My piece for USA Today on Nepal’s violent and frequent strikes that are paralyzing the country.
My piece for USA Today
Here is my piece in the New York Times — how uncertainty and helplessness feeds fear and hyper vigilance
Winter has come to the Kathmandu Valley, with what the weather people here say is an unexpected cold snap. But after a year and a half living here, the unexpected is really the new normal. The high mountains have got more than five feet of snow so far this winter, stranding trekkers (rash enough to trek in December). Planes aren’t flying, and motorists in the far East, North and West of Nepal have been stranded for several days on snow-bound roads. And no, there aren’t any warm places to stop for a snack, and there are no nearby motels.
Meanwhile, in the Kathmandu Valley, it’s raining, which means temperatures are dipping to nearly freezing. There is no heat in the houses, and so we wear long underwear, multiple shirts and sweaters, down-filled jackets and fleece hats—inside the house–and sit very close to the fireplace and go to bed with hot water bottles right after dinner. I’ve broken down and bought our Rhodesian Ridgeback, Biko, a winter jacket to help him stop shivering.
As part of my tiny effort at reducing black carbon emissions – Kathmandu ranks as one of the world’s most polluted capitals – I try never to use our diesel generator – which is challenging in a city that in the dry winter months provides its denizens with only about six hours of electricity a day. But we are lucky to be in 2015 as in another few years, if Nepal cannot harness its massive hydropower potential, the valley’s rapidly growing population (4 million now and estimated to reach 15 million by 2045) will consider power grid electricity a rarity.
Kathmandu was originally home to our nine-year-old son, Lucas, Biko and myself—John, my husband and Lucas’s father, spends most of his time in Dhaka, where he works. Here in the valley, we seem recently to have added an adopted family of stray dogs that live outside our gate and grows each week as I deliver daily bowls of steaming rice and left-over meat in the hope that it will help the dogs cope with the nighttime cold.
Living here has been a godsend for me. I write and explore, both physically and mentally. The Kathmandu Valley is a gem of ancient art and living religions that date back to the early centuries of the common era. It has taken me over a year to begin an acquaintance with the dizzying complexities of Nepali and Newar cultures (the Newar were the valley’s original inhabitants). We live just up the road from Khokana, one of the oldest Newari towns in the valley, a place where medieval traditions continue: stables in the ground floor, butchering in the street, morning bathing on the doorstep with a pitcher of water, and lots of sidewalk and street-side activities like rice drying and wool carding on an ancient spinning wheel. I love my weekly runs through Khokana and the neighboring amphitheater of fields that alternate summer rice paddies with winter wheat and potatoes, with many of the villagers walking the paths out into the fields in the mornings to attend to their crops. And where else in the world can one live these days where there is not just one Maoist party, but three Maoist splinter parties fighting one another for supremacy?
Lucas, who before spoke English with a Swahili accent when we lived in Kenay, now has a Nepali lilt, with essential Britishisms such as “dustbin” (rarely seen outside his school) and “tipper truck” (increasingly the most popular and overloaded vehicle in the Valley as road and building construction booms). He is keen on becoming a fighter pilot as well as a Marine Corps engineer. With limited television, he now is addicted to the New York Times videos and to re-runs of Top Gear viewed on my Ipad. Internet videos about aircraft carriers of various kinds are also extremely popular on cold winter days.
John lives in Dhaka, working a grueling schedule in Bangladesh and commuting to his two other World Bank countries Nepal and Bhutan, with side trips to Delhi, Dubai and Washington D.C. Dhaka is one of the few capital cities even more polluted than Kathmandu or Delhi. It is not an ideal family life, but we have worked out a modus vivendi and structure our time together by using Lucas’ school term breaks as a chance to visit the region. In the past year or so, we have been able to visit Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. John lives mostly on planes and even though his commute from Dhaka should in theory be only 1hr10 mins, it has been as long as 11 hours due to weather and technical delays. Kathmandu winter fog, further weighed down by heavy pollution, can close down airspace for hours.
Our Christmas gift to the family is that all six of us will converge from four countries and two continents—all now in winter– somewhere warm. This time, because of the logistics of moving the kids from half way around the world, we are meeting in Thailand. Raising kids while living overseas has recently meant for us longer times apart, as they hit their upper teens and head back to North America for schooling. Interestingly, we haven’t had a family argument in over three years. We speak more about “missing” rather than “wanting.” We laugh more. We make a point of having holidays together and then of connecting over long dinners. The kids have made sure we are geared up to communicate: through FaceTime, Skype, Whatsapp, email and even the traditional landline.
Alex, now 17 and hitting 6 feet, is about to finish high school and has applied to a number of colleges without asking for parental advice or assistance (except for filling out financial forms). From the extended family that sees him on long weekends, we understand that he is incredibly helpful cooking and cleaning. He remains an avid reader of Kant, Joyce, Woolf, Shakespeare and other writer-philosophers as well as the captain of his school’s Ultimate Frisbee team. This summer he showed himself an adept stunt diver, hooking his finger as he leapt through a hoolahoop into a Catskill pond and breaking his writing hand. All this was exquisitely timed, done on a Sunday the day before we headed back to Kathmandu. Three doctors, three casts, two countries and one week later, he was happily teaching Ultimate Frisbee to Nepali school kids with his left hand.
Nico, 20, is a junior in Physics and Philosophy at University of Toronto where he frequently ponders the greater meaning of life, a mental activity that entails long calls with John about the reason for man’s existence. I’d like to say that he chats with me about Quantum Physics but there are those that know that I barely passed high school physics and chemistry. Though he still does not have a Canadian driver’s license (his Kenyan one is unusable outside of East Africa), he has a boat piloting license and does a pilot and tour-guide double on Lake Eerie.
The oldest, Madeline, 22, studies Political Science and will graduate from the University of Toronto in the spring of 2015, with some trepidation about what will happen next. (I am sure that many of you have been there—I certainly have!) Madeline and I are the outliers in the family, as we don’t like Maths or science and enjoy the occasional People magazine. Mado is also the one who keeps the family together. With an unfailing self-deprecating humor, she makes sure she stays in touch with everyone on a regular basis. John, Lucas and I are trying to convince her to come to Nepal for a year. Who wouldn’t want to drive on death-defying roads, live without heat in winter, get bitten by leeches during the monsoons, and wake to the rattling bells that summon Shiva at 5:15 in the morning?
The magic of Nepal works in mysterious ways. Even the calendar overwhelms. There are 50 national holidays a year (I believe including Christmas) and more than a handful of New Years celebrations. If Madeline comes, she will have a lot of time off. Nothing is ordinary here. Nothing is what it seems.
There is an intimacy to landing in Kathmandu. From the plane window, you can see the wings skim the mountains as the hairpin dirt roads leading to perched villages close in above you. From my neighborhood, earth and sky rumble together with each approaching plane.
When I was 27, fresh from two years of reporting inside Afghanistan, the New York Times assigned me to cover the borough of Queens. To soothe my homesickness for the wind-swept arid mountain ranges I had left behind, every morning I slowed down as I drove past La Guardia airport, rolled down my window, and deeply inhaled the jet fuel. Then planes were about escape. In Kathmandu, 25 years later, it means connection. I live near the main landing path, and the sound of a plane is both comforting and awe-inspiring. It means that neither the valley’s fog, smog, storms nor its unpredictable wind shear have closed Kathmandu’s airspace. Kathmandu is a pilot-only, visual-only landing, and every time I fly in or out, or listen to a plane overhead, I am reminded that technology is not solely in control but that just one person is leading the way in.
Economists refer to it as ‘connectivity’. A poor country cannot reach middle-income status unless its people can be connected by economic, social and political opportunities within their country and with other economies. This cannot be done without roads and airports. The challenge is huge in Nepal, South Asia’s poorest nation, a vertical land where roads have to be carved out of steep, unstable cliffs that are prone to landslides and where mountains rise so fast and sheer that radar is not always relevant and planes have very limited options on how to get to an airstrip. Imagine terrain so perpendicular that pilots turn off their ground proximity warning system because the constant computer generated voice warning: “Terrain, terrain, terrain,” is not only obvious but also distracting.
Nepal has 48 airports, mostly dirt strips precariously balanced on mountain tops or in narrow valleys, but there is only one international runway, Tribhuvan International Airport, an example of the vast complexities surrounding the issue of connectivity that go beyond just being able to land planes. In Nepal, tourism is the second biggest earner of foreign exchange, and with mostly dirt roads and vast numbers of road casualties, planes are critical to enabling tourists to come and continue to fuel growth.
Yet what happens when tourists come faster than the existing infrastructure can accommodate? Set inside the city of Kathmandu, TIA is bursting at the seams. It has only nine bays, but almost 50 daily international arrivals and more than twice that number for national flights. Visas are available on arrival, but the line is long and the unbridled crowded chaos of baggage claim is only enhanced by an enveloping dark penumbra. Mandarin seems to be the most spoken tongue. According to the local papers, vast amounts of cash are also exchanging hands at customs, where several officials, including the acting director, are under investigation.
Nature is not always cooperative. Flights can stack up for hours circling outside the Kathmandu valley, over Chitwan National Park, a domino effect often started by winter’s morning fog and aggravated by vehicle and generator-induced smog or summer monsoon storms and wind shears. There is one landing strip in dire need of re-tarmacking. Last summer, earth worms infested the runway, attracting nearby birds and closing down the airport for a day. When I fly in or out, I find myself glued to the FlightRadar24 app, scanning weather and delays. The international airline with most delays appears to be Turkish Air, which has the uncooperative 6:55 a.m. landing slot: thick fog at that time often brings long landing delays and recently a flight was even rerouted to Bangladesh for the day because of it. The radar system, only for international approaches, is 25 years old and was installed after two major airplane crashes caused by white-out conditions, but it is struggling to keep up with the rapidly growing traffic. With only a 30-mile radius and blind spots, it is scheduled for a much needed facelift and expansion.
Yet international flights are almost always full, especially the five daily jets coming from five different Chinese cities and the scores of flights from the Middle East and South East Asia—the latter often carrying Nepali migrant workers to and from their host countries. Business must be good as landing rights at TIA are more expensive than Bangkok and on par with Singapore, while refueling charges are extremely high (all fuel comes by truck from India). In addition, pilots need special simulator training for Kathmandu landings. Two airlines, Qatar and Korean Air, are now even using the newest technology, satellite-based GPS systems, that provide the pilots with more information and greater leeway during their landing approach.
As in every other sector in Nepal, there are many improvement plans afoot. The government wants to build two new international airports, and is actively pursuing the Chinese government for soft loans. But airports are also competing with projects such as hydropower plants, expressways to India and China, waste water treatment plants, drinking water for the Kathmandu Valley, and sewage systems for all their cities. The wish list is long, the government cash-strapped, and so far investment is only cautiously moving in.
TIA will be it for the next few years. That means accommodating the dozens of extra weekly flights scheduled to start soon from China. I don’t see the two security check lines that snake through the length of the departure area getting any shorter.
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.
I had noticed her only in passing. On any given day there can be as many as 10 stray dogs moving up and down a 40-meter stretch of my street but I usually just pay attention to the two trouble makers that try to intimidate my Rhodesian Ridgeback when I take him out for a walk. The others either sit and watch or completely ignore our temporary presence.
Recently, a local crowd caught my attention, hovering over a dog lying and whimpering in an open sewage ditch, unable to move. A car had hit her, I was told, and she was incapable of walking or standing up.
Living in Kathmandu, an interaction with a stray dog is inevitable. There are, after all, more than 20,000 of them in the Valley’s tri-city area. When I first moved here a year ago, I lumped them all together into one large category: destitute, miserably hungry, unloved, unhappy and most critically, unvaccinated and un-neutered. Rabies is present throughout Nepal and Lucas, my nine-year-old son, knows never to reach out and pet a stray dog. Nepalis in general coexist with the strays, feeding them scraps, letting them hang out on their stoops, but the dogs are not family pets and the Nepalis do not care for them. On the dark side, I’ve seen dogs kicked and abused. I’ve seen little kids garrot a puppy and drag him around for fun. Some dogs, starving or maimed, grovel for leftovers from the stronger strays.
My Nepali neighbors hovered over the dog and attempted to feed and give her water, but she was in pain and intensely afraid. In Kathmandu, injured stray dogs are left to their fate, even if it means days of suffering. But I couldn’t walk away. At the same time, I was hesitant to interfere. In the back of my head I was replaying a line that my producer at NBC News would tell me regularly: “Dony, you can’t play God.”
Perhaps, I reasoned, I could make her death more peaceful if in fact she was badly injured. I couldn’t move her so I called the local mobile vet. Though Kathmandu is Nepal’s largest city, it is home to all types of farm animals, and vets also treat cows, buffalo, goats, sheep and elephants. After some time, two young men arrived on a motorcycle, pulled out a syringe and anesthetized the dog. They packed her in a cardboard crate, placed her between them on the bike and drove off to their roadside two-room clinic to X-ray the injury. I followed in my car.
The dog had only tissue damage, but she needed a week of daily steroid, antibiotic and pain killer shots. This meant keeping her virtually immobile in the vet’s small cage, recovering for a week. If she was then immediately released back on the street, her chances of survival were slim. By then, it had become clear to me that I had inherited a stray and its hospital bill. She had also at some point been blinded by a stick or rod in her left eye, so before I changed my mind, I added in drops for the infected eye as well as rabies, distemper and paro-virus shots. Lucas named her Rexi. The Nepalis, having some difficulty in pronouncing Rexi, renamed her Raksi – after the local moonshine.
For the past year, in my morning runs and commutes to school, I have studied the multi-layered social interactions and relationships between Kathmandu canines and the world of humans. The Nepalis who have dogs as pets (often white, furiously yapping, furry Spitzes) keep them indoors or on their rooftops. Some people tie their guard dogs on such short chains outside their houses they can barely lie down.
The vast majority of strays, like Raksi, are community dogs that live their lives outside in a self-delineated territory of a couple of city blocks. They drink from the open drainage ditches that often double as sewers, and beg–always patient, unobtrusive and even elegant–from store fronts and especially from the ubiquitous one-room butcher shacks. They are mostly thin and dirty though some are strikingly handsome. Raksi had a thick black and brown coat and impressively healthy white teeth. Some are social and wag hello, others are terrified when I walk by and on rare occasions there will be one that snarls or barks. In this city of massive and aggressive traffic, a week never goes by without seeing at least a couple of dogs lying on a road, killed by a vehicle. Sometimes the animal lies there for days before being removed.
Kathmandu dogs are nocturnal, and their baying, howling, snarling, yelping and ululating barks punctuate my night. Silence only descends briefly between 4am and dawn. In the winter, the cold takes the weak. In the dry, hot months, thirst kills. Puppies have a particularly high death rate. Wounds from nighttime fights fester. I never cease to be amazed by the dogs daytime ability to sleep — absolutely anywhere — though they love to spread out in the middle of roads, oblivious of honking trucks or speeding motorcycles. During my weekly runs, I’ve taken to greeting the strays on my route. Occasionally one or two will join me for a stretch of road.
After her stay at the vet, we took Raksi to our house to recover. Once in our home, she stayed in a makeshift corrugated iron shack with cardboard and a towel as a bed. My dog, Biko, immediately disapproved of Raksi’s presence and not only ignored her but me as well. After a day, she began to limp around cautiously, and then soon was wandering around the garden, sleeping in our garage and trying to find ways to enter our house. Gentle and courteous, she wagged up a fury whenever she saw anybody, circling her head high so as to catch us with her good eye. I began to worry that she would never leave. I knew with each passing day, I was falling for her too.
At the end of the first week, as Lucas and I walked one morning onto the main road, Raksi followed. She went to sit facing us on a mound of half-burned blue and pink plastic garbage bags. Lucas tried to woo her back through our gate with her favorite dog bones and a bowl of milk, but she sat there sphinx-like and dignified and finally just turned, crossed the road and disappeared down a narrow alley.
Lucas went to school in tears that day. He thought that he had lost a friend. But Raksi didn’t really move away; she moved back to where she always had been—on the streets in our immediate neighborhood. Since then we have seen her every day, sometimes in front of our gate or on the concrete landing in front of the local tailor shop next door, even as far away as across the main road by the green grocers. I see her sleeping, surrounded by her many companions. She’ll get up and limp over to sniff a newcomer, warning him off with a bark. Her favorite spot is the sand pyramid on the construction site opposite our place. She has always greeted us with utter delight and wagging tail, dog-tracking towards us with a huge grin, one black ear perked, the other flopping.
I like to think that this is her way of telling me that she is okay. The dog rescue organizations in Kathmandu had warned me that there was virtually no chance of finding her a home and that if a foreigner adopted her (the most likely possibility) he or she would probably leave Raksi behind when leaving Nepal. If she was healthy, the street was the best place for her.
I still grapple with all I have learned from Raksi. When I saw street life as misery, why did I automatically believe she thought the same? Why did I assume my joy was her joy? I thought she was like my Ridgeback, an obsessively loyal animal whose idea of home was lying by my side. Biko won’t even smell the street garbage that is Raksi’s food. But it’s obvious to me that Raksi, like so many other dogs here, is only at home in her pack. She and several other dogs move, eat, sleep together. She has the freedom to roam. She perks up with the chaos of trucks and honking horns and it also lulls her to sleep, lying inches away from the paved road. She likes to lie with her nose on the edge of the open sewer. And though she greets me effusively, when I see her, one thing is clear: This is her world.