I couldn’t have been more relieved to see the virescent, hilly city at last. It was the summer of 2016, and I was landing in Kathmandu after 30 hours of travel from Colorado, to LA, through China and finally on to Nepal. As we sank towards the airport, I watched the passing buildings – rows of brightly colored cement block-shaped buildings, all mismatched and different sizes. Some were fresh, some crumbling, and there were a few droopy huts. It’s otherworldly, coming from the United States; a vivid, welcoming sight. We wandered through the small airport to customs and paid for our tourist entry visas among a crowd of similarly dressed western travellers with large outdoor backpacks and waterproof duffel bags full of gear. We were all here for the same reason: to see and explore the majesty that is Nepalese wilderness, the Himalayas. Our visas were delivered across the customs counter with a blunt reminder not to drink the tap water, or any other water that was untreated. I feel that it’s normal for me when travelling to be careful about drinking the water, but this was an explicit and stern warning for us foreigners.
The Himalayas are grand, icy projections into the sky, surrounded by dry highlands, and further by thickly vegetated, green, craggy ravines. They grew out of a massive tectonic plate collision, and are still growing even today. They’ve been further carved out by glacier movement and melt water that flows from to tops, creating deep and seemingly endless river valleys. Water has been a large driving force in the shaping of the region, and when you see the landscapes of Nepal (not to mention places like the Grand Canyon), it is indisputably powerful. One will notice, however, that most bodies of water you encounter in Nepal, especially when you’re in urban settings, are sogged with brown and float unidentifiable, naxious looking froths. I first noticed this while we were being driven to our hotel from the airport.
The driver was from the mountain guide company, and when he picked us up at the airport, he told us not to let anyone help us load our bags into the car while we waited for him to find another group of passengers who’d been in on the same flight. Of course we were tricked into paying $40 to a group of gangly young men dressed in dusty, bright colored fleece jackets and hats. They’d posed as members of the agency, loaded our bags, and pestered us for money until our real guide came back and shooed them away. This deceiving way of begging was like nothing I’d experienced before in the States, and their desperation made me uneasy. But our unexpected “welcome” at the airport was soon overshadowed with wonder. The drive that followed felt out of one of those heterotopic climbing documentaries. We watched as we passed timeless stone temples strung with bright rows of prayer flags, and cows laying in the road carelessly as cars deliberately made paths around them; Nepal has a large Hindu population to which the cow is sacred. We passed buzzing market places where men, women and children alike sold spices, goods, and fake neon Adidas t-shirts galore. We crossed a small bridge over a long straight canal lined with those bright block houses, overlooked by misty, mysterious hills in the background. The water was dark and lumpy, and a small beach of garbage had accumulated along the sides. It looked as if anything living would shrivel to the touch of it.
On that first night in Kathmandu, our guide took us out for dinner and a night on the town to see the local life. Heaps of delicious Dal Bhat and papad bread were followed by small ceramic cups of rice wine. Because it was called “wine”, of course, I underestimated the strength of this liquor. I woke in the morning with a dry mouth, a blaring headache and foggy memories of dancing at a Nepalese club where the live performers sang convincing covers of Maroon 5 and Bob Marley. Too lazy to go downstairs to the counter for bottled water, I dug out my water filter for the upcoming backpacking trip and filled up from the bathroom tap. The water is somewhat treated for taps in Nepalese cities, but as clean and filtered as it were, it was tinged yellow and tasted absolutely rank, as if a stench could be teabagged, and had steeped for too long. I could only think of the murky waterway we’d seen on our drive in on the day before. Was I tasting that trash beach? Those muddy gurgles? I hoped that people who had to drink this water had at least become accustomed to the taste, and didn’t detest drinking it so much as I did in that moment. Safe to say, I made it down to the front desk after all.
Now, these observations about the water are not to say anything badly of Nepal. Kathmandu is a brilliant city that has so much character and life swelling in the streets. I loved it. I loved peeling fresh juicy mangoes from fruit carts on the street, and trying to get photos with the temperamental monkeys who live at the temples. I loved the way the the busses were filled with colored tassels and played hindustani melodies on and off with 2000s Akon, and I loved how now and then you’d see a man with a chicken sitting on his lap. But we had to rinse our mangos twice with bottled water before peeling them, because the fruit mad had washed them in tap water from a flask at his hip, and we could have gotten sick. Over 25% of people live below the poverty line (Asian Development Bank 2018), and frankly can’t splurge on clean water. Also I feel I should contextualize – this is not poverty in the same sense that we see in the States. I’d venture to say that the middle class quality of life in Nepal is what we might consider to be below the poverty line in America. Impoverished people in under-developed countries usually face a harsher reality and have fewer resources for relief. If they get sick from dirty water and they can’t afford medicine, well that’s probably just too bad. The UN 2016 sustainability report claims that in 2015, 2.4 billion people in the worls lacked proper sanitation facilities for drinking water, and 946 million of those people did not have any access to sanitation at all. This is a huge health risk when waste and wastewater is dumped into rivers with no treatment.
After the first day of backpacking, I spent the first of many nights that I would spend at a teahouse. It was quiet and quaint, and I swooned over the sweet old donkey that lived in the yard. When I went for a shower, I first sat down to relieve myself on a real toilet, instead of in the bushes along the trail. It was a lovely open air bathroom with an epic view out across a jungle canyon with the raging Marsyangdi River below. Occasionally a porter with a huge load would wobble across the wonky suspension bridge that I was doomed to cross the next morning. The air was hot and humid, and I excessively enjoyed the cool shower water running over my tired body. We ate dinner later under a thatch tent in the the yard, and I noticed a pipe running down the hillside from the teahouse. My guide told us that it was the sewage. It drained right into the river.
Nepal is home to over 28 million people, and tourism makes up over 50% of the Gross Domestic Income (GDI) (World Bank 2015). Clearly it is very economically important for Nepal that it maintains its tourism appeal, as it provides livelihood for a great number of people. This is often the case for third world countries who haven’t been able to create booms in other industries. But a problem here is that the people generating income from tourism are much more likely to be able to afford access to clean water. The Nepalese people who have less to do with tourists are the ones suffering more in this regard. Coverage of water and sanitation facilities in Nepal is below the average for Asia (Merz et al. 2003), and this is not the mention the scarcity that prevails in rural watersheds. Many remote agricultural populations rely on mostly rainwater and irrigation, which stretches an already tight water budget (Merz et al. 2003). If these people have scarce access to water, along with low income, people will drink what they have access to,
and it usually won’t be treated water. In these rural watersheds, fecal contamination is a huge problem (Merz et al. 2003). This is only exaggerated in agricultural areas where livestock feces make their way into melt water and runoff that pours into the main supply, accumulating more and more pollution along the way. Densely populated urban settings at the bottom of the watershed face greater struggles for clean water, as social inequalities reduce certain populations’ access to sanitary waste disposal (WHO). In the case of crowding, like a slum for example, the concentration of contaminants reaching water supplies increases and thus create hotspots for infectious disease transmission, so people downstream are getting sick at higher rates (WHO).
I got sick one day after I mindlessly opened my mouth in the shower and filled it with water like I do when I shower at home in the US. I was at one of the most beautiful locations I could imagine: a small red building, called the Rainbow Teahouse, on the edge of a mesa that looked over a deep, steep canyon. We were surrounded by bright green rice paddies, small wooden homes, and calico goats. The host was warm and welcoming, and I prodded her son to finish his homework. We could see the real mountains in the distance, monsters looming over us. The next day was to be the beginning of our climb up out of the jungle and into the drier alpine climate, so I was looking forward to rest and relaxation. I showered, wandered around saying hello to goats, and took photos of this place that felt like paradise. After dinner when I was laying in bed reading, however, I begun to feel ill. I was getting feverish and having pains when I felt that gurgle, and knew I was going to shit myself if I didn’t make a run for it. As if traveller’s diarrhea alone wasn’t bad enough, I had to squat over a hole-in-the-floor toilet for 45 minutes having a face off with a huge black spider in the ceiling corner of the tiny bathroom. The spider must have been 7 inches in diameter. Usually I didn’t mind the squatty potties, as they are standard toilet in much of Asia, but my legs were sore enough as was.. My attention switched between burning bouts of sick, the spider, and the view out the window to my left – a tall, thin waterfall across the canyon, glimmering with waves of rainbow in the evening light. I presume this is the reason they called it Rainbow Teahouse. The next morning at breakfast I was dehydrated and tired – not looking forward to 7 hours of walking. When I told my guide about my evening, I asked him if the spiders were poisonous. He said, “Oh yes Madeline very poisonous, but don’t worry they will only bite you if you make them mad.” I pondered this, ‘great’, I thought, ‘and how exactly do you make them mad?’, while struggling to get my muesli down, and alas another large spider appeared from under the surface of the breakfast table. I yelped, and the host’s little son fearlessly smashed it with his homework book.
After that night, I took my travel medication to kill whatever bug had attacked my insides. I made sure to be extra careful about keeping my mouth closed in the shower, and double filtered water when I could not access bottled water. I got sick from the water and I just popped a few of my expensive pills from America to feel better in a matter of hours. I could spend money on safer water and I had a high quality water filter with iodine tablets on hand at all times. If I got really sick, I had a travel health insurance policy which would have covered the price of a helicopter to airlift me to the hospital for care in Kathmandu, and the US Embassy was just a phone call away to get emergency help. I was in Nepal facing the same demons as the locals, but I was practically invincible against them. In comparison, the people living in these places probably have a bit more immune resistance to Nepalese water microbes than I did, but they are as helpless as me against the nastier ones like cholera and dysentery. Approximately 30-40,000 people in Nepal die of diarrheal diseases every year, and many of these are cases of cholera (The Himalayan Times 2017). If my host’s son were to become sick, would they have to walk the many days back to Kathmandu? There were no roads here for vehicles, and no hospitals around, would they make it in time? Would they be able to afford medicine and doctors with the approximately $7 that I was charged for two meals and a bed for the night? Probably not.
A little over a week later, it was the night before the summit where we would cross over Thorong-La pass at 17,769 feet elevation. I’d noticed in the days of ascent how dramatically it became drier. Rivers branched up into smaller and smaller streams, the plants shifted to more drought resistant species, and I was dustier at the end of each day rather than drenched in sweat and muggy jungle grime. There were no more showers. If you wanted to bathe you were given a medium sized bucket of stove-heated water, and you had to pay for it. If you wanted more hot water with your tea leaves, it costed extra. They were trying to encourage conservation of their water, and of the precious fuel that sustained them up so high. Almost every village that we passed on the way up had had agricultural operations, growing potatoes and buckwheat, until the elevation became too high for crops. They had so little water to rely on for this, and so many people relied on these crops for the bulk their caloric intake. It is expensive to have other food portered up. And it was so dry. My lips and the skin on my hands were cracking against the parched, cold air, and I hardly slept the night before at high camp (16,010 feet).
The push over the summit was spectacular, but were some of the hardest hours of my life. My legs were heavy like they were full of lead and it felt like no breath was quite enough. It was misty and bitter cold, and the air would swirl and transform into tiny ice crystals that battered your face. Upon summiting, I was euphoric- I was so proud of myself and my adrenaline surged, amplified by the lack of oxygen. The sun poked through here and there, and made the ice in the air shimmer while I was stepping over soft heaps of prayer flags, and drifts of snow towards the mountain shrine made by all of the people who’d passed through here before. I was on top of the world, but I still felt so small surrounded by massive snowy peaks around us that somehow rose higher still. Those moments are what people travel to the Himalayas for. I tied my strand of flags into the collection of others and quickly began the long descent back towards civilization, running from the cold. It was long, and what they don’t tell you is that your legs get more sore from the hours of steep descent than they do from hiking up. But we kept going down, passing unbothered yaks grazing across from us in the rich mountain meadows. We were stepping over small meltwater streams, and I realized I’d just been near the top of a watershed. That water was probably as clean as it got in Nepal, and the only ones drinking it were the yaks.
The villages that we passed through got bigger each day. And suddenly we were in Jomsom, a town where there were vehicles and real roads that I hadn’t seen for weeks. We spent a night here, and celebrated with friends we’d made along the trail with a surplus of Everest beers and second and third helpings of Dal Bhat. The next day we took a bus to Pokhara, a famous city stop on the way back to Kathmandu. It has been raining so we got stuck in the mud going up a steep road. Everyone had to get out and push the bus. We were in hysterics as the tires sprayed us with mud, all the while we were under threat of slipping off into the screaming brown white-water rapids hundreds of feet below at the bottom of a sheer cliff to our left. What a time.
We spent a few days in Pokhara relaxing, eating, shopping and sleeping in real beds. Pokhara is known for its big blue lake, in the middle of which sits a sacred little island with the Tal Barahi Hindu temple. Before dinner one day we opted to rent a paddle boat and go out to see it. On the island you can buy grain to feed the lake tilapia and the scrappy flock of pigeons that called the temple home. I bought a cone of grain and leaned over the water. It was so murky. Little bits of plastic sat in the water like a pulp, and yellowish pods of foam washed against the edge. A used condom passed with the slow current. This world-famous lake, in a stunning green valley at the base of the Annapurna range seemed so beautiful when I saw it from above as the bus descended down into Pokhara. But then, standing at the temple, it was tainted and it was so sad. This was no doubt the water that would be coming through the taps when I went to shower that night. And some people don’t have running water, and probably took their water directly from this lake to get by. I avoided ordering “fresh tilapia” at dinner.
In Nepal’s urban settings, like Pokhara and Kathmandu, surface water is almost all completely polluted by industrial waste as well as untreated sewage surplus from highly concentrated residential areas (The Water Project). This problem is increased by a widespread lack of education on sanitation practices in Nepal (The Water Project). Untreated sewage reaching the water supply is a recipe for disease outbreak, and though it is also an issue in rural settings, I find it particularly concerning in cities. Nepalese people, like people in almost every other underdeveloped nation, risk cholera, dysentery, typhoid, gastroenteritis, diarrhea, etc. (UNICEF) on a daily basis. Diarrhea is an inconvenience in the States, we just have to chug some Pepto Bismol and move on, but in Nepal it can be a death sentence. All of these diseases are potentially deadly without treatment, especially for kids and the elderly. If even just one person is sick with one of these diseases and their waste goes into a water source, thousands of people can catch it. Kathmandu produces over 150 tonnes of sewage waste daily, and nearly half of this is simply dumped into rivers with no treatment (The Water Project). Even waste that is not disposed of into bodies of water, such as waste stored in dump sites, can still enter the water (Manfredi et al. 2010). Nepal is prone to flooding in the monsoon season, so any dump sites in certain proximity to water still have high potential to contaminate water, be it sewage, rubbish, or chemical waste (Manfredi et al. 2010). This is not to mention the increased instances of cholera during flooding that is the norm in much of South Asia. Some families generate enough income to purchase bottled water for drinking and cooking, but even they are still exposed to unsafe water when bathing and cleaning. I experienced this myself from getting water in my mouth in the shower. I believe that treated running water for all is the only real long term solution.
Easy access to clean water is a purchasable luxury in many parts of the world, when it should rather be a basic human right. Most of the people who are facing the grunt of water crises are not people that generate expendable income. They are often agriculturalists who may have very little to do with the cash economy of hospitality and souvenirs that tourists primarily contribute to while travelling. I feel deep disappointment at the idea of tourists like myself going to these places, and using our money to buy clean water to maintain our own health and comfort, while the residents are getting sick from waterborne disease. Water is considered to be a free public good in Nepal (Merz et al. 2003). The problem with this is that without taxing water, there is little budget for creating water sanitation facilities and infrastructure to bring water to places that need it. If water sources face privatization for this cause, water will become increasingly expensive and many people will be even less able to afford it (Harvey 2007), which will further decrease their access to any water at all. The UN Development Project implemented a Kathmandu project in 2008 to subsidize bottled water. It’s managed to provide a few thousand people with access to clean drinking water, but there are millions more in Nepal, and billions in the world, who continue to struggle for water.
When we venture out into the world, we are bound to encounter peoples not so fortunate as ourselves. Clean tap water is something that most Americans take for granted; I am guilty of it even still today when I let my shower run for too many minutes to warm up before I get in. I have not only clean water, but hot, running water. I was fortunate to be born into a comfortable home in America, and I shouldn’t forget that. I think that as travellers, we have a duty of reciprocity. If we want to enjoy a place, we should give something back.I was lucky to learn these things through my travels, but not everyone can travel. We have a voice, and we should be talking more about these issues. The more people who know, the more people will care, and that’s the best way to reach the ears of the people who will find the answers someday. There is no good deed in taking a break from hiking, and drinking from a freshly opened bottle of water while taking Instagram photos with village children who drink from a murky tap. So go and travel, and tell your epic adventure stories when you return home, but don’t forget to mention the people of Nepal, and how much our realities differ around the world. I was nostalgic for Nepal before I was even on the plane, and, clutching a plastic water bottle, I watched the little colored block buildings disappear into the hills. I said goodbye to all of the people of Nepal, who would stay and continue eating delicious curries and walking among those magnificent mountains, where even non-believers can’t help but question how such a place could exist if it weren’t by the hand of some god.