Tag Archives: tourism

Vietnam – in my mind, in my soul and now a place I’ve been

The Mekong Delta © Donatella Lorch

The Mekong Delta
© Donatella Lorch

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.

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon at sunset. ©Donatella Lorch

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon at sunset. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

The Perfume River in Hue. Yard by yard it was one of the Marine's most costly battles in Vietnam. ©Donatella Lorch

The Perfume River in Hue. Yard by yard it was one of the Marine’s most costly battles in Vietnam. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

On the outskirts of Kabul, 1989 with the Afghan Mujaheddin. ©Donatella Lorch

On the outskirts of Kabul, 1989 with the Afghan Mujaheddin. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Interviewing demobilized Somali militia near Hergeisa, Somaliland © Donatella Lorch

Interviewing demobilized Somali militia near Hergeisa, Somaliland © Donatella Lorch

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.

Wedding photo shoot on an old U.S. bunker. Highway 1 heading to Hue ©Donatella Lorch

Wedding photo shoot on an old U.S. bunker. Highway 1 heading to Hue ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Endless sand on China Beach ©Donatella Lorch

Endless sand on China Beach ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Dropping down into a camouflaged Viet Cong tunnel, Cu Chi, Vietnam ©Donatella Lorch

Dropping down into a camouflaged Viet Cong tunnel, Cu Chi, Vietnam ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Love those Hueys.  On the rooftop of "Reunification Palace" -- the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. ©Donatella Lorch

Love those Hueys. On the rooftop of “Reunification Palace” — the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. ©Donatella Lorch

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.

The first North Vietnamese soldiers to storm the presidential Palace, Saigon, April 1975

The first North Vietnamese soldiers to storm the presidential Palace, Saigon, April 1975

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.

 

 

No news from Everest? What could be happening in Nepal?

 

Nepal transport -- I love Nepal because I learn every day. © Donatella Lorch

Nepal transport — I love Nepal because I learn every day. © Donatella Lorch

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.

The Rato Machchendranath chariot, almost ready to be pulled through the streets of Patan ©Donatella Lorch

The Rato Machchendranath chariot, almost ready to be pulled through the streets of Patan ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Fuel lines snake around the block - a standard sight in Kathmandu where fuel shortages are commonplace © Donatella Lorch

Fuel lines snake around the block – a standard sight in Kathmandu where fuel shortages are commonplace © Donatella Lorch

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.

From which hotel? ©Donatella Lorch

From which hotel? ©Donatella Lorch

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.

Driving home in the recent storm © Lucas Zutt

Driving home in the recent storm © Lucas Zutt

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.

© Nepali Times

© Nepali Times

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.”

 

Arguments at Everest Base Camp as Nepal’s climbing world in turmoil

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.

 

What 2071 means to me or how I am learning the art of living in Nepal

Bodhnath Stupa, a UNESCO World Heritage site is an island of calm in the chaos of Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

Boudhanath Stupa, a UNESCO World Heritage site is an island of calm in the chaos of Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

It’s New Years this week in Nepal. Welcome to the year 2071. It has taken me almost a year to move the Gregorian calendar aside and understand strange names of months that now begin in what my previous life considered mid-month. Luckily my cell phone has helped me cope with the transition: ”Dear customer,” it told me on April 14th, “Applicable monthly charges will be deducted tomorrow on the 1st of Baisakh.”

I’ve had to do a lot of mental gearshifts. I used to think that having a New Year’s Eve celebration was normal but in Nepal there are seven New Years, each with their own celebration. Nepali culture is based on festivals: your god, my god, their god — any occasion is good.

During Laxmi Puja, a festiva; that celebrates Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, Nepalese light up they city with butter lamps and worship her in the temples. ©Donatella Lorch

During Laxmi Puja, a festival that celebrates Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, Nepalese light up the city with butter lamps and worship her in the temples. ©Donatella Lorch

My dog, Biko, gets worshipped on Kukur Puja, and receives a garland, a Tikka and sweet rice cakes. © Donatella Lorch

My dog, Biko, gets worshipped on Kukur Puja, and receives a garland, a Tikka and sweet rice cakes. © Donatella Lorch

For a monotheist like myself who is only a church goer on three days a year (Christmas, Easter and a spare extra for good measure), who has also lived extensively in Islamic countries and who grew up in Manhattan where Jewish holidays were greeted by my father with a sigh of relief as alternate side of the street parking was suspended, I had never lived before with 330 million Hindu gods as well as Buddhist deities, demons and demonesses shared by both faiths. Early on, I started outlining in my diary Super God family trees as the top three male and female deities have multiple incarnations with their own offspring. There are official God festivals that can last more than a week. There are holy days for cows, dogs, crows and even airplanes.

Festival celebrants parade through Bakhtapur Durbar Square. © Donatella Lorch

Festival celebrants parade through Bakhtapur Durbar Square. © Donatella Lorch

Even if I wanted to, it is impossible to ignore these festivals and to continue life as it used to be in early 2013. Temples and Buddhist stupas are absolutely everywhere from sprawling ancient Hindu compounds to a stubby lingam that has split a paved road in two, a rock and a bell on the side of a road to the scores of huge ancient and holy pipal trees wrapped with string by worshippers. There are grass covered and white washed stupas dating back centuries whose gentle and humble elegance graces the chaotic polluted city of Kathmandu. Valley hillsides are dotted with gold painted rooftops that end in the airborne curling eves of Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.

The main prayer hall at Kopan Monastery, one of Nepal's biggest Buddhist monasteries. © Donatella Lorch

The main prayer hall at Kopan Monastery, one of Nepal’s biggest Buddhist monasteries. © Donatella Lorch

There is an inclusiveness and a temperance to Nepal’s two main religions that is inspiring and beautiful. Tantric Buddhism is often the bridge between the two and whenever I visit a Hindu temple which often has a Buddhist stupa or icon on the premises, I always feel gratitude to have found a place where religions coexist.

Yet all these festivals, colorful, cacophonous, crowded, and often surreal from my western perspective, easily run week into week and can be a serious drag on economic growth in Nepal. There is no sense of urgency here but rather an overwhelming sense of fatalistic Karma. Whatever will be will be. National holiday or not, businesses and shops close without notice, people don’t show up for work, teachers as well as students can easily skip school. Government offices work on skeleton staffs and restaurants can close down for days on the big holidays of Dasain and Tihar. You don’t really notice this as a tourist (the tourism industry functions on a slightly more energized schedule) but living here sometimes becomes a frustrating effort at getting work done. It is also a sad statement about Nepal’s regional future. Labor productivity is a measure of economic growth and Nepal has one of the lowest labor productivity levels in the world. It has 22 percent unemployment. An inefficient, badly equipped education system means only 11 percent of students complete their secondary education creating a vast unskilled labor force where 25 percent of young Nepalese mostly men aged 20 to 39 have migrated to foreign countries as manual laborers. Government economic policies coupled with corruption hamper more than help the economy. The cost of doing business here is 23 percent more expensive than in China and 15 percent more than in India, its two huge and rather overbearing neighbors.

A solitary Shiva shrine sits amid wheat fields on the southern edge of the capital, Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A solitary Shiva shrine sits amid wheat fields on the southern edge of the capital, Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

 

There is a phrase used often here, more of a philosophical statement about life in general that is accompanied by a resigned shoulder shrug. “Khe Garne?” loosely translates as “What can one do?” No answer is expected. I catch myself increasingly using that line. Have I surrendered? I wear a red string wrapped around my wrist blessed by a Buddhist monk. I’ll clank the bell at Shiva temples and when I run past mini Hindu shrines along village paths in Kathmandu’s outskirts, I think about how a touch of the forehead can express such powerful devotion.

A Buddhist monk blesses me at Boudhanath Stupa in  Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A Buddhist monk blesses me at Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

I do believe that the Middle Way offers a beautiful path but I haven’t yet mastered mindfulness and compassion. And I have the greatest admiration for the owner of “The Secret Bakery”, one of Patan’s best bakeries. He is open through festivals, strikes and national holidays. Now that is a businessman with Chutzpah! Happy 2071.

 

A rugby match and the cost of development

Smoke haze from burning forests making way for palm oil plantations has covered Malaysia and Indonesia recently.  In Kuala Lumpur, schools have been closed. © Donatella Lorch

Smoke haze from burning forests making way for palm oil plantations has covered Malaysia and Indonesia recently. In Kuala Lumpur, schools have been closed. © Donatella Lorch

We landed in Kuala Lumpur at nighttime yet before the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 737’s tires hit the runway, the fog was so thick I couldn’t even see a light outside the plane window. Almost immediately, the cabin was coated in an eye-smarting burnt smell. I am a nervous flyer, and on this evening my anxiety was enhanced by the fact that MH370 had disappeared just four days before and that our pilot had not mentioned the weird weather to the passengers.

My son Lucas and his school rugby team, the Yetis, were representing Nepal in a tournament in Kuala Lumpur. © Donatella Lorch

My son Lucas and his school rugby team, the Yetis, were representing Nepal in a tournament in Kuala Lumpur. © Donatella Lorch

My husband and I were tagging along on my nine-year-old son’s school rugby trip. This was a huge event for Lucas and his seven schoolmates as their primary school team in Kathmandu, the Yetis, was (to the best of our knowledge) the first Nepali rugby team to play outside the country. The boys’ excitement was palpable. My third-culture son, who has lived overseas for almost six years, had been reminding me for weeks that he was going to Malaysia to “represent my country!”  When I had wondered which of his three nationalities, American, Canadian and Dutch, he was referring to, he had dismissed my obvious ignorance. “Nepal, of course!”

What we didn’t immediately realize is that the fog with the burnt smell was not only coating the airport but blanketing almost all of Malaysia and parts of Indonesia as well.

The smoke haze even reached beyond Malaysia's shores onto its islands, such as Pulao Pangkor where it filtered the setting sun. © Donatella Lorch

The smoke haze even reached beyond Malaysia’s shores onto its islands, such as Pulao Pangkor where it filtered the setting sun. © Donatella Lorch

Many airports in the region had already closed and by the next day, the Malaysian government declared the air quality dangerous, closed over 200 schools in the capital and advised against any outdoor sports. The first day of the rugby tournament was cancelled, much to the boys’ disappointment. The stinging smoke that was affecting their dream school trip was in fact the end product of the needs of billions of people who live far from Southeast Asia.

Palm oil plantations like this one line Malaysia's super highways for hundreds of miles. © Donatella Lorch

Palm oil plantations like this one line Malaysia’s super highways for hundreds of miles. © Donatella Lorch

Ever wonder about that “vegetable oil” listed as an ingredient in a huge amount of food we all eat?  That vegetable oil is often palm oil, and it is an essential ingredient in margarines, frying oils, cereals, baked goods, sweets and potato chips. It is also in soaps, washing powder, cosmetics and animal feeds, and it can also be used as bio fuel.  Since the 1990s, the demand for palm oil has increased by more than 45 percent. Though 17 countries produce it, Malaysia and Indonesia account for 85 percent of global palm oil production. Millions of Malaysians and Indonesians rely on palm oil for their livelihood.

The choking smoke and palm oil are inextricably connected.  Just drive for hours on Malaysia’s magnificent super highways (yes, they have Starbucks stops) and the countryside is almost entirely blanketed by thousands of acres of palm oil plantations.  But growing world demand, especially from China, means both legal and illegal unfettered cutting down and burning of pristine forests in Malaysian Borneo and Indonesia.  The governments, either because of lack of will or corruption, do little to control what has become an environmental disaster. This year, lack of rain means the burning season is particularly vicious on the lungs. The forest peat burns underground for weeks and the heavy smoke just sits over three of Asia’s most important cities: Singapore, Djakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

The cost of unfettered development is very visible in Nepal. Both licensed and illegal quarries strip the rivers of stone for building roads and houses but cause landslides, floods destroying homes and bridges. © Donatella Lorch

The cost of unfettered development is very visible in Nepal. Both licensed and illegal quarries strip the rivers of stone for building roads and houses but cause landslides, floods destroying homes and bridges. © Donatella Lorch

Lucas gets basic global warming. He knows it makes winters colder and summers hotter and that New York and Toronto, where our extended family lives, have had wicked snowstorms this winter. His school is plastic free and on eco days, he walks to class. Our lives in Nepal are an unexpected first row seat where we can witness the cost of development.  Lucas knows well the fetid smell of raw sewage from Nepal’s holiest and dead Bagmati River.

In Nepal, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. Trashed plastic bags are everywhere. © Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. Trashed plastic bags are everywhere. © Donatella Lorch

Unregulated dumping of garbage on city streets makes Kathmandu a filthy plastic-bag littered city. An open sewer runs near our house. Massive and frequently illegal stone quarrying in Nepal’s gorgeous rivers and streams supplies the unquenchable thirst for roads and building construction but result in massive erosion, flooding and landslides, destroying bridges and roads and buildings.

Kathmandu Valley smog is not only from the many cars but also from the brick factories sprouting up everywhere as demand for construction materials increases. © Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu Valley smog is not only from the many cars but also from the brick factories sprouting up everywhere as demand for construction materials increases. © Donatella Lorch

 

Still it hadn’t occurred to Lucas that eating his favorite sour cream and onion Pringles or Honey Nut Cheerios or washing his hands with soap could be connected to the smoke that cancelled his rugby match. I was struck by the irony that Kuala Lumpur, a modern, vibrant, clean, green gem that stands apart from the region’s capitals, was being asphyxiated by the very development and industrialization that had provided the money to make it so special.

Malaysia has built itself up as a favorite tourism destination. Its ubiquitous slogan, “Truly Asia,” could be misconstrued on smoky days. Luckily for the Yeti team, it rained and then it poured, and the smog cleared. They won one match, tied another and lost two.  The memories will last a lifetime.

Raising a family and living a marriage on FaceTime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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