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DDT in the Himalayas – the Locals Love It

In the early days of DDT it was thought to be the wonder pesticide to kill all creepy-crawlies that threatened our crops. Smiling PR men poured it on their cornflakes for the news cameras. Then some scientists began to notice that the new product was alarmingly carcinogenic and, worse, once it entered the food chain it didn’t come out again. It was even to be found in the blood of polar bears.

In the early days of DDT it was thought to be the wonder pesticide to kill all creepy-crawlies that threatened our crops. Smiling PR men poured it on their cornflakes for the news cameras. Then some scientists began to notice that the new product was alarmingly carcinogenic and, worse, once it entered the food chain it didn’t come out again. It was even to be found in the blood of polar bears.

This left the chemical companies with a dilemma. Not a moral one, obviously, but a financial quandary. They still had mountains of the stuff and it was going to be realy expensive to safely dispose of it. The some genius worked out that while they couldn’t sell it there was nothing in the law against giving it away. The Western governments loved the idea as it beefed up their aid packages and the Indians loved it as they didn’t really believe in cancer anyway. Nothing in the Vedas about blood cells.

So now Himalayan farmers receive tons of DDT absolutely free and they walk up and down the hillside sprinkling the stuff out of buckets like confetti. Protection? Well, they might wear a raincoat.

“Medicine for tree!” One farmer proudly told me as he arrived at my house to hose down the orchard. Within minutes my sinuses were streaming, my eyes had practically closed and I could feel my lungs beginning to burn. I’m not sure that anyone has bothered to measure the rate of cancer in Himalayan villages but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a correlation. And the last time I passed through that area the apples had failed to grow that year. Locals blamed the warm winter but who really knows?

The people in the Himalayas were a lot cooler than the Indians in the plains. They had the mountains in their blood and felt the changing of the seasons like the beat of their hearts. Most villagers lived together at close quarters with their families and led simple, stress-free lives. In the winter they had the village to themselves and passed the time drinking tea or arak, playing cards and chopping wood. Come spring though and the first waves of travellers arrived in wild attire, smoking charas and munching on cakes and pizza.

It was an invasion of their space and one from which they profited but not as much as they ought to have. Most of the restaurants and shops were owned by outsiders and employees were brought in from other areas to work. The rivers were full of plastic mineral water bottles and Snickers wrappers – things the locals never used. They had lost much of the beauty of their village to concrete construction and a few of the local lads had permanently lost it after trying a dose of LSD.

As someone who had spent a good deal of time there I was on good terms with many villagers but I never kidded myself that I really had friends there. When it came down to it I was still a white, outcaste foreigner. But at least I didn’t get the scowls of derision directed at the other backpackers who were generally oblivious to most of this; spending every day getting stoned and eating chocolate cakes. More than half the travellers here never passed a day without smoking charas and at times it was hard to find any life in the village. Many cafes had a kind of numb atmosphere full of travellers too stoned to speak.

I generally hung out with the old timers of the freak scene; people who understood the dynamics of the place in which they were living. A good example was Susan; she’d accepted a lift in a friend’s van from London to Kathmandu and had never gone back since. She was an enigmatic woman in her late 40’s who ran the Zodiac café, a favourite hangout in the village.

In her early days she had been hitchhiking in India somewhere and had met up with a bunch of sadhus who invited her to come to their ashram. She learnt about the basics of Indian life and ended up marrying one of the sadhus, giving birth to her first son on the floor of a mud hut. Her husband, a wily scoundrel who would buy or sell almost anything, took up the noble profession of witchdoctor to support his family.

He eventually became drunk and abusive and Susan ran away with her son and daughter, taking refuge with a Tibetan family. Obliged to now support her family by herself Susan borrowed some money to buy milk and started making lemon curd for sale. An enormously practical woman with a ton of energy, Susan also scraped by this and baking cakes and pies for various cafes. It was in these hard years that she came to be very grateful to the locals:

“The people here can drive you nuts but their heart is in the right place. Sometimes I’d be unable to cope, barely able to feed the kids and then I’d wake up in the morning to find a bag of red rice on the front step.”

Yet even Susan, if pushed, found it hard to name more than a couple of real Indian friends. There were many people she liked, respected or trusted but very few on whose shoulder she could cry in a hard moment. This, after 20 years of living in the valley. Yet she feels part of the place. With fluent Hindi and a pragmatic mentality, Susan would always get by. The last time I saw her she had given the café to her son and was embarking on her own candle workshop.