and could show us out of the way attractions. At one point he led us through a small porch leading to a tiny inner yard in between residential buildings. The yard contained a small Hindu temple with an altar for sacrifices attached to it. The altar and the ground beneath it were splattered with the red of the blood of the chicken and goats that had been slaughtered there. A beautiful black cat with a shiny fur presided over the square languidly strolling around, ignoring us.

One of the interesting parts of the walking tour was to observe how the old social mores still prevailed. Kanta showed us a number of water wells, which were traditionally social gathering points for women. A particularly large one was protected by a statue of a cobra, with a serpentine carving surrounding it. The water points could be found in many places of the city and it was clear they still served a social function for the women. The men stuck to themselves and when the afternoon advanced one could see pairs and groups of them sitting around the squares, often on the steps leading to temples or palaces making them part of the everyday life of the town dwellers.

I wanted to buy some good Nepali tea, which is similar to but less well known than Darjeeling (some tea connoisseurs even consider the Nepali variety to be superior to the Indian). I was guided to a small store kept by a sweet and rather sophisticated young couple. On the wall there was a snapshot of the couple in Paris where they had gone for their honeymoon. They showed me the various varieties from the most highly priced white-tipped tea. My goal was to settle for the second flush, which is harvested in the season between May and July, and has a lush mellow taste.

While inspecting the teas, I couldn’t help getting carried away by the lovely flute music coming from the stereo. I asked the husband about it and he explained it to be traditional Nepali music. The band, Kutumba, plays traditional Nepali tunes and instruments—flutes, strings, drums and bells—in an improvisatory style. When we had established that I was particularly fond of Asian flute music, he introduced me to a contemporary version by Kala Chakra, which was now popular in Nepal. “Lounge,” I suggested as we sampled the music; “Fusion,” corrected the owner. Either way, the music captured the tradition in a contemporary electronic, yet lovely manner. Later in the evening, beautiful flute sounds again drifted to my ears. It turned out that there was another wedding procession that had made a more traditional musical choice, with a band of young people playing the bamboo flutes from the region.

By the time we returned to Kathmandu, the night had fallen and with no streetlights it was pitch dark. The driver decided to take a shortcut through Patan. Its narrow streets were full of people, cars, motorbikes, dogs, an occasional goat. Three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, here called ‘Tempu’ and larger than the famous Tuk-Tuks of Bangkok, were cruising the streets and abruptly stopping for passengers. Our tiny Hyundai zipped in between buildings, people and vehicles, filling any small space that would open up. At times we got stuck for a minute or two as a truck or a larger vehicle would come from the other direction (luckily, most of the cars in Kathmandu are small). Then again the driver would accelerate to what I considered a dangerous speed when he’d see an opening. Horns were blaring all around us as every user of the road employed the same strategy of advancement. On several occasions I was certain that we’d hit a lady waddling on the side in a sari, or a family walking in a group as if they had all the space in the world, but nothing happened. It was just me who was not used to the going.

Finally we reached Lalitpur and our hotel, a veritable sanctuary so close to the madness of the commercial city. The dry air had been so saturated with dust that I noticed my throat was parched. That was helped by a cold Everest beer before washing off the dirt in a hot shower. Somehow despite its uncontrollable growth and seeming chaos, Kathmandu has maintained its charm and humanity. Efforts to restore and renovate old towns like Bhaktapur and Patan are important beyond their value as repositories of history and culture, as they are attractions that bring much needed income to the country. The fact that both are also living environments where people lead their lives is a highly positive aspect. The harmony that exists between the Buddhist and Hindu traditions should serve as an example for many other places.

Upon my return home, I rummaged through my bookshelf for some old books about Nepal to revisit how the country was described just two decades or so ago. (In the dust jacket of one, Nepal: Socio-Economic Change and Rural Migration by Poona Thapa, I discovered the invoice from Ratna Pustak Bhandar booksellers in Kathmandu where I had purchased the book on May 16, 1990, for Rp. 327.60.) One striking figure was that in 1991, Kathmandu had had a population of just 421,000, indicating that the city had actually grown ten-fold since then. But even before that, the growth had been tremendous, as the 1981 data showed a population of only 235,000 for the city! Many issues that were highlighted by the older publications are still valid concerns: poverty, major inequalities between regions, heavy internal migration. Despite these challenges, much progress has been made, especially since the worst of the political troubles have calmed down. Measured on the UN Human Development Index, Nepal is still on the 138th place amongst the 169 countries included, but its rating is constantly and rapidly rising. One must hope that this trend will continue. Much will depend on the continued political stability, peace and security in the country.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Lunatic ExpressThe Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a travel book focusing on modes of transportation that most travellers would prefer to avoid. Carl Hoffman’s stated desire was to circumnavigate the globe on the cheapest and most dangerous forms of mass transit. For most of humankind, travel was no pleasurable touring, but a necessary movement from point A to point B often involving terribly long and uncomfortable, not to mention perilous, trips on decrepit buses that would plunge into gorges from the winding mountainside roads that they travelled, on overcrowded, capsizing ferries, unmaintained ancient aircraft, and trains that were so stuffed with people that they just fell off on the tracks. Hoffman’s travels over several months involved all of the above, as he left his home in Washington, DC, and toured around the Andes and Amazon basin in South America, the roads and railroads of East and West Africa, the notorious deathtraps that ferries in Indonesia and Bangladesh were. He had weeks of relative leisure in India before flying to Afghanistan on the national airline Ariana (a.k.a. Scariana). Then returning home by train and gas truck through China, Mongolia and Siberia. Through all these segments of travel he reports on the exotic places he encounters, the hairy situations arising and, most importantly, the various people he meets.

Carl Hoffman is plagued by wanderlust. He is middle-aged, married with three kids, a journalist, but for a long time he has felt compelled to leave the comforts of home behind and travel. This is the other theme of the book: man’s struggle between loneliness and belonging. The book gets quite personal, as Hoffman misses his family while at the same time feels alive only travelling in risky places amongst strange people. At times his descriptions of his own addiction to danger seem slightly too heroic, but at least I personally can very well relate to his contradictory feelings. He observes with some envy people in the poor countries that he visits and interacts with, how they all have strong bonds in their communities and families; at the same time, he knows that he could never live that way, with no privacy or time alone. When he finally is returning home, he notes that he was settling in and getting a little bored on the trip. He concludes that it was time to go home: “Travel was only worthwhile when your eyes were fresh, when it surprised you and amazed you and made you think about yourself in a new way. You couldn’t travel forever. When you stopped seeing, when you lost your curiosity and openness to the world, it was time to return to your starting point and see where you stood” (p. 263).

I found the book to be well worth reading, well written, even quite wise. Although the narrative was generally entertaining, I found there was a certain unevenness to the chapters (probably reflecting the interestingness of the segment and the people Hoffman happened to meet). The cover of my edition touted it as a “Wall Street Journal Book of the Year.” I wouldn’t go that far and the accolade baffled me initially, before I realized that for an average WJS reader the book would cover territory that was strange and likely unsightly. The Lunatic Express certainly serves its purpose as an antidote to seeing travel only through the lens of comfortable business travel or relaxing tourism. Carl Hoffman made a superb effort to experience travel the way the majority of the world’s people experience it. In the process he met numerous interesting and hospitable people whom he recalls frequently with warmth, always with understanding.

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