Category Archives: living overseas

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Another Year — another Christmas — Half way around the world

Madeline and Lucas bonding with the "tourist" Sadhus at Pashupatinath, kathmandu. © Donatellal Lorch

Madeline and Lucas bonding with the “tourist” Sadhus at Pashupatinath, kathmandu. © Donatellal Lorch

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.

Biko on a warm day. ©Donatella Lorch

Biko on a warm day. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Donatella and John on a death-defying dirt road in Nepal © Jyoti Karki

Donatella and John on a death-defying dirt road in Nepal © Jyoti Karki

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.

Trekking with Lucas on the Annapurna Circuit © Milan Dixit

Trekking with Lucas on the Annapurna Circuit © Milan Dixit

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?

Violin lesson with Sabin Munikar. ©Donatella Lorch

Violin lesson with Sabin Munikar. ©Donatella Lorch

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 with his first of three casts. © Donatella Lorch)

Alex with his first of three casts. © Donatella Lorch)

Alex, Madeline and Nico © Madeline Zutt selfie

Alex, Madeline and Nico © Madeline Zutt selfie

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.

All of us together under Machhapuchare. © Donatella Lorch

All of us together under Machhapuchare. © Donatella Lorch

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.

Madeline and Nico in Toronto.

Madeline and Nico in Toronto.

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?

John and Lucas under a Pipal Tree, Wester Nepal. © Donatella Lorch

John and Lucas under a Pipal Tree, Wester Nepal. © Donatella Lorch

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.

Mina, center as a young professor at Columbia University

To Mina — With Love

Ready for hiking during hunting season ©Lavinia Lorch

Mina ready for hiking during hunting season  2013 ©Lavinia Lorch

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.

Mina with her grandson Lucas this summer holding up the poster for the launch of her most recent novel ©Donatella Lorch

Mina with her grandson Lucas this summer holding up the poster for the launch of her most recent novel:”Beyond Gibraltar” ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Mina writing in the second volume of the family book. © Donatella Lorch

Summer 2014 -Mina writing in the second volume of the family book. © Donatella Lorch

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.

Mina's 93rd birthday in Nairobi, Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

Mina’s 93rd birthday in Nairobi, Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

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.

Mina, always ready for a good time, with her grandson Alex, 2014 ©Lavinia Lorch

Mina, always ready for a good time, with her grandson Alex, 2014 ©Lavinia Lorch

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.

Mina with her daughters Lavinia (left) and Donatella (right) summer 2014 in New York City. ©Johannes Zutt

Mina with her daughters Lavinia (left) and Donatella (right) summer 2014 in New York City. ©Johannes Zutt

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.

Mina feeding her daughter Lavinia's Llamas and alpacas. 2013. © Lavinia Lorch

Mina feeding her daughter Lavinia’s Llamas and alpacas. 2013. © Lavinia Lorch

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.

air india take off

What an airport can tell you about a country’s growing pains

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.

Down we go! © Donatella Lorch

Down we go! © Donatella Lorch

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.

Planes landing at TIA skim Kathmandu rooftops. © Donatella Lorch

Planes landing at TIA skim Kathmandu rooftops. © Donatella Lorch

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.

So close yet so far. © Donatella Lorch

So close yet so far. © Donatella Lorch

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.

In Nepal's mountains weather is always capricious. This week it was deadly ©Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, a perfect storm leaves a trail of devastation

Last week, trekking the Annapurna circuit with my nine-year-old son, Lucas, we hit a deserted, particularly tough patch of trail that had been partially swept away by a landslide. Single file, one foot in front of the other, five of us gingerly and slowly made our way across a six-inch-wide uneven slanted ledge, a sheer cliff up to our left and a sheer precipice to our right. The previous day’s rain had soaked the shale underfoot and it moved slightly with our weight. Our guide shouldered Lucas’ daypack and held his hand tightly instructing him not to look down the hill but just to focus on his feet. I struggled not to let my son see my intense fear of heights. Later, we both agreed it was just part of the incredible and inspiring week we had spent hiking.

Why do people come to Nepal to trek?  The ever changing mountains take your breath away every moment of the day.©Lucas Zutt

Why do people come to Nepal to trek? The ever changing mountains take your breath away every moment of the day.©Lucas Zutt

In October, peak tourist season in Nepal, the main trails of the Annapurna Circuit are full of foreign trekkers. ©Donatella Lorch

In October, peak tourist season in Nepal, the main trails of the Annapurna Circuit are full of foreign trekkers. ©Donatella Lorch

This is not an unusual occurrence in Nepal, a land where mountains are steep and unstable, and weather patterns can transform a landscape in a split second. Everyday, newspapers print stories of roads wiped away by landslides, of villages marooned by snow falls or Monsoon-swollen raging rivers swallowing homes and fields. “In Nepal,” my friend Kunda Dixit warned me on this trek, “everything is further and more difficult than it seems.”

This week, at the height of the region’s trekking season, a perfect storm hit Nepal killing at least 24 foreign trekkers as well as seriously wounding Nepal’s tourism industry. Two days after cyclone Hudhud made landfall in Eastern India, it tore into Nepal. Lucas and I had just returned to Kathmandu when the storms started. In the Valley, torrential rain fell unabated for two days accompanied by ear-splitting thunder. Flights were cancelled or rerouted, almost all airports were closed.

Even before Hudhud hit, the mountain afternoons were fogged in and had heavy rain. ©Donatella Lorch

Even before Hudhud hit, the mountain afternoons were fogged in and had heavy rain. ©Donatella Lorch

The weather in the mountains was even more vicious and unpredictable especially in the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), a favorite for trekkers who call it the Annapurna Circuit, an area that encompasses 7629sq kms. Blizzards and avalanches in Manang, near Thorong La Pass(5416m)and at Dhaulagiri Base Camp killed the trekkers most of them foreigners. But in this vast isolated area frequented by a huge number of tourists, it is unclear who is still missing.

Before Hudhud hit, we had hail storms where we stayed over 3,000m ©Donatella Lorch

 We had hail storms where we stayed over 3,000m ©Donatella Lorch

One man slipped off a muddy path and fell into a river. He has not been found. We know about him because he was with many other trekkers. What about the more isolated areas of Manaslu and Langtang and the Tsum Valley? Even before Hudhud hit, the weather during our seven-day trek brought rain every afternoon turning into hail and snow at higher altitudes. Many of the smaller, narrower and desolate trails, like the ones we took, had landslides and were already water logged. We were four and had a guide as well as two porters (they moved way faster than we did) so we had safety in numbers as well as knowledge of the area. The only road to the northern part of the Annapurna Circuit takes you to Jomson. A good chunk of it is dirt and last month it was closed for a week because of rock fall. You can fly to Jomson, but only subject to the unbendable Nepali mountain rule: weather permitting. Even in good weather, flights cannot land in Jomson after 10am because of high winds. Fall and break a bone and you have two options: a helicopter or a multiple hour trip lugged in a stretcher to a road or an airstrip.

The flight Pokhara-Jomson offers stunning views and is very close to the mountain tops. ©Donatella Lorch

The flight Pokhara-Jomson offers stunning views and is very close to the mountain tops. ©Donatella Lorch

We met a group of three soloing young Americans from Colorado. They had no phones, an incorrect map (trekking map quality is poor in Nepal) and understandably a desire to get off the very beaten track and lose the hordes of other tourists. They had not registered at the US Embassy and their families did not know where they were going. Then there were the young Nepali tourists, climbing up the mountains in sneakers, without winter gear and most importantly not carrying any water. The Indian religious pilgrims that flock to the shrine in Muktinath near Thorong La Pass are also not prepared for winter. The women wear silk saris and thin shoes and ride up to the shrine on mules. And sometimes even if you are an expert mountaineer, the mountains can still claim you. Many years ago, Kunda’s brother, Kanak Dixit, had crossed the Thorong La Pass and was walking solo down past Manang when he slipped on the muddy trail and fell hundreds of feet down a cliff. He lay there badly injured for 48 hours before his brother found him. Kanak was helicoptered out and spent months in hospital. He still treks every year in all seasons.

It is a pristine Kathmandu afternoon today, a side-effect of a perfect storm. In front of me, the dark green of the valley’s hills melts into the emerald rice paddies, many flattened by the storm. My week in the high mountains taught me respect and made me fall in love. In the high mountains, I know the clouds and the evening cold will have already moved in. I hope the injured have been found.

Rains rolling into the Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

Monsoon Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing escapes the rain. ©Donatella Lorch

Nothing escapes the rain. ©Donatella Lorch

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

The icon never changes. ©Donatella Lorch

The icon never changes. ©Donatella Lorch

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

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

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

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

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

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

The roiling Bagmati River tears through Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

The roiling Bagmati River tears through Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

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

Dawn over the Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

Dawn over the Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

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

This sunset can speak for itself. ©Donatella Lorch

This sunset can speak for itself. ©Donatella Lorch

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