Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Impressions of Nepal

Once again, let me remind you that what I can give you are only the impressions of a tourist who has made a brief visit to each country. I am not a sociologist or a historian, nor have I lived for any length of time in these countries.

Click on the photos to see them in larger size.

The day we drove from India into Nepal, we saw the roads of India improve steadily as we approached the border. Then darkness fell with a rainy drizzle, so by the time we reached the actual border crossing we couldn't see much of anything. As I reported in an earlier blog post, the entry into Nepal was uneventful, but only because we were late, as the border had been closed for much of the day.

Nepal is a poor country, but unlike in India the people seem determined not to stay that way. It's not nearly as crowded. We saw only a very few beggars, and those only in tourist areas.

The roads, while certainly not up to European or American standards, are far better than those in India. There is less traffic, and the driving is not as reckless. Cities are much cleaner. India is famous for its bright colors, but in that country they are lost under dust and grime. Nepal's homes and businesses are brightly painted, as are their cars and trucks, sporting the psychedelic look that the western world copied in the 1970s. While Nepal doesn't have the air pollution of India, it certainly has the same dry-season dust. In Nepal the dust is swept away daily--we even saw people sweeping dust off dirt floors! Overall, there is a sense of pride and hope that we missed in India.

The odd thing is, life is not particularly good in Nepal, certainly not by western standards. There is a chronic power shortage, and travel and tourism are frequently disrupted by strikes. See my earlier posts about our tour for examples, then imagine what such disruptions do to the work and lives of people not vacationing.

Everybody in Nepal not only seems to have a job, but they are proud of their work and seek to be paid its full value--hence the strikes. The power shortage is a result of global warming, resulting in less snowfall in the Himalayas and therefore less water in the rivers and streams. As their power is hydroelectric, only during monsoon season do they have power 24/7. While we were there, the ration was eight hours per day, split between morning and evening.

Electricity--Make it, Don't Buy It

Obviously the power problem has been going on for a long time, for everyone has alternatives ranging from candles and flashlights to generators. Many of the shops are completely open in front, and operate during daylight hours only. Entrepreneurship is everywhere, from people like the owner of the resort we stayed at in Chitwan to old women selling a few fruits and vegetables from a bright clean blanket spread by the roadside.

Here's an excellent example, a square in Kathmandu. Note the well-paved street, the clean white buildings, the tourist map, the trash bin and the neatly bagged trash waiting to be picked up--and no litter in the street. Note the peddlers with their wares--everybody in Nepal seems to be selling something. Not begging--selling. Tourists stroll through a prime tourist area with no beggars trying to intercept them--an impossibility in India. And note the absence of children in the square at mid-morning. Where are they? In school.

In India we occasionally saw children in school uniforms. In Nepal we saw them every morning and evening in much larger numbers. In India, where English is one of the official languages, tuk-tuk and taxi drivers usually did not speak English. In Nepal, where English is not an official language, everyone interacting with tourists spoke passable English, even rickshaw drivers and mahouts.

Not long before we visited Nepal they voted in a communist government. It didn't stop the strikes, or interfere with capitalism in any way that we observed. Nepal is a very old country, but it feels young, eager, and hopeful. There, too, other countries are helping local people run businesses--but they are businesses like the Chitwan resort, which can grow, employ more people, and bring in more tourist trade. A Dutch company is investing there, and the owner is planning to install solar panels to eliminate the power problems.

The contrast between the two countries, India and Nepal, was completely unexpected. India is supposed to be more advanced, part of the industrial and technological world. Perhaps for some. But Nepal is clearly in the process of advancing, and as far as we could tell, the opportunities there are open to everyone.

Next week we leave India and Nepal for Italy, which may be the most photogenic country in the world.

Geothermal Energy

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