issue 183 - May 1988
The end of the road
The new road brought trucks, Coca Cola
and fresh vegetables to the isolated Nepali village. It brought
poverty, too. But it was no match for the monsoon rains.
Gazing down from the hill, over terraces of paddy fields, we could see the first truck making its hesitant journey up the spiralling new dust road. Local people ran down the main street of the bazaar to meet the first iron monster to complete the ascent.
For them it was the excitement of seeing a machine that moved along the ground. For me it was the feeling that here, at last, was a link with the outside world. There was the weekly plane to Kathmandu, of course. But with only 18 seats - and $30 a seat at that - it was hardly significant to most people.
Excitement about the road lasted quite a while. Then people became less frightened and awe-struck, and the verges were no longer dotted with rapt, admiring observers. Those who could afford the fare became seasoned travellers and were no longer to be seen vomiting out of the windows as the truck lurched along. In fact it became an accepted part of daily life - rather like the plane it came and went, affecting few people.
But down by the airstrip, a shanty town of temporary shacks sprang up overnight with the coming of the road. Here was where all the goodies that came by truck from India were to be found: plastic snakes that wriggled, gilt hair-slides, iron buckets, saucepans, and - best of all - fresh fruit and vegetables.
For us foreigners, and the paid office workers, accustomed to going for weeks with nothing but potatoes and rice in the shops, it seemed like paradise.
Every day more and more apples, oranges, onions, cabbages and tomatoes would make their way up the hill. There was even a rumour that 10 bottles of Coca Cola had been sighted in the bazaar.
One morning, as I was selecting tomatoes in a local shop from a big plastic bucket full of huge red tomatoes, fresh from India, a woman pulled my arm. 'Don't you want to buy mine?' she asked. And there, in her dhoko, were a few handfuls of the small green local tomatoes.
Just a fortnight earlier I would have followed her eagerly, begging to be allowed to buy some. Now the shopkeeper laughed at her: who would want to buy little sour green tomatoes when there were big sweet red ones to be had?
For women like her, trudging in for miles from one of the surrounding villages to sell her few vegetables, there was no longer a market The influential bazaar shopkeepers negotiated deals with the Indian traders with their truckloads of vegetables. The new road meant new money for the shopkeepers - but less for the poor, whose livelihood was undermined and who had no way of buying the wonderful new merchandise.
There were other casualties, too. Gaggies of poor women, who had made a living out of carrying people's baggage from the airstrip to the bazaar, were once a common sight, haggling in angry, spirited voices over the price of their services. But with the advent of the new road, people simply boarded one of the trucks - baggage and all Ragged and down-trodden at the best of times, these women were reduced to silently and gratefully accepting any rate people were prepared to pay for their help.
I began to wonder about the road. But I needn't have worried. Soon the monsoon rains arrived and the swelling river took charge of things.
Within days the bridge was completely washed away, leaving several trucks stranded on the wrong side of the river, never to return to India.
The original truck continued to creak up and down the winding road between the airstrip and the bazaar, its fuel being hoisted across the river by rope-pulley. But this one truck became so overcrowded it broke down one day half-way up the hill. As the road had been almost completely washed away by the rain, it was simply left there, In the middle of the road.
When the monsoon came to an end, it was overgrown with creepers and made a very pleasant home for a local family.
By then the grand new road was little more than a memory. The women porters went back to climbing regularly up and down the hill; the shanty-town disappeared as quickly as it had appeared; and everyone went back to eating rice and potatoes as before.
Last I heard, a foreign aid agency had decided to rebuild the road, with a proper bridge this time: in the interests of development.
Anne Robinson has been working in Nepal for two years as a teacher-trainer, under the auspices of the UK-based Voluntary Service Overseas.