Thursday, 30 January 2014

Room at the top.


 I have been living in hotels and guest-houses since I arrived in Nepal at the start of September, and now that I am settled in Besisahar, have been looking forward to finding a small flat of my own in which to live. 

Someone I work with knew of a vacant flat above the premises of Lamjung Radio, so after a quick look I agreed to rent it. It comprises of kitchen/living room, two bedrooms (one very small) and a bathroom.  One of the best things about it is the large balcony that I will certainly make use of when the weather warms up again. The landlord kindly had the whole flat painted before I moved in, which meant that it looks clean too.
Living room

Kitchen alcove

The flat is about five minutes walk from the main street of Besisahar, along a gravel track. There is a school nearby, small shops and other houses along the road.  Behind the flat the ground rises steeply and so at the back I look out onto terraces planted with vegetables and just a few isolated houses.  Behind that are the forested hills with a deep river valley cutting through between them to the east. 

The first problem was actually moving all my things across town. (I seem to have acquired a lot of things since I arrived in Nepal with just a rucksack and a bag!!) I had two large and heavy bags stored at the offices, which were transported up the hill to the flat by a man living nearby, at 8am before he went to work. He attached them both to a strap across his head and carried them on his back. A small but very strong man and it cost me the equivalent of £2!

Next I paid off the hotel bill, and asked the receptionist about transporting my other bags. Could they find me a taxi?  No! The next thing I knew, two of the staff were sat astride a motorbike, with my two bags somehow balanced between them. When I arrived at the flat, 10 minutes walk from the hotel, the bags were in my room.
Spacious balcony
Vegetables terraces behind the flat

One important job was to buy furniture and household necessities in order to set up home. I had forgotten just how many things are needed.  It was also quite difficult as many things I didn’t know the Nepali name for, about the expected quality or what was a reasonable sum to pay.
Camille, the wife of the Lamjung GAN manager, kindly offered to help me.  I sat in the small store whilst she bargained for my mattress and bedding and then, in another shop, for a two-ring gas cooker and all the fitments for it.  The gas container we bought in a small provisions store opposite my flat and the friendly shopkeeper spent time, later that afternoon fitting, it all together for me. 

The landlord and his wife, who at present live in the flat below mine, were anxious to help too.  They were very concerned that I had no curtains and, just as it got dark, arrived with some old ones and the wires to hang them, so I had bedroom curtains ready for the night. 

It did seem strange to settle down for the night in a new place so completely different from my home in UK.  The place doesn’t as yet feel like mine, as I’m still living out of suitcases – I’ve yet to buy a cupboard to store my clothes in!

On the buses!

Local buses are a vital link for isolated communities in this part of rural Nepal.  Every bus journey is an adventure for me – there is so much to see and experience.  To visit some of the most remote schools my bus journey is long, up to 7 hours, and very bumpy.  They are also very cheap – my seven-hour journey cost the equivalent of £2! 
I’m not sure if these country buses are specially reinforced but they certainly take a hammering on the bumpy tracks and steep hills of their routes. The condition of these tracks would make many people thing twice about taking a four-wheel drive vehicle along them, yet the buses make the journey daily.
In places the bus has to climb steeply for several miles, on a switchback of hairpin bends, some so sharp the bus needs to do a three-point turn to negotiate the corner.  Looking out of the window is scary at times, as the ground drops steeply, inches from where the wheels are, and there are no barriers along the side of the road to prevent the bus rolling down, if it left the road. The bus has to negotiate the deep ruts in the road or large stones that have rolled down from the field above. A few times I have seen the conductor get out to remove a stray boulder from the road. So far I have only experienced the conditions during the dry season; I dread to think what the roads and these bus routes will be like after heavy rain!

The bus hoots frequently to warn people of its approach, so that passengers are ready to catch it or remove their packages that have been transported.  The hooting also serves as a warning to other vehicles travelling in the opposite direction, as there are very few passing places; although so far I have only once been on a bus that had a problem of that kind. In that case the bus reversed slowly back up the track, several hundred metres, to get to a  place where the jeep coming in the opposite direction could squeeze by.

The inside of the bus is often a work of art, with painting, coloured hangings and small offerings decorating the cab.  There are also cushions in the front and many people choose to sit there - maybe because of the views.

Many isolated rural communities only have one bus a day, which leaves the village early in the morning and travels to Besisahar, Dhomre or Pokhora, the nearby towns.  Later in the day the bus returns to the village, having allowed its passengers a couple of hours in the town to shop, attend appointments or visit family.  

One small village I visit .........

One difficult for me is that I need to go to these villages in the morning for the start of school, but cannot catch a bus there until later in the day.  In these cases I need to stay overnight in the village before attending the school the following day.

And its bus stop!

As most people do not have cars or vans, these rural buses fulfil a really important transportation role for the villagers.  I have caught buses that are full of packages, boxes, bags, sacks and various other articles, which are later delivered to small local shops as the bus passes. These things are stacked along the aisle between the seats, and passengers have to clamber over them to get in or out of the bus. Larger articles may be transported on the roof; one country bus had three large wardrobes up there for much of the journey. A bus I recently caught stopped by the roadside for 30 minutes so that a dozen steel reinforcing beams could be untied and unloaded from the roof. 

Provisions to be loaded on the bus.
I have been surprised at the carriage of live animals too.  I’ve seen (and heard) boxes of day old chicks being transported. You may have read in an earlier blog about the hen that I saw, riding without its owner, squatted down in the central aisle of the bus, before being removed by a different person several miles down the road. Most amusing of all was watching one old man load his five goats into the back boot compartment of a bus, before he got on as a passenger!

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Lamjung Festival

For a week in January Lamjung District holds its county fair, the Lamjung Festival, in Besisahar.  This is a big event in the area and people had been telling me not to miss it. People travel into the town from the surrounding villages specially to attend. As I am very familiar with the Royal Cornwall Show it was interesting to now experience this Nepali version.

I watched the streets of Besisahar being decorated with coloured bunting a few days before the start.  There was a buzz of excitement in the town on the opening day, and many people seemed to be dressed up for a special occasion.  The track to the festival ground was bustling with people, the sides lined with a variety of different traders; snacks, toys, jewellery and colourful helium balloons. I am sure most small children would have wanted one of these magical balloons.

I paid my 40 rupees entrance fee, about 30 pence, rather cheaper than county show entrance in the UK.  Around the edge of the central arena were displays of traditional rural life and ancient artifacts.  There were also many stalls selling clothes and household goods. I bought a duvet for my bed; up until now I had been sleeping in my warm sleeping bag because I hadn't seen what I wanted in the shops.

The central arena was lined with food stalls selling all manner of interesting looking food, much of it I hadn’t a clue what it was – sweet or savoury.  I must sample these different things soon. The samosas that I bought were huge, like mini pasties, wrapped in crumbly pastry, and very tasty too. Tables and chairs cafĂ© style were available for use by those who bought food or drinks from the stalls.

The very centre of the arena was crowded with spectators, many sitting on carpeted areas, watching the raised stage.  It appears there was a competition, for traditional dancing and singing taking place.  I really did enjoy the afternoon of traditional dancing and music, the performers dressed in beautiful colourful clothes, many of them representing their village or community. 
Sadly they were all dancing high on the stage, and I had limited views from directly below it, the best place I could find amongst the crowded spectators. Not a good place to take photos though!

My Nepali friend introduced us to her sister, dressed and waiting anxiously to enchant the judges and audience with her dance.  It was good to feel I was supporting someone I knew, and applauded loudly when she finished.  

She  had taken so much care with her clothes and appearance, I couldn't resist taking a close-up photo of her before she began her performance.
Another distinctive group of dancers

Most of the dancers were women and girls, however there was one troupe of men who I watched with much interest.  Nepali Morris dancers!! Their dances included much high stepping and they danced with brightly painted sticks that they clashed frequently as part of the dance. They also had a tall emblem, like a ‘obby oss’ with a painted face that was carried around.  I wonder if this dance style is in any way related to English Morris dancing.

Suddenly all eyes were on the sky. We watched two paragliders descend from one of the highest nearby hills, right into a nearby field, there being no room for them to land in the actual arena.

The big wheel and fairground rides were also a big attraction, and the views from the big wheel over the showground must have been good.  I did not feel the need to experience those rides today!

So many similarities to fairs and shows we have in UK, but in comparison Lamjung Festival was far more colourful, as I hope my photos portray.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Community party

I've just returned from a few days away, visiting one of the farthest schools in the group of 12 that I’m working with. It feels as if I have been away for much longer than three days, due to the mass of different experiences and sights I have had.

The bus left Besisahar at 1pm but we did not arrive at the village until 8pm that night. (The bus experience needs its own blog page, so watch out for that soon!)  It was almost pitch black when the bus stopped and we, (me and the two Nepalis who were accompanying me) alighted. We were met from the bus by the English teacher and led into a fire lit room, where we were given mugs of hot rakshi, the local firewater. Then we walked along narrow paths, to the house where we were staying.  A meal was ready for us, cooked by the smiling lady of the house, and we ate our daal bhat (rice and lentils) with vegetable curry, in the warm kitchen. It was insisted that we drank more rakshi, this was the welcome hospitality of the region we were told! 

Early the next morning, not long after the cockerel had finished crowing, I crept out to an astonishing vista.  Across the valley to the north and east, the rising sun was just catching the highest peaks of the Annapurna mountains, turning them sparking white.  The view was awesome; about 180 degrees of the panorama had snow-capped mountain peaks appearing above the closer hills.

School started with assembly in the playground. The pupils, smartly dressed in brightly coloured tracksuits according to their team, did a few exercises, sang the National Anthem, said the school prayer and then quietly marched into their classrooms.  

In the staffroom a Welcome Ceremony was held for us, where we were presented with red tikka (on the forehead), katta (silk scarf) and flower garlands or loose flowers from all the staff. I had 5 flower garlands, mostly made from marigold flowers, but the special one from the Head teacher made from purple Bougainvillea.  

Later in the afternoon we were taken as guests to join a local community party in the village. On a flat piece of land on the valley side, straw mats had been laid out and already many people of all ages, sitting cross-legged, were being served food and drink by an army of helpers, whilst others were busy cooking. 

A continuous stream of people arrived, were greeted and seated then served food on metal platters. There were young babies, toddlers, teenagers and elderly people, all joining in this community celebration.

We all sat there eating and talking as the sun went down.  (Actually I wasn’t talking, as my Nepali doesn’t yet run to holding a conversation with anyone, I just listened and watched and occasionally replied to simple questions.) Across the valley to the north and east the sun turned the mountain peaks golden, whilst to the west we were treated to a spectacular sunset. 

What a beautiful place and how honoured I feel to have been invited to their local community party.  I look forward to my return visits to this village.