The year Nepal lost its innocence

Nepali Girl looking away
Times have changed in Nepal … so have peoples thoughts and beliefs – why did it happen so quickly?

It happened all too fast. Like many other moments in time, it wasn’t a face but what lies behind the eyes that told the truth. The same Nepali smiles were there but something was missing. A virtue that once appealed to all – before the year that Nepal lost its innocence.

I wrote this nearly five years ago, but was reluctant to publish it then … maybe I was holding out hope …  then came COVID-19. However it seems I was right all along. I’ve now come to accept it.

Over my 12+ years coming to, traveling and engaging in Nepal I’ve seen a lot of change. Such changes are not always noticeable if you “forever visit” a country. Neither are they if you briefly visit. It’s almost like being a third party surveyor of sorts. I’ve reflected on such observations before in other countries from always being a foreigner in the Philippines to the various stages of long-term travel. In Nepal, great white elephants, how Thamel has changed over the years, and ten years of change in Pokhara.

Green eyed Nepal girl
This one of my well known photos I took of a green eyed Nepali girl some 10 years ago … I went back to find her last year – not only was she gone but her entire village was gone … replaced by a dirt road.

 

Over the past few years or so I’ve been wondering what has happened to Nepal. This is how my article The Forgotten Gods of Nepal came about. The country has undeniably changed and done so abruptly. Originally I put things down to the 2015 earthquake.  Then to cultural evolution. Then to … so many things. Certainly not COVID-19 in Nepal, though I’m sure there will be an impact from it for the years to come like everywhere else. However two decisive moments in time stood out as being the catalysts of lost innocence in Nepal.

A coffee drinking friend of mine shared similar thoughts one morning. And later, a teenager showed me what he was watching on his phone whereupon I saw no innocence.

It was akin to rain drops piercing a polluted city at night. It all came together in a brazen dirty rinse of clarity.

I tragically realized when and how Nepal truly lost its innocence.

Nepal’s doors open for the first time

Back in the the late 1950s Nepal had just opened its doors to the world. It was a new nation to many. One that could really only be explored by those with enough wealth to travel there. Everest was the newly conquered achievement of humankind. Kathmandu was exposed as no Shangri-la. It was merely a sheltered royal city with a few “elite” foreigners bobbing for fame and fortune.

Boris, the ballet dancer, is attributed to kicking things off with his nightclub for the stars. What followed was the ideal hook of tourism: the ability to visit a mythical place just opened up to a post-war world that promised more than one seduction in a land that was until recently forbidden to enter.

The Taleju Temple in Kathmandu
The Taleju Temple in Kathmandu is still off limits … but Sangri La? Maybe in the 1950s when no one ever saw something like this before

With the doors opened the American John Coapman, founder of Tiger Tops, capitalized on the fall of colonialism with great hunting adventures in the Kingdom of Nepal. A place where the elite could still reign as a distracted Nepal battled internal woes.

The elite of Nepal also benefited from such people entering into their kingdom. Hotels, tour agents, and the great Everest expedition groups began to arrive. Those already in the running had first dibs on this new industry. However, there was another movement going on at a grassroots level that was also changing Nepali mindsets on how life should be.

Did the hippies take Nepal’s first innocence?

Perhaps innocence is lost in stages. One is born not knowing. You learn. Then one day you open a magazine, change channel or see a video on a smart phone. While not the end of the world a parent knows what lies ahead for that child after such a moment. So they take the offending material away and put rules in place until such time as they may deem fit. The inevitable has been delayed.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, while the elite indulged behind closed doors, Nepal was thriving on a mass of western hippies. They were arriving with direct buses from the airport to Freak Street. Hashish was legal back then and it wasn’t long until some of the best global hippie trails all led to Kathmandu.

A hippie in Kathmandu
A hippie in Kathmandu … it’s becoming a rare sight these days as high-end tourists with more money to spend have been encouraged to visit while the hippie is largely discredited

While “drugs” may get the blame for many things, hashish was already freely available in Nepal for decades. The actual influencer’s were those that came to sample it. You had western youth arriving en-masse that were rebelling against their own cultures. A group disillusioned with their lives and very happy to express all this to a nation of Nepali who had only seen the developed worlds elite in passing.

While it’s not politically correct to mention such things in today’s world, the truth is that only a decade or so ago those westerners who had lived in developing countries would have often heard the persuasive words ” they will listen to you, you’re from the west”.

Suddenly the hippies had a form of influence over a group of people who were both profiting financially from their presence but also learning about the “great west” for the first time.

Interestingly, many of the local Nepali were not so much interested on the thoughts of these hippies as they were in what they physically had. Levis (jeans), denim jackets, vinyl records, sneakers and guitars. Something that these not so wealthy hippies were more than happy to part with for some cash, accommodation, food or better yet, for the Nepali, an evening of smoky conversation on the frivolities of the world.

Just imagine seeing your first “elevated” westerner arriving. Previously it was a movie star or big business tycoon hitting the papers after arriving in Kathmandu. Now, there before you, was a stoned out hippie looking for a place to crash.

The trekkers arrived to take it all away again …

The story of lost innocence doesn’t end in the 70s with tie-dye. There’s a change in the game plan as the King follows the US governments concerns and bans hashish. Virtually overnight there’s an exodus of hippies. They are however, quickly replaced by a new boom in trekking that enters into Nepal.

Those elite both at home and overseas quickly saw profits and the trekking industry takes off in Nepal like nothing ever had before. Trekking guides, porters, tea houses, hotels, trekking agents and everything in between started popping up everywhere. Big money had arrived in Nepal.

Overcrowding in Kathmandu's domestic airport for flights to Lukla
Overcrowding in Kathmandu’s domestic airport for flights to Lukla … hardly something the old trekking crowd were expecting

It was during this period that Nepal’s political system changed more frequently than a trekkers socks. The Royal family struggled, fell, came back and were carted off before finally virtually ending themselves with a bloody shoot out.

Distraction came to play and Nepal’s bureaucratic wheelers and dealers moved behind the scenes like jackals in the night.

It’s bizarre to think of it now. But if not for these jackals taking everything in the country then perhaps it was during this period Nepal should have lost its innocence like so many of its neighbors. Instead, corruption reigned down and Nepal’s infrastructure ground to an uncaring and perhaps premeditated halt.

For nearly 19 years Nepal suffered electrical power cuts. Anything up to 18 hours a day was commonplace. Imagine a world where there was no regular electricity? It’s almost like a place where time stands still. Or at the very least where time moved so much slower than anywhere else.

This is a pivotal point in the concept of Nepal losing its innocence.

By virtue of its own failings Nepal had prolonged the inevitable that so many others were nurtured into

When innocence is lost …

My coffee friend and I were never that close. We don’t dislike each other or anything. We just don’t have much in common. But, we share something similar. We’ve both been coming to Nepal for over a decade. About five years ago my coffee friend sent me an SMS out of the blue.

CF: I’m leaving this place. Where are you?

A monk prays in Kathmandu
Nepal’s blend of Buddhism and Hinduism is still a unique feature to the nation.

ME: Having coffee … thinking the same.

CF: Why?

ME: Guess.

CF: I know, it’s all changed. So horrible. 

ME: Yep.

CF: It happened so quickly.

ME: Too quickly.

We met and talked a while. Other “foreigners” we knew between us had also been grumbling over the year. We all shared similar experiences but couldn’t put it down as to why we were so … sad. Or perhaps, disjointed with Nepal.

The earthquake. It all seemed to have changed then. Or maybe it was the Chinese who arrived with free reign before then. Our Nepali friends were different now. Yet, we couldn’t quite place why.

That Earthquake …

Money seemed like a sensible key as to what happened after the 2015 Nepal earthquake. USD$4.3 billion dollars in aid was sent to Nepal following the event. Yet years on, over 80% of people effected by the earthquake were still without homes.

Meanwhile, China seemed to be rebuilding most of Nepal’s heritage with hidden loans that were bringing other countries down.

Where did the money go? Nobody knows. It’s shocking. Really shocking. USD $4.3 billion and virtually nothing of it is accountable.

Street art of Ganesh in Kathmandu
Did the gods leave Nepal during the earthquake or did the people leave the gods? Read more about the
    forgotten gods of Nepal

.

Departments were set up, dismantled, set up again and again and again and … nothing was ever publicly accountable save for 20% of actual physical expenditure.

Even the lauded UNESCO reaped in the benefits. Charging local areas for “new world heritage” surveys. Lest we forget the champagne receptions on world tourism day that no tourists are ever invited to.

Since the earthquake Nepal has seen a boom in terms of commercial building construction, start-up businesses, mobile internet and investments. Thamel’s rents have triple and it’s changing dramatically. Boutique hotels are sprouting up everywhere in Pokhara’s Lakeside which has equally changed. Most of them are empty. Where did all that money come from to build empty hotels? How do they stay open with few guests?

Start-ups from rich Nepali youths are everywhere post earthquake. Suburban Patan has become a hotbed of 20 something foreign and domestic remote workers. Yet before the earthquake there were only a handful. Again, where did all this money suddenly appear from to start this “revolution”?

A change in attitude and life in Nepal …

Big physical bellies are becoming common place. Everything is money orientated these days. Facebook is often times more important than, dare I say, face to face conversations. There is a lack of care developing in Nepal as people forget the names of their gods. That level of care you’d often get from a villager in your home country rather than a city person was once prevalent throughout Nepal. Today, it’s following suit.

A Shiva shrine covered in advertisements
A Shiva shrine covered in advertisements … could you imagine a church, mosque or synagogue having the same?

Nepali friends have become dependent on sending messages on a phone rather than actually getting up to meet you when you walk in. In a country once desperate for money I see some people who today won’t budge from their mobile to type an email properly that could have earned them money from an interested client.

Why was this happening?

I was told by some that many people were now earning a lot from relatives living and working overseas. But this was always happening. And it happens in many more countries than just Nepal. It couldn’t just be that. There must be more.

Was it the earthquake that stole Nepal’s innocence?

No. I stayed in Nepal pre and post-earthquake. Things changed but not at this level. The aid money didn’t immediately disappear. There was hope. A lot of hope. It wasn’t until about a year later that the hope vanished without a trace.

Excuses about the aid money were changing every week. The Nepali people had seen this all before. They some how hoped that this time it would be different.

It wasn’t going to be different. It wasn’t just the earthquake. It was a chain of events.

Boy's hand with Nepali rupees
They say money is the root of all evil … but the reality is it’s a person that wants it

This is what stole Nepal’s innocence

The money: Where had all the earthquake money gone? All USD$4.3 billion of it? It’s been shuffled two and fro for many years now while all along “other” things have been built. People saw the world reach out to help the Nepali only for their very own people to take it from the suffering.

A shattered belief system: There were another two repercussions running alongside the earthquake. The belief system in Nepal had been shattered. Why had the gods, that had held Nepal together for so long, deserted them? The young rebellious and disillusioned youth seemed to have lost faith and gained an easily offended fragile ego. The Nepali “Millennial” was born.

The volunteers: The second repercussion came like a shadow from the 1960s. Western and Chinese volunteers flocked into Nepal en-mass to help and in some cases make a profit post earthquake. Much like their hippie counterparts local Nepali were not so much interested in what they had to say or wanted to do. It was after all easier to sit back and have a smoke while watching a “volunteer” build your wall than do it yourself. Moreover, you could also get them to build your neighbors wall as you sat watching these rich people pay to work for you. Life must surely be better on that side.

The past: Meanwhile the byline in all this were the parents who remembered back to the bygone era so abruptly snatched from them by the elite. There was a sudden push to take what you could at all cost. The children and grandchildren of these people would not let such an opportunity go by again. “Rich” volunteers would be listened to, while taking note about what designer garb they were wearing and how to get it for yourself. Passports were the real envy of so many willing to take the biggest leap of all. And who would stop them? The gods or their parents? Both had been proved wrong in the past or at the very least deserted the poor and rewarded the rich. Not this time.

Electricity returns: Then in late 2016 after nineteen years a new man in charge of the Nepal Electricity Authority broke the mold and “discovered” why Nepal did not have enough electricity. It had been diverted by way of bribes to certain companies within Nepal throughout all those years.

I remember suffering 10 years of desperately seeking out electricity to charge a phone, laptop, food or even for heat. Now imagine how people in Nepal felt with everything from people dying in hospitals without electricity, students unable to study without light and businesses failing.

Then, overnight, the electricity was turned back on for everyone.

It’s hard to fathom such a change. From 18 hours of loadshedding to 24 hours of power. Yet, nobody said a word. Life went on in a country where 12 years ago a mere 3 rupee increase in bus fares meant riots.

This was the year Nepal lost it’s innocence

Though I put much of my thoughts over the past few years into narrowing down the trigger point. The earthquake or the electricity, faith, volunteers or the money. There was another confirming moment that gave me my conclusion on the year that was.

A young man, in his twenties, that I knew, was glued to his phone. I tried talking to him but he was just grinning at the screen. Finally he looked over to me and showed me his phone. There was a video of Miley Cyrus dancing near on naked. This, in a country that only a few years ago would have had a twenty something year old man get excited over seeing the mere knee of a Nepali lady walking on a street.

That same young man reads only the news headlines that an algorithm sends to him on his phone … he seems to get angry by headlines alone these days without delving deeper into the how’s or why’s nor reading the article itself. It’s something that happens in other parts of the world too, just not overnight. It’s a wake up call to experience it live.

Nepali man looking to the left
Things changed in Nepal … so did the people as innocence was lost

Over the period of one year 24 hour electricity, an influx of cash, faltering beliefs, influencing people and 4G internet had the modern world crashing into a Nepalis life through a mere hand held device.

There’s a stream of memories from the year that was. The receptionists with their heads down over blue social screens. People not interested in getting up from their chairs or leaving their rooms to say hello. They all had smart phones and were immersed in an entirely new way of life overnight.

All of a sudden Nepal had gone from limited information to getting anything they wanted in the world virtually and physically right in the palm of their hands.

Innocence was lost

It was when that young man showed me his phone that realization hit me. Most of us are slowly introduced to such technology and capabilities. Here in Nepal it was literally all thrown on top of people at once. Money, electricity, internet and no moral rules to help regulate the influx.

Other societies have and are struggling with this despite the slower evolutionary development of it. Meanwhile in Nepal, a switch was flicked and it all arrived in the space of a year.

The repercussions are unknown. There are few if any other countries that have experienced such a jolt into the modern world. There are others that could learn. North Korea, Burma, and Bhutan. But, human nature and history says all this will repeat itself for them too.

Nepal lost its innocence through a chain of events during a one year period

Could it have been prevented? Hindsight says yes. The reality is no.

The future is still bright

So Nepal is no longer “innocent”. It’s not the end of the world. It means people can have more, do more and travel more. Yet in 2018 Nepal’s tourism was super charged by helicopter corruptions and a booming wealthy domestic tourism market has been disrupting their golden goose of international tourist harmony.

2020 was meant to be Nepal’s year of tourism. Double the amount of tourists were to be dragged in at all cost despite not having enough facilities to handle them. The game was up in late 2019 when the 2 million tourist goal was dropped just as quickly as Nepal Tourism Board no longer had a leader. This despite years in the know that a contract was up a mere week before the year of tourism was to begin. A committee and several sub-committees were needed to steer the budget right for whatever new idea was to be touted.

Trekking trail near Chame in Nepal
This is not earthquake damage … this is an old trekking trail on the Annapurna Circuit that goes through a village that the road bypasses – the trail has simply never been maintained since.

The Chinese played their cards well with a little help of lucky timing during all this. They arrived as tourists with free visas but left as producers of Nepali products and are back as developers for the incoming One Belt, One Road initiative. To the north borders are silently open in pristine protected areas and cheap Chinese products are flushed in unaccounted for. Local shops are filled with Chinese products. Little do people seem to realize but they are not the target here, just the side line casualties in a greater economic drive towards the far more profitable market to Nepals south.

In the meantime there’s plenty of money in Nepal despite pay-to-play NGOs calling out that it’s a poor country. New Nepali businesses were expected to open up and profit from the boom. The economy was headed in the direction of the boom and bust in the west just over a decade ago.

Then COVID-19 ground everything to a halt. Not just in Nepal, but around the world. Despite a history of regular if not constant aid acceptance Nepal could no longer rely on this form of income either. All of sudden Nepal was on its own. All grown up and having to take responsibility for its own actions. A country that had already lost its innocence was now suddenly in no position to claim its previous status.

What’s wrong with a country losing its innocence?

As an adult we all have memories of the wonderful joy in the innocence in our childhood. We see children with this innocence and relish their joy. We see adults without it and there is no relish. This is what’s happened in Nepal.

Street Art of an old man walking away ...
The Nepal of old is disappearing … it happens all around the world but in Nepal it happened in the space of a year

A first time visitor to Nepal will know no difference.

It’s only those of us who knew the “old Nepal” that will know what’s gone. This is life. Not just in Nepal. What’s the point of writing about such events?

To document such things. It’s a part of history. This is a journal. A memory. It’s also a place to accept the change.

Nepal has lost its innocence. Now we get to watch it grow up and develop into the awkward phase of adolescence when dealing with real world issues that we all have to live with. Something we all know will be paramount in its future no matter what course through life it chooses.

The unique life story of Nepal is only just getting started.


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16 Replies to “The year Nepal lost its innocence”

  1. Insightful and good read. I wonder how many others have documented countries like you have. I think it makes a difference.

    1. Thanks Simon. It’s been an important part of this website to document things in Nepal and indeed around the world. So much has changed and keeps changing. With articles like this people can pinpoint certain things that happen which are not covered anywhere else.

  2. I agree with you. And I also agree that as a tourist you’ll never notice this change. I visited in 2010 and 2017 and could see the difference phones made to people. But a friend was visiting for the first time and still thought the country was wonderful.

  3. Hi Dave, an interesting blog that sadly i have witnessed myself. I have visited Nepal in 1994, 2012 and 2018 with many friends visiting in between those years. I still saw traditional living on my last visit however a smart phone had been added to the way of life. Some countries need, water, food, electric a stable economy etc. Instead of giving them what they need we send them smart phones!

  4. A human study in process. It’s fascinating to try and work out how society has changed as it has. Areas like this help to fill the gaps I think.

  5. I enjoyed reading this in terms of looking at how other countries may also have gone down this route too. But as you wrote they would have taken a slower approach as technology improved rather than having it all delivered at once.

  6. It’s strange to think that in 6 weeks we were planning to trek in Nepal. And now the world is upside down with no sign of getting right again.

    Just like COVID-19 Technology entered Nepal overnight and changed its tempo.

    We can only move forward. I’m looking forward to visiting Nepal to see for myself. It’s certainly a better prospect than these 4 walls

    1. It’s true that every tourist visiting Nepal will not notice these changes as it will be their first experience. This is a saving grace for many. It also answers the question “isn’t it amazing they have smart phones/ electricity in the mountains.”

  7. As always this is an amazing article. Honestly, I am so tired of all the cookie cutter travel blogs out there driven by chasing money. 5 X things to do in Paris or 10 things to pack for the beach.

    Last of a dying breed of true adventurers and travel writers.

    Thoughtful words wrapped up in a ribbon of skilled writing. True travel and adventure wrote by somebody who has been there and seen it rather than somebody who spent 2 weeks and is suddenly an expert.

    The loss of innocence is all the more horrific because this is the sad slow degradation of our humanity on display that has happened everywhere to us all.

    The horror is show starkly because it’s happened so far where as most countries haven’t felt the insidious destruction of personal liberty, truth, and fellowship- It happened slowly enough that people haven’t noticed.

    1. Hi Martin, thank you for the flattering compliments. Yes, I’m aware this is indeed one of the last independent travel sites out there that tell it like it is. Glad to say, it’s always been that way and always is.

      This loss of innocence needs to be documented in my view. No it doesn’t get people booking treks or buying my books, but I do believe it does let people know how things change. That is a value that is precious in the world today. And yes, you are correct. What happened in Nepal happened slowly in the rest of the world so people didn’t notice so much.

  8. I agree with this article, I worked in Nepal for two years until the pandemic, and felt the smartphone took over everyone’s lives. It came to a point traveling wasn’t fun anymore, as you would sit in Cafes, full of people just staring at their screens, whilst ignoring their surroundings.
    This addiction, which has afflicted many societies, can be cynical, as many Nepali’s told me that they are the smart generation, but I never saw any evidence they had created something of beauty like an ancient temple or made an effort to solve the pollution that ruins Kathmandu. Its laziness and arrogance that replaced innocence, and as the so-called modern world this generation worship, degenerates in the COVID 19 crisis, their future looks bleak, unless they realize the World they compare the West, is just a fallacy, and one that is fading in the sunset of a crisis.

    1. I’m glad you have seen the change since 2018 too. So many people today never look up from their phones. This aspect of cookie cutter lifestyles will have a long term impact on Nepal. It will again be interesting to see where it goes. Will everyone all be the same and the only interesting thing be mountains, new shops and the odd temple … or will some form of human nature overwhelm this form of communication and shine through …

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