Tag Archives: women

Untangling the journey: one box at a time

This July, on my annual summer pilgrimage home, back to Upstate New York, to the house buried in a forest where I spent every weekend and every summer growing up, and which has always been my haven in my 20 or so years overseas, my sister asked me to sort and clean out stacks of my cardboard boxes.

They were piled against a wall in the garage next to our World War II weapons carrier, a still functional grey metal box of a monster, and the vehicle where my father had painstakingly taught me to drive by double clutching. Out of sight, out of mind, I’d avoided this task for years, reluctant to sort through my years from college into journalism then motherhood and all punctuated with permanent wandering. But this time, I knew any lack of action would not sit well with my sister, as the trove of stored family belongings was overflowing.

I am a fan of instant Facebook gratification, not only because of that flattering belief that I have more than a 1,000 friends but also because it is a tool to reconnect with those I have known in all my incarnations whether it be a friend from elementary school, my translator in Mogadishu, My neighbor in Nepal or a collection of friends whose careers and lives I follow. I Instagram because both my 25 and 12-year-old have instructed me that “everyone” does. I am not convinced that being “everyone” is meaningful in any way that might transform my life but like with Facebook, I see the work and communication benefits of instant contact. Still much of my life has been lived before the smart phone.

If I graphed my life as an arc of communication tools, it would begin with the party line we shared with our neighbors in the Catskills. In the lazy no-TV summer days, my sister and I, not yet teenagers, entertained ourselves by listening in to their conversations. I covered crime in New York City, calling my story in to my editor on a pay phone. I filed my first overseas stories about the war in Afghanistan only after I had returned overland to Pakistan and typed them on a telex machine. By 1990, during the first Gulf War, The New York Times provided me with a satellite phone the size of a hip-high refrigerator. In Somalia, I had a four-pound satellite telex that I mounted high above my toilet, tiptoeing on the seat to reach the only window in my room that faced the Indian Ocean satellite. By the time my youngest was born in 2005, the satellite phone fit in my back pocket.

I piled the boxes on the lawn in front of the house, armed with plastic garbage bags and tugged on surgical gloves to battle the mice nests and their detritus. The boxes had not been packed in any particular order. There were stacks of narrow, tan “New York Times” reporter’s notebooks, filled with shorthand notes from my days covering crime in New York City and trekking through the mountains of Afghanistan with the Mujadeddin during the Soviet occupation.  I’d picked up police shorthand: ‘F/B/13 DOA. Brother arrested’ (female, black, 13, dead on arrival). In another notebook, I’d scribbled notes next to quotes from a Mujahed commander meeting: “No idea where we are. On my 7th cup of sugared green tea today. Not a soul speaks English. When am I going to get out of here? ”

The notebooks dredged up long buried images. My sloppy, loopy handwriting that skipped lines and sometimes meandered up and down, triggered smell, taste, touch. It was a cold February day in the Bronx. On the street, men warmed their hands stoking wood fires in old oil drums. For weeks, the leather jacket I had worn that day smelled of rancid alcohol and stale cigarettes. Sobbing, the mother hugged me as we walked through the tiny bare apartment. The daughter’s blood still stained the floor near a piece of her half eaten birthday cake.Tangible hopelessness.

The Afghanistan notes had been written a year before the Bronx when my world did not go beyond the arid Hindu Kush mountains. Afghanistan was my first war, warped by sharply defined feelings of love, hate, boredom, fear and adventure.  I kept taped to my laptop a quote from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” “War is nasty; War is fun. War is thrilling; War is drudgery. War makes you a man; War makes you dead.” Afghanistan — The ever-present dust, that fine layer of earth, a mixture of grit and silk. The person I used to be but am no longer.

But the notebooks were only part of the boxes’ contents. Stuffed in large manila envelopes were hundreds of letters. I remember writing letters home. But I had forgotten about the return flow from my family and friends, a large quilt of my life stitched together by different people at different times.  They came typed, single spaced; hand written, one collection of 15 letters on onion paper with delicate artist script; on aerograms with mysterious GPO return addresses from Singapore, Hong Kong, Addis Ababa, Windhoek; filling all the hardback sides of cards and in postcards. There were letters from lovers. I read through a decade-worth where I seem to have spent way too much time trying to create some fantasy I thought was love. There were deep friendships with journalists that still endure today. I also complained a huge amount. I was lonely, alone, lovesick, frustrated, exhausted and despondent. My father (whose writing to me was often limited to postcards) once suggested I write a book entitled: “Letters From a Despondent Correspondent.”

For someone who sometimes cannot remember details from the day before, this flood caught me off guard. It was as if parts of me had somehow been unearthed in an archeological memory dig and I was encountering a self that I recognized in waves of emotions: joy, curiosity, embarrassment, acknowledgment, discomfort and a great deal of surprise.

I unearthed reams of my mother’s weekly, sometimes daily letters. She and I have always had an electric and combustible relationship. As a child, she was my storyteller who taught my imagination to soar but also my relentless and strict teacher who forcefully tutored me in Latin, Greek, German and Dante. We had a history of bruising arguments well into my 30s.

The scores of letters in the boxes reconnected me to a time and place where we shared ideas and dreams, in a medium that freed us of dictates and combativeness. I needed that nudge to remember. Whether responding to my excited or somber moods, she was a writing machine, supportive, insightful, funny, and deeply understanding. Writing for my mother is a permanent state of mind. Even now at 97, if she could forego oxygen, she would trade it in for pen and paper.

When airmail was too slow or the phone failed, my mother faxed, sometimes daily, as during the Rwandan Genocide when I was stranded in Kigali at the Hotel Milles Collines.  Those faxes, faded, some only barely legible more than two decades later, were also in the boxes.  As was my reply: “Please type! Your handwriting illegible.” But she also spent many pages through the years trying to console me over my hopeless dead-end amorous encounters while emphasizing how they distracted me from reporting and writing.

Every year, as with all her children and grandchildren, her birthday gift was a letter. She typed this letter in 1997 after my return from some war zone, grasping more clearly and more poetically than I ever could, that link between crossing swords and love and respect.  I should have listened to her more often.

“I see Dony who taught me not in words but in actions, at times against my will(…) to break through barriers enjoying the noise of the crash, to live like a pilgrim of the earth which means to be a foreigner in every country because the country you long for is not the one you are in. To be happy in my unhappiness, to be satisfied in my dissatisfaction, cheerful in my solitude. I learned by watching her, by blaming her, by cursing her at times. (…) It is the Dony that gives me the most useless advice and then overwhelms me with the most useful embrace. …Please walk on Donatella, Just as you are. Do not change. Your strength is in being yourself.”

I’d forgotten about the beauty and pleasure of receiving letters, of keeping them in my pocket so I could pull them out to read and re-read, to know that they were my companions no matter where I lived. They were a concrete proof that I existed. As for the contents of all those boxes: they make me who I am.





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

     Growing up in New York, I rarely associated religious festivals with a national or even a city holiday, though occasionally alternate side of the street parking was suspended – to my father’s delight.

     Half way around the world, Nepal has taken the idea of religious festivities to another level. Beginning in late August and continuing until the end of October, religious festivals follow each other like tumbling dominoes, occasionally bridged by government holidays. The festivals can last a day or a more than a week. Parking, though, is not an issue in Kathmandu, a capital where parallel parking has yet to be discovered and the rule on the hair-raising narrow roads seems to be: “Never give way.”

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

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

It is a season when the complexities of Nepali society seem to surf above the capital’s physical chaos, pollution, political disorder and venality. The ties to yore, to myth, to custom and to religion may be a matter of worship or just a question of habit or a mere acquiescence to an insistent mother-in-law. In any case, Nepal’s festivals are not a matter that can be ignored.

     Depending on how you look at it, life in Kathmandu either slows down as stores and offices close or it hums with an entirely different undercurrent. There are different colors, smells, noises. Traffic jams change locations. In Nepal, the kaleidoscope of Newar, Tamang, Chhetri, Brahmin and other holy days challenge the most ardent ritualists, who consult multiple types of calendars not only to stay connected with the outside world but also to follow the local customs. Most of the calendars are based on a lunar cycle, so every year, schools, offices and government nimbly have to readjust their schedules. To keep everyone on their toes, some holidays rely on astrologers. 

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

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

     This year, the season began on August 10th, with Janai Purnima, when Brahmins and Chhetri communities go visit their guru to have their sacred thread changed. For good measure, there are those who add on a dip in a local river. Just a day later, on the 11th is Gaijatra or Cow Festival, a huge event in the Kathmandu Valley, when you decorate your cow or one of the many stray bovines in your neighborhood and join the dancing, singing parades. Some choose to wear cow head-gear. It is meant to pave the way towards heaven for any relative that has died that year. As the end of the month nears, there is Father’s day and close by the day when Hindu priests give (or more precisely sell) the faithful some ‘Kush grass’ so that Vishnu will live in their home for the coming year.

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

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

Some festivals are all-inclusive, others pick their ethnic group, pointing in numbers to the changing ethnic powers in the Kathmandu Valley. Take Teej, which is followed by Chhetris and Brahmins but not by the Newars, the area’s original inhabitants. If color is a sign, then the Newars are far from being the majority they once were.

  For the five days of Teej, observant women wear red saris, turning the entire valley into a red sea. The government closes down the roads in one of the busiest sections of Kathmandu so that thousands of red clad women can worship at Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Shiva shrines in the world. Red saris are scrunched against the windows of overloaded public buses or billow elegantly in an Isadora Duncan sort of way on the back of motorcycles. Teej is billed as a woman’s festival – but it is really about the men, for it is a time when a woman either prays for the well-being of her husband or, if she not already married, for a husband-to-be.

     If a woman is very traditional, she will fast and she will also bathe her husband’s legs and drink the run-off water. This has some of my women friends in the States decrying marital abuse. But watching these red saris dancing in front of temples, standing and chattering on endless lines with their girlfriends and daughters, puja (offerings) and smart phones in hand, all bedecked in traditional gold jewelry, it is clear that, for them, Teej is not only about bonding but also about a great escape from endless daily chores and demanding husbands. It’s a time of year when gold prices in Kathmandu skyrocket. I’m inclined to believe that if you acquire new jewelry and a new sari, and spend five days with your friends, worshipping a husband is a fair exchange.

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

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

     The festivities don’t end with Teej. A short break afterwards, there is an eight-day Indra festival in Kathmandu. More masked dancers and drums in procession with the Kumari Devi, or ‘Living Goddess,’ blocking more traffic. And then Nepal’s most universal and longest festival – Dashain – begins and continues for about 15 days. This year it falls at the very end of September. On the surface Dashain is a celebration of the victory of gods and goddesses over demons or of good over evil, but between the prayers, it is mostly a celebration of family and community. Flights into Nepal have already been booked for weeks now. Nepali migrant workers in the Middle East borrow money to return home, others fly in from the U.S. and Europe. Kathmandu empties out as families return to their ancestral villages spending long hours on buses and often walking the last bit to grandma’s old mud- wattle or stone house. Aside from hotels and a few restaurants in the tourist neighborhoods, Kathmandu shuts down. The sky is a jumble of kites maneuvred by young kids on rooftops. The chaotic traffic jams and the smog melt away.

     This is a time of sacrifice – animal sacrifice that is. My friend Keshav, has been fattening his mutton for three years just for this year’s holiday. On October 1st this year, the day will begin with the army’s ritual throat-slitting of scores of buffaloes and then everyone has the go ahead to kill and feast on their own buffalo or goats and the drain-less roads will be covered in blood. Even if you live in an apartment, there is pressure to buy and butcher your own animal.

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

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

 My favorite festival is none of these, but comes a bit later. After the dancing, chanting, techno-filled boom-blasted nights of Teej, just passed, I look forward to Tihar, the festival of lights, at the end of October. If poetry can transcend words, it is found at night in Patan’s old city. Every household creates on their road-side stoop mandalas of rice and painted flour lit by butter lamps. The narrow roads cornered by ancient temples are full of families strolling or going to prayer in the flittering, smoky lamplight. If there are no power cuts (and the government goes out of its way to avoid them during Tihar), cascades of Christmas lights decorate the taller buildings. Of course, modern times intrude. On Tihar, it is traditionally auspicious to buy metal; these days that means buying electronics, and so phones, televisions and stereos sell briskly.

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

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

Luckily, when it is all over, I won’t suffer from withdrawal. There are of course many more festivals during the year but in the meantime I still have my neighborhood Hindu priest to remind me I live in Kathmandu. Without fail, 365 days a year, he starts clanking his bell to wake Shiva at 5:15AM. I lie in bed, counting the 25 to 31 reverberating sharp and hard rings occasionally enhanced with some megaphone chants. When I moved here a year ago, the head-thudding noise forced me up and out of bed but these days, it has a soothing quality, alternating with the baying packs of neighborhood stray dogs and the coo-ing pigeons on my windowsill. I roll over, a smile on my face, knowing that the ancient is still there to guard the new day.

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.



How I collided with Nepali culture and got a really short haircut

Two young girls on their way to school with the ubiquitous braids. copyright Donatella Lorch

Two young girls on their way to school with the ubiquitous braids. copyright Donatella Lorch




I have short hair and I haven’t had a haircut in five months. After 25 years of very short hair, this state of affairs was not because I had decided to grow it.  The challenge is that in Nepal, women just don’t have short hair.  So why should any hairdresser specialize in that field?

A view from the back. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A view from the back. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Over time, my search for a reliably good cut turned into an existential angst. I was stopping women on the street and at dinner parties asking for any advice on how to find someone who can cut short hair. I even found three who did have short hair but they did not enthusiastically offer a solution. And as all women in the world know, there is nothing quite as depressing as a bad haircut.

Even the grandmothers have long hair. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Even the grandmothers have long hair. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Inspired by a mother at my son’s primary school who was so frustrated with the lack of options that she took matters in her own hands, I resorted to cutting my own hair. I had the correct tools since I have been cutting my husband and our three sons’ hair for over eight years. But self -cutting meant that the back of my head quickly looked hacked. And when it grew in, I can vouch that I was somehow related to a shaggy Pekinese.

From the day I arrived in Nepal, I felt my short hair did not belong here. I was mesmerized by the beauty of Nepalese women’s hair. I loved looking at the ubiquitous groups of uniformed schoolgirls walking arm in arm on the city streets, all wearing their hair in two thick, long, voluptuous braids tied with bright ribbons. I can attest that my twin braids, very tightly woven by my father before I headed off to primary school never looked that good and definitely never were that thick.

A farmer washing her hair early in the morning. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A farmer washing her hair early in the morning. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Young urban women leave their hair often tumbling free down their back. The female traffic police have it pulled back in air-tight polished buns while older women, often wearing saris, pile it up in less constricting but no less thick and shiny chignons. From my yard, perched up on a scree of rocks, I look down at local farmers that come every day to a public water tap, the women unraveling their waist-length hair and foaming it up with shampoo. When I run in the early mornings, I ‘Namaste’ mothers on their front stoops lovingly oiling, brushing and braiding children’s hair.  Nepal is different from India where short haircuts are more and more common among the urban female youth. In Kathmandu, I concluded after multiple discussions with female and male friends, that it is the culture and by definition the men that dictate the hair length.

Young Nepali women frequently wear their hair cascading down their back.

Young Nepali women frequently wear their hair cascading down their back.

I was still faced with the fact that I wanted to cut my hair. In fact, I needed it as much as I wanted it. After living in Kathmandu for half a year, I felt I had gotten a grasp on searching for the impossible. What I have come to love about this city, is that somewhere out there, there is always someone who can do what you want.  So I kept asking everyone I met for advice.

This young girl's hair reaches her waist. Copyright Donatella Lorch

This young girl’s hair reaches her waist. Copyright Donatella Lorch

There is no shortage of hair salons in Nepal. My first week, a Nepali friend took me to visit what she called “the best one” just off Kathmandu’s Darbar Marg next to the likes of Nike and Victoria’s Secret stores and just down the road from the royal palace. She assured me all her colleagues at the office patronized this particular salon. I felt uneasy.  I had met many of her friends and like her they all had long, silky black hair. The coiffeur approached me to check out my haircut and smiled. “I can do it, no problem, let me show you,” he insisted. He then went to a drawer and pulled out two electric razors and motioned how he would buzz cut my head. I rapidly retreated to the door not quite ready for a “Full Metal Jacket” experience.

My neighbor runs a tea stall and when working pins up her mass of hair. Copyright Donatella Lorch

My neighbor runs a tea stall and when working pins up her mass of hair. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Then I struck gold. I found Sangita. Like so many Nepalese one meets in Kathmandu, she worked and studied abroad and then came back home. I drove almost an hour through jams and road construction and needed a hand drawn map to find her home. Sangita had shoulder length hair but she too had experienced my crisis. She had returned to Kathmandu with very short hair and unable to cut her own, she had no option but to grow it.

Then she cut mine.   The final product