a breath of fresh air

a sabbatical rest, day 88

Fresh air is good if you do not take too much of it; most of the achievements and pleasures of life are in bad air.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Katie and I saw our shadow this morning, which has nothing to do with a prediction about spring. It meant, rather, that the sky was beginning to clear after several days of thick pollution. It is still an indistinct hazy orange, which it has been for several days. A thick blanket has settled over the valley, complicated by a lack of rain or wind and forest fires nearby.

According to one source that tracks air quality worldwide, “the main causes of pollution in Kathmandu are open burn fires, vehicular emissions, dust from construction sites and damaged areas left over from the earthquakes, all compounded by its geographical location, lacking the elevation and wind to allow these pollutants to disperse properly, instead of accumulating and rising to dangerous levels.” In addition to people managing their trash with open fires on the side streets, the festivals (we just got through Holi, which government officials tried unsuccessfully to limit) often involve bonfires.

The air quality index at the US Embassy just 2 miles (3.22 km) away is 362, which is considered dangerous. Here at our apartment in the Ratnapark area, it is a relatively unhealthy 158. You can compare that with 48 in Chicago today, or 42 in San Francisco. Or 12 in Detroit. You would also compare it to 476 in South Beijing, but what’s another 100 points give or take?

Photo from Kathmandu Post, March 29

Actually, the air quality here in Ratnapark is similar to that in Mumbai and Kolkata today, other polluted cities we have visited in Asia. But of course, the difference is we are living here temporarily, and it creates different challenges. Meanwhile, we’ve limited our daily walks, and have been taking the elevator in our building instead of bounding up the stairs. OK, we’ve never bounded up 7 flights of stairs, but we have managed to make it up a couple of times a day without feeling winded.

The government here is warning people to stay inside and even wear masks indoors, not because of Covid-19 but because of the air. Coverage of the air quality has dominated the front pages of the English newspapers I read, other than the government paper which tends to focus on the prime minister’s speeches and ribbon cutting activities.

The forecast here is for the AQI to drop below 150 by Easter Weekend, which is still considered poor by American standards, “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Frankly, I’m expecting it to feel like a breath of fresh(er) air. We could use it. We’re both recovering slowly from colds (Katie more slowly than I am), and the extra stress is noticeable. I’ve read that air quality is better above 4 floors, so our 6th-floor apartment is a blessing we did not expect. Out on our balcony, however, we often wear a mask. And somedays we take more naps. Or want to.

About 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, so air quality is an issue for most people. Since we live on 20 acres in rural Michigan, it’s not something we’ve thought about. But that’s one advantage of traveling, being aware of things you have not considered before. And not taking for granted the things you normally enjoy.

Nepal is one of the ten least developed countries in the world. They face many challenges, some I’m sure greater than this. I’m not here to solve this one. Or qualified. But it is still deeply gratifying to be here as a volunteer, focusing on needs I can address. The inconveniences and challenges are just part of it.

Cough. Cough.

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