My piece for NPR.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Growing up in New York, I rarely associated religious festivals with a national or even a city holiday, though occasionally alternate side of the street parking was suspended – to my father’s delight.
Half way around the world, Nepal has taken the idea of religious festivities to another level. Beginning in late August and continuing until the end of October, religious festivals follow each other like tumbling dominoes, occasionally bridged by government holidays. The festivals can last a day or a more than a week. Parking, though, is not an issue in Kathmandu, a capital where parallel parking has yet to be discovered and the rule on the hair-raising narrow roads seems to be: “Never give way.”
It is a season when the complexities of Nepali society seem to surf above the capital’s physical chaos, pollution, political disorder and venality. The ties to yore, to myth, to custom and to religion may be a matter of worship or just a question of habit or a mere acquiescence to an insistent mother-in-law. In any case, Nepal’s festivals are not a matter that can be ignored.
Depending on how you look at it, life in Kathmandu either slows down as stores and offices close or it hums with an entirely different undercurrent. There are different colors, smells, noises. Traffic jams change locations. In Nepal, the kaleidoscope of Newar, Tamang, Chhetri, Brahmin and other holy days challenge the most ardent ritualists, who consult multiple types of calendars not only to stay connected with the outside world but also to follow the local customs. Most of the calendars are based on a lunar cycle, so every year, schools, offices and government nimbly have to readjust their schedules. To keep everyone on their toes, some holidays rely on astrologers.
This year, the season began on August 10th, with Janai Purnima, when Brahmins and Chhetri communities go visit their guru to have their sacred thread changed. For good measure, there are those who add on a dip in a local river. Just a day later, on the 11th is Gaijatra or Cow Festival, a huge event in the Kathmandu Valley, when you decorate your cow or one of the many stray bovines in your neighborhood and join the dancing, singing parades. Some choose to wear cow head-gear. It is meant to pave the way towards heaven for any relative that has died that year. As the end of the month nears, there is Father’s day and close by the day when Hindu priests give (or more precisely sell) the faithful some ‘Kush grass’ so that Vishnu will live in their home for the coming year.
Some festivals are all-inclusive, others pick their ethnic group, pointing in numbers to the changing ethnic powers in the Kathmandu Valley. Take Teej, which is followed by Chhetris and Brahmins but not by the Newars, the area’s original inhabitants. If color is a sign, then the Newars are far from being the majority they once were.
For the five days of Teej, observant women wear red saris, turning the entire valley into a red sea. The government closes down the roads in one of the busiest sections of Kathmandu so that thousands of red clad women can worship at Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Shiva shrines in the world. Red saris are scrunched against the windows of overloaded public buses or billow elegantly in an Isadora Duncan sort of way on the back of motorcycles. Teej is billed as a woman’s festival – but it is really about the men, for it is a time when a woman either prays for the well-being of her husband or, if she not already married, for a husband-to-be.
If a woman is very traditional, she will fast and she will also bathe her husband’s legs and drink the run-off water. This has some of my women friends in the States decrying marital abuse. But watching these red saris dancing in front of temples, standing and chattering on endless lines with their girlfriends and daughters, puja (offerings) and smart phones in hand, all bedecked in traditional gold jewelry, it is clear that, for them, Teej is not only about bonding but also about a great escape from endless daily chores and demanding husbands. It’s a time of year when gold prices in Kathmandu skyrocket. I’m inclined to believe that if you acquire new jewelry and a new sari, and spend five days with your friends, worshipping a husband is a fair exchange.
The festivities don’t end with Teej. A short break afterwards, there is an eight-day Indra festival in Kathmandu. More masked dancers and drums in procession with the Kumari Devi, or ‘Living Goddess,’ blocking more traffic. And then Nepal’s most universal and longest festival – Dashain – begins and continues for about 15 days. This year it falls at the very end of September. On the surface Dashain is a celebration of the victory of gods and goddesses over demons or of good over evil, but between the prayers, it is mostly a celebration of family and community. Flights into Nepal have already been booked for weeks now. Nepali migrant workers in the Middle East borrow money to return home, others fly in from the U.S. and Europe. Kathmandu empties out as families return to their ancestral villages spending long hours on buses and often walking the last bit to grandma’s old mud- wattle or stone house. Aside from hotels and a few restaurants in the tourist neighborhoods, Kathmandu shuts down. The sky is a jumble of kites maneuvred by young kids on rooftops. The chaotic traffic jams and the smog melt away.
This is a time of sacrifice – animal sacrifice that is. My friend Keshav, has been fattening his mutton for three years just for this year’s holiday. On October 1st this year, the day will begin with the army’s ritual throat-slitting of scores of buffaloes and then everyone has the go ahead to kill and feast on their own buffalo or goats and the drain-less roads will be covered in blood. Even if you live in an apartment, there is pressure to buy and butcher your own animal.
My favorite festival is none of these, but comes a bit later. After the dancing, chanting, techno-filled boom-blasted nights of Teej, just passed, I look forward to Tihar, the festival of lights, at the end of October. If poetry can transcend words, it is found at night in Patan’s old city. Every household creates on their road-side stoop mandalas of rice and painted flour lit by butter lamps. The narrow roads cornered by ancient temples are full of families strolling or going to prayer in the flittering, smoky lamplight. If there are no power cuts (and the government goes out of its way to avoid them during Tihar), cascades of Christmas lights decorate the taller buildings. Of course, modern times intrude. On Tihar, it is traditionally auspicious to buy metal; these days that means buying electronics, and so phones, televisions and stereos sell briskly.
Luckily, when it is all over, I won’t suffer from withdrawal. There are of course many more festivals during the year but in the meantime I still have my neighborhood Hindu priest to remind me I live in Kathmandu. Without fail, 365 days a year, he starts clanking his bell to wake Shiva at 5:15AM. I lie in bed, counting the 25 to 31 reverberating sharp and hard rings occasionally enhanced with some megaphone chants. When I moved here a year ago, the head-thudding noise forced me up and out of bed but these days, it has a soothing quality, alternating with the baying packs of neighborhood stray dogs and the coo-ing pigeons on my windowsill. I roll over, a smile on my face, knowing that the ancient is still there to guard the new day.
I 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.