Part II: The Long Road to Oda
Eight months have gone by since I traveled to Oda, a village in the highlands of western Nepal. For the two or three people who bother to read my blog, I published what I promised to be the first of a three-part account of my experiences. In the intervening period, I let life get in the way and never followed up.
But if your interest has not waned, I would like to share the rest of my experiences. The second blog post I wrote still sits on a folder in my computer. To publish that now would feel like cheating. So I’ve rewritten it. I owe it to the people of Oda to tell their story, albeit through my own limited understanding of it. It’s the least I could do to thank them for the incredible hospitality that they showed us.
To the reader, please bear in mind that my recollection is not as fresh as it was right after the trip. But I’ll try as best I can to cast my mind’s eye back several months to the experiences of that winter month. However, remembering what I saw alone isn’t enough to tell the complete story of what those experiences were like. I must try to summon the full range of the reactions/emotions I felt at the time–curiosity, awe, sadness, anger, humility, introspection – in order to paint a fuller account.
I went to Nepal at the suggestion of my friend and mentor, Kirk Adamson, whose friend, John Christopher, co-founded The Oda Foundation, a charity organization that provides education and healthcare services to more than 30,000 people in the remotest and most inaccessible regions of Nepal. Ostensibly, I was going to volunteer and help the people of Oda. As it would later dawn on me, whatever help I had to offer could never shift the needle on the scale of the level of assistance that the people of Oda need to meet just the barest minimum of their basic needs. In part III we will return to the socio-economic conditions of the villagers.
But first, to pick up from the last blog entry (see the previous blog for background), Soo and John, Nick and Becca (Nick and Becca are volunteers at the foundation) and I set out for the airport that morning to embark on our trip. I knew that a long and tedious journey lay ahead of us. Having grown up in a developing country myself, I was expecting the usual bumpy ride, the occasional breakdown of the car, and of course, police checkpoints. However, I had not braced myself for an arduous journey on what National Geographic once called the world’s most dangerous road.
The check-in line at the airport was rather long. The flight was busy that morning with many Nepalis –perhaps businessmen and government officials– heading up to western Nepal by way of Nepalgunj. John, who speaks fluent Nepali, got our passports and went to check us in. He had reserved our tickets in advance at $187 (one-way) apiece for a one-hour flight. Foreigners pay a steep premium over what locals pay. Tourism is one of Nepal’s major sources of revenue, so people are quite used to having foreigners, mostly white, in their country. But a motley crew of black, white, and Korean visitors was certain to draw curious attention from onlookers. As we awaited departure, Soo and I decided to exchange some renminbi for Nepali rupees. The broker charged us unfavorable rates, but we had been told that this was going to be our last chance to get cash. The other option was to withdraw money from the ATM at our next destination. As we would discover eight days later, that was not an easy process.
Before long we were airborne, en route to Nepalgunj, the furthest west planes (at least commercial airlines) can take you this part of the country. A cheaper alternative would’ve been bus transport, but that takes eighteen hours. Nepal is mostly a mountainous country which makes it difficult to develop transport infrastructure. For those who can afford it, the fledgling airline industry is a faster and more convenient, albeit expensive, alternative. The safety record of Nepali airlines, however, is a cause for concern. Buddha Air, the safest in the country, flies to nine destinations within Nepal from its home base at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. It also flies internationally to one destination in India: Varanasi. In 2011 one of its plane crashed, killing all 19 people on board. Other domestic flyers have worse reputations. This information lurked at the back of my mind as we boarded the propeller plane that carried us thither our destination.
One hour later we touched down at a tiny airport in Nepalgunj and quickly made our way to the rendez-vous point where we were supposed to meet with our driver. My excitement started to build up. We were finally going to hit the road and drive up winding roads that disappeared into the distant mountain horizons ahead of us. What did Oda look like? I let my imagination run wild. But the long wait for the driver sort of tempered my excitement. John, a charming and dynamic character who’s ever in an upbeat mood, made conversation to kill time. I can’t recall what we were talking about, but I remember that he forget his thick wallet where we sat down.
Eventually, the driver arrived and the long journey to Oda started in earnest. January is the middle of the dry season in Nepal. The monsoon rains are gone and the scorching sun transforms the landscape from a carpet of green to a brown, barren landscape as shrubs wither and perennials shed their leaves to prepare for the harsh winter season. For the traveler, winter comes with mixed blessings. The roads – which are mostly paved but still dangerously treacherous – are passable. There are no floods or mud-/landslides to cut off access. But on the downside, the loss of vegetation turns what should be vistas of rolling green hills into decrepit but otherwise interesting mountain-scapes. We drove westwards through planes, small towns, and tiny villages to Surkhet, our next stop. The ride was bumpy—nothing we couldn’t handle. But the dry winter dust posed a bigger problem. Cars, trucks, and lorries that shared the road with us would whip up dust that covered our car and made its way into every crevice.
The stretch of the road from Nepalgunj to Surkhet is a busy trade corridor with India, Nepal’s largest trading partner. Many young men who come down from the mountains to work as laborers in India do not have to go all the way to the east of the country. It helps that India and Nepal have practically open borders at several crossings. Nepali citizens do not need visas to enter India so that for virtually all young men in the village, heading to India to work as a laborer is the only way to earn a living. Karan Singh, who co-founded The Oda Foundation with John, went to India as a young teen. Years before, Karan’s father had left his wife and children behind to find work there, like many other men in his village. While going to India presents better economic opportunities for many families, the journey is often fraught with danger. The meager earnings that the migrants make are insufficient to put a dent on poverty back at home. But faced with starvation in the village and a perilous journey to India, many choose the latter. Unfortunately for Karan’s family, his dad never made it back home. He died in India.
Karan and his family would find out only much later (can’t recall, months or perhaps years) that their dad had passed away. At age 13, the responsibility to fend for the family fell on Karan’s shoulders. Thus he too had to make the same perilous journey that had doomed his dad. He set out for India on foot with little food and no money. Without any formal education, Karan worked his way up from a child laborer to a stable job working at a restaurant. He would later return to his village to build a house for his mom and transform the lives of people in his community through his collaboration with The Oda Foundation.
The journey from Nepalgunj to Surkhet lasted about four hours. Surkhet was the last major town on our way that still had some conveniences of modern life. We spent a night at what John described as the swankiest (not the exact words, but close) hotel in town. You learn to adapt your expectations when you’ve lived in a place like Oda where even hot water becomes a luxury. As for Soo and I, fresh from Beijing, we were intrigued by John’s excitement. I indulge the reader to forgive our arrogance. Only our second night in Nepal, the conveniences of modern life – indoor heating, clean towels, a comfortable bed, and fancy food – still mattered to us. We hadn’t weighed our expectations against the stark realities of life in this remote part of the world. To show just how benighted I was, I had brought a fancy carryon luggage and my Dr. Dre headphones, among other items that are useless to the expediency of daily existence in Oda. Music becomes a luxury when you’re unsure about where the next meal would come from. To be fair, my next destination was Singapore where fancy gadgets wouldn’t seem out of place. But Soo, on the other hand, had packed sunscreen, hand sanitizer, plasters, extra gloves, an extra power bank, and more. So, no excuse for me here. She would become my first-aid kit over the next seven days.
After dinner that evening we had what would be our last comfortable sleep and arguably warm shower for the next seven days.
We woke up at the crack of dawn the next morning and set off for the last stretch of our car journey. Our aim was to make it to Oda before nightfall. While we’d had a foretaste of the journey so far, I was still blissfully unaware of what lay head.
After driving for about thirty minutes we started our first ascent into the mountains. Behind us the city lay quiet. The previous day when we had arrived Surkhet was humming with activity. Traders who had come down from various mountain villages peddled their goods on the street sides. Shopkeepers displayed their wares such that you couldn’t tell where one shop’s merchandise ended and where the next shop’s began. Kitchen utensils, farming equipment, office stationery, cashmere clothing, and all manner of articles–covered in dust–adorned the facades of the stores. Shopkeepers sat on stools outside their shops chatting away with each other. Our presence drew many stares. On occasion people would curiously smile or stare intensely at me, perhaps intrigued at their first ever sighting of a black person. While the city had many signs of modernity, many of its inhabitants appeared to be indigent migrants who’d come from distant towns and villages to seek better opportunities. Many of the buildings in the city were mostly ramshackle houses, as if they were hastily-built makeshifts to accommodate a vast influx of people. Like many other developing nations, Nepal is experiencing rapid urbanization. Ideally, India or Kathmandu would be where to go. But some migrants that come down from the mountains choose to settle in Surkhet, which may only be one- or two-day’s journey from their families. It’s close enough to home and yet provides better opportunities –though barely enough to eke out a living—than the villages.
As we drove up the mountain, a cold mist hung over Surkhet that early morning. But for a few faint flickers of distant light—the only discernible signs of civilization—that broke through the morning fog, an unsuspecting onlooker wouldn’t know that behind us lay asleep a city that would roar into life in just a few hours.
In the car nearly everyone was asleep. We tired from the previous day’s journey and resting for the more difficult road ahead. Morning came and the sun appeared in the distant horizon. We benefitted from the vantage point of the mountaintop to enjoy a beautiful sunrise before continuing our journey.
Gazing at the rising sun was only a brief “romantic” interlude in an otherwise precarious undertaking. The road that lay ahead was unforgiving. Before the Nepali Army paved it, the Karnali Highway used to be one of the world’s most dangerous roads. The road is built by literally cutting out paths into mountain sides that are in some stretches not wide enough for two cars to bypass each other. Exposed rock formations and boulders hanging on one side of the road seem like they could tumble over any moment to hit oncoming vehicles. On the other side of the road were steep slopes that in some places extended for hundreds of meters down seemingly bottomless canyons. It certainly didn’t help that the road zig-zags up and down different mountain slopes. There is little margin for error as any mistake that causes the car to skid could send it careening into the gorges. The perilous nature of this section of the road kept me on alert. The cringe-worthy moments came when the driver would have to share the road with an oncoming lorry. Or when he’d delay to hunk only to meet with another vehicle around a bend. Certainly not all cars are equipped to take on the road. Most of the cars that came this far up the mountains were usually SUVs, trucks, buses, and military vehicles.
Several hours later we cleared the first set of mountain ranges and drove for about two hours along a riverbed sculpted by a beautiful stream that snaked its down the valley to far off destinations. I am not sure about the source of the water, but perhaps it collected from springs higher up in the mountains; or melted from thawing glaciers. Thirty years ago nearly all of the mountain peaks were covered in glacier. But for two or three peaks, the, mountains were snow-free. For the tiny communities dotted across these mountain ranges, the water from these glaciers is an important source of livelihood. Unlike the rugged mountainous terrain, the narrow stretch of land on the banks of the river is fertile enough to grow rice and vegetables. Some of the larger human settlements this far west are dotted along the banks of the river. But our destination was yonder.
We stopped at one such village to have breakfast and buy oranges. The oranges sold here are the sweetest I’ve ever tasted, if you’re lucky to get the right ones. Breakfast was rice, chicken cut into tiny bony pieces, and lentil soup. This was my first taste of Dal Bhat, the food that would be served as our lunch and dinner (minus the chicken) every day for the next seven days. We saw school children dressed in uniform learning outside—there were no classrooms or benches, so they sat on stones. From here we continued along the riverbed before starting our ascent of the next ranges to arrive at a small city, about three hours away from Oda, perched precariously on the side of a mountain. This is where John or any visitors to Oda come to use the internet. We had lunch (Dal Bhat) at an inn and rested for a while before driving for about 30 minutes to where the climb up to Oda begins.
The driver dropped us off and went his way, perhaps to fetch the next set of passengers. We bade goodbye to civilization, certainly to paved roads, and prepared to climb yet more mountains, this time on foot. Some of John’s employees who work for the foundation had made the trek down from Oda to help carry our luggage.
We left the porters behind and began the climb when I realized that even carrying my backpack was going to be a Herculean task. We were drained and exhausted—I certain was. Becca led the way. John, Soo, Nick, and I followed. We crossed foot bridges and crawled up (I did) steep slopes. The path was narrow, slippery and not well-trodden. In some stretches it disappeared into the thicket. In other stretches, it was so precarious that people have fallen to their deaths, including the father and husband of two of The Foundation’s employees.
After about a two hour climb we finally reached Oda, but not before I got stung by a common nettle, one of the plant species native to this region. I’d rather get stung by a bee. The tingling, annoying sensation in your hand doesn’t abate. I should’ve known better. You can tell which plants are dangerous by looking at which vegetation has been left untouched by grazing mountain goats.
After what seemed like an odyssey, at long last we arrived our final destination, a tiny settlement nestled high up in the Himalayan mountain ranges. Given the taxing nature of our journey I hadn’t spent much time on the trip thinking about the project at Oda, the villagers I would meet, or how my one week there would unfold.
Over the next seven days I would build bonds with people who had never before seen a black person, break huge rock boulders to build a chicken coup, and learn so much about life from people who appeared have so little.
Stay tuned for the third and final episode of my trip. I promise it will not be a long wait.
Oh, and by the way, if you’re wondering whatever happened to John’s wallet, I think Becca picked it up and gave him after he had already settled into the front seat of the car.