My piece for USA Today on Nepal’s violent and frequent strikes that are paralyzing the country.
Bakhit wasn’t the Bedouin I expected. At 54, his beard grizzled-white, he needed to recline his car seat to accommodate his prominent stomach. He wore a brownish Dishdasha and a matching turban that had seen better days. But Bakhit was the first Bedouin I had ever met. Until I shook his large, roughened hand, I had always relied on the image of a dashing, flowing-turbaned Bedouin, part of yarns I had dreamed up as a 10-year-old in love with the “Black Stallion” book series.
We were driving in his white Toyota Landcruiser, stuffed with bedding, food and water into the Oman side of the Rub’ al Khali desert, known also as the “Empty Quarter,” a land explored by Wilfred Thesiger and Lawrence of Arabia and the one place that I had desperately wanted to discover as a young girl. It had only taken me 40 years to get here, in a rather circuitous and tumultuous route via South Asia and Africa.
My husband, John, was a reluctant traveler to “The Rub” as he called it. Being Dutch, he is not keen on heat, sand and outdoor camping without the pleasure of a nearby ocean and a glass of wine (Oman is a dry country). But the trip had been a majority vote and fortunately my nine-year-old son, Lucas, had voted with me.
As Bakhit gingerly drove the winding road out of Salalah, Oman’s southern seaside city, into the arid brown and stone-carpeted mountains towards the Empty Quarter, he blamed his Bedouin roots for his halting city driving. Having learned to drive in a trackless desert, he didn’t like traffic or, for that matter, keeping his hands on the steering wheel. On his first trip to Dubai, intimidated by the number of vehicles, he parked his car on the city outskirts and hailed a cab. Not used to the complexities of city planning, he then forgot where he had parked. But as the mountains gave way to a rock desert, then a caked mud flat, as the electricity poles and the paved road petered out, Bakhit navigated easily by keeping track of some shivering hazy form on the horizon to his right and left. A father of seven, he had grown up a nomad, herding camels through the Rub al Khali.
Life is harsh here in a way I am not sure I know how to fathom. The midday heat crushes: brilliant, sharp and blue. The wind whips up sand as fine and soft as silk. In no time, the dunes swallow you, even your footsteps disappear in a permanent trickle of moving, windblown particles. There are no houses, no resorts, no other humans. Just emptiness. Just dunes. They can rise straight up so that you climb barefoot and on hands and knees. Some ridges are so solid they hardly take your footprint, others swallow your leg almost to your knee. They roll into the horizon, shifting from red and blond to grey and black. In the midst of it all, there is a dry bush or tree, incongruous in its loneliness if not for me to wonder how it arrived to that particular spot.
As Bakhit cooked chicken, rice and vegetables in a battered pot on a wood fire (“Bedouin men are bad cooks,” he assured me—and my husband agreed), we climbed up and ran down, jumped into wallows, lay down on cooling ridges and watched the sun burn into the west.There is nowhere else to go. The night is frigid, lying on the ground, even in a double sleeping bag. There are only the stars and the thick snowy sweep of the Milk Way. Lucas and John searched out constellations and counted the streaks from falling stars.
I am still not sure what I wanted to find or even found there amid the dunes. A world perhaps standing still? A chance to pause and listen? Bakhit drove us out singing Bedouin love songs. His Bedouin world is also forever changed. As a child he remembers one meal a day of camel milk. Early on, he learned that the desert is unforgiving and can drive a person to desperate measures to survive: when the water runs out, the Bedouin would force a camel to regurgitate its meal so that you could eat it instead. Some years ago, the Oman government brought the Bedouin clans into government housing; his children now go to school and his oldest daughter has just graduated university. He still has a small herd of camels in a land where a good racing camel is as expensive as a Toyota Land Cruiser, but in Oman the camels are no longer what woos a bride.
In 1970, while Bakhit was herding camels, the present ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup. He inherited a country stretching from Dubai to Yemen, its western flank bordering Saudi Arabia. It had 10 kms of paved roads and two primary schools. Sultan Qaboos has increased Oman’s gross domestic product from $256 million in 1970 to around $80 billion in 2013. Oman remains the most stable and religiously tolerant country in the Arabian Peninsula and is friends of both the U.S. and Iran.
In the process, tourists, mostly from Europe, have discovered Oman, a destination once ‘off the beaten track’. Six lane highways now enter the capital Muscat and link outside towns. Both Muscat and Salalah airports are expanding to become international hubs competing with Doha and Dubai. A deep water port is under construction, to rival Singapore as the largest port in the world. Tourist resorts are being built along the 1000 kms of pristine, turquoise shoreline. Yet Oman is also at a critical crossroad. Sultan Qaboos is very ill, by some reports terminally sick with cancer, and undergoing treatment in Germany. Childless, he has not officially named his successor. At the same time, a brutally militant Islam in growing in next door Yemen.
Salalah, the capital of Dhofar Province, a green oasis that serves as the door to the Empty Quarter, seemed unsure of where it belongs. The construction boom is in full swing but it is still possible to drop by a street-side food stall for a bite of camel meat or traditional “boiled cow.” In its nearby hills, the local tribes speak four different non-Arabic languages, raising cattle with similar attachment and rituals as the Dinka of Southern Sudan. Bedouin herd their camels with a four-wheel drive, but allow them to wander unattended through hills and on highways to search for food. The Ministry of Camels warns tourists that killing a camel can carry charges equivalent to manslaughter. There may be a huge Lulu Hyperstore, a two-storied version of a high-end Costco, but most streets hang identical simple shop signs. I counted ten of the two most popular on one four-block street: “Hair Dressing” and “Food Stuff and Luxuries.”
Oman’s geology, its canyons, its layered, rumpled, jagged rock mountains creeping up into the sky, its deserts, its surprising green wadis, all paint a picture of inscrutable indestructibility. Breathe in. Breathe out. I felt I could never get enough. In the pre-dawn light, the sand in the Rub’ al Khali is so cold, my bare feet not only became numb but heavy with a pain that worked its way upwards as sharp stabbing daggers. They didn’t even thaw by the breakfast fire.
I wonder if I, like the sands and like Bakhit, am forever changing, shifting, adapting. But whatever the desert gives, I find myself longing for more. There is nothing empty here but perhaps the daydream of a 10-year-old.
There is an intimacy to landing in Kathmandu. From the plane window, you can see the wings skim the mountains as the hairpin dirt roads leading to perched villages close in above you. From my neighborhood, earth and sky rumble together with each approaching plane.
When I was 27, fresh from two years of reporting inside Afghanistan, the New York Times assigned me to cover the borough of Queens. To soothe my homesickness for the wind-swept arid mountain ranges I had left behind, every morning I slowed down as I drove past La Guardia airport, rolled down my window, and deeply inhaled the jet fuel. Then planes were about escape. In Kathmandu, 25 years later, it means connection. I live near the main landing path, and the sound of a plane is both comforting and awe-inspiring. It means that neither the valley’s fog, smog, storms nor its unpredictable wind shear have closed Kathmandu’s airspace. Kathmandu is a pilot-only, visual-only landing, and every time I fly in or out, or listen to a plane overhead, I am reminded that technology is not solely in control but that just one person is leading the way in.
Economists refer to it as ‘connectivity’. A poor country cannot reach middle-income status unless its people can be connected by economic, social and political opportunities within their country and with other economies. This cannot be done without roads and airports. The challenge is huge in Nepal, South Asia’s poorest nation, a vertical land where roads have to be carved out of steep, unstable cliffs that are prone to landslides and where mountains rise so fast and sheer that radar is not always relevant and planes have very limited options on how to get to an airstrip. Imagine terrain so perpendicular that pilots turn off their ground proximity warning system because the constant computer generated voice warning: “Terrain, terrain, terrain,” is not only obvious but also distracting.
Nepal has 48 airports, mostly dirt strips precariously balanced on mountain tops or in narrow valleys, but there is only one international runway, Tribhuvan International Airport, an example of the vast complexities surrounding the issue of connectivity that go beyond just being able to land planes. In Nepal, tourism is the second biggest earner of foreign exchange, and with mostly dirt roads and vast numbers of road casualties, planes are critical to enabling tourists to come and continue to fuel growth.
Yet what happens when tourists come faster than the existing infrastructure can accommodate? Set inside the city of Kathmandu, TIA is bursting at the seams. It has only nine bays, but almost 50 daily international arrivals and more than twice that number for national flights. Visas are available on arrival, but the line is long and the unbridled crowded chaos of baggage claim is only enhanced by an enveloping dark penumbra. Mandarin seems to be the most spoken tongue. According to the local papers, vast amounts of cash are also exchanging hands at customs, where several officials, including the acting director, are under investigation.
Nature is not always cooperative. Flights can stack up for hours circling outside the Kathmandu valley, over Chitwan National Park, a domino effect often started by winter’s morning fog and aggravated by vehicle and generator-induced smog or summer monsoon storms and wind shears. There is one landing strip in dire need of re-tarmacking. Last summer, earth worms infested the runway, attracting nearby birds and closing down the airport for a day. When I fly in or out, I find myself glued to the FlightRadar24 app, scanning weather and delays. The international airline with most delays appears to be Turkish Air, which has the uncooperative 6:55 a.m. landing slot: thick fog at that time often brings long landing delays and recently a flight was even rerouted to Bangladesh for the day because of it. The radar system, only for international approaches, is 25 years old and was installed after two major airplane crashes caused by white-out conditions, but it is struggling to keep up with the rapidly growing traffic. With only a 30-mile radius and blind spots, it is scheduled for a much needed facelift and expansion.
Yet international flights are almost always full, especially the five daily jets coming from five different Chinese cities and the scores of flights from the Middle East and South East Asia—the latter often carrying Nepali migrant workers to and from their host countries. Business must be good as landing rights at TIA are more expensive than Bangkok and on par with Singapore, while refueling charges are extremely high (all fuel comes by truck from India). In addition, pilots need special simulator training for Kathmandu landings. Two airlines, Qatar and Korean Air, are now even using the newest technology, satellite-based GPS systems, that provide the pilots with more information and greater leeway during their landing approach.
As in every other sector in Nepal, there are many improvement plans afoot. The government wants to build two new international airports, and is actively pursuing the Chinese government for soft loans. But airports are also competing with projects such as hydropower plants, expressways to India and China, waste water treatment plants, drinking water for the Kathmandu Valley, and sewage systems for all their cities. The wish list is long, the government cash-strapped, and so far investment is only cautiously moving in.
TIA will be it for the next few years. That means accommodating the dozens of extra weekly flights scheduled to start soon from China. I don’t see the two security check lines that snake through the length of the departure area getting any shorter.
My piece in the Nepali Times.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The sign is nondescript and small. For my nine-year-old son, it is the first tantalizing hint of what lies ahead. “Way to Massacre Place,” it declares, an arrow pointing right, followed a few meters beyond by “Location of Royal Palace Massacre,” in case somehow visitors manage to deviate from the one-way path guarded by an armed soldier. Personally, I was already having an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole moment. This was my second visit – a palace massacre recidivist – scribbling notes on a wrinkled sheet of paper, as all visitors have to surrender their bags, their cameras and their phones before entering.
In Nepal, an absolute monarchy not that long ago, the 2001 royal massacre is the stuff of legends. A large crowd of Nepalis queue regularly in front of the elegant metal gate of the Narayanhiti Palace, now a museum, but until 2001 the primary residence of Nepal’s kings. It does not seem to have the same magnetism for foreign tourists, even though it is walking distance from Thamel, the humming hub for all things touristy.
On June 1, 2001 (according to the official version), King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, 55, considered to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was gunned down during a family dinner party here by his 30-year-old son, Crown Prince Dipendra. In swift succession, Dipendra, dressed in camouflage and armed with an M-16 and a collection of various deadly automatic weapons, killed nine family members, including his mother, brother and sister. He then turned the gun on himself. He lived long enough after he shot himself to be declared king–but as he lay dying the 240-year-old monarchy was dying as well. In 2008, Birendra’s brother and Dipendra’s successor, abdicated, and Nepal became the newest democracy on the South Asian block. But in many ways, the massacre and its aftermath, coupled with an ever-growing plethora of conspiracy theories, remains an emblem of the ethnic and political complexities, traditions, superstitions, conflicts and distrust that pervades today’s Nepali society.
To get to the massacre signs, you first walk through a collection of meeting rooms and bedrooms frozen in a 1970s décor, part ski chalet, part genteelly-rundown villa. Stuffed dusty tigers, lions, stag heads, paintings of former kings, elephant feet used as footstools, antelope-hoof candleholders, a gigantic Gharial crocodile nailed to a wall. The portrait hallway has the Nepali King and Queen posing with various international visitors, such as Marshal Josip Broz Tito, Zia ul Haq, Nicolae Ceausescu, Francois Mitterand , and some of lesser fame such as the president of the Swiss Federation. The bookshelves in other rooms mix biographies of the Dalai Lama with classics such as Lord Jim and Kitty Kelley’s The Royals. White mothballs decorate the carpets and chairs and, whether it’s to ward off the densely humid monsoon weather or to mummify time, every room greets me with the pervasive smell of naphthalene.
On the ill-fated evening of the massacre, Eton-educated Dipendra was hosting his extended family. Dipendra (known widely as ‘Dippy’) had issues, according to published reports. He drank hard, loved hashish, liked to torture animals and watch them die, and didn’t get along with his mother Queen Aishwarya, who disapproved of the woman he wanted to marry. His bedroom closet was stocked with a vast array of weaponry and ammunition. Survivors described him as single-mindedly going after his victims one by one and even leaving the room to switch weapons. He shot his mother and brother in the garden before killing himself. You can see re-enactments on YouTube.
The Western world had the Empiricists, the Rationalists, the Scholastics, the Logical Positivists, the Imperialists. In the U.S. we added the Survivalists who believe that black United Nations helicopters will invade America. Post-massacre Nepal gave an orchestra seat to the Bollywoodists.
The initial palace reaction was a public relations disaster, a critical weakness that only enhanced the belief that they were disconnected from life outside their gate. The official statement said a gun had accidentally misfired, killing the king. Dipendra, then in a coma, was named king, and held that position for three days. Subsequently, the building where the shooting took place was razed and the victims cremated, without any autopsies. Later, an official inquiry, headed by the chief justice and one other Nepali, produced a 200-page report that identified Dipendra as the gunman but left many unanswered questions.
While the masses outside the gates may have believed in the divinity of their king, they didn’t believe the palace’s story. Thirteen years on, interest has not waned. This week, yet another book was published further promoting the mystery with the underlying theory that if you can’t prove it and no one will admit to it, it must be right.
When things go wrong in Nepal, India is usually high on the list of culprits. Some of the paranoia is founded in fact. India is the huge neighbor next door and they have a history of bullying their tiny neighbors. Many Nepalis believe that it was not Dipendra who did the killing but rather India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing or RAW (for good measure the CIA is also included in some conspiracies), whose agents have, I am often told, totally infiltrated the country. RAW allegedly paid off King Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra, who later became king (an unpopular one), to organize the killing. Many of my Nepali friends say the unquestionable proof is that Gyanendra was not present at the massacre and his son survived the shooting. Another conspiracy centers on the popular Bollywood make-up artist Oscar-winning act. A cook, who was present that night but has since disappeared, claims several men in camouflage wearing Dipendra masks entered the gathering and opened fire. These mask wearers are the ones who allegedly also killed Dipendra. This links with the story-line that Dipendra had not one but two bullets in the head. (and remember — there was no autopsy. Hmmm!)
Today, Nepal is struggling with political disarray, corruption and a booming population that wants its government to supply the basics of water, fuel and electricity. Many opinion makers hark back to the halcyon days of the monarchy as the pillar of Nepali identity and sovereignty, especially when India-phobia resurfaces. Yet, many handily forget that in a democracy, sovereignty is vested in the people, not in the divine right of kings. Democracy in Nepal has an enormously difficult legacy to overcome. The monarchy was in its last throws, a spent force, with poor leadership, a dysfunctional family that was disconnected from its desperately poor subjects and the growing Maoist uprising across the country. Yet all these conspiracies could help also a royal comeback.
Nepal has come a long way from denying Dipendra’s role to posting signs to guide tourists to the royal massacre site. They now highlight the bullet holes in the concrete wall where Dipendra shot his brother. Nepali crowds flock to the palace, a once Forbidden City, where they can witness the lives of people they believed were gods. A high point is the map that details the locations where everyone was killed. Even so, the official four-page brochure handed out at the gate provides only two short sentences on the royal massacre.
The most difficult legacy of the palace massacre may be that most Nepalis are left just with a myth, anecdotes, various story lines and the looming blue Genie of the RAW. Mothballs preserve the only history they can still see.
From 10,000 feet, the Mekong Delta stretches glass flat, large brown snaking rivers interconnecting with shrinking and swelling zigzagging tributaries. The land is dark green, leaking into an aquamarine South China Sea. The clouds, miniature white fluffs, are not even big enough to cast shadows on the earth. My mind is wandering. One moment I look hard for physical signs of a war almost 40 years gone. Then the utter flatness below fills me with sadness too. The Mekong Delta is on the path of our rising oceans and scientists predict it will disappear in a few decades. But as my plane touches down, in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, I am mostly anticipating.
This is my first trip to Vietnam. When I was 15, Vietnam was the only place I wanted to visit. It was the summer of 1977 and my father’s work had brought us to Medellin in Colombia. I came face to face with the war in a bedroom closet of our rented house where I had gone to forage and explore on a hot lazy afternoon. In a dark corner was a pile of dusty Life magazines. I sat down next to them, the closet door letting in just enough light to read, and for the next few hours, and for many weeks after that, I leafed through pictures of dust, heat, blood, tanks and helicopters, faces contorted in pain and desperation or just impenetrable. 1966, 1967, 1968. Tet, Hue, Khe Sanh, the Perfume River, Ben Tre, Dien Bien Phu. Dates and names that grabbed and held.
It is not that the Vietnam War was an unknown quantity. As a family, we listened religiously to the news on WQXR. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I watched on TV as American helicopters were pushed off aircraft carriers into the South China Sea. My parents talked about the war at dinner and in our weekend commutes to the Catskills. Wars, or rather the images of war, had in one way or another always been part of my childhood. On long car rides, my mother would weave me her stories of joining the Italian resistance during World War II in Rome and of being arrested and imprisoned by the Germans. On rainy summer days, my cousin Carlo and I pored over his magazines of World War II Pacific battles. My older sister had decapitated all the family dolls but it never occurred to me to ask for new ones. I played with Carlo’s GI Joes.
But that summer in 1977, Vietnam became personal. I didn’t want to be a passive observer. So without knowing what it entailed, or how I was supposed to get to the finish line, I decided that I wanted to be a war correspondent. Hopelessly naïve? Yes. Innocent? For sure. Clueless? Definitely. I spent hours and days learning every detail of those pictures. Back in New York, I made my mother escort me to Columbia Univeristy’s Butler Library so I could use her ID card and take out military books on Vietnam’s battles. At 16, my mother gave me my most memorable Christmas gift: Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I have since read it over a dozen times. It has travelled with me to four continents. The spine is cracked, the pages marked so I can grab a quick high from his explosive, taunting, cutting, visceral and utterly visual prose. If I wanted to get high, I didn’t need drugs. I had Dispatches.
It took me until May 2014 to make it to Vietnam. By then war was something I had already done. The romance was long gone. I had coped–not always successfully–with all the intangibles that came with it. My sister says I became a journalist because I didn’t know what else to do. My Italian cousin, also a journalist, warned me that what made front page in the morning wrapped the fish at night. Not sure whether I could ever figure out how to be a journalist, I had studied Chinese, worked as a tour guide in mainland China, danced for a Taiwanese rock band, tried (unsuccessfully) to get a PhD in Indic Studies and then in 1987 went to Afghanistan where I spent two years traveling and writing about the Mujaheddin.
Twenty five years: big wars, small wars, a genocide, inner city crime, inheriting three children when I married a widower, adding on another one. Having three teenagers at home. Living in Kenya and now in Nepal. Sometimes I felt I’d been put in a blender that overheated and stalled before the final smooth product was ready. I still felt the need to see the Vietnam I had housed in my head for all those years.
I don’t know what I expected Vietnam to give me. On the surface, the war is long gone. Three million Vietnamese (two million civilians) and over 58,000 Americans dead. Today, the majority of Vietnamese are young—born after the war ended, they are too young to know the past intimately. For some of them, it is now just a backdrop.
On Highway 1 between Danang and Hue, I saw a young Vietnamese couple pose for a wedding photo shoot on a decaying American bunker. The battle fields in Hue are unfindable. The Continental Hotel, in Saigon, is such a posh hotel that I felt an imposter as I walked through the lobby. China Beach is in the process of becoming a shoulder-to- shoulder high-end collection of resorts. Beautiful roads, strict traffic rules, 24-hour electricity, clean sidewalks, tree-lined avenues (puts Nepal to shame)–a communist country where the triumphs of capitalism are visible everywhere. A Lamborghini store is scheduled to open soon in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam is a beautiful land wrapped in delectable food with a coffee shop on every corner. I became a war tourist of sorts. I dripped sweat all day and thought of soldiers humping through the jungle with 50lbs packs, flak jackets and leeches.
Alongside my 9-year-old son, I was mesmerized by the Cu Chi tunnel network. I wiped away tears at the War Remnants Museum and insisted on walking and re-walking Le Loi and Tu Do Avenues.
And every Huey and Chinook helicopter I saw (and there are many parked on the grounds of Ho Chi Minh City museums), reminded me of my long standing love-affair with these hulking beasts. I first met them in Dispatches – “Savior- Destroyers” Herr called them.
It was an arranged marriage on paper and later I fell for them hard in Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, flying night missions in Black Hawks, scrunched in the gunners seat in Gunships and in Hueys, door open, feet dangling, music blaring, flying Nap of the Earth along Rwanda’s rivers. Grit- whipping terror, sweaty dank canvas, every part of my body on edge.
Some local history is scrubbed so clean that I only realized later that my Ho Chi Minh City hotel, selected because it was near the local office of my husband’s company, was just one block from the site of the former US Embassy. I was 13 years old in April 1975 when the last American helicopter lifted off into a slate sky in a final desperate evacuation.
Everyone has their own war story, their own angle of vision, and none of my wars have been like Vietnam. Long ago, I’d agonized that I had missed it, that I was born too late. But that doesn’t matter anymore. War is memory and it must never be forgotten.
There is an allure to the mere word “Nepal.” I first came here in 1983, a single 20-something in search of adventure, which I thought I’d find on the trekking trail. I’d met three tall, muscled Australian guys on the flight to Nepal and one of our most memorable moments together was getting mugged our first evening in Kathmandu. The Aussies managed to catch one of our muggers and at 9p.m., on Kathmandu’s desolate main avenue, a traffic policeman commandeered a passing car and stuffed all four of us in it. He then managed to scrunch the mugger onto my lap for the trip to the central police station. Three decades later Nepal lured me back.
If the news is not about Everest, Nepal does not garner frequent attention from the International media. I get the question all the time: “What is it like to live in Kathmandu?” For me, living in KTM, as many call it, is not about Everest. I am not a climber and though I have Sherpa friends, they are what they call “Kathmandu Sherpas” and many do not even speak their ethnic language. I was raised in a French school that had me reciting the altitude of the Mont Blanc, 4,807 meters, and I am not planning to go above it. This is a potential challenge as Nepal offers 1,500 peaks above 5,000meters. My nine-year-old son is obsessed with Kanchenjunga (#3 highest in the world and by far the most unexplored of the high peaks). So Nepal? Well Nepal is quirky, fascinating, ever changing. I often feel that my everyday is an immersion in history, sociology, live-time economics lessons and human struggle. Never in my 15 years living overseas have I been so overwhelmed, mesmerized, inspired, exhausted and at times confused. I love it because I learn every day.
So let’s just leave Everest aside for a while. What happens on an average week in Nepal? You are always guaranteed a religious festival. The Rato Machchendranath (or Red God) will be on for most of May, a mix of Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism with a hand-made wooden chariot topped by a teetering rope turret and pulled daily by scores of volunteers around the streets of Patan.
The Maosits can’t make up their minds to get along while the Marxist Leninists are having trouble setting a date for a party meeting. Then it’s the economy. Nepal is a land of strikes – called Bandhs or closures – successfully executed by the Maoists for years as they hermetically closed down the country.
This week street vendors want to block all road traffic in three Nepali cities to protest the new government registration requirement. Fast-onto-death hunger strikes are very common as well protesting police and government corruption and most recently two cement workers went on hunger strike demanding contracts directly from the industry. Miraculously we have diesel and petrol this week as the always-broke Nepal Oil Corporation borrowed from the government to pay the Indians the February oil import bill. But even then, some of the tanker drivers run thriving siphoning off businesses and even the owners of the gas stations tamper with their gauges.
Not paying taxes is becoming a dangerous game for some big businesses. In Kathmandu, the battle is between the administration of Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) and the city’s plush five star hotels. Apparently foreign favorites such as the Hyatt, the Shangri-la, the Yak & Yeti and the Radisson have not been paying their property taxes.
Even worse, they have been ignoring bills from the KMC. Little was known about this on-going battle until the KMC stopped collecting the hotels’ garbage this week. In the stand off, it is unclear where the large amounts of hotel waste is ending up. Everyone’s guess is that it is joining the 60 percent of Kathmandu Valley’s garbage: in open dumping sites such as river banks, road sides and in any empty lot in the city. A great technique for attracting more tourists and more hotel reservations.
Last month, the tax authority closed down a wide range of casinos that had not paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in back-taxes. Not to be outdone, the Nepal Electricity Authority is chasing down defaulting government ministries and threatening to cut their electricity unless they pay back bills. Nepalese are quick to point out that electricity cuts might not be noticed as the valley already has 12 hours of load shedding a day.
Then there is the rain. Bad weather this week had been predicted to last at least six days. Occasional thunderstorms culminated in a storm that stretched into hours of unrelenting torrential rain, whipped left and right by winds while thunder rolled uninterrupted across the mountains circling Kathmandu. Sheet lightning alternated with grand Hollywood style blue bolts zig zagging across the skies. Newspapers reported that 82 people across the country were killed by lightning including one sherpa survivor of the Everest ice avalanche.
In Kathmandu, where many roads have been paved in the past few months in a city-wide road-widening project, it seems the contractors skimped on side ditches and connections to sewage systems. The city flooded. Driving home in close to zero visibility, I could hear the water lapping against the car while mini-rivers made of garbage and plastic bags overflowing from the drainage ditches that double as open sewers, rushed down into the intersections. Always looking on the bright side, the government declared that the rains were good news as now officials could identify before the monsoon hits the locations of the worst flooding.
The sad news is that KTM’s Tribhuvan International Airport removed a collection of Ruslan Vodka advertisements that greeted all arrivals and touted interesting facts about Nepal. “There are 48 airports in Nepal,” read one. The Nepali Times that ran a hilarious photo essay in turn commented: “Only 8 of them have bathrooms.”
With only days left in the narrow starting window for the Everest climbing season in Nepal, a small group of Sherpas at Base Camp have been intimidating other Sherpas and trying to force them to leave the camp, expedition leaders, company owners and climbing clients report. It is unclear what this group wants to achieve but their techniques, threatening violence and “repercussions”, are described as mirroring techniques used by Maoist cadres during Nepal’s ten-year civil war.
This added upheaval comes as several more expedition companies, including International Mountain Guides, have announced that, after consulting with their Sherpa teams, they are pulling out for the season, even as discussions with the Nepal government and Sherpas continue regarding demands for higher death and disability benefits as well as insurance.
The climbing world here in Nepal is in turmoil. It has been almost a week since an ice avalanche broke off the mountain, killing 16 sherpa high-altitude climbers on the Khumbu Icefall, the highest number of deaths in a single day on Everest. Buddhist funeral rituals and cremations have taken place in isolated mountain villages and in Kathmandu. Grief is still raw among the tightly knit Sherpa community, the group that takes the greatest risks on the mountain, as it struggles to come to terms with the death of loved ones. The unfolding anger and tension at Base Camp shed light on a critical turning-point for the local climbing industry, which has been for decades the main income earner for extended families across the desperately poor Solu Khumbu region. International climbers will not get refunds as their fees have already gone to the costs of preparing the expeditions, buying food and equipment, and hiring sherpas. The decision on sherpa salaries will be made individually by the companies employing them. But stakeholders are already raising the question of what will happen next year?
At Everest Base Camp, many are asking whether the mountain is even climbable this season. By this time last year, international climbers were already staying at Camp 2 to acclimate. The sherpas known as “icefall doctors”, who set the ropes up the Khumbu Icefall, could in theory reset it on top of the old route that was hit by the ice avalanche. There is enough time to make it work, but they have said that the route remains unstable and dangerous. Setting a different route along the more central one used in the 1990s would require more time and equipment, neither of which they have. The extensive melting of the Khumbu Icefall, due to climate change, has made this central route more fragile and dangerous. The companies that have pulled out are, for the most part, old-time experts on the mountain who provided the core sherpa workforce that in previous seasons worked together to provide ropes, climbs and rescues. The weather is also a wild card.
Everest will be summited this year, but in a big blow to Nepal’s mountaineering image, it may solely be scaled from China. Guy Cotter, CEO of Adventure Consultancies, like many other high-end companies, says he will definitely return to Nepal next year. Everest business funds his company’s other climbs and his staff spend six months a year organizing the season. But he foresees that the fees will increase and the client numbers decrease, and so fewer sherpas will be hired and international clients will be more tempted to cross the border to China.
The image of Nepal, “birthplace of the Buddha and home to the world’s highest mountain”, may be damaged as well. The iconic trek to Everest ‘s peak on the Nepal side is one of the most spectacular in the world. By contrast, the trek on the China side is through an arid austere part of Tibet. But in China, the climb is government-organized and bureaucratically much simpler and faster than in Nepal. If climbers head to China, the sherpas lose critical money-earning potential that has helped communities put their children in schools and start small businesses, a step beyond their traditional potato and barley fields. Though the government of Nepal‘s direct income from Everest tourism is only about $4 million a year, the actual benefit to the Sherpa community is closer to $12 million. The goal of many of these high-altitude Sherpa climbers is to make sure their children can get an education and find other careers away from the slopes of Mt. Everest.
If the threats at base camp escalate, then the Sherpas’ quasi-mythical reputation – a positive stereotype of hard-working, trusted mountaineers that has been used by almost every climbing company and written about extensively in climbers blogs – will have to battle, like the rest of Nepal, with the dark underbelly of a country still grappling with the consequences of a decade of civil war.