When the city fails, where do you start? Notes from Kathmandu.

When the city fails, where do you start? Notes from Kathmandu.

Kathmandu is a squalid dusty cesspool.  The geographic spiritual mandala that was the Kathmandu valley, with 4 peaks at each of the compass points and 2 rivers intersecting in the middle, the gateway to the Himalaya, has gone from a fabled paradise for the freak-scene (Ram Dass, Cat Stevens), and Everest expeditionary launching point, of 20, 30, 40 years ago to a sprawling dirty belching disaster zone.  
And that’s without any war – the country has done it to itself, with a little help from the west and the World Bank.   Yes there are beautiful shrines, yes the people are kind and deep and lovely.   I want to adore it, on the recommendation of all of those who have gone before me.

Uncontrolled growth and urban migration have brought the population from 350,000 to 3 million people and forced accommodating changes- more housing, more cars and trucks.  But every decision the government has made along the way, each decision that could have been for sustainable and beautiful growth, has been made instead in favor of cheap and ugly, in favor of what would provide the most luxe lining for local politicians pockets.

For example, let’s look at a disaster called “road widening”.  In Kathmandu city proper, all the roads were torn up at once, to make way for “modernization”.  All the old facades and courtyards were removed, leaving half houses with piles of brick and dust and rock and dirt everywhere. There is no possibility that the roads can all be finished, there’s not enough money to do it and the time it will take to do them all progressively is multiple years. Moreover the rainy season will come and then the streets will no longer just be dusty, but they will be overflowing with mud.  It’s hard enough to pick your way around already, what when the waters come?  All those women in long skirts and slippers, carrying all manner of goods, navigating in the dark. It’s overrun with motorbikes and taxis and trucks, every form of jam possible. The combination means that the citizens wear pollution and dust masks to walk around. The rivers, what could be beautiful healthy centers of the city, are literally heaped with debris, solid waste along all the banks, and floating in the streams. There is lame highrise construction happening all over, without regard to codes or zoning. If there is an earthquake here, as there will be one day, tens of thousands of people will likely die, by the estimates of NGOs.  There is power for 8 hours a day only, throughout the city, all the time, to manage loads. That also means no hot water and no water pumps at the wells for 16 hours a day, not just lights.

How can a government even begin to hold its head up when it can’t provide sanitation, power, roads and education – and protect its culture and cultural treasures?  Why would anyone come to this city except to get out of it to trek in the mountains, which are outside the ring of polluted haze that is the valley?  How could they have wasted this beauty, thrown it all away?

There are monks and monasteries and sacred places all over the valley, but those same holy shrines and temples have filthy nauseating toilets, and they too throw their garbage over the wall into the street. Buddha would have vomited at the stench.  Cheap plastic goods have made their way into everything – the inner temples have plastic flowers and tinsel garlands combined with their butter sculptures and sutra prayer books.

Our guides and the hoteliers apologize every other word. They say the Nepalese people and the culture of the Nirmala people are strong and beautiful, and that no one knows what to do about the pollution.  The corruption is so entrenched, the leadership so interested in lining their own pockets without regard to the commons that there is nothing to do.  The young people say that the only solution is to raze the place and start fresh, with new leadership.

I sit in the shade of another magnificent mountaintop creation, and I want to ask the monks – why don’t you do the prayer of the toilet?  The prayer of the garbage?  The prayer of the illiterate wild begging children in the street, the prayer of reforming government, the prayer of cleaning up the rivers, the prayer of protecting the animals and the fishes?  What good is bowing down at the feet of yet another golden Buddha, while the Buddha in each person, the god in each person, goes neglected?

If you know me, you know I see beauty everywhere I go. In the winter gardens in the countryside, in the handwork of the artists, in the morning devotions of the women at the Boudha stupa and their glowing faces. I am in wonder at the stories and artifacts of a prior glowing era. The angles of the faces of the people of this country. But all the places of legend:  Yak and Yeti, Mike’s Breakfast, Annapurna:  they are faded out  – reminiscent of the era of outpost and adventure that this place once was.  The place of such power that it attracted the global scene pioneers. The ghosts of Ram Dass and Cat Stevens rest in some old powerful holy place, which is underneath the turmoil that men have wrought here.  Overall, I am saddened by Kathmandu. I’m very glad I came. But I leave surprisedly dejected. Where would you even start to fix the place?

You may say I’m imposing my rich western eyes on the place, but nope. All people want clean water and clean air and good food and opportunity. I am so glad now for municipal government where I live. For zoning and urban planning and Sanitary districts and the freakin’ EPA. For town meetings and public comment periods.   For professional governance and city management. For activists and the messiness that is democracy.  I won’t take it for granted ever again. This model of local government, more than any big federal democracy, is what’s needed in most parts of the world. Creating cities that work.

I hope to write again about Kathmandu.  In 10 years, maybe, I will write about the miraculous turnaround. How the people of this city stood together against their local bureaucrats and reclaimed their city. How the biggest river cleanup and pollution control initiative in history was undertaken and completed.  I’ll hold a vision for a better quality of life for all people in this what could be beautiful valley, and an awakening by their president, mayor, leadership of all stripes.



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