Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Travel

Kathmandu

A version of this article appeared in the October 2014 edition of Echelon magazine. This version only includes photographs taken by me in 1985.

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All those trekking boots leave a huge environmental footprint however lightly a trekker treads.

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The first hippies arrived in Kathmandu round about 1967. Numbers increased as western interest in eastern mysticism and exoticism grew in the west, in part thanks to the Beatles. A Kathmandu street south of Durbar Square called Jochen Tole became “Freak Street”. The hippies tended to spend more time interacting with the local population than traditional sightseeing tourists.

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Today, the neighborhood of Thamel is still Kathmandu’s main tourist haunt, packed with guesthouses, restaurants, shops, and bookstores. Freak Street is still there in a different form and online booking sites offer 114, hotels in the area.

 

Tourism is a major source of income for most of the people in Kathmandu, with several hundred thousand visitors arriving annually. Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world visit Kathmandu’s religious sites such as Pashupatinath, Swayambhunath, Boudhanath and Lumbini, the supposed birthplace of the Lord Buddha.

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Has Nepal benefited from tourism? The direct contribution of tourism to GDP was Nepali Rs 67bn (4.3 % of total GDP) in 2012, and is forecast to rise to Rs112bn in 2023. In 2012, tourism directly supported 553,500 jobs (3.6% of total employment). This is expected to rise to 829,000 jobs (4.2% of total employment) in 2023.

 

I visited Kathmandu a long time ago, in 1981. I visited again in 1985. The changes I observed during that short time were a sign of the negative effects of tourism. I will offer a little anecdotal evidence. On my 1981visit, the place seemed relaxed and safe, with little motor traffic. On my return in 1985, the traffic was much worse and there was a discomfiting edginess in the air. It was impossible to walk around the city without being hassled by young men selling drugs.

 

The first approach was “Want some grass?” A polite “No thank you” would raise the stakes to “Want some cocaine?” Rejection of the cocaine option would elicit an offer of heroin. It got to a point where I angrily told one pusher to leave me alone. Those may not have been my exact words. He in turn angrily told me to get out of his country.

 

Although Kathmandu in 1981 was no longer the hippie-haven it had been in the 1970s (events in Afghanistan and Iran had put the kibosh on cheap overland travel) there was still a residue of hippiness. By 1985, the hippie delusion had finally gone sour and declined from grass to heroin.

 

Nepal was a closed country until 1950. In 1956, air transportation was established and the Tribhuvan Highway, between Kathmandu and Raxaul (on the border with India) was started. I crossed from India at Sunauli, which is now a venue for violent scams. The Nepalese government set up organisations in Kathmandu in the 1950s to promote tourism. Tourists started to trickle in. Today tourism is the most important aspect of the country’s economy. From a mere 6,179 tourists in 1961-62, the number jumped to 491,504 in 1999-2000. With the end of the Maoist insurgency in 2009, there was a significant rise of 509,956 tourist arrivals. Tourist numbers have further increased since the country discarded the monarchy and became a Democratic Republic. Today, Kathmandu boasts several five-star hotels like Hyatt Regency, Hotel Yak & Yeti, the Everest Hotel, Hotel Radisson, Hotel De L’Annapurna, and the Shangri-La Hotel. Some of the five-star hotels have casinos.

Despite that, one could feel wandering in parts of the city that one was back in medieval times. Some dwellings have living accommodation upstairs and cattle on the ground floor – an integral cowshed rather than an integral garage. Butcher shops have rows of shins and hooves standing outside like shoes in a hotel waiting to be polished.

On both of my visits, I left Kathmandu to go on organised treks in the mountains. In 1981, this was a gentle stroll in the Annapurna region accompanied by a BBC crew making a Holiday programme.

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The 1985 trek was more strenuous, going close to Everest Base Camp and camping at Thyangboche Monastery. We had started the trip by flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla in a Cessna light aircraft. A programme titled Most Extreme Airports, broadcast on The History Channel in 2010, rated Tenzing-Hillary Airport as the most dangerous airport in the world. On arrival, it seemed as if the plane was just flying straight into a mountain.

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The return trip was worse. We arrived back at Lukla to find that the Nepalese royal family had commandeered all the planes in the country for some holiday junket. (In 2001, the heir to the throne, Prince Dipendra, killed nine members of his family, including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, and himself). We had to wait a few days until an army helicopter came to rescue us. To show my appreciation, I gave a bottle of duty,-free Johnny Walker to the pilot. I had not expected him to drink it as he was flying. The helicopter was zigzagging through huge walled chasms of rock. The pilot was cheerily turning around to chat and taking huge gulps of whisky.

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That trek was made more strenuous because what was described as “freak weather conditions”. Heavier rains than usual had caused mountain lakes to flood and landslides had blocked the usual trails. I still have nightmares about one particular stretch. I had to inch my way along a very narrow path feeling sand dropping on my head from above and the ground crumbling under my feet into the precipitous ravine way below. I realise now that the presence of freaks like myself may have contributed to “freak weather conditions”.

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Since the 1970s, 97% of all visitors to Nepal have been trekkers. Today there are more than 900 legitimate trekking companies in Kathmandu. All those trekking boots leave a huge environmental footprint however lightly a trekker treads. In theory, the government grants protection to the 13% of Nepalese land designated as National Parks. The Sagarmatha National Park, which includes Everest, suffers from pollution and deforestation directly related to the impact of tourism. Sherpas use local forests as part of their subsistence lifestyles and management of their tourist lodges. One trekking tourist in Nepal can account for five kilograms of wood a day.

 

Nepal has little in the way of easily-extractable natural resources. Its greatest asset is its spectacular scenery and tourism has been described as an extractive industry. In particular, Nepal has Mount Everest, also known in Nepal as Sagarmatha and in Tibet as Chomolungma. At 8,84,8 meters above sea level, it is Earth’s highest mountain.

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Tourism brought changes to the Everest region in particular, making it one of the wealthiest areas in Nepal. In 2012, Mount Everest expeditions contributed over 911 million rupees to Nepal’s economy. Many Sherpas have enjoyed prosperity through tourism-related employment with jobs for trekking agents, tour operators, sirdars (trekking field managers) high altitude climbers, porters and cooks.

 

Mount Everest itself is getting crowded and littered with abandoned tents, sleeping bags, oxygen cylinders, coffee makers and gear to watch movies inside tents – even the corpses of climbers who never made it down add to the refuse. All trekkers need a government permit but there are currently no limits or quotas on permits issued by the government of Nepal to climb Everest. In the spring of 2012, thirty permits were issued for foreign Mount Everest expedition teams comprising 325 climbers, 358 high-altitude climbing Sherpas and 230 kitchen staff. Nepalese tourism authorities said recently that climbers must bring down 18 pounds of trash when they descend.

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Tourism has undoubtedly enabled many Nepalese to improve their lives. Some research has suggested that families who are involved in tourism are likely to achieve more in education. Tourism-related funds have contributed towards schools being built in the area by NGOs such as the Himalayan Trust. In many villages, tourism has helped improve water supply, but this can lead to greater inequality, as only those villages near tourist centres have improved infrastructure.

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Tourism brings an insidious corruption. Trekking along  a remote mountain trail, I encountered a young woman carrying a small baby on her back. she looked so careworn and downtrodden that I felt deeply sorry for her. The only way I could think of to help was to give her some money. She was clearly offended- she was not a beggar and she had not asked this foreign interloper for money. All along the trails, small children ask for pens. If you say you have not got a pen, they ask for sweets. If you have not got sweets, they ask for money.  Even in an urban setting this can happen. A group of children was going through this routine near the Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur. Our local guide scolded us for giving anything: “Our children must learn to fend for themselves, not learn to be beggars”.

In spite of the efforts of NGOs and the money coming in from tourism, Nepal still ranks 138th in the world in overall human development. Half of the Nepalese population lives in poverty. Poverty in Nepal is concentrated in rural villages and among lower castes and ethnic minorities. Villages are often located in remote, mountain areas that are geographically isolated and far from basic services. Rural healthcare services are at best rudimentary, with government health posts often going unstaffed and undersupplied for years.

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Lisbon

A  version of this article appeared in the November 2013 edition of Echelon magazine

salazar

I have only once in my life had a gun pointed directly at me. The man who took exception to me was a Portuguese soldier on guard outside the Palácio Nacional de Belém in Lisbon. This was in 1968. I had sat down on the wall opposite and the soldier found this disrespectful because the dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, who had ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968, was dying inside the palace. Or so it was thought – he did not actually die until two years later. His rule ended in 1968 when he suffered a brain haemorrhage after falling in the bath, but he died in 1970.

salazar and francoIberian dictators – Salazar and Franco

My left wing friends and I had some qualms about holidaying in a fascist dictatorship but managed to put them aside. We had booked an apartment in Albufeira (on the same street as Tom Jones and Ringo Starr) in the Algarve, but had not arranged accommodation for our stopover in Lisbon. As soon as we got off the plane, a representative from a student hostel greeted us and took us to comfortable and clean quarters. We spent evenings listening to his views on the political situation in his country -and talking about Manchester United.

We shared a room with a heavily moustachioed Swedish hippy called Viljo, who was on his way to Afghanistan. We had a vacant space in our Albufeira apartment so he decided to travel there with us. When I got back to England, I received a postcard from Afghanistan.

Before we headed off to the Algarve by train, Viljo showed us around Lisbon, which he knew well, for a few days. Viljo arranged for us to get cheap lunches at the University. While were queuing in the cafeteria, Viljo pointed out the sinister men in suits and shades who seemed to be lurking everywhere.

These were representatives of the PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado), which had been created in 1933 under the direct orders of Salazar himself. During World War II, the PIDE (PVDE as it was then called) experienced its most intense period of activity. Portugal was neutral and Lisbon was a thriving centre of espionage as well as home to exotic exiles, like the Duke of Windsor and the King of Spain. Ian Fleming was based there. Britain recruited Spaniard Juan Pujol Garcia, (Codename Garbo), in Lisbon as a double agent.

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PIDE came to be one of the most effective secret services in history, using a wide network of covert cells, spread throughout Portugal and its overseas territories. They exerted control over almost every aspect of Portuguese daily life. PIDE encouraged citizens – the so-called bufos (snitches) – to denounce suspicious activities. Torture was one of PIDE’s tools.

Despite the ever-watchful eyes of the PIDE, there were signs of a thaw and of the outside world impinging. I saw in shop windows, alongside albums of Portuguese polyphony and fado, the works of Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa.

black soldiersPortuguese soldiers in Goa

A depressing sight in the Lisbon of 1968 was the large number of black soldiers in army uniform. By April 1974, black soldiers constituted over 50% of all government forces fighting against liberation movements in Africa. The Portuguese Empire was particularly brutal. It was the first and the longest-lived of the modern European empires, spanning almost six centuries, from the capture of Ceuta in Morocco in 1415 to the handover of Macau to China in 1999. The empire spread throughout a vast number of territories that are now parts of 53 sovereign states.

While one might celebrate the maritime achievements of Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, and Pedro Álvares Cabral under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, one must not forget that Portugal was involved in the slave trade right from the beginning. Forced labour, including labour contracts with forced relocation of people, continued in many regions of Portuguese Africa until it was finally abolished in 1961. Dum Diversas was a papal bull issued on 18 June 1452 by Pope Nicholas V that is credited with ushering in the West African slave trade.  The Bull authorized Afonso V of Portugal to conquer pagans and consign them to perpetual servitude. The Papal Bull permitted the enslavement and conquest of all lands south of Cape Bojador in Africa. As well as  encouraging the seizure of the lands of Saracen Turks and non-Christians and gave permission for the enslavement of such peoples. The bull’s primary purpose was to forbid other Christian nations from infringing the King of Portugal’s rights of trade and colonisation in these regions. The Papal bull Romanus Pontifex of 1455 has served as the basis of legal arguments for taking Native American lands by “discovery”, and continues to do so today. The logic of the rights of conquest and discovery were followed in all western nations including those that never recognised papal authority. This continued under the Americans after they established the United States.

The Empire eventually brought down the dictatorship. While the rest of Europe granted independence to colonies after World War 2, Salazar doggedly hung on to what Portugal had left. Portuguese leaders attempted to stave off calls for independence by defending a policy of assimilation, multiracialism, and civilising mission, or Lusotropicalism, as a way of integrating Portuguese colonies, and their peoples, more closely with Portugal itself. Whatever the theory of colour blind assimilation, strict qualification criteria ensured that less than one per cent of black Mozambicans became full Portuguese citizens and  a system of apartheid was the reality.

When Marcelo Caetano took over from Salazar in 1969, he changed the name PIDE to DGS (Direcção-Geral de Segurança, “General Security Directorate”).  Caetano attempted some democratization, in order to avoid popular insurgency in Portugal itself. This resulted in a decrease in the perceived level of violence used by the secret police and a consequent reduction in its effectiveness.

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The Carnation Revolution in April 1974 brought down the long-established Estado Novo regime. The young army officers who carried out the coup did not use direct violence to achieve their goals. Holding red carnations (cravos in Portuguese), many people joined revolutionary soldiers on the streets of Lisbon, in apparent joy and audible euphoria. The military officers were soon supported by an unanticipated and popular campaign of civil resistance. The only victims of the coup d’état which were four demonstrators shot by PIDE agents on a rooftop.

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After 1986, Portugal’s economy progressed considerably because of EEC/EU structural, cohesion funds, and Portuguese companies’ easier access to foreign markets.

Prosperity hit the buffers with the financial crisis in 2008. Economic disruption and an unsustainable government debt led the country to negotiate loans. Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho was a charismatic officer whose face became the symbol of the Carnation Revolution. Carvalho was a product of the Portuguese Empire. He spent many years in the colonial wars in Africa, and was born of humble parentage  in Mozambique of some Goan ancestry. Carvalho is still an icon for activists of the left in Portugal, and is hated by many people who consider him a terrorist who tried to seize the country to become Portugal’s Fidel Castro.

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In 2011, Carvalho said, when Portugal gave in to the Troika’s austerity demands in order to bail out the economy,  that he would not have taken part in the revolution if he had known it would come to this. He said that the country would need a man as honest as Salazar to deal with the crisis, but from a non-fascist perspective

Lisbon City Guide

Navigating from Empire to EU and Beyond

Sri Lankans might still enjoy a holiday in Lisbon, despite what the Portuguese invaders did to their ancestors. General Don Jeronimo De Azavedu and his soldiers allegedly threw children to crocodiles in the Kelani River, raped the women and tortured the men. In spite of this, many Sri Lankans proudly bear Portuguese names.

Portugal was in the vanguard of European overseas exploration from 1419. In 1498, Vasco da Gama led the first fleet around Africa to India, opening a maritime route from Portugal to India. By 1571, a string of outposts connected Lisbon to Nagasaki along the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, India, and Asia. This commercial network brought great wealth to Portugal.

While one might celebrate the maritime achievements of Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, and Pedro Álvares Cabral under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, one must not forget that Portugal was involved in the slave trade right from the beginning. A series of papal bulls in the 15th Century gave Portugal authority to enslave, and convert the heathens to Christianity. Forced labour, and  forced relocation continued in many parts of the Empire until it was  abolished in 1961.

Imperial wealth decayed into fascist dictatorship, with Portugal becoming the poorest country in Europe. The Empire brought the dictatorship down in 1974. The EU brought prosperity but the downturn has hit Portugal badly. The nation came out of its worst recession since the 1970s, but the economy will continue to shrink in 2013 before returning to feeble growth in 2014. For holidaymakers, Portugal is now cheaper than anywhere else in Western Europe. Revenue from tourism accounts for around ten percent of gross domestic product.

THE CITY

view from sea

Lisbon overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and stretches along the northern bank of the Rio Tejo (Tagus), with bleached limestone buildings climbing the seven hills on which the city is built. The Gulf Stream provides one of the best climates in Europe, with mild winters and very warm summers. The elegance of the city is the result of the great earthquake of 1755, which killed up to 100,000 people and destroyed eighty-five percent of Lisbon’s buildings. The debris was cleared in less than a year and replaced with big squares and broad avenues.

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GETTING THERE

Emirates fly daily to Lisbon, so Sri Lankans could travel conveniently via Dubai. Portugal’s national carrier, TAP, covers an extensive network throughout Europe, Africa and the Americas. Many international and budget airlines fly to Lisbon.

There are three terminals for cruise ships, with shuttles to the city centre.

WHERE TO STAY

Lisbon has many boutique hotels and cheap flashpacker pensãos. The Lapa Palace is one of the most expensive hotels, hosting royals and rock stars. You might be lucky and obtain affordable luxury at the Lapa through special offers.

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During the high season (mid-July to mid-September), it might be wise to book ahead but if you do not, the Lisboa Ask Me Centre will help you find accommodation.

EAT

Portugal has Europe’s highest fish consumption per capita. I particularly enjoyed huge charcoal-grilled sardines served at the roadside and washing down garlicky ameijoas (clams) with vinho verde at pavement cafés that operate until the small hours.

portuguese-sardines

There are many restaurants in Chiado or Bairro Alto showing evidence of the colonial past. The Rosa da Rua Restaurant offers a mix of Portuguese, Indian, and Cape Verdean flavours. Mestiços serves authentic African food.

There are 15 styles of DOP (Denominação de Origem Protegida) cheese. Many non-DOP cheeses are as good and much cheaper.

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Sausages and salamis are delicious.

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It is believed that monks at the Jerónimos Monastery created pastéis de nata (an egg tart) in the 17th Century.

pastel-de-nata

The Guardian mentioned them as the 15th tastiest delicacy in the world. You can still buy them, near where they were invented, at Antiga Confeitaria de Belem.

MUSIC

Fado’s mournful songs are often about the sea or poverty. There are many fado venues. Senhor Vinho’s has prestige but is pricey. At A Baiuca there is no stage, no microphone, no spotlight. At Páteo de Alfama, classic Portuguese dishes are served between sets of fado performed by talented musicians.

fado

Portugal’s imperial past has given a diversity of musical styles. Zouk comes from the Caribbean but Cape Verde and Angola developed their own type. The Cape Verde Association offers live music of an older style plus cachupa, a slow cooked stew of corn, beans, and meat.

SITES TO SEE

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To get to Castelo de São Jorge (St. George’s Castle), walk through the lanes of the Alfama that still bears signs of the Moorish past.

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Baixa shows examples of the post-earthquake reconstruction by the Marquês de Pombal.

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A €10 ticket will get you into Belém Tower and Jeronimos Monastery. Belém Cultural Centre houses a permanent exhibition, featuring Picasso, Dalí, Duchamp, Magritte, and Andy Warhol.

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Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) is a monument inaugurated in 1960, on the northern bank of the Tagus River estuary, in the parish of Santa Maria de Belém. The design takes the form of the prow of a caravel (ship used in the early Portuguese exploration). The figure of Henry the Navigator is prominently featured. Thirty-three people of the era are represented including monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, scientists and missionaries. The construction was a gift from the apartheid South African government.

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A Maritime Museum is installed the west wing of Jeronimos Monastery. There are 17,000 items including model ships from the Age of Discovery onward. The oldest exhibit is a wooden figure representing the Archangel Raphael that accompanied Vasco da Gama on his voyage to India.

After the earthquake, the homeless Portuguese royal family built a new royal residence at Ajuda with ten-acre botanical gardens around it. These are open to the public.

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BUYING

There are many places to buy stylish clothes. When in Lisbon go to Colombo. This huge mall even has a rollercoaster. Principe Real is a smart shopping district near Bairro Alto. One can buy nuts, fruit, cheese, bread or meat at the farmers’ market at Mercado da Ribeira.

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Feira da Ladra is an outdoor flea market that has been offering new and used items since the 17th Century.

LISBOA - Feira da Ladra e Panteão Nacional

Discolecção at Number 53-A on Calçada do Duque is shop dedicated to vinyl records of all genres.

GETTING AROUND

Lisbon is small enough to be walkable. I found a convenient way to see the sights was to strike a deal for the day with a cab driver. Some guides warn that Lisbon taxi drivers are dishonest, rude and unprofessional. As I always do in Colombo, agree a price before getting in. Century-old wooden trams and iron funiculars still lurch and rumble up the hills. The Metro is clean, quick, and efficient.  Buy a Lisboa Card and have free use of all public transport and free or reduced price tickets to museums.

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GETTING AWAY

The beach suburbs of Cascais and Estoril are only 20 minutes from the city-centre by train. South of the Tagus river/rio Tejo), try Costa da Caparica, with its beautiful beaches, or Setúbal—starting point for visits to Arrabida mountain. Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site 40 minutes from Lisbon. There you can see the royal National Palace, the ancient Moorish Castle and the Pena Palace.

the-moorish-castle-sintra

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