23 May, 2009

LESSONS FROM ORANGES



Sushma Joshi, Kathmandu Post, 5/22/09
One longterm expatriate, who'd recently read an op-ed in the papers advocating the chopping down of trees along the roads, complained to me: butchery is in Nepal's genes

Two friends of mine took me on a midnight jaunt through Valencia, Spain, last winter. What stunned me was not just the rows of beautiful houses in the old city, and the rush of water from the fountains, but the rows and rows of orange trees that bloomed white flowers in the moonlight. "Do people eat these fruits?" I asked. The trees, which lined the main thoroughfares, were studded with big orange fruit. "No, I think they're just for decoration," my friend answered with a laugh.

Sevilla, known as the City of Oranges, was even more heavily covered with orange trees than Valencia. No doubt the city was inspired by Arab architecture and gardens, vestiges of which still remain in the form of the Alcazar, where the romantic and ancient gardens were filled with orange trees that dripped with fruit. One of these, Patio de Los Naranjos, is known for having hundreds of orange trees. This patio was once part of the old mosque, where the worshippers washed their hands and feet in the fountains before prayer.

Imagine all of Pokhara's roads being lined with hundreds of fruit trees with fat oranges and pomelos that are planted by the municipality and are only for decoration (the people being too satiated with cheap fruit to think about jumping on the branches to vandalize these state products) and you get the idea.

In Sevilla, I bent down next to the historic square and removed some seeds from a squelched specimen. The seeds, still slippery, slid through my fingers as I wiped them reverently and put them inside my bag. My thought was to replant these seeds back in Kathmandu. The seeds sunk instantly into the vast and bottomless depths of my luggage (although I did find at the bottom of my suitcase a souvenir of Sevilla -- a one euro calendar with pages and pages of glossy images of the crying Madonna, and a dried out pine branch shoved into my hands by a rather ominous gypsy), but I still wonder where the seeds vanished to.

Of course, indigenous fruit would no doubt work just as well if we had the foresight and common sense to plant these in our rather hospitable climate. But as one longterm expatriate, who'd recently read an op-ed in the papers advocating the chopping down of trees along the roads, complained to me: butchery is in Nepal's genes. His point being that a people capable of chopping buffaloes, then people, then houses, now trees, ran along the same continuum, and how would we ever change our mindset to one of preservation and conservation, rather than destruction?

On a recent trip to Dhankuta, I was pleasantly surprised to see besides the usual concrete monstrosities (somebody stop these architects who are mindlessly running across the country and putting up the same monstrosities by the millions) a few examples of indigenous architecture that seems to have escaped the butchery. One was an elegant Limbu home that rose out of the hillside and struck the eye with its beautiful proportions and colors. The other was the old bazaar, still dominated by Newars and filled with small shops whitewashed in lime and with small wooden benches and patios in the front. Dhankuta still retained a whiff of the charm of the old bazaar.

It takes me a minute to walk off the bus before a young woman offers help and directions, another one tells me to go to Hotel Parichaya, where the motherly woman who owns it tells me that of course I can have a room, and before long I am walking through town and having conversations along with a young friend who appears to know everybody in town. Dhankuta reveals its multicultural and tolerant nature pretty quickly-- an evening walk up and down the hillsides reveals a tightly knit community who, despite the rising ethnic politicization, seemed to know and care about each other's welfare.

There is a particular charm to small Nepali towns that now seems to exist only within the pages of old Insight Guides, but Dhankuta thankfully seems to have retained most of it. And Dhankuta, like Valencia, also plants orange groves along with ginger, masala, and other herbal products. The price of ginger has skyrocketed -- with China being a prime buyer. There is a hairloss shampoo made from ginger and made in China that is now widely marketed in Nepal, people inform me. Dhankuta, it appears, has the potential to be a prosperous old town that, if it pays attention to cultural heritage and preservation, could draw a substantial number of internal tourists to its orange groves.

The Malaysians, who use Nepalis as cheap labor, appear to have caught onto the power of preserving heritage along with its interlinked power to draw tourists. An American friend of mine recently returned from Malaysia and showed me photographs of tea-houses in tea-estates in Penang. The old houses were beautifully preserved, and the tea-houses, newly built with simple indigenous bamboo and wood, appeared completely replicable in Nepal. This man, a longterm Kathmandu resident, says he's decided to move to Penang because life is better there. "The Nepalis could so easily make a few tea-houses in Ilam. But there's nothing there, not even a place to sit and taste the tea," he complained. Can we see this as an opportunity for some enterprising entrepreneurs and not just yet another thing that doesn't exist in Nepal?

"Let's plant some avocado trees in Pashupati," I recently floated this idea to a few people. "If you do that, the monkeys will eat them," was the response. Now that's an interesting thought. Does it make more sense to plant avocado trees (and protect them enough as saplings and prevent the monkeys from pulling them up) in the hope that in fifteen years time there will be a tree loaded with fruit that monkeys could eat, and which would provide them the nutrition that would cure them of their current sickly status? Or should we just say that it's a worthless project and just let it go?

Is it the same with the fruit trees? Can we say that Nepal is too poor to have orange and persimmon trees line its streets, where the people will jump on the branches like monkeys and eat everything? Or can we imagine a future where perhaps in about fifteen years time, which is how long it takes certain fruit trees to mature, people in Kathmandu and Pokhara may have enough civic sense and enough nutrition that we could also imagine our streets to be lined with trees which would be loaded with fruit and left alone -- a sign of the prosperity of our economy, and not a validation of our poverty?
(Sushma Joshi is the writer of "End of the World" which is available in Quixote's Cove, Vajra and Educational Book House.)

Posted on: 2009-05-22 18:29:27 (Server Time)

3 comments:

Prajna said...

This is a great article. I read couple of other articles posted in this site. I really liked Middle Class Race (I think its one of the old ones). I am one of those who share similar views that you have expressed. They are all insightful and should say very well written. I am very glad to see someone like you making this effort. I hope this will teach younger generation (who read this) to truly appreciate the unseen treasures we Nepalese have around us and bring the right change and hopeful that these words will be passed on to different crowd :-)

Milan said...

i visit first time, after 10 years of this blog created...

its a history... a wonderful blog here...

Koji said...

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, the second best time is now!

good work.