Sunday 11 January 2015

Days 226-227: Kathmandu - A face-lift for the capital

Farewell Kathmandu!
To put the Lukla flights fiasco to bed, we needed to meet Ang Rita, who booked them, to get a refund.  He seemed a little surprised at how the situation had played out.

"I called Mera Lodge in Lukla," he told us, "and they said that none of my clients were there."

So this was the key.  You must be someone's client to get on a flight from Lukla.  Possession of a ticket alone is meaningless, no matter how much you paid for it.  Someone important must also pull strings before you may board a plane.  This could be the company who has booked your flights for you.  Presumably it could also be the man you bribe.

Our agent, Ang Rita, is a hard-working Sherpa who once served as kitchen assistant on expeditions, carrying a huge wicker sack of pans and kerosene and loo roll on his back.  Gradually he worked his way up the ranks of the trekking business until he owned his own company.  Now he is important enough that his name could have nabbed us a place on a flight out of Lukla.  But foolishly (or honestly?) we never mentioned him and so Tara Air grounded us.  It was a four-figure mistake (in dollars).  Or was it?  At least we had left the whole corrupt system alone, albeit through ignorance.

Ang Rita handed us our refund - a wad of bank notes too thick to fit in a wallet (so lowly is the value of the Nepali rupee) and we thanked him for helping us.  Now it was time to forget Lukla's existence on the planet.

As we walked back to our hotel through the streets of Kathmandu, we realised that something had changed.  We looked around, trying to work out the difference.  It lay under our feet; the gravel tracks of Thamel now sported tarmac surfaces.

I asked a shop owner about it while he mended a necklace for me.

"Yes, we have new roads.  It was done for the SAARC conference in Kathmandu this week."  He smiled wryly.  "It's all a show.  The government wants other Asian leaders to see how wonderful Kathmandu is."

I remembered that 'wonderful' was not the way he had described the state of the Nepali economy last time I visited, a few weeks ago.

Uttam picked up the same theme when he came for dinner with us that evening.  Since finishing the Dolpo trek, he has found work at a computer shop where he earns the grand total of £1.30 a day.  "It's just enough to cover the cost of petrol for getting to the shop," he told us.  The dinner we bought him would have cost a week's wages.

Nonetheless, he dropped in to our hotel again the next morning, on his motorbike, to bring us the white scarfs that Nepalis and Tibetans give their guests at greeting and parting.  He placed them round our necks then gave Guy a traditional black Nepali hat and a colourful scarf to me.  We were sorry to say good-bye.

By the time we left, we had acquired two more white scarfs apiece; one from Krishna (the Sirdar of our Dolpo expedition) and one from the hotel (who considered us loyal guests).  Leaving Nepal is a little different from flying out of any other country; we have visited it more times, met more people here, passed through village on village, ooh-ed and aah-ed over snow-capped landscapes, eaten dal bhat and momos again and again and again.  But things seem to be getting worse for Nepal right now, not better.  Leaving feels a bit like running away from a friend in need.

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