Saturday, 8 January 2011

Fruit bats

Just about the only attractive element of the Social Welfare Council building and grounds in the midst of Thamel, Kathmandu, was the rather attractive mature trees that lined either side of the entrance road. They were home to a large colony of fruit bats, no doubt providing just about the only safe haven to these lovely creatures in the midst of the clutter of Kathmandu. Driving past today, as has been my custom, I looked up to see the enchanting shapes of the fruit bats hanging from the trees to be horrified by the sight of bare trunks, reminiscent of the pictures of the battlefields of Ypres. I have seen this kind of behaviour before where it seems that many local people are averse to the sight of greenery and prefer trees to be brought firmly to heel quite needlessly.

By contrast in yesterday's Himalayan Times there was a front page headline trumpeting that the Kathmandu ring road was about to go green with a green belt to be developed either side of that filthy thoroughfare. No mention of controlling the disgusting vehicles that ply along the road churning out thick exhaust fumes that no one seems to bother much about. Oh, and the article said that there was no budget for this new scheme. That'll be the end of that then.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Nepal Tourism Year baloney

2011 has been declared as Nepal Tourism Year (NTY) by the Nepal Tourism Board, with its official launch due to happen on the 14th January. However everyone has been getting very excited by NTY months in advance and over the weekend we have seen pictures in the press of rather bemused, no doubt jet-lagged, tourists being greeted and garlanded at the airport as the first visitors of this auspicious year.

Nepal attracts around 600,000 tourists per year by air and by land although that baseline figure is far from clearly established. Some put the figure as high as 900,000, possibly - and most likely falsely - to give the impression that only another 100,000 tourists need to be attracted to reach the lofty 1,000,000 target. So how have the rhetoric and aspirations been translated into actions on the ground?

In the run up to NTY significant preparations have been hard to discern although political parties have stated that they will do their bit to make the initiative a success by, er, not calling protest strikes in 2011. If they hold to this that will provide some relief to a country that saw strikes on 125 days out of 365 last year. Over the past couple of weeks and rather belatedly (due to the delayed release of a budget for NTY) some tourist attractions have been getting a last minute face lift. These gestures overlook the fact that such dollying up has little or no impact on tourists who book what are expensive trips to Nepal months in advance and that many visitors from previous years, who could have been excellent prospects for revisiting the country, have probably vowed to never set foot in the country again having felt the inconvenience of previous strike actions.

Setting this aside, there are infrastructure problems to circumvent like the chronic failure of Nepal's one international airport to cope with existing throughput of tourists. Also, they will certainly not be ferried into the country in great numbers by the national flag carrier airline, Nepal Airlines Corporation with its one serviceable aircraft and 1,400 somewhat disgruntled staff. Once in country travellers between Kathmandu and Nepal's second main tourist city, Pokhara, have to contend with a deeply-rutted highway that is almost impassable. Alternatively they could fly but with three fatal domestic aircrashes in 2010 that carries a risk that some might baulk at.

So how will these ambitious targets be achieved and who can save the day? Step forward Mr Sunil Pant, Founder of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersexes (LGBTI) organisation The Blue Diamond Society and Chairman of the Pink Mountain travel and tour agency. The admirable and normally very level Sunil has joined the frenzy and poppycock by suggesting that of the 1,000,000 no fewer than 200,000 will be made up of LGBTI visitors. It is hard to imagine what could attract so many tourists of this sexual orientation who are unlikely to be excited by a few spruced up temples. One wonders also how his claims could possibly be verified in due course unless the level of information that is sought on disembarkation documentation becomes unpleasantly intrusive.

Anyway, let's hope that this initiative makes Nepal a pleasanter, more fun place to be in 2011 in spite of the political clouds that are now hovering well above the horizon.

Spot the New Year resolution

Oh yes, I am back after a short silence. I abandoned this blog in late 2009 as the pressure of work had become just too intense for me to continue to write this and still enjoy it. I don't believe the workload is going to be any less this year but it seems likely that it will become more focussed on Nepal and India and I'll feel that bit less stretched. It feels great to be writing this journal again - I have really missed it.

I have a number of goals for this year, some personal, some public. One of the latter is to run the London Marathon on the 17th April. This will be my first marathon event, my greatest previous competitive distance being 10km. At 51 I am aiming to be more of a tortoise rather than a hare but I am sure I will complete the course even if lasting the full 26.2 miles is a matter of pride mentally or through resort to hands and knees physically. Training is well underway and today I passed the psychological barrier of running for over two hours for the first time when I ran two hours two minutes around the Bhaisepati planning area on the outskirts of Kathmandu. This is a perfect training area as it is flat, has clean(ish) air and very little traffic to contend with. The only downside is to reflect upon how Mother Nature is losing out to the "planning" with fields surrendering almost by the day to new - and rather grotesque - buildings that seem to be sprouting up everywhere. In just a few years time this last little patch of green just outside the ring road will have gone for ever.

The running effort will be all worthwhile though as I am now half way (when gift aid is included) towards achieving my fundraising goal of raising £20k in sponsorship for the charity I founded in 1999, The Esther Benjamins Trust. You can add to my total with ease through my online sponsorship form. Thanks for that in anticipation.

I wonder how long my New Year resolution will last for?

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

School mosaics

During my holiday on the Scilly Isles during July I couldn't help but notice the little school on the island of Tresco. The outside wall was covered with mosaic, and although the mosaic work wasn't technically so well executed it was very sweet indeed. The children had clearly had a lot of fun going hands on with the piece and embedding in the mosaic ceramic inserts that depicted various aspects of island life.

The concept is actually not so remarkable as mosaics are increasingly popular in schools in the UK. It got me thinking today about how we could be innovative in developing education and school development projects here in Nepal. I can see the potential for school-based fundraising in the UK (which is lucrative) being used to support named schools in Nepal. And a share of the funds raised could be dedicated towards making a mosaic at the schools which would not only give work to some of the Trust's beneficiaries but also provide an eyecatching feature at what would probably be otherwise very grim schools.

I am now in contact with a mosaic artist in the UK who has good links with a large number of UK schools and is willing to help. Nepal will be a more colourful place in future and some of its poorest children a little better educated.

Monday, 24 August 2009


When I first came to live in Nepal almost five years ago I attended a month long language course at the rather grandly named Intercultural Training and Research Institute in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. In spite of its two staff members it was a great course and my teacher, Parbati, was brilliant. The problem was that I forgot all my Nepali within a week or two of starting work here as English is the lingua franca within the development sector.

Today I returned to ITC for the first time since then and once again Parbati is my teacher. From now on I am determined to have a two hour session at lunchtime every other day until I have a working knowledge of the language. Hmmmm. Today, at my request, we started with the Nepali alphabet which consists of 11 vowels and 36 consonants. At the end of class I took a picture of Parbati's whiteboard. This in on the right.

Wish me luck.

Monday, 4 May 2009


This afternoon the (Maoist) Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka "Prachanda", resigned in a televised address to the nation. This followed his attempted sacking of the Army chief yesterday (see yesterday's post) being overruled by the President, Ram Baran Yadav. I imagine other Maoist ministers will follow suit later on today.

I do have some empathy for Mr Dahal. Last year he stated that he'd found it easier to manage a conflict during the "People's War" than to run the country in peacetime. Nepal can be a very frustrating place to try and get positive results or to attempt to move quickly with any kind of initiative. It's a shame that there is such inertia as underneath it all the economic possibilities for this country are huge in spite of this being the world's fourteenth poorest nation.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Caterwauling in Kathmandu

Today the Maoist Prime leadership in the coalition government of Nepal decided to sack the head of the Nepalese Army, General Rookmangud Katawal.

This controversial move was the culmination of deliberations over the last couple of weeks as to what to do with a General who had, on the face of it, taken decisions in what he saw as being in the best interests of the Army but that went against the wishes of the government as the ultimate authority within a democracy. The dismissal has thrown the cat amongst the pigeons with Maoist opponents believing that the Maoists are pursuing an agenda of securing supreme control through the emasculation of the Army (along with the judiciary and the media).

These national concerns are reflected in India, whose ambassador to Nepal has been shuttling between Kathmandu and Delhi in a bid to convey the displeasure of the Indian government at the prospect of Katwal's removal. For India has its own Maoist insurgency and the authorities there are very concerned about a sympathetic regime in Nepal supporting that cause. The Nepalese army has been seen by the Indians as a bulwark against a Maoist takeover and they made it known that they would oppose the sacking of Katawal which they could not acknowledge as being an internal matter for Nepal. It remains to be seen how India will retaliate.

Meanwhile, the other main parties in Nepal have all objected to apparent Maoist high-handedness and this evening one of the coalition government partners, the mainstream communist party, pulled out of government. As for Katawal he has refused to accept his dismissal.

So this Sunday evening everything is up in the air. It is quite predictable that the coming week will see widespread protests and demonstrations both for and against the decision to fire Katawal. Of course I have no view one way or the other, but this kind of disruption doesn't help with us trying to get on with the task of making Nepal a better place for its children. This is the worst that the situation has been in Nepal for a very long time.