Ludmilla Tueting: ‘My Heart Is Nepali’

Ludmilla Tüting is a robust, well-read, emancipated, bespectacled Teutonic woman who makes no secret of the fact that she lives in a Berlin Hinterhof (backyard) in Kreuzberg (West Berlin) and yearns to see a horizon, especially with pagoda-silhouettes in the distance. It almost sounds as though Berlin is a city with the lost horizon.

She oscillates between Kathmandu and Berlin, and is very much active in the field of ‘sanfte’ (soft)-tourism, which means tourism with insight. She spent her 50th Birthday on 27th of May 1996 with her Nepalese friends in the monastery of Thangpoche. She is concerned about the negative aspects of tourism and write the information-service ‘Tourism Watch’. To potential tourists in the German-speaking world, she’s a Nepal-specialist, who cares about Nepal’s cultural and natural heritage, as is evident through her travel books.

I met her at the Volkerkunde Museum in Freiburg, the metropolis of the south-west Black Forest, and the occasion was one of a series of talks held under the aegis of ‘Contemporary Painting from Nepal’ to promote cultural and religious development in Nepal.

Ludmilla Tüting talked about ‘Fascinating Nepal, the Sunny and Shady Sides’ and belted out slides and information and described Nepal as a wonderful country.

And the other theme was: ‘Tourism with Insight isn’t in Demand: the Ecological Damage through Tourism in Nepal’ which was more or less what the interested Nepal-fan will find in ‘Bikas-Binas’, a thought-provoking book on Nepal’s ecological aspects, especially environmental pollution in the Himalayas, published by Ms.Tüting and my college-friend Kunda Dixit, a reputed Nepali journalist, who is the executive director of International Press Service since decades and also the chief editor and publisher of The Nepali Times.

Ms. Tüting’s talk, delivered with what the Germans are wont to call the Berlin-lip (Berlinerschnauze) has a pedagogic and practical value, and she tried not only to show what a tourist from abroad does wrong in Nepal, but also suggested how a tourist should behave and dress in Nepal. All in all, it sounded like the German book of etiquette called ‘Knigge’ for potential travellers to Nepal.

In the past there have been a good many transparency slide-shows and talks under the aegis of the Badische Zeitung, the Freiburger University and the Volkshochschule with jet-set gurus, rimpoches, meditations, experts on ‘boksas and boksis’, shamanism, Tibetan lamaism, tai-chi, taoism, yen-oriented-zen and what-have-yous. It is a fact that every Hans-Rudi-and-Fritz who’s been to Nepal or the Himalayas struts around as an expert on matters pertaining to the Home of the Snows.

Some bother to do a bit of background research and some don’t, and the result is a series of howlers. Like the bloke who’d written a thesis on traditions in Nepal and held a slide-show at the University’s eye-clinic auditorium maximum. The pictures of the Nepalese countryside were, as usual, breathtaking. Pokhara, Kathmandu, Jomsom, the Khumbu area and then a slide of Bhimsen’s pillar was shown and our expert quipped, ‘that’s the only mosque in Nepal.’

Or the time a Swabian expedition physician from Stuttgart held a vortrag (talk) at the university’s audi-max (auditorium maximum). A colour-slide of a big group of Nepalese porters flashed across the screen. The porters were shown watching the alpine expedition members eating their sumptuous supper, with every imaginable European dish and the comment was: ‘The Nepalese are used to eating once a day, so they just looked at us while we ate’ (sic). A decent German sitting near me named Dr. Petersen, who was a professor of microbiology, remarked, “Solche Geschmacklosigkeit!” (lack of taste or finesse), but it didn’t seem to disturb our Swabian Himalayan hero. Most Nepalese eat two big meals: at lunch and dinnertime, with quite a few snacks thrown in-between. And when you visit a Nepalese household you’re offered hot tea and snacks too, depending upon the wealth and status of the family.

Every time I heard such unkind, thoughtless remarks I’d groan and my blood pressure would shoot up and my ECG registered tachycardie and I’d probably developed ulcers. Oh, my mucosa. The remedy would be to avoid such stressors in the form of slide-shows, but I couldn’t. I had to tell myself: simmer down, old boy, the scenery is beautiful. And it is. If it weren’t for the ravishing beauty of rural Nepal and Kathmandu Valley’s artistic and cultural treasures… You just had to use ear-plugs (Oxopax) and relish the vistas of Nepal’s splendour: its uniqueness, its smiling people always with what the British call, a stiff upper lip, and what the Germans call ‘sich nie runter kriegen lassen,’ despite the decade old war between the government troops and the Maoists in the past.

Another time a European couple came to my apartment with a thick album full of photo¬graphs of images of Gods and Goddesses and the ‘experts’ wanted me to identify what, and where, they’d photographed in Nepal, for it was to be published as a pictorial book on the temples of Nepal. Some experts, I thought. The pair looked like the junkies in the Freak Street in the early seventies. Like the legendary Nepalese, one helped where one could, though I had to shake my head after they left.

Ludmilla has been going to Nepal since 1974. However, when you remind her of her ‘globe-trotter’ image in those days, she likes to forget it all, because she’d apparently made some mistakes and has learned from the mistakes of the past. And now ecology seems to be her passion. She wishes to ‘sensitise’ the potential tourists through her slide-shows, TV appearances and bring attention to the Nepalese rules of etiquette so as to feel at home in Nepal, despite the cultural shock and change.

‘Tourists are terrorists’ flashes across the screen, and Ludmilla explains that she’d photo¬graphed a graffiti on the Berlin Wall in Kreuzberg. Every time a tourist visits another country, they get a culture shock: the language barrier, the question of mentality, alien customs, and as a result they return to their countries loaded with a lot of prejudices. Then she shows a bus-load of tourists pottering about the Hanuman Dhoka Palace. She says that some of the tourists were angry at her when she photographed them. The tourists seem to reserve the right to photograph every country and its people as something normal, without bothering to ask them for permission. “Wir haben schon bezahlt!” is their line of argument. Doesn’t it smell of cultural imperialism, after the motto: I’ve paid in dollars, marks, francs and yen for the trip, so you natives have to oblige and pose for me. The point is the tourists have paid their travel agencies back in Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart or Kathmandu, and not the persons and objects they’re photographing. The payment allows one to land in a country, but how one behaves in a foreign country is another matter.

‘Today it’s possible to go around the world in 18 days’ she says, ‘and everywhere you have people perpetually in a big hurry. She talks about globe-trotters who travel around the on their own, and write books with secret insider tips on how to get the maximum out of a land with the minimum of your money. A poor porter with a mountain of load comprising cooking-utensils appears and that brings Ludmilla to talk about a certain expedition leader’s successful climb to the summit of a Himalayan peak, ‘we’d didn’t have any losses. Only a porter died’. Then she reminds the listeners that the porters don’t have any health-insurance or accident-insurance or pension in the German sense.

‘Funeral-pyres at Pashupatinath are an eternal theme for tourists’, says Ludmilla with a groan, and she describes tourists with camcorders at the ghats. ‘You wouldn’t want a foreign visitor to take the burial ceremony of your near and dear ones, would you?’ asks Ludmilla.

It was interesting to know that there’s a makeshift video-hut at Tatopani along the Jomsom trail for the benefit of the local Nepalese, the trekking-tourists and their porters. ‘I saw ‘Gandhi’ on this trek’ she said, thereby meaning Sir Attenborough’s film. You might even get to see the newest Hollywood and Bollywood films up there. Pico Iyer’s ‘Video Night in Kathmandu’ might still be interesting-reading for the Nepalophile, for he has ‘the knack of recording every shimmy’. A poster advertising ‘Thrilling Animal Sacrifices at Dakshinkali’ apparently from ‘Bikas-Binas’ (development-destruction) made one wonder about the so-called ‘sizzling, romantic, thrilling, action-packed’ box-office cocktails produced in Bollywood’s celluloid, DVD factories.

‘If you want to meet people and get to know them, you have to travel slowly’ says Ludmilla Tüting. Then she talks about the wonders of the polaroid camera at the Nepalese customs office. Men are ruled by toys. She says, ‘If you take a snapshot of a customs officer and hand him the photograph, you’ll pass the barrier with no difficulty.’

Does tourism mean foreign exchange for Nepal? Apparently not, according to her, with imported food from Australia, lighting from Holland, whisky from Scotland, air-conditio¬ning from Canada. She shows Pokhara in 1974. Corrugated iron-sheets are being transported on the backs of porters along the Jomsom trail for the construction of small mountain restaurants.

A Gurung woman in her traditional dress, frying tasty circular sel-rotis in her tea-shop in the open-air, appears and good old Ludmilla advises the audience about the advantages of acquiring immunity or fortifying it through gamma-globulin and the advantages of tetanus-shots prior to a trip to the Himalayas.

After the show I went with Ludmilla to a Freiburger tavern named Zum Störchen for a drink and a chat. Toni Hagen, a geologist-turned development-worker from Lenzerheide, who held a double Ph.D. and was billed to talk about the development of Nepal from 1950 to 1987 and the role of developmental-cooperation, also accompanied us. Toni Hagen was a celebrity in Nepal due to his geological pioneer work and publication. Alas, Hagen passed away sometime back after starring in an autobiographical film. Ingrid Kreide, who was in a hurry to return to Cologne, held a lecture on the history of Thanka-painters and the freedom of art in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal, and expressed her deep concern regarding the theft of Nepalese temple and ritual objects.

Ludmilla is a name to be reckoned with as a globetrotter, journalist, Nepal-expert in the German speaking world, and she criticises the alternative travel-scene. And she still fights for the rights of the underdogs in South Asia. She was for the Chipko-movement in India and decried the deforestation, ecological damage, fought for human rights of the Tibetans and Nepalese alike, wrote about development and destruction of so-called Third World countries. She once told Edith Kresta, the travel editor of the Tageszeitung (TAZ, Berlin): “My heart is Nepali, the rest is German.” Her base-camp in Catmandu is hotel Vajra run by Sabine Lehmann, a hotel with a theatre flair, and she’s working on a novel on climbing this time. She wants to emulate the characters of James Hilton’s novel The Lost Horizon, wherein people get very old and are not bothered with gerontological problems. She wants to live at least 108 years in this planet. One can only admire and wish her well in her endeavours and pedagogical critique.