This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Touchdown: the world’s most dangerous airport

Lukla-1“We cannot leave Nepal for the last time without seeing Everest”, I recall my colleagues stating. Our social business startup was doing great and it was time to let it fly unassisted. This visit was to be the last one for the project. And no, we could not leave Nepal without seeing Mount Everest.

One early morning I found myself on a little prop plane, skirting the mountaintops, on my way to the most dangerous airport in the world. Lukla requires clear skies, and small planes on full throttle going up and full brake going down. Just watch any YouTube video and you’ll see how the pilot slams on the brakes and maneuvers a hasty hairpin turn before hitting the rock wall at the end of the runway.

And if you dare, observe takeoff: leaving Lukla some days later, our pilot slammed full throttle before lifting brakes and sped on the readily downward-slanting runway like he had a death wish. Grown men screamed in their seats as we zoomed down the runway, where at the end the only options were either liftoff, or crash down over the precipice into the valley below.

We lifted, as you can guess. Thank goodness. To be continued.
Lukla-2(Lukla airport, Nepal; November 2016)

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Beautiful Nepali people

Nepalipeople-2So much red color. Flip-flops even on a cold winter’s day.
Nepalipeople-1Different looks and appearances – but Nepali on the inside.
Nepalipeople-3Children with black kohl around their eyes to ward off evil.Nepalipeople-4Women at work. Or resting from work, if only for a moment.Nepalipeople-5People going this way or that way.Nepalipeople-6People just sitting still, observing the world go by.Nepalipeople-7People waiting, without a worry in the world. Nepalipeople-8People doing their trade by the street side.

Grab a camera and spend a day on the streets of Kathmandu. Amidst the dirt and the chaos, everybody you will meet is beautiful.
Nepalipeople-9(Kathmandu, Nepal; November 2016)

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Crack and boom

earthquake-1In April 2015, a 7.8 Richter’s magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, not far from Kathmandu valley. So many lost their lives. Even more lost their homes. It was a Saturday afternoon so many people were out. Had it been a few hours earlier or later, so many more would have been killed. Due to the aftershocks it took weeks to understand the magnitude of the devastation. Months before help that was offered was actually distributed – but that is a different (political) story.

Our social business offices were spared, and so was the company crew. Because there was no business, the management decided to turn the tight-operating crew into a rescue team for the first week, before they were sent home to rebuild their dwellings. Our lovely orphans and their caretaker were spared, too, but their house had cracked and was unlivable. Our friends were spared, but their family homes were a shambles.

It is as if Nepali people now view their lives in two parts: before and after the earthquake.

Kirtipur was one of the towns mostly spared. Some say it is because it lies on a single slab of rock. But even Kirtipur was damaged. One of the houses standing in the evening sun has a big gash right alongside it. earthquake-3It is the cracks in the walls that makes a building dangerous; more dangerous than actual visible damage. Fortunately, buildings can be taken apart and repaired. But the earthquake has left cracks in the sturdy Nepalese people, too. Not just because they lost so many material things, but because everyone lost either friends or family, or a means to income, or a part of their cultural heritage, or a part of their own identity.

But the world is not a safe place. We are often just lulled into believing it is, while the truth is that everything changes. With a crack and a boom, sometimes. And nobody I know is better at navigating a challenging environment than the Nepalese.
earthquake-2(Kirtipur, Nepal; November 2016)

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B-side experience

kirtipurrestaurant-4“Give us a B-side of Kathmandu”, we had said to our guide, some hours and adventures earlier. “Something you wouldn’t show to first-time visitors, something hidden.” As we walked down the steps into a dark alleyway in Kirtipur, avoiding a suspicious-looking dog, I wondered what we were up for this time.

We entered what looked like a traditional Newari family house: woven fiber mats on the floor; people sitting on terraces of different heights, sipping something from bronze cups; a man washing rice. Women sitting in a ring, preparing food in front of a fire. kirtipurrestaurant-3Our tablecloth was what looked like a flowery bed linen, spread out on the carpet. We sat on the edges of it, sharing the floor as a table.

We had to try the rice beer, our guide said. I was only one of 2 who finished their cup and I did feel dizzy afterwards. kirtipurrestaurant-1We had to try the food he said. All of it. And the bread, too. I’m glad we did. It was delicious. Apart of the black beans that set my mouth and throat and everything below it on fire.

Our Nepali colleague saw my photo on Facebook and commented laconically that we’d probably not make it to work the following day. Meaning that we would not make it further than 5 m from the toilet seat. Little did she know of the random places in which I’ve exposed my gastrointestinal system to much more serious challenges. This Newari restaurant was clean, cozy, and an absolute gem. Now if only I knew how to find it again!
kirtipurrestaurant-2(Kirtipur, Nepal; November 2016)

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Sleepy Kirtipur

kirtipur-1In Kirtipur it is easier to breathe. Easier to move, too. The only things to watch out for are ducks, and women working on the steps of their houses. Living is peaceful here. One can use the entire street to clean one’s daily rice harvest.kirtipur-2One might prefer to wash one’s laundry in the front yard instead of the backyard. No passing cars around to soil it as the town is practically vehicle-free. And besides, the daily gossip fix is served, too.kirtipur-3Kirtipur is a traditional Newar town. The Newar people are said to be the original inhabitants and owners of what most tourists identify as Nepal: the area around Kathmandu valley and all things Nepalese. “Nepal” is even a variation of the word “newar”.

But, like everything truly Nepalese, the Newari culture is a mishmash of all things lovely. Such as temples and traditions: while one side of Kirtipur is Hindu and the other Buddhist, the town celebrates all festivals together. If only more cultures could live like this: side-by-side, sharing each others’ important moments.kirtipur-4(Kirtipur, Nepal; November 2016)

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Street life in Kathmandu

streetlife-4Kathmandu in morning rush hour is a new adventure, every day. One may not wish for such on a daily basis, but usually adventure barges on us without giving us a choice to enter or pass. Neither did the elephant that suddenly stepped out on the road, causing us to swerve and miss its tusks with 30 centimeters (an elephant? In Nepal??).
streetlife-1Amidst the dust and exhaust and noise there are snapshots of life. Bus drivers whose job is to every day make the best out of the traffic.streetlife-2Dogs sleeping on the pavement, not caring one flying fruit that people step over them and car wheels pass them a meter away.streetlife-3People going to work, and mothers with children going to school or visiting relatives. streetlife-6Tuk-tuks running on cooking gas. And way too many  motorcycles. One taxi driver said traffic has exploded in the past 20 years and that if nothing is done by the government to restrict traffic, 10 years from now, decent daily commute in Kathmandu will be impossible.

Today, street life in Kathmandu requires a scarf that covers a commuter’s mouth and nose. Tomorrow, the 7th most polluted city in the world may be a killer. But for a random project worker on allergy meds, today it is still possible to spend time discovering treasures of life (opposed to discovering one’s black lung in a clinic) – as long as it is not a clear winter day.streetlife-5Kathmandu, Nepal; November 2016)

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About breaking and healing, in Kathmandu

stupa-2Oh, the crowds! It is a Saturday picnic in the middle of Kathmandu. People sit on blankets, eating and chatting. Dogs chase each other or their tails. Children chase pigeons and each other. All the commotion is to celebrate the completion of restoration of the Boudanath stupa, after the devastating 7.8 Richter’s magnitude earthquake in April 2015. stupa-4The community celebrates because restoration was a community effort, in a country where the government is very slow in rebuilding the premises of people’s lives. stupa-3We joined the Tibetan monks in red robes in the kora, or circling of the stupa. In Nepal, every sacred Buddhist site must be circled clockwise. This means quite a lot of circumnavigations of mani stones, sacred stones with inscriptions, often sprinkled on popular trekking routes in the mountains. But this time the kora was celebratory. People spun prayer bells and walked along the shiny white wall accompanied only by their own thoughts.

In time, stupas break, and if the underlying faith they stand on still exists in the community, they are rebuilt. In time, we all break, like the Boudanath stupa: with a huge gash along the middle. But life goes on. Like it tends to do. And, even when it does not feel like it, life carries us along with it. All we need to do is remember how to breathe, and how to live together as a caring community. Different from the stupas, we can heal ourselves. But very few of us can ever completely heal when left alone. stupa-5
(Kathmandu, Nepal; November 2016)

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38,000 feet above the desert

dohaThis is how humans take over the planet, and mold it to their liking. Qatar is a strange place from above. desertfromtheairThis is the land where it never rains. Possibly Southern Iran or Pakistan. The last resort for humans to mold, when everything else is utilized.

kathmanduvalleyThis is how we build vertically when we have no horizontal space. We cram hills and mountains with rice paddies and grazing areas for goats.
(Landing on Kathmandu airport is an art in itself, with or without rice paddies and goats)

(Above South Asia; November 2016) 


Hold on, Nepal

maju-deval-before-NYT maju-deval-after-NYTNepal, I have no words for you today. Or rather, I have all words for you, but I cannot choose the right ones to use. And none of the words will truly help you today. I am relieved my friends and the social business staff are spared, and I worry about what happened to the orphan children we have supported. I worry about the lack of water and the cold nights. About people buried in the houses gone to shambles. About the villages that cannot be reached because roads and vehicles have been wiped out. I am stunned by the destruction of your beautiful temples on the Durbar squares. Of the main Monkey temple building still standing, among the wreckage of shrines.

You are inhabited by a sturdy lot of people, used to extreme conditions. This was too extreme even for them and recovery will take a long time. I hope people will find it in their hearts to help you in any way they can. And I hope that six months from now they will still remember to help, even if media discussion may have moved on.

(Images courtesy of New York Times (Anna Nadgrodkiewicz and Narendra Shrestha/European Pressphoto Agency) . Maju Deval temple, before and after)

(Kathmandu, Nepal; and Helsinki, Finland; April 2015)

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How to (uselessly) grow the carbon footprint


Here is a suggestion on how to waste our resources and grow your carbon footprint: stuff a garbage bag full of kids’ winter clothes. Honestly intend to send them to Nepal, for kids who battle against survival each winter up in the cold mountain plateaus. But first, fly the bag from Aarhus (Denmark) to Copenhagen. Then take it from Copenhagen to Helsinki. Next check it onboard a flight to Stockholm. And finally, after this little tour of the Nordics, ship it to Nepal along with the next group traveling.

Some wasteful clothes… fortunately there can be no price limit on saving children’s lives.

(Around the Nordics; March 2015)