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Full swing in Kathmandu

When I landed in Kathmandu I was greeted not with a city of tents where all but a few buildings had been reduced to rubble, as one may have expected after reading the international media coverage. Instead over the first several days here I experienced a nation far more genuine and well preserved (culturally if not structurally) than my last temporary home in Bangkok.

Kathmandu, my home for the next two months and the city where I’ll be performing the bulk of my internship for the Nepali Times, was not ravaged nearly as badly as many parts of the country. Eighty percent of the buildings in the city were not damaged, and much of the rubble has been cleared away in the six weeks since the first earthquake. Food shops are open, vegetable stands are up, and children run and play in the streets.

Here is my first reported piece published by the Nepali Times: http://nepalitimes.com/page/tourists-trickle-back-to-Bhaktapur

Not to say that all is well, either. I am slowly piecing together an image of what Kathmandu was like before the quake from my colleagues at the newspaper and other people I talk to when writing stories and exploring the city. These days it is difficult to find any restaurant open past 7:30 pm, and by 9:00 most of the city appears to be asleep. My sleep schedule has adjusted rather well, mostly because a day of walking about this hectic city is truly tiring.

I thought walking the streets of Bangkok was a crazy experience, but Kathmandu presents a challenge more akin to backpacking rough trails than walking through any city streets I have ever seen before. I’ve found myself slipping into all the old habits that summers on the trail in Montana bring out. I have to spend an unfortunate amount of time looking at my feet because of the busy array of steps and sidewalks and pavement with potholes giving way to dirt roads. Cows lie in the streets because their owners abandon them there rather than killing them because that is forbidden in this Hindu state. All the taxis are small Japanese-made Suzuki cars that seem specially chosen to zip in and out of the traffic that only loosely pays attention to which lane has been designated for the direction they are traveling. That traffic no longer includes the tuk tuks that I grew used to in Southeast Asia, but has bicycles, motor bikes, cars of all sizes, buses, trucks, rickshaws, and people crossing the streets at odd spots all over the city for lack of a better option to get to where they need to go.

There is a tradition of enjoying tea with others throughout the day here that reminds me of England, though they don’t make the same emphasis on presentation. In the newsroom everyone works at their computers and telephones for most of the day, and a kind man from the next office over comes in at around 11:00 am and 3:00 pm with a tray full of cups of tea. It is a sort of sour concoction sweetened with sugar that comes hot in a small clear water glass. It’s delicious, and at many local-owned restaurants and coffee shops you can get a cup for only ten Nepali rupees, or about ten cents.

The most conspicuous difference between what Kathmandu is like now and what it was like before the quake lies in the tourist sector. The city that most foreigners refer to as Kathmandu is actually divided into three separate cities. The city that I live in is Lalitpur (the other two are Bhaktapur and Kathmandu proper), and within that city my neighborhood is Jawalakhel. That neighborhood is typically popular with tourists, but the numbers have shrunk dramatically since the quake. The internet is teeming with stories written by folks who were here when the quake happened recounting their experiences, only to leave as quickly as they could get to the airport (which despite some reporting, was not so seriously damaged that many foreigners couldn’t leave the country within a day).

The neighborhoods here are absent all those people, and it has had an effect arguably more conspicuous than that of the quake in many neighborhoods. I’m told that before the quake many of the restaurants stayed open until one or two in the morning, and now it is difficult to find food after 7:30 pm. The place looks like a ghost town by nine.

Many cafes are not stocking fruits and vegetables because there is not enough business to ensure that the food can be sold before it goes bad. Many others are not opening at all. The other day we sat down at a small restaurant in a garden just off one of the main roads in Jawalakhel. We were handed a menu, but when I pointed at a vegetable curry the owner said they could not make that. He then asked if we wanted Mo Mo (a popular dish here that is a lot like dumplings, or pot stickers) or French fries, as if anything else was unavailable even though it was the middle of the day.

There are still ample local vegetable and fruit stands open and selling, and many of the busier restaurants that do manage to stay busy with some mix of locals and relief workers still serve their full menus. Old women cook corn on the cob over small charcoal barbeques that they haul up and down the streets. We tried some the other night, and despite being in desperate need of salt, butter, and maybe a little hot sauce, it was rather nice. She re-warms it by putting it right on the embers when you order it, and then wraps it in a used spare bit of note paper that looks like it used to be a daily schedule, back when the normalcy and demand were present to necessitate schedules.

The message being trumpeted here loudly to anyone I approach as a reporter and a foreigner is this: the country needs the tourists back. The city is full of perfectly safe and undamaged hotels and guesthouses, small and owned by hospitable locals, who depended upon those tourists for their livelihoods. In the aftermath of their exodus the government has done little aside from twiddle their political thumbs to alleviate the burden of those in stress, and financial support has been far longer coming to these people than it should have been.

They are not asking for houses from the government or even money to pay rent for a roof over their heads, they are simply asking for enough to buy corrugated aluminum sheets to build the kind of shelter that would never be considered adequate in the West.

The race is on too, because monsoon season is only a matter of days away. If I have learned one thing about Nepali people since I have gotten here, it is that they would have made President Hoover proud. Their resilience and thriftiness and determination to help themselves is truly inspiring, and that is obviously the most major factor in this city looking as good as it does a mere two months after the quake. That resilience may well falter, however, when the countryside becomes inaccessible and the aid it has waited too long for is cut off for the rainy season. Many of the roads here are not good at all, and even before the rains are very difficult to navigate. People seem to expect the monsoon around mid to late June this year, and once that comes many of them will become impassable. I’ve been told that generally the countryside communities take the weeks and months before the monsoon comes to stock up on whatever supplies they cannot grow and gather themselves. Obviously this has not been able to happen this year, and those outside Kathmandu are in more need of supplies than ever. The monsoon rains always hit India first, then move up the subcontinent and arrive in Nepal after that. As a result, Nepalis usually get a fair warning about precisely when the rains will hit. In the paper just yesterday said that they expected the rains to hit southern Nepal within four days, and it will not take long to move up and over the entire country, because Nepal is no more than several kilometers long from north to south.

Understandably the Nepali media has been distracted with the imminent arrival of the rains, but Indian media has moved forward to report the fact that the monsoon is expected to be 12 percent shorter in duration than the long-term average. That is stoking fears of drought and a sign that the salvation brought by the sun at the end of rainy season will be fleeting at best. In short, international aid of a long and enduring nature is certainly needed. There are still many aid packages stacking up in a warehouse at the airport outside Kathmandu for the inept customs agency to process before they can get to those who need them most, but that is another indicator that a bulge of immediate relief tapering off to international negligence is not the recipe for a healthy rehabilitation.

I feel like I have learned a few things about Nepali people since I have arrived, but I’m trying to keep an open mind too. It’s a very male-dominated society, and there are semi-strict rules around the way women dress in public. No shorts that end above the knee are allowed, and you do not often see shirts that allow for bare shoulders unless the dress is traditional either. Interestingly enough, many of the traditional clothes around leave the entire midriff bare and something that would seem revealing in the West is rather normal here. Men can wear whatever they want, though I don’t seem them wandering around shirtless like I did in Thailand on a regular basis. Nepali people are also rather somber. In Thailand a smile on the street was very often returned at least with a nod, it seemed to me as much as 75% of the time (a proportion topped only in Montana). Here it happens, but to a far lesser degree. These people have every reason to be somber, but it appears that the resilience they are so good at employing does not lend itself to a go-lucky attitude.

The first few days of my internship at the Nepali Times have gone as well as could be expected so far. I think I’ve experienced at least my fair share of reasons for optimism, but I’ve also had my fair share of story pitches shot down. Translated, that means they have all been shut down except one, which was given to another reporter. The process has been worthwhile though, and I’ve been supplied with reasons that will allow me to become wiser about the ideas I pitch and probably a bit more confident in my desperation to have one taken. It seems to be a nice group of folks in the newsroom, and I’m excited to do something worthwhile enough to seem like a competent fellow. They are all Nepali, except the young Mauritian man who has the culture beat. My editor, Kunda Dixit, is a man who seems to be kind and brilliant and extraordinarily busy. Probably on the whole an excellent disposition for an editor, but also not one that lends itself to struggling young interns. He’s frequently quoted in many national media outlets as a smart figure, and he seems like a decent man too.

Yesterday I met with an Italian aid organization and I will be leaving this Friday morning to accompany them on a trip to Rasuwa district, about 100 kilometers north of Kathmandu. They will be distributing CGIC, or corrugated iron sheets, to locals whose homes were damaged in the quake. Though Rasuwa was not the hardest hit from the quake (it is somewhere around 50 kilometers northwest of the epicenter), it was badly affected. We will be going to two different villages, Saramthali and Yarsa, to distribute the sheets. As part of my work for the newspaper I will also venture out to other villages in the vicinity to assess the damage there, and try and find out what the villagers who do not receive aid will do. It is slated to be a four-day trip, with a day of commute on each side sandwiching two days of distributing the CGIC. In order to get their allocation of materials, the locals have to provide some form of government issues identification. This has also been a major news peg since the quake, as the already shoddy job the government had done to ensure all citizens had an ID was enhanced by the fact that many of the people who most needed aid lost their ID when their homes collapsed. It will be interesting to watch the process, and see how this aid organization uses the money and materials provided to them to have the best possible impact.

Lang Tang National Park, a popular tourist destination, lies on the northern end of the district just beneath the Tibetan border. It’s a trekking mecca for foreigners, but after the landslides that happened as a result of the earthquake many of the villages in and around the park were wiped out. The trekking industry depended on these villages because they operated the teahouses where trekkers would stay at night and oftentimes take their meals as well. I spoke to some Sherpa when reporting a story about the trekking industry just yesterday, and one of them said he had ventured up there last week. He mentioned that the people, as elsewhere in Nepal, are resilient and resourceful. They also depend on the trekkers as a major source of income, so whether it is healthy or not those teahouses will be among the first things that are rebuilt. He expected the area to be open to trekkers again by as early as next season, though that is far from a guarantee.

1 Comment

  1. Doug says

    Great insights Clay! Thanks for the update. There are regular updates from Nepal in New Zealand due to the connections.
    Travel safe!


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