you can’t fight the revolution on an empty stomach

Our post-hike days in Kathmandu were pretty pedestrian. One drifted into another, following a familiar routine: breakfast; internet; shower; lunch; constitutional stroll; snooze; pester Ryan & Jo into coming for a drink with us; dinner – although the Indian embassy made sure we didn’t get too comfortable by requiring that we pay them a visit every few days.

Our daily shuffle was interrupted one Sunday when we rose to find the streets eerily devoid of touts and taxis and the doors shuttered on every establishment in town. Confused tourists littered the streets, desperately seeking somewhere that would serve them up a stack of banana pancakes. Something was up.

As we wandered back to our room, contemplating that the only stash of food we had was half a stick of Toblerone – not at all a bad breakfast, as it turns out – a crowd of men came striding down the street, shouting and waving red flags: Maoists. We met them just as they found a shop that was tentatively attempting to open – an unwise decision, as we witnessed. Maoists in Nepal have never targeted tourists and while they remained mercifully uninterested in us, they did give us a fright as they banged relentlessly on the shop door, yelling and threatening the shopkeeper with sticks and fists. Suffice to say the shutter came down quickly. It was all too reminiscent of a run-in with football hooligans rather than high-minded freedom fighters.

No thanks to the guys at our hotel, from whom it would have been nice to receive some warning, we found out later that the Maoists had called a general strike of the variety that locals call “stop the wheels”: in addition to closing all business, no traffic is allowed on the streets. Exceptions are made for pharmacies and ambulances and a lone tourist bus that shuttles people to and from the airport. The cause was the eviction of alleged squatters from land in the west of Nepal, which ended in violence and several deaths – although with the deadlock between the government and the Maoists showing no signs of resolution, it seems that any excuse for a strike will do.

Driven by growling stomachs, we ventured out again in the early afternoon. Our intended short stroll turned into an extended wander as we enjoyed promenading right down the middle of the usually anarchic streets. The empty stretches of asphalt weren’t wasted, as half of Kathmandu seemed to be out doing the same and impromptu cricket games sprung up every few hundred metres. It was really very pleasant, if a little “28 Days Later“. Back in Thamel, the city’s main tourist area, we allowed ourselves to be guided though the back door of a local restaurant, speakeasy-style, for a late lunch. We’re not ones to cross picket lines but crumbs, we were famished. How the mighty have fallen.

It was hard not to be somewhat impressed with the authority of the Communists in a country where the rule of law barely exists and the government is largely impotent – they can’t even effectively pedestrianise Thamel – although one wonders whether the Maoists’ ability to call and enforce such a massive strike is as much about them showing their opponents just how powerful they really are. And it’s hard to be impressed with a crowd who still bizarrely venerate Stalin and Mao. Nepal has some interesting days ahead.

After two weeks of waiting and the consumption of a king’s ransom worth of cinnamon rolls in the meantime, the righteous prevailed and we got our Indian visas – even managed to bargain the guy up to multiple entries by appealing to his inherent fanaticism, saying we might pop over to Dhaka to watch the Indian team smash Bangladesh in the cricket. Not.

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