Last week I returned from a two month trip to Nepal and India. I went with the intention of collecting pika pellets (scat) from at least three National Parks in the Nepali Himalayas. Our first trek was in Langtang National Park, the park closest to Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal). This weeklong trip included Dr. Hadly, her close friend and collaborator on this project, Dr. Uma Ramkrishnan from NCBS (National Center for Biological Sciences), Bangalore, and her graduate student, Nishma Dahal. On this trip we collected hundreds of pika pellets which will yield extensive genetic data, the first genetic data from any pikas in Nepal.
After this glorious trip where we were not only left breathless from the 4300m (14,000 feet) elevation, but also by the beauty of the towering snow-covered Himalayas surrounding us, we returned to the culture rich yet polluted city of Kathmandu. Liz and Uma returned to their respective institutions and I began to plan the details of our next trek. Nishma and I had planned to go collect data in Annapurna Conservation Area, the most popular of the trekking areas and only a days drive northwest of Kathmandu. However, I quickly realized that the unpredictable and volatile political winds characteristic of Nepal were blowing a storm our way. The day before Nishma and I were going to leave for Annapurna a nationwide strike was called, along with the treat of a strike every day until May 27th, the deadline for the National constitution that was being written. Strikes mean that no vehicles are allowed on the roads. Busy thoroughfares in the capital turned into enlarged sidewalks, a lone motorcycle riding down the road would be yelled at and stopped by crowds who would decide if the driver would be allowed to proceed or if their vehicle would be torched to prove their point. Every store and school was closed and after a few days it became normal to find oneself in the middle of a crowd thousands strong, everyone waving red flags and chanting. Groups of Nepali police in riot gear adorned most street corners. Needless to say there was no way to get out of the city to Annapurna. Once finishing our lab work in Kathmandu we decided it would be best to leave Nepal before the May 27th deadline. In order to avoid being one of the many tourists dragging their luggage miles to the Kathmandu airport I got a taxi in the middle of the night before the protestors were out and flew to Bangalore, India where I spent two weeks working with our collaborator, Uma Ramkrishnan, in her lab at NCBS.
Back in Nepal, the 601 member Constitutional Assembly which was elected to write a new constitution in 2008, the same year that Nepal became a democratic republic, missed its deadline for the fourth time on May 27th. The Supreme Court refused to extend the deadline again and the prime minister dissolved the legislature and scheduled nationwide elections for November 22nd. Nepal is only about one third the size of California and houses over 90 languages, representing a vast number of communities divided into a strict cast system, each trying to get there interests incorporated into the constitution and grid locking any attempts at consensus. 27 political parties are already calling for the resignation of the current government and are refusing to take part in the November 22nd elections. So many different fractions are what have resulted in these seemingly endless strikes, each one called by a different group, effectively paralyzing the political process as well as the day to day activities of the country. As a result it is yet to be seen what type of resolution will bring these many fractions together into a united country and when, if ever the political protests will be quite enough for us to hear the story of climate change from the Himalayan pikas.
-Katie Solari (firstname.lastname@example.org)