Friday, March 6, 2009

Watching life pass by in Bhairahawa


The flight from Kathmandu to Bhairahawa was short, about 20 minutes only. In the Philippines, I'm used to flying over seas or green forests, but here in Nepal, you fly over brown hills. Scary, what if we crash... Just a couple of weeks ago, a UN helicopter crashed in one of these hills, killing several people. Looking down, there's no way anyone could survive... I can't imagine living in a country without a beach, having lived in Southeast Asia all my life where we almost take beaches for granted. I remember my first observation mission, in 2001 in Sri Lanka. I had a Nepali teammate. One day we went to the beach in Galle and he started bring back home. He said he's collecting shells and corals for his aquarium. I glanced at the plastic bag he was holding; inside were really ugly shells, but I didn't have the heart to tell him. And some of those he collected were actually broken pieces of concrete.

Disembarking from the small plane, I could feel the difference. It was warm. It was like being back in my country after a quick trip to Kathmandu. I wasn't sure whether to feel happy that it felt like home, or to feel cheated that I got to go to Nepal and not feel as if I'm in a different country. Silly thoughts. Inside the small airport, Air and I were met by our interpreter, who immediately led us to our waiting car in the parking lot.

From the car, I could see that Bhairahawa (pronounce it without the "ha") is a city that is not very urbanized. In fact, it looked quite rural with its brown fields, and cows and goats roaming the dusty streets.

We were first billeted at Pawan Hotel. I thought it wasn't very good, but we were told that tour groups prefer this hotel. It's not even mentioned in the newest edition of Lonely Planet Nepal, though it was mentioned in Air's copy, an older edition. Later I proved once again that Lonely Planet should not be trusted too much. It listed down another hotel nearby as "the best in town;" when we moved there a few days later, the rooms were atrocious, with crusty old carpets and lights that won't work. I think the best hotel in town is Hotel Yeti. When we visited it, we wondered why we did not check it out earlier. It was barely mentioned in Lonely Planet. The hotel though is right smack in the center of town, probably not the most secure location at a time like this.

Bhairahawa is indeed a small city, but a charming one. I'm loving it more and more as the days pass. No, the fields aren't brown, they're golden, the wheat ready for harvesting. Driving through these wheat fields, I can describe the atmosphere as pastoral and bucolic. Being so close to India, the place is very India. I've always dreamed of going to India, and have watched documentaries about the country, and I can say that Bhairahawa, and indeed the rest of the district of Rupandehi, fulfilled that dream for me. People in traditional clothes working in the fields, long-horned cows pulling wagons of hay, traditional mud huts, cow dung being dried, bricks being baked in the middle of the fields... It is a place living in the past, not in a hurry to modernize. (Later I would realize that the same thing can be said about the rest of the country.)

The city proper can be aptly described as laid back and breezy. Women in their colorful saris with red tikas on their foreheads, shopping for colorful textile at the small roadside shops. The sound of bicycle bells from the colorful rickshaws plying the streets, trying not to bump into the cows that seem to own the place. Men in their long-sleeved white shirts and scarves riding their gloriously vintage bicycles. Street vendors selling freshly-squeezed fruit juices, yoghurt drinks, local ice cream and dumplings. Small tea shops and sweet shops (misthan bandar) full of customers, sipping milk tea and eating freshly-cooked samosas or fabulous Indian sweets while discussing politics. From a hotel window, I even saw a guy doing yoga (as his dog looked on) at the rooftop of the next building.

There's so much to appreciate, to see, to taste, to smell, to hear, to feel. Bhairahawa reminds me why I love being able to travel: traveling heightens my senses, opens my heart, and stimulates my mind. (Of course, another reason is it enables me to get away from the monotony and cruelty of daily existence. Screw life. Hail life.)

(Click on any image to see more photos.)

Hanging out outside Kasturi, my favorite restaurant in the city.

Bhairahawa by day:

Bhairahawa at night:

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