As we approach our two year anniversary living here in Nepal, I am determined to restart writing and actively reflecting on our experiences. Many of you have gently inquired, jokingly commented and sincerely missed our routine blog posts. The precise reason for the long gap is nearly impossible to pinpoint, but I’ll do my best to explain…
Year #1 in Nepal was blissful. All experiences, friends, incidents, sights, sounds and tastes were new and novel. It was the ‘honeymoon phase’. We were blessed with a smooth and seamless transition into life in Asia, thanks to an incredible school, supportive employer, devoted household helpers, cheerful friends and a relatively simple way of life (cycling as primary mode of transportation, fresh food diet and ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ atmosphere). Personally, delving into new activities like mountain biking and learning Nepali tremendously recharged me. Similarly, the kids thrived in school and picked up new hobbies (crochet, sitar, football / soccer and singing). And for Prakash, seeing and smelling a variety of air pollution sources every single day inspired his work at ICIMOD.
Year #2 has been strikingly different. The earthquake (April 25, 2015), our first home-leave visit as expats (July 2015) and unofficial embargo (September 2015 – February 2016) supplied us with countless challenges and growth opportunities…
The earthquake shook my whole world. My family, home, household helpers and close friends were all okay, but still I was shocked and paralyzed mentally and emotionally. Perhaps, it is like any other tragedy or life-altering challenge (natural disaster or accident, death of a loved one, divorce, parenthood), you never really know how you will truly ‘be’ in the situation until you actually experience it first-hand. The initial earthquake and the 450+ aftershocks simply threw my life out of balance, literally and figuratively. I stopped mountain biking, jogging and walking (felt disrespectful to tramp through areas of destruction for recreation), stopped learning (felt like now just isn’t the right time to enrich myself when neighbors are suffering with inadequate shelter, food and water) and stopped writing (all reflections seemed like complaints).
Many of my thoughts resembled ‘survivors guilt’… we had power restored four days after the quake (others received power after several weeks), we received a tanker-truck delivery of water at our house five days after the quake (locals waited over two months for the government water supply to be restored), our house had a few cracks but was completely safe to live in (millions of people were displaced from their homes), and our kids’ school reopened four days after the quake (local schools reopened after more than two months). We had SO much to be thankful for, yet I still felt tremendously saddened. In that state of mind, writing and reflecting just didn’t come naturally to me.
Two months after the earthquake, we made our first visit back home since moving abroad. I didn’t realize how mentally, emotionally and physically difficult a trip home could be. We jam packed our four-week visit primarily with seeing all our loved ones and purchasing essentials and nonessentials unavailable in Nepal. The nonstop schedule coupled with living out of a suitcase explained the physical difficulties. The mental and emotional adversities are a bit harder to describe. It felt very odd – like we had never left the USA, but mentally we knew we’d be returning to Nepal in just a few days. It was almost like an illusion for our hearts and minds. So much warmth, familiarity and coziness of our past life that we get a snapshot of, a quick taste, a short glimpse… Bittersweet it truly was…
And lastly, the bizarre political climate in Nepal over the last eight months also contributed to our blog hibernation. In September, Nepal adopted its first Constitution. Some northern states of India, where many Nepalis now live, were unhappy with particular clauses in the constitution due to inadequate representation of those living in the Terai or the lowlands of Nepal. Within days of the inauguration of the constitution, the border between India and Nepal closed. Petrol, diesel, LPG (cooking fuel), medicines and most atypical items that would normally have been delivered into the country by truck became scarce. Food supplies, surprisingly, remained fairly normal, however prices did increase.
The country was paralyzed all over again. After picking up the pieces post-quake, this was the last challenge most people and businesses were ready to deal with. Queues for gasoline lasted days; lines of parked cars littered roadways near all petrol pumps. Traffic subsided for a short while as people had no choice but to reduce their driving. However, after the black market kicked into high gear, traffic was back to normal (a 100npr liter of petrol sold for 400npr, equivalent to $14 per gallon, and a 1600npr cylinder of cooking fuel sold for up to 9000npr).
Lack of diesel for generators caused problems in hospitals, schools, businesses and homes. And the lack of cooking fuel made people resort to burn anything in order to cook. Those who couldn’t get gas, kerosene or firewood, ate beaten rice, a common product that doesn’t require cooking.
Many restaurants closed down because they had no cooking fuel. Those restaurants that could remain open created ‘Temporary Menus’ eliminating those items from the original menu that take too long to cook. Last but not least, surviving the cold indoor temperatures (~ 50 – 55 degrees Fahrenheit) with no LPG gas really made many feel like we had reached ‘rock bottom’.
For us, the closed borders caused discomfort and frustration, but our basic needs were still always met.
- After waiting three hours in a petrol queue in early November, I successfully managed to get twenty liters of petrol. And in February, Prakash received ten liters from ICIMOD. How we spread eight gallons over five months is mind-boggling even to me! We just stopped driving our car regularly… therefore didn’t use the car for errands or go out of the valley for our usual weekend hike or outing. We also avoided traveling within the country out of fear of inability to return home because of empty fuel tanks or canceled flights. In early March, I was able to get 35 liters of fuel… it felt like I just won the lottery! (We didn’t feel comfortable purchasing fuel on the black market because contributing to the corruption was unappealing and we had other available modes of transportation – walking, cycling and the ICIMOD bus for Prakash to get to/from work).
- We changed our cooking habits minimizing the use of gas (less chapattis, dosas, pizza or anything baked and more quick-cooking rice and lentils). At the peak of the crisis, we cooked rice and lentils outdoors using firewood and tea and vegetables were prepared on an electric induction cook stove. Gas was used at most once weekly for chapattis.
- We have two electric space heaters that we used when the electricity was on. We also have a woodstove in our dining room which we would use in the evenings for an hour or two. The high levels of emissions from the wood burning prevented us from burning more frequently.
- To maximize body heat, we all slept in the same room. We placed one queen-size bed and two twin-size beds pushed together (equivalent of a king-size bed) in our smallest room. Each night it was like a game of ‘musical chairs’ to see who sleeps in which spot! A mountain of fleece, down and flannel blankets kept us reasonably warm throughout the night.
- Bathing was difficult. The air in the bathroom was very cold and the solar-heated water just wasn’t very hot. In many parts of the world, bathing is a daily ritual. Not the case in wintery Nepal… It just isn’t necessary or practical. While bathing, it was so cold that steam emanated off our bodies just like steam from a hot cup of tea! We’d generally bathed once or twice per week… that is it.
Overall, circumstances tried our patience so much, we started strategizing how we could leave this country as quickly as possible (the opening of the border and thawing winter temperatures have alleviated our urgent desire to escape)!
But… Surprisingly… Nepalis generally handled the embargo with significant peace and patience. Embarrassingly, our family who enjoys tremendous expat privileges, seemed more frustrated and unhappy about our circumstances than many others. In general, people were upset, but in a peaceful manor. Lessons this amazing country taught us in the last few months – graceful acceptance and undying gratitude – will hopefully stay with us lifelong.
The borders officially reopened in February yet supplies are taking time to restore to normal levels. Another lesson we learned early on here in Nepal – things take time! Our standard American values of diligence, timeliness, punctuality and efficiency just doesn’t translate here.
I must also mention the basic human tendency of ‘habit’. I simply fell out of the habit of writing and actively reflecting. The momentum required to restart a good habit is so much greater than that required to continue an existing one. Our imminent two-year anniversary living here in Nepal is the driving force to revive the blog…
Thus, a lengthy explanation for the hibernation of Five in the Foothills and a hope that Year#3 brings several new flavors to this grand adventure…