Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ke Chha Pokhara?

Pokhara, December, 2011

Last week when I went to attend the Indigenous Peoples (IP) Caucus gathering in Pokhara, I lingered over a coffee at Mike’s ancient lodge along lakeside.

That view is still one of the most beautiful and memorable in Nepal. Phewa lake stretches out toward the distance as cultivated hills and forested ridges gracefully tumble into the reflecting waters while shrouded villagers on their heavy wooden boats cross the lake, a lone boatman sitting behind with his solitary oar paddling them silently toward our shore.

These days, in the sky above, paragliders float like distant, colorful butterflies, wings akimbo above Saranakot with the snow-capped Annapurna massif, like a romantic backdrop at La Scala signifying both limits and horizon, towering behind them.

As I sit and daydream, recalling my purpose for being in Pokhara and the suit jacket I’ve hung on the back of my heavy wooden chair, my memories of Pokharas past come to mind…

Memories of different times and moments since I first came to Nepal in 1979 and have resided here since.

Such thoughts come more frequently these days. Is it because another cycle of my professional life in Nepal is coming full circle, once again?

Or, merely the knowledge that another Gregorian calendar year coming to a close?

Possibly, the imminent return of our sons from ‘bidesh’ (the West) marks more clearly the longitude of time and the necessary separations of a family life?

One wonders…

While meandering in my thoughts over a cold cup of coffee, I hear behind me, “Ke chha, Pokhara?” in this flute-like female voice.

I turn around and see a young, chic, self-conscious attractive Nepali woman speaking into her microphone while a more sanguine, wry, observant Nepali man shoots her with his video camera, Phewa Tal in the background.

After finishing practicing her spiel on “young, vivacious, intellectual students” studying climate change at some campus in Pokhara, she looks nonchalantly over at me looking at her and says  smiling, “your turn is next!

We also want to tape some tourists who visit Pokhara to put on our program, if you don’t mind.” she says. “Just to have you say some nice words about why you like Pokhara so much.”

Do I like really Pokhara so much?’, I wonder.  I hardly had had time to reflect on the dozens of times I’d been to Pokhara since 1979 while nursing my coffee when this TV correspondent had interrupted my quiet reverie...

I recalled the first time I saw Pokhara in 1979, the largest town I’d seen for nearly two months.  We could see the lake and waterfront from high up on one of those nearby ridges as Scott, Dave, Lee and I stumbled out of the high mountains after a six week trek around the Annapurna.  We had spent our last morning in Birathanti after coming down off the magnificent views from Pun Hill.  The night before we'd seen the sunrise on the Dhaulagiri massif one chilly December morning. 

No doubt we were a sight to behold.

‘Ecco homo!'

Behold, the trekkers!

Although among the Western trekking set, we fit in quite reasonably, no more sweaty or disheveled in our pastel pajama pants, wool sweaters and funky caps, than the others.  Although I doubt either the IP Caucus or my UN employers would have recognized their future colleague with his overflowing backpack, flip flops and mass of wild  hair like a Bhote (mountain) child coming out of the mountains to spend the winter months along the Seti river in the lowlands of Pokhara.

Or, some years later, when Mom and Dad came to attend our October 1988 Laxmi Puja Jewish wedding in Kathmandu.  After the ceremony, we went to Pokhara for a few days to share the beauty of the lakeside and mountains with my parents and siblings.  I will forever remember Dad’s awestruck inspiration when we saw the sublime, celestial dawn light cross the snow-dressed Annapurna.  He was touched by the peacefulness and sanctity of those impenetrable peaks.

Although visiting a country in which he felt uncertain and insecure, far from his comforting world in the operating rooms of Upstate Medical Center, all his anxiety about his well-being in the disease-ridden, politically unstable, distant Third World receded for a moment of clarity, wisdom and crystal insight.

If we brought all of the world’s leaders here, to this spot, even for a moment, I’m sure that there would be world peace!

Such is the power of the magnificence and scale of these Himalaya.  The same dreams of the ancient Hindu rishis who meditated upon these remarkable mountains thousands of years ago in the pre-Christian Age of the Sanskrit Upanishads affected equally my dearly vulnerable father, an immigrant’s son from the shetels of Eastern Europe to the promising shores of Amrika in the 20th Century.

Some years later, in the early 90s, ‘stately plump’ Lisa, belly full of the future Lily Ellenberg, came with her beloved husband, Dave, one of my dearest friends, the Commander, he of the our earlier 1979 and 1982 gonzo Himalayan expeditions to the Annapurna and then the Khumbu-Everest region. With our dear friends and neighbors, my first and most lasting Nepali-Tibetan friend, Sherab, and his wife, Soilan, their new daughter, Rinchen, and our toddler sons, Joshua and Ezra, we, too, came to Pokhara for a side trip from Kathmandu.

Again, we came for the peace and meditative nature of these Pokhara lakeside shores.  Only a couple hours from our homes in the burgeoning metropolis of Kathmandu, full of wonder, history and politics, yet existing in a time of its own, far (as they say…) from ‘the maddening crowd’. 

A quiet world, a time apart, neither the pre-panchayat poverty of the first decades of the last century nor the dense urbanity of the early decades of this century. 

A lakeside that honors Bob Marley, Cat Stevens and is fond of telling stories of JRR Tolkien visiting to gain inspiration for his mythic, Nordic hobbit tale.

Yet, aloof from the images we foreigners paint, for time immemorial, this uniquely voluminous, shimmering 8,000 m. Annapurna massif perpetually rests only fifteen clicks from our comfortable hotels shielding South Asia from Tibet and China beyond...

With a few dear friends, too, over the decades we have strolled up Sarankot to look across at those dream-like mountains and down on the molten green lake below...

There were moments, as I recall, we thought of buying some land on that ridge overlooking Pokhara, a summer or winter retreat from Kathmandu, a cottage or cabin of tranquility where ‘noon’s a’glimmer and midnight a purple glow'.

But like so many of our life’s day-dreams, this one, too, quickly retreated in the soft cinematic cells of memory and constantly churning alternative realities with which we massage our minds.

There have been many other Pokharas in my life. A convenient overnight way-station to an early morning flight to Jomson.  A few times to take the boys when they were small to Shakun’s native Thakali home in Tuckhe in lower Mustang, along the broad Kali Gandaki plain at 3,000 m. in the deep gorge between Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna

I recall a village just outside Pokhara, Damai Gaon, I believe, where we went to meet some of the young Dalit girls receiving high school scholarships from a new endowment that we'd set up through an established Dalit NGO, NNDSWO, with USAID funds and Save the Children management.

In the late 90s, there was the time I was with my dear college friend, Gary Giorgi, and his wife, Kathy, when they came to visit us in Nepal from Wisconsin.  I spent a day visiting our HIV/AIDS projects in Pokhara with them before driving back in a Save the Children vehicle.

Then, while driving back to Kathmandu, forced to switch vehicles with Santosh Pant, a Nepali actor friend, whose car was stuck on an opposite side of a bridge where young Maoist cadre suddenly came down out of the hills to burn a bus on the bridge right in front of us stopping all traffic all day.  Me trying to calm Kathy’s natural American anxiety (“Are we safe?”) about our security while we watched the youthful revolutionaries pour gasoline on the bus' tires and light the matches that sent the local bus up in flames merely a hundred meters in front of us.

A few years later, we trekked with our neighbors and beloved friends, Karma and Pia with their son, Silas, from Jomson down through the Kali Gandaki valley with Joshua, Ezra and Leah. Observing the changes along the trail with a new motorable road climbing up through the rough rock and solid walls of that river gorge after centuries of isolation.

Seeing the painfully empty villages where the young men and fathers had gone off to fight for the Maoists revolution or for the Nepal Army to protect their native land.  Other men gone, as well, who  traveled to the Gulf or Malaysia with dreams of work and higher incomes to support their families.

Then, in a new job and new incarnation in Nepal, after the signing of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), I came with colleagues from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to visit their office in Pokhara.  Time to review procedures on investigations, meet Maoist soldiers who had run away from their cantonments and discuss with OHCHR, the UN human rights agency, how best to handle the growing number of these individual cases.

Each memory offering a different vision of Pokhara, work, pleasure, family, changes, war, peace and the rapidly turning gyre that has been Nepal for the past few decades...

More recently, I came again in 2009 with my good colleague, Christian Clark.  We spent a night in Pokhara after attending one of our ‘Democracy Dialogues’ hosted by the Nepal Magar Sangh.   One of thousands of village-level, grassroots UNDP efforts to encourage greater knowledge about the drafting of the new Nepal constitution, as well as to collect submissions and recommendations for this latest constitutional effort to recreate a modern Nepal more in the image of the people and times of a new country.

Swirling memories floating in my thoughts as I heard her voice, once again, waking me from my rapid reveries: “Ke chha, Pokhara?!” 

“Ke chha, Pokhara?!” 

I’m not sure that this young woman had either the time or the video tape to hear fully the range of my thoughts, my memories and my reflections…

Ke chha, Pokhara?

Actually, Pokhara, I think we’ve shared more of my Nepali life than I’d thought of before.

Your simple question, asked to a supposed foreign tourist sitting lakeside, conjured up more images, friends and moments than I’d brought out of my emotional storage in a long time.

Beloved parents, friends, family, children… postcards of a Nepali life... all united in my life alongside this Nepali lakeside vista.

Yes, Pokhara, I do love this placid and soothing town below the Himalaya. 

I promise I will continue to come back to partake of your beauty, your peacefulness and the memories of moments past that will still illuminate my life and, no doubt, life’s joys for years to come.

Ke chha, Pokhara!  Ke chha, indeed!!!

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