Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Smog, whispers and mystics

I started this post a week or two ago. There were just so many thoughts flying around my head that it took some time before they all made sense enough to share...

Today was one of those once in a lifetime, take your breath away kind of days. It was full of elation, endorphins and adrenaline. We started the day at 4:30am where we saw a sunrise over Annapurna in the Himalayas (if you're not familiar, this includes the tenth highest peak in the world). At first, only the very tips of the peaks began to glow. As the sun rose, the whole valley lit up. I have only experienced one other moment like this, an experience that words don't begin to describe, cameras can't capture and even your emotions don't feel sufficient. This was that kind of sun rise.  
Sunrise view of Anapurna



Following on from this stunning sunrise, I went paragliding for the first time. Today I literally soared with the birds over the Himalayas. 

Paragliding over the Himalayas 

In the afternoon we were rowed across the lake in Pokhara. From here we climbed many steps to a Buddhist peace pagoda where we saw the sunset over the Himalayas. The peaks of Annapurna were again highlighted in beautiful shades of pink. 

View of the lake in Pokhara

View from the peace pagoda in Pokhara

I also spent 90% of this incredible day in silence. On the first day of this fellowship we each had the opportunity to write down a pledge. My pledge was that I wanted to listen more and talk less. In a place filled with so much spirituality, watching the sun set while standing at the peace pagoda, overlooking the glowing Himalayas, it would have been easy to interpret losing my voice as something mystical. The explanation is actually far more sinister...

For two whole days I completely lost my voice due to a bad chest infection I picked up in Kathmandu. Chest infections are very common in Kathmandu because of the extreme levels of pollution. Many of the teachers we worked with were surprised that some of our fellows were over sixty. They explained that the extremely high levels of pollution here means that not many people live past sixty. While we were in Kathmandu, almost every day the smog levels were classified as dangerously high. A number of factors contribute to these incredibly high pollution levels. For example, Kathmandu is located between the mountains. On winter mornings, a thick layer of morning fog traps the smog inside the city. This is aggravated by the many brick factories that surround Kathmandu, and the incredibly high levels of fossil fuels that are burnt here on a daily basis. Public transport is extremely limited, many people use fossil fuels for cooking, and cars are badly maintained. 
The smog over Kathmandu
Rice paddy in Pokhara

The view over Annapurna was breathtaking, figuratively and literally. Climbing to the peace pagoda whilst still having a chest infection was quite the challenge. I literally had to rest every ten steps, my chest ached, my throat hurt, there may have been the occasional dizzy spell and some nausea. I got to the top though, and the view was 100% worth it. While these sights were breathtaking and awe inspiring, this was mirrored by an intense sadness. While most likely these were once in a lifetime experiences for me, I was reminded of just how accurate this statement is. Our guide explained that in the twenty years that he has been working as a guide and sherpa, the glaciers have been reduced to half their original size. While I may come back to Nepal some time in the distant future, chances are that the glaciers will have shrunk even more as we continue to burn fossil fuels and an alarming pace. Sooner than we care to admit, there may be no more snow capped peaks in the Himalayas. 

In New Zealand classrooms, we learn about pollution and climate change. In Nepal, this is already their lived reality. While we argue about whether petrol should include additional taxes to pay for public transport, fossil fuels are literally reducing the lifespan of the people in Nepal. While we enjoy our steaks and lamb roasts (and probably complain about the price), the people in Nepal are already suffering because changing climate has already impacted the production of their food crops - frequently their only supply of food and income. While we are arguing about what 'cleaning up our rivers' actually means in New Zealand, the streets in Nepal are filled with water trucks that use fossil fuels to carry drinking water to the people. A great many number of people still have no running water. And of course, tap water is certainly not drinkable.
There is no shortage of ways that our quality of life in New Zealand (and many other Western countries) leaves Kathmandu in the dust (pun unintended). We have everything from high levels of female literacy, a stable democracy, power, water, food, social benefits, good medical care and toilets. What is alarming however is that much of what we take for granted in New Zealand, actually contributes to the reduced quality of life for those people in countries like Nepal. We drive our excessively big cars to the supermarket to buy food that wasn't produced in New Zealand. We keep on eating meat, we keep on buying things we don't need. We keep burning fossil fuels because it is convenient, while more and more people around the world will suffer and struggle as climate change affects their critical food production. A critical lesson about climate change that we often forget is that it is not the most affluent of us that will be most affected. It is those communities already struggling for survival. 

As my fellowship here in Nepal draws to a close, I hope that I carry the extreme contrast of Kathmandu with me forever. While New Zealand students are learning about dystopian futures, in many places around the world this is their every day lived reality. I hope that at every moment I remember the enormous privileges and opportunities we are afforded in New Zealand, particularly in our schools. I hope that in 2018 and beyond, I not only appreciate these privileges and opportunities, but that I seize these to make a difference where I can. 

*All photos my yours truly (and the paraglider instructor). Please do not reproduce without attribution.