[We continue with Matt’s adventures in Nepal. Last time, we encountered him vomiting his way through Kathmandu. In this post, we encounter him, however briefly, at the telos of his journey: the Nepalese farm, sponsored by WWOOF, at which he was to work, and for the sake of which the whole trip had been planned. Despite the praises sung of the agrarian life familiar to us from the examples of Cicero and Thomas Jefferson, it turns out that farming is, as Matt put it to me in an email, “pretty fucking boring.” Accordingly, Matt makes some authentic existentialist choices in this post, which begins with his arriving on the farm and leaving it within a day or so.]
Pohkara Day 2: Farming and Some Existentialist Choices
I’m not on the farm anymore. I was on it for two days, nearly died of boredom, and took a bus to Pohkara, the second largest city in Nepal. My current plans are to make my way throughout Nepal in an ad hoc manner over the next month until my mom and brother arrive. I will probably go to a few more farms, but never for more than a few days. Mostly I’ll hop between ever smaller cities and try to go on self-guided hikes, hopefully without dying on the side of some mountain alone. Here is a brief account of what happened during my two days of farming.
Pradeep’s farm is in a tiny farming community about 90 miles to the south west of Kathmandu. I took two busses to get there. The first took about 5.5 hours and cost $3.50, the second took 1.5 hours and cost $1.20. I ended up in a massive valley which was uncharacteristically flat for Nepal, though mountains could always be seen on the horizon.
Pradeep was not actually at Pradeep’s Farm. He was in Japan, presumably working, so the farm was being looked after by his brother (Balram), Balram’s wife, his mother, and a Nepali worker. The center of the farm is a cluster of buildings with a dusty stone ground in a lightly wooded area. Pradeep, his brother, and the wife live in a three room concrete structure. Next their house was a two room building where I and the other WWOOFers stayed, and the mother’s one room house. The trees provide nice shade and it’s a pretty relaxing area if you can tolerate the swarms of flies.
I’m not sure how big the farm is, and I since I don’t know how big an acre or hectare is, I couldn’t really estimate. He grows mostly corn alongside lentils and some mixed vegetables. There are also ten goats, 1,000 chickens, a cow, and a whole lot of bees (which are also incalculable). A few days before I arrived, three new goats had been born so I got to hold and play with some adorable tiny goats which could barely walk. On the other hand, adult goats never shut the fuck up and their weird humanoid bleating does not get more pleasant with time.
The two other WWOOFers were a French 23 year old guy, and a 28 year old French girl who didn’t know each other prior to arriving the day before I did. They were nice enough and I spent most of the two days with them. Unfortunately, they confirmed every one of my worst prejudices about WWOOFers by constantly blathering idiotic anti-wealth, anti-American, noble savage worshipping nonsense which it was my duty to challenge. If they weren’t constantly smoking pot, they probably would have gotten quite angry with me.
What little work I did was boring and tedious. The first day the work was actually kind of fun but it lasted a total of 30 minutes. First I dug some ditches to create a flood plain for future corn crops and I admit it was quite satisfying to see a field fill with water because of my work. A few hours later I stacked some eggs in a carton. That was it for the day. The following day I literally shoveled goat shit and carried it in sacks out onto the same field for about two hours. That was about as fun as it sounds.
I’ve always been under the impression that poor farmers are hardworking people, but now I have to call that belief into question. Balram seemed to work for an hour or two after sunrise, then eat lunch at ten and declare it to be “too hot” to work again until 4 PM, even when it was only about 70 degrees out. He spent most of the day lounging in the shade, talking to neighbors, and eating food prepared by his wife. Granted, I wasn’t at the farm for long and Balram seemed relatively well off (likely due to charging WWOOFers $5 per day for the last eight years), but still, this was not the desperate farming I expected. Maybe because farming occurs all year round in Nepal, the work is more gradual and spread out compared to the seasonality in Europe that I typically picture.
OK, so the farm was beautiful and the area was definitely off the beaten path, but there simply wasn’t much to do. I walked around the equally beautiful surrounding area for a total of about eight hours over the two days and saw everything I needed to see. What little work I did was tedious and the experience would not be improved by more work. So I thanked my host and got out of there.
Pohkara Day 1 was just a long bus ride and sitting in my hotel, so I’ll move on to Pokhara Day 2. By the way, it’s pronounced “Po-kuh-ruh.” If, like me, you naturally say “Po-car-uh,” the natives will not understand you.
Pohkara is a case study in why Nepal is better than India. If this same city with the same function existed in India, it would be a loud, dirty, overstuffed metropolis filled with swarms of scammers, beggars, and annoying merchants. Here in Nepal, Pohkara is a quiet, clean and rather pleasant small city filled with merely a manageable level of beggars and annoying merchants.
Pohkara is the second biggest city in Nepal, but I’m not sure if it exists for any reason other than tourism. The city is a base of operations for hang gliders, sky divers, parasailors, off road drivers, safari goers, hikers, and most of all, trekkers. For the uninitiated (i.e. me two months ago) trekking is long range hiking with equipment for mountain climbing and usually sleeping bags. Most treks in Nepal are organized group ventures with local guides that also require porters, guys who carry all of the equipment. Treks are quite expensive, usually costing between $50 and $100 per day. Pohkara is right in the middle of a mountain range famous for trekking.
The perfect place to be shoveling goat shit for a few months (photo: Wikipedia)
I only briefly walked through the center of Pohkara, so I can’t speak for the rest of the city, but the touristy area, known as Lakeside, is great, easily the most comfortable place I’ve traveled to on this trip. As the name suggests, Lakeside consists of a few rows of streets on the side of scenic Phewa Lake. The streets consist entirely off cheap lodges, western restaurants, trekking agencies, souvenir shops, bars, and convenience stores, but it’s all remarkably clean and classy. It has the feel of a decently luxurious ski resort, like Mount Stratton in Vermont. I guess trekkers tend to be pretty wealthy, and the locals have done their best to accommodate them.
Speaking of locals, Nepalis are much better than Indians by pretty much every metric. They are more polite, provide better customer service, have less aggressive merchants, have better style, and are more attractive. To be fair, Nepal still has a lot of the same annoying crap that India has, like beggars and merchants who hound me while walking down the streets, but they are less common, and even the merchants hound a lot softer so I feel less like a walking wallet.
Style might be a strange point of comparison, especially coming from me, but it’s hard not to notice it here. As best as I can describe it, young Nepalis tend to dress like Asian greasers. There are a lot of leather jackets, cool jeans, and that crazy puffed up Asian hair Japanese people sometimes have (it might be gel, but I’m not sure). The women dress more Western Indians too, with few saris and a lot more standard jeans and sweatshirts.
Today I used my favorite wandering tactic, pick a vague, faraway place and just walk to it. The location of choice was Lakeside itself, but my plan was to walk around the entire circumference of Phewa Lake, which has a surface area of 5.23 km. This was easier said than done. It took me almost six straight hours of walking to fail.
Phewa Lake is phenomenally beautiful. Its water is dark blue and folds into a mountain range covered with terrace farms and small farming villages. When the sky is clear, taller, snowcapped mountains can be seen in the distance. I don’t know how to describe it any more. Most of my walk was uneventful, so I just enjoyed the stunning scenery. Not that it has too much competition, but this has been the most beautiful natural place I’ve seen so far during my trip.
Early on, I took a detour to a field that jutted out into the lake. As I walking toward the water, a parachuter came out of nowhere and landed about fifty feet away from me. A bystander told me it was training day and asked if I had parachuted. I said “no, it’s scary.” He questioned my manhood. Moving on.
Rather than re-cross the field to return to the main road, I decided to cut through some farm land adjacent to the field. I thought I could walk around the flood plain segments by staying near the lake, but by the time this plan failed I was too far away from the field to walk back. Instead I had to try to make my way across the flood plains. This was surprisingly fun. The ground was a mixture of mud and weeds, and entirely soaked with water. But some parts of the ground were more soaked than others. If I stepped on a dryer spot, I was fine. If I stepped on a wet spot, I would sink into the ground. If I sunk too far into the ground, I could legitimately lose my shoe, or at least get my foot covered with mud.
(Random Note: I am writing this in a restaurant in Lakeside, and the guy sitting at the table next to me just seriously described the Appalachian Mountains as “wise.”)
It took me about half an hour to traverse 100 yards. I had to backtrack repeatedly as I ran into water logged areas. I got pretty good at figuring out what patches were wet and which were dry by looking at them rather than testing with a step, and on more than a few occasions I made a bad step and had to jump away while I was sinking into the ground. For once, my two years of long jumping in high school came in handy as I made some fateful leaps across water logged stretches.
An hour after getting back on the road, I was approached by a random woman and asked to volunteer at a nearby orphanage. I politely declined.
Doesn’t that landscape just scream ‘lentil farming’ to you? (Wikipedia)
A few hours later, I passed the lake and tried to cut my way across a much larger flood plain and save myself a few kilometers on the longer main road. I’m not sure if this land used to be part of the lake too, but now it was divided between farm and grazing land, and was fed by a couple of canals. The canals proved to be my main obstacle. They were too long to jump and I didn’t want to get my shoes or feet wet so I was trying to find a bridge or boat to take me across.
I came upon a remote bar-restaurant on the edge of the flood plain and asked if the small road jutting out from it would take me all the way across. The presumed owner said it would if I could find the boat in the canal 300 meters away. A boy about eight years of age cheerfully offered to show me the boat and I agreed.
The kid and I made some small talk for about five minutes of walking. He spoke some broken English but didn’t seem educated in it. Then, with no prompt whatsoever, he asked me for money. When I refused, he asked for chocolate. This was weird. It was he and I alone on a dirt road in a massive field in the middle of nowhere. I was basically being extorted by an eight year old. I politedly declined to give him money or chocolate. He turned around and walked back the house.*
The kid really did screw me over. I never found the boat and ended up walking along a windy canal for a kilometer until I ended back at the main road at the floodplain-lake’s most distant point from Lakeside. My attempt at a shortcut probably saved half a kilometer at most.
The best part of my walk occurred shortly after. I once more attempted to cut across the floodplain, but this time on a path that I could see made it to the main road in the distance. About half way along the path I stopped and just marveled at my setting. I was on a small grey dirt path in the middle of a dark green field surrounded by mountains covered in terrace farms. And I was completely alone. There were a couple of cows million around, but otherwise I may as well have been on an alien planet. It was unforgettable.
Then came the worst part of my walk. Thus far the road had stayed mostly flat along the base of the mountains, but now it inexplicably went up and down over the side of the mountains. I had already been walking for something like 4 hours without rest and didn’t really feel like starting to walk up hill.
About two hours later I began to get worried that the road was actually going to start going up and into the mountains rather than stay near the lake. Technically I didn’t actually know if the road wrapped around the lake as I hoped it would, and I didn’t want accidentally to walk to some nearby town away from my destination. So I made the daring (or some would say, stupid) decision to leave the road and enter a nearby cluster of terrace farms with the blind hope that I could keep circling the lake on some local paths.
This didn’t work. I said hello to some confused Nepali farmers,** stumbled down a path on the side of a mountain which I’m fairly certain was abandonded, and ended up on a beach occupied by a dozen young boys roughly between the ages of 12 and 15. Equally confused, they approached and asked where I wanted to go. I said, “Pohkara.” They said, “What?” I said, “Pohkara” correctly. They laughed and said I couldn’t get there on this side of the mountain. Ugh.
Miraculously I had a way out. The boys offered me a boat ride to the other side of the lake where I could walk back to Laketown. Yes it occurred to me that they were lying about the lack of a foot passage to Laketown to sell me this option, but I didn’t see a road on the mountainside and these kids seemed fun and honest. We briefly bargained until I agreed to pay 400 rupees ($4) for a ride across the lake. Since three of them rowed me, I basically paid each one $1.30 per hour.
The relevant boat was basically a 12 foot canoe and not especially stable. There were a couple of times when I was genuinely afraid of capsizing, which would have destroyed my camera, and possibly the $200 worth of Nepali rupees in my pocket.
These kids were fun. They like Eminem and Rihanna, and played music on their cell phones. They asked me a whole bunch of questions about America and seemed confused by our lack of a caste system. One kid was the de facto leader of the group; he had an earring and wore jeans. He had spearheaded the negotiations on the beach and was now constantly shouting orders to the other two rowers, though it was hard to think of what those order might be besides “row straight.”
When I got to the beach I fished through my wallet to get their money and they caught a glimpse of some American money. Their eyes lit up and they asked to see it. I showed them a one dollar bill and I got the idea to let them have it. I offered it for 50 rupees ($1=97 rupees). There were three kids and they saw I had more, so we ended up settling on 250 rupees for $3. The kids were thrilled.
I have one more observation about Pohkara. I don’t know if this occurs everywhere throughout Nepal, but there is only electricity here for about twelve hours per day. My hotel even has a daily schedule, since the times when the electricity is on varies ever day. I walked down Laketown’s main street last night at 9 PM when the power was out and it was pretty strange. Most places had generators to keep the lights on, but a lot of restaurants were completely dark despite being open. With so many generators running at once, the whole street had a constant low rumble which occasionally grew louder as I approached a store with a bigger, or maybe just louder generator. For a tourist town filled with young athletes, it was pretty dead by 9:30 PM.***
*Irfan: In the interests of family values, I’ve taken the liberty of deleting the rest of Matt’s tirade against this eight-year-old.
**Irfan: None dare call it trespassing.
**Irfan: Exactly the same phenomenon exists in Pakistan, where it’s called “loadshedding.” (Americans call it a “rolling blackout.”) The issue turns partly on the nature of public ownership of the energy supply, and partly on riparian law and the politics of water access and usage. I suspect (but don’t know) that Nepal and Pakistan face a similar dynamic, and possibly, similar sorts of water disputes with India.