Tag Archives: south asia

To Mina — With Love

Ready for hiking during hunting season ©Lavinia Lorch

Mina ready for hiking during hunting season  2013 ©Lavinia Lorch

I just clicked on the New York Times “most emailed” article on Tuscany and Machiavelli and sent it to my mother. Machiavelli was the last class she taught before retiring as a professor at Columbia University and I thought what better way to connect across the miles on her birthday. I’ve lived overseas for six years now and distances are still tough to bridge. Between Kathmandu and New York, the 10hr and 45min time difference means email and Facetime have been my two main ways of communicating with her. She has long ago given up my childhood companion, her manual olive green Olivetti typewriter, for the less noisy touch of Microsoft Word and Gmail. Today Maristella, known these days to her children and friends alike as Mina, turns 95.

In the jumble of the everyday, the every year, the talk of weather and health, of ISIS and Hong Kong protests, and my mother’s adamant arguments that I should go back to studying Sanskrit since I live in Nepal, I never seem to have found the time or the patience to articulate what only I know and only I have experienced as her youngest child. I am sad that yet again, living half way around the world, I am not celebrating with her.

Mina with her grandson Lucas this summer holding up the poster for the launch of her most recent novel ©Donatella Lorch

Mina with her grandson Lucas this summer holding up the poster for the launch of her most recent novel:”Beyond Gibraltar” ©Donatella Lorch

My mother never bought me a doll. It was not her way. She prefers to weave tales, some real, some fantasies and some caught in between the two. She put me to bed with them and on long car rides between churches, museums and ruins in Europe, I’d curl up my head on her lap and follow the exploits of Alexander the Great or the battle of Thermopylae or my mother’s adventures as a partisan in World War II Rome. I can still feel the silky touch on my cheek of her brightly colored scarf that she lay over my head to block out the afternoon sun. Occasionally it was replaced by a sharp cornered road map. As an adult I became aware that my mother has no sense of direction and therefore the map was without doubt not used to guide my father.

Mina writing in the second volume of the family book. © Donatella Lorch

Summer 2014 -Mina writing in the second volume of the family book. © Donatella Lorch

As I grew older, and was introduced by her to the wonders of books, I learned to leverage reading knowing that Mina would let me skip washing dishes if I went off to the couch to read “War and Peace.” If reading became my escape and her tales of wars ignited my desire for adventure, we also clashed a lot on the way. I had to learn French, Latin, then Greek and when I eventually convinced her I could drop Greek, she replaced it with German. That meant that every weekend, hours were spent butting heads on homework assignments.

But exploring has always been our special link. Though more than 40 years of her life have been spent at Columbia University, she, like me, feels the need to see and smell and feel different worlds. My mother has kept all of my hundreds of loneliness-filled aerogrammes I wrote her during a post college year studying Chinese in Taiwan and then wandering South Asia. She has gotten on many planes to visit me and not to reach idyllic vacation spots. In Peshawar, Pakistan, where I was a stringer for The New York Times, she insisted on visiting refugee camps and the families of the Mujaheddin fighters I travelled alongside in Afghanistan. She ignored my strict instructions not to interfere in my reporting and asked Abdul Haq, a senior Mujahed commander (who was later killed by the Taliban in 2001) to swear to her his men would keep me safe. The following year when at the UN General Assembly in New York, Abdul Haq dropped by her apartment with a dozen red roses.

Mina's 93rd birthday in Nairobi, Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

Mina’s 93rd birthday in Nairobi, Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

In Africa for the The New York Times, having “Mama” along on interviews opened innumerable doors though she did occasionally weasel in time for her own questions. Before I could begin my interview with Kenneth Kaunda, the legendary first president of independent Zambia, Mina and Kaunda opined for over half hour on every topic from St. Augustine to Apartheid and World War II. When I covered post- genocide Rwanda before the wide-spread use of the internet, Mina sent the Hotel Milles Collines daily faxes to me commenting in detail on my day’s article. They were all written in her scrawling, looping, mostly illegible handwriting and my response always included: “Please type!” When I told her I planned to leave The New York Times for NBC News, Mina, whose New Yorkness is defined by the Old Grey Lady, switched to Italian, her language for the most serious of conversations: “Ma sei pazza?” she asked me. “Are you crazy?” She did eventually come around.

Mina, always ready for a good time, with her grandson Alex, 2014 ©Lavinia Lorch

Mina, always ready for a good time, with her grandson Alex, 2014 ©Lavinia Lorch

These days she Facetimes to find out why my nine-year-old son, Lucas, is not learning Nepali history in the British school in Kathmandu and she is relentless about admonishing me to find sacred Hindu texts to study in the local university libraries. The fact that I am more interested in the legacy of a Maoist civil war and the problems of creating infrastructure in Nepal is irrelevant to the conversation.

Mina with her daughters Lavinia (left) and Donatella (right) summer 2014 in New York City. ©Johannes Zutt

Mina with her daughters Lavinia (left) and Donatella (right) summer 2014 in New York City. ©Johannes Zutt

My primary image of my mother has always been of her writing, teaching or reading. (You can find her novels on Amazon under Maristella Lorch). Her apartment bookshelves overflow with diaries, lectures and heavily underlined and annotated books. I tease her that its hard to go anywhere without meeting one of her students who probably will describe her reciting the Divine Comedy in a class 30 years gone. Lucas and I believe that our Rhodesian Ridgeback must be related as, like her, he insists on accompanied long daily walks. And every time Mina brings up the subject of walking – which is every day -I slip back to her childhood tales of when her own mother made Mina and her three siblings hike up the local mountain in Northern Italy, lugging their Latin homework and the pot to cook the lunchtime polenta.

Mina feeding her daughter Lavinia's Llamas and alpacas. 2013. © Lavinia Lorch

Mina feeding her daughter Lavinia’s Llamas and alpacas. 2013. © Lavinia Lorch

Scratch the surface and you’ll find the party girl who even hand carried a frozen turkey to Rwanda to cheer up my friends far from home. Mina never likes to be left out. At a get-together in Nairobi, she convinced a dashing blond British cameraman that what he really wanted to do was take her to Mogadishu (I blocked that plan). If there is an image I treasure of Mina in action is watching her barefoot in an ankle length wispy summer dress, dancing and twirling with my father on our lawn in the Catskills. She’s a woman who is always ready for another adventure. Age, after all, is just a number.

Monsoon Madness

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.

During the Monsoon, the clouds speak their own language. ©Donatella Lorch

During the Monsoon, the clouds speak their own language. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Navigating one of the season's first heavy rains. ©Donatella Lorch

Navigating one of the season’s first heavy rains. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Nothing escapes the rain. ©Donatella Lorch

Nothing escapes the rain. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

The icon never changes. ©Donatella Lorch

The icon never changes. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

The monsoon is Nepal's most vibrant and beautiful season. ©Donatella Lorch

The monsoon is Nepal’s most vibrant and beautiful season. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

The roiling Bagmati River tears through Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

The roiling Bagmati River tears through Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Dawn over the Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

Dawn over the Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

This sunset can speak for itself. ©Donatella Lorch

This sunset can speak for itself. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Where ancient rituals rule in modern times — ‘Tis always the season!

     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.”

Fires are often part of religious rituals as these impromptu ones along a procession route. © Donatella Lorch

Fires are often part of religious rituals as these impromptu ones along a procession route. © Donatella Lorch

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. 

The land where Puja is intertwined in every aspect of daily life.©Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, Puja is intertwined in every aspect of daily life.©Donatella Lorch

     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.

On Teej, women queue on long lines to worship at temples all over the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. ©Donatella Lorch

On Teej, women queue on long lines to worship at temples all over the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Women in traditional "wedding day" saris are scrunched on buses returning from worshipping at Pashupatinath, a World Heritage Site. ©Donatella Lorch

Women in traditional “wedding day” saris are scrunched on buses returning from worshipping at Pashupatinath, one of the world’s holiest Shiva shrines. ©Donatella Lorch

     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.

Nightime poetry during Tihar in Patan's old city. ©Donatella Lorch

Nightime poetry during Tihar in Patan’s old city. ©Donatella Lorch

 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.

I too turned red - briefly. My dog, Biko, was just a prop. ©Bimla Shiwakoti

I too turned red – briefly. My dog, Biko, was just a prop. ©Bimla Shiwakoti

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.

Dhaka to Kathmandu — A different commute

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.

Landing in Kathmandu, a plane crests the hilltops and dives down fast. © Donatella Lorch

Landing in Kathmandu, a plane crests the hilltops and dives down fast. © Donatella Lorch

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.

The airstrip at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal

The airstrip at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal

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?

Monsoon fog hugs the mountains on a recent landing into Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Monsoon fog hugs the mountains on a recent landing into Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

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.

Flight Radar24 flight patterns on a recent day in Kathmandu

Flight Radar24 flight patterns on a recent day in Kathmandu

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.

Fog rolls into the valley burying the mountains that encircle Kathmandu in a thick white veil © Donatella Lorch

Fog rolls into the valley burying the mountains that encircle Kathmandu in a thick white veil © Donatella Lorch

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.

From Kenyan savannah to Nepali rice fields – two worlds connect with barefoot running

Buffalo herders resting in the fields © Donatella Lorch

Buffalo herders resting in the fields © Donatella Lorch

My father relished recounting the tale of his college sporting efforts. As a freshman, he tried out for the long distance running team and after the first training session the coach pulled him aside: “Lorch,” the coach bellowed. “You run (long pause) as if your were going to a fire (even longer pause) that was going to happen ten years from now!” Poppy switched to tennis. I, like him, was never a big runner. I quit jogging by age 25.

Crossing the finish line at the Lewa Marathon in Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

Crossing the finish line at the Lewa Marathon in Kenya. © Donatella Lorch

Last year, at the end of June, I ran the Lewa half-marathon. It is one of the running world’s most unique marathons, set at 1,700m in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.  Runners weave across the hilly, tawny savannah, home to a vast array of wild animals including lions, elephant and buffalo. Helicopters, small aircraft and Lewa’s guards keep the animals away from the dirt track. I ran the half-Lewa, just over 20 kms, as one of a series of rituals I had selected to say goodbye to Kenya, my home for four years. But even though I felt the satisfaction of having trained for two months and of having temporarily given up my daily glasses of red wine (which to me was even more impressive than my return to running after 25 years), I didn’t think much of what future running and I had together.

A farmer carries manure to his fields. © Donatella Lorch

A farmer carries manure to his fields. © Donatella Lorch

A month later, we moved to Nepal. I am not particularly athletic by nature. There is a lot of arguing that goes on between my head and my feet to do anything that involves sweat. Let’s not forget my love of red wine. In Nepal I felt disconnected. We chose to live in the southern part of the Kathmandu valley, far enough away from the center of Kathmandu to avoid most of its choking winter smog but also too far for easy access to a gym. There is a loneliness to life in a new country. It was monsoon season and the air was a sticky cloak that left me soaked after a short walk. It took a month before I had exhausted every possible excuse and only then did I take out my Five-Fingered Vibrams, the same ones that had run Lewa.

Water gathering at the main square of the village of Sanu Khokana in the Kathmandu Valley. © Donatella Lorch

Water gathering at the main square of the village of Sanu Khokana in the Kathmandu Valley. © Donatella Lorch

There wasn’t a Eureka moment. I fought with every inch of territory. Some mornings I just walked. Oh, the mud. Slippery, heavy, thin, thick, glue-like, ubiquitous mud.  Was that smell cow dung? And is there anywhere flat in Nepal? At some point I must have lifted my head and forgotten briefly the effort of moving forward. Then those moments stretched slowly into half-hour stretches. On my ipod, Cesaria Evora, Adele, Chopin and Jai Ho lured me on. I began to wake up earlier because I wanted to run, though our neighborhood Hindu priest should also take some of the credit for these early rises: his endless 5:00 a.m. chanting and bell-clanking is not conducive to a sleep-in.

I owe a lot to Lewa the same way I owe a lot to Kenya. They both guided me over the stumbling blocks of step-parenthood and the art of getting over a life as a foreign correspondent. But running in Nepal has given me a gift of exploration that did not exist for me in Nairobi. I now run because I learn, because every day, every week, every season I explore the amphitheater of fields below my home and the hills beyond the holy and highly polluted Bagmati River. I watch what the farmers plant, how they break their clay-like soil with ancient-looking hoes with handles that seem to go the wrong direction, their bodies bent in two. I have lived the rice cycle from dry planting of dhan (rice seeds), to transplanting electric-green seedlings into the flooded paddies that quickly turn emerald and finally tawny during harvest. Then comes the potato, bean and corn season.

Feeding baby goats. © Donatella Lorch

Feeding baby goats. © Donatella Lorch

Running across a pedestrian bridge in the early Spring. © Donatella Lorch

Running across a pedestrian bridge in the early Spring. © Donatella Lorch

I run on the inches-wide mud walls that separate the paddies, on roads hand-paved of rough hewn stone, through towns where culture is still ensconced in ancient times, where the buffaloes and goats live on the ground floor of red brick homes, ducks waddle in the narrow alleys and women card wool on their stoops on rickety wooden spindles. Garlic and red chili tresses hang down from third floor windows and winnowed wheat is laid out to dry on any spare square of earth.

I see this all because I run — catching a regular snapshot of a life that has turned familiar and friendly.  I stop here and there to grab an instant with my iphone–that odd, short-haired woman in black lycra pants with those weird multi-colored Five-Fingered Vibrams. Even after all these months, those shoes remain a huge hit.

Carding wool. © Donatella Lorch

Carding wool. © Donatella Lorch

I never tire of my route. Every run, I am reminded that Nepal of today is quickly dying away.  Every month, a little bit more perceptibly fades. In a few decades, much of this world will be gone, consumed by the unregulated, haphazard, massive urbanization that is devouring every green space left in the Kathmandu Valley. The city of four million has already climbed the last hill overlooking my running route.

It is an extinction of history.

Meat-eating vegetarians in the land of the Buddha

Kathmandu Valley streets are a free range for all animals of all sizes.

Kathmandu Valley streets are a free range for all animals of all sizes.

The conversation with a Hindu friend in Kathmandu went something like this:

“Ram, are you a vegetarian?”

“Of course I am,” he answered.

“What is your favorite dish?” I countered.

“Chicken curry but it is very expensive so we mostly eat mutton curry.”

“But aren’t you a vegetarian?” I sputtered.

“Yes of course,” Ram assured me with a big smile. “I don’t eat beef.”

Ubiquitous ducks in certain neighborhoods can make driving tricky. © Donatella Lorch

Ubiquitous ducks in certain neighborhoods can make driving tricky. © Donatella Lorch

Since that first encounter with this new definition of vegetarianism, I’ve heard that explanation many times. It is often followed by a discussion on the holiness of cows. Nepal is a secular state, but just over 80 percent of its people are Hindu and it is illegal to kill cows here. Penalties are similar to those for manslaughter, so be extra careful when you drive around the Kathmandu Valley:  city streets are a free range for all animals of all sizes, holy or not. This includes some 20,000 stray dogs as well as goats, ducks, geese, chickens, buffaloes, and many wandering cows – all accompanied by the ubiquitous cacophany of murders of crows that have given the capital one of its nicknames: Crowmandu.

I wondered whether my preconception of religious Hindus as complete vegetarians was misplaced, or whether Nepalis aren’t so religious after all?  Yet, living in Nepal, I see, hear and smell religion everywhere.

Mornings can be very busy with Gods everywhere. © Donatella Lorch

Mornings can be very busy with Gods everywhere. © Donatella Lorch

Nepalis are believers, of a kind, and even the Maoists and Marxist Leninists seem to have overlooked the Marxist dictum that religion is an opiate of the masses. There are 330 million gods worshipped in this country, where only 10 percent of the people are Buddhist and a tiny percentage Muslim or Christian. At Christmas, my Hindu friend Jyoti, wanting me as a Catholic to feel included in Nepali life, assured me that: “Your God is my God.” With 330 million gods already in the panoply, I had to admit that adding one more didn’t seem to be much of a stretch.  Though Buddhist numbers are small, Buddhism remains a cornerstone of Nepali identity. Tourism brochures proudly boast Nepal as the “Birthplace of Lord Buddha.  Just this week, the government announced a plan to transform the birthplace, the town of Lumbini, into a “global peace hub,” hopefully giving it a desperately needed facelift. By the way, Buddhists here also love their meat. There is a twist to the “can’t kill a cow” law. In Nepal, it is not illegal to eat a cow and many Tibetans here love their beef. But, given the lack of beef vendors, it comes at a steep price. I buy mine from a lone store that ships it in frozen from Australia. There is of course also an underground black market.

I'm Holy.

I’m Holy.

Friends often ask me what I like about living in Nepal. Though this is a multi-layered complex question without a straightforward answer, I often say that I am inspired by the way Hinduism and Buddhism are not only integrated in every aspect of daily life but that Nepal appears to be the most religiously tolerant country I have ever visited or inhabited. It is also a place where religion is alive and intimate. Buddhists and Hindus share hundreds of festivals and shrines of all shapes and sizes that are everywhere, from huge Durbar squares declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, to hidden stupas in tiny alleyways, a lingam or a rock in the middle of a paved road (surrounded by railings that oblige cars to go around it) or a towering Buddhist vihara on a hillside. There is not one but several Buddhist ‘Living Goddesses’ that are worshipped by Hindus on a daily basis. These pre-pubescent girls, called Kumari, are allowed out of their homes only on festivals, lathered in makeup and weighed down by jewelry. Their feet are never allowed to touch the ground.

Puja, or worship, is constant and everywhere. In the early mornings, the streets are full of women carrying rice, flowers, red thika and food to various neighborhood shrines. Beware of Kathmandu’s hordes of motorcyclists maneuvering through heavy traffic:  many drivers will suddenly bow their heads and lift a hand to their forehead to acknowledge a holy site that is being passed. What, you didn’t spot the holy rock? Apparently, if you are deeply religious, it is also necessary briefly to close your eyes as you drive past.  Adds a certain adventure to the driving experience.

For this Puja, I got off my motorbike. © Donatella Lorch

For this Puja, I got off my motorbike. © Donatella Lorch

Meat, a major business in Nepal, is an integral part of religious festivals, in particular during the October Dasain Festival, beginning the first day with the army sacrificing buffaloes at a central shrine, and continuing with the family butchering of a goat or, if affordable, a buffalo.  Animal sacrifice at temples is practiced year round as well. Even with an outbreak of avian flu that made chicken production fall by 20 percent, the Valley produced over 49,000 tons of meat in the six-month period between mid-July 2013 and mid-January 2014. Buffalo is the most popular meat, taking 45 percent of the market share, with mutton in second place.

Fresh buffalo, anyone? © Donatella Lorch

Fresh buffalo, anyone? © Donatella Lorch

These animals, both dead and alive, are a visible and integral part of Kathmandu life. Many butcher shops are just shacks on the side of the roads, their soon-to-become muttons tethered live on the stoop, whiling away their last few hours chewing on tree branches in uneasy companionship with the stray dogs sitting nearby, patiently waiting for their friends to become food. Early every morning in my neighborhood, a bent old man walks half a dozen young buffaloes single-file down the hill and into the courtyard of a red brick house. Within an hour, dripping meat is piled on a wooden table outside in the company of black flies waiting for customers. Even after a year here, I still feel deeply unsettled looking at the goats just feet away from their guillotine.

Just waiting for the butcher at the local shop. © Donatella Lorch

Just waiting for the butcher at the local shop. © Donatella Lorch

I am also constantly visually reminded that cows are holy, but not their bull calves. Abandoned, the calves try to survive, skinny, listless, parched under the torrid pre-monsoon heat, eating garbage and plastic bags, lazing in the middle of a congested street.

The girls may be holy but we're not. © Donatella Lorch

The girls may be holy but we’re not. © Donatella Lorch

It is not only religion that is intimately lived here, but also our relationship with the animals we eat. Even politics gets involved. This week, Hindu right-wingers–wanting to create a Hindu state, ban the sale of beef and declare it a crime for Hindus to convert to another religion–tried to paralyze the capital by declaring a two-day ban on vehicular traffic. Happily, everyone ignored the ban. Another reason I love Nepal.