Ludmilla Tüting is a robust, well-read, emancipated, bespectacled German woman who makes no secret of the fact that she lives in a Berlin Hinterhof (back yard) in Kreuzberg (West Berlin) and yearns for a horizon, especially with pagoda silhouettes in the distance . It almost sounds like Berlin is a city with the lost horizon.
She commutes between Kathmandu and Berlin, and is very active in the field of ‘sanfte’ (soft) tourism, or tourism with insight. She spent her 50th birthday on May 27, 1996 with her Nepalese friends at Thangpoche Monastery. She is concerned about the negative aspects of tourism and writes the information service “Tourism Watch”. To would-be tourists in the German-speaking world, she is a Nepal specialist, caring about Nepal’s cultural and natural heritage, as evidenced by her travel books.
I met her at the Ethnology Museum in Freiburg, the metropolis of the southwestern Black Forest, and the occasion was one of a series of lectures held under the auspices of ‘Contemporary Painting from Nepal’ to promote cultural and religious development in Nepal.
Ludmilla Tüting spoke about ‘Fascinating Nepal, the Sunny and Shady Sides’ and showed slides and information and described Nepal as a beautiful country.
And the other theme was ‘Tourism with Insight is not in Demand: the Ecological Damage through Tourism in Nepal’, roughly what the interested Nepal fan will find in ‘Bikas-Binas’, a thought-provoking book on The Ecological Aspects of Nepal, especially the environmental pollution in the Himalayas, published by Mrs. Tüting and my college friend Kunda Dixit, a renowned Nepali journalist, who has been the Executive Director of the International Press Service for decades and also the editor-in-chief and publisher of The Nepali Times.
Ms. Tüting’s speech, delivered with what the Germans commonly call the Berlin Lip (Berlinerschnauze), has pedagogical and practical value, and she not only tried to show what a foreign tourist 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’ to would-be travelers to Nepal.
In the past, under the auspices of Badische Zeitung, Freiburger University and Volkshochschule, there have been a lot of transparent slideshows and lectures with jet set gurus, rimpoches, meditations, experts on ‘boksa’s and boksis’, shamanism, Tibetan lamaism, tai-chi, taoism, yen-oriented zen and what have you. It is a fact that any Hans-Rudi-and-Fritz who has been to Nepal or the Himalayas walks around as an expert on matters pertaining to the Home of the Snows.
Some take the trouble to do some background research and some don’t, and the result is a series of roars. Like the guy who wrote a dissertation on traditions in Nepal and held a slide show in the auditorium of the university’s eye clinic. 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 joked, ‘that’s the only mosque in Nepal.’
Or the time a Swabian expedition doctor from Stuttgart held a vortrag (conversation) in the university’s audi-max (auditorium maximum). A color slide of a large group of Nepalese porters flashed across the screen. The porters were shown feeding the Alpine expedition members their sumptuous supper, with every imaginable European dish and the commentary was: ‘The Nepalese are used to eating once a day, so they just looked at us while we ate’ (sic) . A decent German sitting next to me, Dr. Petersen, who was a professor of microbiology, remarked, “Solche Geschmacklosigkeit!” (lack of flavor or finesse), but it didn’t seem to bother our Swabian Himalayan hero. Most Nepalese eat two main meals: lunch and dinner, with quite a few snacks in between. And if you visit a Nepali household, you will also be offered hot tea and snacks depending on the wealth and status of the family.
Every time I heard such unkind, thoughtless remarks I groaned and my blood pressure shot up and my EKG registered tachycardia and I probably got ulcers. Oh, my mucous membrane. The remedy would be to avoid such stressors in the form of slideshows, but it didn’t work. I had to say to myself, take it easy, old boy, the scenery is beautiful. And it is. If it weren’t for the mesmerizing beauty of Nepal’s countryside and the artistic and cultural treasures of the Kathmandu Valley… You just had to use earplugs (Oxopax) and enjoy the vistas of Nepal’s splendor: its uniqueness, the 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 forces and the Maoists in the past.
Another time a European couple came to my apartment with a thick album full of pictures of images of gods and goddesses and the ‘experts’ wanted me to identify what and where they had photographed in Nepal as it would be published as an illustrated book about the temples of Nepal. Some experts, I thought. The pair looked like the junkies on Freak Street in the early 1970s. Like the legendary Nepalese people helped where they could, although I had to shake my head after they left.
Ludmilla has been going to Nepal since 1974. However, if you remind her of her “globe-trotter” image at the time, she likes to forget it all, as she apparently made some mistakes and learned from the mistakes of the past. And now ecology seems to be her passion. With her slideshows and TV appearances, she wants to ‘sensitize’ the potential tourists and bring attention to the Nepalese rules of etiquette in order to feel at home in Nepal despite the cultural shock and change.
‘Tourists are terrorists’ flashes across the screen and Ludmilla explains that she had photographed a graffiti on the Berlin Wall in Kreuzberg. Every time a tourist visits another country, he gets a culture shock: the language barrier, the mentality issue, strange customs, and as a result, they return to their country loaded with many prejudices. Then she shows a busload of tourists strolling through the Hanuman Dhoka Palace. She says some tourists were angry with her when she photographed them. The tourists seem to reserve the right to photograph any country and its people as something normal, without bothering to ask permission. “Wir haben schon bezahlt!” is their argument. Doesn’t it smell like cultural imperialism, like the motto: I paid for the trip in dollars, marks, francs and yen, so you natives must oblige and pose for me. The point is that the tourists have reimbursed their travel agencies in Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart or Kathmandu, not the persons and objects they photograph. The payment allows one to land in a country, but how one behaves abroad is another matter.
‘Today it is possible to go around the world in 18 days,’ she says, ‘and everywhere you have people who are in a constant hurry. She talks about world travelers who travel on their own and write books with secret insider tips on how to get the most out of a country with as little money as possible. A poor porter appears with a mountain of cookware, which leads Ludmilla to talk about a certain expedition leader’s successful ascent to the top of a Himalayan peak, ‘we had suffered no losses. Only a doorman died’. She then reminds the audience that the wearers have no health insurance or accident insurance or pension in the German sense.
“Funeral funeral pyres in Pashupatinath are an eternal theme for tourists,” says Ludmilla with a groan, describing tourists with camcorders at the ghats. “You wouldn’t want a foreign visitor to take over the funeral ceremony of your loved ones, would you?” asks Ludmilla.
It was interesting to know that there is a makeshift video hut in Tatopani along the Jomsom route for the benefit of the local Nepalese, the trekking tourists and their porters. “I saw ‘Gandhi’ on this trip,” she said, referring to Sir Attenborough’s film. You may even get to see the latest Hollywood and Bollywood movies there. Pico Iyer’s ‘Video Night in Kathmandu’ might be interesting reading for the Nepalophile as he has ‘the knack of recording every shimmy’. A poster advertising ‘Thrilling Animal Sacrifices at Dakshinkali’ apparently from ‘Bikas-Binas’ (Development-Destruction) made you wonder what the so-called ‘sizzling, romantic, thrilling, action-packed’ box office cocktails were producing in Bollywood’s celluloid, DVD factories.
“If you want to meet and get to know people, 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 photo of a customs officer and give him the photo, you can get through the barrier without any problem.”
Does tourism mean foreign exchange for Nepal? Apparently not, according to her, with food imported from Australia, lighting from the Netherlands, whiskey from Scotland, air conditioning from Canada. She shows Pokhara in 1974. Corrugated sheets are transported on the backs of porters across the Jomsom trail for the construction of small mountain restaurants.
A Gurung woman in her traditional clothes, baking tasty round sel rotis in her open-air tea shop, appears and good old Ludmilla advises the audience on the benefits of gaining immunity or strengthening it through gamma globulin and the benefits of tetanus shots prior to a trip to the Himalayas.
After the show I went with Ludmilla to a Freiburger tavern called Zum Störchen for a drink and a chat. Toni Hagen, a geologist turned development worker from Lenzerheide, who holds a dual Ph.D. and was announced to talk about the development of Nepal from 1950 to 1987 and the role of development cooperation, also joined us. Toni Hagen was a celebrity in Nepal for his geological pioneering work and publication. Unfortunately, Hagen passed away some time ago after starring in an autobiographical movie. Ingrid Kreide, who was in a hurry to return to Cologne, gave a lecture on the history of Thanka painters and the freedom of art in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, and expressed deep concern about 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 a critic of the alternative travel world. And she’s still fighting for the rights of the underdogs in South Asia. She was for the Chipko movement in India and denounced deforestation, ecological damage, fought for the human rights of both Tibetans and Nepalese, 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 theater flair, and she is working on a novel about climbing this time. She wants to emulate the characters of James Hilton’s novel The Lost Horizon, in which people grow very old and are not bothered with gerontological problems. She wants to live on this planet for at least 108 years. One can only admire and wish her the best in her efforts and pedagogical criticism.