How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Hate the Harp
While filming a short documentary in the Far Western Region of Nepal I found myself in a rapidly escalating civil conflict. Being completely unprepared for a situation like this, It took me two weeks before I was able to leave the area, only to find that by the time I got evacuated the conflict had spread to the entire country. I eventually got out, but it left me with a deep understanding of how to and (more importantly) how not to act during a major conflict that you have no stake in. I wish to share these findings with you today, so that we all may learn from them.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Image: Robbert Sas
Normally in any report about civil conflict you would start explaining things about the conflict and the people involved. In this case let's just suffice with acknowledging that neither faction was completely sure what it was they did or did not want, but they were going to make damn sure it was or was not going to happen. At the height of the conflict (after a 2 week run up) a total 100.000 Nepalis took to the street to show their support of either side. Meanwhile, a tall, Caucasian film student was trying to keep a low profile. Which beings me to rule number 1:
Image: Robbert Sas
Hysteria apparently IS a real thing. Who knew, right? As a rational being, I sure didn't, until I found myself sharing lodgings with someone who I will refer to as Ms. E. Ms. E was in the middle of migrating back to her home country when the civil conflict hit. One of the first things to shut down during a strike in Nepal is transportation. The airport closes, buses and cars are stopped (and possibly lit on fire) and any motorcycles and bikes on the street get their tires punctured. Needless to say that this stranded Ms E. (who was already VERY eager to leave the country) in the middle of the conflict... with most of her worldly possessions. These included a MASSIVE, 100 pound, seven foot high, incredibly expensive concert harp.
The history of how she got this harp into one of the more remote areas of Nepal is one worth telling on its own. For now let's just suffice to say that it was a ludicrous undertaking from beginning to end. For Ms. E. being so close to finally being able to leave the country again, with her precious harp, just to learn that the airport was closed, was the straw that broke the camel's back. She broke down into hysteria. For days the only thing she would mutter between fits of unfocussed rage was: "I just want to go home". To much chagrin of her lodge mates, who tried their best to cheer her up. Which brings me to rule nr.2:
Find your exit buddy
Chances are you're not going anywhere for a while. The best way to pass the time is with someone that doesn't get on your nerves and shares a similar mindset. For me waiting it out wasn't a problem, but some of my fellow stranded expats had places they needed to be. Over beers we would jokingly suggest creative ways of escaping the area. Favorites included leaving in the dead of night on a bike with flat tires or on a borrowed oxcart, hidden under a pile of hay, harp and all. After a few of these drunken evenings (there was nothing else to do after all) I realized that me and one other person really didn't mind the idea of walking to the Indian border and seek asylum there. A kinship was formed and we found we had many more things in common. One of my favorite things about my new found buddy was his lack of emotional attachment to any large, medieval string instruments.
Image: Alexandre Delbos
Be ready for the window of opportunity
Now, when the chance finally does arrive for you to leave you need to be ready. Think about what you want to bring. Preferably pack a go-bag. Include things like passport, money, emergency whiskey, a towel, etc. Ask locals about the status of the conflict. Try to have at least three locals who consider themselves 'in the loop'. All three will tell you conflicting things, but when the moment does finally arrive at least one of them will have informed you (and the other two will have explicitly denied it). Be able to grab your go-bag in a moments notice and if you feel the need to bring any musical instruments roughly the size and weight of a small piano: DON'T.
Expect the unexpected
After two weeks time had run out for most of us. Supplies were dwindling. Food was still being grown, but there was no more drinkable water and the gas needed to boil water was quickly running out. We would be down to cooking on wood(harps) soon, so radical action was required. Radical action in this case being (most likely) a large bribe for the local police chief. I can't say for certain what happened in the police station that day, but after two weeks of waiting the police finally agreed to give us a escort out of the area. A bus would pick us up at our house that night, we just needed to be ready when it showed. And ready we were. Go-bag in hand we stood waiting for two hours. Then we went back inside and started drinking. We were into our second bottle of emergency whiskey when we heard the sounds of a bus outside. We rushed onto the balcony just in time to see that the bus we had waited for for two weeks had finally arrived. We were still on the balcony cheering and whooping when our evacuation vehicle reversed into a gorge. We went back inside the house and resumed drinking.
In the end, the thirty man police escort arrived and managed to winch and pull the bus back onto the road. By that time it was about 3 in the morning and most of the protesters had gone home anyway. The actual evacuation was smooth and relatively obstacle free. Most of my fellow evacuees went back to the capital. I went to an area the conflict had not spread to in the mid-west of Nepal. On the day I arrived a countrywide demonstration was announced. With my new found experience however, I managed to get evacuated within a week. I realized that one of the main things to keep in mind is that as long as you are not physically hurt you are doing okay. Stay out of trouble and hunker down if you can't get out, but remember to look on the bright side of life.
It took me a whole month to finish my trip and I got evacuated twice in one week. And although I will never appreciate the harp like I did before, I do feel that the experience made me grow as a person. I realize that as long as you have the right people around you, you can face anything. I re-discovered my passion for reading and found creative new ways to cook with barely any ingredients. Some of it was even edible! And most importantly, I learned that if you are going to form an emotional attachment to anything, make sure it fits in your go-bag.
This is an entry for the Selective Asia travel blogger competition- 'An Asian Experience to Remember'