NEPAL~ The Battered Wife ~ Sad Letter (March 10, 2013)

Comparing Nepal 1988 & 2013. Temple visits with Tibetans.

Visiting Nepal after a 25 year hiatus, I felt as if I was returning to find a battered wife, one I’d left long ago when she was a beautiful, fragile young woman.

When I arrived in Nepal in 1988, on my way home from Japan, I wrote this sentence home to friends,
“If only for 15 minutes, everyone in the world should visit Nepal.”
Thuli, Mulkharta village
The airport 25 years ago was a simple Quonset hut.  Even before I arrived in Kathmandu, I was introduced to Nepal’s poverty, as Nepal Airlines had only two aircraft in those days.  One flew and the other was in constant repair, while passengers, already checked in, waited in a decrepit airlines-owned hotel in Bangkok, lukewarm, murky water in the swimming pool. 

Thinking today of the sleek, slick, security-sacrosanct airports of the world, it’s nostalgic to remember getting off that shaky airplane when it finally landed in Kathmandu, happy to be alive, walking across the tarmac, and digging through the luggage pile that had been hurled into the single room to find my backpack.

Sensory exhilaration.  Stepping outside the airport, every sense was bombarded.  In one single minute, I experienced more exotic colors, smells, and sounds than I’d ever felt in my life.  I stood amazed, savoring it, breathing it, captivated by it.  University women wore school uniforms (sulwar kurta) that were pants and overblouses of many different colors, while other women walked about in a vibrant rainbow of saris.  Men had Nehru hats and baggy trousers (daura surawal).  The smells nearly threw me to my feet – curries, corianders, garlics, gingers, mints, lavenders, yarrows, boiling milk tea and salt tea, fresh mountain streams, meat cooking, all laced with a faint aroma of human and animal sewage.  Still just minutes outside the little airport, I could see rows of open shops selling everything a human hand could make – wooden kitchen utensils, square packs of tea, piles of pali (bread), buckets of hand-cut gravel, canisters of hand-pounded nails.  Tiny children ran about, often wearing a little shirt but no bottoms, with older children in tow, looking after them, while mothers washed clothes in gutters, sold piles of vegetables in the market, or gathered firewood in the woods near the river.

That minute in Kathmandu made me realize I’d lived my life in a sensory-starved world.  After a week of walking from shop to shop, making my own trekking arrangements, finding a guide and renting a sleeping bag at a day price, I and eight fellow Italian-Australian backpackers headed in a rickety bus over a dirt road to Pokhara, gateway to the Himalayas, where roads ended and miles and miles of walking paths, Nepal’s highways, began.
Nepal's magnificent mountains and multi-layer terraced hills
I’d held and nurtured that image since 1988 – Nepal as a Wild West version of Norway – spectacular peaks in all directions – Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Everest -- connected by rustic tea houses and one room schools, often with a single text book and 100 children.

Kathmandu traffic:  What's worse, the chaos or the clouds of exhaust?
Nepal in 2013 had zoomed along on a highway of Third World progress.  The post-monarchy government is China-friendly, and Chinese-factory-made plastic goods – pails, buckets, motor cycles, televisions – tumbled out of stores and supermarkets.  Streets coughed up diesel and cycle exhaust so thick that many people wore masks over their mouths.  Even after 25 years of tree planting and cook stove projects by NGOs, women still burned with wood, so smoke thickened the air.  I was shocked to see the beautiful green hills around the city now had mean clear-cut patches.  Trucks trundled from the forests to the cities, carrying lumber with thick trunks looking as if they’d been hand-hacked from old growth forests.

The paved road to Pokhara, once a full day's bone rattling bounce, was now a 5-hour video game-come-to-life of trucks rushing head-long toward one another then veering at the last minute, motor cycles passing on thin edges of highway, and all traffic following that Third World rule of “anything goes, just don’t hit or get hit.”  I took  photos enroute of tangled city wiring.

Electricity for the 40% of Nepal that gets it is at least on a schedule.  You can look at a scrap of paper posted in hotels, houses, and restaurants to see that yes, it will go on at 7 am today, be off at 10 am, and then you’ll have to wait until 7 pm for another couple hours.  Rolling black-outs.  Maybe the shops across the street will be all lit up, but you’d better have your computer, your cell phone, and your camera all charged, your candle and flash light handy, otherwise you’ll  stumble.

Nepal is way ahead of other cities, though, with extensive solar lighting in place.  The minute the electricity goes off, solar lights, dim and few though they are, come on.  Life barely pauses.  People go about their cooking and shopping and temple visiting in the dark, a candle here, a solar light there.

It is one thing to read about global warming and to hear about thousands of acres of tropical forests being plundered to make way for cattle, fields, firewood, Japanese chopsticks and IKEA furniture.  It is another to stand at the edge of a highway and see it, smell it, hear it.

Everyone my age and older remembers quieter streams, more open fields, and more lush forests in our own home towns.  And we’ve all been shocked to go back to childhood places years later and not recognize them.  In poorer countries like Nepal, however, the hunger for progress is pulsating, throbbing, pounding.  Machines tear away the earth to build high rises.  No one clears away the rubble of the buildings demolished.  Kathmandu citizens throw their garbage into rivers flowing straight down from most pristine mountain steams  in the world.

As I looked at the chaos, I asked, horrified,“Isn't anyone in charge here?”

Taking on Nepal's garbage. At a roadside stop, there was so much garbage strewn by a little bus stop with benches that I started picking it up, putting it in a cardboard box.  My travel companions yelled, “Leave it, Madeline.  Leave it!  It’s dirty.”  I ignored them and filled two boxes with potato chip wrappers, gum wrappers, candy wrappers, Pepsi bottles, and aging plastic bags.  When I finished – everyone just watching me disapprovingly – I glanced over the side of a drop-off and saw a veritable sea of the same – cardboard boxes liked the one I’d just filled with travelers’ debris blown across vast fields.  A moment of genuine despair, hopelessness.

Piles of garbage in Mulkharta village are tossed down the hills into the river below.
But landfills cost millions, and need systems of city pick-up, and more importantly, taxes, to support them.  And how do you collect taxes if people don’t have jobs?

And how do I, who can fly blithely around the world and have a car and a washer and dryer, tell poor people who badly want these things that they are problematic.  I can think of solutions to the garbage dilemma – starting with each individual person putting her own garbage into a proper place.  But it’s harder to think of solutions to the human desire for things wrapped in plastic – TVs, stereos, cell phones, computers, iPods.  I kept reminding myself that Nepal’s garbage is just a tiny fraction of my own country’s vast mountains of daily discards. 

View enroute to Chumay Chungchup Temple, several hours outside Kathmandu
The old Nepal of my dreams.  At last I got away from Kathmandu and Pokhara and farther up into the mountains.  There I found the old Nepal of my dreams.  Fresh mountain air, terraced fields, vast forests, smiling, engaging people on walking paths.

Just as 25 years ago, however, human beings toiled as beasts of burden, carrying firewood, hay, electrical wire, and bottles of beer piled high on their backs.  Average income is $1,000/year;  I believe in 1988 it was about $600/year, then as now with great disparities between rich and poor.

A bicycle is as good as a truck for deliveries
Women carrying firewood & cornstalks for water buffalo, Shivapari-Nagarju Nat'l Park

Norbu, monk at Thrangu Tashi Yangsu Monastery, laughed when I said I liked his hat.
He's completed 7 of his 15 years of study there.

Sherpa family in Shivapari-Nagarju National Park invited us to tea 

Nepal's holy places.  I was traveling with 12 Tibetans, on a Mecca-like holy trip to the most famous Buddhist temples in Nepal.  Every temple seemed built atop a mountain, where hundreds of monks peacefully studied, prayed, and played soccer, seemingly unconcerned about the lack or pace of development  in the valleys below.  For the older Tibetans in our group, who began each day with mumbled prayers, this was a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.  In case you think temple visiting an easy activity, let me inform you that we were busy  At every single temple, we lit candles, spun prayer wheels, drank holy water, breathed in incense, gave coins to beggars, fed grain to pigeons, fed bread to carp, sighted monkeys, dropped coins in the donation box,  climbed hundreds of ancient stone steps, touched holy stones, asked for the blessing of lamas. We wrote our prayers on prayer flags and suspended them from the highest trees, sending our hopes skyward.
Choesom spins prayer wheel, monks hold service, Swayambu Temple

Migmar lights candles at Thrangu Tashi Temple

I part with a few Nepali rupees and receive blessings from a man at temple gate

Lhadon gets ready to add our prayer flags at the a site

Flags at Chumay Chungchup Hindu / Buddhist Temple, several hours from Khatmandu
Prayer flags at site of old Swanyambu Temple

Prayer place (Jamp samptso) at Jampeling Tibetan Refugee Settlement, Pokhara
The battered wife is a metaphor for the soiled progress of countries I traveled through 25 years ago, and a painful reminder of my own – and most other people's  -- waste, carelessness and less-than-admirable devotion to environmental principles, while the prayer flags bear my  -- and our - hopes and dreams for this world we share, fluttering in winds of possibility.

Madeline Uraneck
Kathmandu, March 10, 2013


  1. When I traveled to Nepal in the late 70s I thought it was the country highest on my list for re-visiting. (Tho even then the view of Kathmandu from the surrounding hills was through a veil of smog.) Now, not at all as brave as Maddy, I wouldn't visit again. As I look around Madison parks, I see little litter but I know this is just surface--we are busy polluting in large and significant ways--you just can't see it.

  2. May the grace that is of the gods cast a welcomed cloud over your journeys...

  3. Hi Madeline,
    Environmental consciousness is relatively new in the USA. I remember the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 having a profound affect on signage. EPA has only been around since 1970. Before that, you would need to hold your breath if you were driving through Gary, Indiana in a similar manner as you write about in Kathmandu.

    Smelling the exhaust fumes from vehicles and motorbikes which do not meet EPA standards and are not imported into the USA can be eye opening.

    However, just as in the USA, the environmental consciousness of the native population demanded change, so too will change only come through grass roots efforts by the population of during formative years.

    Personally, given the choice between outhouses, and 80 dollar a month income with friendly natives, and what we have in this country with all our government agencies, I think I, like you, would prefer the primitive life.


  4. In 25 years..... Do you think people were happier with the way things are or were? Progress seems to be overrated , yet is the progress actually making things better for the people that live there?
    Great blog Maddy, looking forward to reading your new posts ,and catching up with you on your old posts.

  5. Madeline,
    Again I am blessed to have met you on our trip to China. I love your letters, even those that are hard to read. Stay safe, be well and know you always have a friend in Vermont.

    Gail Kilkelly

  6. Hi Madeline,
    Your letters inspired me through my Peace Corps application process and subsequent service. I arrived at the same cross-roads about how to reconcile promoting conservation to the impoverished who struggle for their daily bread as they destroy the the environment...truly there is no easy answer when it seems they are doing the dirty work of the 1st world.


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~ Madeline