I’ve been on a writing hiatus for the last five months. Actually, not really a hiatus, but what with graduate school applications, report writeups, and grant research, extra writing was the last thing on my list. But all the applications are finished, the holidays are winding down, and the Moravek family is holed up at the ranch in a snowstorm. Perfect time for an update.
I visit Basantapur Durbar Square for Dashami, the 10th day of Dasai. Following the crowd of people, I stumble upon a water buffalo sacrifice. One man pulls the tail while another holds the horns of the calf, and a third man waits, holding a giant sacrificial knife. It takes ten minutes to secure the calf, and then in one fell swoop, the knife falls. The men pull the head into the temple to honor the goddess Durga. The body, still twitching, is dragged to the side and left in a pool of blood.
Escaping the dust and bustle of Kathmandu, I embark upon my first solo trek to Mardi Himal base camp. The trail feels easy and my legs feel strong. I’ve finally mastered the art of taking Diamox (altitude medication) at the right time (10,000 feet) and staying hydrated exactly the right amount. My pack is light enough to run parts of the trail. On “base camp day”, I decide to leave at 4 am and try to catch sunrise. Bad idea. I am the only person in the dark on a scantily marked trail in a thick rhododendron forest. Think Lord of the Rings Fangorn Forest. I cried a little. But I did not turn back, and sunrise on the trail to base camp was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever witnessed.
Tihar. The Holiday of Light, this Nepali holiday reminds me most of Christmas. I go with my friend Sudeep to Chitwan and spend the holiday with his family. His sister gives me a soft pink kurta, and then brothers and sisters bless each other by drawing lines of rainbow colors on our foreheads. We exchange gifts of nuts and dried fruits, and hajurama makes a giant pile of celroti (my favorite sweet Nepali snack).
Gatlang #4. Our final wrap up trip. A crew of six from the WCN office accompany Mohan and me. We hang a giant bilingual poster about Pravati Kunda. I present the results of our water quality study to the village committee. They are very interested (although my foreign accent is so strange to them Mohan must repeat most of what I say). We climb around Parvati Kunda searching for pika, the small rabbit relative that lives in rocky talus fields in the mountains. Didi gives me chiyapati, her name for the woody stem of a plant that tastes like tea when boiled, and tells me I am like her daughter.
I fly home. We take my suitcase straight to the dry cleaners to eradicate any lasting bedbugs. It’s hard to get dressed in the morning because I have too many clothes to choose from. I must remember to drive on the right. I have to patiently wait my turn in line instead of pushing to the front.
I walk into X-Sport for a gym membership. The double-level gym, with TVs lining the walls, blaring music, and an over-priced shake bar, shocks me more than anything so far. I practically run out of the building without signing up.
My baby cousin Grace is two years old now, and knows my parents as “the people with the kitty cats”. She runs in circles around our house but is a little unsure about me.
We visit grandma for Thanksgiving dinner, and despite being 92 years old and confused about many things, she still beats us all at Scrabble.
Mom and I visit Colorado for a week. As we traverse I-80 from Chicago to Colorado, I marvel at the absolute flatness of the landscape. Fields of corn and soy for miles and miles, sometimes punctuated by tall white windmills or remote farms, are such a contrast to Nepal. The Rockies are not as disappointing as I expect. Unlike the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains are accessible. You can hike or even drive to the top of some of them, and so we do.
As much as I complain about the monotony of dal bhat, I find myself craving Nepali food. I visit the local “Taste of the Himalayas” Nepali restaurant several times. The Nepali waiters almost fall over in shock when a white girl in St. Charles introduces herself with “Ke chha hal khaber dai?”, and the wait staff tends to find reasons to pass our table more often than necessary.
Donning hard hats and fluorescent vests, dad takes Eve and I up the unfinished 151 North Franklin building and we catch the most beautiful Sears Tower sunset I’ve ever seen.
In physical therapy, I focus on stretching and strengthening. My left leg is still significantly weaker than the right. But I graduate from the stationary bike, to the elliptical, to the stair-stepper, and finally treadmill. I am more thrilled for treadmill running than I’ve ever been.
Josie gets her tonsils out right before Christmas, and we feed her Gerber’s baby food. It snows all day Christmas Eve, and we give freshly baked sugar cookies to the snowplow guy. Christmas is quiet, but we are happy to be all together.
Post-Christmas. Josie’s tonsils rupture and she looks like a vampire, spitting blood into the bathroom sink. After a trip to the emergency room, she is much better. The whole family watches a lot of basketball on TV.
New Years Eve. Mom and Dad and I go out for tacos and see “Murder on the Orient Express” in theatres and see fireworks on the way home. New Years Day is the Gantzert holiday gathering. Nineteen family members are there. GG plays a raucous game of Uno with her great grandchildren and beats us in Scrabble again.
We visit Grace again and she shows me her bedroom with her Disney princess dolls. She whispers “thank you for giving me Kitty” (her favorite stuffed animal) and cuddles with dad on the couch.
The days at home drain away too quickly. Mom and I go through her fossil collection with the goal of getting rid of them…but instead, we make plans for a new collection trip in August. Dad and I see a bald eagle in downtown St. Charles and we follow it for twenty minutes.
This time at home was like a breath of fresh air. I head to the airport feeling refreshed, healthy, happy, and very, very loved.
“Hello! Just got back to Kathmandu. I have some bad news. Your sleeping bag got infested by bed bugs and then attacked by a mouse. It’s un-salvageable.…” -- Message to my friend Eve upon our return from Dolpa.
I would not say that our 16-day Dolpa trek went smoothly. But sometimes, the best adventures are borne from mishaps.
The easiest way to reach lower Dolpa is to fly from Kathmandu to Nepalganj, and then take a smaller plane from Nepalganj to the tiny Juphal airport. However, a week before our trek, the Juphal airport closed indefinitely for construction. They were paving the runway, which tells you something about the size of the Juphal airport.
Undeterred, we got on a 24-hour bus from Kathmandu to Rukkum, then switched to a jeep. Eight hours later, we reached a large river that could only be crossed on foot, and switched to another jeep. Jeep 2 looked like it would fall apart at the seams, but it successfully took us to Thallu Bagar, a riverside town, where we secured a spot in another jeep for the next day.
In the dirty roadside hotel, we felt lucky to get a room with a bed. But a few days later we would be dismayed to find ourselves covered in bedbug bites, which fully infested our clothes, tent, and luggage until we reached a dry cleaner in Kathmandu two weeks later.
We finally reached the end of the jeep road. Then we walked on an in-progress “road” that was more of a ledge hacked into a cliff. To widen the trail, workers climb to the top of the cliff and drill holes with jackhammers, which the army fills with dynamite to blast away the solid rock. The army wasn’t blasting when we went by, but the drillers were drilling. They knocked loose rocks that tumbled past the trail and into the rushing river 50 feet below, scaring us into a run whenever we heard jackhammers rumbling to life above us.
We spent the night in Samdua, where the only place to pitch our tent was a flat stone roof. The achar in Samdua was the most delicious I have ever had, and only after eating four servings did I discover it was made from cannabis seed. Later that night, in the tent on the roof, it became clear that it was strong and fresh cannabis seed. Let’s leave it at that.
The next day, after three hours of walking and a 2-hour jeep ride (jeep number 4, now), we reached the entrance to Shey Phoksundo National Park. The climate and terrain felt like Utah, except the landscape was simply…greater. The river was bluer, the gorge was deeper, and the soil was redder than anywhere I have seen in North America. We lollygagged on the trail, stopping to soak our feet in the river and take pictures of flowers.
As the clouds rolled in we pitched our tent in the campground at Chepka. I woke up at 4:30 am with water on my face—our tent was leaking in the rain. From then on, we had to arrange the tent fly just so to keep water out, but often still felt damp after a rainstorm.
After Chepka, we spent a night in Recchi and then hiked toward Shey Phoksundo lake itself. We pitched our tent on the shores of the lake that night, and woke up to sparkling blue waters. Known for being the deepest lake in Nepal, Shey Phoksundo was allegedly formed when an enchantress became angry with the villagers and cast down the mountains around them, blocking the Phoksundo river and creating the great blue lake.
After resting for a day at the lake, visiting the local monastery, making friends with some yaks, and unsuccessfully attempting to de-bedbug our sleeping bags, we headed towards Lasa Meadow. About an hour after the village of Pugmo, we left the trees and passed into high alpine meadows, which were filled with countless species of colorful wildflowers. For several hours, we walked along a ledge high above a river gorge that was just steep enough to be scary but shallow enough to harbor thousands of flowers.
A green, dramatic saddle high above the confluence of two rivers, Lasa Meadow offered a welcome resting place. We set up the tent and weighed it down with rocks, then I crossed the meadow to look over the cliff at the river while Sudeep scouted the next day’s trail. A minute later I looked up to see the wind lift the tent 10 feet in the air, and then roll it end over end like a rouge Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon—straight towards me and the 100-foot drop off to the river. I sprinted towards the tent and jumped for it, praying I wouldn’t miss. Luckily, I flopped on top of it, and lugged it against the wind back to the campsite.
The next day we hiked over Kaagmara pass—“the place where crows die”. At 5,115 meters (16,780 feet), it is about 2,280 feet higher than any point in the contiguous United States, and the highest I have ever been. Eventually we climbed so high that the pass and the surrounding peaks were shrouded in mist. The GPS watch said 5,100, but where were the prayer flags? We were so close, had to be close…then finally a mound of stones appeared out of the mist, covered in ragged flags and the skull of a long-dead Himalayan sheep. A few pictures later, we started the long climb down.
The next several days it rained, and we were tired of our leaky tent, but hotels were hard to find. It was the tail end of Yarsagumba season in Dolpa, and lodges were filled with Yarsagumba hunters or bags of Yarsagumba themselves, guarded by police officers. Yarsagumba are caterpillars (specifically, ghost moth larvae) that become infected by the fungus Ophiocordyceps sinesis, which grows through the caterpillar’s heads and kills them. The dead, dried caterpillar-fungus, which looks like a caterpillar-unicorn, can only be found from 3,500 to 5,000 meters in eastern Tibet and northern regions of Nepal, especially Dolpa, and are collected May through June. Why are these such a big deal? The fungus-caterpillars are a popular form of traditional medicine in Nepal, Tibet, and China, believed to cure diseases, add years to one’s life, and act as natural Viagra. One caterpillar can sell for up to $15 on the Chinese market. I don’t know about the health benefits, but I must say, Yarsagumba -infused rice wine mixed with local honey was better than any fancy cocktail I’ve ever had.
Since hotels were filled with Yarsagumbas, we crashed in someone’s spare room one night. The bottom of my sleeping bag was attacked by a mouse, but I was so exhausted I didn’t even feel it. Rest In Peace, Eve’s sleeping bag.
Somewhere along the trail, perhaps from the Yarsagumba -wine or maybe a spoiled egg, I got food poisoning that required many emergency bathroom breaks. And then, in between bathroom breaks, I cut my hand on a chainlink fence and bled enough that we headed straight to the clinic in Jumla for a tetanus shot in a local (read: dark and sketchy) pharmacy. Then we hired a jeep and took a bumpy 20-hour ride from Jumla to Nepalganj, and flew to Kathmandu. From there, we went straight to the dry cleaner, where we cleaned everything including the tent.
Dolpa is sometimes called the “Wild West” of Nepal. From jackhammers to jeeps to Yarsagumbas, it certainly remains wild and untamed. And check out those mountain pictures--every step of the way, the mountains reminded us that they are indifferent. Which makes them alluring, addicting, and always an adventure.
You didn’t think my trek was all fun and games, did you? Gatlang, the village in which I do my research, lies just outside Langtang National Park, and shares important cultural and economic ties to the areas I trekked in. Seeing the Langtang area from a tourist’s point of view gave me a better idea of what “development” and “earthquake rebuilding” means for Gatlang, which provided critical context for the Parvati Kunda project.
Gatlang lies just outside Langtang National Park, and it is not on the main trekking routes that go up the Langtang valley and to Gossaikunda. Rather, Gatlang is on the Tamang Heritage Trail, a lesser-known and less popular “cultural” route that hits villages mainly outside the park. Unlike villages in the Langtang valley, Gatlang is accessible by road, although the nearest bus station is a 1.5 hour walk away.
Gatlang fared badly during the earthquake. All structures in the village (mostly un-mortared stone houses, famous for their black, smoke-stained wooden roofs) were rendered uninhabitable. However, damage in Gatlang did not compare to Langtang Village, which was literally buried by a landslide. This is a Guardian article that mostly focuses on trekkers lost in Langtang during the earthquake, but also discusses what happened to villagers (warning: it’s hard to read).
Both Gatlang and Langtang Village can be compared to Barpak, a village located at the epicenter of the earthquake about 50 kilometers west of Gatlang as the crow flies. The captions and pictures in this photo project provide good descriptions for what the earthquake and subsequent rebuilding process has been like in many areas: hard-to-access villages, no government support (or, no government support without a bank account, but there are no banks), and semi-permanent tin-tarp-wood shacks in place of houses. The rebuilding process in Gatlang has been somewhat similar to that in Barpak. Even though Gatlang has a road, two years post-earthquake only 10 or 12 structures have been totally rebuilt. 85% of the population (total population is approximately 1,500 people) still lives in those tin-tarp-wood shacks. People worry that, if they aren’t able to rebuild their famous traditional houses and preserve their heritage, tourists will never return.
On the other hand, Langtang Village, even though it was completely wiped off the face of the earth, is far more advanced in the rebuilding process than either Barpak or Gatalng. There are at least 8 newly-built lodges open for business plus as many homes and other structures, and most are equipped with shiny new solar panels for hot water and solar batteries. It blew me away—knowing the terrible fate of Langtang Village and based on my experiences from Gatlang, I expected only rough and rudimentary lodging options. To my surprise, the lodge we stayed in at Langtang was one of the nicest facilities on the entire trek.
What is the difference in recovery progress between Barpak and Gatlang, which suffered severe but non-cataclysmic damage, and Langtang Village, which was completely wiped off the face of the earth? Tourist dollars. Langtang gets many times the number of foreign trekkers as Gatlang. Since government relief money has been absent or insufficient, and foreign relief agencies have mostly ducked out after immediate needs were satisfied (the earthquake was two years ago now), money brought in by foreigners is often the sole base of continued rebuilding projects.
Interestingly, even in Langtang Village, which has been extremely fortunate in the constant flux of wealthy trekkers (I do not in any way mean to discredit the suffering that Langtang Village experienced during the earthquake; I refer only to the rebuilding process), lodge owners complain that foreign tourism has been extremely low, down by some 85%, since the earthquake. It seems that post-quake, many foreigners are afraid to come to Nepal, and particularly afraid to visit Langtang National Park. I will hazard a guess that that heartbreaking Guardian article about Langtang Village, written less than a month after the quake, is a large part of the reason people fear Langtang. The article is extremely well-written and accurate—it was a terrible situation for foreign trekkers and Nepalis alike, and heartbreaking for their families. However, given that the Guardian is widely read, perhaps the article was a little too well-written. I suspect the lasting images from that article have continued to deter foreigners from visiting Langtang, despite follow-up articles.
Media is powerful, and perhaps what the Langtang region needs is another follow-up article, not about earthquake rebuilding but about the incredible beauty of Langtang. And especially for those of us who live and work in Nepal, disparity in the rebuilding process is critical context for understanding how to work within these communities. Before anything else, people need clean water, food, shelter, financial stability, and a way to preserve their culture. In many cases, even two years after the earthquake, these basic needs have not been met.
In terms of environmental research, biodiversity conservation often pales in comparison to the need for rebuilding. On the hierarchy of needs, making sure people have clean water absolutely comes before protecting wetland plants. This is important background to be aware of when working with community leaders to develop a conservation plan for the Parvati Kunda wetland. Clean drinking water and the health of the community comes first, especially in a post-earthquake context. Even though my primary interest as a scientist is biodiversity conservation, it is a sign of respect for me to recognize that and act with humans as the priority.
[Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are based on experience, casual conversation, and internet research. They do not represent the results of scientifically conducted surveys or interviews]
“Sometimes the ‘plan’ is not the only path with a good outcome” – Steve Hill
From a wise and illustrious sage, this statement perfectly encapsulates Nepal, where nothing goes as planned but things usually turn out okay anyway.
Trekking Everest Base Camp wasn’t even on my bucket list, because who would’ve thought a kid from Illinois could make it anywhere close to the highest mountain in the world. But, a few Sundays ago, there I was, in the Kathmandu airport, waiting to board a plane to Lukla, the gateway to Everest and my ticket to a two-week trek to the (bottom of the) top of the world.
And so, there in the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport, we waited. And waited. And waited for eight hours. And then all flights were cancelled because of bad weather. The next day we waited again, and just when we had checked our bags and got our boarding passes and were about to board the plane, we were bumped to the bottom of the list by big trekking companies and our late flight was cancelled. And then the third day we waited again, but for unfathomable reasons, the airline never put us on a flight. Helicopters were too expensive, so we went home after 3 days (over 24 hours total) of waiting in the airport, failing to fly to Lukla. Disappointment is an understatement. Everest Base Camp, which is now on the bucket list, did not get a checkmark.
However, I did put a checkmark next to Langtang National Park. The trekking company pulled strings and sent us there last minute, and our 12 day trek was stunning, educational, and physically challenging in a way that Everest, perhaps, would not have been.
The road to Dunche (remember that time I almost died on the road to Dunche? The same road on which I almost lost my bag and all my belongings off the top of a jeep? That road) was miraculously smooth. Before we knew it, we were hiking up the Langtang Valley from Syaphru Besi in the opposite direction from Gatlang. Walking along the Langtang river through blooming rhododendron forests, we climbed over 1000 meters in elevation on the first day, and again on the second day. By then, we had risen above the treeline and were surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
Day three I started taking Diamox to stave off altitude sickness, but that didn’t stop me from feeling dizzy during our early morning hike to Kyangin Gompa. But after a bowl of garlic soup (garlic is said to help the body adjust to altitude, and garlic soup can be found on all menus above 3,000 m), I recovered enough to climb the Kyangin Ri viewpoint. It was hard. But I made it up there, to about 5,000 meters, almost 16,000 feet. And from that point, which is 2,500 feet higher than any point in the contiguous United States, the Himalayas rose above us and all around us. Insignificance, utter awe, exhaustion, euphoria—the “power of nature” may be a cliché, but standing on the windblown knob of rock looking up at the giant, majestic snow-covered peaks, it felt truer than ever before.
As we descended the Ri we passed through a herd of yaks, which are the amazingly fluffy domesticated cow-relatives of the upper Himalaya. Yaks represent the far end of the “domesticated-cow-like livestock” continuum, the other end of which is occupied by cows themselves. Most people in mountain areas say they raise chauri, which is a cross between a yak and a cow. But sometimes chauri are created with a female yak, which is called a nak, and a male cow; and sometimes a male yak, which is actually called a yak, and a female cow. And of course, most chauri are simply offspring of other chauri, but often a male chauri is called a yak for simplicity. And sometimes people call yaks chauri-gaai (gaai means cow), which in my opinion does not make sense, because chauri plus cow does not equal yak.
Specific cow-chauri-yak designations aside, above about 4,500 meters everything is pretty much a true domesticated yak. And yaks are beautiful. However, yak meat unfortunately tastes like a wet yak might smell. I do not recommend eating yak meat.
At one point our way back down the Langtang valley, we descended into the shadow of a deep gorge. As we climbed down a steep section of trail, we heard shouting ahead, and then a strange rumbling sound. When we looked up, a refrigerator-sized boulder had dislodged 2,000 feet above and was bouncing down the canyon like a ping-pong ball. “RUN!!!” screamed our guide, and we turned and sprinted back up the crude steps. Run, run, run, faster, faster, don’t look back…those fifteen seconds felt like eternity. When we finally did turn to look, the boulder had stopped halfway down and hadn’t dislodged any other rocks. We watched for several minutes as the dust cloud cleared, and then turned and hiked slowly back down to the river, aware that what had been a harmless slip could have easily turned into a dangerous landslide.
Next we headed to Gossaikunda, the sacred frozen lake that is the home of Lord Shiva (and also a major source to the mighty Trishuli River). As a popular pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists, the trail to the lake was filled with Nepali trekkers and the occasional baba (holy man), coming to pay their respects to Shiva.
Walking around the lake, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that an entire river, that eventually feeds into the Ganges, which is a holy river and the source of water for millions of people, comes from here, in the Himalayas, from the snow and ice that fall every winter and melt every spring. I am drawn to bodies of water, and even though I couldn’t wade in the sacred lake, I stuck my hand in—the lake is oligotrophic and has few plants and no fish, but I looked for mayflies and snails under the rocks anyway.
And then from Gossaikunda, up and over the Lauribina pass we went, carefully kicking our way through snowfields and pausing to take in the breathtaking views. And then we went down, down to Phedi and Ghopte, and then unexpectedly back up to 3,500 meters, where I forgot to take my Diamox and got so ill I barely made it up the hill. And then we were no longer in the true Himalayas but in the foothills, and the rhododendron forests turned to pine, and it looked and smelled more like Colorado than Nepal. Finally, we walked into Shivapuri National Park, through the thick jungle, passing bird watchers out for a day hike, and followed the aqueduct down to Sundarijhal, where we stopped at a fruit stand for bananas and jumped in a taxi home. Thus, 15 days after my initial foray to the Kathmandu airport, I welcomed myself back to my apartment with a cold bucket shower and toilet paper.
The trek was beautiful, but also challenging. Altitude often subdues appetite, and that combined with 7 hours climbing stairs every day wiped ten pounds off my body. My hiking pants were falling off by day seven. At times, the altitude had me struggling for every step and left me gasping for breath up even short flights of stairs. Then I caught a nasty cough, which combined with the weight of my pack pulled a muscle in my ribs badly enough to visit a doctor in Kathmandu. But it was 100 percent worth it. I would do it again in a heartbeat. And before I leave Nepal in November, I certainly will.
If your ultramarathon runner friend asks you to join a trail race, think very hard before agreeing. Especially if you live in Nepal, where it is impossible to go anywhere without going uphill 50% of the time. And especially if the route is Syambhou (monkey temple) to Seto Gumba (white temple) via Rato Gumba (red temple), all of which are located at the top of steep hills.
As I found out yesterday morning, a “fun 11 kilometer trail race” (by the Kathmandu Trail Race series) actually means “climb straight up on your hands and knees for 3 km and good luck making your legs work for the other 8 km”. I was quite slow, to say the least, but I did finish and most importantly I did NOT get eaten by monkeys.
This trail race series is promoted by Mira Rai, the ultra-marathon champion who was recently voted National Geographic Explorer of the Year. Check out Mira’s story here. Her success is an inspiration to girls and women in Nepal, and her fame has drawn attention to the incredible talent and potential of Nepali athletes.
The true champion of the day was Sudeep, who ran me in and cheered me on from kilometer 9.5.
I showed up at the lab in Kathmandu last Thursday with 10.5 L of water samples packed in muddy pond ice and wrapped in six layers of plastic, tin foil, and newspaper, which I ripped open with a pocket knife in the parking lot and handed off to a bewildered assistant in a pristine white lab coat. Thus was my glorious return from Gatlang village.
Getting to Gatlang is always challenging, but the bus ride there was perhaps the worst. Between a faulty suspension system (2.5-hour delay), road construction (2-hour delay), a blown tire (45-min delay), a thief who got pulled off the bus and beat up by a gang on the side of the road (30-min delay, ?!?!?), and a landslide (1.5-hour delay), we went 42 miles (less than halfway) in 13 hours. Then I made us get off the bus because apparently it didn’t have night-driving lights. The next day we hired a private jeep the rest of the way. We hired a jeep home, too, and next time I’ll just cough up the cash and private jeep my way both up and down. I’ve had enough of bus shenanigans.
In Parvati Kunda, we identified 26 species of wetland birds and found a small population of Royle’s Pika (small, rabbit like alpine creature) just outside the wetland. We also collected scat samples inside the wetland that came from felines, canines, and monkeys (species still to be identified, but most likely including the common leopard and leopard cat). I found abnormally high dissolved oxygen levels in some areas (~17 mg/L), which may be from algae photosynthesis (there were oxygen bubbles in the water...not sure what to make of this, must do more background research). Chauri (cow-yak hybrids) are definitely pooping in the water, which has probably increased nutrient levels and caused the semi-aquatic plant bojo, or Acorus calamus, to spread prolifically (water samples will confirm this).
Chauri waste in the water is also cause for water-borne illness for people who drink Parvati Kunda water. Specifically, health post records revealed issues with typhoid, dysentery, intestinal worms, and acute gastro-entritis. Thus, the Parvati Kunda project has diverged into two parts: 1) wetland eutrophication and biodiversity preservation; and 2) drinking water quality remediation.
Poverty really hit me this time. Since the earthquake (almost 2 years ago now), almost all families still live in tin/tarp/wood shacks and cook over an indoor wood fire. Everything and everyone is dirty, the kind of dirty that comes from being surrounded by wood smoke all the time. People wear the same clothes over and over until they literally fall apart. The health center carries condoms, bandages, and antiseptic cream, and precious little else. The closest pharmacy with baby powder is a 5 hour walk down the mountain.
People in the village are kind. They fully appreciated my efforts at Nepali and that I wore my traditional Tamang hat. We sat with them, on their dirt floors or outside in the cold, played with their children, drank tea from their fires, and talked about their problems. People said they respected us (especially me, the white foreigner) for putting ourselves on their level, instead of insisting on chairs and tables and fancy food. But in my opinion, sitting on the floor with them is the smallest way I can possibly show respect for these tough, resilient, welcoming people, and they deserve so much more.
They could be worse off—nobody is starving and nobody freezes to death, despite those drafty shacks. But poverty like that is hard to witness because there’s not much I can do. I would gladly buy the health center $200 of baby powder, but it would eventually run out. What I can do is try to make the water cleaner and the people (and wetland) healthier—a tall order, but one that must be addressed.
The feeling of helplessness left me emotionally drained and uncharacteristically teary during our 8-hour bus ride back to KTM. I was very glad to get home, afraid to refresh my NYT app, and grateful for SNL’s comic relief.
घास्लाई घाम चाहिन्छ
खसिलाई घास मनपर्छ
घास हरियो छ
र घास्को स्वाद गुलियो छ
घास्को रङ मेरो मनपर्ने रङ हो
(Grass needs sun
Goats like to eat grass
grass is green
and grass tastes sweet
The color of grass is my favorite color)
Gotta love Teacher’s trainings where we get to write poetry (even if I didn’t follow the directions and it doesn’t rhyme in Nepali OR English...)
And here is another poem, shared with me by Luce coordinator Li Ling. Crazy things are happening in the United States and I am so far away, but this brings me a bit of comfort:
by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
-I finally moved into my very own apartment, with two bedrooms (come visit, people!), a giant kitchen, and a private balcony. Life is good not sharing the bathroom. But sometimes, you know, I’m still afraid of the dark, and being alone in an apartment can be scary, so I spend quite a bit of time at the AirBnb.
- Lunch at the office is dal bhaat or chow chow (Nepali ramen), or variations on the theme. If I eat dinner with friends it’s dal bhaat again, otherwise I throw together eggs and veggies in a lame semblance of stir fry. Most of my cooking skills revolve around an oven, a crock pot, and a microwave, but none of those are available. So I struggle.
-Well, technically I have a microwave, but I’m pretty sure it’s permanently stuck on half power because it takes 10 minutes to pop a bag of popcorn, so it’s basically useless.
-Seasonal produce is awesome: when I arrived it was mangoes and finger bananas, then guava and watermelon, and now oranges, peanuts, and carrots. Buying bags of roasted peanuts on the street brings me immense joy.
-I had to buy a pair of office-appropriate closed-toed shoes the other week. I was looking for a riding boot, but of course stores in Nepal don’t carry women’s shoes above a size 40 (8, for you Americans), so I ended up with men’s boots. They make me look far more hipster than I am, but my feet are warm so I’m not complaining.
-My commute to the office involves a 20 to 45- minute bicycle ride depending on traffic. A bicycle is the most efficient way to get around Kathmandu—cars are too big, and motorcycles are restricted by the availability of petrol. I have a Giant Talon 4, and it’s by far the nicest bike I’ve ever owned.
I’d like to say I’m always cool as a cucumber on my bike, but that’s just not true. Sometimes I almost get run over by a microbus and start sobbing in the middle of rush hour traffic. Sometimes my glasses fog up and I have to pull down my face mask, and I get home with a sore throat and black snot coming out of my nose from the dust and exhaust. And sometimes, at night, I get chased by barking, growling street dogs, which is like a nightmare when you know you can’t outrun the monster. But other times, I am faster than the other vehicles around me and feel powerful and free.
-Some street dogs are nice. There are two super cute puppies who live in the alley near my apartment. But because it’s irresponsible for me to adopt a dog when I’m leaving in July, I have to ignore them every time they follow me. Rips my heart out.
-These days I spend most of my time in a down coat. It gets down to about 40 F at night and is usually colder indoors, which is balmy by Chicago standards but chilly without central heating. The down coat goes on when I wake up in the morning and comes off right before bed, and I eat dinner wrapped in my sleeping bag.
-I watched my first Bollywood movie. Bollywood movies are in Hindi, which I do not speak…but I caught some words (and asked a friend to translate) enough to follow along. It was three hours long, though, so quite the time commitment.
-My group of American girlfriends are, like me, twenty-somethings on fellowship from the US. We are strong, independent women who came to Nepal because we believed in broadening our perspectives before going into the workforce. We are training to become authors, doctors, scientists, journalists, and diplomats. We cycle to work in Kathmandu traffic. We aren’t phased by aggressive stray dogs, nor do we blink an eye at ants, roaches, mice, or bedbugs. We eat street food, get sick, take ourselves to the clinic, and get better.
Walking to the movie theatre with these fine ladies, striding confidently around piles of garbage and giant potholes on a completely dark street in the middle of Kathmandu, I was struck by how much we’ve learned and done in the past few months. We are made of steel. I am proud to call these women my friends.
And at 9 o’clock pm on November 29th, it happened: mom and dad touched down at the Kathmandu airport for a rip roarin’ 15 day Moravek family Nepal vacation (minus Josie, who was stuck in Indiana taking finals). We were greeted with cake at the hotel (happy 40th, mom!), and I changed their SIM cards, gave them each NRs. 5,000, and left them to sleep in peace.
Huge shout out to Bigyan, Santa, and Praveen for providing Old Durbar and Kukhuri rum as a welcoming gift. After several days eating momos and dodging stray dogs, we departed on an airplane to Pokhara with awesome Himalayan views out the window. Pokhara was lovely: a boat ride to the temple in the middle of the lake, a bottle of Gorkha beer at the Busy Bee Bar, Devi’s Falls, Gupteshwar Cave (Nepali version of Batman’s bat cave), the World Peace Pagoda, and a Tibetan Refugee camp where mom ALMOST bought a carpet we didn’t need and which the cats would have destroyed. Dad and I hiked to Dhampus for views, and mom and I shopped for postcards and scarves.
Then dad got raw chicken in a momo, which spelled major food poisoning. As we were leaving Pokhara we discovered we couldn't get to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, because of major strikes. So after 2 days in the car we ended up in Bandipur. I think Bandipur was great, but I was incredibly carsick, and that doesn’t even begin to describe how dad felt.
The next morning we rode to Chitwan, but unfortunately the road was under construction. Poor dad was not happy bumping along on for four hours on that road, and immediately slept upon arrival at our resort in Chitwan (at this point we were emailing his doctor). Mom and I, however, went on a “jungle walk”. The Terai (the plains in southern Nepal) is flat, truly flat like Illinois, except with a view of the Himalayas in the distance. I almost felt like I was home on the prairie, except we were walking through elephant grass looking for rhinos. And then, we saw one! A one-horned rhinoceros, Rhinoceros unicornis, and her baby. Twenty yards away. I couldn’t stop grinning.
The next day we took a canoe ride and saw 25 species of birds (hornbills and peacocks among them), visited a gharial breeding center (like a crocodile but with a skinny snout), and met the elephants. The elephants’ names were Rupkali and Chandrakali, and they were well treated (I checked, before agreeing to ride them), and I fell absolutely in love with them. Dad ate a bowl of cornflakes and a banana.
We rode the elephants early the next morning. An elephant is an extremely bumpy thing to ride, but they are very good at bushwacking. We found a bull rhino and followed him for a bit. We were so close at one point that I couldn’t fit him in my camera lens. And once we left the rhino, the elephant’s manhout asked if I wanted to drive. So I clambered up to Rupkali’s head, stuck my feet behind her ears, and steered back to the resort.
Dad got some antibiotics and perked up by the time we got back to Kathmandu, and after a day of rest, I sent them on their 24-hour flight home. I loved seeing my parents, especially around the holidays, but what a strange juxtaposition of my past and present life. I realized how much I’ve adapted to, living in Kathmandu: crazy traffic, air pollution, squat toilets, stray dogs, cows in the road, scarce hot showers, a brand new language, and so much more. But little old St. Charles still exists, with all the old neighbors, deer in the backyard, and high school band concerts. There’s a place where everyone looks like me, has my accent, goes to my church, cheers for my sports teams, eats at Portillo’s, and remembers when I was 5 years old. I’m sure it was pretty jarring, for mom and dad, to jump out of the St. Charles bubble and into Nepal for just two weeks, and it was jarring for me to see them here, transplants from my old life in the middle of Kathmandu. It’s good for people to live and travel abroad, at least once in your life—it changes your perspective. Going back to St. Charles will never be the same (but who knows how often I’ll go back).
Anyway, thanks mom and dad! Love you Lots!
First field trip to Gatlang village to test water quality in the Parvati Kunda wetland is complete! Doing science in Nepal is always and adventure. Here are the highlights (there are lots of highlights so read as you wish):
-Background: Parvati Kunda is a wetland that lies at 2,600 m in elevation and is the only drinking water source for the nearby village of Gatlang, population about 1,500. In recent years, people in the village have become concerned with the aggressive growth of a semi-aquatic plant called bojo (Acorus calamus). They asked WCN to help develop a management plan for preserving their drinking water source. My job is to collect baseline data on water quality, biodiversity, and community perceptions and use that information to define future management targets and understand the rapid expansion of bojo. Additionally, my data will be the foundation of a larger grant proposal that will help the people of Gatlang conserve Parvati Kunda in the long term.
-Shopping for lab supplies in Kathmandu involves visiting a dark, dusty surgical supply shop on Sunday afternoon and rummaging around for plastic funnels, filter paper, sample bottles, and Ethanol, and then bargaining for a better price, and then balancing all the supplies on the motorbike for the ride home. This is so much more fun than visiting the lab supplier in the basement of the Northwestern Technology building.
-I could not find plain old 95% ethanol. In the US you can purchase it by the gallon in any lab supply shop (or just get Everclear from the liquor store). But in Nepal, there was either super expensive 99% ethanol that I could not afford, or suspicious-looking bottles of an un-specified concentration from India. I went with the un-specified concentration. My samples haven’t decayed so far so I guess it’s fine.
-My good friend Bigyan hand-made a 0.5 m2 vegetation-sampling quadrat for me, specially designed to come apart for ease of transportation. I love it and will probably take it back to the US with me.
-I purchased a super expensive Dissolved Oxygen meter from the one fancy lab supply store in Kathmandu and felt very professional.
-We were originally leaving for Gatlang on November 6th. Then it got pushed back to the 9th. Then on the 8th it was moved to the 10th. Then the 11th. Then we finally actually left on November 12th, after about a week of trying to solidify dates. I am learning to go with the flow.
-I traveled with two WCN colleagues named Rajeshwar and Mohan. Rajeshwar coordinated logistics, helped with community surveys, and took care of miscellaneous WCN business. Mohan knew almost all the plants, trees, birds, and insects in Gatlang and took excellent pictures. And my job was to organize our sampling equipment and schedule our sampling plan and carry out the sampling.
-It is just not easy to get to Gatlang. It takes 10+ hours in the best conditions, even though its only about 145 km (88 miles). We took a local bus for eight hours, got stuck behind a broken down truck on a one-way road next to a 30 food cliff for 1 hour, and then transferred to a jeep for 2 more hours of the bumpiest road I have ever experienced. All you can do is hold on for dear life.
-There was a giant spider as big as my hand in my bedroom. I had to have Mohan remove it. I only slept because I convinced myself that a bedroom ecosystem could only possibly support ONE spider that enormous.
-It is COLD in Gatlang. Small children have scabby cheeks from the cold. My legs burned and my hands cracked from the cold. The only way to keep the fecal coliform presence/absence vials warm was to put them in my sleeping bag at night and my sports bra during the day. And it’s not even winter yet.
-I used iodine tablets to purify water and they tasted SO AWFUL I had to dump unreasonable amounts of orange Tang in my water bottle just to choke it down. I will never again travel without my water filter, nor will I drink orange Tang without gagging.
-To test for fecal coliform (poop in the water that makes you sick), we filled a special vial with water and waited for 24 hours. If the vial turned black, the water was bad. If it didn’t turn black, we were supposed to wait for another 24 hours, after which if the water was black, it was still bad but a little bit less. After about 30 hours of no blackness, I got fed up with my Orange-Tang-iodine flavored water and started drinking unfiltered water from the tap. Six hours later, the vials turned black. I had mild diarrhea for about a week…serves me right.
-The water in the wetland was juuuust above my rainboots, so mostly I waded in the water barefoot. The temperature ranged from 2-14 degrees C. My feet were a bit cold.
-People in Gatlang believe Parvati Kunda is 1 kilometer deep (that’s 1000 meters). The deepest we measured was 4.1 meters, but then again, we couldn’t quite reach the center of the open water…who knows…
-I am happy to report that water in Parvati Kunda, as well as taps in Gatlang village, pass national and international drinking water standards. Except for the fecal coliform. This is probably from the large number of chauri (cow/yak cross) and goats that roam around the pond, and is something to be addressed in the future.
-Standing among chauri and their herders, with everything glowing pink in the sunset after a long day of sampling, we saw the super moon hanging huge in the sky just south of Langtang peak. Couldn't be captured with pictures.
-We decided to take a public jeep (known by the brand name “Sumo”) through Langtang National Park to Kathmandu. This was a horrible idea. We were packed so tight we were basically sitting on each other’s laps. I refused to let the bag of sampling equipment and plant specimens go on top of the jeep, so I hugged it on my lap.
However, my big backpack containing my laptop, datasheets, and the expensive DO meter went on top of the jeep. I was worried the landslide-ravaged roads would send my bag flying out of the tie-down straps and over the 50-foot cliff, taking my laptop and all our data with it, but I reassured myself that at least the bag was tied down.
But when we got to Dunche and had to pull everything out for a security check, I realized the driver hadn’t tied the bags down. They were literally just sitting up there for 1.5 hours over the bumpiest roads imaginable without being tied down. My laptop was on top of a moving Sumo jeep without being tied down. I grabbed my datasheets and DO meter and did not let them out of my sight until we got to Kathmandu. Everything was fine, but I will never make that mistake again—from now on, all electronics, expensive equipment, and datasheets go with me in the vehicle.
And now on to the next adventure: Mom and Dad arrive in Kathmandu at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, November 29th! They come bearing new running shoes, American chocolates, and 30 Power Bars (one per person, not including me, for each day of their trip). Hopefully Nepal can handle three-fourths of the Moravek family at the same time!
Meet Jessie Moravek
I am a 2018 Fulbright Scholar at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Studying for an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation. Click here to learn more about me!