My piece for USA Today
Tangled Journeys on NPRnews.
I like to think that feeding the dogs has made me a better person. But that would elevate me to a place I don’t belong. At first, when I moved to Kathmandu almost two years ago, I was scared that one of the many unvaccinated stray street barkers would attack Biko, my 95-lbs Rhodesian Ridgeback when I took him out for walks. Nights, they howled, yelped, ululated and whimpered incessantly, up and down the street, echoing into the valley and down onto the main road. They were part of the cacophony that drove me crazy my first months in Nepal. In addition to the dogs, I fantasized about shooting the pigeons on my window sill, snaring crows that dropped rotting bones on my porch and sneaking in pitch darkness over to my neighbor’s house to cut his electricity wires and terminate the high pitched Bollywood songs that could not be blocked out even with earplugs and pillows over my head.
There are about 20,000 stray dogs in the Kathmandu Valley though only about 30 of them live in a square block area around my house. Eight of them live on my street. They are community dogs in the sense that they live their lives out on a territory of a few blocks and are fed scraps by shop owners and passersby. They drink from the open sewers. I have seen them occasionally petted but more often kicked, tortured by little kids, hit or just ignored.
Last August, one of them, a long-legged, thick-haired black female was hit by a passing car in front of my house. Not wanting her to wait for death while lying in the ditch (or maybe not wanting to see her wait for death), I called a mobile vet who anesthetized her on the spot and brought her down to the animal hospital on the back of a motorcycle. This wasn’t a great act of charity on my part. Transport, vaccinations, deworming and three days of treatment for an injured back leg, after some bargaining, cost me less than $50. I promised my husband that I would not adopt her. She returned to the streets.
I named her Raksi, after the local moonshine. She’d been blinded in her left eye by a sharp object and had a habit of rolling her head to a side so as to expand her field of vision, just like the neighborhood drunk next door. I started to feed her every day outside my gate. She’d recognize my car as soon as it turned the corner and in her trademark weaving run, head up the middle of the road regardless of on-coming speeding buses. Raksi has more than street smarts. Fortified by the daily meals, she rapidly became the self- entitled queen of my street, ruling with a bossy and iron hand that consisted of barking and biting her contemporaries. Other canines, when they see Raksi, are quick to give up sunny sleeping spots and scrounged food. Her single-mindedness turns aggravating when she dashes through our opening gate and makes a run for the house and the kitchen to plop down on Biko’s bed, fleas and all. No pulling, yanking or yelling can get her out, only luring her with dog biscuits. Unlike any of the other strays I have encountered, she greets me with high chest jump, tail wagging and sharing mud and dust. She uses her mouth as a hand shake, gently holding my hand with her very sharp white teeth.
Feeding only one dog does not work in Kathmandu. Raksi’s highly subservient partner soon joined her. Tentative and weak, we named him after a local politician. He had mange. Another veterinary bill. A red brown Raksi look-alike followed suit. Neighbors say she is a half sister, so we called her Whiskey to keep the alcohol theme in the family. Feeding time on our driveway is now a juggling art as Raksi needs to start eating before the others or an all out whirlwind brawl ensues. The gate gang has also adopted Biko, whose philosophy on his daily walks is that most dogs are to be ignored or barely tolerated. His attitude does not impress Raksi. Irrepressibly playful, she jumps on him, licking his nose and they occasionally chase each other around our lawn in a mad frenzy. They all follow Biko on his daily walk. Whiskey rolls on her back, feet up in total subservience when he approaches. Raksi places herself between me and Biko. If a strange dog approaches, Raksi takes the lead, barking to make him back away.
I find it hard to say no or even to set a limit at five. I fed a terrified pregnant bitch – we named her Kali – both before and after her nine puppies were born. Raksi was impossibly nasty, attacking her every day with bared teeth. I hated Raksi then. And on many days, I find her hard to tolerate. Yet I do respect her and that irrepressible chutzpah that I know makes it possible for her to survive and thrive on the street.
As a child, growing up in a Manhattan apartment, I relentlessly begged my father for a dog. He attempted to console me with a total of 16 parakeets, though thankfully not all at the same time. My husband gave me Biko, my first dog, as a Mother’s day present six years ago when we lived in Kenya. My four kids tease me that I love Biko more than any of my human children. But no one gave me Raski or her gang. Knowing them, means I am no longer intimidated by all the other plentiful strays. I’ll catch myself talking to these Kathmandu denizens as I pass them on my runs.
I carry dog snacks in the car for the dogs at the airport and at my son’s school. And cocoon-like, the hours of nighttime barking now lull me to sleep. I can easily recognize Raksi’ s lilting shrill howl. Kathmandu is without doubt my home.
It’s been quite a week here in Kathmandu: the crash-landing on March 4th of a Turkish Airlines plane in Nepal’s only international airport closed it for four days. That meant about 80,000 people were stranded trying to get in or out of Nepal.
“We start digging the well when we see the fire” says a Nepali friend describing the level of preparedness for dealing with an airplane crash on the runway. Or as my husband, John, who was stranded in Bangkok, likes to tell our three boys: “You’re on your own, bud.” Hardest hit were the tens of thousands of Nepali migrants workers who not only had to bunk down on airport floors but who worried about losing, before they even started, the menial jobs for which they had mortgaged themselves for years to loan sharks.
There was no government communication system in place to keep passengers informed but there some very dedicated Nepali journalists on Twitter. It was possible to follow the drama 24/7 in 140 characters or less. The disabled plane blocked the airport’s only runway, and every failed attempt to move it (there were many), every inch of molasses-slow towing, was documented in detail. The Nepali Times rechristened Tribhuvan International Airport as Tribhuvan Intermittent Airport.
On Day 2 of the crisis, after Thai Air told him that he and other passengers on the cancelled flight were on their own, John decided that he needed to adopt the DIY attitude that many Nepalis have towards their government: he decided to fly to India and cross the border to Nepal by car. On Twitter, Nepali journalists nicknamed this course of action the first Indo-Nepali automobile rally, and posted different route options. One small catch for many tourists: you needed an Indian visa that allows land crossings, a visa that John luckily already possessed. So instead of a quick three-hour flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu, he flew five hours to Delhi and then one hour to Lucknow, hired a car for the five-hour ride to the Nepal border at Nepalganj, a rather sleepy town about 14 hours by car from Kathmandu, and then took a small plane to Kathmandu. (While the Turkish Airlines plane blocked the runway for large international aircraft, enough of the runway was clear for small domestic aircraft to land, albeit in the opposite direction to usual landings at TIA.)
It was the major Hindu festival of Holi, so immigration staff in Nepalganj was skeletal on both sides. Getting an exit stamp on the Indian side was relatively easy, but on the Nepal side, the woman sitting in the immigration office insisted that she was not authorized to stamp John’s passport. Knowing that a future exit would require it, John refused to leave and the woman relented after telephoning someone in authority and, with John’s assistance, finding the appropriate stamp in a desk drawer.
When the airport opened at 7:30 p.m. on March 7th, the Nepali government announced it would remain open 24 hours a days to move stranded passengers. Airlines doubled and tripled their number of regular flights and by the next afternoon, the scene on both the ground and in the air was once again one of monumental chaos. TIA, a small airport with only one runway and nine parking bays, was trying to land 80 international flights a day (and many domestic ones).
FlightRadar24, which records live air traffic around the world, showed a massive sky-jam over Chitwan National Park, with as many as seven planes at a time circling for over an hour waiting to land. On the ground it wasn’t much better. Airplanes there sat on taxiways for another hour or more waiting to unload their passengers. Visa lines and baggage claim were a sea of packed human sardines. This is the beginning of the peak tourist trekking and mountain-climbing season in an industry hard hit by October 2014’s Annapurna snow avalanches and April 2014’s tragic icefall on Everest.
In the midst of all this chaos, Shah Rukh Khan (@iamsrk), a Bollywood star who is also a Nerolac Paints Nepal brand ambassador, was coming to Kathmandu to launch the company’s “green initiative”, aimed in part at encouraging people to convert their used Nerolac paint cans into flower pots. It’s hard to believe that on March 9th, his Falcon executive jet didn’t get priority landing. Regardless, someone at TIA decided that the best time to close the airport (again), so as to move the Turkish Airlines plane, was around the time this Bollywood personality landed. It was also the busiest time in the sky. Three incoming flights were rerouted to other cities when their “holding fuel” ran out and others circled endlessly in the skies over Chitwan. In the Nepali border town of Raxaul, some worried that the unrecognized dense air traffic were UFOs.
As for John – he will soon have to leave again, hopefully by plane and on a non-delayed, non-stop flight.
I have a dismal memory. That is the main reason that I write yearly birthday letters to my family. It is also the one birthday gift that I expect from my three sons and daughter. My husband is not as easily coercible. But I write because I am scared that the longer I wait, the more the past will blur. The selfish endgame that I pound into my kids is that the gift will always be there.
Lucas, you hit the double digits on March 4th in Nepal and you already have nine of my yearly letters in hard copy, on your Aunt Vinny’s hard drive in New York and not on one but on two external hard drives (our entire lives on “earthquake back-ups” since we live in Kathmandu, the land of potential cataclysmic earthquakes.) Yes – I overcompensate and over prepare but someone in our family has to right?
The other night, your beloved and huge dog Biko woke me up at 2AM, whining and moaning and in need of dashing out to our lawn regardless of the torrential rain storm buffeting the Kathmandu Valley. No doubt a race induced by my feeding him a large portion of raw water buffalo for lunch. In hindsight, I admit I was overzealous with a potentially misguided desire to appeal to his carnivorous ancestry. I then tossed awake for hours, incapable of mindful mindlessness, while you lay asleep near me. For over a year, Dad has had to live in Dhaka, trying to come home for short weekends to visit us in Kathmandu. You never complain though on occasion you’ll whisper that you miss him. Part rational philosopher and part charming manipulator who knows my earthquake anxieties well, you reasoned with me that it was best for us to share a bed as Kathmandu winters are bitter cold and its better to be together if the earthquake hits us in the middle of the night. I acquiesced as you slip back into your bed with a snake’s ease when Dad’s in town.
Our family size has been slowly shrinking year by year as your siblings headed off to college and boarding school in North America and this year I noticed how much we had also become companions. We share this quirky intense world that is Kathmandu. You get it. You love it. Somewhere in between your obsession with war planes, the Marine Corps and LHAs (Landing Helicopter Assault ships – admittedly I did introduce to you The Belleau Wood, the LHA that I was on as a reporter in 1995), you have an innate ability to live in the instant which I know keeps me grounded. We think its normal to have open sewers on our street and we share a mutual exasperation about the ubiquitously dumped garbage. You walk shot gun with a bamboo lathi keeping stray street dogs at bay when we take Biko for long weekend hikes and you don’t mind that we live in the Kathmandu Valley urban boondocks which makes visiting friends a bit complicated. “It’s good that we live here on a ridge,” you explained to me the other day. “This way we are above most of the pollution and the black carbon here will only shorten my life by a few days.”
Some might say that I am an over protective mother. I am not keen on heading out of town and leaving you with friends. Yep – that damn earthquake phobia again. But I don’t think age should decide whether or not you witness the realities of life around us. I took you to Pashupatinath where you saw not one but three on-going cremations up close and personal. We have a cremation site down the road from us and when in use, you’ll point out that it “smells of BBQ” when we drive by. Like the open air butcher shacks, the ubiquitous Hindu shrines and even the occasional elephant strolling among whizzing motorcycles with half a tree on his back, it is all now a normal routine. I find it ironic that you were baptized a Catholic and both Dad and I used to be practicing believers but you seem to know more about Shiva and Laxmi, Ganesh and Vishnu (the Nag and the roiling sea of milk) than about the bible. You’ll point to a motorcyclist dressed all in white and say with your British-Nepali lilt: “Mum, that man is in his 13-day mourning period for his father.” You cheer up on days when the Maoists declare city-wide, non vehicular traffic strikes because it means biking to school. Every week you watch all the New York Times on line videos (using up all my iPad battery power) and on Dad visits, World War II has taken up entire afternoons drawing out the siege of Stalingrad and then the fall of Europe on restaurant paper under-plates.
You are my reason and my excuse to explore. I owe you a debt of gratitude. This year, two trips have deeply influenced how you feel about living so far away from the rest of the family. You and I and our friends, Milan and Kunda, trekked the Annapurna Circuit past the horrific tourist traffic jams to the isolated refuge of Dobato, surrounded by the Annapurna and Machhapuchre peaks. Maybe it was the Zen-provoking feeling of hiking upto eight-hours-a day (with your heavy day back) though all I felt was sore feet, or the hours with nothing to do but watch the 8000meter peaks through sunshine, snow and hail, the ubiquitous runny dal bhat or the frigid nights, wearing all our ski clothes. You had only one sentence for the aches and pains I suffered: “Trekking is really the best Mum.”
On our agenda for this new year of yours: we still have to work on convincing Dad to trek. I also learned that as a nine-year-old, you – unlike your mother – are a gifted diplomat. Thank you for voting with me to visit the Rub’al Khali desert in Oman and overriding Dad’s veto. And thank you for deftly manipulating the tension between the two of us as the sun went down on the desert dunes and Dad informed us he really did not want to be there. Then at dawn the next morning, with our legs shin deep in frigid fine red sand, you turned to me and just said: “I could stay here forever.”
On March 4th, you turn 10 years old. There are constants you bring with you: daily Facetime with Dad, your dog Biko, guaranteed wild summers with siblings and cousins and living with me. Everything else is an unknown adventure. With that in mind: March Forth.
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.