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nepal1.jpgphoto by Daniel Collins
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Blackouts in Kathmandu are approaching eleven hours a day
At first the blackouts in Kathmandu are limited to six hours a week, so in my area we do without lights on Saturday and Sunday evenings. It’s not difficult—candles at dinner, quite charming at first—but then we jump to fifteen hours a week without power, then to thirty-six hours, all within ten days. The government calls it “load shedding.” This in a country with the potential to be number two in the world for hydroelectric production.
Gas, kerosene and petrol are running short as well, and it’s winter, so anyone with electric or gas heat is cold much of the time. Because of skyrocketing petrol prices, taxi rates have gone through the roof. Ninety-two percent of Nepal’s water supply is contaminated, the roads are falling apart and the winter skies are yellow with pollution and dust. People say that a few years ago the prime minister’s daughter, who has recently been named deputy prime minister and minister without portfolio, imported a fleet of diesel buses from China just as diesel fuel was about to be banned in Nepal.
So when my new friend Nir invites me to his home village in the Salme Valley, I jump at the chance. Nir runs a small restaurant in Boudha, near Kathmandu, to raise funds to build five new schools in his village and the surrounding district. To get there we travel east by bus for six hours to Burunga, then hike through the mountains for another six hours. Nir’s family has lived in the Salme valley for many generations—hundreds of years, he says. They are Magars, as are most of the hill people in the area, surrounded by the more numerous Tamangs. Little government presence can be seen in Salme: no roads, no piped-in water, no latrines. A row of hydro poles were put in place over a year ago, but no wires have been installed. Small terraced farms are cut into most of the south-facing hills.
Nir and his wife share their big house with his brother’s family (their wives are sisters). Nir’s wife and six children are “in town” right now and the brother is away. The sister-in-law cooks us a quick meal of roasted potatoes wrapped in tinfoil, then buried in embers, and spiced potatoes boiled over the open fire in a square pit in the floor, which is pounded earth painted with a terracotta wash. She serves the food
I sleep well in a hard bed on the second floor, with bundles of shucked corn drying overhead. It’s too cold to get undressed and it stays that way for three nights.
In the morning we’re served tasty curried potatoes. The one door in the house and a shuttered window with no glass have been opened to let in light and let out smoke. Neighbourhood men arrive to visit Nir and are served instant coffee that he has brought from town. It’s obviously a rare treat. Then we walk to the site of the first school, where a level foundation bed has been cut into the top of a hill with a view of the valley above and below.
Nir’s friend Lob Brador helps him take measurements, and kids come by to see what’s up and check out the westerner. We hike to the next valley and meet a man who is married to Nir’s sister (and to two other women, each with her own household). He’s cutting his father’s hair when we arrive, and more kids come by to stare at me.
We are served a yummy lunch of rice, dhal and curried potatoes, prepared with the handy kitchen tools that everyone seems to have: a metal blowpipe to direct whistling air toward carefully tended embers, and tongs to rearrange sticks of wood, which are pulled away and extinguished as soon as the meal is cooked or the tea water boiled. After lunch we go on to the next school site, where the men take more measurements. More kids and a grandfather show up to catch the buzz and view the foreigner. One little girl gets so scared when she sees me that she starts praying, and an older girl has to talk her down. A commotion erupts below the site: a cow has escaped. A distraught girl runs after it and most of the other kids join in, shouting suggestions, but they can’t get anywhere near it. A cranky grandfather finally goes to the rescue. It’s the most exciting thing that happens all day.
That night we stay with another of Nir’s sisters, who lives with her husband and his second wife. We buy beers as many men and children come and go. Nir seems to be related to everyone. Chickens roam in and out of this house where we are expected to remove our shoes upon entering. After a meal of curried potatoes and vegetables, someone goes to the house next door to borrow a porch-light bulb so we can see while we’re drinking and chatting outside. The men smoke and laugh with Nir, talking about plans for the schools. I am introduced many times. “Oh, Canada!” they all say with a smile.
In the morning we are wakened by roosters very close by. Nir’s sister serves us hot milk tea in bed, and later we sit around the fire for a special breakfast of potatoes, masala omelettes, fried bread and vegetables. As honoured guests, Nir and I are presented by his sister and niece with garlands, one of marigolds and leaves, the other of coloured tinsel.
We make our way back to town guided by Lob Brador along a different route, which takes us through the woods and over and around a few more mountains, past Sailung, a windblown hilltop site of small Buddhist temple ruins and moss-covered chortens (stupas). Sailung lies along the route of a popular trek that eventually reaches Everest base camp—gorgeous snow-capped mountain vistas all the way. My knees ache even more than the first day and my snazzy year-old hiking shoes are giving my feet blisters, but I try not to complain. After all Nir is wearing slip-on street shoes and Lob Brador has plastic sandals on his bare feet. I can barely keep up with them.
Finally, after a few stops in funky restaurants for tea—the only way I can get hydrated (I refuse to drink out of the streams as my guides do)—we get close to Burunga, where a bus leaves for Kathmandu once a day. We rent a room in nearby Dunge and eat a candlelit dinner of tough buffalo and rice. Thank goodness for the rakshi. The bed is the dirtiest one I’ve ever slept in, including several barns. We laugh as we shake out clouds of choking dust from the disintegrating quilts.
In the morning Lob Brador heads back home alone, and Nir and I head down a well-trod footpath through plowed fields to Burunga to board the bus, which is even more crowded than the one coming up. Boxes and packs and bags of grains and extra passengers without seats cram the aisles, especially up behind the driver where we sit, our legs askew to accommodate sacks of rice.
I’m happy to get back home. All I want is to take off my filthy clothes, have a shower and go to bed—but the electricity clicks out just as I arrive. It’s Sunday night, after all. It’s too cold to face a shower without the electric heater. I strip off all my clothes and put on my warmest stuff by flashlight: a red union suit, a pair of red felt socks and a burgundy fleece vest zipped to the throat. I heat water on the gas stove for the red hot-water bottle, which I fill and stuff under the vest. It won’t stay up, so I grab my new red wool shawl and wrap it around my waist to keep the hot-water bottle from falling out. On the kitchen counter I spy my Tibetan-style fleece hat—red, of course—which I normally use as a tea cozy, and I put it on. Finally I am warm again. I may look like a pregnant Christmas elf, but I’m ready for bed.
Now it’s February, and the blackouts run eight hours per day and are said to be heading for eleven hours come April. And it’s a long time after that before the June monsoon rains arrive, ending the problem. I’ve given up home computer service because it’s no longer worth it. A public protest over petrol prices/shortages shuts down the streets of Kathmandu for two days. The next week a three-day transportation bandh (strike) is called off at the last moment, and a bombing outside a political rally in the Terai kills twenty-three people. Cities in the south are being crippled by strikes. Election fever, they call it, but few people here in the Kathmandu valley believe that the April 11 election, which has been postponed twice, will actually take place.
For more informaiton on Nir’s project to build schools, visit sailungtrinetra.org.