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Letter from Nepal

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
05.15.2006 | POLITICS

It was almost enough to endear me to the bloated dictator. When King Gyanendra imposed a shoot-to-kill curfew on Kathmandu, it was like dropping a hippie neutron bomb on Thamel, the city's mellow-yellow hostel district. Want to clear the streets of people in knitted hats and patchwork pants? Threaten to kill them.

I arrived in Nepal on the third night of the curfew, a couple of weeks into the democracy protests, which began on April 6. In a word, I was late. The only people on the airport van -- draped with signs on all sides announcing "TOURISTS ONLY" -- were myself and a few Delhi expats on last-minute visa runs. The only cars on the street were also draped in loud "PRESS" signs. It was your typical martial-law street scene: empty but for truck units of Royal Army (green camo) and Special Police (blue camo). The van dropped us in Thamel, for decades the bustling ground zero of the so-called Hippie Trail. It was a shuttered ghost town with pages of the Kathmandu Post slapping around in the wind. A few tourists were visible, hugging walls and trailed by packs of glue-huffing street kids, but precious few. It was lovely.

The truth is I've never been all that interested in Nepal, and often skip over Nepal articles in the Indian press. As a South Asian correspondent, I suppose I should take the country more seriously, but I've always thrown it in a mental can marked "piss-ant." India is surrounded on three sides by dysfunctional piss-ants: Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Pakistan too is dysfunctional, but it matters because it has nukes. It's true what they say about that. What country wouldn't want nukes? They're a get-out-of-the-piss-ant-can-free card.

If I was late to Nepal, it was because of Nepal crisis-fatigue. Protests there are nothing new, nor shootings of protestors. But by mid-April it was clear the situation had matured into a genuine face-off -- with the king and his loyal troops entrenched on one side, and the Seven Party Alliance, the Maoists, and the People on the other -- and that things were moving toward a bloody climax. A couple of old Nepal watchers told me they thought this was it, that the mountain kingdom was finally going to blow, possibly leading to full-on civil war, to the extent that civil war would look any different from the norm. What they meant was that the civil war would finally spill over into the Valley.

It was while mentally sketching out the opening graph of my GQ feature -- "The Battle of Kathmandu" -- that I tracked down the Delhi offices of Cosmic Air -- "Nepal's leading airline," sharing a floor with a used Hyundai dealer -- and jumped on one of the company's two remaining Fokker 100 jets that hadn't been grounded for mechanical malfunction.

The 150-seat jet had five passengers, and I had a bad feeling about the flight. This troubled me, because I never have bad feelings about flights. The stewards were surly and there were giant, peeling sticker-ads for Nepalese brand pretzels and pineapple juice on the overhead storage compartments. On the way into the plane, I could have sworn the morbidly obese pilot was slumped over at the controls. I didn't see a co-pilot. I struck up a conversation with a fellow Delhi-ite on a visa run, a motorcycle shop owner from New Mexico named Balu. Turned out he was sitting on a fifth of Cutty Sark. It was just about gone by the time we leveled out over the moonlit clouds.

Two hours later I was standing in empty Thamel. My Nepal prep work had consisted of an hour of streaming BBC World, so I picked up a swirling front page of the Kathmandu Post, satisfied to see a 36-point headline about the latest protest casualties and the opposition's rising militancy. What started as a call for reinstating the country's prime minister and elected government was shaping up to be 1789, only with Maoists and trapped hippies thrown into the mix.

You had to be dead or drugged not to be excited by the prospect of a revolution like the one brewing in Nepal. The People -- the People! -- had been fucked for so long they had little to lose. The cartoonish king, meanwhile, was so villainous it was almost too easy to hate him. If the protestors eventually managed to break through the line around Kathmandu's ring-road, where they had been protesting in growing numbers for weeks, the Royal Army would be forced to choose between unleashing a bloodbath and seeing their countrymen scale the Palace walls and improvise a Guillotine, which in Nepal's case would likely mean a 20-inch Ghurka knife, known as a Khukri. It is designed for short warriors like the Nepalese to charge and hack. They employ it with famous skill.

Those walls needed to be scaled. The King's Palace is a hideous pink modern monstrosity squatting 18-acres of downtown Kathmandu. Every time I passed it, I was reminded of Eldridge Cleaver's 1968 presidential run on the Peace and Freedom ticket. A reporter asked him the first thing he'd do if elected to the White House. Cleaver replied, "Burn the motherfucker down."

If any King in the world deserves to star in his own episode of "Regicide and Kathy Lee," with his head pulled back over a straw basket, it's Gyanendra. I challenge anyone to look at the man and not see red. It's as if Porfirio Diaz had converted to Hinduism and embezzled $100 million from his impoverished people to fund a collection of the World's Stupidest Hats. Most Nepalese think Gyanendra had a hand in the palace massacre of his family that brought him to power, and like Nancy Reagan, he never does anything without his astrologer signing off on it. He's bloodthirsty and nuts, and it?s no wonder the Nepalese were ready to die in the streets to get rid of the guy. The only question is what took them so long. Say what you want about the Maoists, but props to them for prodding the rest of the country to think hard and fast about becoming a Republic.

"The Republic of Nepal has a nice to ring to it," I told the kid behind the desk at my $3 hostel. He grinned.

"Wouldn't you like to get rid of the King?" I asked. He bobbed his head. "We'll see," he said.

The next morning I woke early and stocked up on canned tuna, crackers, olives, sardines and bottled water. The stores opened only briefly before curfew, and it was rumored that if hell broke loose, or if the lockdown continued much longer, there might be a shortage of food, with all restaurants shuttered. But most cafes in Thamel stayed open throughout the curfew, and I spent four days eating canned tuna and olives because I didn't want it go to waste. Never play the survivalist; you're guaranteed to look like an idiot.

The next morning, walking around quiet Thamel, I saw a familiar face turn a corner. My Terminator vision kicked in and I identified the face as Brad DeLange, an old acquaintance from Prague. I hadn't seen him in years. He was living in Sweden now, he told me, recording books for the blind. He was also getting a master's degree in environmental science at Stockholm University, and was in Nepal researching its water problems when the protests erupted. He had also done Peace Corps in Nepal back in the 80s, I learned, making him one of the many westerners with a "stake" in the country.

"Still a turmoil tourist?" He asked.

"Something like that," I said.

He was referring to the last time I saw him, in September of 2000. Both of us were scrambling to get visas into Yugoslavia for the fall of Milosevic. The provincial thick-necks were marching on Belgrade with bulldozers, and rumor had it that the Yugoslav embassy in Prague was betting against Slobo, handing out once-rare visas to American journalists like candy. Brad and I made up fake Czech Press cards, complete with holograms of the Prague Castle he bought at a toy store. For whatever reasons, my visa application was accepted; Brad's wasn't. When I returned to Prague that winter, he had left town. This was the first time I had seen him since. He was carrying a fancy digicam and tripod.

"Wanna go see the shit?" he asked.

"Does the Swedish Chef make a mess?" I said.

I was then shocked to learn that an American living in Sweden for five years had never heard of the Swedish Chef.

"Floogety Boogety? Big Mustache? Muppet?" I tried to shake the memory loose. " Floogety Boogety?"

He promised to Google it, and we headed out of Thamel, through the capital's deserted streets and toward the ring-road, where a couple hundred thousand Nepalese were marching, burning tires, and chanting "Down with the King" and the local equivalent of "Power to the People."

Along the way we stopped by the office of the Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions for coffee and an intelligence report. Brad knew a couple of the leaders from his Peace Corps days, and they were receiving regular text messages on the state and location of the protests. The guys we met were militant in their vision of a social democratic Nepal. All had been in and out of prison during the last few years. Since the King declared a Royal Emergency in February, 2005, at least 500 of their comrades had been arrested, many beaten behind bars. I asked one of them, Vishnu, what he thought about the King's latest ploy to defuse the protests by offering to reinstate the Prime Minister.

"It insults the blood of the martyrs," he said, sounding more Islamic than Hindu. "There's no way the People are going to accept it. This is a second generation popular movement now, younger, and I think the King is finished."

He worried the political parties would be pressured to accept the offer by "international forces" who obviously did not understand sentiment on the ground and simply wanted to restore order before the situation got so out of control that the Maoists were strengthened.

"If the donor countries push us to accept the Royal Proclamation, the parties are in trouble," he said. "They can't go up too hard against the donor countries."

This is a phrase you hear a lot in Nepal: "the donor countries." International aid is the Himalayan Kingdom's biggest capital inflow, followed by tourism and exported hydropower. (And speaking of water, Nepal also has the second biggest fresh water resources in the world, an asset that will grow in strategic importance dramatically in the coming decades.) But most of Nepal's aid money has historically been siphoned off by the Royal family and the politicians. An old Nepali quip: "We declare our poverty to the world with a Parker pen."

The trade union guys gave us a bundle of literature on the state of labor in Nepal -- in sum: half the country is un- or underemployed -- and directed us to the protest, which was circling the ring road clockwise and moving toward a nearby intersection leading toward downtown and the Palace.

We walked for about ten minutes, encountering only kids playing badminton in alleys, old men smoking on stoops, and army and police checkpoints at every corner. Though technically no one was exempt from the curfew inside the zone, nobody gave us any trouble. If you were white, you were all right. Still, the police warned us to watch out for the army; and the army warned us to watch out for the police.

"Do you know meaning of curfew?" asked one officer who stopped to mess with us. Then he grinned, and said with a chuckle: "Army always try to make understanding. But the police..." he said, making punching motions with his hands. "With police anything can happen."

But nothing happened. We kept walking. Eventually we heard the noise and jogged toward it. It was a dull white roar that got loader with every step. Then it exploded in our faces: The packed road of screaming protestors, the columns of black smoke and foul stench of burning rubber and metal, a sea of red flags and banners. The protestors waved long green branches and signs in angry, cute Nepalese English ("Gyanendra! We want to put off your crown!").

We moved up to the head of the snake and followed it past the cordons of Royal Army. When the marchers hit the intersection that would have brought them into the city, the troops opened up with rubber bullets and tear gas, making loud pops. With the first shot, collective bravery dissipated into collective survival instinct. The crowd shifted direction in a quick, herd-like movement, like a giant school of minnows at the approach of a human leg.

Somehow a stampede was avoided. I scaled the first wall I could find without shards of broken glass embedded in the cement (Nepal's version of barbed wire, and a common home security system), and settled into a crouch on the other side. The acid burn of tear gas tore through my nose and mouth, even though I didn't actually inhale the smoke. I'd forgotten how powerful and nasty the stuff was.

A minute later a group of Nepalese kids with bandanas wrapped around their faces jumped the wall and leaned against it next to me. On the other side, we could hear the troops march by, the running protest receding ahead of them. The owner of the house came out with slices of cucumber and carrots on a plate. A few minutes later his wife called out the second-story window that the coast was clear and we scaled the wall again to catch up with the regrouped protest, far from the entry point that had been the day's target.

The next day was essentially a repeat. And the day after that. People began to ask how long this could go on. Then the announcement was made: On Monday, two-million people would gather on the ring road, led by the leaders of the political parties, just out of prison. This was going to be The Day. A two-million man march; Nepali rules. The masses would either bust through the line, or many would die trying. Something had to give.

Or, the King could abdicate, but nobody thought this would happen.

Brad left on Sunday, back to Sweden. At a bar I hooked up with an alcoholic British freelancer based in Kathmandu; let's call him Mitch. He was basically nuts -- fiery, paranoid, brilliant. He had stories about snorting cocaine with two presidents of Panama and spending quality time with FARC in Colombia. I wasn't sure what to believe, but he knew Nepal and offered a masterful critique of the three-way war, particularly of the Maoists. He was a high-strung war nerd who knew his attack helicopters and his guerilla strategy and thought his journalism career was being subterfuged by MI6 and Dutch intelligence. He knew too much, you see, and had damaged powerful interests with his reporting from Central America in the 90s.

Mitch and I stayed outside the curfew zone Sunday night. Tensions were high and even our White Skin press passes might not work anymore inside the city. Our hostel was next to a Buddhist monastery, and on Monday morning I awoke to the sound of Buddhist morning-prayer chanting, a low, sonorous hum that sounds like a human sacrifice is about to commence in the Temple of Doom. It is the most beautiful alarm clock in the world.

Mitch switched on his shortwave to BBC World. As the lead story was read, the air could be heard leaving our balloons: Gyanendra had issued a midnight declaration reinstating the elected government. It would convene on Friday. The protests had been called off; there would be a victory parade instead. The King's future role would be settled in Parliamentary debate, not in the streets.

"Well. That's it, then," said Mitch, glumly. "The most artful game of political chess I've seen in some time."

"Breakfast at the Hyatt," I said.

The Kathmandu Hyatt is nicer than the Royal Palace, with a loose visitor's policy and a sparkling pool. There we feasted on eggs and toast, and drank fresh watermelon juice and coffee. We rolled up the legs of our trousers like Pipi Longstockings and dropped them in the water. A nice looking woman was doing laps. We watched her and listened to the BBC. A bomb had just exploded at an Egyptian resort. Already Nepal been bumped from its top slot in the BBC/CNN headline rotation. Just like that. I tried not to think of the total bill for my expenses.

No storming of the Palace. No regicide. No violent establishment of the Republic of Nepal. No GQ article. I couldn't believe the People were going to let Gyanendra stay on the throne. As long as he existed, he would control the army, and be a threat. But whatever, I thought. It's their country. I never cared about it anyway.

Interrupting my thoughts was John Lancaster, the Washington Post's South Asia guy, who walked over to the pool speaking on a mobile phone.

"Yeah, yeah, it's over, I just want to make sure I don't miss anything big today. Are you near the Hyatt? Let's meet in an hour," he said. "I'm going to grab some food first."

It was nice to see that even the real journalists were taking it easy. John Lancaster was in no rush to cover a victory parade, either.

When I got back to Thamel that afternoon, it was as if a Red Sea of backpackers, temporarily frozen in parting, had come crashing down. The trekking offices and knit handicraft shops were buzzing like hippie hives. Travelers and trekkers, newly relaxed, everywhere. Where did they all come from? Had they actually been up in their rooms, thousands of them, ordering room service the whole time? Or had they been outside the city in hill stations, waiting to descend on the Valley after the curfew was lifted?

Whatever the case, they were everywhere. It was time to get out of Kathmandu.

This article originally appeared in the eXile.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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