There is an intimacy to landing in Kathmandu. From the plane window, you can see the wings skim the mountains as the hairpin dirt roads leading to perched villages close in above you. From my neighborhood, earth and sky rumble together with each approaching plane.
When I was 27, fresh from two years of reporting inside Afghanistan, the New York Times assigned me to cover the borough of Queens. To soothe my homesickness for the wind-swept arid mountain ranges I had left behind, every morning I slowed down as I drove past La Guardia airport, rolled down my window, and deeply inhaled the jet fuel. Then planes were about escape. In Kathmandu, 25 years later, it means connection. I live near the main landing path, and the sound of a plane is both comforting and awe-inspiring. It means that neither the valley’s fog, smog, storms nor its unpredictable wind shear have closed Kathmandu’s airspace. Kathmandu is a pilot-only, visual-only landing, and every time I fly in or out, or listen to a plane overhead, I am reminded that technology is not solely in control but that just one person is leading the way in.
Economists refer to it as ‘connectivity’. A poor country cannot reach middle-income status unless its people can be connected by economic, social and political opportunities within their country and with other economies. This cannot be done without roads and airports. The challenge is huge in Nepal, South Asia’s poorest nation, a vertical land where roads have to be carved out of steep, unstable cliffs that are prone to landslides and where mountains rise so fast and sheer that radar is not always relevant and planes have very limited options on how to get to an airstrip. Imagine terrain so perpendicular that pilots turn off their ground proximity warning system because the constant computer generated voice warning: “Terrain, terrain, terrain,” is not only obvious but also distracting.
Nepal has 48 airports, mostly dirt strips precariously balanced on mountain tops or in narrow valleys, but there is only one international runway, Tribhuvan International Airport, an example of the vast complexities surrounding the issue of connectivity that go beyond just being able to land planes. In Nepal, tourism is the second biggest earner of foreign exchange, and with mostly dirt roads and vast numbers of road casualties, planes are critical to enabling tourists to come and continue to fuel growth.
Yet what happens when tourists come faster than the existing infrastructure can accommodate? Set inside the city of Kathmandu, TIA is bursting at the seams. It has only nine bays, but almost 50 daily international arrivals and more than twice that number for national flights. Visas are available on arrival, but the line is long and the unbridled crowded chaos of baggage claim is only enhanced by an enveloping dark penumbra. Mandarin seems to be the most spoken tongue. According to the local papers, vast amounts of cash are also exchanging hands at customs, where several officials, including the acting director, are under investigation.
Nature is not always cooperative. Flights can stack up for hours circling outside the Kathmandu valley, over Chitwan National Park, a domino effect often started by winter’s morning fog and aggravated by vehicle and generator-induced smog or summer monsoon storms and wind shears. There is one landing strip in dire need of re-tarmacking. Last summer, earth worms infested the runway, attracting nearby birds and closing down the airport for a day. When I fly in or out, I find myself glued to the FlightRadar24 app, scanning weather and delays. The international airline with most delays appears to be Turkish Air, which has the uncooperative 6:55 a.m. landing slot: thick fog at that time often brings long landing delays and recently a flight was even rerouted to Bangladesh for the day because of it. The radar system, only for international approaches, is 25 years old and was installed after two major airplane crashes caused by white-out conditions, but it is struggling to keep up with the rapidly growing traffic. With only a 30-mile radius and blind spots, it is scheduled for a much needed facelift and expansion.
Yet international flights are almost always full, especially the five daily jets coming from five different Chinese cities and the scores of flights from the Middle East and South East Asia—the latter often carrying Nepali migrant workers to and from their host countries. Business must be good as landing rights at TIA are more expensive than Bangkok and on par with Singapore, while refueling charges are extremely high (all fuel comes by truck from India). In addition, pilots need special simulator training for Kathmandu landings. Two airlines, Qatar and Korean Air, are now even using the newest technology, satellite-based GPS systems, that provide the pilots with more information and greater leeway during their landing approach.
As in every other sector in Nepal, there are many improvement plans afoot. The government wants to build two new international airports, and is actively pursuing the Chinese government for soft loans. But airports are also competing with projects such as hydropower plants, expressways to India and China, waste water treatment plants, drinking water for the Kathmandu Valley, and sewage systems for all their cities. The wish list is long, the government cash-strapped, and so far investment is only cautiously moving in.
TIA will be it for the next few years. That means accommodating the dozens of extra weekly flights scheduled to start soon from China. I don’t see the two security check lines that snake through the length of the departure area getting any shorter.
My father relished recounting the tale of his college sporting efforts. As a freshman, he tried out for the long distance running team and after the first training session the coach pulled him aside: “Lorch,” the coach bellowed. “You run (long pause) as if your were going to a fire (even longer pause) that was going to happen ten years from now!” Poppy switched to tennis. I, like him, was never a big runner. I quit jogging by age 25.
Last year, at the end of June, I ran the Lewa half-marathon. It is one of the running world’s most unique marathons, set at 1,700m in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Runners weave across the hilly, tawny savannah, home to a vast array of wild animals including lions, elephant and buffalo. Helicopters, small aircraft and Lewa’s guards keep the animals away from the dirt track. I ran the half-Lewa, just over 20 kms, as one of a series of rituals I had selected to say goodbye to Kenya, my home for four years. But even though I felt the satisfaction of having trained for two months and of having temporarily given up my daily glasses of red wine (which to me was even more impressive than my return to running after 25 years), I didn’t think much of what future running and I had together.
A month later, we moved to Nepal. I am not particularly athletic by nature. There is a lot of arguing that goes on between my head and my feet to do anything that involves sweat. Let’s not forget my love of red wine. In Nepal I felt disconnected. We chose to live in the southern part of the Kathmandu valley, far enough away from the center of Kathmandu to avoid most of its choking winter smog but also too far for easy access to a gym. There is a loneliness to life in a new country. It was monsoon season and the air was a sticky cloak that left me soaked after a short walk. It took a month before I had exhausted every possible excuse and only then did I take out my Five-Fingered Vibrams, the same ones that had run Lewa.
There wasn’t a Eureka moment. I fought with every inch of territory. Some mornings I just walked. Oh, the mud. Slippery, heavy, thin, thick, glue-like, ubiquitous mud. Was that smell cow dung? And is there anywhere flat in Nepal? At some point I must have lifted my head and forgotten briefly the effort of moving forward. Then those moments stretched slowly into half-hour stretches. On my ipod, Cesaria Evora, Adele, Chopin and Jai Ho lured me on. I began to wake up earlier because I wanted to run, though our neighborhood Hindu priest should also take some of the credit for these early rises: his endless 5:00 a.m. chanting and bell-clanking is not conducive to a sleep-in.
I owe a lot to Lewa the same way I owe a lot to Kenya. They both guided me over the stumbling blocks of step-parenthood and the art of getting over a life as a foreign correspondent. But running in Nepal has given me a gift of exploration that did not exist for me in Nairobi. I now run because I learn, because every day, every week, every season I explore the amphitheater of fields below my home and the hills beyond the holy and highly polluted Bagmati River. I watch what the farmers plant, how they break their clay-like soil with ancient-looking hoes with handles that seem to go the wrong direction, their bodies bent in two. I have lived the rice cycle from dry planting of dhan (rice seeds), to transplanting electric-green seedlings into the flooded paddies that quickly turn emerald and finally tawny during harvest. Then comes the potato, bean and corn season.
I run on the inches-wide mud walls that separate the paddies, on roads hand-paved of rough hewn stone, through towns where culture is still ensconced in ancient times, where the buffaloes and goats live on the ground floor of red brick homes, ducks waddle in the narrow alleys and women card wool on their stoops on rickety wooden spindles. Garlic and red chili tresses hang down from third floor windows and winnowed wheat is laid out to dry on any spare square of earth.
I see this all because I run — catching a regular snapshot of a life that has turned familiar and friendly. I stop here and there to grab an instant with my iphone–that odd, short-haired woman in black lycra pants with those weird multi-colored Five-Fingered Vibrams. Even after all these months, those shoes remain a huge hit.
I never tire of my route. Every run, I am reminded that Nepal of today is quickly dying away. Every month, a little bit more perceptibly fades. In a few decades, much of this world will be gone, consumed by the unregulated, haphazard, massive urbanization that is devouring every green space left in the Kathmandu Valley. The city of four million has already climbed the last hill overlooking my running route.
It is an extinction of history.
The sign is nondescript and small. For my nine-year-old son, it is the first tantalizing hint of what lies ahead. “Way to Massacre Place,” it declares, an arrow pointing right, followed a few meters beyond by “Location of Royal Palace Massacre,” in case somehow visitors manage to deviate from the one-way path guarded by an armed soldier. Personally, I was already having an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole moment. This was my second visit – a palace massacre recidivist – scribbling notes on a wrinkled sheet of paper, as all visitors have to surrender their bags, their cameras and their phones before entering.
In Nepal, an absolute monarchy not that long ago, the 2001 royal massacre is the stuff of legends. A large crowd of Nepalis queue regularly in front of the elegant metal gate of the Narayanhiti Palace, now a museum, but until 2001 the primary residence of Nepal’s kings. It does not seem to have the same magnetism for foreign tourists, even though it is walking distance from Thamel, the humming hub for all things touristy.
On June 1, 2001 (according to the official version), King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, 55, considered to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was gunned down during a family dinner party here by his 30-year-old son, Crown Prince Dipendra. In swift succession, Dipendra, dressed in camouflage and armed with an M-16 and a collection of various deadly automatic weapons, killed nine family members, including his mother, brother and sister. He then turned the gun on himself. He lived long enough after he shot himself to be declared king–but as he lay dying the 240-year-old monarchy was dying as well. In 2008, Birendra’s brother and Dipendra’s successor, abdicated, and Nepal became the newest democracy on the South Asian block. But in many ways, the massacre and its aftermath, coupled with an ever-growing plethora of conspiracy theories, remains an emblem of the ethnic and political complexities, traditions, superstitions, conflicts and distrust that pervades today’s Nepali society.
To get to the massacre signs, you first walk through a collection of meeting rooms and bedrooms frozen in a 1970s décor, part ski chalet, part genteelly-rundown villa. Stuffed dusty tigers, lions, stag heads, paintings of former kings, elephant feet used as footstools, antelope-hoof candleholders, a gigantic Gharial crocodile nailed to a wall. The portrait hallway has the Nepali King and Queen posing with various international visitors, such as Marshal Josip Broz Tito, Zia ul Haq, Nicolae Ceausescu, Francois Mitterand , and some of lesser fame such as the president of the Swiss Federation. The bookshelves in other rooms mix biographies of the Dalai Lama with classics such as Lord Jim and Kitty Kelley’s The Royals. White mothballs decorate the carpets and chairs and, whether it’s to ward off the densely humid monsoon weather or to mummify time, every room greets me with the pervasive smell of naphthalene.
On the ill-fated evening of the massacre, Eton-educated Dipendra was hosting his extended family. Dipendra (known widely as ‘Dippy’) had issues, according to published reports. He drank hard, loved hashish, liked to torture animals and watch them die, and didn’t get along with his mother Queen Aishwarya, who disapproved of the woman he wanted to marry. His bedroom closet was stocked with a vast array of weaponry and ammunition. Survivors described him as single-mindedly going after his victims one by one and even leaving the room to switch weapons. He shot his mother and brother in the garden before killing himself. You can see re-enactments on YouTube.
The Western world had the Empiricists, the Rationalists, the Scholastics, the Logical Positivists, the Imperialists. In the U.S. we added the Survivalists who believe that black United Nations helicopters will invade America. Post-massacre Nepal gave an orchestra seat to the Bollywoodists.
The initial palace reaction was a public relations disaster, a critical weakness that only enhanced the belief that they were disconnected from life outside their gate. The official statement said a gun had accidentally misfired, killing the king. Dipendra, then in a coma, was named king, and held that position for three days. Subsequently, the building where the shooting took place was razed and the victims cremated, without any autopsies. Later, an official inquiry, headed by the chief justice and one other Nepali, produced a 200-page report that identified Dipendra as the gunman but left many unanswered questions.
While the masses outside the gates may have believed in the divinity of their king, they didn’t believe the palace’s story. Thirteen years on, interest has not waned. This week, yet another book was published further promoting the mystery with the underlying theory that if you can’t prove it and no one will admit to it, it must be right.
When things go wrong in Nepal, India is usually high on the list of culprits. Some of the paranoia is founded in fact. India is the huge neighbor next door and they have a history of bullying their tiny neighbors. Many Nepalis believe that it was not Dipendra who did the killing but rather India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing or RAW (for good measure the CIA is also included in some conspiracies), whose agents have, I am often told, totally infiltrated the country. RAW allegedly paid off King Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra, who later became king (an unpopular one), to organize the killing. Many of my Nepali friends say the unquestionable proof is that Gyanendra was not present at the massacre and his son survived the shooting. Another conspiracy centers on the popular Bollywood make-up artist Oscar-winning act. A cook, who was present that night but has since disappeared, claims several men in camouflage wearing Dipendra masks entered the gathering and opened fire. These mask wearers are the ones who allegedly also killed Dipendra. This links with the story-line that Dipendra had not one but two bullets in the head. (and remember — there was no autopsy. Hmmm!)
Today, Nepal is struggling with political disarray, corruption and a booming population that wants its government to supply the basics of water, fuel and electricity. Many opinion makers hark back to the halcyon days of the monarchy as the pillar of Nepali identity and sovereignty, especially when India-phobia resurfaces. Yet, many handily forget that in a democracy, sovereignty is vested in the people, not in the divine right of kings. Democracy in Nepal has an enormously difficult legacy to overcome. The monarchy was in its last throws, a spent force, with poor leadership, a dysfunctional family that was disconnected from its desperately poor subjects and the growing Maoist uprising across the country. Yet all these conspiracies could help also a royal comeback.
Nepal has come a long way from denying Dipendra’s role to posting signs to guide tourists to the royal massacre site. They now highlight the bullet holes in the concrete wall where Dipendra shot his brother. Nepali crowds flock to the palace, a once Forbidden City, where they can witness the lives of people they believed were gods. A high point is the map that details the locations where everyone was killed. Even so, the official four-page brochure handed out at the gate provides only two short sentences on the royal massacre.
The most difficult legacy of the palace massacre may be that most Nepalis are left just with a myth, anecdotes, various story lines and the looming blue Genie of the RAW. Mothballs preserve the only history they can still see.
From 10,000 feet, the Mekong Delta stretches glass flat, large brown snaking rivers interconnecting with shrinking and swelling zigzagging tributaries. The land is dark green, leaking into an aquamarine South China Sea. The clouds, miniature white fluffs, are not even big enough to cast shadows on the earth. My mind is wandering. One moment I look hard for physical signs of a war almost 40 years gone. Then the utter flatness below fills me with sadness too. The Mekong Delta is on the path of our rising oceans and scientists predict it will disappear in a few decades. But as my plane touches down, in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, I am mostly anticipating.
This is my first trip to Vietnam. When I was 15, Vietnam was the only place I wanted to visit. It was the summer of 1977 and my father’s work had brought us to Medellin in Colombia. I came face to face with the war in a bedroom closet of our rented house where I had gone to forage and explore on a hot lazy afternoon. In a dark corner was a pile of dusty Life magazines. I sat down next to them, the closet door letting in just enough light to read, and for the next few hours, and for many weeks after that, I leafed through pictures of dust, heat, blood, tanks and helicopters, faces contorted in pain and desperation or just impenetrable. 1966, 1967, 1968. Tet, Hue, Khe Sanh, the Perfume River, Ben Tre, Dien Bien Phu. Dates and names that grabbed and held.
It is not that the Vietnam War was an unknown quantity. As a family, we listened religiously to the news on WQXR. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I watched on TV as American helicopters were pushed off aircraft carriers into the South China Sea. My parents talked about the war at dinner and in our weekend commutes to the Catskills. Wars, or rather the images of war, had in one way or another always been part of my childhood. On long car rides, my mother would weave me her stories of joining the Italian resistance during World War II in Rome and of being arrested and imprisoned by the Germans. On rainy summer days, my cousin Carlo and I pored over his magazines of World War II Pacific battles. My older sister had decapitated all the family dolls but it never occurred to me to ask for new ones. I played with Carlo’s GI Joes.
But that summer in 1977, Vietnam became personal. I didn’t want to be a passive observer. So without knowing what it entailed, or how I was supposed to get to the finish line, I decided that I wanted to be a war correspondent. Hopelessly naïve? Yes. Innocent? For sure. Clueless? Definitely. I spent hours and days learning every detail of those pictures. Back in New York, I made my mother escort me to Columbia Univeristy’s Butler Library so I could use her ID card and take out military books on Vietnam’s battles. At 16, my mother gave me my most memorable Christmas gift: Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I have since read it over a dozen times. It has travelled with me to four continents. The spine is cracked, the pages marked so I can grab a quick high from his explosive, taunting, cutting, visceral and utterly visual prose. If I wanted to get high, I didn’t need drugs. I had Dispatches.
It took me until May 2014 to make it to Vietnam. By then war was something I had already done. The romance was long gone. I had coped–not always successfully–with all the intangibles that came with it. My sister says I became a journalist because I didn’t know what else to do. My Italian cousin, also a journalist, warned me that what made front page in the morning wrapped the fish at night. Not sure whether I could ever figure out how to be a journalist, I had studied Chinese, worked as a tour guide in mainland China, danced for a Taiwanese rock band, tried (unsuccessfully) to get a PhD in Indic Studies and then in 1987 went to Afghanistan where I spent two years traveling and writing about the Mujaheddin.
Twenty five years: big wars, small wars, a genocide, inner city crime, inheriting three children when I married a widower, adding on another one. Having three teenagers at home. Living in Kenya and now in Nepal. Sometimes I felt I’d been put in a blender that overheated and stalled before the final smooth product was ready. I still felt the need to see the Vietnam I had housed in my head for all those years.
I don’t know what I expected Vietnam to give me. On the surface, the war is long gone. Three million Vietnamese (two million civilians) and over 58,000 Americans dead. Today, the majority of Vietnamese are young—born after the war ended, they are too young to know the past intimately. For some of them, it is now just a backdrop.
On Highway 1 between Danang and Hue, I saw a young Vietnamese couple pose for a wedding photo shoot on a decaying American bunker. The battle fields in Hue are unfindable. The Continental Hotel, in Saigon, is such a posh hotel that I felt an imposter as I walked through the lobby. China Beach is in the process of becoming a shoulder-to- shoulder high-end collection of resorts. Beautiful roads, strict traffic rules, 24-hour electricity, clean sidewalks, tree-lined avenues (puts Nepal to shame)–a communist country where the triumphs of capitalism are visible everywhere. A Lamborghini store is scheduled to open soon in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam is a beautiful land wrapped in delectable food with a coffee shop on every corner. I became a war tourist of sorts. I dripped sweat all day and thought of soldiers humping through the jungle with 50lbs packs, flak jackets and leeches.
Alongside my 9-year-old son, I was mesmerized by the Cu Chi tunnel network. I wiped away tears at the War Remnants Museum and insisted on walking and re-walking Le Loi and Tu Do Avenues.
And every Huey and Chinook helicopter I saw (and there are many parked on the grounds of Ho Chi Minh City museums), reminded me of my long standing love-affair with these hulking beasts. I first met them in Dispatches – “Savior- Destroyers” Herr called them.
It was an arranged marriage on paper and later I fell for them hard in Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, flying night missions in Black Hawks, scrunched in the gunners seat in Gunships and in Hueys, door open, feet dangling, music blaring, flying Nap of the Earth along Rwanda’s rivers. Grit- whipping terror, sweaty dank canvas, every part of my body on edge.
Some local history is scrubbed so clean that I only realized later that my Ho Chi Minh City hotel, selected because it was near the local office of my husband’s company, was just one block from the site of the former US Embassy. I was 13 years old in April 1975 when the last American helicopter lifted off into a slate sky in a final desperate evacuation.
Everyone has their own war story, their own angle of vision, and none of my wars have been like Vietnam. Long ago, I’d agonized that I had missed it, that I was born too late. But that doesn’t matter anymore. War is memory and it must never be forgotten.
It’s New Years this week in Nepal. Welcome to the year 2071. It has taken me almost a year to move the Gregorian calendar aside and understand strange names of months that now begin in what my previous life considered mid-month. Luckily my cell phone has helped me cope with the transition: ”Dear customer,” it told me on April 14th, “Applicable monthly charges will be deducted tomorrow on the 1st of Baisakh.”
I’ve had to do a lot of mental gearshifts. I used to think that having a New Year’s Eve celebration was normal but in Nepal there are seven New Years, each with their own celebration. Nepali culture is based on festivals: your god, my god, their god — any occasion is good.
For a monotheist like myself who is only a church goer on three days a year (Christmas, Easter and a spare extra for good measure), who has also lived extensively in Islamic countries and who grew up in Manhattan where Jewish holidays were greeted by my father with a sigh of relief as alternate side of the street parking was suspended, I had never lived before with 330 million Hindu gods as well as Buddhist deities, demons and demonesses shared by both faiths. Early on, I started outlining in my diary Super God family trees as the top three male and female deities have multiple incarnations with their own offspring. There are official God festivals that can last more than a week. There are holy days for cows, dogs, crows and even airplanes.
Even if I wanted to, it is impossible to ignore these festivals and to continue life as it used to be in early 2013. Temples and Buddhist stupas are absolutely everywhere from sprawling ancient Hindu compounds to a stubby lingam that has split a paved road in two, a rock and a bell on the side of a road to the scores of huge ancient and holy pipal trees wrapped with string by worshippers. There are grass covered and white washed stupas dating back centuries whose gentle and humble elegance graces the chaotic polluted city of Kathmandu. Valley hillsides are dotted with gold painted rooftops that end in the airborne curling eves of Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.
There is an inclusiveness and a temperance to Nepal’s two main religions that is inspiring and beautiful. Tantric Buddhism is often the bridge between the two and whenever I visit a Hindu temple which often has a Buddhist stupa or icon on the premises, I always feel gratitude to have found a place where religions coexist.
Yet all these festivals, colorful, cacophonous, crowded, and often surreal from my western perspective, easily run week into week and can be a serious drag on economic growth in Nepal. There is no sense of urgency here but rather an overwhelming sense of fatalistic Karma. Whatever will be will be. National holiday or not, businesses and shops close without notice, people don’t show up for work, teachers as well as students can easily skip school. Government offices work on skeleton staffs and restaurants can close down for days on the big holidays of Dasain and Tihar. You don’t really notice this as a tourist (the tourism industry functions on a slightly more energized schedule) but living here sometimes becomes a frustrating effort at getting work done. It is also a sad statement about Nepal’s regional future. Labor productivity is a measure of economic growth and Nepal has one of the lowest labor productivity levels in the world. It has 22 percent unemployment. An inefficient, badly equipped education system means only 11 percent of students complete their secondary education creating a vast unskilled labor force where 25 percent of young Nepalese mostly men aged 20 to 39 have migrated to foreign countries as manual laborers. Government economic policies coupled with corruption hamper more than help the economy. The cost of doing business here is 23 percent more expensive than in China and 15 percent more than in India, its two huge and rather overbearing neighbors.
There is a phrase used often here, more of a philosophical statement about life in general that is accompanied by a resigned shoulder shrug. “Khe Garne?” loosely translates as “What can one do?” No answer is expected. I catch myself increasingly using that line. Have I surrendered? I wear a red string wrapped around my wrist blessed by a Buddhist monk. I’ll clank the bell at Shiva temples and when I run past mini Hindu shrines along village paths in Kathmandu’s outskirts, I think about how a touch of the forehead can express such powerful devotion.
I do believe that the Middle Way offers a beautiful path but I haven’t yet mastered mindfulness and compassion. And I have the greatest admiration for the owner of “The Secret Bakery”, one of Patan’s best bakeries. He is open through festivals, strikes and national holidays. Now that is a businessman with Chutzpah! Happy 2071.
Although Kathmandu’s world heritage sites are well known, few may be aware of a new archeological dig that stretches for several kilometers along the Bagmati River. Deep trenches have been dug out, creating 20ft-high hills made of dirt held together with striations of blue, pink and black polypropylene that tell the 30-year local history of the plastic bag, Nepal’s most ubiquitous landmark.
In the Kathmandu Valley, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. It is everywhere, stuffed in plastic bags and dropped in drainage ditches or piled high in empty lots, on the roadside or on the edges of the city’s rivers. It is thrown out of bus windows, off roof tops into neighbor’s yards.
As long as their house and yard is swept clean, the vast majority of valley-livers don’t seem to care. When it gets too high, the garbage is burned in open areas, the toxic fumes blanketing nearby houses. The plastic bags clog the rivers and choke drainage pipes, creating flooding and spreading fetid, disease-carrying refuse. The health impacts are felt at all levels.
Rapid unplanned urbanization has brought traffic jams and choking pollution, but politicians in Nepal’s new government have, with few exceptions, shown little political commitment to solving the problem of garbage. In 2011, the government passed the Solid Waste Management Act that set rules, regulations and fines for transgressors but enforcement is weak and detailed responsibilities are unclear.
It is a Sisyphean task. The Valley needs clean water but the sole operating waste water treatment plant is handicapped by more than 12 hours of load-shedding a day and needs to be overhauled. Sewage flows untreated into the rivers. There are no proper slaughter houses in any municipalities and no rules for disposing of the city’s dead cows and dogs. They end up in shallow graves near river banks, leaching into the water supply. Hospitals are responsible for disposing their own hazardous waste such as needles, tissues, organs and other body parts, but the government has not provided a dumping site. Some hospitals burn in the open, and others use incinerators that releases dioxin and furan, two highly carcinogenic pollutants. An exception is the government-run Bir Hospital that has even built a bio-gas plant on its premises.
Sumitra Amatiya, executive director of the Ministry of Urban Development’s solid waste management technical support center, says sanitation in the Valley is in a state of crisis management. Serving Kathmandu and Lalitpur, the valley’s only working landfill, Sisdole, 24 km from the capital, is almost full and during the monsoons is frequently cut off from the city by floods and landslides. The government has bought the land for another site but needs billions of rupees and at least four years to make it operational, according to Dr. Amatya. As a gap measure, they are expanding Sisdole. The Asian Development Bank, which last year published the most researched and detailed Solid Waste Management report on Nepal to date, will begin work later this year on Kathmandu’s waste-water treatment plant. The government has begun dredging the highly-polluted Bagmati, with the aim of laying down sewage pipes as well as planting green areas. It is unearthing tons of dumped plastic and earth but narrowing the river-bed, which experts says can cause severe flooding during the monsoons, spreading disease through its water.
While many Nepalese care, city life has eroded the social dynamic of communities that galvanize neighbors to act together. Many try to make a difference. But they are not enough. One ongoing high-visibility clean-up campaign, lead by Leela Mani Poudyal, the chief secretary of the government of Nepal, has been bringing hundreds of people together to clean the fetid Bagmati every Saturday morning for the past 45 weeks, but a one time cleaning, though highly commendable, is not a permanent solution and it will not make the river waste-free. In addition, small non-governmental organizations, many of them focusing on women, teach composting and garbage segregation.
Politicians are quick to point to a new landfill as the solution. But only 40 to 50 percent of the Valley’s garbage goes to Sisdole, and most of it enters the dump unsegregated. The rest ends up on the streets and rivers. Changing the Nepali mindset is the only way forward, Dr. Amatya believes. Composting is key as 60 percent of Kathmandu garbage is organic. There is the need for a government-supported country-wide public awareness and education campaign about the 3Rs – Recycle, Reuse, Reduce in schools, in the media, door to door. Nepalese need to understand the environmental damage of one-time-use plastic bags. As Bhushan Tuladhar, regional technical advisor (South Asia) of U.N. Habitat , put it: “We have to dump the attitude.” Only a social movement can keep Kathmandu from being buried in garbage.
We landed in Kuala Lumpur at nighttime yet before the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 737’s tires hit the runway, the fog was so thick I couldn’t even see a light outside the plane window. Almost immediately, the cabin was coated in an eye-smarting burnt smell. I am a nervous flyer, and on this evening my anxiety was enhanced by the fact that MH370 had disappeared just four days before and that our pilot had not mentioned the weird weather to the passengers.
My husband and I were tagging along on my nine-year-old son’s school rugby trip. This was a huge event for Lucas and his seven schoolmates as their primary school team in Kathmandu, the Yetis, was (to the best of our knowledge) the first Nepali rugby team to play outside the country. The boys’ excitement was palpable. My third-culture son, who has lived overseas for almost six years, had been reminding me for weeks that he was going to Malaysia to “represent my country!” When I had wondered which of his three nationalities, American, Canadian and Dutch, he was referring to, he had dismissed my obvious ignorance. “Nepal, of course!”
What we didn’t immediately realize is that the fog with the burnt smell was not only coating the airport but blanketing almost all of Malaysia and parts of Indonesia as well.
Many airports in the region had already closed and by the next day, the Malaysian government declared the air quality dangerous, closed over 200 schools in the capital and advised against any outdoor sports. The first day of the rugby tournament was cancelled, much to the boys’ disappointment. The stinging smoke that was affecting their dream school trip was in fact the end product of the needs of billions of people who live far from Southeast Asia.
Ever wonder about that “vegetable oil” listed as an ingredient in a huge amount of food we all eat? That vegetable oil is often palm oil, and it is an essential ingredient in margarines, frying oils, cereals, baked goods, sweets and potato chips. It is also in soaps, washing powder, cosmetics and animal feeds, and it can also be used as bio fuel. Since the 1990s, the demand for palm oil has increased by more than 45 percent. Though 17 countries produce it, Malaysia and Indonesia account for 85 percent of global palm oil production. Millions of Malaysians and Indonesians rely on palm oil for their livelihood.
The choking smoke and palm oil are inextricably connected. Just drive for hours on Malaysia’s magnificent super highways (yes, they have Starbucks stops) and the countryside is almost entirely blanketed by thousands of acres of palm oil plantations. But growing world demand, especially from China, means both legal and illegal unfettered cutting down and burning of pristine forests in Malaysian Borneo and Indonesia. The governments, either because of lack of will or corruption, do little to control what has become an environmental disaster. This year, lack of rain means the burning season is particularly vicious on the lungs. The forest peat burns underground for weeks and the heavy smoke just sits over three of Asia’s most important cities: Singapore, Djakarta and Kuala Lumpur.
Lucas gets basic global warming. He knows it makes winters colder and summers hotter and that New York and Toronto, where our extended family lives, have had wicked snowstorms this winter. His school is plastic free and on eco days, he walks to class. Our lives in Nepal are an unexpected first row seat where we can witness the cost of development. Lucas knows well the fetid smell of raw sewage from Nepal’s holiest and dead Bagmati River.
Unregulated dumping of garbage on city streets makes Kathmandu a filthy plastic-bag littered city. An open sewer runs near our house. Massive and frequently illegal stone quarrying in Nepal’s gorgeous rivers and streams supplies the unquenchable thirst for roads and building construction but result in massive erosion, flooding and landslides, destroying bridges and roads and buildings.
Still it hadn’t occurred to Lucas that eating his favorite sour cream and onion Pringles or Honey Nut Cheerios or washing his hands with soap could be connected to the smoke that cancelled his rugby match. I was struck by the irony that Kuala Lumpur, a modern, vibrant, clean, green gem that stands apart from the region’s capitals, was being asphyxiated by the very development and industrialization that had provided the money to make it so special.
Malaysia has built itself up as a favorite tourism destination. Its ubiquitous slogan, “Truly Asia,” could be misconstrued on smoky days. Luckily for the Yeti team, it rained and then it poured, and the smog cleared. They won one match, tied another and lost two. The memories will last a lifetime.