Our various boxes and trunks all arrived in Kathmandu by 22 December, so we were able to unpack our holiday kit in time and decorate a corner of our new living room for our celebration – with a local red bougainvillea bush standing in for the more traditional Christmas conifer!
Kathmandu is much changed from when Fiona and Joel were children here. Back then, there were still rice fields between many of the houses, and you didn’t have to travel far to find open green spaces. Now the city (home to a million people, with at least three times that many in the greater Kathmandu Valley) is so densely built up that finding a house with a back garden is a challenge, and the urban sprawl extends to the edges of the Valley. The air is smoggier than ever, especially during this cold season when people heat their homes with wood fires and there’s no rain to clear the sky. Our lungs have definitely felt it – it took weeks for us all to recover from the colds and coughs we brought from Britain.
Many other changes in the last 25 years have of course been positive. It’s far easier to access many services than it was in our childhoods, from health care to water quality tests to the internet. Mobile phones and new roads have brought rural areas that seem impossibly remote into regular contact with the rest of the country. Nepali Christians (and other minority faiths) were harassed and persecuted when we were growing up here; now they are free to worship throughout the country, and the Nepali church is vibrant and inspiring. The profound warmth, courtesy, hospitality and friendliness of the Nepali people remain unchanged, as does their deep affection for children.
And while much of Nepal’s glorious natural beauty is hard to see through the haze of Kathmandu, we enjoyed reacquainting ourselves with it during a short post-Christmas breather in a nearby hill town called Nagarkot.
Joel recalls a trip up there as a four year-old and being shown Mount Everest through a telescope. On this visit, Caleb saw his first sunrise there, with the sun coming up just a few peaks away from Everest. Our days there were a wonderful chance to catch our breath as a family after the marathon of moving.
Both our sons have so far done really well in their transition to Nepal. Not least, they’ve already acquired a taste for two Nepali staple foods: momos (steamed dumplings, usually filled with buffalo meat or chicken) and dal bhat (rice with lentils), as well as the “Nitti-Gritti” multi-grain porridge that Fiona and Joel remember fondly from childhood breakfasts.
They enjoy ambling around our neighbourhood (Isaac preferably pushing his little dolls’ buggy, much to the neighbours’ amusement) and have already befriended several children living nearby. Caleb regularly tells us how much he loves it here, and while he misses friends and family overseas, it helps to be able to Skype with them and see their faces – another thing that was unthinkable when we were kids!
We’ve continued to hunt for green spaces where the kids can run freely, and found some lovely options, including the National Botanical Gardens in Godavari.
Earthquake and Blockade
We’ve also, sadly, been seeing and hearing the effects of the many disasters that struck Nepal in 2015. The earthquakes of April and May didn’t hit Kathmandu itself as hard as the worst predictions had led us to fear; most of the buildings built in the last 40-odd years stayed up, including some unbalanced-looking ones that Joel was slightly surprised to see still intact after his 2014 visit. Many of the cracks (in streets and buildings) have by now been filled in, the rubble piles cleared away, the garden walls rebuilt.
We know that out in the rural areas, however, many villages were flattened, and far too many of the survivors are still living in tents and makeshift shelters through the winter. Some held off on rebuilding their houses because they were told that would make them ineligible for official reconstruction assistance – which has yet to arrive. We’re looking forward to getting more directly involved with UMN’s rebuilding programme when we finish our initial months of Nepali language study and cultural orientation.
But the greater disaster, in many respects, is the ongoing closure of the India-Nepal border. Nepal is a landlocked country, and relies almost entirely on India for trade goods. The two countries are currently at odds over several provisions of Nepal’s new constitution, and India has lent support to protests by alienated southern Nepalis, shutting off trade across the border.
The results of this blockade are most visible when it comes to fuel. Petrol and diesel queues at the official pumps can last for days; there’s a booming, tolerated black market in (often adulterated) vehicle fuel. To keep public buses on the road, the laws prohibiting passengers on the roof racks have been suspended for the duration of the crisis, and nearly every bus we see has dozens of people perched precariously up top. The most recent price we heard for a cylinder of cooking gas was 9000 rupees (about £57), in a city where vast numbers of people won’t earn that much in a month. The price of many daily goods, foods, and medicines has also shot up, pushing innumerable Nepalis back (or deeper) into poverty.
The economic damage from the border blockade is already estimated to be higher than the damage from the April earthquakes, because it affects the entire country (rather than the fifth that was shaken by the quakes). As UMN director Mark Galpin said at the office Christmas celebration, 2015 has been a year of extraordinary hardship for Nepal; we can all pray that 2016 will be a year of extraordinary recovery.