Letters from Kathmandu #5: Trash

May 2021
Dear family and friends,
I’d like to continue my narrative from my fourth letter.  It will go backwards before it goes forwards; and, alas, it has to do with trash . . .
King’s College stands near a polluted little river, which smells awful and is strewn with garbage.  I mentioned it to N. when I arrived; he applauded my desire to get it cleaned up.  Thus came my first fantasy in Nepal: to take my students into (or at least near) the river and clean up the trash.  King’s College is interested in becoming a “communiversity,” which connects education to the community; and our immediate community, it seems to me, is the river.
A few days later, N. joked that maybe the government had heard me:  An excavator had appeared and looked like it was going to shovel out the river.  But there was no accompanying dump truck, and that told the tale:  The government wasn’t cleaning up the river; it was pushing the trash downstream.  The idea, I was told, was to get it to a shallower part of the river, where it would be cleaned up.  In practice, that rarely happened.  It just collected again.
My country has dumped carbon gases into the air for many decades, so that our planet’s ecosystem is severely threatened.   I have no right to criticize.  And as a boy, I avoided the garbage cans near the side of my house; I hated their smell and I pitied the garbage men.  It wasn’t until I saw the trash in Nepal that I remembered to buy carbon credits for my global flight: 17,000 miles.  They only cost me $45 dollars.
But maybe that’s the first lesson:  Cleaning up isn’t so expensive, at least on the individual level.  So three days ago, I went to the Bhat Bhateni supermarket – which, besides being a grocery store, has hardware, clothes, and electronics (it’s able to avoid the lockdown by having it all under one roof) – and I bought two rolls of trash bags.  I also got some rubber gloves; and I tried to buy boots, but my feet were too big.  The trash bags turned out to be awful – they’re so thin they break when you look at them – but A. said there’s no market in Nepal for good ones, because nobody cares about the trash.  But I put on my gloves and started cleaning up my neighborhood.
The first person to notice said, in English, “Thank you very much.”  Then I met an old Tibetan man who was also enthusiastic; he’d been to New Jersey and New York (I wonder if back during the “Hoboken” days?).  He’s since become a friend of mine.  Next, I was approached by a boy of about eight.  “What are you doing?” he asked.  “I’m cleaning up,” I said.  “Why?” he asked.  “Because I live here,” I said.  
Then he proceeded to help me.  Not only that; his sister and an older boy joined in.  They were super-enthusiastic about it.  (“Yuck!” the girl kept saying, laughingly, as she threw trash into a bag.)  Working as a team, we cleared a polluted stretch of alleyway a half-block away.  We found some nasty stuff in there; I kept saying, “Be careful of glass!” and “Wash your hands when we’re done!”  The older boy got some plastic bags from home and put them over his hands; the girl got mittens.  I had my rubber gloves, which I’d eventually cut on glass.  The irony was that we were picking up near a private English language school, which had a security guard and a pile of junk nearby . . .
From my research, the primary thing people throw away in Kathmandu is tobacco packets.  These are condom-wrapper-sized plastic packets of chewing tobacco.  Nepalis rip them open, take the tobacco, and toss them like cigarette butts (of which there are plenty).  Other popular items include newspapers, moldy clothing, and the ubiquitous blue plastic bags – they’re everywhere in Kathmandu.  I also found two hypodermic needle casings and plenty of suspicious-looking pill sheets.  Rags, bags, and old clothes . . . The older boy found a huge bra in an empty lot, which he raised gingerly on a stick, to laughter from the other kids.
These items collect in streets, gutters, empty lots, and anywhere there’s rubble.  I felt like an archeologist learning about an ancient civilization.  (Later, I’d find some pottery near an abandoned, and trashed, crematorium.  I cleaned and stacked the pottery; when I returned a few days later, it was gone.)  K. suggested we put the trash bags in the alley, so the thrice-weekly garbage service could pick them up the next morning; when I awoke, I saw that somebody had thrown an empty drink box on top of our bags.  A. told me that Nepalis see a place where there’s garbage, and they decide that must be the place to put their garbage.  Thus do empty lots become trash dumps.
The next day, I didn’t get much help from the kids.  I think their mother told them to stay away, which was probably for the best, because it wasn’t a healthy job.  But I continued collecting, including on their street corner; I wanted to show the kids and their families – who were poor, I think, and also unaccustomed to taking care of their street – that this wasn’t a lark.  It didn’t take me long to make a dent; I filled or half-filled (due to the thin materials) a number of bags.  We could clean up the entire Kathmandu Valley in one weekend if all three million people pitched in.
K. was supportive of my “project” (as I called it) and said he agreed with me “200%.”  But he kept pointing out the pretty things in our own courtyard, which was and is a beautiful space.  I told him, K., this is a great place, we need to care about the public space, too.  He agreed, but he probably couldn’t help thinking I was focused on the worst aspects of Kathmandu (which, maybe due to my stomach sickness, I was).
On one of my treks, I was walking near Patan Durbar, the old part of Lalitpur and the site of some gorgeous temples.  I found a little courtyard with a Buddhist temple in the middle:  No trash.  The courtyard was very small and the windows were very close together, so nobody could dump anything without being seen.  That’s also the secret – as I read recently – of some micro-lending done in India:  The debtors guarantee each other’s loans, which keeps them all honest.  So if the trash problem in Kathmandu is a “tragedy of the commons,” as one colleague told me, maybe it’s a tragedy of space that isn’t common enough, but a no man’s land. 
But old habits die hard.  One hilarious example:  I found a little Santa Claus figurine (the kind you’d hang on a Christmas tree) on the street corner.  I put it aside as a memento.  But the boy, who was watching me with his sister, was interested; so I gave it to him.  His sister seemed envious.  I told them to wash it because it was dirty; then I worked on a different part of the street.  When I came back, I found another Santa Claus figurine in the very same gutter . . . I said to the girl, “Now you can have one, too.”  But the boy shook his head and said, “I threw that one in there.”  I said, “You threw it back in the gutter?”  And he replied, innocently, “I didn’t want it.”  I had to explain to him that the point was to keep stuff out of the gutter . . . 
But I’ll be going back out soon.  I hid a couple of bags from yesterday’s garbage in the lot on the corner, because the garbage service doesn’t come until tomorrow, Sunday, the first day of the work week (Nepalis do six-day weeks).  Meanwhile, I’ll ask a question:  Why is there so much trash in the Kathmandu Valley?
In Hinduism, a believer finds Brahman, or ultimate reality, by identifying their deepest Self, or Atman, with it.  In other words, we go inside of ourselves to find truth.  This is reflected in practices like mediation, where we focus on our own breathing.  Living in Kathmandu, you see the practical necessity of the withdrawal into self:  The public spaces are crowded, noisy, and crazy, and you have to escape.  But the more we retreat into ourselves, the worse the public spaces may become.  We’re witnessing this in the USA, where people are moving behind virtual (and physical) walls, making us more sensitive and mean.  Nepalis call themselves “collectivists,” but they’re only so on the familial or ethnic scale; beyond that, it’s every man for himself.  Private property is much more important here than in the USA.  So it’s not surprising the public spaces are so maltreated.
Nepal’s trash problem could also be a clash of West and East, like two tectonic plates, the Indian and the Eurasian, smashing together.  Nepal had a policy of isolation until 1950; then it opened up to the world.  Nepali culture – like American culture in the 60’s (look at the end of the film, Woodstock; nothing but trash in that “garden”!) – hasn’t caught up with plastic.  We in the West invented something very strange: imperishable disposables.  Little tobacco wrappers don’t biodegrade.  The materials have changed; but in Kathmandu, at least, the behavior hasn’t.  The habits don’t fit the new “reality on the ground,” pun intended.  
Then again, Nepali private spaces are usually clean; so they know – they must know – what they’re doing is wrong.  When I saw K.’s passenger, during that trip to the wedding, toss the crumpled cup, his body turned slightly away.  He knew he shouldn’t be tossing it.  But everybody does it, so everybody does it.  And Hindu culture uses so much stuff – like the red and yellow paste they put on statues of the gods and temples, or the incense sticks they burn for rituals – they’re used to leaving things in public spaces.  But the plastic doesn’t wash away; it’s still there in the morning.  
It’s raining right now in Kathmandu, and the monsoon will soon come.  That rain won’t clear the gutters, nor wash all the garbage to the ocean, no matter how much rain we get.  But it does clear the air.  When I disembarked at the Tribhuvan Airport in April, Kathmandu smelled like a chemical factory; now it smells sweeter, at least after a good downpour.  And another reason to love the rain?  The dogs, briefly, go silent.  So we get a moment of peace (except for the crows, who seem to get louder in the rain).  The flip side of this – and there’s always a flip side in Kathmandu – is the stray dogs need to stay warm and dry.  I hope they’ll find spaces near the buildings and under awnings to dry off.  I like the strays in Kathmandu very much.
And, as it rains, I’m reminded of home.  I feel the ache of northern melancholy, which, in large doses, makes me depressed, but in small doses is nice.  So perhaps my letter today won’t end on an upbeat note, but with a reminder, at least to myself, that sadness can be beautiful, even in this wonderful, faraway place.
Now if I could just quit with the diarrhea . . .
Take care,


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