Tag Archives: world heritage site

Meat-eating vegetarians in the land of the Buddha

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

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

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

“Ram, are you a vegetarian?”

“Of course I am,” he answered.

“What is your favorite dish?” I countered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm Holy.

I’m Holy.

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh buffalo, anyone? © Donatella Lorch

Fresh buffalo, anyone? © Donatella Lorch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Will Kathmandu be buried in garbage?

 

The nepal government is dredging the holy Bagmati River in Kathmandu unearthing decades of plastic bags. © Donatella Lorch

The Nepal government is dredging the holy Bagmati River in Kathmandu unearthing decades of trashed plastic bags. © Donatella Lorch

Although Kathmandu’s world heritage sites are well known, few may be aware of a new archeological dig that stretches for several kilometers along the Bagmati River. Deep trenches have been dug out, creating 20ft-high hills made of dirt held together with striations of blue, pink and black polypropylene that tell the 30-year local history of the plastic bag, Nepal’s most ubiquitous landmark.

A mountain of garbage, mostly plastic bags dredged from the fetid (and holy) Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

A mountain of garbage, mostly plastic bags dredged from the fetid (and holy) Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

In the Kathmandu Valley, garbage is the gift that keeps on giving. It is everywhere, stuffed in plastic bags and dropped in drainage ditches or piled high in empty lots, on the roadside or on the edges of the city’s rivers. It is thrown out of bus windows, off roof tops into neighbor’s yards.

Garbage is dumped everywhere including in the open sewers running through this upscale neighborhood. © Donatella Lorch

Garbage is dumped everywhere including in the open sewers running through this upscale neighborhood. © Donatella Lorch

As long as their house and yard is swept clean, the vast majority of valley-livers don’t seem to care. When it gets too high, the garbage is burned in open areas, the toxic fumes blanketing nearby houses. The plastic bags clog the rivers and choke drainage pipes, creating flooding and spreading fetid, disease-carrying refuse. The health impacts are felt at all levels.

Young boys scavenge for copper wires in the mountain of refuse dredged from the Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

Young boys scavenge for copper wires in the mountain of refuse dredged from the Bagmati River. © Donatella Lorch

Rapid unplanned urbanization has brought traffic jams and choking pollution, but politicians in Nepal’s new government have, with few exceptions, shown little political commitment to solving the problem of garbage. In 2011, the government passed the Solid Waste Management Act that set rules, regulations and fines for transgressors but enforcement is weak and detailed responsibilities are unclear.

Living amid the piles of garbage on the shore of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Living amid the piles of garbage on the shore of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

It is a Sisyphean task. The Valley needs clean water but the sole operating waste water treatment plant is handicapped by more than 12 hours of load-shedding a day and needs to be overhauled. Sewage flows untreated into the rivers. There are no proper slaughter houses in any municipalities and no rules for disposing of the city’s dead cows and dogs. They end up in shallow graves near river banks, leaching into the water supply. Hospitals are responsible for disposing their own hazardous waste such as needles, tissues, organs and other body parts, but the government has not provided a dumping site. Some hospitals burn in the open, and others use incinerators that releases dioxin and furan, two highly carcinogenic pollutants. An exception is the government-run Bir Hospital that has even built a bio-gas plant on its premises.

 

Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides, along river banks and when the pile grows they light the plastic bags covering neighborhood is carcinogenic dioxin. ©Donatella Lorch

Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides, along river banks and when the pile grows they burn the plastic bags cloaking neighborhoods in carcinogenic dioxin. ©Donatella Lorch

Sumitra Amatiya, executive director of the Ministry of Urban Development’s solid waste management technical support center, says sanitation in the Valley is in a state of crisis management. Serving Kathmandu and Lalitpur, the valley’s only working landfill, Sisdole, 24 km from the capital, is almost full and during the monsoons is frequently cut off from the city by floods and landslides. The government has bought the land for another site but needs billions of rupees and at least four years to make it operational, according to Dr. Amatya. As a gap measure, they are expanding Sisdole. The Asian Development Bank, which last year published the most researched and detailed Solid Waste Management report on Nepal to date, will begin work later this year on Kathmandu’s waste-water treatment plant. The government has begun dredging the highly-polluted Bagmati, with the aim of laying down sewage pipes as well as planting green areas. It is unearthing tons of dumped plastic and earth but narrowing the river-bed, which experts says can cause severe flooding during the monsoons, spreading disease through its water.

Decades of plastic bags dumped everywhere in Kathmandu block drainage pipes, create flooding and spread disease. © Donatella Lorch

Decades of plastic bags dumped everywhere in Kathmandu block drainage pipes, create flooding and spread disease. © Donatella Lorch

While many Nepalese care, city life has eroded the social dynamic of communities that galvanize neighbors to act together. Many try to make a difference. But they are not enough. One ongoing high-visibility clean-up campaign, lead by Leela Mani Poudyal, the chief secretary of the government of Nepal, has been bringing hundreds of people together to clean the fetid Bagmati every Saturday morning for the past 45 weeks, but a one time cleaning, though highly commendable, is not a permanent solution and it will not make the river waste-free. In addition, small non-governmental organizations, many of them focusing on women, teach composting and garbage segregation.

Politicians are quick to point to a new landfill as the solution. But only 40 to 50 percent of the Valley’s garbage goes to Sisdole, and most of it enters the dump unsegregated. The rest ends up on the streets and rivers. Changing the Nepali mindset is the only way forward, Dr. Amatya believes. Composting is key as 60 percent of Kathmandu garbage is organic. There is the need for a government-supported country-wide public awareness and education campaign about the 3Rs – Recycle, Reuse, Reduce in schools, in the media, door to door. Nepalese need to understand the environmental damage of one-time-use plastic bags. As Bhushan Tuladhar, regional technical advisor (South Asia) of U.N. Habitat , put it: “We have to dump the attitude.” Only a social movement can keep Kathmandu from being buried in garbage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Traveling around Nepal is surreally beautiful but far from simple.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Nepal ---- in Sign Language © Donatella Lorch

Nepal —- in Sign Language © Donatella Lorch

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

Road signs are an obvious alert to drivers © Donatella Lorch

Road signs are an obvious alert to drivers © Donatella Lorch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Buddha Air flight back to Kathmandu © Donatella Lorch

The Buddha Air flight back to Kathmandu © Donatella Lorch

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

In Nepal’s Himalayas, the uphill battle is against plastic

A huge pile of plastic garbage outside the Upper Mustang village of Lo Matang. The villagers have no means to reuse or recycle it. Copyright Keith Leslie

A huge pile of plastic garbage outside the Upper Mustang village of Lo Manthang. The villagers have no means to reuse or recycle it. Copyright Keith Leslie

As any tour company will tell you, Nepal is the land of the Gods. It is the birthplace of Buddha and home to a vast pantheon of Hindu deities. The power of these gods is taken seriously. Even the secular government has decreed that certain sacred peaks cannot be summited as that might anger the god who lives there.  Yet dumping garbage in the country’s national parks and in the conservancy areas apparently does not bother these divine beings. Nepal’s holiest River, the Bagmati that flows into the Ganges, is fetid and dead. Garbage and in particular plastics, are not only a health hazard but fast becoming the biggest threat to future tourism in this country.

“If it continues at this pace, in 10 to 15 years, it will be impossible to trek in Nepal,” warns Jerome Edou, owner of  Basecamp Trek, a travel agency, and also senior advisor to an NGO Plastic Free Himalayas.  www.plasticfreehimalaya.org

Sunrise over the Annapurna Massif and sanctuary. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Sunrise over the Annapurna Massif and Sanctuary. Copyright Donatella Lorch

In 2013, over 800,000 tourists came to Nepal. The vast majority of these were trekkers as well as Indian pilgrims going to the holy site of Muktinath among others. If each drinks two bottles of water a day, and uses plastic bags for every purchase, the mountains become home to millions of plastic bottles every year.  As the joke goes: What is Nepal’s national flower? The blue plastic bag.”

Waste management is a critical problem throughout Nepal especially in the Kathmandu Valley with its booming population, polluted rivers and lack of a system to dispose of non- biodegradable garbage. But Edou says cleaning the mountains first can set an example and build a system for cleaning up the entire country. A plastic water bottle takes 450 years while a plastic bag takes 100 years to decompose.

Local mountain communities have tried on their own to ban plastics but the government’s lack of policy and legislation make it a sisyphian struggle. In Chhomrung, in the Annapurna Sanctuary, one of Nepal’s most visited trekking areas, Hem Bahadur, a lodge owner, followed by a dozen others, banned plastic bottles 13 years ago. But how can villages of a few dozen households deal on their own with the garbage detritus of tens of thousands of trekkers and religious pilgrims?

Waste management in Chhomrung in the Annapurna Sanctuary where the local lodges want to ban plastic bags. Courtesy Jerome Edou

Waste management in Chhomrung in the Annapurna Sanctuary where the local lodges want to ban plastic bags. Courtesy Jerome Edou

There is no ability to reuse or recycle plastics in the mountains. It is dumped in makeshift sites or burned, releasing dioxin, a carcinogen.

Lo Manthang, a stunning medieval village, is the capital of Upper Mustang District, and has been proposed by the Nepal government as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In 1992, when Upper Mustang opened up to tourists, plastic bags and bottles were removed from trekker bags at checkpoints. But the Maoist insurgency and lack of government leadership, stalled the anti-plastic movement. Until recently, the garbage of tens of thousands of tourists was just piled up on the town’s outskirts.  The town understood that it was an eyesore and moved it one kilometer away from the main tourist route. Out of sight. Out of mind.

“It could be so simple,” Edou stressed. “Just don’t buy plastic bottles along the way. Use filtered water.” For Edou, there is only one solution in the mountains: a ban on all plastic bags and bottles.  But to do this successfully, the government must promote clean environment in schools, encourage local businesses to produce alternatives and above all require lodges to provide filtered water. There must be a code of conduct for trekkers.

In Nepal, the mountains are a symbol of national pride. Thirty years ago, the mountains were all plastic free. Critics insist there is a lack of political will. Plastic bags are made in Nepal. And plastic bottles are a booming business here as well.

A 15 foot mountain of plastics and garbage lines the holy Bagmati River recently dredged as part of a road expansion project. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A 15 foot mountain of plastics and garbage lines the holy Bagmati River recently dredged as part of a road expansion project. Copyright Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, much of everyday life is about access to clean water. Municipal water supplies are inconsistent and unreliable. The history of bottled water in Nepal dates back to 1992 when there was only one brand on the market. There are over 55 now but studies and testing of water quality show that more than 50 percent of mineral water brands do not match World Heath Organization drinking water standards.

The simplest and less expensive alternative, says Edou, is an EPA-approved gravity filter that is already used in some villages. To change a way of life is always difficult. But the alternative spells ecological disaster.

In Nepal, Life and Death Meet in a World Heritage Site

Pashumatinath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site adjacent to Kathmandu's airport. It is also the city's best known cremation site. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pashupatinath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site adjacent to Kathmandu’s airport. It is also the city’s best known cremation site. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

The Pashupati temple complex with the burning cremation ghats on the left

The Pashupati temple complex with the burning cremation areas on the left

Pilots do visual landings into Kathmandu, first skimming then dipping down sharply over the rims of the nearby hills that encircle the valley and stopping at the end of a runway that abuts the city’s downtown.  There is no long highway into town, no time for visitors to slowly absorb the capital city’s chaotic traffic, smells, dust, colors or history. Everything is there —- immediately.

Just drive through Tribhuvan International Airport’s huge orange and gold gateway, make a right, pass the golf course and you arrive, just a few hundred meters from the runway, at Pashupatinath, one of Kathmandu’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, and one the world’s holiest Shiva Shrines. It doesn’t look very sacred from the outside especially if you enter through the gauntlet of stalls selling religious knick knacks, but amid the huge bewildering pantheon of gods in Nepal, here you have reached the apex of Hindu spiritual power.

The site, on the banks of the Bagmati River, the country’s holiest river that feeds into the Ganges, is in a big park and consists of a collection of temples, shrines and cisterns that were first built in the 4thc AD though the main pagoda styled temple was also rebuilt in the 17thc. These days, the Bagmati’s other claim to fame is its overwhelming filth. The river is dead, a thick, slimy grey liquid, lined by garbage and coating nearby neighborhoods with its choking stench. Added into the complex are a hospice and a temple doubling as an old age home founded by Mother Teresa where homeless elderly live amid devotees ringing sacred bells and making food offerings at the myriad mini shrines.

At Mother Teresa's hospice, the elderly live in a working shrine.  (copyright Donatella Lorch)

At Mother Teresa’s hospice, the elderly live in a working shrine. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Here Shiva is the Lord of the Beasts not the fearful and destructive Bhairab and devotees flock to worship him from all over the subcontinent and the world. Non-Hindus are not allowed in certain parts of the temple. I brought my four kids here so they could see, touch, smell and experience Hinduism and its rituals for the first time.  We share the shrine’s stone paths with devotees, tourists, wandering cows, scrawny stray dogs, beggars and what our guide calls “the Hollywood Sadhus,” the ash coated and orange-dressed bearded holy men who demand money for pictures.

Playing tourist with the Hollywood Saddhus. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Playing tourist with the Hollywood Saddhus. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pashupatinath is also a favored location for Hindu cremations. It is the open presence of death that I think shocks western visitors the most. As the smoke from the pyres wafts over and around us, Richard, our Christian guide from India, brings us to a terrace overlooking two on-going cremations to describe the technicalities and the ritual. Bodies are cremated rapidly after death, preferably the same day. The body is first taken to the edge of the Bagmati and the feet dipped in the water, symbolically the last effort to see if they are still alive. It is then carried to the ghat and placed in a pyre of wood to burn between three and four hours. Women are fattier and take longer to cremate. The umbilical cord, which apparently does not incinerate, is buried in the soil of the shallow Bagmati, as part of the cycle of rebirth. In a complex ritual, the relatives receive the ashes and then go to the other shore of the Bagmati for puja (worship) before giving the ashes to the river. The northern most cremation area is reserved for the royal family. Here in 2001, the king and queen and eight members of the royal family, who had all been gunned down by the crown prince, were simultaneously cremated.

the cremation ghats

the cremation site

My eight year old is okay with all this. He has been living here for six months and sees cremations in the neighborhood temples where we live. The word “Puja” is an integral part of his vocabulary. He knows that pious Hindu adult sons must wear only white (shoes too) for a year when their father dies and when we drive through town, he regularly points out the men in white. He knows that for the first 13 days after a father’s death, a truly pious adult son lives alone and can only shower outdoors. He cannot touch anybody, eating only once a day boiled rice with ghee, lemon and fruit. He cannot sleep with his wife.

My teenage boys, at school in North America and both argumentative philosophers, are keen to discuss the meaning of life. For my 21-year-old daughter, I think listening to the crackle of the pyre and watching the stoker push back embers around a protruding foot, is part surreal and part overwhelming. The public and physically intimate ritual of handling a dead person does not exist for us. When a relative died recently, we all said our goodbyes as she lay in a hospital bed. A few days later, we received the ashes. The ritual, if there was one, was highly impersonal. I wonder what the elderly who live in the next-door hospice think when the distinct smell of burning human flesh wafts into their abode.

Waking Lord Shiva by ringing the bell in Mother Teresa's hospice (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Waking Lord Shiva by ringing the bell in Mother Teresa’s hospice (copyright Donatella Lorch)

But Pashupatinath is not only about the dead. It is about a vast number of festivals, daily pujas and ceremonies. One of the biggest yearly festivals, the Maha Shivaratri (Great Shiva Night), falls on February 28th 2014. Thousands of Sadhus come from all over Nepal, India and the rest of the world for a week of prayer, smoking marihuana and bathing in the Bagmati.  Some strip naked. Mark your calendars.