Three weeks into the lockdown, foreign embassies in Kathmandu are still trying to fly home the last of their remaining nationals from Nepal, but there are many expatriates who refuse to be repatriated
Since March 24, there have been more than 25 chartered flights flying tourists and expats back to Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Brazil. But many foreigners have chosen to stay back in Nepal and wait out the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve made my life here for many years and the situation in Canada doesn’t seem better,” says Zachary Barton from Canada who has been propagating permaculture in Nepal since 2003.
On the phone from Fikkal Bazar in Ilam he told us: “In the past 20 years we’ve been through the Maoist war, a revolution, earthquake and blockade. Nepalis are extremely resilient. They’re not making a run for things, not panic buying toilet paper. I feel better being here actually — people deal with things without freaking out.”
On 11 April, 141 Canadians were flown out from Kathmandu on Qatar Airways, but for some the $3,000 price tag for a one-way economy ticket to Toronto was not worth it, considering uncertain times even back home. The New Zealand consulate also repatriated 27 nationals on 1 April, but twice as many Kiwis have decided to stay on in Kathmandu, Pokhara and other parts of Nepal.
“Canada took too long to repatriate its people and tickets were too expensive,” says 38-year-old Daniel Valdizan, an English-language professor in China who came to Nepal after universities there shut down in early January.
He adds: “Most of us who chose to stay back agree that people here have been nothing but friendly and understanding to tourists, and I don’t feel unsafe here.”
Indeed, guest houses in Thamel, Pokhara, Bandipur and other tourist spots have offered subsidised room rates and even free food for stranded tourists. Many have posted videos on YouTube full of praise for Nepali hospitality. The Department of Immigration has also said foreigners on tourist visas will not be fined for overstaying when they leave.
Some French and Spanish trekkers who were in the mountains when the lockdown was announced have decided to stay on in Pisang in Manang. A dozen or so European, American and other nationals are said to be chilling out by the lakeside in Pokhara and relaxing in the rustic charm of Bandipur.
A survey of various Kathmandu-based embassies this week showed that about one-third of staff are still in Nepal, but most with families have gone home. Foreigners working for bilateral agencies have kept only essential staff in Nepal.
“I was in India when all of this started happening and got back here by the skin of my teeth on the last day. I was so happy to be back,” says Gloria Jones from Canada who is an adviser at a monastery here. “I have friends and family in Canada and no one’s trying to convince me to go back. I think they’re a little jealous of how happy I am here.”
Douwe Kiran Soeting has been in Nepal for only three years but considers the Himalayan nation more of a home than his native Netherlands, and has decided to stay back helping at the Khagendra New Life Home where he supports 75 people with disabilities.
“While here, at least I can keep people informed, help them stay positive and make sure they have enough funding for food,” says the 41-year-old.
Cesar Morales was invited to train Nepali tennis players preparing for the forthcoming regional championships and the Olympics. He was supposed to travel to Spain and Italy before flying home to Chicago.
“Nepal is still one of the safest countries to be in right now and people here have been wonderful. Flying with so many people and with multiple layovers back home to my parents who are 65 is a risk I cannot take,” Morales said from his flat in Satdobato.
Briton Lesley D Junlakan is waiting it out in Nepal until she can return to Bangkok. Freelance writer and photographer who previously used to teach at Thammasat University in Thailand spends five months a year in Nepal volunteering at Kag Chode Monastery in Kagbeni and Pokhara.
“I’m trying to make my time here worthwhile, documenting the lockdown and how it has affected people here, which I hope will be useful for the future,” says Junlakan who is now living in a guesthouse near Thamel.
Graphic designer Tom Cisar from Austria has been volunteering in Tsum Valley since 2014. He is now in Pokhara with few other foreign nationals who have also chosen to stay back.
“There is xenophobia in many parts of the world during this crisis, but Nepal hasn’t had such a problem yet. This disease is no one’s fault, and all of us of different race and colours have to fight it together.”