Thursday, March 28, 2013

Thoughts on security

I had passed through Bardiya National Park in Western Nepal at least three times previously in the past two weeks, always on a local bus. There are three army checkpoints in this park. This time, I caught the attention of the army officer who came on board. He asked me the usual, “Where are you going?” “Where did you come from?” and “Is this your bag?” but his interrogation continued: “What are you doing here?” “Which country are you from?” “How old are you?” and “Are you married? Single? Do you have a boyfriend?” “Are you alone?” “Are you meeting friends at your destination?” He wasn’t that happy with my “you don’t need to know,” and “I don’t have to answer that question.” My fellow bus passengers were all ears, leaning forward to hear my answers given in Nepali. He finally left the bus. My fellow passengers related this incident to new passengers after we passed the Karnali Bridge and made the routine stop at Chiaspani, marking our entrance into far western Nepal. “Ho ra? [really?]” I heard more than once, with eyes turning to me.

When I related this to some Nepali guy friends, they rolled with laughter. “That’s so funny!” In retrospect yes, it was rather amusing; however, at the time, I was anything but laughing. While the officer was perhaps just curious and surprised to find a foreigner, and woman at that, traveling on a local Nepali bus and was trying make sense of it, I had no idea where his interrogation would lead. Nepali security personnel are not necessarily safe—police and army are known for their corruption, and abuse of their authority—and I did not know what this officer might be capable of.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that I draw the attention of Nepali men when I travel alone. As a white woman, I fall between gender lines as fair game. I’ve evaded giving my phone number to Nepali men for hours on cross-country microbuses, giving excuses or just saying no, but they often persist. I’ve had men “fall asleep” on me—whether its purposeful or not, they get a rude awakening with a quick jab in the ribcage with my elbow or thrown off my shoulder. Once, I bluntly refused to make room for a guy on a city microbus in the seat next to me (I was sharing with another foreign female friend), telling him there was no room. I felt rather bad right after, as he got off the micro to catch another, and the other passengers seemed a little miffed that I would be so selfish. I moved over later for a woman to sit at the next stop.

Men are not always rude. On one small jeep in Nepalgunj, the passengers—all men—had a discussion as to whether my backpack was too big and they should put it on top of the vehicle. When one of them suggested asking me, everyone was like “she doesn’t speak Nepali.” When I answered that I did in fact speak Nepali, and that my bag would stay on my lap, they fell into friendly conversation with me about my travels and research, relating where they were coming from and where they worked (many of them abroad as migrant workers). Many of the boys and young men who collect fares have given me directions as to where to connect to my next bus if its my first time in an area, making sure I get down at the correct cross roads or passing me off to one of their buddies to make sure I got to my next ride. The men who conduct the bus to and from the village in Dang where I am based are some of the most patient I’ve met—they primarily deal with women coming to and from the bazaar, usually with loads of supplies (think of it as coordinating a bus for a dozen or more women who have just done three-month’s worth of shopping at Costco—which in this case can sometimes include live animals!).

While I don’t mind bus travel, and have had some good experiences, my first time flying domestic in Nepal was sweet relief—no one harassed me. I credit the presence of the flight hostesses, that it’s a different kind of Nepali who flies, and that there are generally more foreigners present. Expensive as it can be—almost ten times the amount of a bus ride—I’ve flown more frequently this time to my far western destinations than previously. When one of my Nepali guy friends heard that I was flying, his reply made it clear he thought it a frivolous expenditure—I could find a nice bus to take me instead. I decided not to argue—I had had similar thoughts myself, but often at the end of a research trip, where all I’ve done has been talk to strangers, a hassle-free trip “home” to Kathmandu is well worth it.

Bazaars can be a whole ‘nother hazard. I receive catcalls, “hello,” “namaste,” from guys piled on three or four deep on a friend’s bicycle. Men try and initiate conversation with me just because they can at bus stops; I ignore them and move away, or if they persist I’ll just say, “I don’t have to talk to you.” There have been two times in Kathmandu where a motorcycle driver has slowed down and crept up next to me, asking in English, “Want a ride?” or “Hello, Namaste, how are you?” The third time it happened, I rolled my eyes—then heard my friend Ashish’ voice “Tori! Where are you headed? Oh, I’m going that way; can I give you a ride?” I hoped my exhale of relief wasn’t too obvious.

Dealing with Stateside prejudices is another ballpark. I recently filled out my Fulbright midterm evaluation, where I was given the space of 1500 characters to relate the “specifics” of my research project to date, and approximately 6000 characters to talk about strategies I had derived for surviving the dangerous and crazy wilds outside of the United States borders, and 3000 characters to talk about how the US Embassy staff or Fulbright Commission had been my angels or knights in shining armor—whichever I chose. I’ve had concerned church members ask about political stability in Nepal and comment on how “brave” I am to travel abroad—I casually reply that I have a better chance of getting raped or robbed outside my current university and that I’m glad members of my Nepali church daily lift me up in prayer; I don’t know how I’d survive life in the States otherwise.   

Yet there are people who see to my safety. There’s the radio station owner who, despite his busy schedule and responsibilities, puts me in the same jeep as the Nepali celebrity singer who performed at his station’s anniversary, to make sure that I’m not harassed by the crazies who continue to hang out by the entrance to the fair grounds. There’s the cultural activist who calls my host in the village, insisting that he meet me at the bus stop to take me the rest of the way home on his motorbike, to insure that I don’t have to walk through remote fields or cross a river alone and in the dark. There are older sisters from church who I will walk home with after an evening fellowship. And there are numerous Nepali brothers who will good-naturedly throw me on the back of a friend’s motorbike, or friends who will ride with me on the micro bus at night and then call to make sure I arrived home safe.

Yet in all this, where does my safety really lie? It is “the LORD [who] watches over the sojourners” (Psalm 146:9).