The world is really crap at times

2015-04-27 20:05

I first visited Nepal in 1999. We tend to think of it as a nation of mountains, not surprising given that it is bordered on the north by the vast Himalayas. We sometimes forget that its southern edge adjoins India and it was to that part of Nepal which I headed, into what was then called Royal Chitwan National Park. It turned out to have what was probably close to the highest humidity I ever experienced and one’s shirt was soaked with sweat within minutes of stepping away from overhead fans or air-conditioning. Leeches could be seen on the leaves and branches of many trees and plants and it was important not to brush against flora, if you wished to avoid your blood being tapped.

This jungle-like terrain was, and is, home to some of the world’s most endangered species, such as elephants, rhinoceroses and tigers, which is why I was there. Nepal has always been one of the world’s most significant locations for wildlife crime, because it is a nation of incredible biodiversity. It has what so many illicit dealers and consumers want. And this goes beyond the rhino horn and tiger skin that might immediately come to mind. In the foothills of the mountains, the rarely-sighted Red panda is poached for its skin and the strange Cordyceps plant, sometimes called the ‘summer-grass, winter-worm’, is harvested there too. Both are destined for markets in China; the first to be made into a hat that is traditionally worn in some wedding ceremonies and the latter for medicinal purposes.

If guarding its own flora and fauna wasn’t enough of a task, its geographical position makes Nepal a transit point between India (another biodiversity and poaching hotspot) and China (arguably the world’s most important consumer of wildlife, legal and illegal-origin). On any given day (or night) I suspect several smugglers or smuggling gangs will be operating somewhere in Nepal.

Don’t forget that the country has recently emerged from years of considerable civil unrest and political instability. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries. Flights leaving Kathmandu international airport, especially those destined for the Middle East, are packed with labourers and maids, desperate to access jobs which will help support their living-in-poverty families, since the opportunities for well-paid salaries in Nepal are limited.  Deaths and serious injuries among those construction workers, and mistreatment of domestic employees, are not uncommon. Human trafficking for various reasons, including the sex trade, is widespread and domestic drug abuse has risen considerably in recent years. Many well-educated, well-qualified and ambitious Nepalese head abroad in search of better and more rewarding conditions too.

Despite having rid the country of its monarchy and struggled to adopt true democracy, political parties continue to squabble and the promised new constitution has still to be adopted; arguments over the wording and type of federal system go on constantly.

Yet, despite the many major challenges facing it, Nepal has a proud and enviable record when it comes to conservation. It is years since a tiger was poached in a national park. From times when up to 37 rhinos might be poached annually, several recent years have seen none killed at all. Attempts still continue, of course, and that they don’t succeed is down to the commitment, courage and dedication of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and the Nepalese Army. In the towns and cities, the Nepal Police, and particularly the Central Investigation Bureau, does first-class work against smugglers and traders.

Wildlife ought to play a greater role in the country’s important tourist industry but the political instability, and the inevitable corruption that plagues all developing nations, has tended to discourage international hotel chains or tour operators from replicating what one sees elsewhere, for instance in Africa. There are hardly any similar luxury lodges on the outskirts of Nepal’s national parks. One place I stayed in last year could not afford to turn its refrigerator on, so there weren’t cold drinks at the end of the day, let alone the 5-star spa facility that many high-end travellers expect these days.

Government buildings in the capital, Kathmandu, also suffer from constant power cuts. Many civil servants send work-related emails to contacts abroad from home, their laptops powered by generators or large banks of batteries which store power absorbed during the hours when the public electricity supply is functioning. Despite Nepal having huge energy-generating potential, particularly hydro-electric power, the government does not have the funds to fully exploit it and foreign investors are wary of engaging.

Although improving, the road networks are very basic in places and many main roads are overwhelmed by the current, and growing, volumes of traffic. The terrain through which they pass also makes them prone to landslips, rock falls and mudslides. I experienced such a scenario in 2014, making what could have been a three-hour trip along the country’s major highway into 13-hour drudgery.

Government agencies, and especially their senior managers, can rigidly adhere to bureaucratic processes of old and there seems reluctance, in some parts, to be imaginative or adopt new approaches. Criticism and critique, even when constructive, may be unwelcome and there is often a culture of denial when things go wrong.

During my last visit, earlier this year, a problem at the airport completely overtook the capacity of the civil aviation and airport authorities. Something that Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle airports would have coped with in hours led to departures being delayed for almost six days.

And then there’s Nepal’s weather. Its mountain regions, like any across the globe, are subject to sudden and extreme changes. Blizzards and avalanches are commonplace. Mountaineers will usually build such risks and hazards into their planning. However, it troubled me, last year, when I saw how poorly-prepared (physically and mentally) some trekkers appeared to be when overtaken by a sudden storm, which may have increased the deaths and injuries that occurred. 2014 also showed us how even the most well-equipped and experienced can do little in the face of nature, when many Sherpa guides were killed in an avalanche. Tourist sight-seeing flights along the Himalayas, or into remote and precariously-located runways, result in fatalities almost every year; often caused by unexpected changes in weather, but also questionable aircraft maintenance.

Despite all these natural, logistical and political issues, tourists continue to flock to Nepal. And deservedly so. I have lost count, but I think 2015 saw either my eighth or ninth visit. It is a stunningly beautiful country, with an incredible diversity of habitats. Its people are friendly, welcoming and delightful. I love travelling to and in Nepal.

Kathmandu, like the capital cities of many developing nations, is chaotic and its ever-increasing buildings and population have completely outstripped its logistical facilities. The traffic is terrible, both on the main streets and in the legions of narrow alleyways and lanes that criss-cross the old parts of the town. Dense and tightly-packed don’t go anywhere near enough to describing the mayhem of buildings. Above one’s head, the telephone and power cables stretch out in the most incredible tangle, far worse that anything a fly-fisherman has ever tried to resolve. I can never understand why the tops of every power and telephone pole aren’t constantly alight through short-circuits. Mounds of rubbish adorn many streets and the rivers which pass through Kathmandu are horrendously polluted. But it all adds up to presenting a unique character that is somehow still charming and captivating. It is one of my favourite places.

Whilst its citizens are predominantly Hindu, the land is full of amazing Buddhist-themed temples and antiquated royal palaces, reflecting that the Lord Buddha’s birthplace is within Nepal’s borders and the nations’ centuries of previous monarchies too. The three Durbar Squares of the Kathmandu Valley are home to ancient buildings the like of which you’ll never encounter anywhere else. Nepal should be on everyone’s bucket list.

When I looked at the BBC news on Saturday morning and learned of the earthquake that had demolished many of the structures I have so often admired, and which had also demolished so many people’s lives, literally, I was stunned, depressed and so, so sorry. I was also questioning of the dozens of fatalities then being reported. Knowing the city and country as I do, I simply could not believe that humans could have escaped such a disaster so lightly. Unfortunately, my doubts proved justified and the death toll as I write is approaching the 4,000 mark. Regrettably, it will surely go even higher, perhaps much higher, as emergency efforts reach into rural locations.

I wrote an email to a Nepalese United Nations colleague in Kathmandu, expressing my hopes that she and her family were alright. To my amazement, she responded quite quickly, assuring me that they were okay but adding that they were being advised to stay outdoors, as 14 aftershocks had already been felt. But her reply ended with chilling words, “Never felt scared like this in my life.” I hope she won’t mind being quoted but I think it is important that we recognize the reality of what is happening to the people of Nepal and how powerless they can be in the face of terrifying Mother Nature. And she is a relatively well-off city-dweller. Imagine what times will be like in the days and weeks to come for those in Nepal, the majority, who do not enjoy a regular salary, ready access to medical services, or cope with the harsh everyday existence of rural life.

I also sent a message to a contact in Nepal’s Armed Police Force. I don’t expect him to respond quickly but I did want him to know that I was thinking of him and to offer my best wishes to him and his colleagues. If you see pictures from Nepal, it is easy to identify the Armed Police men and women; they are the folks dressed in the blue camouflage uniforms and they feature prominently in the images of ongoing rescue efforts and people being carried from rubble. As well as battling insurgents and protecting the nations’ borders, these officers are the frontline when it comes to responding to major unrest, major incidents and natural disasters. They will be very, very busy in the days ahead. I believe I can imagine something of what they will deal with but I am blessed that my own experience of such things was on nothing, absolutely nothing, like the same scale.

What can we, watching from afar, do? Probably very little. If you have a God, you can pray to him or her. I dare say there will be appeals from charities and aid agencies to which you can respond. Or just send messages of support and concern.

We all know that sh*t happens. But why does it so regularly have to happen to people that are already struggling? The UK media is full at present of politicians debating the rate of income tax and how many hours of free nursery care should be available. Each party in the forthcoming General Election promises to defend our National Health Service and has some stance on current practices. When one looks at scores of injured lying outside the Kathmandu hospitals that I have driven past so often (there is no room left inside), the waiting lists in Britain don’t seem so important after all.

Knowing the determination of its people, Nepal will rise from this. But it will be rocked and shaken in ways far beyond the tremors and shocks of an earthquake. It will need support long after victims have been buried, their relatives rehoused and historic monuments and other buildings restored.

If Nepal wasn’t on your bucket list, put it on now and keep it on. Go and be entranced by the nation and its people, as I have been. Go and contribute to its local communities as they get back on their feet. And reflect upon how fortunate you are today, if you can sit and read this.

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