My piece for USA Today on Nepal’s violent and frequent strikes that are paralyzing the country.
My piece for USA Today
Here is my piece in the New York Times — how uncertainty and helplessness feeds fear and hyper vigilance
Winter has come to the Kathmandu Valley, with what the weather people here say is an unexpected cold snap. But after a year and a half living here, the unexpected is really the new normal. The high mountains have got more than five feet of snow so far this winter, stranding trekkers (rash enough to trek in December). Planes aren’t flying, and motorists in the far East, North and West of Nepal have been stranded for several days on snow-bound roads. And no, there aren’t any warm places to stop for a snack, and there are no nearby motels.
Meanwhile, in the Kathmandu Valley, it’s raining, which means temperatures are dipping to nearly freezing. There is no heat in the houses, and so we wear long underwear, multiple shirts and sweaters, down-filled jackets and fleece hats—inside the house–and sit very close to the fireplace and go to bed with hot water bottles right after dinner. I’ve broken down and bought our Rhodesian Ridgeback, Biko, a winter jacket to help him stop shivering.
As part of my tiny effort at reducing black carbon emissions – Kathmandu ranks as one of the world’s most polluted capitals – I try never to use our diesel generator – which is challenging in a city that in the dry winter months provides its denizens with only about six hours of electricity a day. But we are lucky to be in 2015 as in another few years, if Nepal cannot harness its massive hydropower potential, the valley’s rapidly growing population (4 million now and estimated to reach 15 million by 2045) will consider power grid electricity a rarity.
Kathmandu was originally home to our nine-year-old son, Lucas, Biko and myself—John, my husband and Lucas’s father, spends most of his time in Dhaka, where he works. Here in the valley, we seem recently to have added an adopted family of stray dogs that live outside our gate and grows each week as I deliver daily bowls of steaming rice and left-over meat in the hope that it will help the dogs cope with the nighttime cold.
Living here has been a godsend for me. I write and explore, both physically and mentally. The Kathmandu Valley is a gem of ancient art and living religions that date back to the early centuries of the common era. It has taken me over a year to begin an acquaintance with the dizzying complexities of Nepali and Newar cultures (the Newar were the valley’s original inhabitants). We live just up the road from Khokana, one of the oldest Newari towns in the valley, a place where medieval traditions continue: stables in the ground floor, butchering in the street, morning bathing on the doorstep with a pitcher of water, and lots of sidewalk and street-side activities like rice drying and wool carding on an ancient spinning wheel. I love my weekly runs through Khokana and the neighboring amphitheater of fields that alternate summer rice paddies with winter wheat and potatoes, with many of the villagers walking the paths out into the fields in the mornings to attend to their crops. And where else in the world can one live these days where there is not just one Maoist party, but three Maoist splinter parties fighting one another for supremacy?
Lucas, who before spoke English with a Swahili accent when we lived in Kenay, now has a Nepali lilt, with essential Britishisms such as “dustbin” (rarely seen outside his school) and “tipper truck” (increasingly the most popular and overloaded vehicle in the Valley as road and building construction booms). He is keen on becoming a fighter pilot as well as a Marine Corps engineer. With limited television, he now is addicted to the New York Times videos and to re-runs of Top Gear viewed on my Ipad. Internet videos about aircraft carriers of various kinds are also extremely popular on cold winter days.
John lives in Dhaka, working a grueling schedule in Bangladesh and commuting to his two other World Bank countries Nepal and Bhutan, with side trips to Delhi, Dubai and Washington D.C. Dhaka is one of the few capital cities even more polluted than Kathmandu or Delhi. It is not an ideal family life, but we have worked out a modus vivendi and structure our time together by using Lucas’ school term breaks as a chance to visit the region. In the past year or so, we have been able to visit Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. John lives mostly on planes and even though his commute from Dhaka should in theory be only 1hr10 mins, it has been as long as 11 hours due to weather and technical delays. Kathmandu winter fog, further weighed down by heavy pollution, can close down airspace for hours.
Our Christmas gift to the family is that all six of us will converge from four countries and two continents—all now in winter– somewhere warm. This time, because of the logistics of moving the kids from half way around the world, we are meeting in Thailand. Raising kids while living overseas has recently meant for us longer times apart, as they hit their upper teens and head back to North America for schooling. Interestingly, we haven’t had a family argument in over three years. We speak more about “missing” rather than “wanting.” We laugh more. We make a point of having holidays together and then of connecting over long dinners. The kids have made sure we are geared up to communicate: through FaceTime, Skype, Whatsapp, email and even the traditional landline.
Alex, now 17 and hitting 6 feet, is about to finish high school and has applied to a number of colleges without asking for parental advice or assistance (except for filling out financial forms). From the extended family that sees him on long weekends, we understand that he is incredibly helpful cooking and cleaning. He remains an avid reader of Kant, Joyce, Woolf, Shakespeare and other writer-philosophers as well as the captain of his school’s Ultimate Frisbee team. This summer he showed himself an adept stunt diver, hooking his finger as he leapt through a hoolahoop into a Catskill pond and breaking his writing hand. All this was exquisitely timed, done on a Sunday the day before we headed back to Kathmandu. Three doctors, three casts, two countries and one week later, he was happily teaching Ultimate Frisbee to Nepali school kids with his left hand.
Nico, 20, is a junior in Physics and Philosophy at University of Toronto where he frequently ponders the greater meaning of life, a mental activity that entails long calls with John about the reason for man’s existence. I’d like to say that he chats with me about Quantum Physics but there are those that know that I barely passed high school physics and chemistry. Though he still does not have a Canadian driver’s license (his Kenyan one is unusable outside of East Africa), he has a boat piloting license and does a pilot and tour-guide double on Lake Eerie.
The oldest, Madeline, 22, studies Political Science and will graduate from the University of Toronto in the spring of 2015, with some trepidation about what will happen next. (I am sure that many of you have been there—I certainly have!) Madeline and I are the outliers in the family, as we don’t like Maths or science and enjoy the occasional People magazine. Mado is also the one who keeps the family together. With an unfailing self-deprecating humor, she makes sure she stays in touch with everyone on a regular basis. John, Lucas and I are trying to convince her to come to Nepal for a year. Who wouldn’t want to drive on death-defying roads, live without heat in winter, get bitten by leeches during the monsoons, and wake to the rattling bells that summon Shiva at 5:15 in the morning?
The magic of Nepal works in mysterious ways. Even the calendar overwhelms. There are 50 national holidays a year (I believe including Christmas) and more than a handful of New Years celebrations. If Madeline comes, she will have a lot of time off. Nothing is ordinary here. Nothing is what it seems.
I just clicked on the New York Times “most emailed” article on Tuscany and Machiavelli and sent it to my mother. Machiavelli was the last class she taught before retiring as a professor at Columbia University and I thought what better way to connect across the miles on her birthday. I’ve lived overseas for six years now and distances are still tough to bridge. Between Kathmandu and New York, the 10hr and 45min time difference means email and Facetime have been my two main ways of communicating with her. She has long ago given up my childhood companion, her manual olive green Olivetti typewriter, for the less noisy touch of Microsoft Word and Gmail. Today Maristella, known these days to her children and friends alike as Mina, turns 95.
In the jumble of the everyday, the every year, the talk of weather and health, of ISIS and Hong Kong protests, and my mother’s adamant arguments that I should go back to studying Sanskrit since I live in Nepal, I never seem to have found the time or the patience to articulate what only I know and only I have experienced as her youngest child. I am sad that yet again, living half way around the world, I am not celebrating with her.
My mother never bought me a doll. It was not her way. She prefers to weave tales, some real, some fantasies and some caught in between the two. She put me to bed with them and on long car rides between churches, museums and ruins in Europe, I’d curl up my head on her lap and follow the exploits of Alexander the Great or the battle of Thermopylae or my mother’s adventures as a partisan in World War II Rome. I can still feel the silky touch on my cheek of her brightly colored scarf that she lay over my head to block out the afternoon sun. Occasionally it was replaced by a sharp cornered road map. As an adult I became aware that my mother has no sense of direction and therefore the map was without doubt not used to guide my father.
As I grew older, and was introduced by her to the wonders of books, I learned to leverage reading knowing that Mina would let me skip washing dishes if I went off to the couch to read “War and Peace.” If reading became my escape and her tales of wars ignited my desire for adventure, we also clashed a lot on the way. I had to learn French, Latin, then Greek and when I eventually convinced her I could drop Greek, she replaced it with German. That meant that every weekend, hours were spent butting heads on homework assignments.
But exploring has always been our special link. Though more than 40 years of her life have been spent at Columbia University, she, like me, feels the need to see and smell and feel different worlds. My mother has kept all of my hundreds of loneliness-filled aerogrammes I wrote her during a post college year studying Chinese in Taiwan and then wandering South Asia. She has gotten on many planes to visit me and not to reach idyllic vacation spots. In Peshawar, Pakistan, where I was a stringer for The New York Times, she insisted on visiting refugee camps and the families of the Mujaheddin fighters I travelled alongside in Afghanistan. She ignored my strict instructions not to interfere in my reporting and asked Abdul Haq, a senior Mujahed commander (who was later killed by the Taliban in 2001) to swear to her his men would keep me safe. The following year when at the UN General Assembly in New York, Abdul Haq dropped by her apartment with a dozen red roses.
In Africa for the The New York Times, having “Mama” along on interviews opened innumerable doors though she did occasionally weasel in time for her own questions. Before I could begin my interview with Kenneth Kaunda, the legendary first president of independent Zambia, Mina and Kaunda opined for over half hour on every topic from St. Augustine to Apartheid and World War II. When I covered post- genocide Rwanda before the wide-spread use of the internet, Mina sent the Hotel Milles Collines daily faxes to me commenting in detail on my day’s article. They were all written in her scrawling, looping, mostly illegible handwriting and my response always included: “Please type!” When I told her I planned to leave The New York Times for NBC News, Mina, whose New Yorkness is defined by the Old Grey Lady, switched to Italian, her language for the most serious of conversations: “Ma sei pazza?” she asked me. “Are you crazy?” She did eventually come around.
These days she Facetimes to find out why my nine-year-old son, Lucas, is not learning Nepali history in the British school in Kathmandu and she is relentless about admonishing me to find sacred Hindu texts to study in the local university libraries. The fact that I am more interested in the legacy of a Maoist civil war and the problems of creating infrastructure in Nepal is irrelevant to the conversation.
My primary image of my mother has always been of her writing, teaching or reading. (You can find her novels on Amazon under Maristella Lorch). Her apartment bookshelves overflow with diaries, lectures and heavily underlined and annotated books. I tease her that its hard to go anywhere without meeting one of her students who probably will describe her reciting the Divine Comedy in a class 30 years gone. Lucas and I believe that our Rhodesian Ridgeback must be related as, like her, he insists on accompanied long daily walks. And every time Mina brings up the subject of walking – which is every day -I slip back to her childhood tales of when her own mother made Mina and her three siblings hike up the local mountain in Northern Italy, lugging their Latin homework and the pot to cook the lunchtime polenta.
Scratch the surface and you’ll find the party girl who even hand carried a frozen turkey to Rwanda to cheer up my friends far from home. Mina never likes to be left out. At a get-together in Nairobi, she convinced a dashing blond British cameraman that what he really wanted to do was take her to Mogadishu (I blocked that plan). If there is an image I treasure of Mina in action is watching her barefoot in an ankle length wispy summer dress, dancing and twirling with my father on our lawn in the Catskills. She’s a woman who is always ready for another adventure. Age, after all, is just a number.
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.