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Dispatches from Nepal

April 11, 2006

 

The magic of the Internet allows me to write from Nepal, where a curfew has been imposed in the Kathmandu Valley by the government, and the only freely moving bodies in this city are the rats, birds, and military trucks. The opposition parties have banded together in a strike against the dictatorship of King Gyanendra, who retaliated by cutting off the lifeblood of the city and sending in the troops. As tourists, we live in a bubble of impeccable service at our four-star hotel, while all-out war threatens to erupt beyond the gates.

In the mountain villages, life remains unchanged. On our trek, porters passed us by daily with their tremendous loads stacked with trekker’s backpacks, goods to sell at Namche Bazaar, tables and wooden planks. We visited a temple near Phakding where I could entertain, for a moment, a sense of permanence amidst the silent burning sticks of incense.

Yesterday we arrived back in Kathmandu after a puddle jumper flight from the Everest region. Taxi drivers defying the curfew tried to hustle us into their vehicles; their fees had increased 800 percent. Thank goodness the tourism bureau thought to keep us foreigners alive – on the chance we’d come back after the mayhem died down. We hopped on the bus, rode through these eerily quiet streets where every storefront was shut down. A busy commercial district called Thamel was still as a cemetery. Military trucks cruised the empty streets, and soldiers with machine guns were stationed at the intersections. I saw one young soldier reclined against a rock, reading pages of a thin notebook; were they love letters to a girlfriend, poems from an idyllic time and place?

Curfew is like a poisonous gas that displaces all the townspeople, their cars and motorized rickshaws, leaving a few mangy dogs. When the curfew lifted at 6pm yesterday, life returned to the city for a few hours. A couple at our hotel returned past curfew. The rickshaw driver was stopped by soldiers, who yelled at the poor fellow and did not allow him to return home after dropping off his passengers. The couple tried to persuade hotel staff to give the boy a place to sleep, to no avail. As tourists, we enjoy this badge of protection, living in a bubble of imposed leisure, where the staff serve us overpriced food and cater to our whims.

My husband tried to squeeze in a visit to Bhaktapur this morning before the start of curfew, but the concierge dissuaded him. He longs for the Nepal he once knew, having spent six months as a student here in 1989. Protests have erupted each time my husband has lived or set foot in the country. We think that his presence awakens the revolutionary spirit of the Nepali people.

 

April 14, 2006

From Amy Goodman’s interview with activist Mary Des Chenes:

“What you’re seeing on the streets is a revolt against a despot king. You’re seeing a really true mass people’s movement, something fairly rare in the world. At issue – and I should say, you’re seeing also a very, very brutal repression of that…So almost the entire rule of King Gyanendra has been a fully autocratic rule with the complete censorship of all forms of democratic party. And the people are protesting.”

 

April 16, 2006

We arrive safely back in San Francisco after two weeks abroad. The situation in Nepal continues to deteriorate. Journalists have been arrested and jailed, along with lawyers, students, civil employees among the 1500 protestors held in detention. There is a groundswell of resistance to the monarchy, and even this Sunday, tens of thousands took to the streets, risking brutal attacks by the military. My husband once met a resistance leader who never would have dreamed, seventeen years, ago, that Nepalis would have the audacity to incite a mass resistance movement. A year after that, in 1990, a pro-democracy shakeup did take place. And now, in the Nepali year of 2063, it’s happening again.

Meanwhile, back on our shores, the Department of Homeland Security ensures the safety of all concerned by mandating fingerprints (right and left index finger) along with photo IDs of foreign visitors. The instructional video indicates this can be done at self-serve kiosks, where available, at participating airports.

 

Postscript:

Two years later, on June 11, 2008, the deposed King Gyanendra leaves his palace in an armored black Mercedes, marking the end of the world’s last Hindu monarchy.