Tag Archives: Kathmandu

PHOTOS: Himalayan Hash Run #2

This past Saturday was the women’s festival of Teej here in Nepal. On Teej women dress in red, head for the holy Hindu sites like Pashupatinath and dance the day away. Part of the Teej rituals (only for the women) include fasting all day. They must not eat any food for 24 hours and cannot even drink a sip of water. (I read a news article about hundreds of women at Pashuatinath who, while celebrating, fainted from lack of food and water this year.) During the 24 hour fast, women pray for a good husband. Instead of fasting and praying for a good man, I laced up my running shoes and headed for the hills with the Himalayan Hash House Harriers. To the chagrin of my neighbor, Gita, I left the house around 2 p.m. after eating a meal to fuel myself for the extravaganza. “Don’t you want to stay?” she asked, eyeing my dirty athletic shoes that were caked with mud from the last Hash run. “Don’t you wan’t to look like a bride?” she asked, pointing to her made-up face. I told her, sorry, but I had some running to do.

This week’s Hash was about an hour outside of central Kathmandu near the village of Sankhu, which is actually where I used to live three years ago when I was teaching English to monks as Trungram Monastery. It was great to be back running around my old stomping grounds. I recently purchased a small, waterproof waist belt that I can run with. My new gear allows me to take my point-and-shoot camera along with me on my Hash runs. Here are some photos from Himalayan Hash #1666.

Above: The Hashers circle up before the run begins.  The GM (Grand Master) in the middle debriefs us before we set out.  Saturday’s run was laid by “The Scholars,” the three young Nepali guys on the far right.

Above: The runners sprint along the river near Sankhu.

Above: A group of us take a breather, trying to find the confetti paper on the ground that will turn us in the right direction.

Above: Some of the Hashers run by a rice field. The women in the paddies are harvesting the rice.

Above: We had to make several river crossings on this Hash. I think I crossed rivers that were at least waist deep about four times.

Above: The Hashers try to figure out which way to go.

Above: The runners check out the awesome rice paddy views from a hill top.

Above: We wait at a “holding” spot for the rest of the runners to catch up.

Above: Me at the holding, sweating and smiling.

Above: After almost an hour-and-a-half of running, the runners came across a group of singing women dressed in red saris, celebrating the women’s festival of Teej.

Above: Paul made a rather impressive and graceful “Hash Crash” when we were crossing some dried up rice fields. The wounds were more spectacular in person.

Above: Somehow, when we were waiting for the rest of the runners to catch up, I got roped into dancing with the Nepali women in the Teej circle.

Above: The women in the Teej circle were singing and dancing when we ran by and continued to do so when we left.

Above: Dancing in the Teej circle in the countryside on the outskirts of Sankhu.

Above: After the run is finished, the virgins get initiated into the group with beer from metal goblets.

Snapshot Story: Female Construction Workers in Nepal

From my observations I can safely say that the construction industry in the United States is largely dominated by men. When passing by construction sites I rarely see a woman and if I do, she is usually holding a sign to direct traffic, not actually doing the manual work.

In Nepal, there exists a more equal balance between the male and female construction workers. Seeing a woman stacking and mortaring bricks at a building site is just as common as seeing a man doing the same job. Nepal lacks many of the big machines that we have in the US to assist with construction, for example, cement-mixing trucks. Everything is done by hand: laying bricks, mixing cement, digging earth, transporting rocks and putting up bamboo scaffolding. I have tremendous respect for anyone working in the Nepalese construction industry, for the intense manual labor that I see on the streets and at building sites looks to me to be literally backbreaking.

After growing accustomed to seeing women, both very young and very old, working construction jobs, I began to notice their clothing. Despite the messy, dirty chaos of their work sites, the women construction workers manage to keep their clothing incredibly clean and bright. There’s no coveralls for them, for they don their delicate and vibrantly colored saris and kurtas to work. There exists a contrast between the femininity of the women and the harsh nature of their manual labor. To watch women workers with their perfectly clean saris and kurtas transport bricks on their heads, smiling and laughing all the while, almost seems unreal.

Nepal’s Genius Security Systems

Sometimes I think that we in the Western world unnecessarily complicate life.  This theory is often confirmed when I am traveling or living in developing countries and I see how they do things here.  People in the developing world often have simple and easy solutions for life’s everyday problems.  Westerners could learn a thing or two from these solutions on how to make life less complicated.

I spend a lot of time roaming the streets of Kathmandu and have noticed that Nepalis have come up with some genius security systems for their homes and businesses.  Now, in the West we often install expensive alarms that trigger calls to the police who then have to drive to the point of break-in.  What happens if the alarm doesn’t go off?  What happens if the police don’t get there in time?  You’re out of luck.

The majority of security systems in Kathmandu are much simpler, but I assume, very effective.  All you need to install a simple, yet genius Nepali security system is some cement, rusty nails and maybe an empty wine bottle or two.  There are two types of security systems I’ve seen: nails and glass.  To install the nails system just put some wet cement around the top of the wall around your home.  When the cement begins to dry, stick the rusty nails in (pointy side up).  Voila! You now have a layer of rusty, pointy nails to deter any intruders.

Nepal Genius Security System Version 2 is the “glass system.”  To install the glass system, simply invite all your alcoholic friends to your house for a weekend of booze fueled revelry.  After all the guests and their hangovers have departed, take all the empty wine and beer bottles and smash them with a hammer.  Then, as with the “nails system,” put a layer of cement around the top of the wall around your house.  Stick the shards of glass in the cement and, voila!, now you have a layer of razor-sharp glass pieces to keep away bad guys.

Above: Exhibit A: The Nails System

Above: Exhibit B: The Glass System

Above: More of the Glass System.

Hi, It’s Madonna Calling. How’s Your Life Insurance Policy?

One of the reasons I keep coming back to South and Southeast Asia is because I find it endlessly fascinating to observe the interactions between the “developing” and the “developed” world. Having been raised and educated in the “West”, I’ve come to see the world from a certain point of view. Now, being based in the developing world, I’m allowed a new perspective and point of view that’s difficult to get at home. New perspective is, of course, one of the main reasons I think it is imperative for young people, if they have the means, to leave their home countries to travel and live abroad. Additionally, I have a strong interest in Asian cultures, peoples and politics, so I try as much as possible to keep updated on the latest news spanning the region.

Being stationed in Asia, and in a developing country at that, it’s absorbing to see how globalization really works on the other end of the line. As long as I am reading something or learning about it in the academic world, there’s always a certain degree of undeniable separation. Bridging that separation through travel and stories excites me and makes me more interested to learn about the world. Here’s one such story that I thought put a humorous human face on globalization.

It’s Madonna Calling

At my job, I recently wrote a story about a fascinating business concept: knowledge based outsourcing. Instead of just outsourcing jobs in a sweat shop, this guy is outsourcing his brain power: he designs homes and structures from Kathmandu for people in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia. This architect never actually visits the homes he designs, despite sometimes being involved in the design and building progress for years. He’s developed ways using various technologies, like virtual tour software, to make the business run smoothly.

Researching the outsourcing business in South Asia spurred me to bring up the topic with one of my colleagues at the magazine. The topic shifted to call-centers, which are perhaps the most famous form of outsourcing. Many of us in the West have often talked on the phone with someone with a slight British-Indian accent whose name is “Joe Smith” or “Martha Jones.” Obviously their real names are probably something more like “Manav Bachchan” or “Sita Sherawat,” and they’re likely sitting in a chair in Bangalore or New Delhi, India. I’ve read about call-centers in books about globalization and I even watched a documentary for school about the young Indian people who run these enterprises.

My colleague ended up telling me that she had worked at a call-center based in Kathmandu before switching to the media business.

“What’s it like?” I asked.

“Boring,” she told me. “We do nothing all day but call people in the U.S. and most people just hung up on us.”

Then, one of the other editors at my office chimed in.

“You worked in a call-center?” he asked. “What was your name?”

When Nepalis or Indians work in a call center that deals with a Western customer base, they take on a Western sounding name during their shift. I suppose that this is to reassure the client that their friendly help-line attendant is sitting right down the block, or at least within the borders of the client’s own country.

According to my female co-worker, picking a name for the day would depend on which Hollywood actress she was especially enthralled with at the moment. Some days she would introduce herself to the American customers as “Jennifer” if she had seen an especially good Jennifer Aniston movie lately. Other days it would be: “Hi, this is Julia,” if a great Julia Roberts movie had just been released.

She told me that her time selling life insurance at the call-center was not especially successful,. But, she did recall one day when when her sales were especially good. It was the day that she chose to introducer herself as “Madonna.”

“I remember this one guy,” she said. “The day I was ‘Madonna’ he wanted to talk for an hour and he kept telling me I had a beautiful voice. That was one of the only days I made some good sales!”

Skin Test: A Brief Experiment in Air Quality

There is absolutely no way in hell that I would drive a motorbike in Kathmandu.  An endless stream of obstacles faces the intrepid Kathmandu motorcyclist: taxis, cars, cows, thundering TaTa trucks with 15 different horns (I’m serious), cows, potholes, open sewers, kids, adults, floods, puddles, etc… The list could go on.  Despite my refusal to drive a motorbike myself, many of my friends who live in Kathmandu are seasoned pros in the motorbike driving department, so I often find myself on the back of their vehicles.  Anyone who goes from Point A to Point B on a motorbike in Kathmandu will probably notice a few things:

1) If you’re not wearing sunglasses, your eyeballs start to feel as though they’ve been ripped out, dipped in cornmeal and then placed back into your head.  This feeling stems from the incredible amount of dust and dirt and smog in the air.

2) If you drive across town on a motorbike, then go home and blow your nose, the “residue” on the tissue will most likely be black from the aforementioned smog, dust, dirt and pollution.

3) If you open your mouth at all when riding in Kathmandu on a motorbike, it will likely feel as though you’ve just chewed a mouthful of sand (also due to the dust and dirt in the air).

I’ve noticed all these things throughout the many months I’ve spent in Kathmandu being ushered around on other people’s motorbikes.  So, this evening I got home from a rather long ride.  I was outside of the Kathmandu Valley last night for a magazine story and returned to my home around 6 p.m.  The route that my colleague (who was driving the motorbike) had to take to get me from the village where we were staying to my  house basically took us all the way across Kathmandu city.  When I got home, my face felt like it normally does after a long motorbike in Nepal’s capital: gritty and disgusting, but nothing out of the ordinary for an intercity ride.

I decided to conduct a brief experiment.  I took out one of my facial wipes that I carry for plane rides and wiped exactly half of my face clean and then left the other half as it was after the bike ride.  I proceeded to take a picture.  Now I have photographic evidence of the havoc Kathmandu air (and long motorbike rides) wreaks on the skin.  This picture makes me think that I either a) need to buy a face mask for motorbike rides, or b) I need a facial.

EXHIBIT A of Kathmandu’s Horrendous Air Quality:

Wait, does the smog layer make me look like I have a tan?  A possible bright side.  As you can tell, the left side is clean and the right side has a nice solid coating of air pollution.

PHOTOS: Colorful Kathmandu

It has become a habit of mine to spend at least one day per week roaming the Kathmandu streets and alleys with my camera.  Every day that I’ve done this, I return home with hundreds, or even thousands of pictures from the photography mission.  On my photography walks I attempt to capture quick moments and scenes that make up everyday life for Nepalis.  These include bargaining at the vegetable market, hanging out on the steps of a temple, prayer or doing a puja and eating street snacks.
I’ve compiled a set of photos below from my photography walk two Saturdays ago.  When looking at these pictures after the fact, one thing stands out to me: the color.  Kathmandu is colorful.  I think the vibrancy of the scenes is what makes photography walks so enjoyable.  There are the rainbow colors of the vegetable peddler’s spreads, the reds of women’s saris, the orange of sadhus’ robes, the green and yellow of beaded necklaces and the gold of traditional statues.  Color can be found around every corner, even in the most unexpected places.

Bargaining on the street near Asan Bazaar.

A busy corner near Asan Bazaar. At this corner is a concentration of fruit vendors, who sell straight off of baskets attached to their bicycle.

In the tailoring district, several shops display their colorful clothes and saris.

A vegetable peddler counts his rupees and organizes his vegetables near Asan Bazaar.

Two sadhus who were eager to pose for a picture near Kathmandu's Durbar Square (yes, they insist on payment for pictures).

A women gets whisked away by a rickshaw near Asan Bazaar.

Two men wait for customers at their tiny incense shops.

Two women selling things from their spots on the pavement near Kathmandu's Durbar Square.

A tiny shrine I saw embedded in the sidewalk. The shrine is covered in tika powder and rice grains given as an offering.

Various green vegetables for sale near Asan Bazaar.

Tika powder, rice grains and other offerings to be given at the nearest shrine.

A woman weaves plates and bowls from green leaves.

Women string marigolds on to garlands to be given as religious offerings.

Flower petal offerings outside a tiny Hindu temple near Asan Bazaar.

Running With the Himalayan Hash House Harriers

My shoes after the Hash.

One of the sturdy Nepali runners, by the name of “Kimmo,” stood in the middle of the river, brown water gushing past in torrential waves. As each one of us came to the river bank, he reached out his hand, grabbed on and flung us, one by one, across the raging waters. One woman was pushed over by the strong current, almost totally submerged. When it was my turn, I grabbed the man’s hand and jumped in the river, which was about waist deep. He helped move me to one side of the river to the other as I teetered, keeping a precarious balance in the waters.

I made it to the opposite side successfully and proceeded to follow the group. We scrambled up an almost completely vertical mud hill, grabbing chunks of grass and roots to steady our ascent. At the top of the embankment, my heart felt like it was going to explode from my chest. I quickly checked my ankles for leeches and continued on, sprinting with the group down a six-inch wide mud wall dividing two rice paddies.

“GET A FUCKING MOVE ON! WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS IS, A VACATION?” screams the G.M. from behind me, in a thick British accent.

I smile and run a little faster. I slip, almost falling into the adjacent rice paddy, as my right foot become completely submerged up the the ankle in a thick, clay-like mud.

“HA HA!” comes the G.M.’s voice from behind me. “YOU’VE ALMOST HAD YOUR FIRST HASH CRASH!”

Bessie, the G.M.’s black and white shaggy dog, nips at my heals.

“KEEP FUCKING RUNNING!” says the G.M. again. And I do.

This muddy, soggy, wet, monsoon run marks my first with the Himalayan Hash House Harriers (HHHH). There are Hash House Harriers groups all around the world, from this one in Nepal, to Nairobi, Kenya, to Stockholm, Sweden, to Portland, Oregon (and almost everywhere in between).

The Hashers call themselves a “drinking group with a running problem,” which explains the jovial beer-drinking activities that commence at the end of the run. The first Hash House Harriers group was started in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1939 by a group of Brits who wanted a way to “rid themselves of the excesses of the previous weekend.” The Himalayan Hashers, just like their forefathers, are loud and proud and vulgar, and they love every minute of it.

I had heard of the Hash House Harriers before, but didn’t know what to expect from my first excursion with them. I contacted the G.M. (also known as the “Grand Master,” who is in charge of the whole group) and he picked me up at 1:45 on Saturday afternoon. We drove to the location of the Hash (also known as the ‘run’) with two other runners, the G.M.’s driver and the G.M’s dog, Bessie. During the ride, profanities, hilariously raunchy jokes and teasing were plentiful. I had a feeling that this run would be like no other I’d ever experienced.

After getting out of central Kathmandu, we took a muddy and pot-holed road to the location of the day’s run, which was the 1,664th Hash of the HHHH. (Hashes are always given a specific number. The HHHH have been “trashing the Valley since 1979,” so are nearing 1,700 runs since the late 70’s.) To find the location, one is supposed to follow the piles of confetti paper on the ground. Since it was monsooning out and the roads had basically become mud rivers, this was very difficult, but finally we found the spot which was at Phutung, north of Balaju.

I hopped out of the car and joined my fellow runners at the location, which was in a small village near the rim of the Kathmandu Valley. The runners slowly trickled in on bikes, in taxis or in their own cars. There were between 30 and 40 people running in the 1664 Hash, which surprised me, considering the heavy monsoon rains that were soaking us to the bone before the run even started. The majority of the group were expatriates: teachers at international schools, UN workers, embassy workers and NGO workers. In addition, there were probably six or seven Nepali runners. The runners heralded from all over the world: Australia, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Africa, Denmark and beyond. Some had been coming to the Himalayan Hash for a month, others, who are more permanent residents of Nepal, had attended hundreds. Many of the long-time Hashers have Hash nicknames. According to the G.M., these names are earned, not simply given out to anyone who attends. The names often stem from something that happened on a certain run. I met “Lady Chatterly,” “Happy Clappy,” “Dead-in-the-Water,” “Kruel,” “In-And-Out,” “HeBitch,” “Dr. Death” and “Kimmo” on my first day.

After everyone had arrived, we circled up in an open field area and the rules were explained. There is a set course already laid out by the day’s “Hares” (they come early and run the course first). The Hares “lay the trail” by putting circles of ripped paper in various spots on the correct trail. The runners must follow the paper path, wherever it may lead, back to the beginning. The catch is that the Hares sometimes put down “false trails” that purposefully lead the runners astray. When this happens, everyone must gather together and search within a 200 meter radius to find the correct way. It became apparent during the course that the process of finding the paper trail becomes exponentially more complicated when it’s monsooning out, for much of the paper either disintegrates or gets washed away.

After explaining the rules, we were off. The run began with a hazardous descent of a muddy hill into the surrounding rice paddies. We were slipping, sliding and falling on our knees from the beginning.

As the minutes passed, we sprinted further and further into the countryside, winding through the lush green rice paddies and past tiny brick huts. We wound through small clusters of homes owned by the rice farmers and past herds of goats feeding on soggy hay. As we ran by, the local farmers looked at us like we were U.F.O.’s, most likely wondering why in the world these mud-caked, soaking wet, Lycra-clad foreigners were running through their villages and rice fields. In some places, it seemed that the entire village gathered outside their homes to stare and laugh, wide-eyed.

Forty-five minutes into the run, the monsoon rains subsided and the sun made its appearance. I was grateful for this because my pants had become so mud and waterlogged that I feared they would fall off. The sun dried us out a bit and made the rest of the run slightly less slippery.

Over an hour and a half later we made it back to the beginning location. Endorphins were pumping through my body from the intense exercise and I was uncontrollably ravenous. Luckily, a table was set out for us with snacks and drinks. “HeBitch” (one of the Hares for the day) passed around brownies, and I could have sworn that I’d never tasted anything so heavenly in my life.

After twenty minutes of social time and eating, the G.M. demanded we circle up, which is the tradition after every Hash. The G.M. stood in the center making jokes and teasing various Hashers. Then, he instructed the “virgins” (those whose first Hash it was) to come to the center for our initiation. There were three other virgins along with myself. We were given gold goblets filled with beer. Then, the Hashers sing a chant and you must chug your beer before the song is done or else pour the beer on your head. We virgins were all successfully initiated into the group.

That night I returned home exhausted, shedding mud and satisfied. I’ll surely be joining the Himalayan Hashers for many more runs during my stay in Nepal.

My mud soaked shoes and socks after the Hash run. Note: The socks were new and crisp white before the run began.

BLOG: Week 4 Updates

This woman probably sells the same thing on the same corner day after day. I wonder if she ever gets bored?

Somehow, I’ve already been in Kathmandu for four weeks.  My days here are packed and that’s just the way I like it.  I’m settling into the fast-paced life of a magazine editor and have even become accustomed to six-day work weeks, which I was bemoaning just two weeks ago.  Six-day work weeks make my one day off, Saturday, so much sweeter.  I’ve been thinking about what it will be like when I return to the US next year and start working five-day work weeks (here’s for hoping, anyway).  It will be luxury! Pure luxury!

My apartment is shaping up quite nicely.  I live in an area called “Sanepa” which is on the opposite side of the Bagmati River as Kathmandu.  Technically, I do not live in Kathmandu, but I live in Patan.  The Bagmati River is the divider between the two cities, but the urban creep quickly blurred the lines between Kathmandu and Patan a long time ago.  In my neighborhood there is a large concentration of foreigners living and working.  This area is also a central to a number of NGOs and foreign schools, so there are many fellow expatriates living around here on long-term assignments.  Kathmandu’s British School is right down the street from my flat, so there are usually school-aged children walking around during the afternoon after gets out.  If I’m home in the evening, I usually stand on the rooftop of my building with my land lady and neighbor, Gita.  Whenever she sees a foreign woman with a baby walk by, she tells me that she can’t wait for me, too, to “have birth.”  “Baby cute!” she says.  I quickly change the subject after telling her that, with hope, I won’t be “having birth” for some time.  After I change the subject she bemoans her dark skin and I fruitlessly try to explain the concept of tanning beds and tanning lotions.  Thus far, I’ve made no headway on the subject.

The other news in regards to my apartment is that I finally got four items of furniture: two comfy chairs and two tables (one for a desk and one for the kitchen).  This was a major breakthrough thanks to the local tea shop owner, Basanta.  Basanta’s place is the hang-out spot for all my Nepali friends.  His shop is a musty, dark place that has the best tea around.  We sit there for hours and drink endless cups of Nepali tea and sometimes coffee.  Although Basanta doesn’t speak English, he knew through my Nepali friends that I was in need of furniture.  Last week I showed up after work at Basanta’s and, lo-and-behold, there was a stack of used furniture for me! It was a miracle (a very reasonably priced miracle). I was so excited for my new furniture that I told him I would immediately hire a taxi to transport the items to my flat.  Basanta brushed off that suggestion as nonsense and pointed to a medieval horse cart that he had in his shop.  “What?” I thought.  “He can’t be serious.”  But, he was.  Basanta quickly piled all the furniture on the horse cart, lashed it on with frayed rope, and off we went to my place.  It took us about 45 minutes to push the furniture-heavy cart through the streets. We were winding through main streets, highways, alleys and everything in between.  We caused quite a major traffic jam when trying to cross the main chowk (street).  To top off the adventure, it was monsooning out and a complete mud bath in the street.  We arrived at my house soaking wet and caked with mud.  But, furniture!  Glorious furniture!  I don’t think I’ve ever been so appreciative of anything.

Work is going quite well.  We’re doing some fun work with web development and I’ve been doing some great stories.  (I’ll post links to my stories once they are published).  A huge part of my job is reading. I read ALL day.  I read stories submitted by freelancers, stories already published, stories from other news sources and stories from anywhere else I can find.  I feel that I’m learning an incredible amount about Nepal from all these stories.  It’s fun to go out exploring and then be able to apply the bits I’ve learned from all the reading.

My running regime is also going well.  I’ve perfected the morning run route.  Yesterday was a holiday from work, so I had the day to myself to relax.  I was excited for my day off, but the constant monsoon rain quickly squelched my excitement.  I was stranded in my house, about to go crazy from my forced hermitage.  Finally, around 3:30 p.m. there was a break in the rains.  I immediately slipped on my running shoes, which were still soggy from the day before, and hit the road.  This was my first attempt at afternoon running, and I was actually pleasantly surprised.  Afternoon running is quite different than early-morning running just because there are exponentially more people out and about.  But, from my morning runs I’ve learned the art of blocking out things going on around me.  I don’t block out everything of course, mostly just the awkward stares that I get from people.  Not many people run here, and if they do, it’s usually early.  Afternoon runners are almost non-existant.  So, I got a LOT more stares on my afternoon run and a number of annoying “comments” from men standing around or motorcycling by.  Luckily, I couldn’t understand the comments and I’m sure if I could they would either be a) annoying or b) offensive.  Well, I guess the language barrier is good for something.

In general, I’m falling into my Kathmandu routine, which is quite fun.  Being an expatriate here is never boring, I can say that much.

Guest Blog for Ethos Magazine

Ethos Magazine is a totally kick-ass, student run, multi-cultural publication at the University of Oregon.  I’ve been working for Ethos since 2008, doing everything from writing, to editing to multimedia.  Although I’m no longer a UO student, I’ll continue doing guest blogs for the Ethos website about my year in Kathmandu.

Check out my lastest article, “Kathmandu: The Return,” which is all about first few hours in the city.  As my plane touched down at the airport, fueled (or not fueled) by lack of sleep and food, all I could think was: “What the HELL am I doing back here?”  Quickly, my apprehensions dried up as I remembered why, after three years, I had decided to return to this place for a year.  Please check it out!  Comments are always appreciated, too.

More on Ethos:

My last article I did for the magazine before I graduated is called “One Sketch at a Time.”  The piece is about University of Oregon Professor Ken O’Connell, an inspirational guy who has traveled the world many times over.  He has a unique take on travel memories.  Instead of taking pictures of beautiful things, he sketches them.  Ken has 70 sketchbooks that chronicle the last 50 years of his life and his travels.  Flipping through his sketchbooks was absolutely magical.  It felt like stepping into chapters of his life, whether those were lived in Italy, or Japan, or Oregon.

The Implications of Load-Shedding

Homework by candle light. (Photo by PaperPK News)

Nepal faces a problem that also poses a challenge to several other countries in the developing world: the nation is literally in the dark.  This darkness stems from what is called “load-shedding.” The term “load-shedding” can also be called a “rolling blackout” or a “brownout,”which happens when electricity is selectively and continuously shut off in a region. In Kathmandu, for example, the power is off for several hours at a time, not in the whole city at once, but neighborhood by neighborhood. This means that if the power were to go out in your area, you could go to your roof top and see a section of buildings and houses in the distance that is lit up. When the power in your area is turned back on, the power in the other area might go off.

Load-shedding, aka rolling blackouts, is meant to save electricity. The problem can be attributed to two root causes: demand for electricity in an entire region is too large for the supply, or the infrastructure to distribute the electricity does not exist.  Several other South Asian countries suffer from load-shedding including Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Load-shedding is both inconvenient and bad for productivity. On August 18, residents of Attock, Pakistan, became so fed up with the practice that they staged a protest, which culminated in police firing tear gas into the crowd. SAMAA News in Pakistan reports that “frequent and long electricity load shedding routines in Pakistan has irritated people; they have started to protest in every part of the country.”

Nepal generates some of its own power through hydropower plants, but also imports some from India. According to the Inter Press Service, “Nepal is second only to Brazil in terms of water resources,” but the country is still suffering from power outages that have at times reached 16 hours per day. The problem with Nepal is that the infrastructure to harness the water resources simply is not there. There’s an incredible amount of water in this country (Himalayan run-off), but very few plants to convert the water resources into electricity.

The Inter Press Service writes:

“Nepal’s total hydroelectricity potential is 83,000 megawatts, of which more than 40,000 mw is exploitable, experts say. But the country is nowhere close to generating half of the meager 860 mw, the present peak-hour requirement. As it is, only a third of the population of 27.5 million has access to electricity and demand for it is growing by 10 percent annually.”

In the monsoon season (June, July, August and some of October) power cuts are not as severe. Currently in mid-August, power is usually cut for around two hours in the morning and two hours at night. Once the monsoon is over and the dry season is running its course (February and March), power cuts have been 12, 14, or even 16 hours per day earlier this year.

In a wired world, lack of electricity is a major blow to productivity. Businesses can invest in generators, but generators require fuel, which is often not available due to shortages.  Electronics must be near a plug and ready to be charged when the power is on, or else little will get accomplished in terms of web-related or IT jobs.

When the electricity goes out in Kathmandu, it's time to light candles. (Photo by eichner on FlickNepal as well. Electronics must be near a plug and ready to be charged when the power is on, or else little will get accomplished in terms of web-related or IT jobs.

Besides jobs that require electricity, a lack of light is also difficult to deal with when trying to accomplish everyday chores and maintaining a household. When there is no power, candles are a necessary backup, but it seems that it is difficult to match candle-light productivity with electric-light productivity. When the electricity goes out at my home in Kathmandu, I light a candle and put on my headlamp. After a bit of writing or reading in the dim light, I find myself getting tired earlier and calling it a night around 10 p.m.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who regularly travels to some of the poorest countries in the world, lamented on the same issue in March, 2010, when a storm knocked out the power to his New York home. He said in his column ‘What I Think About As I Huddle in the Dark‘ that he feels less productive when the electric light bulbs aren’t on to keep him up.

He writes:

“So that makes me wonder about the productivity gains from bringing electricity to more households. In poor parts of the world, you often see kids doing their homework at night under streetlights, but most kids don’t have access to street lights. And even if they do, that requires far more effort and perhaps risk than just doing it at home under an electrical light…  I’ve always thought of home electrification mostly as a quality of life issue, but as I shiver in the dark this week I’m thinking it has huge educational and economic dimensions as well.”

Load-shedding poses a blow to productivity both in business and in the homes. But, are there any positives to these rolling blackouts? I’ve noticed that when the power is cut, especially in the evening, people tend to put down what they are doing and relax. They head to the local tea shop with friends, order rounds of sweet tea, sit, and just talk.  They mull over the happenings of the day and chat about friends, or politics, or future plans. The power cuts become almost like a “forced” break from work. In the American workoholic culture I am used to, a “forced break” due to a power cut would not be taken kindly to. But here, it seems that many people have become used to the erratic power situation. When the lights go out, work is put down and a pot of tea is put on the gas stove. Observing the load-shedding situation in Kathmandu makes me wonder about the cost-benefit trade off between lack of productivity and increased social connectedness.