Category Archives: south asia

The air that I breathe — my relationship with black carbon

I am old enough to remember the orange smog sitting over Los Angeles and the haze cloaking Manhattan, but my older kids, who grew up mostly in a much cleaner North America, consider my descriptions of air pollution family folklore. Then we moved to South Asia.

Nepali Darth Vader © Donatella Lorcj

Nepali Darth Vader
© Donatella Lorch

In Kathmandu, especially during the dry rainless winter months, the air we breathe dictates a fashion of sorts. Many people in Nepal’s capital wear multicolored dust masks. Women in saris or jeans wear them in pink and red, toddlers wear them, taxi and bus drivers wear them, police and army like them in black or camouflage. The swarms of motorcyclists that make the city a hair-raising place to drive look like Darth Vader, with masks or scarves under their helmets covering all but their eyes. Masks are so ubiquitous that the city’s many ATMs post big signs requiring that helmets and masks be removed before entering the booth.

Mask Instructions at a city ATM. © Doantella Lorch

Mask Instructions at a city ATM. © Doantella Lorch

Air pollution here is visible, touchable, intimate. The scientific name for the pollution that we breathe in Kathmandu is black carbon particulate matter, derived mostly from burning fossil fuels and suspended road dust. It’s the black grit that I wipe off my patio chairs twice a day and blow out of my nose. It’s the thick grey yellow haze that swallows up downtown Kathmandu during the driest winter months. It’s the black cloud-belching dilapidated trucks, the towering brick kilns that dot the valley spewing out their thick white spirals into the sky. It’s the black plume that wafts out of the humming metal-caged streetside generators. It’s the road dust coagulating upwards in clouds around the ubiquitous road construction sites. Fly in on a  winter day and admire (yes there is a level of dark depressing awe) how the plane slices through a flat layer of continuous thick greyness just before it lands.

Landing in a winter Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Landing in a winter Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A mere 15 years ago, Kathmandu had clean air. Two factors transformed a valley that tourists called Shangri La. A decade-long Maoist civil war triggered a mass exodus of people from the countryside into Kathmandu, growing the valley population by more than 40 percent, to 3.5 million. Though infrastructure remains poor, rapid urbanization as well as easier availability of bank loans filled the valley with cars and motorcycles. By 2006, the demand for electricity had outstripped supply in a country that turns on its lights mostly with hydropower. Now more than ever, with winter power cuts reaching 18 hours-a-day, many businesses and households rely on diesel generators to provide power.

Generator Diesel - Kathmandu's largest polluter © Bhushan Tuladhar

Generator Diesel – Kathmandu’s largest polluter © Bhushan Tuladhar

According to the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), up to 40 percent of the country’s total diesel consumption is being used to generate electricity during power cuts. In 2012, NOC estimated that the country generated roughly 531 MW of electricity from diesel generators, filling a 35% power deficit. Tons of Black Carbon, one of the principle agents of global warming and the second largest warming agent after carbon dioxide, are being pumped into the valley.

      The Kathmandu valley is a bowl surrounded by hills that sometimes prevent pollution from dispersing. In the winter, the cold nighttime air doesn’t lift, creating a lid over the city and locking in the previous evening’s black carbon particulate matter. There is a reprieve during the summer months, when monsoon rains knock the black carbon down and improve daily air quality.

Measuring air quality is no longer done by the government. Kathmandu used to have six stations monitoring air quality but the last one fell into disrepair in 2006. It is now done on a case-by-case basis by Kathmandu-based ICIMOD ( International Center for Integrated Mountain Development). Nevertheless, the 2012 Environment Performance Index (EPI) ranking listed Nepal 130 out of 132 countries in terms of air pollution impact on human health and environment.

This view used to be commonplace but in winter it only appears after a rare winter rain. © Donatella Lorch

This view used to be commonplace but in winter it only appears after a rare winter rain. © Donatella Lorch

I knew these facts before I moved here but I looked at them differently when I began to live them. It’s the part of me that thinks I can be in control. I live on a ridge as far south of the Ring Road as commutably feasible. It helps me to know that the wind that blows across my place flows across the rural hills to the southwest and then across the city to the north. Most Nepalis don’t wear masks here. As a meager contribution to better air quality, I never use my own generator but have outfitted the house with enough solar power to power a fridge, the TV, wifi as well as a reasonable number of lights and outlets. But my ability to afford this alternative energy puts me in a minority. I have noticed subtle health markers. My colds come in the winter’s driest months of February and March and last weeks, not days, followed by chronic coughs. Nepal has no reliable hospital statistics on the increase of COPD(chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or other lung illnesses.

Bidya Banmali Pradhan, an associate coordinator for the Atmosphere Initiative at ICIMOD, has been tracking pollution patterns in Kathmandu for over a decade. ICIMOD is presently working with the government to set up a new monitoring station and is studying pollution’s socio-economic effect. There is no doubt that pollution will increasingly hurt tourism. Already, the big attraction of snow-capped mountains surrounding Kathmandu are only visible after a rare winter rain or a Maoist strike that bans all motor vehicles for the day..

SMOKE

SMOKE

Nepal’s climate, like much of its politics, is hostage to its huge southern neighbor. While the Kathmandu Valley has 120 brick kilns, the bordering Indian state of Bihar has about 30,000, says Pradhan. The winds carry black carbon into Nepal’s Terai and beyond, building the large Atmospheric Brown Cloud that moves from India into Tibet and beyond, the black particles slowly melting the Himalayan glaciers. The Terai, once a tropical winter refuge for Kathmandu residents, has been unexplainably blanketed in frigid fog for several years. This year, ICIMOD is convening a regional meeting of scientists to study this phenomenon.

Fog also seems to carpet northern India and Bangladesh for much of the winter. My iPhone reads it as “Smoke” for Delhi. Fog+Smog=Smoke, explains Pradhan. I find the winter air quality in Delhi more disturbing than what I breathe in Kathmandu. I measure taste and feel. In a recent week there, I rarely saw the sun. A pea-soup fog sat on top of the city like a metal pot cover. The air was cold, clammy, immobile, dense. Lucas, my nine-year-old, thought holding his breath might work during our Tuk-tuk rides. Flights were delayed for hours due to lack of visibility.

Kathmandu traffic adds to black baron emissions. © Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu traffic adds to black carbon emissions. © Donatella Lorch

As I reflect on these experiences, I realize that I have a front-row seat on a major climactic change. The National Academy of Science has done the first long term study of climactic change and pollution impact on Indian agriculture says there is a significant loss in rice and wheat crops due to black carbon.

Pradhan says she does not wear a face mask. She notes that the only real protection against black carbon is from an N99 or N95 masks that are not sold in Nepal. She has tested it and the filter turns black every 24 hours and needs to be replaced. She is philosophical about her home country.  “Once you are put in an environment, you feel normal,” she explains. “But when you come from cleaner places, you definitely feel the difference.”

In Kathmandu, I see it, I feel it, I smell it. And I too do not wear a mask.

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.

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.

‘REVOLUTION IS NOT BED OF ROSES’ — Postcard from Nepal

This graffiti was once bold and bright, an eye-catcher on Patan's main avenue ©Donatella Lorch

This graffiti was once bold and bright, an eye-catcher on Patan’s main avenue ©Donatella Lorch

“I am calling from Nepal,” I began the conversation with my usual opener. I was on the phone with Visa, my credit card having been blocked three times in one week. “That’s a tiny country between China and India,” I explained to the befuddled voice on the other end and then without pause added the tried and true clincher: “It’s the country of Mt. Everest.”

       Sometimes, I feel tempted to skip the obvious and instead to share my favorite, rather obscure fact about Nepal. In 1996, when communism was already an anachronism, Nepali Maoists, with little base among the masses, began a brutal 10-year civil war. They weren’t sufficiently pure Maoists to be recognized by China but were declared terrorists by India and the U.S–though an Indian group, the Naxalites, are said to have provided them much of their military training. Their very first weapons, whose bullets heralded the opening of the war, were American-made and had been air-dropped to Tibetan rebels in 1961 to mount a revolt in China.  To make the story even quirkier, the Maoist leaders are now in the fledgling new Nepali government.  Their former military commander, who directed the war from India and who was believed by some to be a fictional character, today is still referred to by his ‘nom de guerre,’ Prachanda or “Fierce”, and remains a subject of Nepali gossip  — not about where he may be hiding but about how he acquired his wealth and fancy cars.

         There is a fast-fading moldy quotation painted in two-foot high bold lettering on the concrete wall that border the main avenue of Patan, Kathmandu’s sister city. “REVOLUTION IS NOT BED OF ROSES, it declares in what was once blood-red paint, before the rest of the sentence fades into black-leaching monsoon mold. The author’s originally spelled name resurfaces briefly: “Friedl Castro.”

There are still stenciled Chairman Mao portraits in Kathmandu as well as Nepal's villages. ©Donatella Lorch

There are still stenciled Chairman Mao portraits in Kathmandu as well as Nepal’s villages. ©Donatella Lorch

Nepali communism (a unique brand that includes three separate and fractious parties) is far from dead but it has morphed and become part of the flow of the varied influences that define 2014 Nepal. And, yes, for the tourist mountain climbers and trekkers out there, it has even made it to Mt. Everest. With the official title of “Lumbini-Sagarmatha Peace March,” a 2012 expedition to Everest was co-led by Prachanda’s son and funded by the then-communist-led Nepali government. There are still black-stenciled faces of Chairman Mao around Kathmandu, and at election time last November the hammer and sickle was ubiquitous. A social media and Twitter coach might advise that they revisit their 1960s party brands: ‘Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)’; ‘The Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist- Leninist’. Catchy they are not. Businesses looking to invest in Nepal may also be a bit taken aback by politician’s business cards bearing these names from another era.

     From absolute monarchy through a vicious civil war, a military coup and now a fledgling democracy, Nepalis, it often appears, struggle, survive and succeed despite, and not because, of their governments.  With bleak employment opportunities in Nepal, more than two million Nepali youth work overseas mostly in the Middle East and Malaysia as an unskilled labor force.  A similar number cross the border to look for work in India.  Their remittances represent about 25 percent of Nepal’s GDP. Critics point out that fewer unemployed restive youth at home means fewer problems for the government. None of Nepal’s many political parties have come up with a “Yes We Can” style political slogan, but the common man has found a phrase to express his resignation to the water, fuel and electricity shortages, the slow progress in constitution writing, and even the weather.   The quintessential “khe garne?” literally translates as “What to do?” This is not really a question as much as a manifestation of decades-worth of a culturally-fed apathy and fatalism. 

Life in Nepal is heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. ©Donatella Lorch

Life in Nepal is heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. ©Donatella Lorch

    Nowadays, the revolutionaries are not in opposition.  In fact, many Nepalis believe that they share in government corruption; and they remain mixed and melded and molded with deeply ritualistic Hinduism and its hundreds of festivals. Bandhs (“strikes”), once a feared Maoist weapon, are now part of the mainstream, adopted even by right-wing Hindus–but, though they are occasionally violent, as in the rest of South Asia, observing uniquely Nepali manners, they are maintained only during business hours and not on any major religious holiday. Mahatma Gandhi’s most visible legacy in Nepal is the hunger strike, often undertaken by individuals to demand justice for crimes committed during the civil war. Some are very serious, like the hunger strike of the parents of Krishna Prasad Adhikari, murdered in 2004, demanding that the police arrest his killers believed to be Maoist cadres, but others are a little more comical, in a Nepali way, like a recent statement of various civil servants that they would undertake “relay hunger strikes” until their demands were met. I told my husband that I too would be on a hunger strike between lunch and dinner.

Road widening in Kathmandu was begun under Nepal's last prime minister, a Maoist, and continues today. ©Donatella Lorch

Road widening in Kathmandu was begun under Nepal’s last prime minister, a Maoist, and continues today. ©Donatella Lorch

After living for four years in Nairobi, a city beset by violent crime and the danger of terrorist attacks, it has been a delight to live in Kathmandu for many reasons, including the lack of ubiquitous crime. I can go out at night, with no fear. Driving my car, I don’t have to check my rear view mirror to see whether I am being followed. I don’t even have to worry about drunk-drivers.  Though Nepalis can drink–heavily–the Kathmandu police enforce zero tolerance for drinking and driving, and many an alcohol-scented driver has found himself stranded at a police checkpoint at night.

    Yet national interest and community self interest often clash. Many Nepalis feel that only protests spark government responsibility. In the aftermath of an August 2nd landslide that destroyed villages, killing 156 people and burying more than 10kms of Nepal’s only major trade route to China, the local community’s “struggle committee” blocked army bulldozers from trying to address the ensuing problems, demanding first that the government deliver the aid that it had promised. Subsequently frustrated by government inaction, local businessmen are now building their own bypass road. The government appealed for funds in the local papers, printing a bank account number for Good Samaritan direct deposits. The Chinese ambassador delivered his government’s donation in cash.

The government provides insufficient garbage dumping space. Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides and along river banks. ©Donatella Lorch

The government provides insufficient garbage dumping space. Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides and along river banks. ©Donatella Lorch

 In Kathmandu recently, where garbage disposal is beyond a crisis, residents of the neighborhood adjacent to the city’s only garbage dump (a way station to a bigger dump outside the city) complained to the local government about weeks of overflowing and unmanaged dumping. When the city ignored them, the locals padlocked the gate to the dump. Needless to say, the garbage got dumped anyway–somewhere even less appropriate.  

Padlocking, as a threat is often used by communist youth groups. Here a school accounting door was double locked and sealed. © Donatella Lorch

Padlocking, as a threat is often used by communist youth groups. Here a school accounting door was double locked and sealed. © Donatella Lorch

Padlocking as a threat is often used in Nepal, especially by communist youth groups. This year when private schools announced a tuition hike, the youth groups padlocked and sealed the offices of the schools’ accountants, and added threats of violence for good measure. It was fairly effective–because they have a reputation of delivering violence, fire bombing buses and taxis and (just this week) trashing local newspaper offices.

    Friedl Castro definitely had a point about revolution:  it is not a bed of roses. Democracy is also a long, painful, and convoluted process. From 2011 to 2013, Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoist party’s ideologue, who has a degree in urban planning, was Nepal’s prime minister. It is his vision of widening Kathmandu’s narrow roads that is slowly untangling the capital’s horrific traffic jams. If only the contractors had remembered to add drainage ditches. 

Dhaka to Kathmandu — A different commute

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.

Landing in Kathmandu, a plane crests the hilltops and dives down fast. © Donatella Lorch

Landing in Kathmandu, a plane crests the hilltops and dives down fast. © Donatella Lorch

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.

The airstrip at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal

The airstrip at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal

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?

Monsoon fog hugs the mountains on a recent landing into Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Monsoon fog hugs the mountains on a recent landing into Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

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.

Flight Radar24 flight patterns on a recent day in Kathmandu

Flight Radar24 flight patterns on a recent day in Kathmandu

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.

Fog rolls into the valley burying the mountains that encircle Kathmandu in a thick white veil © Donatella Lorch

Fog rolls into the valley burying the mountains that encircle Kathmandu in a thick white veil © Donatella Lorch

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.

From Kenyan savannah to Nepali rice fields – two worlds connect with barefoot running

Buffalo herders resting in the fields © Donatella Lorch

Buffalo herders resting in the fields © Donatella Lorch

My father relished recounting the tale of his college sporting efforts. As a freshman, he tried out for the long distance running team and after the first training session the coach pulled him aside: “Lorch,” the coach bellowed. “You run (long pause) as if your were going to a fire (even longer pause) that was going to happen ten years from now!” Poppy switched to tennis. I, like him, was never a big runner. I quit jogging by age 25.

Crossing the finish line at the Lewa Marathon in Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

Crossing the finish line at the Lewa Marathon in Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

Last year, at the end of June, I ran the Lewa half-marathon. It is one of the running world’s most unique marathons, set at 1,700m in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.  Runners weave across the hilly, tawny savannah, home to a vast array of wild animals including lions, elephant and buffalo. Helicopters, small aircraft and Lewa’s guards keep the animals away from the dirt track. I ran the half-Lewa, just over 20 kms, as one of a series of rituals I had selected to say goodbye to Kenya, my home for four years. But even though I felt the satisfaction of having trained for two months and of having temporarily given up my daily glasses of red wine (which to me was even more impressive than my return to running after 25 years), I didn’t think much of what future running and I had together.

A farmer carries manure to his fields. © Donatella Lorch

A farmer carries manure to his fields. © Donatella Lorch

A month later, we moved to Nepal. I am not particularly athletic by nature. There is a lot of arguing that goes on between my head and my feet to do anything that involves sweat. Let’s not forget my love of red wine. In Nepal I felt disconnected. We chose to live in the southern part of the Kathmandu valley, far enough away from the center of Kathmandu to avoid most of its choking winter smog but also too far for easy access to a gym. There is a loneliness to life in a new country. It was monsoon season and the air was a sticky cloak that left me soaked after a short walk. It took a month before I had exhausted every possible excuse and only then did I take out my Five-Fingered Vibrams, the same ones that had run Lewa.

Water gathering at the main square of the village of Sanu Khokana in the Kathmandu Valley. © Donatella Lorch

Water gathering at the main square of the village of Sanu Khokana in the Kathmandu Valley. © Donatella Lorch

There wasn’t a Eureka moment. I fought with every inch of territory. Some mornings I just walked. Oh, the mud. Slippery, heavy, thin, thick, glue-like, ubiquitous mud.  Was that smell cow dung? And is there anywhere flat in Nepal? At some point I must have lifted my head and forgotten briefly the effort of moving forward. Then those moments stretched slowly into half-hour stretches. On my ipod, Cesaria Evora, Adele, Chopin and Jai Ho lured me on. I began to wake up earlier because I wanted to run, though our neighborhood Hindu priest should also take some of the credit for these early rises: his endless 5:00 a.m. chanting and bell-clanking is not conducive to a sleep-in.

I owe a lot to Lewa the same way I owe a lot to Kenya. They both guided me over the stumbling blocks of step-parenthood and the art of getting over a life as a foreign correspondent. But running in Nepal has given me a gift of exploration that did not exist for me in Nairobi. I now run because I learn, because every day, every week, every season I explore the amphitheater of fields below my home and the hills beyond the holy and highly polluted Bagmati River. I watch what the farmers plant, how they break their clay-like soil with ancient-looking hoes with handles that seem to go the wrong direction, their bodies bent in two. I have lived the rice cycle from dry planting of dhan (rice seeds), to transplanting electric-green seedlings into the flooded paddies that quickly turn emerald and finally tawny during harvest. Then comes the potato, bean and corn season.

Feeding baby goats. © Donatella Lorch

Feeding baby goats. © Donatella Lorch

Running across a pedestrian bridge in the early Spring. © Donatella Lorch

Running across a pedestrian bridge in the early Spring. © Donatella Lorch

I run on the inches-wide mud walls that separate the paddies, on roads hand-paved of rough hewn stone, through towns where culture is still ensconced in ancient times, where the buffaloes and goats live on the ground floor of red brick homes, ducks waddle in the narrow alleys and women card wool on their stoops on rickety wooden spindles. Garlic and red chili tresses hang down from third floor windows and winnowed wheat is laid out to dry on any spare square of earth.

I see this all because I run — catching a regular snapshot of a life that has turned familiar and friendly.  I stop here and there to grab an instant with my iphone–that odd, short-haired woman in black lycra pants with those weird multi-colored Five-Fingered Vibrams. Even after all these months, those shoes remain a huge hit.

Carding wool. © Donatella Lorch

Carding wool. © Donatella Lorch

I never tire of my route. Every run, I am reminded that Nepal of today is quickly dying away.  Every month, a little bit more perceptibly fades. In a few decades, much of this world will be gone, consumed by the unregulated, haphazard, massive urbanization that is devouring every green space left in the Kathmandu Valley. The city of four million has already climbed the last hill overlooking my running route.

It is an extinction of history.

Worshipped yes — But in Nepal, it’s a tough life to be a dog.

Mitho taking a rest on our run together © Donatella Lorch

Mitho taking a rest on our run together © Donatella Lorch

I met him by chance on one of my morning runs. Three black dogs sleeping in front of a gate, a fixture on my trail for almost a year, had lifted their heads briefly as I greeted them but I didn’t notice the small tan and white newcomer trotting behind me until he almost tripped me. He stopped when I stopped, sitting and cocking his head and looking up quizzically. He had mange on his lower back and he was rather skinny but he wasn’t aggressive or pushy. For the next four miles, as I zigzagged through a small village and terraced golden wheat fields, he tagged along by my right heel, never passing and immediately sitting when I’d stop to check on him. Our conversation was rather one-sided as I outlined for him all the reasons I could not keep him. By the time I got to my front gate, I had named him Mitho (pronounced Mee-toe), Nepali for ‘sweet.’ He gulped down the food and water I gave him but when I checked on him half-hour later he was gone.

Stray dogs in mid-morning, sleeping during the daytime hours. ©Donatella Lorch

Stray dogs in mid-morning, sleeping during the daytime hours. ©Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, there is a special day dedicated to dog worship. On Kukur Puja, many of the city’s dogs are garlanded with marigolds and are fed sweet rice cakes. But this warm feeling does not seem to last long. Mitho is one of hundreds of stray dogs that live on the streets of my neighborhood on the southern edge of the Kathmandu Valley. He is one of more than 30,000 stray dogs that call greater Kathmandu home. They sleep through the day, mounds of brown, black and white fur, oblivious of traffic that is forced to detour around them. They howl and fight at night, dodge traffic and beg for food and water from shopkeepers. Their favorite hangouts are the three-sided one-room roadside butcher shops where I frequently spot three or four dogs politely sitting at a discreet distance hoping for scraps while keeping an uneasy friendship with the tethered goats outside awaiting the knife. You’ll find the dogs scavenging in the garbage-filled plastic bags in the city’s ubiquitous open-air roadside dump sites. In winter, they shiver from the bitter cold and the weaker ones die off; in the summer, they suffer from dehydration in the torrid heat. Unvaccinated and mostly un-neutered, they succumb to parasites and nasty skin infections. They are frequently abused, kicked, hit and even scorched by boiling water. They are maimed and killed by motorcycles, cars and trucks. Fifty percent of their puppies die.

Stray mother and children in the countryside in Southern Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

Stray mother and children in the countryside in Southern Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

I had a healthy fear of stray dogs when I moved here ten months ago. There were two main reasons. Dog-carried rabies is prevalent in Nepal, killing over 200 people a year. Since the mere trace of an infected dog’s saliva on an open cut can give you rabies, a disease which is more than 99% fatal once the symptoms appear, we dutifully received our three anti-rabies shots. Let’s note here that the shots only delay the symptoms and give you a slightly larger window to get more shots. I warned my nine-year-old never to pet a stray dog.

My dog, Biko, gets worshipped on Kukur Puja, and receives a garland, a Tikka and sweet rice cakes. © Donatella Lorch

My dog, Biko, gets worshipped on Kukur Puja, and receives a garland, a Tikka and sweet rice cakes. © Donatella Lorch

But perhaps more immediately relevant for me was my large, 85 lb Rhodesian Ridgeback, Biko, that my four kids insist is my main love. I am not ashamed and can openly admit it: I am a dog lover. Biko was a four-year-old bundle of energy when we arrived in Kathmandu, and he needed daily walks. But how do you walk a pampered house dog through a city littered with strays? The stray dogs in Kathmandu mostly ignore humans, but they are very attentive to any outside dog that comes into their territory, and—though they may be feigning sleep when we walk abreast of them—they often turn into barking, howling, snarling villains when our outside dog passes by. Think dog fights—our house dog against a pack of street-hardened dogs. Think rabies. We quickly learned that there was only one way to proceed: with intimidation. We had to convince the stray dogs in our neighborhood that Biko belonged to our pack, and that our pack was as tough, or tougher, than theirs. In our tentative first efforts, four of us armed with long sticks escorted Biko on his walk, a Nepali version of armed Kenyan rangers protecting individual Rhinos. Most of our neighborhood dogs now grudgingly let us through. Today, I may still carry a stick but I walk Biko alone.

Guarding Biko our first weeks in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

Guarding Biko our first weeks in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

I am no longer scared of the dogs I meet. Mostly it makes me sad to see so much loveless suffering. I may not pet them but I talk to them and bring them scraps from restaurants. I have my favorites like the Tibetan Mastiff mix outside the Roadhouse Café in Patan, or the gaunt timid bitch down the street who has obviously had too many litters and submissively lies down wagging her tail when I pass.

The world of the Nepal stray dog is divided into societal gradations. The biggest group is the community dog. They do not necessarily belong to individuals but are outdoor dogs with a narrow territory and the community feeds them scraps and leftovers. These are the nighttime howlers and many become outcasts when they are maimed in dog fights, hit by vehicles, or acquire mange and other disfiguring skin infections. Some dogs are tightly chained to buildings with barely the ability to lie down. The smallest group is the dog as personal pet. Many Nepalis fear dogs and are incredulous at the affection I show Biko and how I care for him.

Twenty years ago, the government poisoned stray dogs to keep the dog population in check. Death came after hours of convulsions. Small NGOs reliant almost entirely on donations, bring in some dogs for neutering and spaying and then return them to their area. Most often it is the volunteer work of a few for the many.

A dog is recovering after being run over by a motorcycle at Kate Clendon's "Community Dog Welfare, Kopan" ©Donatella Lorch

A dog is recovering after being run over by a motorcycle at Kate Clendon’s “Community Dog Welfare, Kopan” ©Donatella Lorch

Biko’s Nepali vet runs an animal shelter and volunteers to treat injured animals. Kate Clendon, a New Zealander who is a longtime resident of Kathmandu, is now housing 31 dogs at her Community Dog Welfare Kopan. She eases the last days of the ones with blood parasites, finds sponsors for the ones with disabilities. She does community outreach and last year vaccinated 150 dogs. Neighbors now bring her injured dogs. She is looking after newborn puppies abandoned in the middle of the night at her doorstep. Each dog has a name and history that Kate can relate in detail. Leo has two broken legs and is getting a wheelchair from a Swedish sponsor.

Jade has mange that has not responded to medical treatment. ©Donatella Lorch

Jade has mange that has not responded to medical treatment. ©Donatella Lorch

Kare and Dorje, Community Dog Welfare Kopan in Northern Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Karen and Dorje, Community Dog Welfare Kopan in Northern Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Tiger had his back sliced by a Kukri (a curved Nepali knife), Jade has mange, Dorje was beaten and has joint problems. Kate knows what she does is a drop in the ocean. “To have a long term impact it’s more about changing attitude,” Kate insists. “Nepalis need to be more responsible and have more respect for dogs.”

As Mitho ran with me, I made a list of what he needed: rabies test and vaccines, deworming, delousing, a bath and lots of food. That I could do. But he could not live with me. My husband has threatened divorce if another dog enters the house. I toyed with the idea of placing Mitho’s photo on Facebook and convincing friends to foster him or even adopt him.

Hugging Biko at the end of the day. ©Donatella Lorch

Hugging Biko at the end of the day. ©Donatella Lorch

But even I knew that was daydreaming. I went home and I hugged Biko.