I was recently sent down to Janakpur, the city in Dhanusha, on the plains of the Terai. The field office of the organisation for whom I am working is down there, and so it was decided that it would be a good idea if I went down and met the actual people who would be using the phones and software on which I am working.
Anyway, I approached this trip with trepidation, as Kelly had been down there previously and, well, let’s say she didn’t have the best time. However, I also thought I would probably be alright as she is a tall blonde cautious female, whereas I am a tall oblivious male – I might well attract just as much attention as she did, but I either wouldn’t feel threatened or wouldn’t notice in the first place. My boss and I hopped on a 50 seater plane (apparently this is pretty large for the Kathmandu-Janakpur journey) and I watched the landscape change rapidly from snowy mountains and green hills to brown fields and sprawling silty floodplains – the flight only lasted 25 minutes, but when we landed we may as well have been in another country.
We were greeted at the tiny airport by three members of staff from the Janakpur office, on three motorbikes. A discussion ensued which I sort of followed – the driver was on holiday and there was only one car, they didn’t bring any extra helmets, and I heard the words “insurance” and “nullify” amidst the stream of Nepali. I was not particularly reassured, but as there was no alternative I hopped on the back of a bike and off we went through the streets of Dhanusha. The first stop was our hotel, the Rama, where Kelly and other western staff have stayed on numerous occasions – I had heard about the appalling bathrooms, mice in the rooms, possible bedbugs etc. so perhaps I was prepared for the worst, but actually it was fine. I was put in an A/C room with a window overlooking the road, a grubby but not dreadful bathroom, a ceiling fan and a TV – it all looked pretty knackered (and it turned out that the A/C and TV didn’t work at all), but once I had rigged up my mosquito net and sleeping bad liner it would definitely do for the next couple of nights.
Janakpur is a city of baths – by this I mean that is has a multitude of large ponds for bathing, washing, and whatever else you would use a large pond for – these provide tranquil oases in an otherwise dusty and hectic city.
However, a side effect of the high water table which allows the existence of these baths is that Janakpur appears to be rather prone to flooding – after the recent rains I passed a few large bodies of standing water, many of which were choked with rubbish, attracting the local wildlife.
As you are probably aware, cows are sacred in India and Nepal, and consequently there are many which roam the streets of towns and cities, scavenging for food in the rubbish. I initially thought that this particular cow was heavily pregnant (good), until I noticed that it was male and therefore the enormous abdominal swelling was probably an accumulation of years of plastic eaten among the scraps (bad).
On my second night I was invited to meet the new son of one of the staff – apparently he had been born 4 days ago and usually they wait 6 days before the baby is introduced to the world and named, however as my boss was there they invited us to come over for dinner the night before the official ceremony, as we wouldn’t be there. The mother was at the end of the Soiri period, which is traditionally a period of isolation and restricted food, however (as probably befits a family where the father works in maternal and infant health) the regulations had been somewhat relaxed, and instead the mother seemed to have been given some privacy and peace and quiet instead of the strict isolation which I had heard about. We were given some of the halva made from ginger which is one of the staple foods of the Soiri period, and had an enormous amount of Dhal Bhat thrust upon us – my two western colleagues are both smaller ladies who know enough Nepali to say when they are full, whereas I was assumed to have a herculean appetite, and had forgotten the word for “enough”. I was congratulated the next day for being adventurous in my eating, meaning that I ate everything without worrying too much – I did get rather ill the following day, but I think that is probably just the price you pay for coming down here.
In spite of Janakpur being not particularly wealthy (at least when compared to Kathmandu Valley), it possesses some surprising architecture. Just near the office is Ramananda Chowk, a huge edifice resembling elephant tusks, atop which sits a statue of what may be the titular Ramananda – I was not able to get close enough to see.
The marvel in the centre of Janakpur is the Janaki Mandir, a temple and pilgrimage sight which is the reason for both Janakpur’s name and, in large part, its relative prosperity in the region, as large numbers of Indian and Nepali tourists come to see the temple on the spot where the goddess Sita supposedly lived.
During my brief visit I met people, fiddled with computers, went around on some motorbikes (with a helmet) and visited the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre, where I ended up buying as much Maithili art and stuff as I could carry back to Kathmandu.
After this it was time to go back to Kathmandu so at 1330 I hopped on the back of a bike, having been assured that half an hour was plenty of time to get to the airport, check in, and get on the flight – as it turns out it was, just, but I was very much the last person on the (very tiny) plane.
Although it was only a short visit I found it really interesting enjoyable – if indeed Janakpur is very like North India, then I think I should like to go to North India soon. Also, from the plane I think I caught my first proper glimpse of Everest, of which I took about 50 photos, 49 of which are rubbish.