Many of you have traveled abroad….and of course, a cruise to Aruba is not what I mean. But, even in this case, one experiences the anxiety of trying not to forget any of the essentials: the passport and visa and an assortment of tickets, the cell phone and charger or the sunscreen, and naturally those critical family photos to show off to new friends entrapped. Some of you have spent two or three weeks in Europe, and had to remember the more exotic items that mark you as an accomplished international traveler: the Michelin road maps, the portable coffee brewer or the electrical voltage converter without which you will fry your hair-dryer. The converter problem, of course, is compounded by the fact that laptops, cell phones, and even digital cameras have built in converters, so one never knows for sure which device requires a converter unless they have read the instruction book cover to cover. But that’s not the end of it: one also needs an array of different plug adapters for every country you visit or your attempts to make a brew or impart a curl will be as successful as getting an ostrich to mate with a horse.
Oh, sure, who can’t do without locks in their hair or a cup of coffee? If you are a trekker in Nepal and are carrying everything on your back, that’s one thing. But today, with a 100 pound check-in limit and wheels on suitcases that glide effortlessly across airport terminals, it is no inconvenience to bring along some of those at-home conveniences. Moreover, a portable coffee or hot water maker allows one to save on the extravagant costs of room service, or to forgo the $5 demitasse in an open-air Viennese Café. However, even I was blown away to learn that a correspondent, who was covering the infamous ascent of Mt. Everest in John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, felt compelled to have a Sherpa carry up an espresso machine so that she could feel inspired at 20,000 feet! Realize of course that an espresso machine requires hauling up a generator and liters of petrol! WWSEHD: What Would Sir Edmund Hilary Do! WWSTZD: What Would Sherpa Ten-zing Drink?
This year the consequences of the weather changes have had a direct hit on me. With insufficient power, my early morning brew has been severely impacted! I have brought my wonderful little Brisk coffee brewer with which I almost always travel. I have had one for 20 years or more, originally given to me by my daughter Maya, and when it burned out a few years ago, she replaced it with the same exact model. So, my little plastic pot is a warm “fuzzy” and personal friend with whom I have shared so much from Europe, to Africa, to Asia. And yes, I have an brought my electrical converter and the appropriate array of plugs to fit the many species of sockets found in Nepal. Each year, immediately upon landing, I make a special trip to the “hardware store” nearby to buy the perfect extension cord: one with multiple universal plug-in sites. With it I can, without hassle, recharge my phone, computer, camera, camcorder, iPod, and brew all at the same time. That is of course, only if the power is on.
Nepal with more hydroelectric potential than any other country (regardless of size) is more than simply lacking the facility to fully electrify. The dry season began early here, and with the glaciers receding to ever higher altitudes each year, there is less and less run off. In order to preserve the river levels, dams are letting less water over their spillways, producing less power. The result is that electricity is being severely rationed all over Nepal. The government has had to implement a scheduled rotation of blackouts, called “load-shedding” of up to 20 hours a day since late February. Imagine trying to run a country when you have only 4 hours of power per day (and just as often as not, these precious 4 hours of power may occur in the middle of the night when everyone’s asleep)! Fortunately, with some recent rainfall and the approach of the monsoon season, the rationing has been eased a little, so that we are now receiving power 10-12 hrs per day in Katmandu. It really hits the cybercafés hard (there are very few people here who own computers and have internet connections) since the power periods may occur in the middle of the night when they are closed. Consequently, I am unable to access the internet on a daily basis, but just willy-nilly, when the power is on, the cafes are open, and I have an hour at hand when I am not running around. In our Katmandu office, we had to spend $500 to get a large battery-converter back-up system installed in order that Som and Bal could maintain daily e-mail contact with me. This was another budget breaker, but it is essential for the three of us to keep each other informed and to coordinate the wide spectrum of daily challenges here and there.
Although Al Gore’s movie Convenient Truth details a lot about what is happening today, many view it in prophetic terms and don’t fully realize that we are well into it: the Polar Caps are shrinking to be sure, the Sahara Desert is expanding, the Aral Sea has all but dried up, and Mt Everest is projected to be without glaciers in as little as 35 years! In the southern lowlands of Nepal (called the Terai) there are areas that resemble Mexico with large dried up arroyos in the spring, waiting thirstily for the summer monsoon rains. The dams on the southern borders with India have silted behind the dams to such an extent as the rivers that when the rains come, there are devastating floods.
Our ANSWER children wrote to many of you last time mentioning these floods which diverted major river courses and displacing thousands of Indians and Nepalis. Last week while in the southeast corner of the country visiting the schools, we had plenty of time to experience the results of the flooding. We crossed what was once fertile fields and villages and are now an empty desert of sand left behind in every direction as far as the eye can see. Fortunately, we had prepared for this and were riding in a 4WD Indian Jeep as we knew we would have to cross miles of makeshift road. All went well until a truck up ahead broke an axle and blocked the way. A little minivan, trying to maneuver around it, became stuck fast in the sand stacking up traffic. The scene of a hundred Nepalis fruitlessly trying to push it out reminded me of the Pharaoh’s workmen transporting rock from the quarries to the pyramids! I fantasized about taking off the wheels placing large round logs under the minivan, when a more modern solution appeared on the scene: a huge front-loader came over from the new highway construction project nearby. With a lynch and a lurch, it had the traffic flowing again…as the sun was beginning to set.
The other morning, back in Katmandu, the morning power cut came at 4:00 AM stopping the overhead fan, and together with the barking dogs, awoke me from my slumber. By 5:00 AM I was longing for the aroma and quaff of a beany brew, as I was beginning to journal to you. But all was not lost. In another hour or so, the hotel’s kitchen would open, and like most commercial kitchens, they cook with portable tanks of LPG, propane, and I could place my order. I have learned to time my meals to the power cuts. When I can’t work by candle light, and my computer battery runs down, that’s the time to go out and get a bite to eat. I have another dirty little secret which I will share for the third world traveler. Bring along a portable DVD player, and when you can’t read or work because it is too dark, you can lie in bed watching a current Hollywood thriller, a readily available pirated movie ($2)! One of our sponsors Anita who came to Nepal with us last year had really crossed the line: She brought her cutting edge iPod and had downloaded podcasts of TV shows to watch! Life is tough in the third world, but only if you can’t adapt to (or afford) 21st century technology.
In the 15 years that I have been coming to Nepal, the technology has not just saved this country from collapse, it has really served our ends in significant ways. In 1994 there was no internet in Nepal. There were only landlines, and it took 2 to 3 years of waiting to get hooked up. People wouldn’t dare relocate for losing their telephone connection. And of course, the remote areas then were connected only by short-wave radio (Gee, Dad what’s that?). A telephone call to the US used to cost 800 rupees ($10-$12) per minute! Today’s internet phone calls to the US cost 10 cents or less per minute from almost any cybercafé in Nepal.
Nowadays, a good number of our needy families and even children have cell phones because they are very cheap, and the minutes charged are only on placed calls. To receive a call, costs nothing. This means it costs our children nothing to receive a call from us: “Sushila, why weren’t you in school today!” or “Kiran, we have a Social Welfare Club meeting this Saturday. Be there!” The more expensive and elaborate cell phones have great coverage and can hold reams of music.
Technology has come to play a critical role for ANSWER in other ways. In addition to cell phones, many of our families have a ($5-10) used B&W Indian TV sets on which they can watch Bollywood soaps. When we ask our children’s families about their income, we can easily determine whether they are telling the truth about their income by asking about their TV or their cell phone plan (easily ascertained by the phone number).
In the past, we would be listening to Som’s Nepali tapes on our long rides across Nepal. The radio, cassette player would be in the front seat and the speakers of course were inevitably located behind the backseat, on either side of Bal and me. Som couldn’t hear his favorite hit in the front seat unless he turned up the volume, blaring and blasting the two of us. We would endure it for an hour or so, and then revolt! Now Som can plug his earphones into his telephone and listen to all the music he likes while the rest of us can sleep, or talk, or listen to our own iPods. Not only has technology saved the country, it has saved my sanity.