Friday, 16 July 2010

Reflecting on Nepal

For a while now I’ve been wanting to write an article about the wearing of the veil by Muslim women and my take on recent developments in Europe given my time here but it’s a damn complex issue and I haven’t been able to get my head around it yet. Instead, you’ll have to make do with an altogether different and much less serious subject: my trip to Nepal.

I left Satkhira around the 1st July and have yet to return. I spent a total of 10days in Nepal lapping up what one volunteer calls, all the treats which that relatively poor country offers. It’s so funny what geography can do for the development of a country. I’ve already mentioned that Bangladesh is geographically cursed in many ways whereas the Himalaya in Nepal give it something which Bangladesh simply doesn’t have: a stable and with a bit of luck, sustainable source of income in the form of tourism. There are certainly plenty of drawbacks: over reliance on one industry, environmental and cultural destruction by western tourists, hippies and climbers. But overall, I reckon tourism has been and will remain good for Nepal.

But I’m not going to bore you with the shopping list of activities which I got up to in Nepal. What I feel was interesting (as a neurotic individual) was what Nepal has shown me about myself; about how I have changed since arriving in the Desh and about the bizarre emotions I felt when my return came closer.

First up is a realization that living in Bangladesh is dangerous. I’m not referring to rogue army units, unbelievably reckless driving, flash flooding or cyclones. Within a couple of hours in Kathmandu I realised just how the Deshi culture has impacted on my view of normal behaviour. The most obvious example comes from the confusion I felt on seeing men, women, boys and girls walking about together, chatting, holding hands, kissing in public, wearing what they want, arguing with eachother, being provocative. This confusion comes from seeing so little interaction between the sexes in Bangladesh, never seeing any expression of affection and living in a pretty homogenous Bengali Muslim dominated culture. Now of course I’m still pissed at the shitty lives that many women are forced to live in this country but being surrounded by so much gender discrimination for five months definitely wears down your resolve a little and impacts on your perceptions of normality. On seeing all of this liberty in Nepal, I wasn’t actually sure what was going on. I find that dangerous and frightening but on the other hand, seeing that normality, seeing people experience at least some level of liberty, was the most enjoyable and at the risk of sounding sensationalist, inspiring part of my trip.

Second was the pleasure in having wonderfully interesting and at times ridiculously meaningless conversations. Ida, a Norwegian I knew before I came to Bangladesh, her guy George and three Australian engineers we bumped into on a raft, provided a great platform for an escape from reality. In saying this I am not dishing any of my good friends and fellow volunteers in Bangladesh but our thoughts, conversations and behaviour are almost all completely shaped by the sheer intensity of all that surrounds us whether that be our experiences in our placements or our troubles with VSOB or bitching at Bangladesh’s more annoying habits such as the roads, the mosquitoes or the power cuts. I am extremely appreciative of being surrounded by great companions and support here but it was just so good to change the channel, to talk about Australians movies I’ve never heard of, exciting travel plans, the completely different lives that a gang of five or six people can live.

Unfortunately a more enlightened and contented me was also confronted with the reality that this almost dream like life in Nepal could not last. Sitting drinking rum and cokes at 2am the night before I left, I was overcome with a depressive feeling. Everything just seemed horrible in Bangladesh. The thought of returning to intense humidity, to frustratingly slow progress at work, to long bus journeys and isolation in a city with not one place you could call a restaurant kind of overwhelmed me and for a 20minute period I seriously felt sorry for myself. Finishing the evening, we waved goodbye to some good people and I enjoyed a drunken sleep. Yet, when forced into action by necessity and flight complications, I was actually in fine form the morning of the flight. On reaching the airport, I watched with interest the different people flying out of Kathmandu that day. It didn’t take long to spot the Bangladeshi’s as a large crowd of small and mostly poor looking men made their way through security excited by the journey yet uncomfortable in the strange surroundings. In the smoking room, I watched about 15 middle aged men, enjoy some spirits with water before returning to the place which forbids them from drinking alcohol. And while I wasn’t inspired by any of this, it did get me thinking about what it is that motivates or keeps me going in Bangladesh.

I realized that there was something missing from my trip in Nepal. For sure there is still a lot of poverty there, but travelling from place to place in an country flooded by tourists, I didn’t feel like having a chat with the locals, and those who felt like having a chat with me were mostly face painted men dressed in religious gear looking for me to take a photo of them and then pay for it. While I don’t doubt what I’ve heard from many people which is that Nepali’s are extremely warm people, you really struggle to discover anything about the character of those living in Nepal. For sure I’ve been in Bangladesh for five months, but even if you only stay for a week, you’ll see something completely different. Despite a complete lack of understanding for the concept of personal space, there is something very natural, innocent and genuine about the people in this troubled country that I have never experienced elsewhere. The people I work with are, despite the annoying tendencies, wonderful wonderful people. In the same way that Bangladeshi’s have a love for their country unlike any patriotism I’ve ever encountered, they too take you in and if you respect them and make some effort, by and large they treat you like family. Getting a baby taxi back from the airport in Dhaka, I also realized that by being untouched by tourists, Bangladeshis in general have strong characters and they appreciate a bit of banter (my driver filled me in on all the watering holes in Dhaka and treated me some moves in honour of the parties held inside the passing Radisson Hotel).

So after a wonderful time in Nepal, it’s back to the grindstone. But that’s fine. There are some terrible things in this country but some great ones too…With nigh on 6 months gone, the break was pretty much perfect and leaves me with only a little over five to go.