a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Friday, 28 September 2012

Kathmandu: A city awaiting disaster

I had my latest blogpost all planned.  It was going to be about how fascinated I used to be when I was little by the names of fantastical-sounding places like Timbuktu, Kathmandu, Ougadougou, and Limpopo.  I would talk about how I'd assumed that they weren't real places at all, given their wild and wonderful nomenclature, but were instead literary creations like Narnia or Shangri-La.  Then I would blither on about how I wanted to confirm their existence for myself to prove they were real by visiting them, and that's why I now find myself in Kathmandu.  But that was before this morning.

This morning, while everyone back in London was still fast asleep, a little plane filled with British and Chinese tourists bound for the Himalayas, and staffed by Nepalese cabin crew, crashed mere minutes out of Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal.  Still to be confirmed, the likely cause was the collision of the plane with a large bird, possibly an eagle.  Moments later the plane caught fire and the pilot attempted an emergency landing in an open patch of land by the Manohara River, not far from a slum area on the outskirts of the city.  But by the time it hit the ground locals could do nothing more than watch in horror as the plane burnt in front of them.  Fire crews took some time to arrive on the scene, and no one could approach the plane in the meanwhile due to the heat coming off the blaze.  Everyone on board died.

And that is really why I am here.  Not because the name of the place sounds exotic and magical, not even because I love to travel and explore new places.  I am here in the city to work with humanitarian and development organisations trying to sure up this mountainous country; trying to make it more resilient to the disasters which happen all too often here and with all too grim effects. 
 
I knew very little of Nepal before I landed here.  I knew there were mountains and temples and yaks and prayer flags.  I had been told it was rather similar to India.  And it's true, it is quite similar.  But over the past few days I have found myself more enchanted with Nepal than India.  Even Kathmandu, described by the Nepali guy sat next to me as we descended into the city's international airport as 'not very nice, very dirty, many people', is oddly charming, despite the odd pong of raw sewage and terrifying traffic. 
Sure, the water here positively fizzes with evil bacterial energy and walking down the road is an exercise in human survival/stupidity.  And yes, electric wires hang like charged knots of spaghetti on groaning pylons or simply nailed to the side of a residential block covered in vast structural cracks.  But there are no ubiquitous skyscrapers, no branches of Starbucks.  The mid-rise buildings are painted jolly candy shades of blue, orange and pink.  Whilst there is clearly a tourist industry it feels less commercially exploitative; Nepal is a pretty cheap holiday destination.  The reception here is warm without the slightly threatening over-commitment to service I encountered in India earlier this year.  Hotel or restaurant staff do not look deeply affronted when you inform them that really, you don't need anything at all, you're just fine, thanks. 
 
Nepalis must be some of the smiliest people I have ever had the delight to meet.  Which is remarkable when you think that they live in a country with appallingly low levels of healthcare, where women are still regarded as somewhat inferior to men, and where an enormous, destructive earthquake is many years overdue in the most populated region, a heaving concentration of poorly engineered buildings and infrastructure and human life.  This is a country waiting for 'the big one'.  Should an earthquake of a significant magnitude hit the Kathmandu Valley, the ensuing disaster could rival Haiti in terms of lives lost and damage caused.  And the country knows this. 
The government of Nepal - still in a state of limbo following the Maoist uprising that ended mere years ago, and a complete lack of a national parliament and constitution - is placing huge importance on disaster preparedness and risk reduction.  This week I had a meeting in a building that, ironically, looked deeply un-earthquake-proof, where the Ministry of Home Affairs outlined how it was not only creating policy (even if actually implementing it was rather a challenge) but actively supporting the development of practical actions, with a range of partners including numerous Red Cross societies, NGOs and UN agencies.  Nepal may not be entirely ready when disaster strikes but at least it is aware, and desperately trying to make itself safer.
 
This morning's plane crash was horrific - a tragic, pointless waste of 19 lives.  Coming so soon after last week's avalanche on Mount Manaslu - another fatal event within the country - the crash marks a very sad week for Nepal's tourism industry, and the country's iconic mountains.  But much as the vast snow-capped peaks loom over the country, so too does the threat of an even larger disaster.  And the million or so people living in Nepal's capital city live daily with this uncomfortable spectre.  Kathmandu may be the most dangerous place I've ever been. 

11 comments:

  1. Had no idea you were in situ! Vivid account of the state of this nation and enlightening to hear it first-hand with no attempt to embellish the truth.
    Great post.

    LCM x

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    1. Thanks, LCM! I've learnt a lot about this country over the past two weeks...there's a lot more to Nepal than I ever realised. (Pretty pleased to be back home now though!)

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  2. Glad to see that you are alive and posting. I had more than a moment's concern when I read the news this morning.

    Air travel in Nepal is pretty scary, but road travel may be as dangerous. I hope whoever's making your transport arrangements has something reliable lined-up for you.

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    1. Alive, posting, and now safely home.

      The roads in Nepal were similarly terrifying, you were right. We were hugely lucky to have a magnificent driver who safely negotiated the terrifying cliff-top tracks, Kathmandu traffic jams and stray cows. Not somewhere to drive at night though...shall actually be pleased to be back home at the mercy of Transport for London once more.

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  3. Great post and so relieved to hear you are safe. It is quite something to be at the heart of a disaster; thank you for sharing your observations.

    Such beautiful writing as well, I especially loved the fifth paragraph (which I devoured).
    x
    CoD
    http://givemecool.blogspot.co.uk/

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    1. Thanks, lovely! I can only imagine what it would be like to really experience the disaster of an earthquake in this city...even worse knowing that it could happen any minute. I'm rather pleased to be back in London, where the earthquake risk is way less worrying!

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  4. Wow! You were there! Stay safe! I have never been to Nepal and I have to say that what has happened doesn't really make it my priority destination. It looks like you can't be stopped!

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    1. I would highly recommend Nepal as a holiday destination, Muriel...plenty of gorgeous scenery, lots of opportunities for extreme sports, and still wonderfully cheap. But there's nothing very relaxing about knowing that there might be a massive earthquake or a landslide at any minute...maybe you'd be better off sticking with Bali!

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  5. It's really quite an experience when you visit a place as volatile and exhilarating as this, at once full of promise but on the brink of chaos or ruin or disaster. Most of my experiences came from places I've lived in or near in South Africa or Nigeria but I've had it travelling too. I really think your work sounds interesting!

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  6. Nicely written piece,like a Shakespearean romantic tragedy...some sweet romanticism of the place..and harsh realities! As they say in Nepal...Pashupatinath le raksha garun (May Lord Pashupati protect us)...and suprisingly,we havent had big damages despite some big'ish earthquare in recent! But it can be worse!

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    1. It's just so worrying watching the city waiting for something awful to happen. And knowing that, given the way the city has developed, there's so little that can actually be done to reduce the risk. I cross my fingers that something or someone intervenes to keep this wonderful city safe!

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