Freak me out!
‘A lways read the footnotes,’ someone once told me. If I hadn’t followed that advice I would not have learned that in 1965 an American/Indian spy mission lost a nuclear-powered sensing device in an avalanche in the Himalaya along the Nepal-India border. Five pounds of plutonium were gone: ‘When its container someday splits open, it will contaminate much of north India’s water supply.’
So writes March Liechty in Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourism Encounter in Nepal, a history of the evolution of the country’s visitor industry. Other facts in the book that might surprise those with just a passing knowledge of Nepali history:
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The legendary and immensely well-connected entrepreneur and Royal Hotel owner Boris Lissanevitch, sometimes called the ‘father of tourism in Nepal,’ died penniless in a public ward in Bir Hospital on 20 October 1985.
Everest pioneer Tenzing Norgay almost made it to the summit with a Swiss expedition in 1952, which turned back just 300m from the peak. But Norgay’s first summit attempt was in 1947 with an unauthorised ‘ultra-light’ Canadian climber, Earl Denman, from the Tibet side.
A rivalry of sorts existed between hippies living in Boudha and those in Swayambhu. ‘It was a little like the Hatfields and the McCoys’, Liechty quotes one author writing in reference to the infamous American feuding families, ‘except that the Westerners in Bodha were too drunk and the Westerners in Swayambhu were too stoned to ever do anything about it’.
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Far Out: Countercultural seekers and the tourist encounter in Nepal
Martin Chautari 2019
On 16 July 1973 the Nepal Government banned the sale of pot. The next day a fire started in Singha Darbar that burned for three days and destroyed half of the seat of government. Lord Shiva was not happy, observers noted.
Much more than a collection of entertaining facts and anecdotes, Far Out situates tourism in Nepal in a global context. It starts with the trickle of wealthy (mostly) Americans who flew in after royal rulers eased open the country’s doors in 1955, followed by the well-told story of the hippies.
Disillusioned with western society and seeking a deeper meaning to life, they journeyed overland from Europe to India then northward, congregating first in Maru Hiti, in later years Freak Street, and then Thamel. Finally, came the trekkers, who jetted in on increasingly larger and cheaper flights, seeking an adventure experience just as Nepal’s leaders realised that tourism could be a game-changer for the economy.
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In their own ways, argues Liechty, all of these different tourists were nourished by ‘deep streams of Western desire for meaning and healing long focused (and fantasised) on the Himalayas and Himalayan people’. Yet, he adds, tourism should not be measured by its impact on Nepal but as an encounter between Nepalis and the rest of the world.
A professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Liechty backs up his thesis with impressive references and quotes from locals but assembles his information with a light touch in an immensely readable story.
He quotes a merchant: ‘What we would call sadhus they called hippies ... I mean, they had a free life, living this blissful existence, worrying about nothing, not even money. They used to eat as much as they wanted, smoke ganja as much as they wanted. We Nepalis drink booze and go crazy but [with ganja] they would just get peaceful and quiet.’
The numerous quotes from Nepalis are among the strengths of Far Out, published in 2017 but released in South Asia last month by Martin Chautari in Kathmandu. One of the few Nepali 'hippinis', Vidhea Shrestha remembered walking down New Road in the early 1970s and seeing relatives approaching — they would quickly cross the street.
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‘It wasn’t because I had done anything. It was because I was breaking the rules, the norms by which a Nepali woman—a good Newari woman—was supposed to live. So the fact that, “Oh my gosh, she’s smoking dope! She’s been seen with the hippies! She’s having a drink openly!”
After the government’s 1973 cannabis ban, ‘the counterculture still flocked to Nepal … but the writing was on the wall and it said, with growing clarity, Hippie Go Home’, writes Liechty. The ‘benign neglect’ of tourism was replaced by a government plan that produced new brochures, maps and hotels. In an increasingly conservative world clouded by a global recession, travellers were also changing: career-focused and responsible they were preoccupied with time. ‘Fewer and fewer people were interested in the journey — the Kerouac-inspired experience of life on the road. Rather than pursuing travel as an end in itself, people were now focused on destinations.’
And for Nepalis: ‘If Freak Street had been a lark, Thamel meant getting down to business, a business that transformed tourists from foreign curiosities to extractive resources.’
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