First impressions and exchanges with Nepal

 

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Living in Nepal during a Canadian internship placement has been filled with countless wonderfully interesting experiences over the last few weeks with a little over four months to go. After 11 years of living in Vancouver, with infrequent visits to see family in Karachi, it has been delightful to experience faces, sounds, smells and food that remind me of home. It has been equally delightful to not stand out as the only brown woman in a room full of activists, or to not have my traditional clothes gushed over like a costume for special occasions, to see a prevalence of milk tea that I had to learn to call “doodh chya” and not “chai” as in India and Pakistan, street vendors selling fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables and street musicians performing melodic folk tunes.

It is even somewhat heartwarmingly familiar to see overcrowded buses and ‘micros’ where people can be seen spilling out of windows and doorways and hanging from rooftops; although perhaps less so to be in them and to be shepherded into tight corners by the savvy, young conductors with their expert pats on my backside. My long limbs have never before been such a burden to bear as when I have to get into a crowded micro and bend over for the entire micro ride as if to whisper secrets into the ears of one of the seated passengers. At the same the kindness of strangers is apparent every time a young man sits on his friend’s lap to give my unusually tall (for Nepal) body space to sit or when a stranger holds on to my heavy backpack as I’m bending over and quite literally getting in her face.

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waiting for buses on Ring Road

I would be wrong to deny observers and readers the humour in this imagery and will acknowledge that I get to leave after 5 months to a large, under-populated, rich country that is not rebuilding after devastating earthquakes and has surely no concept of what a nation-wide, 3 month long debilitating fuel shortage feels like. In addition, I am getting to share this experience with a great travel partner and housemate, a fellow CAPI intern, Shanzeh who to my delight shares many of my interests such as making untimely stops for tea and Nepali snacks – hot, crispy, cauliflower stuffed pakoras, samosas, paneer momos, mithai – and, even better, an analysis of colonialism and power in the international development world that we are immersed in.

 

I am in Nepal as one of ten interns selected from across Canada for a 5 month internship placement by the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) at the University of Victoria with migrant  justice organizations in Nepal, Bangladesh and The Philippines. After three weeks of intense training in Victoria and Manila, I arrived in Nepal knowing a lot more about South Asian and South East Asian migration issues and the networks of organizations that are active in this region. I also came prepared for a hard winter, a challenging commute to work, unreliable access to clean water and a life without many comforts that are dear to me. Some of these challenges are heightened due to the fuel crisis that Nepal has now been facing for over 3 months as a result of a border blockade in the southern Terai region neighbouring India.

As it turns out, Kathmandu has been an adjustment easier in some ways than I had expected, harder in others. Not having access to indoor heat and hot showers, an unreliable water and cooking fuel supply and internet access at home, more than 8 hours a day without electricity, have been somewhat easier adjustments. Then again, I’ve only been here for less than 4 weeks. These inconveniences have meant keeping a scrupulous eye on load shedding hours (there are smartphone apps), boiling water in electric kettles when there is power for hot bucket showers, the occasional cold shower, reducing hair washing days from four to once or twice a week and being mindful of every extra minute of gas being used unnecessarily or water being wasted.

It has been sobering to talk to those who occupy a different place in society and are living with even less. One of the women who works at my host organization, Pourakhi-Nepal, as a domestic worker tells me, as I attempt my rudimentary mix of Nepali and Hindi to communicate, about having no running water at home at all. In addition to having no gas to cook with, no heat and no electricity, her family uses drinking water, bought in 20 litre containers available at tiny stores in every neighbourhood, for washing, cleaning and cooking. It is sobering also because she has been nursing a cough for the better part of the three weeks I have been here. Just never warm enough.

On the other hand, because of my paranoia of an inevitable mental breakdown from my ineptitude to withstand the cold, I have a sleeping bag to get warm under, layers of warm fleecy clothing, multiple pairs of wool socks and the ability to boil water for the hot water bottle I brought with me from Canada – something I haven’t yet had to do.

On my walk home from work and in searching for snacks and dinner out, it is easily apparent how the fuel crisis has affected people in the capital city. The streets in Kathmandu are lined with little tea stalls and cafes in every  neighbourhood. Going into any number of them in working class areas around my work or home – Narayan Gopal chowk and Samakhusi – yields similar results. Many regular menu items are not available, tea cooked on firewood and steamed momos are easier to find.

The lovely Lakpa runs a tiny family owned cafe with her husband which is steps away from my work. There, one can only order tea, coffee and popular Tibetan style noodles – either boiled in a soup, called Thukpa, or fried, called Chowmein, with cabbage and the occasional onions or an egg. With no gas and limited electricity, cooking anything else has become impossible for her and many others. With limited options around elsewhere, something about her friendly energy and light-heartedness brings customers there regardless and keeps the limited supply of food tasting great. Lakpa is like so many Nepali women I’ve met, very quick to displays of affection; she giggles as she gives me a hug every time we meet and every now and then will surprise me with a free coffee or tea at the bungalow where Pourakhi is housed while on on her multiple tea runs there every day.

As the sun sets around 5:30pm, many business that have managed to stay open despite the crisis and in the aftermath of the earthquake close their doors for day. It is harder to stay open with no power or an invertor when it is dark outside. Many of the tiny convenience stores, pharmacies, tailors, seamstresses and clothing stores brave the cold and dark and stay open. Peaking in as I walk by, my flashlight in hand to guide me, I’ll often see one candle lighting the entire store, sometimes a tiny candle next to the sowing machine as the daily grind continues.

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Vegetation interspersed with damaged homes a common sight

Shanzeh and I have taken shelter in one of the few Himalayan Javas, a Nepali coffee shop chain, scattered around Kathmandu more times than I am proud to admit. Here, we can find comfort in the warmth indoors and a somewhat patchy but mostly reliable internet connection. Placating the nagging guilt at this ritual of spending money that would buy a small family’s dinner elsewhere in Kathmandu, it has been nice to watch the news and get some work done in a brightly lit space after spending the day in a freezing room where I add layers to keep warm in the absence of indoor gas heaters.

In slowly getting comfortable with my new house and city, yesterday, I made a small mental list of essentials for the kitchen and resolved to start cooking more frequently. Quite happy with myself, I made multiple stops to stock the spice rack and bought some fresh vegetables to make a hearty potato and cauliflower soup. Before getting too far in accomplishing this, I received news that shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. The house I share with 3 other interns is now out of gas completely. The nuance of navigating a black market to obtain cooking fuel is lost on me but from the few connections we have made, it might still be a possibility to purchase it at 4-6 times its regular price, or so I am made to understand. For now, my nesting ambitions are thwarted and the next few weeks will be interesting as eating out becomes less a casual luxury and more the only option. As I navigate these challenges while acknowledging the privilege I have as a Canadian here temporarily, I can’t help but wonder how people in other parts of the country are coping and why there isn’t any sizeable amount of international outrage, pressure on the Indian Government and a saturation of media coverage of this crisis that is threatening the lives of millions of children. I wonder whether the world would react differently if this was taking place in any other country not surrounded on all sides by two of the Asia’s superpowers

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Links:

  1. http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2015/11/26/the-two-month-blockade-of-nepal-explained/
  2. http://blog.com.np/2015/12/10/a-controlled-indian-blockade-on-nepal-bbc-report/
  3. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/gallery/2015/dec/19/nepal-fuel-crisis-winter-earthquake-hit-areas-in-pictures

 

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