Tag Archives: Nepal news

Raising a family and living a marriage on FaceTime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Nepal boasts 330 million gods and counting but none garners a more unusual collection of birthday well-wishers than Lord Shiva, the creator and the destroyer. In non- Hindu terms, Shiva is like the patron saint of Nepal. His spiky trident and his bull are ubiquitous from big city temples to impromptu shrines sprouting up in the middle of fields and roads.  In fact, one of Hinduism’s holiest places, Pashupatinath, in the heart of Kathmandu, is one of the most renowned Shiva shrines as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This year Shiva’s birthday fell on February 27.

Maha ShivaRatri (Big Shiva Night) is a national holiday in Nepal. On the big day, thousands of devotees inched down the main road towards the main gate, tightly packed in a several kilometer-long snaking line waited to enter the holy room where they can worship the Shiva Lingam, a phallus symbolic of the regenerative power of nature.

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

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

But some birthday guests had come many days before. This year, more than 5,000 Sadhus or ascetic holy men who give up worldly possessions to achieve enlightenment, walked, biked and bused from far reaches of the Indian subcontinent and set up camp in every nook and cranny in the vast complex of Pashupatinath, making for a rather kooky birthday party.

 

Most of eastern Kathmandu roads were closed to traffic to accommodate the crowds. The massive temple complex on the banks of the putrid but very holy Bagmati River was crammed with people. Tiny shack shops were doing brisk business, loudspeakers were blaring and thumping a Bollywood religious song.

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

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

Pashupatinath is famous for its open-air cremations and the very distinctive both sweet and acrid smell of burning flesh and scented wood hit me even before I reached the three pyres that were brightly crackling, the smoke curling upwards into the grey sky. Amid the relatives of the dead squatting near holy men and asking for blessings, a young boy on very high stilts was entertaining a crowd of devotees. But this was not the scene that distinguishes Pashupatinath.

 

On an upper terrace, in between several small temples laid out around a square were hundreds of saffron robed Sadhus, scores of devotees, some tourists and about a dozen police. Some Sadhus, called Naga Sadhus, were naked or almost so. Many were smeared in ash with massive dreadlocks piled on their heads, colorfully painted faces and long beards.

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

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

One, with only a loincloth and a blanket, his eye rims bright red sat shivering and mumbling. In the chilly, drizzling morning, they shared home-made fires smoking more than burning on the stone pavement.  The cremation scent quickly mixed with wafts of ganja (marijuana) that grew more and more intense as I walked deeper into the complex, stinging my eyes and coating my lungs.

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This year the police were not allowing the open sale of drugs but some of the Sadhus were doing a brisk business with young Nepali men as police looked on.

 

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

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

While many devotees want to pay their respects to the Lingam, some do gather for blessings from these yogis who are thought to be very wise and gifted with special powers. Some Hindus consider them saints and the government of Nepal feeds and lodges them for their entire stay. The Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) estimates that about $14,000 will be spent on their room and board. The government also provides each one with a financial ‘gift’ when they leave.

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

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

The yogis may have been saintly and one claimed he was 110 years old but a lot of their holiness and their weird charm was lost for me as I watched their aggressive demands for money from anyone who wanted to take their pictures. In fact picture-taking was a brisk business. They may claim to forgo all worldly possessions, but many had easily available change for big bills. I photographed one foreign tourist busy posing one Sadhu in a variety of different poses against a wall. No doubt for a hefty fee.

 

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

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

Sadhus belong to different sects. There was one much smaller group of Sadhus that were given a wide berth by their fellow ascetics and by the crowds. These men, dressed entirely in black, are Tantric or followers of the occult and worship Bhairav or Shiva’s fiercest manifestation. Some Hindus believe that they live near cremation grounds and feed off of human remains. When I saw them they were eating rice.

 

Then of course, like at every huge party anywhere in the world, there are also the Birthday gate-crashers. Beware, not all Sadhus are real Sadhus.

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

 

 

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

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

I learned a new expression this week: Controlled Flight into Terrain or CFIT meant to describe a plane crash where a pilot unintentionally flies into the ground or a mountain. For anyone who flies around Nepal, this is a stark reminder of the risks. The day I read about CFIT on Twitter, a Nepal Airlines Canadian-built Twin Otter, the war horse of all planes, one of the few able to navigate Nepal’s uncompromising and unforgiving mountains and its short airstrips, crashed into a fog enshrouded mountain side, killing all 18 people on board. The flight bound for Jumla in the high Himalayas took off in dense fog and then asked to be rerouted before contact broke.

Traveling around Nepal is surreally beautiful but far from simple.

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

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

There are few paved roads and the dirt ones, mostly carved out of perpendicular mountain sides next to 1000 meter plunges are listed on maps as “fair weather” which means they are impassable for four or more months during the monsoons or by the frequent landslide. Many of the remote and desperately poor communities are only easily reachable by plane and on dirt airstrips that require STOL or short take offs and landings. But snow, fog and rain make navigating mountains treacherous so much so that airports, including Kathmandu’s, regularly close down for hours.

 

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

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

This is the land of the Twin Otter. Maybe this crash was an anomaly?. Kunda Dixit, a renowned journalist and flying aficionado burst my bubble. Sixteen of Nepal’s fleet of 25 Twin Otters have crashed. According to Dixit, Nepal Airlines has now lost 70 percent of its 12 Twin Otters to crashes and has only one still airworthy. Even more heart stopping, Dixit’s article in the Nepali Times pointed out that of all crashes since 1955, about 90 percent were due to CFIT.

The reasons are multifaceted. Cut throat competition in the airline business and thin profit margins coupled with political and local corruption has decimated safety nets. The government, struggling after a decade of a vicious Maoist revolt, has shown itself too weak to implement reform in that sector. Many of the smaller planes, such as the one that just crashed, are not provided with weather radar or de-icing. Flying has become a booming business and some pilots are careless and not as well trained as the veterans. Flight dispatchers should also be held responsible but the biggest pressure is on the pilots to fly regardless of bad weather and cash incentives are given for successful landings at destination. Last year a plane crashed at Jomson, when the captain refused to heed instructions not to land in a tail wind.

Late last year, the European Commission blacklisted all Nepali planes from European airspace. Some might think this move irrelevant since no Nepali airline flies that far. But more to the point, they advised Europeans not to fly in Nepal. We have also been advised not to fly on any plane except for Buddha Air which has my eight-year-old son teasing me at take-off that this may be the fastest way to get to Nirvana.

Nepal ---- in Sign Language © Donatella Lorch

Nepal —- in Sign Language © Donatella Lorch

So what are people to do, stick to the roads? Nepal has one of the highest accident rates in the world.  Despite a plethora of signs saying “Dead Slow”, “Sharp Bend,” “Push Horn” and “Accident Prone Area,” trucks, buses and taxi jeeps are overloaded, have non working signals, don’t use headlights and their drivers rarely slow down when they see you coming in the other direction on a road barely the width of a lane and a bit (with a precipice on one side).

Road signs are an obvious alert to drivers © Donatella Lorch

Road signs are an obvious alert to drivers © Donatella Lorch

Truck windshields are an artistic collection of colored stickers, plastic multi-colored flowers, and religious paintings leaving two small slits through which to see the road. Breakdowns are marked by a few tree branches stuck in the back of the vehicle held immobile by a rock behind a wheel gathered from the nearby recent landslide.

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

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

After driving 1000 kms from Kathmandu to Western Nepal, I quickly learned to give up my American road etiquette. Asking “how far” provides useless information. The key is “how long does it take to get there.” The only paved road snaking uphill almost 2000 meters into remote districts of western Nepal is a 134km stretch or a six-hour drive.

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

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

It is marked by 18 roadside rock shrines, engraved with the date and location where a vehicle plunged into the abyss. It is so steep here, that the wreckage remains untouched.  Even the country’s vast population of stray dogs participates in making driving challenging. They curl up and sleep in the middle of the road and like everyone else on the road, they do not give way. In fact, they don’t even wake up.

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

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

My Nepali friends shrug their shoulders at the dangers. It all boils down to Karma, they say.  If it is your time, it is your time. I have yet to reach that zen acceptance.

The Buddha Air flight back to Kathmandu © Donatella Lorch

The Buddha Air flight back to Kathmandu © Donatella Lorch

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

In Nepal where mountains rule — Making roads is not straightforward

 

View from the road down to the Bagmati River near Kathmandu. Nepal is one of the toughest countries in the world to build roads. Copyright Donatella Lorch

View from the road down to the Bagmati River near Kathmandu. Nepal is one of the toughest countries in the world to build roads. Copyright Donatella Lorch

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.

The shortest route from Kathmandu to India where even the tracks are impassable due to landslides. Copyright Donatella Lorch

This gorge is part of the shortest route from Kathmandu to India. Even the tracks are impassable due to landslides. Copyright Donatella Lorch

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.

Outside of Kathmandu, bridges over the Bagmati are all like this one. Copyright Dominic Patella

Outside of Kathmandu, bridges over the Bagmati are all like this one. Copyright Dominic Patella

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.

One of the many trucks that didn't make. Copyright Donatella Lorch

One of the many trucks that didn’t make it. Copyright Donatella Lorch

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.

A Sumo on a wide Nepali road. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A Sumo on a wide Nepali road. Copyright Donatella Lorch

 

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 slice of mountain blasted by the Nepali army as part of efforts to   start  'Fast Track' construction. Copyright Dominic Patella

The slice of mountain blasted by the Nepali army as part of efforts to start ‘Fast Track’ construction. Copyright Dominic Patella

 

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.

 

Already CNN Hero, a Nepali Blazes a Unique Path

Pushpa Basnet with Sanu (left), the first child she met and rescued from prison life eight years ago . Fourteen month old Pushpanjali (right) is her youngest ward. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pushpa Basnet with Sanu (left), the first child she met and rescued from prison life eight years ago . Fourteen month old Pushpanjali (right) is her youngest ward. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pushpa Basnet’s home, like many places in Kathmandu, is hard to find. I had to call her several times for directions as I drove into the dust-caked northern part of Nepal’s capital city, navigating the ubiquitous ruts created by road construction, the jams from overloaded buses dropping passengers in mid-lane and the sea of motorcycles oblivious of any traffic rule. Finally I found the right turn into the narrow alleyway that led to a black gate. Pushpa was waiting there, a young woman all smiles, her black hair in a tight bun, a baby in her arms and children tagging behind.

I have reported from and volunteered in many orphanages in Africa and South Asia and often felt they were defined by a tangible sadness if not despair.  For a stranger entering this home for the first time, the warmth was unmistakable. Pushpa, 29, founded and runs a home for children who have one or both parents serving long prison terms. She lives with her 45 wards that range from 14 months to 18 years in a simple three-story brick house without running water.

In Nepal, a country whose major claim to fame is as home to Mt Everest and great trekking, Pushpa is different.  She is a CNN Hero 2012.  I had wanted to meet her in part to see what made her a ‘hero’ and what a CNN Hero does after they have won their award.  I left a few hours later feeling that I had met an extraordinary woman with unusual inner strength, humility, smarts and a seemingly endless amount of love and positive karma to share. If heroes are made on a battlefield, Pushpa’s is far from the world’s attention. She is not a media star in Nepal. But she is a star in this home. She is Mamu, a very unusual mother.

The children at ECDC, a home to children of Nepali prisoners, greet visitors.

The children at ECDC, a home to children of Nepali prisoners, greet visitors.

Pushpa’s organization, the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC), houses the children of prisoners and pays for their education. But this is just the bare bones of what happens here. By her own admission never a great student, Pushpa says she found her calling in 2005 after she was temporarily suspended from school and began to visit prisons as a social worker. One of the world’s poorest countries, Nepal lacks a social safety net that can help the children of prisoners. As a result, if the child has no guardian, it must go live in prison or on the streets.  In 2007, Pushpa started a residential home with just two children. Through a complex legal guardianship process, Pushpa has now brought 32 girls and 13 boys here from 22 prisons. Most of them are between ages 4 and 8. She also runs a daycare center in Kathmandu prison.

Pushpa focuses on children whose parents are serving long sentences for crimes such as drug and human trafficking and murder. Herself a product of boarding school, Pushpa created her home on a similar model. The children live in impeccable though Spartan dorm rooms. The small ones sleep two to a bed for physical and emotional warmth. “Hugs are very important,” grins Pushpa who grabs her little ones to ruffle their head or exchange a kiss. Prizes of ice cream outings are given monthly to the cleanest rooms. Everyone studies together on floor cushions in the evenings. They have four meals a day of dal and rice with homemade pickles made by the gallon by Pushpa. They can afford meat  (chicken) only once a week.

The dormitory rooms are immaculate and Spartan.

The dormitory rooms are immaculate and Spartan.

Like all Nepalese, Pushpa and her staff adapt to the ubiquitous shortages. Road construction means no running water for months now. There is no central heating but she has no money for propane heaters so in the winter it is early to bed. With 12 hours a day of no electricity, she has used her CNN funds to buy solar panels and her inverters feed the critical rooms: the night bathroom light, study hall and the kitchen. The funds have also helped her buy two solar broilers where I saw beans busy simmering as well as a long metal dining table with benches so everyone eats together.  Every four days she goes through one 15Kg propane cylinder for cooking. She usually hoards (like everyone else) 25 cylinders at a time but today she has only five left due to an unforeseen shortage in the Kathmandu Valley. “I’ve hoarded wood,” she assured me. “If we can’t find propane, we’ll cook with that.”

Pushpa used some of her CNN award money to buy solar inverters as well as this solar broiler where she is cooking beans. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pushpa used some of her CNN award money to buy solar inverters as well as this solar broiler where she is cooking beans. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

As much as possible, she wants her children to have a normal life. Aside from paying their school fees, Pushpa has hired a Tae Kwon Do (one of Nepal’s major school sports) teacher to come to the house and train. Painting is also a key activity. One girl, whose father died of an overdose and whose mother is serving a 25-year sentence for selling and using “Brown Sugar,” (heroine) has nerve damage that makes it difficult to speak but Pushpa encourages her drawing talent. And on weekends, everyone heads out for a hike to a nearby hill to play games and fly kites. This is Pushpa’s favorite time. “This is the one place I can be myself and just run around,” she explained. On holidays, the children return to the prisons to stay with their parents.

Pushpa must compete with Nepal’s orphanages for funding. With foreign adoptions suspended, orphanages are overcrowded and underfunded.  Pushpa’s biggest challenge is finding a permanent home. So far, ECDC has moved five times. Her CNN prize money has gone towards buying land to build her dream “Butterfly Home.” She is now fund raising for the $400,000 she needs to build the home and make it a reality. At times, serendipitous encounters, are magical.  Coming back from his honeymoon, her brother chatted with a fellow plane passenger who was coming to visit orphanages she was supporting. Today, this woman supports 23 of Pushpa’s children with $3,000 a month. Of the children Pushpa has raised since 2005, 120 have left and 25 of the parents remain in contact with the school. Pushpa continues to pay for many of their school tuitions.  Fourteen of Pushpa’s wards were abandoned by their parents after leaving prison but the kids continue to live at ECDC.

There is a circle to Pushpa’s life.

Sanu, the little eight-month-old who first grabbed her clothes and smiled at her in 2005 is now nine years old and still lives with Pushpa. Sanu’s mother served a sentence for killing her abusive husband but was turned away by her own family after being released. She is now also living at ECDC.  In halting English, Sanu tries to explain her situation: “I have an original mother and I have Mamu, a mother who gives me everything.”

Over a year ago, Pushpa was handed a 45-day-old girl by policemen. The baby’s mother had just been burned to death by her husband for failing to make him an omelette. The father is serving a 10 year sentence. The little girl, Pushpanjali, is now 14 months old and Pushpa has been given complete guardianship. At lunchtime, the older children feed and look after younger ones. But every spare moment when she can grab her away, Pushpa is picking up Pushpanjali to nuzzle and hug her.

Waiting for The Power. Hoarding as Art. Winter Life in Kathmandu

Nepal has massive hydroelectric potential but in winter the rivers shrink and demand outstrips supply

Nepal has massive hydroelectric potential but in winter the rivers shrink and demand outstrips supply

When Lonely Planet made Nepal one of the ten most memorable places to visit in 2013, the Nepali Times’ hilarious and sardonic “Backside” column came up with a slogan to attract tourists. “Visit Nepal, See Stars” it wrote, noting that there is no light pollution in Nepal because there is no electricity, and so Kathmandu is the only capital in the world where one can admire the Milky Way from the heart of downtown.
When I moved here in August, I thought this slogan was exaggerated, as electricity was cut for only two hours a day. But I was wrong. Most of Nepal’s electricity is generated using hydroelectric power plants, whose turbines are driven by the run of the river. That is great in the summer, during the monsoons when the Himalayan glaciers are melting and the rivers are overflowing with water. But it is terrible in the winter, when the glaciers freeze, the rivers stop flowing, and the turbines are turned off. There is far less power generated than there is demand and to make matters even more dire, 25% of electricity is either stolen or “lost” because of poor maintenance. And this is in a country where demand is increasing rapidly, as population grows and more people move to the urban areas, seeking urban conveniences.
This week, the new load-shedding schedule, officially issued by the Nepal Electricity Authority, is scheduling Kathmandu residents for 12+ hours a day, or 80 hours a week, without power. By next month, if past experience is any guide, the cuts will jump to 18 hours a day or more. Government-run industries are protected, getting only 9-hour-a-day cuts, while the private sector has to cope with 14 hours a day. The rains are still months away.

One survival lesson I have learned here in Kathmandu since our arrival is that, no matter what happens, you need to go with the flow. No decent milk in the stores? Find yourself a milk cow; there are certainly plenty of them wandering around every neighborhood. You can even learn to make your own yogurt. Traffic is hellish? When driving, imagine yourself as part of a school of fish, said a friend, sharing the fine art of vehicular movement when your car is swarmed by a moving cloud of bee-like honking motorcycles; try not to stop and never—never—give way, not if you are a duck, a chicken, a cow, a pedestrian, a motorcycle or a car. I can do that now. I feel Nepali. I belong. Watching me drive over the holidays, my visiting daughter, Mado, coined a Kathmandu bumper sticker: “No Room, No Problem.”

At first, the lack of electricity was aggravating, as it tended to happen early in the morning or at dinner time. Even though we are among the lucky few who can afford solar-powered batteries to run lights and electronics when the grid fails, a lot of what makes a house tick involves power hogs like irons and water pumps and washing machines, and with two six-hour stretches of powerlessness during the waking hours, the batteries just aren’t enough. This means no microwave, no iron, no toaster. No showers, as the water pump to the roof tank and the hot-water compressor, which gives us pressure, don’t work on batteries. No washing machine. The freezer stays closed. No stereo. No electric heat. But now, after a few days of frustration, I’ve begun to go with the flow. Toast is made on the stovetop, where food and milk are heated as well. Showers are cold and quick, under a trickle of water, or grabbed quickly when the power kicks in. Yelling in our house usually consists of one of us belting out: “Power is on!” And we rush to recharge, print a document, shower, or put in the wash.

Winter brings massive power cuts to Nepal. As houses have no central heating, my son spends many evenings under blankets

Winter brings massive power cuts to Nepal. As houses have no central heating, my son spends many evenings under blankets


Unfortunately, though, we still don’t have heat—or at least not from our two roll around electric heaters.  I know that I shouldn’t complain, because no one has central heating in Nepal—no house or school or shop or office—even though it is now winter  and temperatures dip to 0c (32F) at night in the Kathmandu valley.    Those who can afford it warm rooms with 15kg propane heaters. This has its downsides: the smell, the potential danger of explosion and the fact that it only really heats a small area. I am writing in the warmest room in my house, with the sun on my back, wearing gloves and a down jacket—and a propane heater burning a few feet from my side. And I feel lucky. Nepal is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, where almost a quarter of its population lives below the poverty line, so propane-fueled heaters are only for the well-off.

Winter brings other problems aside from electricity shortages. Fuel shortages and by association massive hoarding are among Nepal’s biggest challenges. Fuel can disappear for weeks.

In traffic jammed Kathmandu, regular fuel shortages make hoarding fuel part of everyday life

In traffic jammed Kathmandu, regular fuel shortages make hoarding fuel part of everyday life

The country spends about 40 percent of its foreign currency reserve on the import of petroleum products. Diesel, petrol and propane are trucked in from India, a three-day drive from the border on narrow and treacherous mountain roads. The papers are full of pictures of truck and bus accidents. On a recent trip on the same road, we saw two trucks that had plummeted down terrifyingly steep precipices.

Horrific road accidents slow traffic (and fuel trucks) on its way to Kathmandu

Horrific road accidents slow traffic (and fuel trucks) on its way to Kathmandu

Hoarding is an art that I have learned to practice. I store over 100 litres of diesel in the garage for my car and generator, as well as eight 15kg containers of propane for cooking and heating. If you can afford it, it is the only way to live reasonably comfortably. Recently, diesel, which is used by larger cars and trucks and generators, was no longer for sale in Kathmandu. The government had announced an upcoming price hike (it now costs $4.15 a gallon) and so the gas stations sat on their stocks waiting for the price hike to take effect. After a massive outcry from Kathmandu residents threatening strikes, the government ultimately backed off the price hike and stations began selling again, but now press reports say petrol transporters are threatening a strike halting all petroleum product transportation starting this weekend. Recently angry consumers mobbed and detained a top official visiting their district to protest propane shortages.

At moments like these, you need to know someone who knows someone who has hoarded the precious liquid. You have to go with the flow. I now have that critical contact to get me my bootleg diesel. I can even experience and enjoy the particular Nepali hospitality that sometimes comes with it: “I’m sorry; I am out of diesel today, but can I get you some propane?”