A “man’s job” in European (Western) culture is understood to be physically demanding and perhaps involve the use of heavy machinery or hand tools tools such as a pick, an axe or a sledgehammer. Manual labour in the mining and construction industries, steel works and farming are considered typical jobs of this kind.
Things are different elsewhere in the world and southern Asia offered ample opportunity for me to observe how attitudes can vary greatly between cultures. Nepal in particular introduced me to some surprisingly tough roles reserved for women.
Tradition in Nepal is such that most manual labour is carried out by the ladies of the land particularly when it comes to agriculture and life on a farm. In this country it’s almost exclusively the women that manage the muddy rice paddies, grain fields and harvest the crops. It’s the ladies that collect fodder for livestock, take care of the animals, gather firewood and fetch water from the wells.
Of course, women also give birth and take care of the young, manage the household and perhaps run a small catering business on the side for the odd tourist or two who happen to stop by. It seemed to me that no job was too demanding or hard for the ladies in this part of the world.
For sure its known that illiteracy, a strong patriarchal society and religious beliefs have limited opportunities for women globally, not only in Nepal. This has led to the trap of low social standing and subserviency for the female gender, a condition that is transferred in subdued acceptance from from mother to daughter, one generation to the next.
There is little to no chance of economic empowerment for the ladies either. Farming in Nepal pays no wages and inheritance laws at present do almost nothing to favour the women of the households.
There are other matters that appear controversial for those like myself brought up in the West. Child brides for example are a part of the Hindu culture and in Nepal it’s common practice for young girls to find themselves in wedlock by the age of fifteen.
Marriage to foreign men isn’t encouraged either. The right to Nepalese citizenship for children is passed on at birth by the farther, not the mother. Children born from a non Nepalese farther risk remaining stateless.
Regardless of the above, things for Nepalese women have improved (albeit slowly) over the past decade or so. New legislation has been imposed that recognises equal rights between genders and women can know file for divorce at their own will and apply for jobs in the civil service. In fact, a substantial percentage of all government jobs in Nepal are reserved exclusively for women these days. However, old ways are hard to give up and there’s hostility in some areas of the country towards the new laws.
Domestic violence is also rampant in Nepal and without a substantial shift in culture, there will be countless more female victims of abuse before real change is achieved especially in more rural and remote areas.
The men? As far as I could make out, Nepalese men are generally involved in the forces: the army, the police. They take the lion’s share of the booming tourist industry as well, employed in the many guest houses and hotels of Pokhara, Kathmandu and elsewhere. Some work as taxi drivers or guides on the Himalayan trails. The privileged have government jobs, work for banks or are professionals and entrepreneurs. A few become holy men and gurus.
Of course there are privileged women amongst the privileged men but I honestly felt that a huge part of the country’s female population was forgotten, left behind in the muddy fields, stuck with the sickle and the rice harvest, with little hope for a future with options to choose from.
It needs to be said that Nepal carries the scars of a ten year civil war that ended in 2006. The social fabric of the country is still damaged and will take time to heal.
Furthermore, a massive earthquake in 2015 destroyed a noticeble part of the county’s infrastructure substantially hurting the economy. Also, Nepal is fighting to preserve it’s autonomy and identity from the political interests and pressures of India and China, it’s ambitious and often bullying neighbours.
Nepal remains beautiful with warm welcoming people and magnificent sights to admire and explore. Of course it has its problems, as all nations do in this age of unstoppable globalisation. It’s undoubtedly well worth a visit and one that I would thoroughly recommend.
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
I felt rough that morning as I opened my tent and peered out at the grey light with squinting eyes. The endless rain that night had kept me awake and transformed the campsite near Assisi into muddy mayhem. It was camping misery at its finest and I was in the thick of it with a sopping tent and a puddle of water that squelched through my sodden ground sheet. Clearly, it was time to pack my motorbike and leave the Umbrian Apennines as soon as possible. The mid Spring weather had to be better further South.
I left Assisi behind and followed the busy road to Foligno, Spoleto and then on to Terni. There was just one more town in my sights before making my escape to the Adriatic coast. The infamous town of L’Aquila.
L’Aquila, the Eagle
Perched on the hills just south of the snow crested Gran Sasso massif, L’Aquila is the administrative capital of the Abruzzi region of central Italy. In the past it was a quaint medieval town with its fair share of attractive baroque and renascence architecture, a fine Spanish fort and beautiful basilicas worth a visit. L’Aquila was home to just under seventy thousand people and had a lively student community with a university known for it’s courses in engineering and science. In the early hours of the 6th April 2009 everything in this appealing, small Italian town came to a grinding halt. An earthquake, 5.8 in magnitude (Richter scale) ripped through the squares, the alleys and architecture sowing death and destruction in one of the biggest natural disasters Italy has witnessed in recent years.
I had never been to a disaster area and held some reservations as to how appropriate a visit might be. After all, I intended to take pictures and poke my nose into people’s hardship and misfortune. Several years from the quake had passed though and I guessed visitors were now welcome to take an interest in the recovery process.
A Sky full of Crains
L’Aquila greeted me with the uncanny sight of a crane crowded horizon. There was little traffic on the roads that led to the old town, no cafes, no markets, no shops or offices either. Once I reached the “centro”, disjointed and awkwardly leaning buildings appeared. There were condominiums four to five stories high, empty and abandoned with banners advertising their imminent “special demolition”. The walls were cracked with recurring “X” shaped patterns whilst wide patches of missing masonry gave a feeling of total neglect. Doors and shutters were left purposely open and made the eerie hollowness of empty homes all the more glaring. This was just the beginning.
The closer I rode towards the heart of old centre the greater the sense of devastation. Older buildings of historical value, the ones that make up so many of Italy’s iconic architecture, were wrapped up in braces, steel armour designed to support the battered “palazzi” and stop them from crumbling to waste. Those were the lucky buildings. Many smaller ones were simply left to their sorry fate with broken walls revealing bathrooms and kitchens of ex family homes.
The majority of roads were blocked off to traffic and access even on foot. Wooden barricades didn’t permit as much as a peek at what was hidden behind.
Most jaw dropping of all to me though was the sight of the thirteenth century church of S. Maria di Paganica an iconic symbol of L’Aquila, now missing its roof and almost all its frescoed apsis reduced to a heap of chipping on the ground.
Ask the Locals
I was aghast at the scale of the damage, the ruins and the ghostly stillness around me. I plucked up some courage though and asked a couple of strolling locals what they felt about their town and how the disaster had affected their lives. Young, perhaps in their early thirties, they didn’t mind my questions and answered with a smile about life as a “teremotato” (literally an “earthquaked person”). “It’s like putting your life on hold indefinitely” they said. “Some can’t take it and leave for a new start elsewhere. Others stay and help in the reconstruction efforts”. “We are all aware though that life in our hometown as we knew it, is over. The old communities have been erased for good. Many people have died.” “What’s bothering is that L’Aquila is now known for what happened here with the earthquake more than anything else. Those who come to visit these days have little idea of what our town was like before April of 2009”.
I left l’Aquila with a heavy heart, shaken and shocked. Images and words cannot describe the feeling of disbelief and helplessness that the old town conveys in its current state. I felt for the people of this place and their precarious sense of identity with a home town that is now a pale reminder of its former self. Livelihoods, careers, community, homes, all gone, all demolished. I thought of the over 300 fatalities of that distant April morning in 2009. Many were young students, just starting out in life.
I rode away and searched for a place to camp for the night. It didn’t matter any more if it meant more cold, rain and lack of sleep inside my wet tent and damp sleeping bag. After what I had just seen in L’Aquila, any camping hardship for the night was a very minor thing in comparison. At most, I hoped it might be a small tribute to the tenacity of the Aquilaians.
Over 300 people lost their lives in the earthquake.
Around 60,000 were left homeless.
L’Aquila’s old town centre was declared off-limits for over a year as the foundations for reconstruction work were being set.
Reconstruction efforts have been hampered by public contracts awarded to companies with ties to the Mafia.
In what some have described as a Witch Hunt, six geo scientists were convicted for man slaughter in 2011 for allegedly producing “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information” or, simply put, “unjustifiably reassuring information ” relating to tremors ahead of the earthquake of 6th April 2009. All the scientists were acquitted on appeal in 2015.
My route across Ukraine was blocked. People were shot at every day a few hundred kilometres ahead of me in the war torn Donbas area close to the border with Russia. Snipers were busy and artillery shells pounded, even civilian jet liners were blown from the sky as separatist rebels and government forces exchanged blows for control and sovereignty. It was unthinkable for anyone to cross the zone unscathed. My only option for further travel East by motorcycle was via a dubious, but much safer ferry service across the Black Sea or a very long detour north via Kiev and beyond.
Mr Vladlem of the UKR Ferry agency fixed an appointment for me at his office in downtown Odessa at eleven o’clock that morning and greeted me with a smile. He thanked me for my punctuality and offered me a seat. A quick look around his cramped working space revealed stacks of paperwork piled on desks and shelves, he was a busy man.
Slowly, in English he gave a well rehearsed speech on what to expect during my three day sail from Odessa to Batumi, in Georgia and warned that the ferry catered mainly for trucks and railway wagons carrying goods and occasionally livestock too. Tourists and motorcycles weren’t really part of the “picture” and there were no frills to be expected on board. I smiled, booked a cabin for myself and paid cash for the passage of one tourist and motorbike. The “picture” to me was better than a war zone.
The dock was somewhat isolated an hour’s ride South of Odessa and took a while for me to find. There was a run down check in facility with offices I needed to go through for authorisations and passport control. Finally, I was told to queue for boarding With the few other passengers travelling with me. To my astonishment and surprise, I found I was not the only motorcycle tourist in the line that day. I met Paul, from Scotland, another adventure biker heading East on his mighty KTM 990. Conversation got going and I was happy to have found a new biking pal.
The good ship MS Greifswald was no “family ferry” by any standard. Rather, she was more like some pick up truck of the sea, conveying, as Vladlem had told me, a mix of heavy freight vehicles, noisy pigs and sheep, massive rail wagons and a few stacked containers as well. Paul and I were held back and were amongst the last to board with our machines which were parked and secured next to some heavy rolling stock. Then, we were directed to our cabins which although a little bleak were surprisingly clean. I collapsed on my bunk with my riding gear and closed my eyes. When I woke up some hours later it was dark, the Greifswald had left port and was steaming at sea.
The first night of navigation took us no further than Costanza off the coast of Romania. Here anchors were dropped for a refuelling stop. As I stumbled out of my cabin early in the morning I learned there had just been some commotion through the night on the main deck. A couple of pigs had broken out of a truck and sparked a frenzied chase around the rail cars. All was in order now but it had taken a while to tire out the animals and secure them back in the truck.
The focal point of the Greifswald was definitely the galley. There was a bar here that would open a few hours a day for coffee, tea and expensive beer and this was really the only social event available on board. There was no television, no movies, no internet ……not even karaoke.
Announcements over the intercom were made regularly in Russian and English when meals were about to be served with wishes of a “good appetite” to all. The food was ok, I mean I liked it and lapped it up without fussing. It’s fair to say though that what we found on our plates was unusual. Pasta served with fried fish and tomatoes, or spaghetti with a scoop of liver and baked beans. Russian borsch followed by mash and rye. Breakfast was my favourite: semolina, cabbage and sausage served with a cup of lemon tea. I noticed Paul struggled with it all. In my mind it was all still better than food in a war zone.
So my friends, all in all the ferry crossing on the Black Sea took almost four days. It should have taken no more than three however, the long fuel stop in Romanian waters, some choppy weather conditions and a technical glitch once docked in Batumi stretched my crossing that little bit longer.
I found the Greifswald enjoyable, really! The basic service on board was comfortable enough and certainly left me with enduring memories. The staff was mostly accommodating and courteous. Perhaps the food could have done with a little more care but it was part of the experience none the less. The long crossing was a chance to relax and get away from riding my motorcycle every day. It was a chance to catch up with my thoughts in a clean, relaxing environment. I had time to plan some routes beyond Georgia and write some emails to send once internet became available once more.
In May 2016 the crossing cost 270 Euro. This included passage for my motorbike, a clean quiet cabin to myself and all meals as well. The connection between Odessa and Batumi is a regular service that runs at least twice a week although I recommend getting in touch with the UKR ferry office in Odessa a few days before you intend to sail. Their website in English and easy to navigate.
The Greifswald has space for cars and vans along with motorbikes and trucks. One last word of caution…if there is livestock on board you can expect smell when stepping outside in the open. It gets worse after day two and by day four all the animals are moaning about it too, it can be foul ?! Special thanks to Paul Maclean for pictures!