We’re Disappointing Saraswati

Monday 22/01/18: Today’s adulting fail: Managed to accidentally tie-dye two of my t-shirts because I’m an unfortunate mix of lazy (soaking my clothes overnight in a bucket), stupid (too much detergent along with an inky black top), and pig-headed (I point-blank ignored the advice of Ama and her 30+ years’ worth of experience in hand-washing clothes).

So it’s quite timely that today we celebrate Saraswati puja, in honour of the awesome Goddess responsible for knowledge, music, learning, art, wisdom, philosophy, creativity and nature. Saraswati has it all going on! I should probably pay attention.

We head along at 8am to one of the village temples on the side of the hill and I’m surprised to see a long queue (surprised because after three months in Nepal, this is one of the first examples of organisation that I’ve seen!) snaking along the path.

Ama had mentioned that some super-keen worshippers would arrive from 3am but I thought it’d be quieter by now. There’s a nice atmosphere though as people wait in line for the flower blessings, a tika and a chance to ring the bell. I love the bell ringing tradition here. The clang of brass is considered lucky as it lets the gods know that a worshipper is present. It’s also very pretty.

The temple is cut in to the steep hill alongside a small stream and is decorated with colourful prayer flags. The viewpoint should give us a breath-taking view of the lush green valley but as usual, it’s the smoking brick factories of Bhaktapur that draw my eye.

The brick kilns of Bhaktapur

I’m not sure Saraswati, Goddess of Nature, would be too impressed with the eighteen chimney stacks that can be seen from her place of worship.

There are estimated to be 1,100 brick kilns in Nepal with approximately 200 or so in the Kathmandu valley. The tall cylinder stacks belch thick grey smoke across the beautiful basin. High demand for building materials has seen an increase in production of cheap brick but there are no incentives for clean or socially responsible operations. Often, the inhumane working conditions even include children within the workforce.

Before I arrived in Nepal, I envisaged mountains, smiley rosy-cheeked people, and the freshest of Himalayan air. While two out of three ain’t bad, I couldn’t have been more wrong about the air quality. Due to its rapid urbanisation and population growth, Nepal currently sits within the unenviable list of top 10 countries with highest air pollution.

Pollution is now the single largest cause of death for people in developing countries – around one in seven people will die from polluted air in low income countries!

The Environmental Performance Index 2017’s report stated that “75% of the total population in Nepal is exposed to unsafe levels of fine particulate matters“.

In 2017, Kathmandu was ranked the 5th worst city in the world for air pollution.

We stayed in Kathmandu for three weeks when we arrived in Nepal and were forced to buy face-masks almost immediately. Walking about town without the cloth masks felt like chain-smoking twenty cigarettes. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I downloaded an air pollution app just to avoid wandering about if the forecast looked particularly bad. I’ve not needed the app since arriving in the cleaner air of Changu but after checking it now for the sake of writing this, I’m glad I’m not in Kathmandu today!

During periods of heavy traffic, the pollution level can sometimes reach twenty times that of the World Health Organisation’s safe upper limit.

Two city-wide schemes are currently suffocating the population’s breathing even further: a huge project to install pipes for drinking water and a separate road expansion project, both of which result in roads being torn up and thick dust hanging heavy in the air.

Dusty much?

Added to that, you have the pollution from diesel generators, as well as all of the exhausts from Kathmandu’s heavy traffic: motorbikes, cars, lorries, tractor shells with open motors, ancient buses, taxis…

Tractor shell with open engine

As is so unfortunately often the case in a developing country, inefficient and ineffective government can be blamed.

Two years after being implemented, police have only just started enforcing a law that bans vehicles over twenty years old from the roads.

Even worse, is that a ten-year-old tax on diesel and petrol, which should have been used to fight air pollution, has gone unspent, according to The Kathmandu Post, “The Department of Environment, admits the failure to use the fund for dealing with pollution. ‘Due to the lack of proper mechanism, it is far from clear as to who should be spending the fund and how,’ said Durga Prasad Dawadi, director general of the DoE”.

Really?!

The Goddess Saraswati embodies all that is pure and sublime in nature as well as being the patron of pure wisdom: I don’t think I’m the only one that needs to take lessons.

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