site visits & himalayan vistas
From the middle to the end of June, I was fortunate enough to travel to Kathmandu as part of the project with Taking the High Road to extend the facilities of ChoraChori's refuge in Godawari.
Kathmandu is a complex and confronting place that can span centuries in the space of a few streets. However, little of this can be attributed to the nostalgic urgency we in Britain feel to preserve traditions - I saw dozens on monks on their smart phones - and far more to Nepal's fascinating geopolitical situation and continuing efforts at post-earthquake reconstruction.
Surrounded by India on three sides and Chinese Tibet on the fourth, hemmed in by mountains on all sides, you could be forgiven for thinking that 'between a rock and a hard place' might be the Nepalese national motto. Its natural resources extend to water (in liquid and frozen form), mountains and fertile valleys, no further, and modern conveniences of the 21st Century co-exist with a constant potential for resource scarcity. Rolling, 18-hour blackouts of the electricity supply (from India) are not uncommon, nor are landslides (or political 'differences' with India) disrupting the supply of petroleum, gas and other essentials, all of which renders a dependency on foreign imports an impossibility.
Thus has self-sufficiency been thrust upon the country.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the fringes of Kathmandu. This is where there still exists the space for people to grow their own corn, potatoes and squash (as well as a variety of more exotic fruits and vegetables I couldn't necessarily identify) and raise livestock such as chickens and goats. Rainwater collection helps alleviate water stress, solar thermal is widespread and, on the more affluent houses, photovoltaic arrays provide back-up during blackouts. The more technocentric approaches extend into the city centre and a rooftop vista reveals panels and water butts on most buildings - however, from the ground on the narrow streets of the city such things are invisible.
The streets themselves are crowded, dirty and noisy, lined with buildings in many and various states of repair. Traffic is chaotic and seemingly self-governed rather than following any strict highway code (excepting "don't hit anyone") with lorries, cars, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians and sacred cows in constant competition for space. Sounding your horn is warranted in every situation - taking a corner, preparing to overtake another vehicle, overtaking another vehicle, having another vehicle overtake you and et cetera - and this wall of sound fills the day. By night the city streets quickly quieten (everywhere but touristic Thamel, at least) and dogs take over from vehicles in the suburbs, occasioning intermittent canine cacophonies, but for the most part the nights pass peacefully.
The impact of the 2015 earthquake linger on. In the central districts of the city, the majority of buildings have been repaired or propped and made safe; beyond the extent of the ring road you find streets of extensively damaged structures and people reduced to living in partially repaired buildings or still even in tents. In the villages beyond Kathmandu, where reconstruction efforts have been less concerted, there exist houses with holes where there should be walls - for the lucky ones - and whole farming complexes and villages reduced to rubble elsewhere.
Amidst the certainty of these shortages and the poverty exacerbating them, it is of course understandable that families leave for India to try and find a better life; sometimes children are taken along, sometimes they go alone to unburden their families. If these children are (fortunate enough to be) picked up by the authorities and placed in underfunded, overcrowded government care, in steps ChoraChori.
Unfortunately, those best laid plans of February's post to have the build underway by now were foiled by a series of delays and miscommunications from a potential contractor. However, we (myself, ChoraChori and the cyclists) are all in agreement that there's a significant silver lining to this particular cloud. With spiralling cost estimates threatening to blow the budget and the monsoon underway before the cyclists arrived, delaying the start of the project was inevitable. Now the British contingent are all temporarily returned to the UK, able to reflect on our visit to the Godawari refuge and our meetings with the inspirational ChoraChori team, we feel confident this European summer can be spent developing a more contextually appropriate response to better meet the needs of these children.
Phil, Rory and Sam return to Nepal in September to begin the build: watch this space for updates on the redesign!