Over the past few days, ever since I landed in the Red Dot (that is Singapore), I’ve had a chance to revive myself from my recent trip to Nepal – and, from the distance that passage of time affords, I’ve been letting myself process what transpired in that once-beautiful Himalayan nation. Once-beautiful because, sadly, it is no longer so. And not only because of the earthquakes that rocked and devastated homes, villages, lush and mountainous landscape. But because of the toll that time, technology, transport and tourism have taken.
I could write tomes. I could list a litany of changes that have wreaked havoc on the people and their country. I could condemn the politicians, the unbridled corruption, unregulated expansionist policies, unlimited vehicle imports, incessant and unbridled levels of noise, lack of highway safety codes, total absence of trash disposal – leading to years’ worth of waste being deeply embedded in the ground, everywhere.
I could point fingers at neighboring countries, who have hijacked or dried out Nepali’s access to resources. I could bemoan the ongoing load-shedding or ‘brownouts’ that provide a meager 2-4 hours of power a day, even in the most sweltering of days, in most regions; or the appalling lack of access to fresh water in villages – and middle-of-the-night line-ups at pumps. I could express shock and awe at the many other queues that Nepalis are accustomed to as well; for petrol (if and when it is delivered), for gas canisters, for bank withdrawals, for transport.
Oh, how I could write and write and write – as I did over the 2.5 weeks that I spent in that country.. before I cut my trip short. Because the worst of it did me in: not only in Kathmandu, but equally in Pokhara and Chitwan, the pollution was utterly unbearable. My body could not tolerate it. My eyes burned and teared. My nose was constantly dried out. My ears were full of soot. My mouth was parched, thick layers of dirt and grime coating the insides of my palate and throat.
Blessedly, I brought along my super-mask; eventually, donning it almost all the time – including while I slept. The filters blackened within a couple of days. Shockingly, while my Nepali friends suffered as I did, the expats I know (and became acquainted with) met my mask with surprise: Do you have allergies? What pollution? This is the lowest amount of haze and pollution we’ve had for years. Right. Emperor’s New Clothes. I wondered if they’d read the data: Over the past 3 years, Kathmandu has ranked among the top 3 most polluted cities in the world. Not for nothing.
Among the saddest moments came when I arrived in Pokhara, eager to gaze up at my beloved Annapurna range (I’d trekked the circuit eight years ago) – and saw that thick smog and grey haze had swallowed up whole any view of the Himalayas. So much for reliving and basking in the spectacular beauty of those once-majestic mountains. What remained was just a distant memory, now choked and clogged up with airborne particles, toxic fumes and thick dust.
I took leave of Nepal, my overwhelming relief tinged with sadness – for my Nepali friends (and their unborn and about-to-born kin), for the lovely Nepali people and for the disappearance of a once-heavenly land, flush with lush greenery and clean air.
And so, in tribute to the Nepalis, a people and country in such dire need of healing, I send prayers of light. As they navigate through these shell-shocked times, may the much-needed sparks and beacons of light come forth; fearless visionaries and pioneers who are committed to change for good and for future generations. Until then, may they all be blessed with resilience, fortitude and grace.