India’s “undeclared” blockade of Nepal has created a countrywide massive fuel shortage affecting life at all levels from driving to cooking, medical treatment and ability to assist earthquake victims. My piece for the New York Times. Every aspect of our lives is connected to fossil fuels.
I am old enough to remember the orange smog sitting over Los Angeles and the haze cloaking Manhattan, but my older kids, who grew up mostly in a much cleaner North America, consider my descriptions of air pollution family folklore. Then we moved to South Asia.
In Kathmandu, especially during the dry rainless winter months, the air we breathe dictates a fashion of sorts. Many people in Nepal’s capital wear multicolored dust masks. Women in saris or jeans wear them in pink and red, toddlers wear them, taxi and bus drivers wear them, police and army like them in black or camouflage. The swarms of motorcyclists that make the city a hair-raising place to drive look like Darth Vader, with masks or scarves under their helmets covering all but their eyes. Masks are so ubiquitous that the city’s many ATMs post big signs requiring that helmets and masks be removed before entering the booth.
Air pollution here is visible, touchable, intimate. The scientific name for the pollution that we breathe in Kathmandu is black carbon particulate matter, derived mostly from burning fossil fuels and suspended road dust. It’s the black grit that I wipe off my patio chairs twice a day and blow out of my nose. It’s the thick grey yellow haze that swallows up downtown Kathmandu during the driest winter months. It’s the black cloud-belching dilapidated trucks, the towering brick kilns that dot the valley spewing out their thick white spirals into the sky. It’s the black plume that wafts out of the humming metal-caged streetside generators. It’s the road dust coagulating upwards in clouds around the ubiquitous road construction sites. Fly in on a winter day and admire (yes there is a level of dark depressing awe) how the plane slices through a flat layer of continuous thick greyness just before it lands.
A mere 15 years ago, Kathmandu had clean air. Two factors transformed a valley that tourists called Shangri La. A decade-long Maoist civil war triggered a mass exodus of people from the countryside into Kathmandu, growing the valley population by more than 40 percent, to 3.5 million. Though infrastructure remains poor, rapid urbanization as well as easier availability of bank loans filled the valley with cars and motorcycles. By 2006, the demand for electricity had outstripped supply in a country that turns on its lights mostly with hydropower. Now more than ever, with winter power cuts reaching 18 hours-a-day, many businesses and households rely on diesel generators to provide power.
According to the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), up to 40 percent of the country’s total diesel consumption is being used to generate electricity during power cuts. In 2012, NOC estimated that the country generated roughly 531 MW of electricity from diesel generators, filling a 35% power deficit. Tons of Black Carbon, one of the principle agents of global warming and the second largest warming agent after carbon dioxide, are being pumped into the valley.
The Kathmandu valley is a bowl surrounded by hills that sometimes prevent pollution from dispersing. In the winter, the cold nighttime air doesn’t lift, creating a lid over the city and locking in the previous evening’s black carbon particulate matter. There is a reprieve during the summer months, when monsoon rains knock the black carbon down and improve daily air quality.
Measuring air quality is no longer done by the government. Kathmandu used to have six stations monitoring air quality but the last one fell into disrepair in 2006. It is now done on a case-by-case basis by Kathmandu-based ICIMOD ( International Center for Integrated Mountain Development). Nevertheless, the 2012 Environment Performance Index (EPI) ranking listed Nepal 130 out of 132 countries in terms of air pollution impact on human health and environment.
I knew these facts before I moved here but I looked at them differently when I began to live them. It’s the part of me that thinks I can be in control. I live on a ridge as far south of the Ring Road as commutably feasible. It helps me to know that the wind that blows across my place flows across the rural hills to the southwest and then across the city to the north. Most Nepalis don’t wear masks here. As a meager contribution to better air quality, I never use my own generator but have outfitted the house with enough solar power to power a fridge, the TV, wifi as well as a reasonable number of lights and outlets. But my ability to afford this alternative energy puts me in a minority. I have noticed subtle health markers. My colds come in the winter’s driest months of February and March and last weeks, not days, followed by chronic coughs. Nepal has no reliable hospital statistics on the increase of COPD(chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or other lung illnesses.
Bidya Banmali Pradhan, an associate coordinator for the Atmosphere Initiative at ICIMOD, has been tracking pollution patterns in Kathmandu for over a decade. ICIMOD is presently working with the government to set up a new monitoring station and is studying pollution’s socio-economic effect. There is no doubt that pollution will increasingly hurt tourism. Already, the big attraction of snow-capped mountains surrounding Kathmandu are only visible after a rare winter rain or a Maoist strike that bans all motor vehicles for the day..
Nepal’s climate, like much of its politics, is hostage to its huge southern neighbor. While the Kathmandu Valley has 120 brick kilns, the bordering Indian state of Bihar has about 30,000, says Pradhan. The winds carry black carbon into Nepal’s Terai and beyond, building the large Atmospheric Brown Cloud that moves from India into Tibet and beyond, the black particles slowly melting the Himalayan glaciers. The Terai, once a tropical winter refuge for Kathmandu residents, has been unexplainably blanketed in frigid fog for several years. This year, ICIMOD is convening a regional meeting of scientists to study this phenomenon.
Fog also seems to carpet northern India and Bangladesh for much of the winter. My iPhone reads it as “Smoke” for Delhi. Fog+Smog=Smoke, explains Pradhan. I find the winter air quality in Delhi more disturbing than what I breathe in Kathmandu. I measure taste and feel. In a recent week there, I rarely saw the sun. A pea-soup fog sat on top of the city like a metal pot cover. The air was cold, clammy, immobile, dense. Lucas, my nine-year-old, thought holding his breath might work during our Tuk-tuk rides. Flights were delayed for hours due to lack of visibility.
As I reflect on these experiences, I realize that I have a front-row seat on a major climactic change. The National Academy of Science has done the first long term study of climactic change and pollution impact on Indian agriculture says there is a significant loss in rice and wheat crops due to black carbon.
Pradhan says she does not wear a face mask. She notes that the only real protection against black carbon is from an N99 or N95 masks that are not sold in Nepal. She has tested it and the filter turns black every 24 hours and needs to be replaced. She is philosophical about her home country. “Once you are put in an environment, you feel normal,” she explains. “But when you come from cleaner places, you definitely feel the difference.”
In Kathmandu, I see it, I feel it, I smell it. And I too do not wear a mask.
“I am calling from Nepal,” I began the conversation with my usual opener. I was on the phone with Visa, my credit card having been blocked three times in one week. “That’s a tiny country between China and India,” I explained to the befuddled voice on the other end and then without pause added the tried and true clincher: “It’s the country of Mt. Everest.”
Sometimes, I feel tempted to skip the obvious and instead to share my favorite, rather obscure fact about Nepal. In 1996, when communism was already an anachronism, Nepali Maoists, with little base among the masses, began a brutal 10-year civil war. They weren’t sufficiently pure Maoists to be recognized by China but were declared terrorists by India and the U.S–though an Indian group, the Naxalites, are said to have provided them much of their military training. Their very first weapons, whose bullets heralded the opening of the war, were American-made and had been air-dropped to Tibetan rebels in 1961 to mount a revolt in China. To make the story even quirkier, the Maoist leaders are now in the fledgling new Nepali government. Their former military commander, who directed the war from India and who was believed by some to be a fictional character, today is still referred to by his ‘nom de guerre,’ Prachanda or “Fierce”, and remains a subject of Nepali gossip — not about where he may be hiding but about how he acquired his wealth and fancy cars.
There is a fast-fading moldy quotation painted in two-foot high bold lettering on the concrete wall that border the main avenue of Patan, Kathmandu’s sister city. “REVOLUTION IS NOT BED OF ROSES, it declares in what was once blood-red paint, before the rest of the sentence fades into black-leaching monsoon mold. The author’s originally spelled name resurfaces briefly: “Friedl Castro.”
Nepali communism (a unique brand that includes three separate and fractious parties) is far from dead but it has morphed and become part of the flow of the varied influences that define 2014 Nepal. And, yes, for the tourist mountain climbers and trekkers out there, it has even made it to Mt. Everest. With the official title of “Lumbini-Sagarmatha Peace March,” a 2012 expedition to Everest was co-led by Prachanda’s son and funded by the then-communist-led Nepali government. There are still black-stenciled faces of Chairman Mao around Kathmandu, and at election time last November the hammer and sickle was ubiquitous. A social media and Twitter coach might advise that they revisit their 1960s party brands: ‘Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)’; ‘The Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist- Leninist’. Catchy they are not. Businesses looking to invest in Nepal may also be a bit taken aback by politician’s business cards bearing these names from another era.
From absolute monarchy through a vicious civil war, a military coup and now a fledgling democracy, Nepalis, it often appears, struggle, survive and succeed despite, and not because, of their governments. With bleak employment opportunities in Nepal, more than two million Nepali youth work overseas mostly in the Middle East and Malaysia as an unskilled labor force. A similar number cross the border to look for work in India. Their remittances represent about 25 percent of Nepal’s GDP. Critics point out that fewer unemployed restive youth at home means fewer problems for the government. None of Nepal’s many political parties have come up with a “Yes We Can” style political slogan, but the common man has found a phrase to express his resignation to the water, fuel and electricity shortages, the slow progress in constitution writing, and even the weather. The quintessential “khe garne?” literally translates as “What to do?” This is not really a question as much as a manifestation of decades-worth of a culturally-fed apathy and fatalism.
Nowadays, the revolutionaries are not in opposition. In fact, many Nepalis believe that they share in government corruption; and they remain mixed and melded and molded with deeply ritualistic Hinduism and its hundreds of festivals. Bandhs (“strikes”), once a feared Maoist weapon, are now part of the mainstream, adopted even by right-wing Hindus–but, though they are occasionally violent, as in the rest of South Asia, observing uniquely Nepali manners, they are maintained only during business hours and not on any major religious holiday. Mahatma Gandhi’s most visible legacy in Nepal is the hunger strike, often undertaken by individuals to demand justice for crimes committed during the civil war. Some are very serious, like the hunger strike of the parents of Krishna Prasad Adhikari, murdered in 2004, demanding that the police arrest his killers believed to be Maoist cadres, but others are a little more comical, in a Nepali way, like a recent statement of various civil servants that they would undertake “relay hunger strikes” until their demands were met. I told my husband that I too would be on a hunger strike between lunch and dinner.
After living for four years in Nairobi, a city beset by violent crime and the danger of terrorist attacks, it has been a delight to live in Kathmandu for many reasons, including the lack of ubiquitous crime. I can go out at night, with no fear. Driving my car, I don’t have to check my rear view mirror to see whether I am being followed. I don’t even have to worry about drunk-drivers. Though Nepalis can drink–heavily–the Kathmandu police enforce zero tolerance for drinking and driving, and many an alcohol-scented driver has found himself stranded at a police checkpoint at night.
Yet national interest and community self interest often clash. Many Nepalis feel that only protests spark government responsibility. In the aftermath of an August 2nd landslide that destroyed villages, killing 156 people and burying more than 10kms of Nepal’s only major trade route to China, the local community’s “struggle committee” blocked army bulldozers from trying to address the ensuing problems, demanding first that the government deliver the aid that it had promised. Subsequently frustrated by government inaction, local businessmen are now building their own bypass road. The government appealed for funds in the local papers, printing a bank account number for Good Samaritan direct deposits. The Chinese ambassador delivered his government’s donation in cash.
In Kathmandu recently, where garbage disposal is beyond a crisis, residents of the neighborhood adjacent to the city’s only garbage dump (a way station to a bigger dump outside the city) complained to the local government about weeks of overflowing and unmanaged dumping. When the city ignored them, the locals padlocked the gate to the dump. Needless to say, the garbage got dumped anyway–somewhere even less appropriate.
Padlocking as a threat is often used in Nepal, especially by communist youth groups. This year when private schools announced a tuition hike, the youth groups padlocked and sealed the offices of the schools’ accountants, and added threats of violence for good measure. It was fairly effective–because they have a reputation of delivering violence, fire bombing buses and taxis and (just this week) trashing local newspaper offices.
Friedl Castro definitely had a point about revolution: it is not a bed of roses. Democracy is also a long, painful, and convoluted process. From 2011 to 2013, Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoist party’s ideologue, who has a degree in urban planning, was Nepal’s prime minister. It is his vision of widening Kathmandu’s narrow roads that is slowly untangling the capital’s horrific traffic jams. If only the contractors had remembered to add drainage ditches.
I dread Fridays. The anxiety can start the day before, and then the mornings find me pacing and monitoring the Internet, the local weather channel, a friend’s broadband radio and WhatsApp. On Fridays, my husband is scheduled to come back to Kathmandu from Bangladesh. It’s not that I don’t want to see him. Spending an occasional weekend together is a welcome treat. The problem is getting him here. Every week, what is in fact just an hour and ten-minute flight, a Washington D.C. to New York hop, can evolve into a several day ordeal, if it happens at all.
Kathmandu is a city of 3.5 million, and though air traffic cannot be compared to Delhi or Bangkok, it is not a backwater. Scores of international airlines come everyday, with heavy traffic from India, several Chinese cities, non-stop from as far as Korea and Turkey. Nepal, like Bangladesh, is a major supplier of migrant labor to the Middle East and Malaysia, and their airplanes land here as often as four times a day. If John were commuting from India, he’d have a vast array of airlines and departure times from which to choose.
But my husband is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital of 12 million. It used to have two airlines plying the Kathmandu route every day but a few months ago, without giving a reason, United BD dropped down to two flights a week, leaving only the national carrier, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, offering (on paper) five flights a week. Bangladesh is the only one of Nepal’s neighbors that offers so few flights. Even Bhutan, a country of 775,000, flies daily to Kathmandu. Filling the plane does not appear to be an issue. So why is it so hard for John to get here?
Nepal, a land of steep mountains, narrow valleys, unpredictable weather and few paved roads, offers 48 airports, though most are dirt strips precariously cleared on narrow mountain ledges. The Kathmandu valley is circled by hills (the Nepalis call anything under 4000m a ‘hill’) that require a plane to dive sharply down towards the airport. Auto-pilot is not an option here. It is required to be a visual pilot (not co-pilot) landing. The runway also has reoccurring problems, especially during the monsoon rains, when cracks widen and close the airport for hours or even a day or more. The local fauna gets in its dibs as well. Last month an earthworm infestation on the runway attracted so many birds that landings were suspended and planes diverted. Nearby garbage dumping also attracts birds that have cracked a few aircraft windshields. During the three-month long monsoon rains, thunderstorms and wind shear over Kathmandu can force planes to re-route to India and Dhaka.
A Nepali friend has hooked me onto FlightRadar24, and from the comfort of my Ikea lounge chair, I can follow live-time landings and take-offs into the valley. I have spent way too much time tracking the red loops made by as many as five little planes at a time as they circle over and over and over Chitwan National Park waiting for permission to edge towards Kathmandu.
Even before takeoff, Biman has challenges. State-owned, cash-strapped, with little transparency and a poorly-maintained fleet, its functioning planes get juggled from route to route. The Kathmandu route is a frequent victim. But even then, if and when you take-off, the problems are not always solved. The last week of July, the Nepal-bound flight caught fire when it blew four of its left-side tires as it landed in Kathmandu. No one was injured.
Last Friday, John went to the airport for his 11:00 a.m. Biman flight (Friday is the first day of the Bangladeshi weekend). Once there he was told it had been delayed to 4:00 pm, a common occurrence. The plane then took off on time but after a half hour, an announcement was made in Bangla that the plane had technical difficulties and would have to return to Dhaka. As the plane turned around, John saw a man wearing a Biman pilot’s uniform taking out a prayer rug from the overhead bin and commencing to pray in the aisle. Perhaps for that reason the plane landed safely?
Once back in Dhaka, passengers were then kept in the airport for five hours, with-half hourly promises of updates that never came, until 10:00 pm when Biman, faced by an angry plane-load of people, cancelled the flight. With Sunday a working day in Bangladesh, it didn’t make sense for John to attempt the next day’s flight.
A newspaper article a few days later explained that the A310-300 S2-ADK , the sole Biman craft that flies the Kathmandu route, had had a throttle stagger, a problem with the control that maintains the speed of the plane on landing and take-off. Two days before, this same plane had an unidentified technical glitch that again forced Biman to cancel the daily flight. The acting CEO of Biman had some vague and not very proactive words to share with his airline’s clients. “I have heard of frequent problems on the Dhaka-Kathmandu route and we might have to think about the A310-300 S2-ADK,” said Mosaddique Ahmed to the Daily Star newspaper.
I can hear my sister telling me: “Dony, stop being so pathetic!” In my foreign correspondent days, I flew sitting with chickens, goats, a metal bucket full of garlic- covered raw meat at my feet, standing behind the pilot during nose-dive mountain landings and sitting on bales of Khat in a propeller plane gutted of seats and flown by a pilot wearing a black bowler hat. It’s the frustration really. It means another week not seeing John. It means his having no choice but to take an unsafe airline to do his job. It’s the irony of Bangladesh. In our world of globalization, of instant communication, of apps that do everything but brush your teeth, in the world’s eighth most populated country home to brilliant novelists and poets, Nobel prize winners, world famous NGOs, the national airline can’t even maintain good connections with its neighbors.
This week, heavy and constant monsoon rains have been coating the region from Bangladesh across Bhutan and Nepal, and the fog enshrouds us here in Kathmandu in a thick white veil. Our house is on the main flight path and the grumble of passing jet engines are a soothing reminder that, yes, planes are still landing. Today a Nepali friend messaged me that he’d stopped for puja (worship) at Pashupatinath, one of the world’s holiest Shiva shrines, just to get a blessing for today’s Biman flight. There were no praying pilots on board this week. The flight circled a number of times over the valley. But the flight made it. A good day for the Dhaka commute.
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.
There is an allure to the mere word “Nepal.” I first came here in 1983, a single 20-something in search of adventure, which I thought I’d find on the trekking trail. I’d met three tall, muscled Australian guys on the flight to Nepal and one of our most memorable moments together was getting mugged our first evening in Kathmandu. The Aussies managed to catch one of our muggers and at 9p.m., on Kathmandu’s desolate main avenue, a traffic policeman commandeered a passing car and stuffed all four of us in it. He then managed to scrunch the mugger onto my lap for the trip to the central police station. Three decades later Nepal lured me back.
If the news is not about Everest, Nepal does not garner frequent attention from the International media. I get the question all the time: “What is it like to live in Kathmandu?” For me, living in KTM, as many call it, is not about Everest. I am not a climber and though I have Sherpa friends, they are what they call “Kathmandu Sherpas” and many do not even speak their ethnic language. I was raised in a French school that had me reciting the altitude of the Mont Blanc, 4,807 meters, and I am not planning to go above it. This is a potential challenge as Nepal offers 1,500 peaks above 5,000meters. My nine-year-old son is obsessed with Kanchenjunga (#3 highest in the world and by far the most unexplored of the high peaks). So Nepal? Well Nepal is quirky, fascinating, ever changing. I often feel that my everyday is an immersion in history, sociology, live-time economics lessons and human struggle. Never in my 15 years living overseas have I been so overwhelmed, mesmerized, inspired, exhausted and at times confused. I love it because I learn every day.
So let’s just leave Everest aside for a while. What happens on an average week in Nepal? You are always guaranteed a religious festival. The Rato Machchendranath (or Red God) will be on for most of May, a mix of Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism with a hand-made wooden chariot topped by a teetering rope turret and pulled daily by scores of volunteers around the streets of Patan.
The Maosits can’t make up their minds to get along while the Marxist Leninists are having trouble setting a date for a party meeting. Then it’s the economy. Nepal is a land of strikes – called Bandhs or closures – successfully executed by the Maoists for years as they hermetically closed down the country.
This week street vendors want to block all road traffic in three Nepali cities to protest the new government registration requirement. Fast-onto-death hunger strikes are very common as well protesting police and government corruption and most recently two cement workers went on hunger strike demanding contracts directly from the industry. Miraculously we have diesel and petrol this week as the always-broke Nepal Oil Corporation borrowed from the government to pay the Indians the February oil import bill. But even then, some of the tanker drivers run thriving siphoning off businesses and even the owners of the gas stations tamper with their gauges.
Not paying taxes is becoming a dangerous game for some big businesses. In Kathmandu, the battle is between the administration of Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) and the city’s plush five star hotels. Apparently foreign favorites such as the Hyatt, the Shangri-la, the Yak & Yeti and the Radisson have not been paying their property taxes.
Even worse, they have been ignoring bills from the KMC. Little was known about this on-going battle until the KMC stopped collecting the hotels’ garbage this week. In the stand off, it is unclear where the large amounts of hotel waste is ending up. Everyone’s guess is that it is joining the 60 percent of Kathmandu Valley’s garbage: in open dumping sites such as river banks, road sides and in any empty lot in the city. A great technique for attracting more tourists and more hotel reservations.
Last month, the tax authority closed down a wide range of casinos that had not paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in back-taxes. Not to be outdone, the Nepal Electricity Authority is chasing down defaulting government ministries and threatening to cut their electricity unless they pay back bills. Nepalese are quick to point out that electricity cuts might not be noticed as the valley already has 12 hours of load shedding a day.
Then there is the rain. Bad weather this week had been predicted to last at least six days. Occasional thunderstorms culminated in a storm that stretched into hours of unrelenting torrential rain, whipped left and right by winds while thunder rolled uninterrupted across the mountains circling Kathmandu. Sheet lightning alternated with grand Hollywood style blue bolts zig zagging across the skies. Newspapers reported that 82 people across the country were killed by lightning including one sherpa survivor of the Everest ice avalanche.
In Kathmandu, where many roads have been paved in the past few months in a city-wide road-widening project, it seems the contractors skimped on side ditches and connections to sewage systems. The city flooded. Driving home in close to zero visibility, I could hear the water lapping against the car while mini-rivers made of garbage and plastic bags overflowing from the drainage ditches that double as open sewers, rushed down into the intersections. Always looking on the bright side, the government declared that the rains were good news as now officials could identify before the monsoon hits the locations of the worst flooding.
The sad news is that KTM’s Tribhuvan International Airport removed a collection of Ruslan Vodka advertisements that greeted all arrivals and touted interesting facts about Nepal. “There are 48 airports in Nepal,” read one. The Nepali Times that ran a hilarious photo essay in turn commented: “Only 8 of them have bathrooms.”
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.
Nepal boasts 330 million gods and counting but none garners a more unusual collection of birthday well-wishers than Lord Shiva, the creator and the destroyer. In non- Hindu terms, Shiva is like the patron saint of Nepal. His spiky trident and his bull are ubiquitous from big city temples to impromptu shrines sprouting up in the middle of fields and roads. In fact, one of Hinduism’s holiest places, Pashupatinath, in the heart of Kathmandu, is one of the most renowned Shiva shrines as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This year Shiva’s birthday fell on February 27.
Maha ShivaRatri (Big Shiva Night) is a national holiday in Nepal. On the big day, thousands of devotees inched down the main road towards the main gate, tightly packed in a several kilometer-long snaking line waited to enter the holy room where they can worship the Shiva Lingam, a phallus symbolic of the regenerative power of nature.
But some birthday guests had come many days before. This year, more than 5,000 Sadhus or ascetic holy men who give up worldly possessions to achieve enlightenment, walked, biked and bused from far reaches of the Indian subcontinent and set up camp in every nook and cranny in the vast complex of Pashupatinath, making for a rather kooky birthday party.
Most of eastern Kathmandu roads were closed to traffic to accommodate the crowds. The massive temple complex on the banks of the putrid but very holy Bagmati River was crammed with people. Tiny shack shops were doing brisk business, loudspeakers were blaring and thumping a Bollywood religious song.
Pashupatinath is famous for its open-air cremations and the very distinctive both sweet and acrid smell of burning flesh and scented wood hit me even before I reached the three pyres that were brightly crackling, the smoke curling upwards into the grey sky. Amid the relatives of the dead squatting near holy men and asking for blessings, a young boy on very high stilts was entertaining a crowd of devotees. But this was not the scene that distinguishes Pashupatinath.
On an upper terrace, in between several small temples laid out around a square were hundreds of saffron robed Sadhus, scores of devotees, some tourists and about a dozen police. Some Sadhus, called Naga Sadhus, were naked or almost so. Many were smeared in ash with massive dreadlocks piled on their heads, colorfully painted faces and long beards.
One, with only a loincloth and a blanket, his eye rims bright red sat shivering and mumbling. In the chilly, drizzling morning, they shared home-made fires smoking more than burning on the stone pavement. The cremation scent quickly mixed with wafts of ganja (marijuana) that grew more and more intense as I walked deeper into the complex, stinging my eyes and coating my lungs.
This year the police were not allowing the open sale of drugs but some of the Sadhus were doing a brisk business with young Nepali men as police looked on.
While many devotees want to pay their respects to the Lingam, some do gather for blessings from these yogis who are thought to be very wise and gifted with special powers. Some Hindus consider them saints and the government of Nepal feeds and lodges them for their entire stay. The Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) estimates that about $14,000 will be spent on their room and board. The government also provides each one with a financial ‘gift’ when they leave.
The yogis may have been saintly and one claimed he was 110 years old but a lot of their holiness and their weird charm was lost for me as I watched their aggressive demands for money from anyone who wanted to take their pictures. In fact picture-taking was a brisk business. They may claim to forgo all worldly possessions, but many had easily available change for big bills. I photographed one foreign tourist busy posing one Sadhu in a variety of different poses against a wall. No doubt for a hefty fee.
Sadhus belong to different sects. There was one much smaller group of Sadhus that were given a wide berth by their fellow ascetics and by the crowds. These men, dressed entirely in black, are Tantric or followers of the occult and worship Bhairav or Shiva’s fiercest manifestation. Some Hindus believe that they live near cremation grounds and feed off of human remains. When I saw them they were eating rice.
Then of course, like at every huge party anywhere in the world, there are also the Birthday gate-crashers. Beware, not all Sadhus are real Sadhus.
As any tour company will tell you, Nepal is the land of the Gods. It is the birthplace of Buddha and home to a vast pantheon of Hindu deities. The power of these gods is taken seriously. Even the secular government has decreed that certain sacred peaks cannot be summited as that might anger the god who lives there. Yet dumping garbage in the country’s national parks and in the conservancy areas apparently does not bother these divine beings. Nepal’s holiest River, the Bagmati that flows into the Ganges, is fetid and dead. Garbage and in particular plastics, are not only a health hazard but fast becoming the biggest threat to future tourism in this country.
“If it continues at this pace, in 10 to 15 years, it will be impossible to trek in Nepal,” warns Jerome Edou, owner of Basecamp Trek, a travel agency, and also senior advisor to an NGO Plastic Free Himalayas. www.plasticfreehimalaya.org
In 2013, over 800,000 tourists came to Nepal. The vast majority of these were trekkers as well as Indian pilgrims going to the holy site of Muktinath among others. If each drinks two bottles of water a day, and uses plastic bags for every purchase, the mountains become home to millions of plastic bottles every year. As the joke goes: What is Nepal’s national flower? The blue plastic bag.”
Waste management is a critical problem throughout Nepal especially in the Kathmandu Valley with its booming population, polluted rivers and lack of a system to dispose of non- biodegradable garbage. But Edou says cleaning the mountains first can set an example and build a system for cleaning up the entire country. A plastic water bottle takes 450 years while a plastic bag takes 100 years to decompose.
Local mountain communities have tried on their own to ban plastics but the government’s lack of policy and legislation make it a sisyphian struggle. In Chhomrung, in the Annapurna Sanctuary, one of Nepal’s most visited trekking areas, Hem Bahadur, a lodge owner, followed by a dozen others, banned plastic bottles 13 years ago. But how can villages of a few dozen households deal on their own with the garbage detritus of tens of thousands of trekkers and religious pilgrims?
There is no ability to reuse or recycle plastics in the mountains. It is dumped in makeshift sites or burned, releasing dioxin, a carcinogen.
Lo Manthang, a stunning medieval village, is the capital of Upper Mustang District, and has been proposed by the Nepal government as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1992, when Upper Mustang opened up to tourists, plastic bags and bottles were removed from trekker bags at checkpoints. But the Maoist insurgency and lack of government leadership, stalled the anti-plastic movement. Until recently, the garbage of tens of thousands of tourists was just piled up on the town’s outskirts. The town understood that it was an eyesore and moved it one kilometer away from the main tourist route. Out of sight. Out of mind.
“It could be so simple,” Edou stressed. “Just don’t buy plastic bottles along the way. Use filtered water.” For Edou, there is only one solution in the mountains: a ban on all plastic bags and bottles. But to do this successfully, the government must promote clean environment in schools, encourage local businesses to produce alternatives and above all require lodges to provide filtered water. There must be a code of conduct for trekkers.
In Nepal, the mountains are a symbol of national pride. Thirty years ago, the mountains were all plastic free. Critics insist there is a lack of political will. Plastic bags are made in Nepal. And plastic bottles are a booming business here as well.
In Nepal, much of everyday life is about access to clean water. Municipal water supplies are inconsistent and unreliable. The history of bottled water in Nepal dates back to 1992 when there was only one brand on the market. There are over 55 now but studies and testing of water quality show that more than 50 percent of mineral water brands do not match World Heath Organization drinking water standards.
The simplest and less expensive alternative, says Edou, is an EPA-approved gravity filter that is already used in some villages. To change a way of life is always difficult. But the alternative spells ecological disaster.
Just 25km south of Nepal’s capital as the crow flies, the limpid Kulekhani River empties into the larger and heavily polluted Bagmati River, which flows in a series of twisting bends down from Kathmandu. In this narrow gorge bordered by steep treeless mountains that slice the blue sky, there are only a few mud houses perched on seemingly inaccessible ledges and on the riverside an army camp of plastic-covered quantum huts. This is the shortest way from Kathmandu to the Indian border.
To get here from Kathmandu, I took the shortest route passable by a 4X4 car – a 45km drive that took 2.5 hours on a narrow mostly-dirt road that hairpins over sheer precipices. The road is too narrow for the trucks that bring fuel, propane and all imported goods from India to the Kathmandu Valley. They have to take a 152km detour that on a map looks like a big C loop.
Inaccessibility is a defining characteristic of Nepal’s history. Much of Nepal is an endless sequence of steep hills and narrow gorges that abut the world’s highest mountains. Once you leave the Indian border and the Terai, the word flat or straight is rarely used to describe a road (outside the Kathmandu Valley). Whole areas have been so geographically isolated that Nepal, a country of 27 million, has 123 spoken languages and 125 ethnic groups. Today there are still far-flung areas of Nepal, especially in the northwest, that are not connected by any road and where all goods have to be brought in on foot or by donkey. After years of a violent Maoist revolt that tore Nepal apart, roads are a critical means of integrating and uniting a nation. Not only do roads facilitate trade and decrease poverty but they also provide isolated areas with security and medical care.
Most of Nepal’s roads are not paved and even on the paved ones, the maintenance is poor and irregular. Landslides are commonplace, especially during the torrential monsoon downpours. Vehicles, often overloaded, have frequent accidents.
Only Peru ranks up there with Nepal as the toughest country in the world to build roads. Today, the fastest way from Kathmandu to India is through the town of Hetauda on the dirt road I took. The main means of transport is the Tata Sumo, a 4X4 large jeep lookalike. A Sumo can cram 12 to 15 people inside and at least five sitting on the roof rack. Up to 800 Sumos a day aggressively ply this road that at one point curls up the sides of mountains and has redefined for me the meaning of the word ‘narrow’. The road has no shoulders. From the open window of our car, it is possible to touch the sheer wall of rock, on the other side our wheels are inches from a sheer drop of at least 400 meters. Below and across the river gorge, houses inch up the hills while white Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples perch on hilltops accessible only by switchback dirt trails that resemble goat tracks. Reverse is often the only way to deal with oncoming traffic. It takes five hours to the Indian border. Trucks take the longer 10-hour route.
The Nepali government has a four-year-plan. They want to build what they call a “Fast Track” road following the Bagmati River to India. This 91km-road would link Kathmandu with a new airport the government wants to build in the flat Terai land for bigger airplanes. The new airstrip is to be built in one of Nepal’s foggiest zones. Critics say this will affect airplane traffic. Tourists would then take the two-hour drive to the Kathmandu Valley.
Of course the airport won’t work if the road isn’t there. Challenges to building the ‘Fast Track’ are technical, financial and political. In the road sector, politicians often pressure the government to steer projects to their home districts. In one district in Nepal, the conflict between three political parties over the building of one bridge compelled the government to agree to build three bridges (one for each party) within 4kms of each other, but to date, no bridge has been completed as the project has become too expensive.Six months ago, at the confluence of the Bagmati and Kulekhani, the Nepali army enthusiastically blasted a segment of the ‘Fast Track’ through an overhanging mountain crag transforming it into a jumbled pile of jagged white boulders. Since then the work has stalled. Financing has yet to come through. International engineers estimate a cost of about US$1billion, 40 percent of which would go to building 9kms of bridges and 1.4kms of tunnel. Geologically, mountains are unstable in Nepal and no road tunnel has ever been built here.
The ‘Fast Track’ will exist though it probably will take 10 to 20 years. In the meantime, we continue to drive on our goat-like mountain paths with the nail-biting hairpin turns, incredible scenery, on Nepali time and dreaming of better roads.