My piece for NPR.org.
Growing up in New York, I rarely associated religious festivals with a national or even a city holiday, though occasionally alternate side of the street parking was suspended – to my father’s delight.
Half way around the world, Nepal has taken the idea of religious festivities to another level. Beginning in late August and continuing until the end of October, religious festivals follow each other like tumbling dominoes, occasionally bridged by government holidays. The festivals can last a day or a more than a week. Parking, though, is not an issue in Kathmandu, a capital where parallel parking has yet to be discovered and the rule on the hair-raising narrow roads seems to be: “Never give way.”
It is a season when the complexities of Nepali society seem to surf above the capital’s physical chaos, pollution, political disorder and venality. The ties to yore, to myth, to custom and to religion may be a matter of worship or just a question of habit or a mere acquiescence to an insistent mother-in-law. In any case, Nepal’s festivals are not a matter that can be ignored.
Depending on how you look at it, life in Kathmandu either slows down as stores and offices close or it hums with an entirely different undercurrent. There are different colors, smells, noises. Traffic jams change locations. In Nepal, the kaleidoscope of Newar, Tamang, Chhetri, Brahmin and other holy days challenge the most ardent ritualists, who consult multiple types of calendars not only to stay connected with the outside world but also to follow the local customs. Most of the calendars are based on a lunar cycle, so every year, schools, offices and government nimbly have to readjust their schedules. To keep everyone on their toes, some holidays rely on astrologers.
This year, the season began on August 10th, with Janai Purnima, when Brahmins and Chhetri communities go visit their guru to have their sacred thread changed. For good measure, there are those who add on a dip in a local river. Just a day later, on the 11th is Gaijatra or Cow Festival, a huge event in the Kathmandu Valley, when you decorate your cow or one of the many stray bovines in your neighborhood and join the dancing, singing parades. Some choose to wear cow head-gear. It is meant to pave the way towards heaven for any relative that has died that year. As the end of the month nears, there is Father’s day and close by the day when Hindu priests give (or more precisely sell) the faithful some ‘Kush grass’ so that Vishnu will live in their home for the coming year.
Some festivals are all-inclusive, others pick their ethnic group, pointing in numbers to the changing ethnic powers in the Kathmandu Valley. Take Teej, which is followed by Chhetris and Brahmins but not by the Newars, the area’s original inhabitants. If color is a sign, then the Newars are far from being the majority they once were.
For the five days of Teej, observant women wear red saris, turning the entire valley into a red sea. The government closes down the roads in one of the busiest sections of Kathmandu so that thousands of red clad women can worship at Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Shiva shrines in the world. Red saris are scrunched against the windows of overloaded public buses or billow elegantly in an Isadora Duncan sort of way on the back of motorcycles. Teej is billed as a woman’s festival – but it is really about the men, for it is a time when a woman either prays for the well-being of her husband or, if she not already married, for a husband-to-be.
If a woman is very traditional, she will fast and she will also bathe her husband’s legs and drink the run-off water. This has some of my women friends in the States decrying marital abuse. But watching these red saris dancing in front of temples, standing and chattering on endless lines with their girlfriends and daughters, puja (offerings) and smart phones in hand, all bedecked in traditional gold jewelry, it is clear that, for them, Teej is not only about bonding but also about a great escape from endless daily chores and demanding husbands. It’s a time of year when gold prices in Kathmandu skyrocket. I’m inclined to believe that if you acquire new jewelry and a new sari, and spend five days with your friends, worshipping a husband is a fair exchange.
The festivities don’t end with Teej. A short break afterwards, there is an eight-day Indra festival in Kathmandu. More masked dancers and drums in procession with the Kumari Devi, or ‘Living Goddess,’ blocking more traffic. And then Nepal’s most universal and longest festival – Dashain – begins and continues for about 15 days. This year it falls at the very end of September. On the surface Dashain is a celebration of the victory of gods and goddesses over demons or of good over evil, but between the prayers, it is mostly a celebration of family and community. Flights into Nepal have already been booked for weeks now. Nepali migrant workers in the Middle East borrow money to return home, others fly in from the U.S. and Europe. Kathmandu empties out as families return to their ancestral villages spending long hours on buses and often walking the last bit to grandma’s old mud- wattle or stone house. Aside from hotels and a few restaurants in the tourist neighborhoods, Kathmandu shuts down. The sky is a jumble of kites maneuvred by young kids on rooftops. The chaotic traffic jams and the smog melt away.
This is a time of sacrifice – animal sacrifice that is. My friend Keshav, has been fattening his mutton for three years just for this year’s holiday. On October 1st this year, the day will begin with the army’s ritual throat-slitting of scores of buffaloes and then everyone has the go ahead to kill and feast on their own buffalo or goats and the drain-less roads will be covered in blood. Even if you live in an apartment, there is pressure to buy and butcher your own animal.
My favorite festival is none of these, but comes a bit later. After the dancing, chanting, techno-filled boom-blasted nights of Teej, just passed, I look forward to Tihar, the festival of lights, at the end of October. If poetry can transcend words, it is found at night in Patan’s old city. Every household creates on their road-side stoop mandalas of rice and painted flour lit by butter lamps. The narrow roads cornered by ancient temples are full of families strolling or going to prayer in the flittering, smoky lamplight. If there are no power cuts (and the government goes out of its way to avoid them during Tihar), cascades of Christmas lights decorate the taller buildings. Of course, modern times intrude. On Tihar, it is traditionally auspicious to buy metal; these days that means buying electronics, and so phones, televisions and stereos sell briskly.
Luckily, when it is all over, I won’t suffer from withdrawal. There are of course many more festivals during the year but in the meantime I still have my neighborhood Hindu priest to remind me I live in Kathmandu. Without fail, 365 days a year, he starts clanking his bell to wake Shiva at 5:15AM. I lie in bed, counting the 25 to 31 reverberating sharp and hard rings occasionally enhanced with some megaphone chants. When I moved here a year ago, the head-thudding noise forced me up and out of bed but these days, it has a soothing quality, alternating with the baying packs of neighborhood stray dogs and the coo-ing pigeons on my windowsill. I roll over, a smile on my face, knowing that the ancient is still there to guard the new day.
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 conversation with a Hindu friend in Kathmandu went something like this:
“Ram, are you a vegetarian?”
“Of course I am,” he answered.
“What is your favorite dish?” I countered.
“Chicken curry but it is very expensive so we mostly eat mutton curry.”
“But aren’t you a vegetarian?” I sputtered.
“Yes of course,” Ram assured me with a big smile. “I don’t eat beef.”
Since that first encounter with this new definition of vegetarianism, I’ve heard that explanation many times. It is often followed by a discussion on the holiness of cows. Nepal is a secular state, but just over 80 percent of its people are Hindu and it is illegal to kill cows here. Penalties are similar to those for manslaughter, so be extra careful when you drive around the Kathmandu Valley: city streets are a free range for all animals of all sizes, holy or not. This includes some 20,000 stray dogs as well as goats, ducks, geese, chickens, buffaloes, and many wandering cows – all accompanied by the ubiquitous cacophany of murders of crows that have given the capital one of its nicknames: Crowmandu.
I wondered whether my preconception of religious Hindus as complete vegetarians was misplaced, or whether Nepalis aren’t so religious after all? Yet, living in Nepal, I see, hear and smell religion everywhere.
Nepalis are believers, of a kind, and even the Maoists and Marxist Leninists seem to have overlooked the Marxist dictum that religion is an opiate of the masses. There are 330 million gods worshipped in this country, where only 10 percent of the people are Buddhist and a tiny percentage Muslim or Christian. At Christmas, my Hindu friend Jyoti, wanting me as a Catholic to feel included in Nepali life, assured me that: “Your God is my God.” With 330 million gods already in the panoply, I had to admit that adding one more didn’t seem to be much of a stretch. Though Buddhist numbers are small, Buddhism remains a cornerstone of Nepali identity. Tourism brochures proudly boast Nepal as the “Birthplace of Lord Buddha. Just this week, the government announced a plan to transform the birthplace, the town of Lumbini, into a “global peace hub,” hopefully giving it a desperately needed facelift. By the way, Buddhists here also love their meat. There is a twist to the “can’t kill a cow” law. In Nepal, it is not illegal to eat a cow and many Tibetans here love their beef. But, given the lack of beef vendors, it comes at a steep price. I buy mine from a lone store that ships it in frozen from Australia. There is of course also an underground black market.
Friends often ask me what I like about living in Nepal. Though this is a multi-layered complex question without a straightforward answer, I often say that I am inspired by the way Hinduism and Buddhism are not only integrated in every aspect of daily life but that Nepal appears to be the most religiously tolerant country I have ever visited or inhabited. It is also a place where religion is alive and intimate. Buddhists and Hindus share hundreds of festivals and shrines of all shapes and sizes that are everywhere, from huge Durbar squares declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, to hidden stupas in tiny alleyways, a lingam or a rock in the middle of a paved road (surrounded by railings that oblige cars to go around it) or a towering Buddhist vihara on a hillside. There is not one but several Buddhist ‘Living Goddesses’ that are worshipped by Hindus on a daily basis. These pre-pubescent girls, called Kumari, are allowed out of their homes only on festivals, lathered in makeup and weighed down by jewelry. Their feet are never allowed to touch the ground.
Puja, or worship, is constant and everywhere. In the early mornings, the streets are full of women carrying rice, flowers, red thika and food to various neighborhood shrines. Beware of Kathmandu’s hordes of motorcyclists maneuvering through heavy traffic: many drivers will suddenly bow their heads and lift a hand to their forehead to acknowledge a holy site that is being passed. What, you didn’t spot the holy rock? Apparently, if you are deeply religious, it is also necessary briefly to close your eyes as you drive past. Adds a certain adventure to the driving experience.
Meat, a major business in Nepal, is an integral part of religious festivals, in particular during the October Dasain Festival, beginning the first day with the army sacrificing buffaloes at a central shrine, and continuing with the family butchering of a goat or, if affordable, a buffalo. Animal sacrifice at temples is practiced year round as well. Even with an outbreak of avian flu that made chicken production fall by 20 percent, the Valley produced over 49,000 tons of meat in the six-month period between mid-July 2013 and mid-January 2014. Buffalo is the most popular meat, taking 45 percent of the market share, with mutton in second place.
These animals, both dead and alive, are a visible and integral part of Kathmandu life. Many butcher shops are just shacks on the side of the roads, their soon-to-become muttons tethered live on the stoop, whiling away their last few hours chewing on tree branches in uneasy companionship with the stray dogs sitting nearby, patiently waiting for their friends to become food. Early every morning in my neighborhood, a bent old man walks half a dozen young buffaloes single-file down the hill and into the courtyard of a red brick house. Within an hour, dripping meat is piled on a wooden table outside in the company of black flies waiting for customers. Even after a year here, I still feel deeply unsettled looking at the goats just feet away from their guillotine.
I am also constantly visually reminded that cows are holy, but not their bull calves. Abandoned, the calves try to survive, skinny, listless, parched under the torrid pre-monsoon heat, eating garbage and plastic bags, lazing in the middle of a congested street.
It is not only religion that is intimately lived here, but also our relationship with the animals we eat. Even politics gets involved. This week, Hindu right-wingers–wanting to create a Hindu state, ban the sale of beef and declare it a crime for Hindus to convert to another religion–tried to paralyze the capital by declaring a two-day ban on vehicular traffic. Happily, everyone ignored the ban. Another reason I love Nepal.
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.
I learned a new expression this week: Controlled Flight into Terrain or CFIT meant to describe a plane crash where a pilot unintentionally flies into the ground or a mountain. For anyone who flies around Nepal, this is a stark reminder of the risks. The day I read about CFIT on Twitter, a Nepal Airlines Canadian-built Twin Otter, the war horse of all planes, one of the few able to navigate Nepal’s uncompromising and unforgiving mountains and its short airstrips, crashed into a fog enshrouded mountain side, killing all 18 people on board. The flight bound for Jumla in the high Himalayas took off in dense fog and then asked to be rerouted before contact broke.
Traveling around Nepal is surreally beautiful but far from simple.
There are few paved roads and the dirt ones, mostly carved out of perpendicular mountain sides next to 1000 meter plunges are listed on maps as “fair weather” which means they are impassable for four or more months during the monsoons or by the frequent landslide. Many of the remote and desperately poor communities are only easily reachable by plane and on dirt airstrips that require STOL or short take offs and landings. But snow, fog and rain make navigating mountains treacherous so much so that airports, including Kathmandu’s, regularly close down for hours.
This is the land of the Twin Otter. Maybe this crash was an anomaly?. Kunda Dixit, a renowned journalist and flying aficionado burst my bubble. Sixteen of Nepal’s fleet of 25 Twin Otters have crashed. According to Dixit, Nepal Airlines has now lost 70 percent of its 12 Twin Otters to crashes and has only one still airworthy. Even more heart stopping, Dixit’s article in the Nepali Times pointed out that of all crashes since 1955, about 90 percent were due to CFIT.
The reasons are multifaceted. Cut throat competition in the airline business and thin profit margins coupled with political and local corruption has decimated safety nets. The government, struggling after a decade of a vicious Maoist revolt, has shown itself too weak to implement reform in that sector. Many of the smaller planes, such as the one that just crashed, are not provided with weather radar or de-icing. Flying has become a booming business and some pilots are careless and not as well trained as the veterans. Flight dispatchers should also be held responsible but the biggest pressure is on the pilots to fly regardless of bad weather and cash incentives are given for successful landings at destination. Last year a plane crashed at Jomson, when the captain refused to heed instructions not to land in a tail wind.
Late last year, the European Commission blacklisted all Nepali planes from European airspace. Some might think this move irrelevant since no Nepali airline flies that far. But more to the point, they advised Europeans not to fly in Nepal. We have also been advised not to fly on any plane except for Buddha Air which has my eight-year-old son teasing me at take-off that this may be the fastest way to get to Nirvana.
So what are people to do, stick to the roads? Nepal has one of the highest accident rates in the world. Despite a plethora of signs saying “Dead Slow”, “Sharp Bend,” “Push Horn” and “Accident Prone Area,” trucks, buses and taxi jeeps are overloaded, have non working signals, don’t use headlights and their drivers rarely slow down when they see you coming in the other direction on a road barely the width of a lane and a bit (with a precipice on one side).
Truck windshields are an artistic collection of colored stickers, plastic multi-colored flowers, and religious paintings leaving two small slits through which to see the road. Breakdowns are marked by a few tree branches stuck in the back of the vehicle held immobile by a rock behind a wheel gathered from the nearby recent landslide.
After driving 1000 kms from Kathmandu to Western Nepal, I quickly learned to give up my American road etiquette. Asking “how far” provides useless information. The key is “how long does it take to get there.” The only paved road snaking uphill almost 2000 meters into remote districts of western Nepal is a 134km stretch or a six-hour drive.
It is marked by 18 roadside rock shrines, engraved with the date and location where a vehicle plunged into the abyss. It is so steep here, that the wreckage remains untouched. Even the country’s vast population of stray dogs participates in making driving challenging. They curl up and sleep in the middle of the road and like everyone else on the road, they do not give way. In fact, they don’t even wake up.
My Nepali friends shrug their shoulders at the dangers. It all boils down to Karma, they say. If it is your time, it is your time. I have yet to reach that zen acceptance.
I thought I’d alternate risk. I flew back to Kathmandu on Buddha Air.
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.