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Nepal is a new democracy, undergoing all of those growing pains that come with trying to meld widely varied beliefs and ideals into that final definition of a “new” country.
Our first day of trekking we encountered some of these growing pains first hand in the hill town of Sivalaya. The local government had just instituted a new tax on tourists (the number one income generator in the area) – a 2000 rupee ($25) permit for trekking through the area. Knowing that this money would not be used in the community and fearing that this would diminish the number of trekkers coming through the area, a protest was called in the small town square. Signs were torn down. There was yelling. A few plastic chairs were broken. In the end, there was change.
Watching the act, I was initially skeptical, but later thought: maybe this is a democratic improvement? During the insurgency, when the king ruled supreme, the event could have easily become violent. People could have been killed, arrested, raped, tortured. If not at the protest, then possibly after. Maybe there would have been no protest at all if people had been too scared to risk their security for something as trivial as a little more economic hardship?
On this day, people were obviously not scared. This time people had walked two days just to stand in the square for 30 minutes. Just to have their voices heard. And they accomplished something. They were empowered, and perhaps that is the very essence of new democracy in action?
But doesn’t democracy imply something more than just empowerment — a certain accountability to the people? If citizens felt like that accountability was there, that they had a voice in the process, or even just that there would be some sort of financial transparency, would the event have even needed to take place? Maybe not.
In Kathmandu a month later, we found ourselves in the middle of another popular political movement, a 2 day country wide bandha (strike) instituted by a selection of political parties upset about how the country would be divided under the new democratic constitution.
In the tourist area of Kathmandu, everything progressed as normal — perfectly normal until the enforcement mob showed up. The tourist part of Kathmandu was usually off limits to political demonstrations. Apparently not today.
Even before I could hear the chanting progressing towards us from down the street, the sound of shutting gates became overwhelming. One after the other, restaurant, travel agency, money exchange, shop, and hotel owners where running out of their places to put down their gates as fast as possible. They all knew that the places remaining open risked being looted or having their windows broken.
The chanting mob eventually moved away and over the next few hours, you could see the gates slowly opening back up. At first, they would come up halfway with the owner standing outside just in case. Then another 1-2 hours later, perhaps all the way up.
In contrast to the empowerment I had seen in Sivalaya, this instead felt like a mob disempowering people. I began to wonder, was this thing that felt so different democracy in action too? A peaceful protest versus an angry mob – is one ore democratic than the other? Where is that line between democracy and anarchy? Is the power of a gang more democratic than the war? Is it more democratic than the King? I am not yet sure.
In a house, of course! A lovely 2 storied house with small wooden windows and a central courtyard. It is nothing grand by today’s standards, but when it was built in the 18th century, it was a place fit for only a goddess. Because of the strong relationship between the Living Goddess, the Kumari, and the king, her house originally overlooked the King’s palace. That was before he decided to move down the road and into a new house.
I wondered if, with the king now gone, there would still be a Kumari? “Absolutely!” everyone said. Once a goddess always a goddess, right? Almost. The Kumari is always the Kumari. The goddess herself does not change, but the young girl’s body within which she resides does. The goddess can only reside in the young girl’s body until she hits puberty, meaning that every 8-12 years a new girl is chosen as the Kumari, as the embodiment of the Living Goddess.
Standing in the courtyard, I find myself thinking: in the US, little girls want to grow up to be a beauty pageant or a movie star. If only they knew! I dare say a living goddess would have both of those options beat by a mile.
To learn more about what it is like to be a Kumari and the challenges of reincorporation into normal life, read: “From Goddess to Mortal: the True Life Story of a Former Royal Kumari” by Rashmila Shakya & Scott Berry
Remember that feeling of being a freshman in college – that moment in life when you know that you’re no longer a kid, but you’re still not quite sure of how to define yourself as an adult? That is where I was when I first fell in love with Nepal.
Truth be told, I wasn’t actually in Nepal at the time. I was in a large auditorium at NC State University. A professor was at the front of the room giving a presentation on a new study abroad program. I was politely listening, but I’d already decided that when the time came for me to study abroad, which would be the spring semester of my junior year just like everyone told me it should, I was going to go to Italy. …And then the moment came.
It was a moment like in all those sappy country songs where the singer talks about being instantaneously mesmerized by a beautiful woman as she walks into the room. The professor walked in, put up a picture, and I was caught in the spell. It wasn’t a particularly good picture, but I can still remember it: a bicycle rickshaw parked at an intersection with some mass of litter behind a wheel. The image was so different from anything I had seen in person, at that point I had only ever been around the US, France and Italy, that I was instantly enchanted. Everything else I had planned for that summer seemed to fall away. My whole being became consumed with wanting to stand in person in the middle of that picture and know that space.
And so, off I went. 19 years old with 2 overweight bags, 3 boxes of cheese and peanut butter crackers, a dozen bottles of water (which eventually got left behind at the airport), and a pair of hiking boots hanging off of my bright yellow backpack. I was a sight to be seen, if not at the airport in D.C. then certainly at the end of the muddy, puddle filled alleyway leading to my hotel in Kathmandu. I was finally in my picture, and I was about to find the definition for my adult self. Those 3 weeks in Nepal and subsequent 9 weeks spent traveling elsewhere, would shape my view of the world and change the path of my life.
12 years later that path has led me back to the same, now paved, alleyway. My bags are a little lighter this time around and my hiking boots are on my feet. Nepal too is different than when I was here last – a king has been killed and another dethroned. The stretch of mountains, valley, and plain that were the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal has become a secular democracy, or at least it carries the faint perception of one. The per capita GDP has doubled, making the country still one of the poorest in the world but infused with this new energy of possibility.
Walking around the streets of the capital, I realize that we have switched places, this new Nepal and I. I have come back to Nepal as an adult, while suddenly it is the one caught in that awkward freshman place of not quite being a kid but still being unsure of how to define itself. Even a small amount of time spent here makes it obvious that this will not be an easy search for the country.
Currently the Nepali government is in gridlock trying to write a new constitution. I wonder and ask the people I meet, “will they be able to get it right this time?” After so many years of bloodshed, so many lives lost, and so many dreams broken, this country deserves to find its own picture, something that will inspire its people to put past loyalties and disagreements aside, a definition of itself that is so mesmerizing, that every Nepali will want to stand in the middle of it and know that space.
For an informative brief history of Nepal and overview of the most recent political and civil conflicts, read Manjushree Thapa’s “Forget Kathmandu”. It’s personal, concise, and gives a great well-rounded picture of the country’s political situation.