Even now, after many visits to Nepal, it seems strange to think that I am now six hours ‘ahead’ of you in Britain. Of course it doesn’t mean that I can experience things before you do – except the sun rising and the progress of the day in hours. I cant tell you what will happen to you, so we are not in the future here in any sense, just in a different place, as the Earth spins around itself and travels around the sun. But it does give one a different perspective on things. And yet, now I'm here, it seems the most familiar place in the world, no longer exotic or strange, just by the very fact that Im here.
In the same way, it is odd and in many ways comforting how rapidly one adapts to local situations, as well as to local time –although there is always a sort of social ‘jet lag’ as well as one associated with travel and time change. In part, this is because people’s concerns, although in some ways very different, are also very much the same: birth, marriage, death and taxes, as they say. Although of course the news here is different - and people are certainly concerned about the inconclusive nature of the recent national conference of the largest political party, the Maoist United Communist Party of Nepal, and the failure of the interim Legislative-Assembly yet again to elect a Prime Minister (that makes 16 times), the hike in petrol and oil prices by the National Oil Corporation, the uncertain nature of the electrical power supply, and the fact that Nepal only managed to secure one medal in the recent Asian Games - every-day life contains pretty much the same challenges as one does ‘at home’ in Britain. People are worried about exams, their job, unemployment, being ill, growing old, being unappreciated, and so on.
I feel very comfortable here – and of course with the significantly lower cost of living my pounds go a long way, even though the Nepalese rupee has held up well over the years – mainly because my friends live in many ways as well as I do ‘back home’. In many ways, in fact, they live better. The food is excellent and fresh and largely organic; there are still very few supermarkets or shopping malls in Kathmandu; fuel costs remain surprisingly low and, although there are ‘blackouts’ and ‘load shedding’ (when candles have to be brought out), public transport is very cheap, motorbikes abound and even locals regularly use taxis. There are numerous daily and weekly newspapers (some in English) and good bookshops; there are numerous little cafes and eating houses, all of which are constantly packed out by locals; you can get your shoes repaired for a pittance and a suit made up at a ridiculously low cost. And so on.
Much has changed since I first came here in the 1970s; indeed a report by the United Nations this year identified Nepal as one of the countries whose living standards, and particularly whose levels of education and health had improved most in the last 30 years. Of course, that is from a very low starting point and if average per capita income has doubled in that period, it is only from about $250 to $500 a year. Nepal is still one of the ‘least developed’ countries in the world where most people live on less than $1 a day. But things, as they say, are all relative!
As I sit here, in the late afternoon sunshine, still warm as the day gradually comes to an end, even in December, sipping a cup of tea from Ilam (in the eastern hills) and looking up at the snow-capped Himalayas, looking forward to dinner with friends (which will cost probably $2 a head), I am also enjoying the thought that, although we are six hours behind the time in Bangkok, we are still six hours ahead of you in Britain.
Street scene in Thamel, Kathmandu. Photo by Matthew Herschmann