by David Denbigh
On Sunday November 9, Lib and I left Kathmandu to visit the Ramechhap district. In particular we were trying to get to a town called Manthali. I think the distance by road is about 200 km. It’s supposed to take about eight hours to get there.
Our purpose in going was to visit the village that will be the recipient of your generous donations so that they can have a water system built. It’s name is Salleni, contains maybe 20 families, and is in the Ramechhap district, which if you get your atlases out, you should find about an inch east of Kathmandu. Unfortunately, we never made it there. As this story unfolds, you will see why.
I will begin with the trip out. We left Kathmandu about 7:30 in a toyota 4×4, and after leaving the city, (a major feat) we were met with a “banda” about two hours later on the road to Charikot. A banda is a strike. The locals block the road and there is nothing to do but stop and wait. It can happen at any time at any place for darn near any reason. This one was because the local farmers had asked for fertilizer, and the local officials and ministry ignored their pleas. There were some other complaints about illegal shipping of sandalwood along their road but I never was clear about that. A lot gets lost in translation.
As it happens this was the second banda with this demand, the first one lasting four hours. Suresh (he is our contact in Nepal for TSS, of which I will explain later) and I went to the head of the very long line of vehicles and listened to a spokesman state in no uncertain terms, the problem. He said this strike is indefinite.
Suresh said we could wait, or we could try a different way that is actually shorter but the road ends and we would have to walk for about an hour, cross two rivers, and hope that a local vehicle would meet us on the other side of the second river.
Naturally we turned around and tried option number two.
At about 10:45 the pavement ended. So, for the rest of the day we were in four wheel drive, over real roads and not so real roads, bouncing around like pin balls.
Our driver Gyan at times asked locals whether the track we were following continued. At a positive response we continued on, the truck getting a real workout.
We had a flat tire, were almost stopped by an irrigation ditch, had to wait for a local bus that had stopped in a village for lunch, and followed tracks that had precipitous dropoffs.
Finally we could go no further. There was no more track of any sort, so out we got.
Now we walk.
After traversing a rice paddy we crossed the Sunkosi river on a very long suspension bridge. (They are all over Nepal for the locals to get from place to place) We followed a path high above the river for about an hour and stopped at a local house that fed us boiled egg and black tea. We were now at the second suspension bridge that crosses the Tamikosi river.
We now had to wait for the local truck to come along on the other side of the river. After about half an hour it arrived. The local truck was a jeep like thing with two seats in the cab and a truck bed in the back with two wood bench seats. Luckily, Lib got to ride in the cab.
Now, you would think that if the local truck was summoned for us, (cell phones are everywhere ) it would come empty, so there would be room for us. Not so. This is Nepal, and things are done differently here. So by the time the 16 who came out for the drive, plus us three, there were 19 people on this little truck.
Along the track we went, hundreds of feet above the river, bouncing along with two in the cab, 12 in the truck bed, including yours truly, and the rest hanging on the sides and back and roof of the cab.To say it was a bit squished and uncomfortable doesn’t begin to describe it.
About an hour later, we arrived in Manthali, after dropping down to cross another river. No, not by bridge, I mean in the river.
It was 4 p.m. The fun was only beginning.
We arrived in the town of Manthali at 4 pm. We were immediately taken to the courtyard, a dusty affair, that is behind the TSS hospital. Much fuss was made over our arrival, we were sat down on new plastic chairs, (the same we get back home for $8 at Wal-Mart.) A bench was placed in front of us, and then all the glitterati of the community were paraded in front of us, introduced and they all sat down, and watched us eat noodle soup and tea.
There was no chance to go to a bathroom, change into formal attire, or anything. I personally would have liked to have a rest. That would have to wait. I’m being a tad facetious but we were treated like royalty. They are very happy to have anyone from Canada because a lot of what they are doing is dependent upon Canadian money.
I will take an aside and explain TSS. TSS stands for Tamakoshi Sewa Samiti (Nepali), or Tamakoshi Service Society in English. It is an NGO operating in the Ramechhap district, to help the local population with a number of projects. It is named after one of the major rivers, the Tamakoshi. They have three main aims. They have a cooperative, which we would call a credit union. The main one is in Manthali, but there are 60 “branches” in the villages around the area.
They also support a hospital which they built in the 1980s. It has 15 beds, two full time doctors and about eight nurses. The other area of support is the installation of water systems in the villages that do not have water immediately available. This is what we are supporting with the money you helped us raise.
After formalities ended we were taken up the trail to the TSS guest house. It was very comfortable; we even had an “ensuite” with shower. Sorry, no hot water. And then dinner of dahl baht and chicken curry. We heard our dinner a little earlier having its neck wrung. Dahl baht is the staple diet of the Nepalese. It’s basically rice and lentils, with vegetables like potato, cauliflower, etc. usually eaten with the right hand, but we were given utensils. To the Nepalese, rice is important and is eaten twice a day. It’s very filling.
There were only men at the dinner and Lib. Sorry but we have to go, the computer here in Bangkok is running out.
Hello all again. We awoke Monday morning to the sound of diesel engines, roosters crowing, and a common occurrence here in Nepal, some guy horking loudly to rid himself of some unwanted spit. It is one of the more disgusting habits of the people here, but they have it down to an art form. If you want further clarification I would be glad to demonstrate upon my return home.
The assistant cook came up to our room with a hot cup of chai tea at 6:30. We then had a wonderful breakfast of noodles, hard boiled egg and tea. Then we started up the track to Ramechhap. We were a party of eight. Five in the cab and three in the back in the bed. The road proceeds first across the river, again not by bridge, but through the river. Then we go up. If nothing else, Nepal is vertical. Wherever you go, you go up, and then you go up some more, many switch back turns, precipitous drops, very narrow roads, dust, rocks, and only first and second gear get used. What goes up must come down, and down we go, cross the river again, then up and up and up again. The going is incredibly slow. We made 14 kilometres in over an hour. When we arrived in the town of Ramechhap, what a surprise, pavement through the centre of the town. And Tata buses parked ready to make the trip down. Tata is the make of truck and they are ubiquitous in Nepal.
Despite the rugged going, these roads are actually used by the local buses. These simple vehicles are made for whatever roads they meet. There is a bus that leaves from somewhere past Ramechhap and goes all the way to Kathmandu each and every day!
Until you’ve actually seen the remoteness and how horrible the roads are, it is hard for me to describe how incredible this feat is. These buses all have multi-toned very loud air horns, that they blow on every corner to warn coming vehicles. This is critical because most turns are blind. The difficulty lies in passing these huge rigs. Many times we had to stop, actually back up to find space, and let the beast pass.
After refuelling the truck, we kept going to Rampur. At one point we stopped, all got out because the road appeared to be washed out. At these heights, one takes precautions. After much Nepali chatter, a young local lad appeared out of nowhere and assured us that others had negotiated the rest of the “road”. At the village of Rampur the road ended. When we got out of the truck every person in the village came out to stare at us, including all the school kids. We are a real novelty, as there are no white faces in this part of the world.
Then the walk to Thingre began. Thingre is the latest village to have completed a water system with TSS using Canadian money. They had just finished the work in May. Our aim was to see one village that was completed, then visit Salleni, the village that our money was going to support. For an hour and a half we trekked downhill, in the hot sun, on a south facing slope. I thought this will be a slog coming back up.
We passed through one village on our way which had no water immediately available, but was slated to get some soon. The village elders met us and first showed us a brand new reservoir. It is below grade level, built with concrete, and is about six feet in diameter by about five feet deep. Water feeds into it from a spring source somewhere above them. They have three taps in the village that are fed by this reservoir. One is at the top of the village, the others much lower down.
The village is on quite a slope, so going from one end of it to the other involves quite a climb over some difficult terrain. Each house does not have its own water, but the villagers do not have to go very far to get it. This is a huge change, particularly for the women. Each house also has it’s own outside toilet. You at home might not like what these are like, but they are better than just using the bank.
Women are responsible for gathering water, no matter their state of health, whether they are pregnant or just given birth. They gather it in large aluminum vessels much like milk cans farmers in Canada might use. They are very heavy. They are placed in a huge wicker basket and then carried using a tump line over the forehead. Many things are carried this way in Nepal. The doctor told us that there was a very high incidence of prolapsed uterus as a result of all this exertion. The percentage is showing a marked reduction in villages where water is readily available.
When we reached the bottom of the village, it was suddenly like we were the royal family being greeted by the masses. All the villagers met us with leis, which they placed around our necks, and bouquets of flowers were placed in our hands. And each member held their hands in prayer, bowed their heads, and held our hands as well. It was overwhelming and a real show of appreciation for what change this has already made to their lives. This was followed by us being seated in the middle of the village, with everyone seated on the ground in front of us. We then were given fresh papaya, roasted nuts, boiled egg rolled in curry, oranges, limes, and tea with store bought cookies. It looked fantastic, but for us it was a dilemma. We did not want to offend, yet we were unsure of how safe it was to eat this food. Safety be damned, we ate heartily.
Following this we all had to take pictures. They all got a real kick out of seeing themselves in the back of the cameras. Digital is a real asset. We felt a tad uncomfortable because we had really done nothing, but to them we were “Canada” and Canada had given them this gift. We were humbled by their show of affection, their generosity, and their thoughtfulness. Knowing Libby had a bit of a struggle on the trail because she did not have her trekking poles, and she has a wonky knee, one of the men quietly carved her a stick out of bamboo while we were eating. It really was a help on the way back up. Which leads to chapter 4.
We started up the trail back to Rampur accompanied by four of the village elders. It was hot, steep, dusty and tiring. The sun beat down and we lost a lot of fluids. Every so often we would stop at whatever shade tree presented itself. At the top, I was absolutely spent. I can’t remember being completely out of gas before. (Short and selective memory no doubt) The locals however, made it look easy with their thongs on their feet.
Back in Rampur we were to sit down to a meal of dahl bhat. Neither Lib nor I could face it. Unfortunately our guides had ordered it before heading down the track, not knowing that the villagers were going to feed us. Lib and I settled for black tea with lemon, but the TSS people all had to eat it out of politeness. It’s eaten traditionally with the fingers of the right hand. (Tough for a lefty like me)
When the time came to get back in the truck, the whole village again came out to watch the departure. I took some pictures and again this had a positive effect on the kids in particular. Instead of blank stares, wide grins. It was now late in the day and we had not been to Salleni, the village we are supporting. So, Suresh decided we could at least try to go down the track a bit to see if we could get a glimpse of it. This was not a road at all but we pushed on. After about a half hour, the “road” just ended. Out we got, and in the distance we could see some buildings that were determined to be Salleni. It would have taken a further hour to hike in, and it was now about 5:00. It gets dark here at about 5:30. So, that was as close as we could get.
Luckily one of the villagers from Salleni happened to be at the end of the road where we stopped. Why he was there is anybody’s guess. Maybe he was looking out for us. Pictures were taken so we have a record of that meeting. Suresh explained to the gentleman that we would try to come back sometime soon. Sadly, we turned around and headed back to Manthali. I won’t bore you with the details of the road back in the dark. Except at one point we stopped to take pictures as a gorgeous sunset presented itself on the snow capped Himalayan mountains. Wow.
One more stop for tea in the village of Ramechhap on the way down and away we went. Dinner that night was even more special because the administrator of the district was invited to eat with us. So the three of us were at the head of the table. Lib and I had beer, but all the Nepalis passed around a bottle of whiskey. As time passed many stories were told, jokes shared and a good time was had by all. Two of the men, Govinder, and Himal, were obviously very funny people. Even Lib and I were in stitches, and we couldn’t understand a word they were saying.
It was a very long and momentous day. We did not get to see our village, but it takes so darn long to do anything here that we just ran out of time.
In retrospect we were both in agreement we saw the right village, the one already complete. We can return another time to see Salleni. On another note, Suresh did say that when the time comes and Salleni’s water system is up and running, he will contact us about putting up some kind of memorial plaque in Rachel’s name. We don’t know what form this will take yet, but it will be there. It is quite incredible that we got to where we did. We are likely the only white people Thingre has ever seen in the village. Why anyone other than villagers would go there is unimaginable. It is so remote, it just doesn’t seem likely.
When we left off, dinner was done. Unfortunately, that night I got quite ill. Diarrhoea, chill, fever, generally feeling rotten. I have no idea what the source was. I doubt it was the food in the village because Lib is still healthy as a horse. In retrospect, I had not been feeling too well before we even left Kathmandu, and the fact I was likely dehydrated and very tired, I was an easy candidate for some thing to attack. Luckily the doctor was there in the morning, diagnosed the problem, gave me some disgusting rehydration drink that tasted like drinking salt water. Then some pills that I had to take every eight hours. It took a few days but by the time we left Kathmandu, I was pretty well back to normal.
In the morning, we were supposed to tour the hospital, then leave as soon as we could after that. With my sickness, I just lay in bed, feeling sorry for myself. I slept until we finally left about 11:30.
Actually there was no point in leaving early, because there was another banda on the same road as the first one. This time some truck had run into a motorcyclist. The family of the motorcyclist, who died, was demanding compensation of one million rupees. We have no idea the outcome of that dispute. In any case we had to get over the first 40 kilometres of some of the worst roads I’ve ever seen, and by the time we did that, the banda was over.
Soon after that it got dark, and even on the pavement, it now became scary with all the trucks and buses careening along without headlights until it was completely dark. I sat in the back of the truck, lying down in the fetal position much of the trip, using Libby’s pack as a pillow. God, I felt dreadful and was really glad to get back to the hotel.
It was exactly eight hours to get there. The next few days we relaxed in Kathmandu, seeing some sights, shopping, eating, and recovering. Being in Nepal for the six weeks we were here gave us a pretty good feel for what the country is really like. It is in a lot of ways medieval, with the modern world dumped on it. It has not necessarily been a successful marriage. It is fascinating, beautiful, ugly, and we will miss it.
We will be back for more. We made some friends in our guides and all over the country. We will see them again.