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.
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!