My Piece in USA Today on life in Kathmandu after the earthquake
My piece on NPR about how my 10 year old son dealt with the Nepal earthquake
My piece in PRI about how the earthquake affected one Nepali Village
My piece in The New York Times about what the first hours and days were like after the earthquake hit Nepal.
I dread Fridays. The anxiety can start the day before, and then the mornings find me pacing and monitoring the Internet, the local weather channel, a friend’s broadband radio and WhatsApp. On Fridays, my husband is scheduled to come back to Kathmandu from Bangladesh. It’s not that I don’t want to see him. Spending an occasional weekend together is a welcome treat. The problem is getting him here. Every week, what is in fact just an hour and ten-minute flight, a Washington D.C. to New York hop, can evolve into a several day ordeal, if it happens at all.
Kathmandu is a city of 3.5 million, and though air traffic cannot be compared to Delhi or Bangkok, it is not a backwater. Scores of international airlines come everyday, with heavy traffic from India, several Chinese cities, non-stop from as far as Korea and Turkey. Nepal, like Bangladesh, is a major supplier of migrant labor to the Middle East and Malaysia, and their airplanes land here as often as four times a day. If John were commuting from India, he’d have a vast array of airlines and departure times from which to choose.
But my husband is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital of 12 million. It used to have two airlines plying the Kathmandu route every day but a few months ago, without giving a reason, United BD dropped down to two flights a week, leaving only the national carrier, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, offering (on paper) five flights a week. Bangladesh is the only one of Nepal’s neighbors that offers so few flights. Even Bhutan, a country of 775,000, flies daily to Kathmandu. Filling the plane does not appear to be an issue. So why is it so hard for John to get here?
Nepal, a land of steep mountains, narrow valleys, unpredictable weather and few paved roads, offers 48 airports, though most are dirt strips precariously cleared on narrow mountain ledges. The Kathmandu valley is circled by hills (the Nepalis call anything under 4000m a ‘hill’) that require a plane to dive sharply down towards the airport. Auto-pilot is not an option here. It is required to be a visual pilot (not co-pilot) landing. The runway also has reoccurring problems, especially during the monsoon rains, when cracks widen and close the airport for hours or even a day or more. The local fauna gets in its dibs as well. Last month an earthworm infestation on the runway attracted so many birds that landings were suspended and planes diverted. Nearby garbage dumping also attracts birds that have cracked a few aircraft windshields. During the three-month long monsoon rains, thunderstorms and wind shear over Kathmandu can force planes to re-route to India and Dhaka.
A Nepali friend has hooked me onto FlightRadar24, and from the comfort of my Ikea lounge chair, I can follow live-time landings and take-offs into the valley. I have spent way too much time tracking the red loops made by as many as five little planes at a time as they circle over and over and over Chitwan National Park waiting for permission to edge towards Kathmandu.
Even before takeoff, Biman has challenges. State-owned, cash-strapped, with little transparency and a poorly-maintained fleet, its functioning planes get juggled from route to route. The Kathmandu route is a frequent victim. But even then, if and when you take-off, the problems are not always solved. The last week of July, the Nepal-bound flight caught fire when it blew four of its left-side tires as it landed in Kathmandu. No one was injured.
Last Friday, John went to the airport for his 11:00 a.m. Biman flight (Friday is the first day of the Bangladeshi weekend). Once there he was told it had been delayed to 4:00 pm, a common occurrence. The plane then took off on time but after a half hour, an announcement was made in Bangla that the plane had technical difficulties and would have to return to Dhaka. As the plane turned around, John saw a man wearing a Biman pilot’s uniform taking out a prayer rug from the overhead bin and commencing to pray in the aisle. Perhaps for that reason the plane landed safely?
Once back in Dhaka, passengers were then kept in the airport for five hours, with-half hourly promises of updates that never came, until 10:00 pm when Biman, faced by an angry plane-load of people, cancelled the flight. With Sunday a working day in Bangladesh, it didn’t make sense for John to attempt the next day’s flight.
A newspaper article a few days later explained that the A310-300 S2-ADK , the sole Biman craft that flies the Kathmandu route, had had a throttle stagger, a problem with the control that maintains the speed of the plane on landing and take-off. Two days before, this same plane had an unidentified technical glitch that again forced Biman to cancel the daily flight. The acting CEO of Biman had some vague and not very proactive words to share with his airline’s clients. “I have heard of frequent problems on the Dhaka-Kathmandu route and we might have to think about the A310-300 S2-ADK,” said Mosaddique Ahmed to the Daily Star newspaper.
I can hear my sister telling me: “Dony, stop being so pathetic!” In my foreign correspondent days, I flew sitting with chickens, goats, a metal bucket full of garlic- covered raw meat at my feet, standing behind the pilot during nose-dive mountain landings and sitting on bales of Khat in a propeller plane gutted of seats and flown by a pilot wearing a black bowler hat. It’s the frustration really. It means another week not seeing John. It means his having no choice but to take an unsafe airline to do his job. It’s the irony of Bangladesh. In our world of globalization, of instant communication, of apps that do everything but brush your teeth, in the world’s eighth most populated country home to brilliant novelists and poets, Nobel prize winners, world famous NGOs, the national airline can’t even maintain good connections with its neighbors.
This week, heavy and constant monsoon rains have been coating the region from Bangladesh across Bhutan and Nepal, and the fog enshrouds us here in Kathmandu in a thick white veil. Our house is on the main flight path and the grumble of passing jet engines are a soothing reminder that, yes, planes are still landing. Today a Nepali friend messaged me that he’d stopped for puja (worship) at Pashupatinath, one of the world’s holiest Shiva shrines, just to get a blessing for today’s Biman flight. There were no praying pilots on board this week. The flight circled a number of times over the valley. But the flight made it. A good day for the Dhaka commute.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But even I knew that was daydreaming. I went home and I hugged Biko.
It’s New Years this week in Nepal. Welcome to the year 2071. It has taken me almost a year to move the Gregorian calendar aside and understand strange names of months that now begin in what my previous life considered mid-month. Luckily my cell phone has helped me cope with the transition: ”Dear customer,” it told me on April 14th, “Applicable monthly charges will be deducted tomorrow on the 1st of Baisakh.”
I’ve had to do a lot of mental gearshifts. I used to think that having a New Year’s Eve celebration was normal but in Nepal there are seven New Years, each with their own celebration. Nepali culture is based on festivals: your god, my god, their god — any occasion is good.
For a monotheist like myself who is only a church goer on three days a year (Christmas, Easter and a spare extra for good measure), who has also lived extensively in Islamic countries and who grew up in Manhattan where Jewish holidays were greeted by my father with a sigh of relief as alternate side of the street parking was suspended, I had never lived before with 330 million Hindu gods as well as Buddhist deities, demons and demonesses shared by both faiths. Early on, I started outlining in my diary Super God family trees as the top three male and female deities have multiple incarnations with their own offspring. There are official God festivals that can last more than a week. There are holy days for cows, dogs, crows and even airplanes.
Even if I wanted to, it is impossible to ignore these festivals and to continue life as it used to be in early 2013. Temples and Buddhist stupas are absolutely everywhere from sprawling ancient Hindu compounds to a stubby lingam that has split a paved road in two, a rock and a bell on the side of a road to the scores of huge ancient and holy pipal trees wrapped with string by worshippers. There are grass covered and white washed stupas dating back centuries whose gentle and humble elegance graces the chaotic polluted city of Kathmandu. Valley hillsides are dotted with gold painted rooftops that end in the airborne curling eves of Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.
There is an inclusiveness and a temperance to Nepal’s two main religions that is inspiring and beautiful. Tantric Buddhism is often the bridge between the two and whenever I visit a Hindu temple which often has a Buddhist stupa or icon on the premises, I always feel gratitude to have found a place where religions coexist.
Yet all these festivals, colorful, cacophonous, crowded, and often surreal from my western perspective, easily run week into week and can be a serious drag on economic growth in Nepal. There is no sense of urgency here but rather an overwhelming sense of fatalistic Karma. Whatever will be will be. National holiday or not, businesses and shops close without notice, people don’t show up for work, teachers as well as students can easily skip school. Government offices work on skeleton staffs and restaurants can close down for days on the big holidays of Dasain and Tihar. You don’t really notice this as a tourist (the tourism industry functions on a slightly more energized schedule) but living here sometimes becomes a frustrating effort at getting work done. It is also a sad statement about Nepal’s regional future. Labor productivity is a measure of economic growth and Nepal has one of the lowest labor productivity levels in the world. It has 22 percent unemployment. An inefficient, badly equipped education system means only 11 percent of students complete their secondary education creating a vast unskilled labor force where 25 percent of young Nepalese mostly men aged 20 to 39 have migrated to foreign countries as manual laborers. Government economic policies coupled with corruption hamper more than help the economy. The cost of doing business here is 23 percent more expensive than in China and 15 percent more than in India, its two huge and rather overbearing neighbors.
There is a phrase used often here, more of a philosophical statement about life in general that is accompanied by a resigned shoulder shrug. “Khe Garne?” loosely translates as “What can one do?” No answer is expected. I catch myself increasingly using that line. Have I surrendered? I wear a red string wrapped around my wrist blessed by a Buddhist monk. I’ll clank the bell at Shiva temples and when I run past mini Hindu shrines along village paths in Kathmandu’s outskirts, I think about how a touch of the forehead can express such powerful devotion.
I do believe that the Middle Way offers a beautiful path but I haven’t yet mastered mindfulness and compassion. And I have the greatest admiration for the owner of “The Secret Bakery”, one of Patan’s best bakeries. He is open through festivals, strikes and national holidays. Now that is a businessman with Chutzpah! Happy 2071.
I have short hair and I haven’t had a haircut in five months. After 25 years of very short hair, this state of affairs was not because I had decided to grow it. The challenge is that in Nepal, women just don’t have short hair. So why should any hairdresser specialize in that field?
Over time, my search for a reliably good cut turned into an existential angst. I was stopping women on the street and at dinner parties asking for any advice on how to find someone who can cut short hair. I even found three who did have short hair but they did not enthusiastically offer a solution. And as all women in the world know, there is nothing quite as depressing as a bad haircut.
Inspired by a mother at my son’s primary school who was so frustrated with the lack of options that she took matters in her own hands, I resorted to cutting my own hair. I had the correct tools since I have been cutting my husband and our three sons’ hair for over eight years. But self -cutting meant that the back of my head quickly looked hacked. And when it grew in, I can vouch that I was somehow related to a shaggy Pekinese.
From the day I arrived in Nepal, I felt my short hair did not belong here. I was mesmerized by the beauty of Nepalese women’s hair. I loved looking at the ubiquitous groups of uniformed schoolgirls walking arm in arm on the city streets, all wearing their hair in two thick, long, voluptuous braids tied with bright ribbons. I can attest that my twin braids, very tightly woven by my father before I headed off to primary school never looked that good and definitely never were that thick.
Young urban women leave their hair often tumbling free down their back. The female traffic police have it pulled back in air-tight polished buns while older women, often wearing saris, pile it up in less constricting but no less thick and shiny chignons. From my yard, perched up on a scree of rocks, I look down at local farmers that come every day to a public water tap, the women unraveling their waist-length hair and foaming it up with shampoo. When I run in the early mornings, I ‘Namaste’ mothers on their front stoops lovingly oiling, brushing and braiding children’s hair. Nepal is different from India where short haircuts are more and more common among the urban female youth. In Kathmandu, I concluded after multiple discussions with female and male friends, that it is the culture and by definition the men that dictate the hair length.
I was still faced with the fact that I wanted to cut my hair. In fact, I needed it as much as I wanted it. After living in Kathmandu for half a year, I felt I had gotten a grasp on searching for the impossible. What I have come to love about this city, is that somewhere out there, there is always someone who can do what you want. So I kept asking everyone I met for advice.
There is no shortage of hair salons in Nepal. My first week, a Nepali friend took me to visit what she called “the best one” just off Kathmandu’s Darbar Marg next to the likes of Nike and Victoria’s Secret stores and just down the road from the royal palace. She assured me all her colleagues at the office patronized this particular salon. I felt uneasy. I had met many of her friends and like her they all had long, silky black hair. The coiffeur approached me to check out my haircut and smiled. “I can do it, no problem, let me show you,” he insisted. He then went to a drawer and pulled out two electric razors and motioned how he would buzz cut my head. I rapidly retreated to the door not quite ready for a “Full Metal Jacket” experience.
Then I struck gold. I found Sangita. Like so many Nepalese one meets in Kathmandu, she worked and studied abroad and then came back home. I drove almost an hour through jams and road construction and needed a hand drawn map to find her home. Sangita had shoulder length hair but she too had experienced my crisis. She had returned to Kathmandu with very short hair and unable to cut her own, she had no option but to grow it.