At dusk on Sunday the Bouddhanath stupa glowed with light from 50,000 butter lamps, arranged in a crescent to symbolise the cosmos, each flame was a prayer for peace.
This was the way (see pic, right) 500 Nepal-based expats expressed their opposition to war-whether it is the impending war on Iraq, or Nepal's own domestic conflict. This symbolic gesture for unity and peace came as long-term expat residents of Kathmandu from Australia, the US, Britain and Canada are torn between leaving and staying in the land they love.
One American who has lived in Kathmandu for 25 years told us: "Because of the Maoists we wanted to leave, but after 9-11 we think, hey, we are not going to be more secure anywhere else in the world so might as well just stay. And now with the ceasefire we hope we can once more see the beautiful and peaceful Nepal that brought us here."
With the royal massacre and the increasingly brutal insurgency, many expats in Kathmandu had been leaving. Some others who might have stayed decided the visa hassles were just not worth it. But for the die-hard Nepalophile, despite the overcrowding, pollution and the fears of the future, there is still no other place like Kathmandu. They have stayed on, hoping and praying that things will take a turn for the better. The lamp-lighting at Bouddha last weekend was a prayer that the ceasefire will hold and lead to lasting peace.
"Rather than moving from Shangri-la to Shangri-la, you stop, call a country home and try to help it through a difficult period," says another expat, who like many interviewed for this article asked that their names not be used. "Of course, there's a feeling that the heat's slowly being turned up here, but at a point, one has to make a stand in your birth or adopted country. My home base is Nepal and that's where my heart is."
Despite Nepal's deteriorating economy, an IT expert from Europe is still keen to share his ideas with Nepali entrepreneurs. "It's low risk because you're investing knowledge and ideas, not physical infrastructure," he says. "But I can understand the concerns of people who have invested in construction and equipment."
In November, the US Embassy gathered all nationals here for a security briefing. It stressed the random, indiscriminate and unpredictable nature of Maoist violence could increase the likelihood of Americans in Nepal being caught in the crossfire. That spooked a lot of expats, but with fears of terrorism back home in America they shrugged their shoulders and decided to stay, taking comfort in the fact that no foreigners had actually been harmed in Nepal.
As one US citizen working in Kathmandu points out, a distinction has to be drawn between people who work here and people who actually invest here. "I wouldn't consider leaving unless two things happened. One, if Maoist ideology was specifically targeted against Americans, and if, after espousing such an ideology or policy, that such incidents should occur," he says, "It's far more dangerous to be a Nepali in Nepal that a foreigner. Look how many Nepali people have been killed. There is plenty of danger. Westerners could get hurt, but it is not commensurate with what the average Nepali faces."
Still other expatriates like Sinagaporean restaurateur Erick Tan moved to Kathmandu in 2000 despite warnings from friends about political unrest. Tan runs Singma restaurant in Jhamsikhel with two other Singaporeans and a Malaysian partner. He calls himself an optimist, one who sees "possibilities instead of problems". Tan is happy about the ceasefire and hopes the peace talks will be successful.
"It is really good news for the whole country, and for us too," he said. "People have not been so willing to eat out at night, maybe that's going to change." Tan has no regrets about moving into Nepal, and says the pace of life here gives him quality time with his wife and three children. His only complaint is about visas. "We're here to do business yet the government hassles us for visas which are expensive and difficult to obtain."
Nepal's unfriendly visa policy and growing fears of violence have already convinced many to move on. A Danish expatriate who has lived in Nepal for the past few years says, "Nepal is a wonderful place, but it is impossible to stay any longer." He is looking to India where tax laws, visa regulations and land ownership laws encourage foreign investment and enterprise. He says he had to spend an extra $200 to renew his business visa because of delays at the immigration office.
Clark Warren and the Naropa Institute recently shifted operations to Sikkim after 17 years in Nepal. It wasn't easy to uproot and move, but the safety of his students became paramount after an emergency evacuation of two students from Phaplu when the truce between the government and the Maoists collapsed in late 2001. Sikkim was Warren's fallback option.
"Most students were not willing to come to Nepal given the tense and unpredictable situation. Gangtok is smaller, cleaner, safer, and in a more natural setting than Kathmandu," says Warren, who is sceptical that the Maoists will ever change their spots. But he says he hasn't completely given up on Nepal.
Another expat who hasn't is New Zealander, Peter Stewart. The director of Himalayan Mountain Bikes who put Nepal on the map for adventure bike rallies says business fell by 90 percent, and it didn't look like things would pick up much. So he is looking beyond the Himalaya to ensure the business stays afloat. "Luckily we've been invited by the Sri Lanka Tourism Board to open a branch there," says Stewart who spent the last few months setting up shop on the recently-peaceful island nation. "Sri Lanka is a perfect example where peace has been made and the country is starting to prosper."