Jonestown, Kathmandu

Alternative titles for this post:

– “Worshiping the porcelain god…no, really”

– “If the rhino charges, throw your clothes and hide behind a tree.”

-“All the Dutch are arrogant. every. last. one.”

**This post is very long. Horribly, self-indulgently and blissfully long. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

That’s right folks, I did it, I drank the kool-aid. No, I didn’t join some wandering Nepali band of fringe monks or even a traveling band of hippies. I drank the literal kool-aid. I suppose I was feeling cocky, after all, I’ve been here for almost three weeks with no significant gastrointestinal distress, so I must be immune to the stuff that gets everyone else, right? So I drank the kool-aid, or whatever brand of packaged drink mix had been concocted using only marginally filtered water and I did it with full knowledge (or so I thought) of the potential ramifications. Oh. holy. moses. Montezuma’s wrath and revenge don’t hold a candle to whatever Hindi god I managed to piss off with my arrogant mixed beverage consumption. I spent all day Tuesday feeling not so hot, all night Tuesday night in anguish and all day Wednesday trying to just make it stop. Thankfully my wise and beneficent doctor forced a prescription of just-in-case mega-antibiotics on me before I left and those four little pills are the only reason I am able to sit here communicating with you right now – aren’t you just thrilled?

Which brings me to my next topic (you just *know* this is going to be good, eh? How could something less than spectacular follow a lead in about traveller’s trots? I mean really, now.) and the second of my potential post titles. I have come to the conclusion that I loathe squat toilets. Passionately and unashamedly hate them.

“But Kristin”, I hear you all saying, “squat toilets are used by a majority of the world, it’s very judgmental and condescending and neo-colonial and all that jazz for you to hate on the squat toilet.”

“Yes,” I respond, “it is all of that. Your point exactly?”

Even more than the squat toilet, I hate the lack of toilet paper. And yes, I know this is more horrible of me – the most wasteful and needless waste of trees and paper and yet I’m holding on to it like a child with a teddy bear. It’s ok, you can all feel free to stop reading at any point, declare I am dead to you and de-friend me on Facebook.  I have no real reason to hate these things, I just prefer my western habits a lot more. I’ve been spoiled, because the volunteer house has a western style toilet and after dealing with my abdominal armageddon, I cannot imagine coping if I had needed to squat throughout the ordeal. I know people do it and I know many people, given the option will actually choose a squat toilet. I am just not among them.

The toilet paper stance I will defend with a bit more vehemence. While it is undeniably horrible and wasteful of the earth’s resources, we have yet to come up with a more efficient and readily available solution. I was a lot more ashamed of my pro-charmin stance until last week when I happened to mention to one of the doctors at the hospital that there seemed to be an awful lot of people admitted to the hospital for or with severe urinary tract infections – both men and women. In the US and other, more developed countries (also countries that use TP, but I digress) it is highly unusual for men to develop UTI’s. They tend to occur much more frequently in women due to a biological and structural quirk of anatomy.  Here though, there was almost a 50/50 split and the frequency of hospitalization was through the roof. The explanation? Using water to wash after toilet business instead of TP. The water here is so bad that using it to clean yourself after using can actually do vastly more harm than good and lands hundreds, if not thousands, of people a year in the hospital.

I find myself getting really conflicted about what interventions, what assistance should be offered by more developed nations to a country like Nepal. There are so many natural resources here and no infrastructure with which to utilize them to benefit the country and the people. As a result, they continue to be exploited by nations with a functioning infrastructure, nations like India and China. Well intentioned assistance in the form of medical care, social and legal analysis comes from a variety of nations, but it does little to create an environment that will allow Nepal to design its own future. I hear over and over again from the people I talk to that they are incredibly proud of their nation and do not want it to turn into a version of Europe or (the horror) the US. Nepal is not suffering the incredible brain drain that other 3rd world countries are – where the best and brightest are lured away to western nations by the promise of salaries larger than their parents could earn in a lifetime. People get training and go back home here – back to small villages and towns to try to help bring their country into the light. How do we, as outsiders, find a way to help that respects the integrity of this rich and diverse nation. The one screaming piece of the puzzle, for me at least, is water. With clean water, the disease burden would be lightened considerable, allowing the medical infrastructure to breathe and begin focusing more on chronic and debilitating disease. Withe clean water, fewer children would die and fewer of the elderly would be incapacitated with the seasonal waterborne diseases. With clean water, even the poorest slums could attain a level of health that would allow individuals to think about a life that was never previously available.  Clean clothes and a functional self get you a long way in many many parts of the world. Perhaps it’s just the public health person in me talking, but I really feel the best way to help would be by assisting in what Nepal is already trying to do – building a functional sanitation system that provides clean water and separate sewers for the nation as a whole.

(sigh) It’s OK, you can come back – I’m done. Soapbox over, I promise. I’m just figuring things out as I go along here, that’s all. Feel free to disagree or roll your eyes or just close the browser window (though the next bit is pretty fun). Onwards!

Last weekend I went to Chitwan, a town on the edge of the Chitwan National Forest. This is a nationally protected area that also serves as a santuary for wild rhinos, tigers, bears and elephants. After the big Maoist uprising in 1992(?), patrols to stop poaching stopped functioning and raiders from India, China and Nepal killed hundreds of animals for valuable pelts and body parts to trade with China. The current government has cracked down on poaching and there is a big push to draw tourist attention to the area to increase support and decrease continued poaching. As a result, populations have started to increase again, but have still not returned to their previous levels.

You get to Chitwan, you guessed it, by bus. This time I sprung for a fancy tourist bus, complete with a seat of my own, a bathroom stop and a promise that there would be no more passengers than there were seats (and no produce). True to their word, the bus was relatively luxurious and the trip wasn’t bad at all. I spent the last half of it chatting with my seat mate, a 24 year old named Keshav Chandra Bagale, who was finishing his master’s in agriculture and looking forward to moving back to his village, finding a wife and starting a farm. In fact, the adorable, delusional guy even told me that cutting rice paddies into the sides of the Himalayan foothills was “fun” (the quotes are mine because I can’t imagine that phrase uttered without them). He also was involved in getting a branch of his university open nearer his village so it would be easier for people to continue their educations.

I made the mistake while talking to him to refer to Nepal as a poorer country. He told me that while they do not have a lot of money, they are rich in other areas – areas the US is very poor in. I think his exact words were “the US has money and industry but there is no family, no soul. I will choose Nepal because my family is more important than money”. He was sad for the U.S. because people moved away from their parents and didn’t feel a close friendship with their families. Once more I got hit with the uncomfortable feeling of a nation we see as “less developed” looking down on us with pity and sadness.

Anyway, the plan when I got to Chitwan was to stay at the resort everyone else at the volunteer house had stayed at. They had a really good package that involved two nights and three days plus all activities, meals and the bus ride home for US $50. Done and done. Except they weren’t at the bus stop to pick me up when they were supposed to be. (Insert long, dragged out and ridiculous hour here where Kristin ends up wandering the streets of rural Nepal with a Pied Piper -like trail of dogs behind her) Eventually I got to where I was supposed to be and all was well.

Th first day, all of the newcomers went to the Elephant Breeding Center. Sounds like a lovely marvel of modern species preservation and reintroduction, no? No. It’s actually a center where they breed elephants to carry people on jungle tours. They are all chained up – for their own good it turns out. Some crazed Chinese tourist fed the elephants crackers in the wrapper and killed two of them. The chains are so short though, that the mother elephants can’t even feed both of their babies at the same time, they have to shuffle from one crying infant elephant to the other. Depressing as hell.

About this time two things happened: 1. It started to rain (no surprise, it’s monsoon) and 2. There was a cry of “Rhino!”. Now, I should explain, I had decided, in a brief leave from my senses, that I should wear a skirt on this adventure, along with a pair of sandals. I had also decided the previous day that I wouldn’t need the Columbia raincoat that I had purchased for this adventure and only brought a cheap umbrella. Cut to me slogging through knee high grass and puddles, slipping in mud and soaked from the waist down with a bright blue umbrella in my hand (even I was embarrassed to be with me). Just outside the center were three full grown rhinos, just coming by to say hello. I grabbed my camera, zoomed in for a shot and my batteries died. F…rigggin….GAHHHHH!! Luckily the lovely and wonderful people I was with offered to send me their photos and once the rhinos started coming too close for comfort (enter potential title three), our guide told us what to do when they charged and we all made a unanimous decision to leave. On the way back to the boat (yup, this exciting destination was only accessible by a boat made from a hollowed out cottonwood tree – yippee!), yours idiotically slipped in the mud, fell in the river and sliced open her hand and foot. At this point, I can’t stop laughing and the two French, one Argentinan and one Dutch tourist that I’m with think I’m a bit nuts. On the open jeep ride back to the resort, the guide is telling me what a horrible string of bad luck I’ve been having and I turn to agree and get slapped in the head with a tree branch. Movies stop short of this level of ridiculous, yeesh.

That was the end of the bad luck though. I got back to the resort, got cleaned up (realized what a savior great people can be when you’re in a strange country traveling by yourself), and was taken on my first motorcycle ride to buy new batteries for my camera.

The next day we went on a canoe ride up the river, followed by an uneventful jungle walk and lunch. The afternoon elephant rides were fantastic and we saw 7 wild rhino, including a baby rhino not much bigger than a dog. It was interesting to see how calm the rhino were with the elephants around – I’m sur that’s why they use elephants for the tours. The rhino’s didn’t much notice us, they just saw the elephants and went about their business.

Oh, elephant rides. I really wish it were as romantic as it sounds. On the top of an elephant they strap a small frame – maybe 3-3 1/2 ft to a side, perhaps 10 inches high with posts at the four corners. Four tourists get aboard this contraption, one on each corner, straddling the post. I was the first in my group (the others were couples and so I, as the singleton, got volunteered for thngs like this) and so was put with a previous group to make an even 4. My other three travelers were business men from Kathmandu who happened to work for a non-profit children’s eye hospital. As we got going on out adventure, it turned out that one of the business men was also deathly afraid of water – puddles, ponds, streams, you name it, even when the elephant was the one doing the wading and not him. Every time we crossed a stream he would squeal like a five year old girl and grab the arms and legs of those around him, yelling “danger danger!”. Once we got off the elephant, it turned out that he was also afraid of elephants and would not come close to the creature to save his soul. There exists a hilarous picture of me trying to convince him to touch the elephant and him trying to put on brave face in front of the American woman and failing miserably. Unfortunately, as this picture is taken fom a crazed and cracked out angle which makes me appear to be the same size as the elephant, it will never be seen by any of you.

After dinner that night the two couples (Auriane and Fox, Carolina and Stef) and I were sitting wround having a beer and watching the sunset when some very drunk local stumbled into the grounds and started talking to us. When he found out that Stef (who is really a great guy – spectacular beard and great sense of humor) was Dutch, he spent the next several minutes listing off the shortcomings of all dutch people. Considering that I was American and one of the other women we were with was Geman, I found it odd that he chose to go off on the Dutch, but whatever He ended with: “It comes down to, all of the Dutch, all of them are arrogant. Arrogant bastards, the Dutch. Humph.”

Needless to say, it was a hilarious way to end a great weekend. We all got on our busses the next day with emails exchainged and promises to meet up the next week if our paths crossed. The trip back was uneventful save for the spectacular views I wish I could share with all of you. Even when I can get my pictures up, nothing will do justice to the beauty of the road from Chitwan to Kathmandu during monsoon with the mist laying in the valleys and waterfallscuting through the jungle at every turning.

Tomorrow I’m off to Pokhara – a laid back and relaxing lakeside town where I’m meeting up with Carolina and Stef once more. We have become fast friends in the few days we’ve known each other and I’m looking forward to seeing them again. Pokhara is on the border of the actual Humalayas and I’m hoping for a glimpse of the Annapurnas. Hiking is in my immediate future and I was sure to pack raincoat, good shoes and bandages just in case 🙂 I’ll be boarding my last major bus ride in Nepal in less than 12 hours.

If you’ve lasted this long – congratulations!

See you on the flip side!

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One Response to Jonestown, Kathmandu

  1. Kyle says:

    Why is that I am not remotely surprised that you ended up in the middle of an exotic slapstick routine?

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