In Nepal water and light are hard to come by. The city does not have enough electricity to go around, and so neighborhoods are forced to take turns with the energy. Each district is given a schedule when they will get light, normally in four rotating blocks of six hours. Six hours on, six hours off. So each night the light sweeps across the city like a choreographed dance. I try to imagine it from space, a photograph on long exposure. Not like our city lights in the United States that glare up and down the eastern seaboard in a constant unwavering glow. Here in Nepal you have to time everything: when you shower, when you cook, when you watch the news, charge your laptop. Even the hours you are given light promise nothing. Sometimes the power goes out when it is not supposed to and doesn’t come back on.
My first night in my home stay, the light was supposed to come on at 7:00pm. We had just finished dinner by candlelight sitting cross-legged on the floor, when the one bulb rooted to the center of the ceiling flickered on. Still struck with the novelty of living by candlelight, I was a bit disappointed as my little three-year-old host brother Tenzin leapt up and ran straight for the television. Bollywood commercials in Nepali soon blared through the tiny one room where the family pretty much exists. My Pala (“father” in Tibetan) stood up and turned the channel to the news. Every now and then I could make out a line or two cut from American footage, a clip of Obama’s State of the Union. But the words would blur into Tibetan mid-sentence. I am beginning to realize this is a life where you catch what you can.
When I first heard about this rotation of light called load shedding, I was under the impression that the lack of electricity was due to low levels of water in the rivers. During the winter, the water is locked in the snows of the Himalayas. The monsoon rains of June promise a release of the precious water that flows out of the Himalayas to feed nine of Asia’s major rivers that supply drinking water to some three billion people across the continent. Although this is partially true and light allotments do increase through April and May, the lack of light is not only due to the natural shifting of seasons.
China and Nepal, both with access to the Himalaya’s bank of water have been proactive about installing dams to yoke the continents’ mighty rivers. A team of 250,000 engineers have been trained to build dams that (are supposed to) generate electricity. One hundred fifty have been built, and another five hundred are slotted. However, my host father admitted that even as foreign aid and investment continue to pour in, the people who live here are still rationing their use of light and do not see the effects of development. The situation has only gotten worse over the past decade. and some say the dams are less about supplying light and more about controlling the lives of the billions of people who depend on the rivers downstream.
As the dams are built with promises of light that may or may not find their way into the homes of the Nepalis and Tibetan exiles, families are more concerned with what is in their face. Candles burn down on the dresser. Flashlights become magic. When you use the bathroom it sits in the toilet until the water comes back on. Some pay for pumps to move water to tanks on the roof, so when the power shuts off gravity can feed their faucets. Even still, wash is only done when absolutely necessary. Showers are hard to come by and take the form of a bucket of tepid water once a week. You squat in the bathroom and splash it over your body, shivering because the houses have no heat. It swirls into a drain by the toilet. This way the bathroom is cleaned simultaneously. Used to a schedule of more frequent bathing, I find myself trying to wash up mid-week. My Amala (“mother” in Tibetan) brings me a recycled 2-liter Coca-cola bottle and I drizzle it over my body. This is as good as it gets. I feel ashamed at how long I let the shower run in the States. All of the girls in my program have stopped shaving. There isn’t enough water to wash the soap off anyway.
As I write this by candlelight, the stub of my candle is less than an inch high. When it dies the room will darken, and the heat it throws across the room will be swallowed in the singing of Kathmandu. Just because there is no light, the city still lives on in darkness. People simply time their movement in the flashes of swerving headlights.