Category: responsibility

Nepal…to visit or not to visit?

Visit to Nepal

Before getting ready to head back to Canada we took a last holiday from our holiday.  We decided on Nepal for a few reasons

  1. Peter had wanted to go there for 40 years.
  2. It was much less expensive to fly to Kathmandu from Thailand than from Canada
  3. We needed to leave the country one more time before our visa expired
  4. Tourism is down in Nepal since the earthquakes 3 years ago. We wanted our tourism dollars to help make a difference.
  5. We thought it would be a good place to escape the burning season of bad air in Chiang Mai.

Four of the five reasons were good reasons.  The last one proved false as the air in Nepal is even more polluted than when we left Thailand.  Fortunately, we had bought Vogmasks to filter out the most dangerous particles and wore them most of the time we were away.

Reasons to visit

  1. The people of this country are happy and kind. They work very hard to make a living. Even before the earthquake though, 1/3 of the economy is from local efforts, 1/3 comes from money sent home by those who leave to make a living, and 1/3 is from tourism.
  2. There is a wonderful energy here. I am glad we had time in Thailand to have some experience with city living or this might have overwhelmed us.
  3. Our hotel, The Tibet Peace Inn, was very good value at about $35/night. They could not have been more helpful.  They picked us up at the airport, provided a hot breakfast for $3 a day and arranged our itinerary for the time we were there.  The manager booked our flight and driver for our trip to fly by Everest. He also booked a driver and hotel for our trip to Pokhara for 2 nights and even let us leave some of our things in our room in Kathmandu when we were gone.  And not only that, but they had the best hot, high-pressured shower we have had since we left Canada.
  4. You can hire a private guide and driver for a whole day of touring the villages near the city for about $80.  We had a great day with Ranjan Mishra, our guide.
  5. You can buy any knock off clothing gear that you want, all made in Nepal. I got a mid-weight down jacket for $20 and waterproof duffel bags for our camping gear for $35.
  6. We stayed in the Thamel area. It is the tourist area and has lots of restaurants serving food from every country, including Nepal.  Local beer is also cheap.  $4 for 620 ml.
  7. The country is primarily Hindu with many Buddhist and some Muslim. They have a strong influence from India which we could see in the women’s dress.  Having heard many Hindu stories at Angkor Wat was a big help to understanding the culture here.
  8. There is a very strong sense of community here. Children hold hands as they walk to school.  They play in the streets with whatever they can find. People smile and welcome you.  Parents play with their children and laugh with them.  I saw lots of dads carrying their children around

Reasons you might not want to visit

  1. Air quality. It is not only very dusty, but the skies register over 150 ppm of 2.5 micron particles which is above the dangerous level.
  2. Traffic-There is too much traffic for the roads. There are no traffic lights at all in the Kathmandu valley.  Many streets are not paved due to mismanagement or because of the earthquake.  These roads are full of holes.  If a mudslide occurs in the mountains, the traffic must drive around it.  The unpaved roads also result in lots of the dust.
  3. There are many people who walk here, especially compared to Thailand although are almost no sidewalks in our neighborhood.  40% of traffic fatalities are pedestrians.
  4. There is not a central government that knows how to help its citizens. Although building techniques must be adhered to when rebuilding homes after the earthquake, money that was promised has not arrived.  They dig up roads to add someone to a water line, but don’t replace the road.  There are power poles that are half a meter into the road because roads people and and power peope don’t work together.
  5. Local people we talked to feel that too much of the country’s money goes to corrupt officials. If you want a certificate stating you are a trained plumber, you can just buy one.
  6. It is hard to see so many poor people living in tents and shelters. Children say to visitors, “Give me a chocolate.”  Many  people in the smaller villages share a community water well or spigot.
  7. Garbage is often dumped into the river or pushed down a hill or piled up in a yard. Infrastructure is very limited
  8. Public school is only free up to grade 5. The children look great in their uniforms of skirts or pants and sweaters with ties, but their education is very much like ours was in the 50’s.  Punishment for creativity and very much rote learning with workbooks of homework.

Hope for Nepal

We met a couple of locals who want a better future for Nepal.  Our guide wanted to share what he loved about his land, but wants a government that is accountable to the people.

Our driver lived in a village that was mostly destroyed.  He left his brother behind to look after their old father and moved to Kathmandu with his and his brother’s children so they could continue to go to school.

A young man running a nightly movie on the upper level of an Irish pub, Cinema under the moon, has many ideas for Nepal.  He wants a trades school that is accountable to the employers that the students will have needed skills.  He wants to use the hydroelectric power available in Nepal for electric cars and has read up on Elon Musk’s Tesla battery.  Depak lets tourists message him on Facebook if they feel they are being taken advantage of by anyone in Kathmandu.

These thinkers make me feel positive.  They also get me thinking much more about, “What should I be doing?  What is my role as a citizen of the world?  We are here for a few more days.  I will continue to ponder my responsibility as we see and learn more about Nepal.

I will include some more pictures of the devastation and rebuilding from the earthquake in a travel subheading in the next couple of days , as well as some photos from our flight by Everest. Check back.

Cambodia… A Country of Contradictions

Cambodia is an amazing country, even though it is full of contradictions.  The people are very poor, but they smile so much.  The countryside is green, but deforestation is occurring in the more populated areas.  They ruled a mighty empire in the 12th century, but have been controlled by communism and the military in the recent past.  They lost 2 million of their citizens in the 1970’s to disease, starvation and execution.  These numbers included all the educated people as well as a generation or two of grandparents.  The support of an extended family was eliminated.  Those who survived feel great shame for allowing this to happen.  And yet they still smile. We spent just over a week in this neighbor to Thailand and I learned so much about a country that I had been pretty ambivalent about for my whole life.

I was invited to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia by Bernice Pollock.  I taught with her for 20 years in Rocky Mountain House.  She is a brave traveller and is responsible for  convincing me that we could live in Chiang Mai for a winter.  She now teaches at the Canadian International School, along with Nancy, another colleague of ours from Rocky. Bernice invited me to come and spend a day helping their teachers with some planning strategies.  Since this school teaches the Alberta Program of Studies, it was an easy match.  It is a private school, owned by a Chinese family.  Wealthy ex-pat’s children, who are mostly Asian, attend.  They want a “Western” education for their children.  The children are taught in English, or French and also receive some training in the Khmer language.  It was another good reason to go and visit Phnom Penh.

Some contradictions in Phnom Penh

  • really nice home next to yards filled with garbage
  • wind trio performance in a luxury hotel garden while children are begging in the streets
  • mostly empty office and condo complexes advertising lavish living near people subsisting in tin shacks
  • master tailors creating clothes from a picture in a magazine working from a tiny  booth in a market
  • although most people have little and work hard, they gather in the parks every evening to exercise and eat together  They play soccer and badminton, walk, do Tai Chi and Zumba.  People filled the parks.
  • they use the American dollar as their primary currency.  They don’t use the coins, but instead have a local paper money called riel used as change.
  • beautiful French Colonial architecture next to bare cement block construction
  • traffic drives wherever it wants.  Scooters travel in packs and take over a lane or sidewalk if necessary.  There are few traffic lights and those wanting to turn against the flow just wait until there is a critical mass and start to turn, hoping that the other traffic will stop and wait.

The Killing Fields

To understand Cambodia, you need to visit this memorial.  It is not easy, but it is necessary.  It is recommended to also visit the S-21 Museum also known as the  Tuol Sueng Genocide Museum, which is a meticulously documented torture location.  We were not emotionally able to go there, although I did some reading about it.

We hired our airport driver to take us out to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre).  From the entrance it looks like a nice park with trees and chickens wandering around. It was early in the morning with few other people. Once we started listening to the audio guide, (an essential part of this tour), the atmosphere of the place completely changed.

Khmer Rouge

After some years of civil war in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge took control in 1975.  Their leader, Pol Pot, wanted a classless peasant society where everyone was completely equal.  He eliminated money, banks, religion and the right to own property.  He sent all the people from the city to the countryside to grow rice where many died of starvation and disease.

All the teachers and educated people,  as well as those with defects like needing glasses were taken to centers where they were forced to admit their crimes against the people.  They were then taken in the dark to one of the hundreds of “Killing Fields” around the country where they were beaten to death and buried in mass graves.  The genocide ended in 1979 when 60 000 Vietnamese troops invaded Phnom Penh.  Although the people of Cambodia now hold elections, it is a one-party system as the opposition leader was exiled and has recently resigned after a law passed that would not allow him to participate in politics.

Our driver came in and walked quietly around the area.  On our way back he told us he had been a young boy during this time and his job was to look after the cows used in the rice fields.  His father was a blacksmith and they were allowed to survive.  He told us that they were only given 2 bowls of rice to eat each day.  If someone found a chicken and killed it for food, they would be killed.  “Everyone was very thin,” was the comment made by Mr. Saran.

Killing Fields Tour

You can see the areas where the mass graves were dug.  They have opened many of them to study the cause of death and to memorialize the victims.  There are still sections where bits of clothing or bones or teeth resurface on their own during the rainy season.

There was a tree there that had such horrific purpose that I couldn’t even take a picture of it. They would swing toddlers’ heads against it while their mothers watched.  The Khmer Rouge believed they had to, “kill  the root so they would not come back for revenge.”

There has been a stupa built as a memorial to many of the victims of this genocide.  It is filled with 500o skulls found in the graves here.  They are categorized by age and cause of death.  It is difficult to see but makes it so real.

What is my responsibility?

It is impossible for me to deny that such a thing happened in my lifetime. Yet, I was oblivious to it.  Rwanda, Syria, Somalia and others all tell similar stories.  What is my responsibility?  I was born in a time and place that protected me from this kind of violence.  I am hoping that at least by sharing this story, others will question our responsibility to the people of the world who have no voice.  People making racist or bigoted remarks about others is an example of this on a smaller scale than genodice but is a situation that I can no longer tolerate without action.  We all need to speak up!