Bandipur: For now, a peaceful paradise (Laura & Matt)
May 21, 2007
The bus deposits us on the side of the road and I watch as two fellow travellers look in their guidebook frantically wondering why we are disembarking here. I have wondered the same thing before: just what am I missing by not stopping here? What do those travellers know that I don't? This time it really is their loss; they really should break up their trip from Kathmandu to Pokhara and ride up the hill with us.
We find one of the waiting jeeps and learn that for 300rs we can have the jeep leave right away, or pay 20rs each and wait until it fills up. We wait. In about 15 minutes, there are 25 people in, on, and hanging off the vehicle. We wind our way up hill, switchback after switchback, stopping only once so the driver can splash some water on the overheating radiator grill. At the top of the hill we are greeted by two men in green "Old Inn at Bandipur" golf shirts who not only take our bags for us, but who also pay for our jeep ride. Where are we? This is so different for us! We are led down several short sets of stairs to the pedestrian-only village of Bandipur. Old Newari architecture lines the streets - rooms, hostels and homes upstairs; stores on the ground floor. The shops cater to locals and we see not even one t-shirt shop. I think we might have arrived in heaven! We reach our Inn and enter a refurbished building that now houses 25 guests and a lovely courtyard where meals are taken communally and the Annapurna mountain range makes appearances between the clouds. All this for $25 USD each.
This town and the Inn, have a very interesting history, especially from a community tourism development perspective (as always, one of my favourite topics). The town used to be a gathering place for Tibetan and Indian traders to meet at the bazaar and sell to the locals, many of whom worked at the government office. But when the office re-located and the Chinese government closed the border (when they invaded Tibet) the town's population declined and only recently began to grow again with the increase in foreign visitors and their dollars. This Inn, formerly a house, then an abandoned hostel, underwent an 18-month renovation to be become what it is today. It is owned by Himalayan Encounters and they funnel some of their profits back into community projects here and in Pokhara where their rafting and trekking trips begin. We meet the manager, Ramsharan and he tells us with bursting pride about the many accomplishments that he and his supportive boss have put into place. They replaced the old leaky roof on the town library and now pay the librarian to open it part-time. They refurbished the main temple and added lights so the locals can more easily make their nightly visits, not to mention creating lovely ambience in the main square. They also financially support an orphanage in Pokhara and hire low caste employees for the Inn; people who likely wouldn't get work so easily elsewhere. The manager explains to us that he met his wife here when he moved from Kathmandu to be part of the renovation team for the Inn. He married a low caste woman, much to his mother's chagrin. I feel quite quickly that this man is a local champion and he proves it when tells me that he has to show people how to change, he can't tell them. He picks up garbage in the street and keeps the Inn very neat and tidy. People think he is crazy at first, but then he sees them doing the same. He is also a big proponent of the traffic-free village. Until recently, the main street was a dirt road lined with cars and dust. The town has had some financial help from EuropeAid and two sister cities in Greece and Italy and the funds are being used to pave the main street in beautiful paving stones and to refurbish neighbouring inns, erect signs for the many walking trails and to build and staff a small Visitor Information Centre. We feel very lucky to be visiting at this time when the community's Social Development Committee is focused on attracting visitors by making a pleasant, quiet community that restores its old architecture. Here in Bandipur the visitors blend in with the daily activities rather than becoming the daily activity.
In the early evenings we sit on the front step and watch the local children playing ball and badminton. Others chase each other around while shrieking and causing delightful mayhem. Others approach us to speak the English they learn at the local school run by Japanese nuns. They are thrilled to hear that we are from Canada as their beloved "James" is from Canada too! We learn, repeatedly, that James is a 17 year old young man from Calgary who has been here for 8 months helping in the school and learning the Nepali language. He is making quite the positive impression on the kids.
We spend our days walking in the morning, sweating profusely and then returning for a shower, lunch and an afternoon of relaxing, blogging, reading and playing cards. All the while we watch the clouds as they reveal various parts of the majestic mountain range that looms over this most precious valley.
As we walk around the village I feel like I am in "Mr. Roger's neighbourhood" - kids run past chasing old wheels with a stick, women and babies wave from second story windows, dogs sleep peacefully in doorways and "namaste!" and "hello" ring out from every direction. We walk past two kids playing badminton just as their birdie lands on a door-awning too high for them to reach. Matt retrieves it for them and their smiles beam as he tosses to them. I fully expect to see a sign up ahead declaring this is, in fact, Sesame Street.
But it is not - it is just a town filled with happy people that have some money coming in from aid and from tourists. I hope the manager of the Inn continues to influence people with this ideas, such as the importance of buying local food from the farmers as "we must support Bandipur" he tells me. They now bake their own bread here as they used to ship it from Kathmandu and that made no sense to him. I truly hope there is a plan here that draws some boundaries around the types of businesses and the impact of tourism. So far, the children aren't begging, but as more tourists arrive with their candy and their pens, I fear the worst. We plan to email a copy of the "Do's and Don'ts" that Laos provides to tourists as an example of what Bandipur could do to prevent tourists from ruining everything.
The children here are the absolute highlight. They are fearless and friendly and very well-educated. Many would say they are poor and have "nothing", but they have clothes on their back, a local school, a clean community and the time and ability to play and be children. A group of them escorts us up to a forest temple - they talk the entire way teaching us Nepali words and asking lots of questions. One particularly adorable and small boy, convinces me the temple is near by and most worth the effort. He looks at me in the way children do when they are explaining excitedly that "tomorrow is Christmas" and says "nice temple - many, many bells". Okay, I will keep going! When we get there it is a tiny building with wooden bars on the window and just a few bells inside. I ask him where the bells are. He tells me "teefs come, take bells away. Bad man." Yes, bad man indeed. Their joys are so simple here and even then they are taken away. It breaks my heart..
We give the kids a granola bar to share as they seem so hungry. The French man who is with us gives them candies. The kids throw their wrappers on the ground and we tell them we have to pick them up and take them back. They look at me like I am crazy, but I remember to lead by example and I leave the place in better shape than when I found it. Each day on our treks I return to the Inn with a small bag of garbage, Ramsharan gladly taking it from me.
We decide to spend an extra day here as we are so relaxed. We say goodbye to one group of Brits and welcome some folks from Spain. Everyone wishes they could stay longer and we are feeling so blessed to be without a timetable or a schedule. Life is really, really good.
Once upon a time there was a village where tourists walked through peaceful roads lined with goats and ducks, where people wave greetings from windows at passers-by, and everywhere is the sound of children playing.
Bandipur is right out of a storybook: a village of slate roofed brick houses perched on low mountains overlooking dramatic jagged Himalayan peaks; a main street paved with large slate cobblestones; and gentle walking paths extending off into the vivid green terraced hillsides. It is truly a beautiful setting, but it is the people that really make this a special place.
After settling into our beautiful heritage guesthouse, we decide to take a short walk ...
Soon we are on a worn dirt path winding through the village. On one side, a slope drops away into a spectacular view of cloud-topped Himalayan peaks. "Namaste!" calls a child from a second story window. "Namaste!" calls another, waving enthusiastically. Some women kneel on the porch of their house. I bring my palms together, raising them to my chin, greeting them with "Namaste" They smile, returning my hello. A man passes us on the road: "Namaste!" he greets us, smiling. Children playing by the road greet us enthusiastically. Even a little child, no more than two, clasps his palms together as we pass in a "Namaste" greeting.
Soon, we find ourselves in an open area beside a group of water spouts set into the mountainside. Women wash laundry in the water while a group of children play nearby. "Namaste!! Hello hello!" they cry. "Where you from??" Within minutes I am surrounded by about ten bouncing, climbing, hand-shaking, laughing boys. The eldest points to the spouts: "There is golden stone in the mountain," he explains. "It makes the water special. Do you want to see?" as he tugs at my hand to follow. "Ha ha ha, no joking only ... it is just sunlight makes the water yellow!!" he laughs. The children run and laugh around me. The smallest shows me how he can roll his stomach muscles "like a yoga master!" The eldest moves closer, confiding quietly, "Your wife ... she is speaking with bad bad men." He points to a group of young men at the edge of the grassy area. I realize nervously that Laura is, indeed, talking with them. "They are ... Maoists," the boy whispers. "Bad bad men," he tells me, "They eat cow!" He goes on to explain that they cleared a nearby road, work hard, and eat lots and lots of food. Is eating cow the only reason they are bad men? I wonder. The boy is clearly concerned at Laura's proximity to the men and, in turn, so am I.
A few moments later, Laura returns and the children pose excitedly as she takes a photo. Then they rush off to demonstrate a game for me involving throwing sticks backward from between their legs. As we leave, they wave and point us in the right direction back to our guesthouse.
As we walk back, I find out that Laura had been called over -- with the help of a young English-speaking girl -- to take a photo of the Maoist meeting. The resulting photo, with two young men holding machetes, is unsettling but innocent enough. However it's sufficient to make me feel cautious, even a little nervous, on subsequent explorations of the town.
We settle into a pleasant routine: wake at 6AM, sip milk tea while watching the Himalayas poking through the clouds, eat breakfast, then go for a walk through the village and surrounding hills. Afternoons are filled with writing, reading, and relaxing.
One morning after a torrential downpour, we take a walk to a nearby cave. As the sun heats the landscape saturated with monsoon rain, steam and mist drift around us. The air is hot and sticky as we walk down the steep stairs and along the path toward the cave, our local guide leading the way. After about an hour, we arrive, hot and tired.
A hermit lives in the cave, we learn, having been there as long as anyone seems to remember. He looks around 50 yrs old. His skin is the yellow-brown colour of the cave's mud floor. A small shrine sits at the entrance to the cave, indicating it is a sacred place for Hindus (though our guide wasn't able to explain why).
We crawl and scurry over damp rocks behind our guide, our flashlights illuminating the path ahead with its narrow yellow light. Stalactites extend from the ceiling and walls in strange bulbous shapes. It is one of the largest caves we've seen -- some sections are three stories high and wide enough to fit a house inside -- and with less graffiti and litter than similar caves we saw in Vietnam. It is interesting and a welcome break from the heat outside. Within less than an hour, our explorations complete, we return into the sunlight and the steep stairs by which we arrived.
It takes an hour to return up the steep path in the late-morning heat. I am quickly covered in sweat, my shirt and pants as wet as if I'd worn them in the shower. Locals pass us on their way to the cave, friendly but likely a little disgusted by our sweaty appearance. The women we pass are wearing brightly coloured saris, dressed up for their visit to the cave. I can't imagine how hot they must feel ... but I suppose they are used to it. It is a relief to return to our guesthouse, a shower, and an afternoon of relaxation.
On our second-last day in Bandipur, I hear a parade in the street outside. There is singing and the ching-ching of tiny hand cymbals as they walk. It seems the whole village is gathered, slowly walking toward the main square outside our hotel. The crowd dissolves almost as soon as it appears, leaving me to wonder what is going on.
A few minutes later, several men in grey uniforms enter our hotel and walk up the stairs, large gun-shaped bags in hand. They mill about for a while, then wander down the street. It is a Maoist gathering, I learn. The head of the Maoists has just arrived from Kathmandu and will be giving a speech. Moreover, he -- and a number of his entourage -- will be staying at our hotel!
We don't actually see the leader in our hotel at all. The town is filled with young people wearing the characteristic grey uniforms of the Maoist party. The following day, the town square is filled with villagers listening to the leader's speech. Just as many, however, seem to deliberately ignore the gathering and go about their activities as if it didn't exist.
I depart with a jumble of mixed impressions and memories of Bandipur. This is one of the only places we've visited where we, as tourists, feel genuinely welcomed by the town and its inhabitants. This is a sure sign, I think, that a community is new to tourism: as the number of visitors increases, how long will it take for their presence to change the culture and community they are coming to see? How long until a tourist, feeling guilty for having so much and eager to be generous, starts giving pocketfuls of candy and pens and rupees to the children? How long until the children no longer greet tourists with a genuine, cheerful, "Namaste!" but instead a plea for candy, school pens, and rupees?
The Maoist gatherings we see lead me to wonder, not for the first time, about the future of this beautiful country. Will they succeed in assisting the rural poor and combating widespread government corruption, or will the country once more be plunged into widespread violence? As Maoist speeches echo in the streets of Bandipur, UN vehicles shuttle along the highways, and daily news of corruption and mismanagement fill the papers, I can only hope for the best. May the future of the friendly children in this peaceful town be a good one.