Monthly Archives: September 2014

Rains rolling into the Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

Monsoon Madness

During the summer months, I sleep with my curtains and windows open.  After the day’s humid heat, the nighttime breeze is soothingly welcome. But it is the monsoon storms that mesmerize and bring the night to life. Sometimes they last for hours, a pillaging army slowly marching across the high mountain tops into the Kathmandu Valley. I see it first. Icy and blue, the sheet lightning soundlessly outlines the hills, dark layered spines and humps that spread west and north from my bed’s vantage point.

During the Monsoon, the clouds speak their own language. ©Donatella Lorch

During the Monsoon, the clouds speak their own language. ©Donatella Lorch

The thunder takes its time. Long rolling grumbles ricochet from hill to hill reminding me of childhood tales of grumpy, unruly giants. The rain, like a Diva arriving appropriately late, can pound with brutal force or just steadfastly descend unbroken for hours.

Navigating one of the season's first heavy rains. ©Donatella Lorch

Navigating one of the season’s first heavy rains. ©Donatella Lorch

When the rains come, Kathmandu becomes a city of mud roads — thick, slithering mud – and large lakes of water where road construction crews somehow omitted to include drainage ditches. It’s the season when I stick to flip-flops or rubber boots. When I walk my dog in the open fields, I carry salt to eradicate the leeches that latch on to both of us. The streets are umbrella jams not only for the downpours but also for the searing sun that alternates with them. My vote for monsoon fashion statement is the Siamese twin rain poncho with two slits for the heads of both the motorcycle driver and passenger, worn by tens of thousands of motorcyclists.

Nothing escapes the rain. ©Donatella Lorch

Nothing escapes the rain. ©Donatella Lorch

If you live at the whim of the monsoon’s power, the rains become, in big and small ways, an obsession. They are talked about for months before they come, hitting this part of the Himalayas in June and sticking around into September or even October. The BBC News weather reporter talks in exotic terms such as “monsoon troughs” and frequently warns of landslides.

The icon never changes. ©Donatella Lorch

The icon never changes. ©Donatella Lorch

My iPhone forecast has a sole icon for all three months in Kathmandu even if there are long stretches of sunshine: a grey cloud with a thunderbolt through it.

The monsoon has a different meaning depending on what you do and where you live. For the farmers that constitute a majority of Nepal’s population, it’s flooding rice fields and growing wheat, barley, potatoes and putting food on the table. For the four million people in the water-starved Kathmandu Valley, it means the bore-holes and the wells are being replenished. In smog-choked Kathmandu, the rains settle the dust and wash the trees and break the Valley into a palette of so many vibrant greens that even Martha Stewart would be challenged to give them names.

The monsoon is Nepal's most vibrant and beautiful season. ©Donatella Lorch

The monsoon is Nepal’s most vibrant and beautiful season. ©Donatella Lorch

Nepal’s rains are a bonanza for the entire region. Deep snows and heavy rains feed the rivers that flow into India and Bangladesh, where hundreds of million people live. The water powers Nepal’s hydroelectric power plants, and during a few wet months our power cuts shrink from 18 to a mere 5 hours a day.

Last week in Kathmandu, 71 mm of rain was recorded in 24 hours. Without warning, the Dhobi Kola that traverses the city, fed also by rains upstream, turned into a raging torrent, tearing over riverbanks and flooding houses. This monsoon was one of the most severe in years. Nepal’s powerful rivers flooded huge tracts of land in the Terai, on the border with India, killing hundreds and rendering thousands of Nepalis homeless. Nepal, a land of steep mountains where roads are precariously carved out of their perpendicular flanks and villages huddle near rivers, is plagued by massive landslides that wipe away roads and swallow entire villages.

The roiling Bagmati River tears through Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

The roiling Bagmati River tears through Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

In the middle of the night on August 2nd this year, near the Chinese border in the northeast, an entire mountainside cleaved off and brought down tons of boulders and mud, burying a village and killing more than 160 people and their livestock. Loss of life aside, its economic impact is still being felt two months later. The mudslide blocked a large river, creating an impromptu lake that flooded a hydroelectric plant and threatened to flood villages downstream as far south as India. It also buried the only paved road to China, a vital trade link that has now been severed.  To keep a bit of trade alive, porters now ferry trade goods on their backs across the unstable landslide.

Dawn over the Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

Dawn over the Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

Savior. Destroyer. The monsoon does not like to be ignored. It is Nepal’s most vibrant and intensely beautiful season. The clouds alone speak their own language, sometimes burying the city or constantly moving, grey and white, wisps that cling to the mountain sides or hover over the Bagmati River in the pre-dawn, slowly rising to drape the mountain tops. During the day, they turn angry, thicker, layered, yet often opening up to share with sharp sunlight and blue sky.  It can pour in one part of the city and be brilliant sunshine in another, less than half a mile away. Wind shear and lightning make it a treacherous time of year to fly, and planes are frequently delayed and occasionally rerouted.

This sunset can speak for itself. ©Donatella Lorch

This sunset can speak for itself. ©Donatella Lorch

I love my hills. They are forever moving and shifting with the light.  Just before sunset, I stand watch over an amphitheater of terraced emerald rice paddies. Flocks of long-necked brilliant white egrets float in long lines caught between the darkening mountains and the paddies, too far for me to hear them. Sunsets are never the same. Clouds move, slow motion avalanches around the mountain peaks, mixing greys, blues, whites, reds. I hear the comforting sound of a plane overhead. The sky is cooperating with Kathmandu tonight.

Visiting Raksi on her street side home where she lives with half a dozen other stray dogs. ©Donatella Lorch

The wisdom of a Nepali street dog

Stray dogs happily sleeping the day away ©Donatella Lorch

Stray dogs happily sleeping the day away ©Donatella Lorch

I had noticed her only in passing. On any given day there can be as many as 10 stray dogs moving up and down a 40-meter stretch of my street but I usually just pay attention to the two trouble makers that try to intimidate my Rhodesian Ridgeback when I take him out for a walk. The others either sit and watch or completely ignore our temporary presence.

Kathmandu's 20,000 stray dog are an integer; part of the city ©Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu’s 20,000 stray dog are an integral  part of the city ©Donatella Lorch

Recently, a local crowd caught my attention, hovering over a dog lying and whimpering in an open sewage ditch, unable to move. A car had hit her, I was told, and she was incapable of walking or standing up.

Living in Kathmandu, an interaction with a stray dog is inevitable. There are, after all, more than 20,000 of them in the Valley’s tri-city area. When I first moved here a year ago, I lumped them all together into one large category: destitute, miserably hungry, unloved, unhappy and most critically, unvaccinated and un-neutered. Rabies is present throughout Nepal and Lucas, my nine-year-old son, knows never to reach out and pet a stray dog. Nepalis in general coexist with the strays, feeding them scraps, letting them hang out on their stoops, but the dogs are not family pets and the Nepalis do not care for them. On the dark side, I’ve seen dogs kicked and abused. I’ve seen little kids garrot a puppy and drag him around for fun. Some dogs, starving or maimed, grovel for leftovers from the stronger strays.

Raksi was lying in a ditch whimpering and unable to move. ©Donatella Lorch

Raksi was lying in a ditch whimpering and unable to move. ©Donatella Lorch

My Nepali neighbors hovered over the dog and attempted to feed and give her water, but she was in pain and intensely afraid. In Kathmandu, injured stray dogs are left to their fate, even if it means days of suffering. But I couldn’t walk away. At the same time, I was hesitant to interfere. In the back of my head I was replaying a line that my producer at NBC News would tell me regularly: “Dony, you can’t play God.”

A mobile vet injected her with anesthetic. ©Donatella Lorch

A mobile vet injected her with anesthetic. ©Donatella Lorch

Perhaps, I reasoned, I could make her death more peaceful if in fact she was badly injured. I couldn’t move her so I called the local mobile vet. Though Kathmandu is Nepal’s largest city, it is home to all types of farm animals, and vets also treat cows, buffalo, goats, sheep and elephants. After some time, two young men arrived on a motorcycle, pulled out a syringe and anesthetized the dog. They packed her in a cardboard crate, placed her between them on the bike and drove off to their roadside two-room clinic to X-ray the injury. I followed in my car.

The mobile vets packed her in a crate © Donatella Lorch

The mobile vets packed her in a crate © Donatella Lorch

raksi on bike The dog had only tissue damage, but she needed a week of daily steroid, antibiotic and pain killer shots. This meant keeping her virtually immobile in the vet’s small cage, recovering for a week. If she was then immediately released back on the street, her chances of survival were slim. By then, it had become clear to me that I had inherited a stray and its hospital bill. She had also at some point been blinded by a stick or rod in her left eye, so before I changed my mind, I added in drops for the infected eye as well as rabies, distemper and paro-virus shots. Lucas named her Rexi. The Nepalis, having some difficulty in pronouncing Rexi, renamed her Raksi – after the local moonshine.

For the past year, in my morning runs and commutes to school, I have studied the multi-layered social interactions and relationships between Kathmandu canines and the world of humans. The Nepalis who have dogs as pets (often white, furiously yapping, furry Spitzes) keep them indoors or on their rooftops. Some people tie their guard dogs on such short chains outside their houses they can barely lie down.

Raksi'd first efforts at standing up. © Donatella Lorch

Raksi’d first efforts at standing up. © Donatella Lorch

The vast majority of strays, like Raksi, are community dogs that live their lives outside in a self-delineated territory of a couple of city blocks. They drink from the open drainage ditches that often double as sewers, and beg–always patient, unobtrusive and even elegant–from store fronts and especially from the ubiquitous one-room butcher shacks. They are mostly thin and dirty though some are strikingly handsome. Raksi had a thick black and brown coat and impressively healthy white teeth. Some are social and wag hello, others are terrified when I walk by and on rare occasions there will be one that snarls or barks. In this city of massive and aggressive traffic, a week never goes by without seeing at least a couple of dogs lying on a road, killed by a vehicle. Sometimes the animal lies there for days before being removed.

Kathmandu dogs are nocturnal, and their baying, howling, snarling, yelping and ululating barks punctuate my night. Silence only descends briefly between 4am and dawn. In the winter, the cold takes the weak. In the dry, hot months, thirst kills. Puppies have a particularly high death rate. Wounds from nighttime fights fester. I never cease to be amazed by the dogs daytime ability to sleep — absolutely anywhere — though they love to spread out in the middle of roads, oblivious of honking trucks or speeding motorcycles. During my weekly runs, I’ve taken to greeting the strays on my route. Occasionally one or two will join me for a stretch of road.

Within two days of moving in, Raksi was  walking around our garden. ©Donatella Lorch

Within two days of moving in, Raksi was walking around our garden. ©Donatella Lorch

After her stay at the vet, we took Raksi to our house to recover. Once in our home, she stayed in a makeshift corrugated iron shack with cardboard and a towel as a bed. My dog, Biko, immediately disapproved of Raksi’s presence and not only ignored her but me as well. After a day, she began to limp around cautiously, and then soon was wandering around the garden, sleeping in our garage and trying to find ways to enter our house. Gentle and courteous, she wagged up a fury whenever she saw anybody, circling her head high so as to catch us with her good eye. I began to worry that she would never leave. I knew with each passing day, I was falling for her too.

At the end of the first week, as Lucas and I walked one morning onto the main road, Raksi followed. She went to sit facing us on a mound of half-burned blue and pink plastic garbage bags. Lucas tried to woo her back through our gate with her favorite dog bones and a bowl of milk, but she sat there sphinx-like and dignified and finally just turned, crossed the road and disappeared down a narrow alley.

Lucas went to school in tears that day. He thought that he had lost a friend. But Raksi didn’t really move away; she moved back to where she always had been—on the streets in our immediate neighborhood. Since then we have seen her every day, sometimes in front of our gate or on the concrete landing in front of the local tailor shop next door, even as far away as across the main road by the green grocers. I see her sleeping, surrounded by her many companions. She’ll get up and limp over to sniff a newcomer, warning him off with a bark. Her favorite spot is the sand pyramid on the construction site opposite our place. She has always greeted us with utter delight and wagging tail, dog-tracking towards us with a huge grin, one black ear perked, the other flopping.

Lucas visit Raksi on her street side home where she lives with half a dozen other stray dogs. ©Donatella Lorch

Lucas visit Raksi on her street side home where she lives with half a dozen other stray dogs. ©Donatella Lorch

I like to think that this is her way of telling me that she is okay. The dog rescue organizations in Kathmandu had warned me that there was virtually no chance of finding her a home and that if a foreigner adopted her (the most likely possibility) he or she would probably leave Raksi behind when leaving Nepal. If she was healthy, the street was the best place for her.

I still grapple with all I have learned from Raksi. When I saw street life as misery, why did I automatically believe she thought the same? Why did I assume my joy was her joy? I thought she was like my Ridgeback, an obsessively loyal animal whose idea of home was lying by my side. Biko won’t even smell the street garbage that is Raksi’s food. But it’s obvious to me that Raksi, like so many other dogs here, is only at home in her pack. She and several other dogs move, eat, sleep together. She has the freedom to roam. She perks up with the chaos of trucks and honking horns and it also lulls her to sleep, lying inches away from the paved road. She likes to lie with her nose on the edge of the open sewer. And though she greets me effusively, when I see her, one thing is clear: This is her world.

On The 5th and last day of Teej, women crowd a temple's grounds to offer Puja. Bhaisepati, Lalitpur © Donatella Lorch

Where ancient rituals rule in modern times — ‘Tis always the season!

     Growing up in New York, I rarely associated religious festivals with a national or even a city holiday, though occasionally alternate side of the street parking was suspended – to my father’s delight.

     Half way around the world, Nepal has taken the idea of religious festivities to another level. Beginning in late August and continuing until the end of October, religious festivals follow each other like tumbling dominoes, occasionally bridged by government holidays. The festivals can last a day or a more than a week. Parking, though, is not an issue in Kathmandu, a capital where parallel parking has yet to be discovered and the rule on the hair-raising narrow roads seems to be: “Never give way.”

Fires are often part of religious rituals as these impromptu ones along a procession route. © Donatella Lorch

Fires are often part of religious rituals as these impromptu ones along a procession route. © Donatella Lorch

It is a season when the complexities of Nepali society seem to surf above the capital’s physical chaos, pollution, political disorder and venality. The ties to yore, to myth, to custom and to religion may be a matter of worship or just a question of habit or a mere acquiescence to an insistent mother-in-law. In any case, Nepal’s festivals are not a matter that can be ignored.

     Depending on how you look at it, life in Kathmandu either slows down as stores and offices close or it hums with an entirely different undercurrent. There are different colors, smells, noises. Traffic jams change locations. In Nepal, the kaleidoscope of Newar, Tamang, Chhetri, Brahmin and other holy days challenge the most ardent ritualists, who consult multiple types of calendars not only to stay connected with the outside world but also to follow the local customs. Most of the calendars are based on a lunar cycle, so every year, schools, offices and government nimbly have to readjust their schedules. To keep everyone on their toes, some holidays rely on astrologers. 

The land where Puja is intertwined in every aspect of daily life.©Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, Puja is intertwined in every aspect of daily life.©Donatella Lorch

     This year, the season began on August 10th, with Janai Purnima, when Brahmins and Chhetri communities go visit their guru to have their sacred thread changed. For good measure, there are those who add on a dip in a local river. Just a day later, on the 11th is Gaijatra or Cow Festival, a huge event in the Kathmandu Valley, when you decorate your cow or one of the many stray bovines in your neighborhood and join the dancing, singing parades. Some choose to wear cow head-gear. It is meant to pave the way towards heaven for any relative that has died that year. As the end of the month nears, there is Father’s day and close by the day when Hindu priests give (or more precisely sell) the faithful some ‘Kush grass’ so that Vishnu will live in their home for the coming year.

On Teej, women queue on long lines to worship at temples all over the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. ©Donatella Lorch

On Teej, women queue on long lines to worship at temples all over the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. ©Donatella Lorch

Some festivals are all-inclusive, others pick their ethnic group, pointing in numbers to the changing ethnic powers in the Kathmandu Valley. Take Teej, which is followed by Chhetris and Brahmins but not by the Newars, the area’s original inhabitants. If color is a sign, then the Newars are far from being the majority they once were.

  For the five days of Teej, observant women wear red saris, turning the entire valley into a red sea. The government closes down the roads in one of the busiest sections of Kathmandu so that thousands of red clad women can worship at Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Shiva shrines in the world. Red saris are scrunched against the windows of overloaded public buses or billow elegantly in an Isadora Duncan sort of way on the back of motorcycles. Teej is billed as a woman’s festival – but it is really about the men, for it is a time when a woman either prays for the well-being of her husband or, if she not already married, for a husband-to-be.

     If a woman is very traditional, she will fast and she will also bathe her husband’s legs and drink the run-off water. This has some of my women friends in the States decrying marital abuse. But watching these red saris dancing in front of temples, standing and chattering on endless lines with their girlfriends and daughters, puja (offerings) and smart phones in hand, all bedecked in traditional gold jewelry, it is clear that, for them, Teej is not only about bonding but also about a great escape from endless daily chores and demanding husbands. It’s a time of year when gold prices in Kathmandu skyrocket. I’m inclined to believe that if you acquire new jewelry and a new sari, and spend five days with your friends, worshipping a husband is a fair exchange.

Women in traditional "wedding day" saris are scrunched on buses returning from worshipping at Pashupatinath, a World Heritage Site. ©Donatella Lorch

Women in traditional “wedding day” saris are scrunched on buses returning from worshipping at Pashupatinath, one of the world’s holiest Shiva shrines. ©Donatella Lorch

     The festivities don’t end with Teej. A short break afterwards, there is an eight-day Indra festival in Kathmandu. More masked dancers and drums in procession with the Kumari Devi, or ‘Living Goddess,’ blocking more traffic. And then Nepal’s most universal and longest festival – Dashain – begins and continues for about 15 days. This year it falls at the very end of September. On the surface Dashain is a celebration of the victory of gods and goddesses over demons or of good over evil, but between the prayers, it is mostly a celebration of family and community. Flights into Nepal have already been booked for weeks now. Nepali migrant workers in the Middle East borrow money to return home, others fly in from the U.S. and Europe. Kathmandu empties out as families return to their ancestral villages spending long hours on buses and often walking the last bit to grandma’s old mud- wattle or stone house. Aside from hotels and a few restaurants in the tourist neighborhoods, Kathmandu shuts down. The sky is a jumble of kites maneuvred by young kids on rooftops. The chaotic traffic jams and the smog melt away.

     This is a time of sacrifice – animal sacrifice that is. My friend Keshav, has been fattening his mutton for three years just for this year’s holiday. On October 1st this year, the day will begin with the army’s ritual throat-slitting of scores of buffaloes and then everyone has the go ahead to kill and feast on their own buffalo or goats and the drain-less roads will be covered in blood. Even if you live in an apartment, there is pressure to buy and butcher your own animal.

Nightime poetry during Tihar in Patan's old city. ©Donatella Lorch

Nightime poetry during Tihar in Patan’s old city. ©Donatella Lorch

 My favorite festival is none of these, but comes a bit later. After the dancing, chanting, techno-filled boom-blasted nights of Teej, just passed, I look forward to Tihar, the festival of lights, at the end of October. If poetry can transcend words, it is found at night in Patan’s old city. Every household creates on their road-side stoop mandalas of rice and painted flour lit by butter lamps. The narrow roads cornered by ancient temples are full of families strolling or going to prayer in the flittering, smoky lamplight. If there are no power cuts (and the government goes out of its way to avoid them during Tihar), cascades of Christmas lights decorate the taller buildings. Of course, modern times intrude. On Tihar, it is traditionally auspicious to buy metal; these days that means buying electronics, and so phones, televisions and stereos sell briskly.

I too turned red - briefly. My dog, Biko, was just a prop. ©Bimla Shiwakoti

I too turned red – briefly. My dog, Biko, was just a prop. ©Bimla Shiwakoti

Luckily, when it is all over, I won’t suffer from withdrawal. There are of course many more festivals during the year but in the meantime I still have my neighborhood Hindu priest to remind me I live in Kathmandu. Without fail, 365 days a year, he starts clanking his bell to wake Shiva at 5:15AM. I lie in bed, counting the 25 to 31 reverberating sharp and hard rings occasionally enhanced with some megaphone chants. When I moved here a year ago, the head-thudding noise forced me up and out of bed but these days, it has a soothing quality, alternating with the baying packs of neighborhood stray dogs and the coo-ing pigeons on my windowsill. I roll over, a smile on my face, knowing that the ancient is still there to guard the new day.