It’s been a tough year for Nepal – huge earthquakes, thousands dead, millions homeless followed by massive strikes protesting a new constitution (the strikers have valid points!) and then an “undeclared blockade” by India the sole supplier of fuel that in very circumspect and vaguely termed ways decided to send fuel only in dribbles. Now its Dashain, the biggest holiday of the year. Here’s a tale of goats.
India’s “undeclared” blockade of Nepal has created a countrywide massive fuel shortage affecting life at all levels from driving to cooking, medical treatment and ability to assist earthquake victims. My piece for the New York Times. Every aspect of our lives is connected to fossil fuels.
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.
“I am calling from Nepal,” I began the conversation with my usual opener. I was on the phone with Visa, my credit card having been blocked three times in one week. “That’s a tiny country between China and India,” I explained to the befuddled voice on the other end and then without pause added the tried and true clincher: “It’s the country of Mt. Everest.”
Sometimes, I feel tempted to skip the obvious and instead to share my favorite, rather obscure fact about Nepal. In 1996, when communism was already an anachronism, Nepali Maoists, with little base among the masses, began a brutal 10-year civil war. They weren’t sufficiently pure Maoists to be recognized by China but were declared terrorists by India and the U.S–though an Indian group, the Naxalites, are said to have provided them much of their military training. Their very first weapons, whose bullets heralded the opening of the war, were American-made and had been air-dropped to Tibetan rebels in 1961 to mount a revolt in China. To make the story even quirkier, the Maoist leaders are now in the fledgling new Nepali government. Their former military commander, who directed the war from India and who was believed by some to be a fictional character, today is still referred to by his ‘nom de guerre,’ Prachanda or “Fierce”, and remains a subject of Nepali gossip — not about where he may be hiding but about how he acquired his wealth and fancy cars.
There is a fast-fading moldy quotation painted in two-foot high bold lettering on the concrete wall that border the main avenue of Patan, Kathmandu’s sister city. “REVOLUTION IS NOT BED OF ROSES, it declares in what was once blood-red paint, before the rest of the sentence fades into black-leaching monsoon mold. The author’s originally spelled name resurfaces briefly: “Friedl Castro.”
Nepali communism (a unique brand that includes three separate and fractious parties) is far from dead but it has morphed and become part of the flow of the varied influences that define 2014 Nepal. And, yes, for the tourist mountain climbers and trekkers out there, it has even made it to Mt. Everest. With the official title of “Lumbini-Sagarmatha Peace March,” a 2012 expedition to Everest was co-led by Prachanda’s son and funded by the then-communist-led Nepali government. There are still black-stenciled faces of Chairman Mao around Kathmandu, and at election time last November the hammer and sickle was ubiquitous. A social media and Twitter coach might advise that they revisit their 1960s party brands: ‘Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)’; ‘The Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist- Leninist’. Catchy they are not. Businesses looking to invest in Nepal may also be a bit taken aback by politician’s business cards bearing these names from another era.
From absolute monarchy through a vicious civil war, a military coup and now a fledgling democracy, Nepalis, it often appears, struggle, survive and succeed despite, and not because, of their governments. With bleak employment opportunities in Nepal, more than two million Nepali youth work overseas mostly in the Middle East and Malaysia as an unskilled labor force. A similar number cross the border to look for work in India. Their remittances represent about 25 percent of Nepal’s GDP. Critics point out that fewer unemployed restive youth at home means fewer problems for the government. None of Nepal’s many political parties have come up with a “Yes We Can” style political slogan, but the common man has found a phrase to express his resignation to the water, fuel and electricity shortages, the slow progress in constitution writing, and even the weather. The quintessential “khe garne?” literally translates as “What to do?” This is not really a question as much as a manifestation of decades-worth of a culturally-fed apathy and fatalism.
Nowadays, the revolutionaries are not in opposition. In fact, many Nepalis believe that they share in government corruption; and they remain mixed and melded and molded with deeply ritualistic Hinduism and its hundreds of festivals. Bandhs (“strikes”), once a feared Maoist weapon, are now part of the mainstream, adopted even by right-wing Hindus–but, though they are occasionally violent, as in the rest of South Asia, observing uniquely Nepali manners, they are maintained only during business hours and not on any major religious holiday. Mahatma Gandhi’s most visible legacy in Nepal is the hunger strike, often undertaken by individuals to demand justice for crimes committed during the civil war. Some are very serious, like the hunger strike of the parents of Krishna Prasad Adhikari, murdered in 2004, demanding that the police arrest his killers believed to be Maoist cadres, but others are a little more comical, in a Nepali way, like a recent statement of various civil servants that they would undertake “relay hunger strikes” until their demands were met. I told my husband that I too would be on a hunger strike between lunch and dinner.
After living for four years in Nairobi, a city beset by violent crime and the danger of terrorist attacks, it has been a delight to live in Kathmandu for many reasons, including the lack of ubiquitous crime. I can go out at night, with no fear. Driving my car, I don’t have to check my rear view mirror to see whether I am being followed. I don’t even have to worry about drunk-drivers. Though Nepalis can drink–heavily–the Kathmandu police enforce zero tolerance for drinking and driving, and many an alcohol-scented driver has found himself stranded at a police checkpoint at night.
Yet national interest and community self interest often clash. Many Nepalis feel that only protests spark government responsibility. In the aftermath of an August 2nd landslide that destroyed villages, killing 156 people and burying more than 10kms of Nepal’s only major trade route to China, the local community’s “struggle committee” blocked army bulldozers from trying to address the ensuing problems, demanding first that the government deliver the aid that it had promised. Subsequently frustrated by government inaction, local businessmen are now building their own bypass road. The government appealed for funds in the local papers, printing a bank account number for Good Samaritan direct deposits. The Chinese ambassador delivered his government’s donation in cash.
In Kathmandu recently, where garbage disposal is beyond a crisis, residents of the neighborhood adjacent to the city’s only garbage dump (a way station to a bigger dump outside the city) complained to the local government about weeks of overflowing and unmanaged dumping. When the city ignored them, the locals padlocked the gate to the dump. Needless to say, the garbage got dumped anyway–somewhere even less appropriate.
Padlocking as a threat is often used in Nepal, especially by communist youth groups. This year when private schools announced a tuition hike, the youth groups padlocked and sealed the offices of the schools’ accountants, and added threats of violence for good measure. It was fairly effective–because they have a reputation of delivering violence, fire bombing buses and taxis and (just this week) trashing local newspaper offices.
Friedl Castro definitely had a point about revolution: it is not a bed of roses. Democracy is also a long, painful, and convoluted process. From 2011 to 2013, Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoist party’s ideologue, who has a degree in urban planning, was Nepal’s prime minister. It is his vision of widening Kathmandu’s narrow roads that is slowly untangling the capital’s horrific traffic jams. If only the contractors had remembered to add drainage ditches.
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.
Just 25km south of Nepal’s capital as the crow flies, the limpid Kulekhani River empties into the larger and heavily polluted Bagmati River, which flows in a series of twisting bends down from Kathmandu. In this narrow gorge bordered by steep treeless mountains that slice the blue sky, there are only a few mud houses perched on seemingly inaccessible ledges and on the riverside an army camp of plastic-covered quantum huts. This is the shortest way from Kathmandu to the Indian border.
To get here from Kathmandu, I took the shortest route passable by a 4X4 car – a 45km drive that took 2.5 hours on a narrow mostly-dirt road that hairpins over sheer precipices. The road is too narrow for the trucks that bring fuel, propane and all imported goods from India to the Kathmandu Valley. They have to take a 152km detour that on a map looks like a big C loop.
Inaccessibility is a defining characteristic of Nepal’s history. Much of Nepal is an endless sequence of steep hills and narrow gorges that abut the world’s highest mountains. Once you leave the Indian border and the Terai, the word flat or straight is rarely used to describe a road (outside the Kathmandu Valley). Whole areas have been so geographically isolated that Nepal, a country of 27 million, has 123 spoken languages and 125 ethnic groups. Today there are still far-flung areas of Nepal, especially in the northwest, that are not connected by any road and where all goods have to be brought in on foot or by donkey. After years of a violent Maoist revolt that tore Nepal apart, roads are a critical means of integrating and uniting a nation. Not only do roads facilitate trade and decrease poverty but they also provide isolated areas with security and medical care.
Most of Nepal’s roads are not paved and even on the paved ones, the maintenance is poor and irregular. Landslides are commonplace, especially during the torrential monsoon downpours. Vehicles, often overloaded, have frequent accidents.
Only Peru ranks up there with Nepal as the toughest country in the world to build roads. Today, the fastest way from Kathmandu to India is through the town of Hetauda on the dirt road I took. The main means of transport is the Tata Sumo, a 4X4 large jeep lookalike. A Sumo can cram 12 to 15 people inside and at least five sitting on the roof rack. Up to 800 Sumos a day aggressively ply this road that at one point curls up the sides of mountains and has redefined for me the meaning of the word ‘narrow’. The road has no shoulders. From the open window of our car, it is possible to touch the sheer wall of rock, on the other side our wheels are inches from a sheer drop of at least 400 meters. Below and across the river gorge, houses inch up the hills while white Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples perch on hilltops accessible only by switchback dirt trails that resemble goat tracks. Reverse is often the only way to deal with oncoming traffic. It takes five hours to the Indian border. Trucks take the longer 10-hour route.
The Nepali government has a four-year-plan. They want to build what they call a “Fast Track” road following the Bagmati River to India. This 91km-road would link Kathmandu with a new airport the government wants to build in the flat Terai land for bigger airplanes. The new airstrip is to be built in one of Nepal’s foggiest zones. Critics say this will affect airplane traffic. Tourists would then take the two-hour drive to the Kathmandu Valley.
Of course the airport won’t work if the road isn’t there. Challenges to building the ‘Fast Track’ are technical, financial and political. In the road sector, politicians often pressure the government to steer projects to their home districts. In one district in Nepal, the conflict between three political parties over the building of one bridge compelled the government to agree to build three bridges (one for each party) within 4kms of each other, but to date, no bridge has been completed as the project has become too expensive.Six months ago, at the confluence of the Bagmati and Kulekhani, the Nepali army enthusiastically blasted a segment of the ‘Fast Track’ through an overhanging mountain crag transforming it into a jumbled pile of jagged white boulders. Since then the work has stalled. Financing has yet to come through. International engineers estimate a cost of about US$1billion, 40 percent of which would go to building 9kms of bridges and 1.4kms of tunnel. Geologically, mountains are unstable in Nepal and no road tunnel has ever been built here.
The ‘Fast Track’ will exist though it probably will take 10 to 20 years. In the meantime, we continue to drive on our goat-like mountain paths with the nail-biting hairpin turns, incredible scenery, on Nepali time and dreaming of better roads.