Monday, June 02, 2008

Lost horizon

News from Uttarakhand & Kathmandu

I've been taking time off from blogging, worrying and other writing to compile some photos and paperwork for various photography festival submissions.


-Nepal's been officially declared a republic, The Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. This followed the dramatic scenario, inside the Chinese-financed Baneshwor assembly hall, of the constituent assembly members taking oaths in their various "mother tongues." (It might be hard to appreciate the significance of this if you're not familiar with Nepali Khas Kuri nationalism and the old 'one nation, one king, one language' dictum),

-the King's been rumoured to have fled - some said to Nagarjun (another palace within a forest reserve on the edge of town), some said to Switzerland - then shown to still be in his counting house, presumably counting out his money from his various private business enterprises,

-six people were injured in small bombs around town last week (reportedly set by Royalist pro-Hindu nationalist parties)

-Angry protestors of many stripes thronged the palace gates just a few blocks away, insisting that the Monarchy's own dynastic flag be taken down and the National Nepali flag be hoisted. It was, though King G is still in da house.

-Those massive assemblies in the road, three across and three hundred feet long (photo above), are NOT a National Pride Parade. These are hapless commuters waiting six, seven hours and more in line in the boiling sun - for petrol (gasoline). Naturally this is a boon for the very small micro-businessman (soda pop and bhel puri vendors!).

-And, of course, in good Nepali tradition, the "government" gave itself a three-day holiday in honour of its own ratification.

None of this, of course, really means that anything at all will necessarily change. My Australian friend just came from Immigration, where he was given an (illegal) 2-month visa just for paying 1500 extra Nepali rupees. He was approached by a tout ("agent") outside the Maitighar office, who asked him "did he need anything?"

He said sure, I would like to go into meditation retreat and not come out for 2 months, instead of having to return here every 30 days. The tout took him inside, where they side-stepped the dozens of waiting law-abiding visitors and went straight to the counter. Voila, sixty days. (No one ever approaches ME for such things. I guess I look like a budget traveler.)

The most appreciable change of Maoist influence, for a foreign visitor, is the prices. There is now a 10% added "service charge" on any venue (hotel, bar, restaurant) of repute (ie, any place clean enough for most foreigners to eat). This, combined with the pre-existing 13% VAT (value added luxury) tax, means you pay 23% tax on every freaking thing.

This is new as of 2008, initiated (so I'm told my several hotel workers and owners) by the Maoist-run All Nepal Hotel & Restaurant Workers' union. (Their symbol is a white knife and fork crossed, in the manner of the hammer and sickle, against a red field.)

Sixty-six percent goes to the workers themselves. Another percentage goes to the business owner, ostensibly to cover expenses incurred by the workers such as broken dishes. In this part of the world, that normally comes out of the worker's own pocket - business owners do not build in the concept of incidental expenses to their pricing structure. If you (or your waiter) breaks something, the waiter normally pays for it out of the $2 or so he makes daily.

The remaining 3% or so goes to the Maoist party.

Though I don't like making an enforced donation to the party, I have to admit, this is basically a good thing. No wonder the Maoists became so popular. After all, the Seven "democratic" Parties and the palace have never done a thing for the workers.

On the border
The Return March to Tibet has been halted in its tracks, by the Indian police, and is now regrouping on the Indo-Chinese border in the mountains Uttarakhand state.

This in and of itself was expected. What was not expected was that all the march's food and supply trucks were impounded, making it difficult to continue in this remote area. Also, many (if not all - a few managed to hide in the bushes!) of the foreign supporters/ demonstrators/ media crew were arrested and given Quit India notices. This means they have 10 days to leave the country or face imprisonment. Basically, they are being deported.

Again, I halfway expected something like this. What no one expected was the charge against them. The foreigners were arrested on grounds of "violating their tourist visa by participating in religious activity."

Religious activity?? Since when is that illegal for anyone, including tourists, to engage in within India, of all places?

In a strange move, at a time when the government is promoting “Come to India - Walk with the Buddha” to attract foreign tourists to Buddhist circuit in the country, five foreigners have been given Quit India notice to leave the country within seven days “for participating in a religious activity”.

And if it is, what about the thousands of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Burmese, Taiwanese, Bhutanese, and Cambodian Buddhist tourists who throng to India every year to participate in religious activities? There are thousands more foreigners of all nationalities in the ashrams of Vrindavan, Puttaparthi, Pondicherry, Ganeshpuri and Amritapuri.
“On tourist visa, you cannot take part in a religious activity. If we allow that, you will have people coming here to propagate their religion."

((WHAT? oh, you can't take part in Missionary Activity! That's a horse of a different colour.))

".... It’s only for travelling and sightseeing, etc. So, they have violated the visa rule by participation in the march,” said Ashim Khurana, joint secretary (Foreigners) in the ministry of home affairs.

...However, legal experts Times of India spoke to said the notice in this case seems to be illegal. “The Quit India Notice is a very serious matter. It’s used sparingly only in such cases where the person is a threat to the national security.

In this particular case, it seems to be totally wrong, biased and prejudiced. There is no law in the country which prevents people, including foreigners, from taking part in a protest march or a rally,” said Shilpi Jain, a lawyer who deals with immigration and visa-related cases.

On the tourist visa application, you are asked your purpose. "Religious pilgrimage" is one of the boxes available. I always check this, and specify "attending Buddhist teachings" since it's always true, and is certainly something I can't do elsewhere in the world. (At least, not with the Dalai Lama and Karmapa.)

I figured that openly participating in political activity was contrary to the terms of a tourist visa - I'm sure it is in most nations.

But, if someone can be deported for partcipating in religious activity, it doesn't bode well for anyone in India - foreign or Indian nationals.

The Indian government appears to be willfully conflating "religious activity" with MISSIONARY activity. Perhaps they don't believe that foreigners, or more specifically non-Asians, can actually be sincere practitioners of anything but proselytizing.


Linda Sama said...

hey, C!

am going to put your gas pic on Ramblings of an Ageless Chick with a smart-ass post (linking you of course!) about the price of gas in the US -- about $4.15 in my neck of the woods right now.

I'm taking a summer hiatus from blogging, but I AM planning my 4th trip to Ma India -- for six months.....culminating at the kumbh in haridwar in 2010....

peace out!

John said...

Nah... I'm sure you wouldn't accept the indecent proposal of that tout...

Anyway, commies won't eradicate corruption, that's for sure, but would you say that the travel situation inside the country will improve/normalise in a foreseeable future, maybe even opening up to tourism regions that were effectively restriced by the guerilla?

Sirensongs said...

there were no areas that were restricted by the guerilla, ever. The travel situation has been normal (with a lot of inconveniences caused by petrol shortages and strikes) for foreigners, at all times. Not sure who told otherwise....

John said...

Not formally restricted maybe, but effectively (as I said) for normal tourism (adventurers excluded).
Probably why guidebooks like Lonely Planet did not cover some (big) chunks of Nepal...

My question was about your impression if these (previously) maoist controled regions will completely normalise, and normal tourism be able to expand there now?

Sirensongs said...

Hi John: Nope, those areas have always been open for any tourist who could get a guide/porter party together. The reason big chunks aren't generally covered is because there is no infrastructure of any kind there (roads, water, guest houses) ie in (so I am told, anyway) areas like Jumla, Rolpa etc. Getting a big tour party together would seem necessary in such places...normal tourism, like just getting off the bus, wouldnt be practical. (no tea shoppes, nothing there)

During the insurgency, if one could have gotten such a party together, one may very well have been hit up for big donations from the rebels. I heard of at least one verified case in Ra Ra lake area where this happened.

At any rate, they weren't undeveloped because of Maoists...they were just undeveloped, period. In fact it could be said that the Maoists blossomed there because those areas WERE so undeveloped and neglected.

I think it will be several years before such remote areas have any kind of tourist "development" in the mainstream sense. There is now a new highway through the Kali Gandaki region; it took years. The Chinese are busy building a "friendship" road into Mustang area which will change it forever.

John said...

So, you are saying that the situation of tourists intercepted by armed groups and demanded a "donation" is over now?

Or would there be remnant groups that will still use these methods to permit the crossing of their area?

Sirensongs said...

@ John:
That's right. I haven't heard of any remnant groups out asking for donations. Hard to say for sure what's happening in the hinterlands but all reports are that "donations" have stopped.

John said...

What are your views on the motivations of the Chinese to build a Mustang road, and about their involvement in Nepal in general, if there is one?
What are they up to, if anything?

Georg said...

Bonjour Sirensongs,

Quite liked your comments on Nepal.
Sounds like a farce but it seems not everybody is laughing.