“Good morning, sir. I am Maoist terrorist. Please give me twenty thousand rupees.”
These are the words that greeted Cal, the first of our trekking group to emerge from his tent, as soon as he popped out his head. It was a crisp October morning and we were camped in a field in Eastern Nepal, three days’ walk from the nearest road, snow-covered peaks glimmering in the distance. It was 2003 and the country was caught in the depths of a vicious Maoist insurgency and equally brutal government counter-insurgency. We were trekking through Maoist-controlled territory, so we had known that we may encounter their forces, but we never imagined it would be quite like this.
The words had come from a small, unassuming man wearing a vest; he looked more librarian than terrorist. Who knows how long he had patiently stood outside our tents, waiting for us weary trekkers to rise. He was accompanied by a scrawny boy, perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old, who carried a machete. He didn’t hold it like a weapon, though; it was harvest season and he was probably on his way to work. For a pair of self-proclaimed terrorists, they weren’t very intimidating.
Cal composed himself and woke Bhim, our trekking guide, and the rest of us. We all, terrorist and boy included, sat in a circle and drank tea together while Bhim and the terrorist calmly negotiated. In the end it was agreed that each member of our group, along with the few other trekkers in the field that morning, eleven foreigners in total, would each “donate” two thousand rupees to the Maoist cause.
With the matter of money settled, smiles broke out, everyone shook hands, and we posed for photos together with our terrorist.
We weren’t quite done yet, though. Next our terrorist painstakingly made out hand-written receipts for each of us – so that, if we encountered his comrades further up the trail, we would not have to pay again.
They do things differently in Nepal. Where else in the world would terrorists issue receipts?
That encounter happened a long time ago. Things have changed in Nepal. The insurgency is over; the Maoists laid down their arms (and, I suppose, their receipt books) and joined the parliamentary government. The country is at peace now, if not exactly politically stable.
I was already on my third visit to Nepal back then, and I’ve returned several times since. I’ve done all of the classic tourist things: trekking to the base camps of Annapurna and Everest; riding elephants in Chitwan; rafting on the Bhote Kosi; mountain biking around the Kathmandu Valley; paragliding over Pokhara. Nepal really is an adventure junkie’s ultimate playground. The quieter moments are strangely addictive too: sitting on temple steps and chatting with whoever comes by; huddling around the kitchen fire with the family in a remote village home; listening to monks chant; watching the sun rise over the world’s highest mountains. So I’m not sure exactly when or how it happened, but Nepal seeped its way into my blood. And like any junkie, I can’t help myself. I keep going back for more.
Incidentally, we did encounter more Maoists during that long-ago trek. And sure enough, when we showed our receipts, they let us through with waves and smiles.
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