ONE OF THE THINGS I remember most about my recent two-month trip to Nepal, the home of Mount Everest, is the slogan, "Horn Please," that's scrawled on the back of many trucks and buses in Kathmandu, the capital city. Everyone graciously accepts the invitation to honk as small cars, taxis and mopeds pollute the air of this ancient and fascinating city of Hindu and Buddhist culture. The rushing traffic is indicative of the vibrancy in this 7-year-old constitutional monarchy.
In the United States, the horn usually brings a scowl of surprise and anger accompanied by a fist-shake or a rude gesture. But here, in this nation of 22 million souls, a blaring horn is greeted by a polite hand wave or a motion to pass as the slower vehicle moves out of the way. The drivers' faces remain emotionless.
Nepal is a small kingdom a little larger than the state of Arkansas that's squeezed between Tibet/China to the north and India to the south. In early October, I arrived there to teach, lecture and consult with journalists under a Knight International Press Fellowship. It was my third trip to Nepal. The United States
Information Agency sponsored my earlier visits in 1992 and 1993 when I advised Nepalese journalists who were assigned to cover their new freely elected Parliament.
Nepal became a parliamentary democracy in May 1991, fashioned along the British model. The Nepalese royal family is still respected, although it is impotent as a political force. The new politicians, representing many parties and freed from the shackles of royal influence, quickly fell into rancorous squabbling. As a result, numerous governments have come and gone, including one that was briefly led by communists.
The communists continue to have a large following in the isolated municipalities, even in Kathmandu, where the mayor is a communist. I call them gentle communists because they don't wave the red banner with hammer and sickle and storm barricades.
Even though the constitution guarantees a free press, initially the media were uncertain about how to exercise their new freedom and slipped into self-censorship. There are many independent newspapers, but one of the largest is state-controlled. Television and radio, with one exception, remain state-controlled. Still, the media are emerging with a new degree of professionalism, thanks largely to training organizations led by the Nepal Press Institute.
Wherever I went I was asked to speak about the role of the media in a democratic society and to evaluate Nepalese journalism in its few years of freedom. I applauded the media's efforts to cover the fledgling democracy and I criticized its emphasis on reporting political maneuvering rather than assessing the government's effectiveness in improving the lives of Nepalese. The discussions were friendly and lively.
Many of the weekly newspapers, however, are little more than voices of political factions. And the print media's impact is diminished because about 70 percent of people in Nepal cannot read.
While Nepal is one of the world's poorest and least developed countries, it could prove to be a U.S. friend and ally in this volatile region of the world. But the nation is largely ignored by U.S. policy-makers. Out of necessity, the Nepalese government maintains a delicate balance with China, which dominates Tibet, and an economically aggressive India, with which it shares an open border.
While Nepal is ethnically diverse, its people live in extraordinary harmony. At no time during my three visits did I feel uncomfortable or threatened. The country is virtually free of terrorist activity, even though small bands of Maoist guerrillas make occasional forays into villages.
Part of the general tranquillity may stem from the influence of the Hindu and Buddhist cultures. Nepal is said to be about 90 percent Hindu, and it's the only official Hindu state in the world. Lord Buddha was born in Nepal and a huge 2,000-year-old Buddhist shrine dominates Kathmandu's low skyline. A new airline, Buddha Air, daily flies a one-hour route out of Kathmandu along the imposing Himalayan mountain range culminating in an up-close and personal view of Mount Everest and a peek into Tibet.
Buddhism, a religion of peace, provided an amusing backdrop for my encounter with an American movie star.
It turns out that Steven Seagal, the black belt warrior who has ripped his way through many bloody movies, is a Buddhist. I encountered Seagal in an elevator in my hotel. As his entourage squeezed me into a corner, I remarked, "It's gonna get crowded in here." He smiled and said, "Sure is" as he clutched his prayer beads. I returned a weak smile and didn't respond. Seagal is a tall, imposing man with a dangling pony tail. He was attired in a beautiful gold brocade blouse and floor-length black skirt. He was in Nepal to celebrate a Buddhist gathering with his guru. Another famous Buddhist, actor Richard Gere, was soon to follow.