Category Archives: tourism

What 2071 means to me or how I am learning the art of living in Nepal

Bodhnath Stupa, a UNESCO World Heritage site is an island of calm in the chaos of Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

Boudhanath Stupa, a UNESCO World Heritage site is an island of calm in the chaos of Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

During Laxmi Puja, a festiva; that celebrates Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, Nepalese light up they city with butter lamps and worship her in the temples. ©Donatella Lorch

During Laxmi Puja, a festival that celebrates Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, Nepalese light up the city with butter lamps and worship her in the temples. ©Donatella Lorch

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

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.

Festival celebrants parade through Bakhtapur Durbar Square. © Donatella Lorch

Festival celebrants parade through Bakhtapur Durbar Square. © Donatella Lorch

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.

The main prayer hall at Kopan Monastery, one of Nepal's biggest Buddhist monasteries. © Donatella Lorch

The main prayer hall at Kopan Monastery, one of Nepal’s biggest Buddhist monasteries. © Donatella Lorch

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.

A solitary Shiva shrine sits amid wheat fields on the southern edge of the capital, Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A solitary Shiva shrine sits amid wheat fields on the southern edge of the capital, Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

 

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.

A Buddhist monk blesses me at Boudhanath Stupa in  Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A Buddhist monk blesses me at Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

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.

 

Will Kathmandu be buried in garbage?

 

The nepal government is dredging the holy Bagmati River in Kathmandu unearthing decades of plastic bags. © Donatella Lorch

The Nepal government is dredging the holy Bagmati River in Kathmandu unearthing decades of trashed plastic bags. © Donatella Lorch

Although Kathmandu’s world heritage sites are well known, few may be aware of a new archeological dig that stretches for several kilometers along the Bagmati River. Deep trenches have been dug out, creating 20ft-high hills made of dirt held together with striations of blue, pink and black polypropylene that tell the 30-year local history of the plastic bag, Nepal’s most ubiquitous landmark.

A mountain of garbage, mostly plastic bags dredged from the fetid (and holy) Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

A mountain of garbage, mostly plastic bags dredged from the fetid (and holy) Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

In the Kathmandu Valley, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. It is everywhere, stuffed in plastic bags and dropped in drainage ditches or piled high in empty lots, on the roadside or on the edges of the city’s rivers. It is thrown out of bus windows, off roof tops into neighbor’s yards.

Garbage is dumped everywhere including in the open sewers running through this upscale neighborhood. © Donatella Lorch

Garbage is dumped everywhere including in the open sewers running through this upscale neighborhood. © Donatella Lorch

As long as their house and yard is swept clean, the vast majority of valley-livers don’t seem to care. When it gets too high, the garbage is burned in open areas, the toxic fumes blanketing nearby houses. The plastic bags clog the rivers and choke drainage pipes, creating flooding and spreading fetid, disease-carrying refuse. The health impacts are felt at all levels.

Young boys scavenge for copper wires in the mountain of refuse dredged from the Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

Young boys scavenge for copper wires in the mountain of refuse dredged from the Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

Rapid unplanned urbanization has brought traffic jams and choking pollution, but politicians in Nepal’s new government have, with few exceptions, shown little political commitment to solving the problem of garbage. In 2011, the government passed the Solid Waste Management Act that set rules, regulations and fines for transgressors but enforcement is weak and detailed responsibilities are unclear.

Living amid the piles of garbage on the shore of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Living amid the piles of garbage on the shore of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

It is a Sisyphean task. The Valley needs clean water but the sole operating waste water treatment plant is handicapped by more than 12 hours of load-shedding a day and needs to be overhauled. Sewage flows untreated into the rivers. There are no proper slaughter houses in any municipalities and no rules for disposing of the city’s dead cows and dogs. They end up in shallow graves near river banks, leaching into the water supply. Hospitals are responsible for disposing their own hazardous waste such as needles, tissues, organs and other body parts, but the government has not provided a dumping site. Some hospitals burn in the open, and others use incinerators that releases dioxin and furan, two highly carcinogenic pollutants. An exception is the government-run Bir Hospital that has even built a bio-gas plant on its premises.

 

Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides, along river banks and when the pile grows they light the plastic bags covering neighborhood is carcinogenic dioxin. ©Donatella Lorch

Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides, along river banks and when the pile grows they burn the plastic bags cloaking neighborhoods in carcinogenic dioxin. ©Donatella Lorch

Sumitra Amatiya, executive director of the Ministry of Urban Development’s solid waste management technical support center, says sanitation in the Valley is in a state of crisis management. Serving Kathmandu and Lalitpur, the valley’s only working landfill, Sisdole, 24 km from the capital, is almost full and during the monsoons is frequently cut off from the city by floods and landslides. The government has bought the land for another site but needs billions of rupees and at least four years to make it operational, according to Dr. Amatya. As a gap measure, they are expanding Sisdole. The Asian Development Bank, which last year published the most researched and detailed Solid Waste Management report on Nepal to date, will begin work later this year on Kathmandu’s waste-water treatment plant. The government has begun dredging the highly-polluted Bagmati, with the aim of laying down sewage pipes as well as planting green areas. It is unearthing tons of dumped plastic and earth but narrowing the river-bed, which experts says can cause severe flooding during the monsoons, spreading disease through its water.

Decades of plastic bags dumped everywhere in Kathmandu block drainage pipes, create flooding and spread disease. © Donatella Lorch

Decades of plastic bags dumped everywhere in Kathmandu block drainage pipes, create flooding and spread disease. © Donatella Lorch

While many Nepalese care, city life has eroded the social dynamic of communities that galvanize neighbors to act together. Many try to make a difference. But they are not enough. One ongoing high-visibility clean-up campaign, lead by Leela Mani Poudyal, the chief secretary of the government of Nepal, has been bringing hundreds of people together to clean the fetid Bagmati every Saturday morning for the past 45 weeks, but a one time cleaning, though highly commendable, is not a permanent solution and it will not make the river waste-free. In addition, small non-governmental organizations, many of them focusing on women, teach composting and garbage segregation.

Politicians are quick to point to a new landfill as the solution. But only 40 to 50 percent of the Valley’s garbage goes to Sisdole, and most of it enters the dump unsegregated. The rest ends up on the streets and rivers. Changing the Nepali mindset is the only way forward, Dr. Amatya believes. Composting is key as 60 percent of Kathmandu garbage is organic. There is the need for a government-supported country-wide public awareness and education campaign about the 3Rs – Recycle, Reuse, Reduce in schools, in the media, door to door. Nepalese need to understand the environmental damage of one-time-use plastic bags. As Bhushan Tuladhar, regional technical advisor (South Asia) of U.N. Habitat , put it: “We have to dump the attitude.” Only a social movement can keep Kathmandu from being buried in garbage.

A rugby match and the cost of development

Smoke haze from burning forests making way for palm oil plantations has covered Malaysia and Indonesia recently.  In Kuala Lumpur, schools have been closed. © Donatella Lorch

Smoke haze from burning forests making way for palm oil plantations has covered Malaysia and Indonesia recently. In Kuala Lumpur, schools have been closed. © Donatella Lorch

We landed in Kuala Lumpur at nighttime yet before the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 737’s tires hit the runway, the fog was so thick I couldn’t even see a light outside the plane window. Almost immediately, the cabin was coated in an eye-smarting burnt smell. I am a nervous flyer, and on this evening my anxiety was enhanced by the fact that MH370 had disappeared just four days before and that our pilot had not mentioned the weird weather to the passengers.

My son Lucas and his school rugby team, the Yetis, were representing Nepal in a tournament in Kuala Lumpur. © Donatella Lorch

My son Lucas and his school rugby team, the Yetis, were representing Nepal in a tournament in Kuala Lumpur. © Donatella Lorch

My husband and I were tagging along on my nine-year-old son’s school rugby trip. This was a huge event for Lucas and his seven schoolmates as their primary school team in Kathmandu, the Yetis, was (to the best of our knowledge) the first Nepali rugby team to play outside the country. The boys’ excitement was palpable. My third-culture son, who has lived overseas for almost six years, had been reminding me for weeks that he was going to Malaysia to “represent my country!”  When I had wondered which of his three nationalities, American, Canadian and Dutch, he was referring to, he had dismissed my obvious ignorance. “Nepal, of course!”

What we didn’t immediately realize is that the fog with the burnt smell was not only coating the airport but blanketing almost all of Malaysia and parts of Indonesia as well.

The smoke haze even reached beyond Malaysia's shores onto its islands, such as Pulao Pangkor where it filtered the setting sun. © Donatella Lorch

The smoke haze even reached beyond Malaysia’s shores onto its islands, such as Pulao Pangkor where it filtered the setting sun. © Donatella Lorch

Many airports in the region had already closed and by the next day, the Malaysian government declared the air quality dangerous, closed over 200 schools in the capital and advised against any outdoor sports. The first day of the rugby tournament was cancelled, much to the boys’ disappointment. The stinging smoke that was affecting their dream school trip was in fact the end product of the needs of billions of people who live far from Southeast Asia.

Palm oil plantations like this one line Malaysia's super highways for hundreds of miles. © Donatella Lorch

Palm oil plantations like this one line Malaysia’s super highways for hundreds of miles. © Donatella Lorch

Ever wonder about that “vegetable oil” listed as an ingredient in a huge amount of food we all eat?  That vegetable oil is often palm oil, and it is an essential ingredient in margarines, frying oils, cereals, baked goods, sweets and potato chips. It is also in soaps, washing powder, cosmetics and animal feeds, and it can also be used as bio fuel.  Since the 1990s, the demand for palm oil has increased by more than 45 percent. Though 17 countries produce it, Malaysia and Indonesia account for 85 percent of global palm oil production. Millions of Malaysians and Indonesians rely on palm oil for their livelihood.

The choking smoke and palm oil are inextricably connected.  Just drive for hours on Malaysia’s magnificent super highways (yes, they have Starbucks stops) and the countryside is almost entirely blanketed by thousands of acres of palm oil plantations.  But growing world demand, especially from China, means both legal and illegal unfettered cutting down and burning of pristine forests in Malaysian Borneo and Indonesia.  The governments, either because of lack of will or corruption, do little to control what has become an environmental disaster. This year, lack of rain means the burning season is particularly vicious on the lungs. The forest peat burns underground for weeks and the heavy smoke just sits over three of Asia’s most important cities: Singapore, Djakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

The cost of unfettered development is very visible in Nepal. Both licensed and illegal quarries strip the rivers of stone for building roads and houses but cause landslides, floods destroying homes and bridges. © Donatella Lorch

The cost of unfettered development is very visible in Nepal. Both licensed and illegal quarries strip the rivers of stone for building roads and houses but cause landslides, floods destroying homes and bridges. © Donatella Lorch

Lucas gets basic global warming. He knows it makes winters colder and summers hotter and that New York and Toronto, where our extended family lives, have had wicked snowstorms this winter. His school is plastic free and on eco days, he walks to class. Our lives in Nepal are an unexpected first row seat where we can witness the cost of development.  Lucas knows well the fetid smell of raw sewage from Nepal’s holiest and dead Bagmati River.

In Nepal, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. Trashed plastic bags are everywhere. © Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. Trashed plastic bags are everywhere. © Donatella Lorch

Unregulated dumping of garbage on city streets makes Kathmandu a filthy plastic-bag littered city. An open sewer runs near our house. Massive and frequently illegal stone quarrying in Nepal’s gorgeous rivers and streams supplies the unquenchable thirst for roads and building construction but result in massive erosion, flooding and landslides, destroying bridges and roads and buildings.

Kathmandu Valley smog is not only from the many cars but also from the brick factories sprouting up everywhere as demand for construction materials increases. © Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu Valley smog is not only from the many cars but also from the brick factories sprouting up everywhere as demand for construction materials increases. © Donatella Lorch

 

Still it hadn’t occurred to Lucas that eating his favorite sour cream and onion Pringles or Honey Nut Cheerios or washing his hands with soap could be connected to the smoke that cancelled his rugby match. I was struck by the irony that Kuala Lumpur, a modern, vibrant, clean, green gem that stands apart from the region’s capitals, was being asphyxiated by the very development and industrialization that had provided the money to make it so special.

Malaysia has built itself up as a favorite tourism destination. Its ubiquitous slogan, “Truly Asia,” could be misconstrued on smoky days. Luckily for the Yeti team, it rained and then it poured, and the smog cleared. They won one match, tied another and lost two.  The memories will last a lifetime.

Raising a family and living a marriage on FaceTime.

Lucas just turned 9 and he and I regularly butt heads over when he should practice violin and piano. Our discussions have at times devolved into my declaring that I was shipping his violin back to the original owner, his older cousin in New York. I am keenly aware that I am not a shining example of motherhood and that this is definitely not the way to make him love practice.  In fact we both know that my threat is not deliverable. We live in Nepal and the convoluted, obtuse Nepalese bureaucracy would require so many permits that the violin is basically unshippable.

Lucas, in Nepal, practices violin on FaceTime, with his father in Dhaka, Bangladesh. © Donatella Lorch

Lucas, in Nepal, practices violin on FaceTime, with his father in Dhaka, Bangladesh. © Donatella Lorch

Living in Nepal required acquiring new skills. I had to learn to make my own yogurt and pasteurize my milk (after I tracked down a local cow).  I learned the art of hoarding cooking gas and diesel and I learned to drive on death defying, precipice rimmed roads. Creating a successful violin practice seemed just another skill to develop. First step was to eliminate myself from the mix and bring in his father. John has boundless patience with our four kids that he mixes with a wicked sense of humor. He has a musical ear even though he has never played a musical instrument, but after helping in two years of practices, he understands bowings and tempo.  He manages to have Lucas not only practice for 45 minutes but enjoy it.

There remained a huge hurdle. John spends most of every month living and working in Bangladesh (not part of our original plan when we moved here). He is gone all week long and often on all or part of the weekends. There are only four direct flights a week between the two countries which limits commuting.  Nepal may have 12 hours a day of electricity loadshedding but the spirit of entrepreneurship still thrives. In Kathmandu, WiFi is ubiquitous and free in the myriad cafes and restaurants.  It was critical to our adopting FaceTime as a new family member.

John and Lucas chat on FaceTime every evening at dinnertime. © Donatella Lorch

John and Lucas chat on FaceTime every evening at dinnertime. © Donatella Lorch

Now on practice days, I am the acrobat. Lucas plays as I hold my iPhone outstretched with one hand so John can see bowings and follow the music from Dhaka. With the other hand, I am DJ-ing with my Ipad on YouTube starting and stopping “Alison’s Violin Studio,” a brilliant teacher for the Suzuki book series, so John can advise Lucas on his performance.

 

FaceTime is everywhere with us. Here John looks on as Lucas samples  pasta he helped make. © Donatella Lorch

FaceTime is everywhere with us. Here John looks on as Lucas samples pasta he helped make. © Donatella Lorch

FaceTime is everywhere for us. At dinner table, John joins us on FT from his Dhaka office. At bedtime, he says goodnight to Lucas and we then reconnect at our own bedtime. We’ll watch the BBC news broadcast simultaneously but in two different countries and comment on the Ukraine crisis as if we were lying in bed side by side. I’ll pop into a café for a caffe latte if I am in town so I can have a morning conversation in between his meetings. It is our survival mechanism as a family.

Lucas reading "Roman Mysteries" to John on FaceTime just before dinner in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Lucas reading “Roman Mysteries” to John on FaceTime just before dinner in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

 

I do hate the separation and my emotions range from frustration, bitterness, depression and anger. What keeps me happy is that I love living in Nepal. I know I am incredibly lucky to be here. Despite the pollution, the traffic chaos and the looming earthquake dangers, I live next door to wide-open spaces where Lucas and I bike, run and hike. Not an option in Dhaka, a heavily polluted city of over 12 million people, and where my iPhone Dhaka weather forecast alternates between “haze” and “smoke.” Lucas adores being here and reminds me everyday how he enjoys his school.

Dhaka weather on my iPhone alternates between "haze" and "smoke". © Donatella Lorch

Dhaka weather on my iPhone alternates between “haze” and “smoke”. © Donatella Lorch

I am far from alone in living a long distance marriage.  Kathmandu is a big hub for the United Nations and other international organizations whose employees travel constantly. One friend, a fellow school mother, has experienced living apart from her husband for several years already when he was stationed in Khartoum, Sudan and the family in Kenya. This was before moving to Kathmandu. She told me today that he leaves Kathmandu next week for three months in Khartoum.  Another mother is coping with two small kids as her husband is on a temporary duty posting in Myanmar (where the government lowers bandwidth to limit internet communications). And it is not only “trailing” spouses. A colleague of my husband commutes to visit his wife in the Phillipines. And an ambassador is trying out Facetime to ease the distance with his partner in the other hemisphere.

The international community commute is just the tip of the iceberg. Nepal is a land of families that live apart.  Unable to find jobs at home, tens of thousands of Nepalese go to India and to the Middle East working  mostly menial jobs for years at a time. Their earnings contribute 25 percent of Nepal’s GDP.

 

To cheer us up, we even put Biko, our eccentric Rhodesian Ridgeback on FaceTime. © Donatella Lorch

To cheer us up, we even put Biko, our eccentric Rhodesian Ridgeback on FaceTime. © Donatella Lorch

I remind myself every day that I am very lucky. FaceTime is just the icing on the cake.

 

 

Gods have birthdays too. In Kathmandu, none is more bizarre than Shiva’s

Thousands of Hundu devotees stand on line to enter Pashupatinath on Maha ShivaRatri © Donatella Lorch

Thousands of Hindu devotees stand on line to enter Pashupatinath on Maha ShivaRatri © Donatella Lorch

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.

Sadhus come to Nepal from all over the Indian subcontinent to Pashupatinath in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

Sadhus come to Nepal from all over the Indian subcontinent to Pashupatinath in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

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 well known as a cremation site and on Maha Shivaratri festival it was business as usual. © Donatella Lorch

Pashupatinath is well known as a cremation site and on Maha Shivaratri festival it was business as usual. © Donatella Lorch

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 Sadhu sat shivering covered only by a blanket. © Donatella Lorch

One Sadhu sat shivering covered only by a blanket. © Donatella Lorch

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 Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

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.

 

Religion aside, this is a money making venture for many Sadhus. A tourist pays one who then allows him  to take pictures. © Donatella Lorch

Religion aside, this is a money making venture for many Sadhus. A tourist pays one who then allows him to take pictures. © Donatella Lorch

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.

Devotees come to ask for guidance from Sadhus and pray together. © Donatella Lorch

Devotees come to ask for guidance from Sadhus and pray together. © Donatella Lorch

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.

 

Thousands of people throng to Pashupatinath on  Shiva's birthday. © Donatella Lorch

Thousands of people throng to Pashupatinath on Shiva’s birthday. © Donatella Lorch

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.

By air, by land and by Karma – transportation in Nepal’s Himalayas

 

 

The Canadian Twin Otter is the war horse of airplanes and an expert at treacherous routes through mountains and short take-offs and landings

The Canadian Twin Otter is the war horse of airplanes and an expert at treacherous routes through mountains and short take-offs and landings

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.

Winding road into Western Nepal with goats the only ones able to navigate the precipice © Donatella Lorch

Winding road into Western Nepal with goats the only ones able to navigate the precipice © Donatella Lorch

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.

 

Paved roads in Nepal are few and far between. This is the only paved road into far Western Nepal. Here two UN vehicles navigate a narrow section © Donatella Lorch

Paved roads in Nepal are few and far between. This is the only paved road into far Western Nepal. Here two UN vehicles navigate a narrow section © Donatella Lorch

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.

Nepal ---- in Sign Language © Donatella Lorch

Nepal —- in Sign Language © Donatella Lorch

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).

Road signs are an obvious alert to drivers © Donatella Lorch

Road signs are an obvious alert to drivers © Donatella Lorch

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.

Truck windshields are festooned with taped decorations and plastic flowers making driving more challenging © Donatella Lorch

Truck windshields are festooned with taped decorations and plastic flowers making driving more challenging © Donatella Lorch

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.

A bus drives through a recently cleared landslide on the road to Dadeldhura, Western Nepal © Donatella Lorch

A bus drives through a recently cleared landslide on the road to Dadeldhura, Western Nepal © Donatella Lorch

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.

Nepali stray dogs consider the road home. Why move? © Donatella Lorch

Nepali stray dogs consider the road home. Why move? © Donatella Lorch

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.

The Buddha Air flight back to Kathmandu © Donatella Lorch

The Buddha Air flight back to Kathmandu © Donatella Lorch

I thought I’d alternate risk. I flew back to Kathmandu on Buddha Air.

In Nepal’s Himalayas, the uphill battle is against plastic

A huge pile of plastic garbage outside the Upper Mustang village of Lo Matang. The villagers have no means to reuse or recycle it. Copyright Keith Leslie

A huge pile of plastic garbage outside the Upper Mustang village of Lo Manthang. The villagers have no means to reuse or recycle it. Copyright Keith Leslie

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

Sunrise over the Annapurna Massif and sanctuary. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Sunrise over the Annapurna Massif and Sanctuary. Copyright Donatella Lorch

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?

Waste management in Chhomrung in the Annapurna Sanctuary where the local lodges want to ban plastic bags. Courtesy Jerome Edou

Waste management in Chhomrung in the Annapurna Sanctuary where the local lodges want to ban plastic bags. Courtesy Jerome Edou

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.

A 15 foot mountain of plastics and garbage lines the holy Bagmati River recently dredged as part of a road expansion project. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A 15 foot mountain of plastics and garbage lines the holy Bagmati River recently dredged as part of a road expansion project. Copyright Donatella Lorch

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.