Back in December, my mate Pete Pattisson asked me about the challenges I faced in Nepal as a local trekker. He was pitching a story about that to The Guardian, the paper he writes for. I shared a number of experiences I had but only one thing I said made it into the article “Tensions in tourism: Nepal’s middle class claim they are ‘unwanted guests.’” So I decided I would publish the rest in my own blog posts.
Starting in the mid-nineties, for a while, I did a lot of traveling and trekking in the country. The reason being that, in addition to visiting the country in the summers (of 1995, 1996), I also lived in the country from June 1997 to February 1999, and then the latter ten months of 2000. In the Summer of 1995, I made it to my village of Tangbe in Mustang district for the first time since leaving it back in the mid-seventies, for example!
Not surprisingly, I learned a great deal about Kathmandu, about the country (shared as commentaries in the Radio Program I hosted) and people — including my friends — and Mustang District (click here, here or here for more). I saw more of the country in that period than I had done until 1995!
Traveling and trekking in the country, I also learned about the differences in the way establishments catering to tourists — as well as some systems — treated Nepalis versus international visitors and travelers. One would think we were second class citizens in our own country!
The following is about some of those experiences and discoveries I made then.
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It was my second visit to Neeru Guest House in Marpha, Mustang, that month. Having dined there — with a distant cousin — just several days earlier on my way up to my village of Tangbe in Upper Mustang and having found it to be a decent place then, on this visit, on April 18, 2000, I decided to spend the night there.
Not long after my return to Nepal following a year in Australia getting my teaching degree, I had hit the trails for a long trek around Annapurna Area. Into the third week on the trail, I was retracing my steps to Tatopani. The plan was to then head to Gorepani and then on to Annapurna Base Camp!
On asking for a room, the proprietor promptly gave me the directions to one. The writings on the top beam of the door to the room read ‘Nepali pahuna kothha‘ (Nepali guest room). The door opened into a smallish dorm room with seven beds in two rows with very little space between them. A few Nepalis were already there. On inquiring if the room was for guides and porters they responded affirmatively. That took me right back to the proprietor and I told him that I was neither a guide nor a porter, that I was a trekker, like the rest of the foreigners there, and that I would like a room to myself.
The guy wasted no time in giving me the incredulous lie of a response: “We don’t have any vacant rooms.”
Incredulous because on the wall right behind him, for all to see, were the room keys. There were a total of 16 of them with 8 still in their rightful place! I tell him that I wasn’t blind, that I can see he does have vacant rooms. However, I get no response!
I had had similar experiences in Manang a couple of years earlier when doing the Annapurna Circuit. In addition to encountering hotels that refused us accommodation, I came across restaurants that would refuse to take our orders because we were Nepalis. Or, if they did, they would bring our food last, after serving all the international trekkers.
What was more surprising to me was the reason some of these establishments gave me for the practice. Apparently, according to them, regardless of when the orders are placed, some foreign customers get offended if Nepalis are served before they themselves are! That I hadn’t expected and, hard as that was for me to believe — because I decided they had made that up — I had no response!
(One evening, when we just couldn’t find any establishment willing to provide us accommodation and food, we went in search of a local who would. We were three of us: a guide and a porter of two Spanish trekkers I had met on the trail and me. We found a lady who made us one of the simplest, easiest to make Tibetan dishes. We ended up spending the night in one of her small side rooms that jutted out of the main house. The whole experience — the conversations and time around the open-air hearth, the meal, and the night in the little room — turned out to be one of the most memorable of the whole trek, along with the one about my suffering from the altitude crossing the Thorong La Pass!)
Hotels in Thamel, the tourist Mecca in Kathmandu, exercised a similar policy of exclusion then.
Once, I went around the area looking for a hotel room on behalf of an international friend. Yes there was a time when you couldn’t book everything online! 😀 😀 Every hotel I visited turned me away saying they had no rooms. I hadn’t told them the room was for an international friend and not me; I had just asked if they had any rooms. When I realized the reason was my being Nepali, when at the next hotel I was told they didn’t have any, I whipped out my foreign bank card, placed it on the counter and asked again, which changed their response!
Of course, I hadn’t known they didn’t accommodate Nepali guests, nor had it occurred to me that they would assume the room was for me! Just as well because I wouldn’t have made that discovery! 🙂
Hotels, the likes of Kathmandu Guest House, not only did not rent out rooms to Nepalis, they did not allow Nepalis to even visit their guests. (One reason given to me was, “Security concerns.”)
As a Nepali, even something as simple as getting information over the phone from a big hotel (such as Hotel Soaltee) about a guest of theirs is a challenge! On discovering that, I, of course, pretended to be a foreigner by speaking English! And if you speak the language in one of the accents of a native-speaker, like I do, it works like a charm! 🙂
So…having seen it all, I wasn’t going to let the guy at Neeru Guest House get off that easy.
I demanded to know if my money wasn’t worth as much as those paid by foreigners. Nothing!
Unrelenting, I walked over to and asked one of the international guests how much he was paying. Armed with the information he provided, I confronted him again telling him that I was willing to pay the amount their guests were paying quoting the amount I had been given. Guides and porters either don’t have to pay or pay very little.
I told him that my money is as good as theirs, that if it was his policy to not provide accommodation to Nepali trekkers to tell me so and that I would willingly find another hotel but that he should know that I am from the district AND that there would be some consequences. That I would make all this known to a lot of people who might be interested in this kind of information etc. etc. etc.
And only then did he relent.
It can’t be that international trekkers look unfavorably on hotels that also accommodate Nepalis. Or that any of them, at any time, has specifically requested that no Nepali be accommodated in the same hotel as them. It can’t be that international trekkers and travelers have anything against Nepalis staying in the same hotel as them (though I must say I have encountered people — in Nepal as well as in other countries — who show little or no regard for the locals, their culture, their heritage etc. and those that even show disdain for the local population and their ways). I find it very hard to believe that international trekkers would specifically request that they be served before Nepalis are either!
In fact I doubt international trekkers are even aware of the fact that Nepali trekkers and travelers (other than guides and porters) are unwelcome guests at restaurants and hotels along popular trekking routes and the fact that they are given preferential treatment when it comes to the order in which different trekkers are served food.
Apart from finding accommodation and food on trails being a challenge, making travel arrangements (e.g. flights) to and/or from popular tourist destinations (such as Jomsom) can be a trying endeavor sometimes (about which I’ll have more to say in another blog post)!
All that is kind of sad of course, in addition to a lot of other things!
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I have to mention the fact that this kind of treatment of the locals by businesses catering to foreign visitors is not just a Nepali thing! I have seen that elsewhere too, in countries like Malawi, Sri Lanka, Cuba…in many developing countries I have visited as a matter of fact, but NOT in developed countries. Cuba even has two completely different economies — one for locals and the other for foreigners — supported by two completely different banknotes! The country has separate department stores, hotels, restaurants and bars etc.
One afternoon in Havana (in the Summer of 2008), a local man was arrested and led away in handcuffs right in front of me in the restaurant and bar I was at. He was in the wrong bar! I have photographic evidence too, which I took surreptitiously!
Now to get to the point of this post script. That a practice is prevalent elsewhere (or even everywhere) does not necessarily make it right or even acceptable! Sadly though, I have come across Nepalis (and others), both educated — with advanced degrees — as well as uneducated, who fail to understand that!
As for how it must be now for Nepali trekkers, if we were to go by some of the experiences I have had since my return to the country in May 2013, not much appears to have changed. The details of those personal experiences, however, will have to remain the subject of other blog posts.
In the mean time, fellow Nepali trekkers have recounted issues they have faced recently, some of which are detailed in my mate Pete Pattisson’s article in The Guardian, obviously. Here are just a few others.
The mountains are calling, but not you. Shreya Poudel writing in October 2017 in The Kathmandu Post.
Domestic trekkers are mistreated by hoteliers in ABC trail. Bishnu Prasad Aryal writing in October 2016 in My Republica.
Stop discrimination against local Nepalese trekking within country. Gita Shrestha writing in May 2014 in Asia One.