Friday the 24th of November. The day before Mani had plugged me into a « local journalist » who was going to Dhading. The 26th of the month, the population of this city was going to cast their vote. I had passed the entire evening before trying to call the journalist. The only thing I knew about him was his name. Shankar. In the taxi, at my place, in a food store, I was walking around while yelling « Shankar? Shankar? » to my phone. It was impossible to reach this guy. Suddenly my Nepali phone rang. It was Shankar. « Meet me tomorrow at 2pm at Basantapur Durbar Square ».
The next day I woke up, had seven coffee (or eight) and ran into a taxi. I was impatient to discover what was next. On my way to the given location, my phone rang again. It was Shankar. « Do you have vehicle? I only have motorbike ». I had no vehicle. My correspondant told me that I had to do the road on the back of his motorbike. A four hours ride in the Himalayas…
When Shankar arrived at 3pm. I saw a nice guy with a big smile coming to me. « I’m journalist for Himalayan Times, tomorrow, I’m covering elections, you come with me. - Ok! ». We drove around the center of Kathmandu to meet « a friend ». The friend was Shrestha. Another journalist with a motorbike. After leaving Kathmandu through some traffic jams. « Welcome in Nepal! », we hit the road. We stopped once to eat some chicken and finally we arrived in Dhading at dawn. Shankar dropped me in R.K. Guesthouse and went home to see his family. Shankar was from Dhading.
The guesthouse was full of people with cameras, notebooks and microphones. They were journalists... I tried to have a little of a conversation with them. They were shy. « Can I take a picture of you guys? - No, very tired. Maybe tomorrow. » They were also very surprised to see a foreigner in Dhading.
Since it was my first time in this city, I went for a walk in town. I stopped by a tea shop and had a seat with locals. « Oh you came with Shankar? ». Small town, small confidences… The men around me were university teachers and journalists. I started to ask questions. First about what I’ve had heard by they. There was a risk of violent incident in the area the next day. One of them took the lead to reply « In Dhading, five or six polls are in sensitive area but here is quiet. ». Since my interlocutor looked confident I asked about the probable winner of the day after. The so-called frontrunners. « In this part of Dhading District, it will be NC (for Nepali Congress). Other parts communists ». The man knew a lot and I seized the opportunity to ask something more private. What’s your job? « I’m journalist for big mass media. You know? » Another question then. And a sensitive one. Who are you going to vote for? « Nepali Congress. Communists say there democrats but communism is not democracy ». I had no more questions. The end of the conversation coincided with the end of my samosa. The end of meetings goes with their greetings. « See you tomorrow!! » they said. I officially had friends in Dhading.
One night of sleep, seven (or nine) coffees later and there I was with Shankar and Shrestha down my hotel. « Now we go voting poll. ». We left and arrived 5 minutes later to a place. There was a crowd one one side and a door secured by policemen on the other side. The sun was rising and all the folks had a morning face. We parked the motorbikes and headed to the entry. Somewhere in this chaos, a jeep was staring at me. I guess they were inside.
Shrestha was refused at the door but I could go inside with Shankar. The building was a school. After a short walk in a playground, there were stairs. On the upper level I saw people queuing in a structure made of ropes and wood stakes. At the end of the queue an alley of people wearing blue caps. They were controlling identities and taking fingerprints. Once done the controlled person was chosen a voting booth. Inside this small plastic structure he had to express his choice. Finally the process ended by leaving a paper in the urn. Nothing complicated here.
Inside the area, there were locals, assessors, policemen drinking tea, they, and the Nepali Election Observation team. The people were quiet and nothing looked like violence was about to happen. As time passed the crowd inside and outside was growing bigger. A huge diversity of people was inside a small area. Some wearing suits, some wearing traditional clothes and some in working gear. When an old and confused man came, everybody helped him. I felt a lot of humanity and solidarity inside between everybody whatever the choice that motivated their presence. Meanwhile, Shankar was busy with two girls. « Thomas, this is my friend from other media company. »
Then we decided to go and hang out somewhere else. To go there we had a twenty minutes ride in the mountain. The destination was a small village. Only a tea shop made of concrete in the centre and a few bamboo and metal houses existed there. Down a dirt road, there was a queue in front of the police-secured door of a two-building complex. Probably a school. The queue was separated in two. On one side men. On the other side, a queue of red dresses, the women. All of them going once at a time inside to decide for the future of the Republic of Nepal.
They were from all the villages around. They had all walked across mountains and forests to be there. For the same reason but not the same choice. Again, I was hit by the diversity of the people. All of them looked like they were from all the different possible backgrounds of the area. I could see that on their clothes, their face and their behaviour. Some of the youngest were wearing fancy while the oldest had only their traditionals. They were all in a single queue with dogs hanging out beside. A typical portrait of the big Nepali family.
At first I was refused the right to go inside the poll. I had no particular authorisation and no press card. The policemen were more nervous than in the city. I was watched. So I walked around to take pictures of the crowd. From a point of view I saw that they were inside. After a large tour I met my friend from « Big mass media. You know? ». He had a big authorisation hanged on his neck. This is how he convinced the doorkeeper to let me in. Nepalese polling stations were like French night clubs…
This poll was different from the other. More chaotic and overly-secured by policemen with shotguns. « It’s because, it is local mayor location and mayor is here ». The ground was small with a lot of people inside. The process was the same as the first poll. Behind the blue caps, local people from « major parties » were observing for « irregularities ». In a corner, the mayor was there. Since he saw me shooting him a picture he came to shake my hand. « Which one is your country? ».
After some time inside, I decided to go and see how it was happening outside. The people who had already voted were gathering on a hill. None of them were protesting or doing anything special. They were just there. So did the dogs. I continued walking and arrived at the tea shop. Some young boy was doing the show for all the village. Due to his behavior, everyone was avoiding to have a conversation. At first, I just thought he was some pretentious guy. Later I discovered he was the mayor’s son. I asked him if he had a girlfriend. « No girlfriend! » The village laughed at him, he left and all the village started to have a conversation again.
Suddenly a guy came towards me.
« Hi, where are you from? » He asked very quietly. « From Belgium » I replied. « Come... fighting » he said quietly. I had a look around me. All the people of the village were running to the poll station . An old man, took my hand to follow him. I could hear whistles coming from the poll. Something was happening. I got closer to the poll and the crowd then was bigger than it was before. Everybody was watching from the trees and fields around. I went to the door. People were pushing each other and I started to take pictures. The tension was big. The policemen were yelling at the queue and the queue was yelling at the policemen. Everybody was yelling actually. Untill the mayor arrived and started to yell louder than everybody. Then, he shaked my hand and said: « Hello my friend! ». I went back inside to stay at the door and take pictures. In case some other « fighting » would happen.
Soon after, the police asked me to leave the polling station because I had no press card and I wasn’t supposed to be there. « I hope you don’t mind. » they said.
After some time, Shankar noticed me that we had to leave. « We go lunch! » We went back to Dhading to meet other journalists in a restaurant. On the way Shankar stopped many times to salute his friends from the villages around. I was on the motorbike of a popular guy... We got at the restaurant minutes after the others. There it started with a conversation about Nepali food. « This is our local roti » « This? Samosa » « You want chow mein? ». I had to taste each one of these if I wanted to get further knowledge on Nepal through them. Manish, another journalist, started to ask me questions about my home country. All of them began to do the same. They wanted to know everything. Each question was accompanied with a plate of food.
Finally, when I was full, we had a coffee. At the same time I was asking them questions. First about what it is to be a journalist in Nepal. « No problem with government. Only geographic problems. » So I asked about the elections. I wanted to know who was the frontrunner in the region. « Everybody say he’ll win but nobody knows ». « They are 17 candidates for this area. » I finished my cigarette. So did Shankar and we headed to the Pabil News’s office. The office of Shankar.
As soon as we arrived, they were very proud to show their office. « Have a seat please. ». During the afternoon, they wrote their first report of the elections. At 7pm, we exchanged facebook contacts « we’ll text in Kathmandu. » and Shankar dropped me at my hotel.
The next day, Shankar arrived in the morning with Shrestha. Since he had « small family problems », he couldn’t drive me to Kathmandu. For reason I can’t explain, saying goodbye to Shankar made me become very emotional. I guess I had a good friend in Dhading now. After a big hug, Shrestha started driving. Somewhere on the road, we stopped for a coffee. They were there drinking a coffee as well. We exchanged contact numbers. After this break, Shrestha dropped me somewhere in the Kathmandu city centre. This was the end of an « out of town » aventure in Nepali politics.