I am back in New York now, and though the grand adventure is over for the time, I realize my reportage is incomplete. When I left off I was leaving India to go to Nepal and spent the next six weeks in Nepal, Himachal, Ladakh and Kashmir, the northern most states of the subcontinent whose borders are formed by the peaks and valleys of the Himalayan mountains. I travelled alone, finally went off the grid of cell phones, wifi (and this blog). I walked in the mountains, talked to the monks and woke up before sunrise most days. I joked to myself (when you are alone for weeks at a time you develop the habit of joking to yourself), “Maybe the purpose of this part of the trip was to earn flowery metaphors like, ‘misty as the Himalayan pre-dawn.’ These were places where the earth is bigger than the humans. Those who make their homes in these places must accept their lives are less significant than the whims of nature. This results in peoples that are gentle and balanced-in more ways than one. In Nepal, the Sherpas, mountain porters, keep their calm demeanor while balancing massive loads of rice, dal, propane and beer on their heads and pacing slowly up and down the trails. In Ladakh, Buddhism is everywhere and in many villages and the city of Leh monks can be heard chanting their droning ‘on mani padme hum’ across the immense flat valleys from monasteries where the same mantras have been voiced since the 13th Century. I imagine the prayers continuing for miles across the open valleys until they collide with the jagged mountains and disperse. In Kashmir I sat on the deck of a houseboat watching the owner shout across Dal Lake to his friends and family who promptly arrive by shikara boat with whatever goods he might need- flowers, vegetables, lamb, fabric for a new pair of pants, a few grams of hash. His friends never failed to stay for a cup of Kashmiri kehwa, the spiced green tea that passes most of the time in Srinagar.
All of these were places that could not be the way they are without the geography and my time was deeply affected by the earth. The truth of traveling in India that I had already come to accept, that nothing happens exactly how or when you expect it to, was amplified tenfold here.
For the first two weeks I climbed to the Annapurna Base Camp, which took several days of rolling green hills through villages, step farms and rhododendron forests, hiking mornings through the hot sun and afternoons through pouring rain. Then I broke snow line and hiked the bright white days on paths blazed by the previous day’s hikers. At base camp I sat at the graves of the mountaineers who had died trying to summit the higher peaks, and watched the avalanches fall. Three of the ten highest mountains in the world are in this area.
The time on the trail was more about traveling than India. I passed evenings with Chinese, Korean and Malaysian tourists who covet these peaks and hike with state of the art gear. I also met some fatherly London gays who had me talking about Sondheim for the first time in months, a German-Sri Lankan who works at an NGO in Vietnam and a shaggy Australian who had been walking barefoot for two months. When we got snowed in, the teahouse dining rooms became equal parts UN summit and Agatha Christie mystery.
I was down out of the mountains and one day away from Pokhara when the earthquake hit. The rumble was noticeable, but being a New Yorker I mistook it at first for a subway train. Of course it didn’t just pass by. And there are no trains in the mountains. I was close to a village house at the time and watched from a little ways up the trail as it shook and a brick fell out of a wall. Then the rumble stopped and I continued on my way. I didn’t understand the magnitude of what happened, but my guide, who knew these mountains well and the way a rumble of this magnitude would be felt in the cities, began to panic. He called his family and spoke to the people in the villages along the trail, and in little bursts we started to get the news.
I was back in Pokhara for the first major aftershock, the next day. This time I saw big buildings shake and watched the town run outside, but like the earthquake the day before, it soon passed and people went back to their business. I learned that two buildings in Pokhara had been destroyed and many of the villages we had passed through in the last week had been badly damaged, but I was lucky to be far from the most severe destruction.
I had been planning on going to Kathmandu the next day to see an old friend and to go to a wedding, but the roads were closed, much of Kathmandu was still sleeping outside in open, public places afraid that more buildings would collapse in the aftershock and the wedding was cancelled. My friend and his family were not hurt, but their ancestral home suffered damage and the most sacred temples and much of their city had collapsed. I spent several days stranded in the paradise that is Pokhara, eating momos, reading the news anxious that I couldn’t help relieve the pain that was growing around the country. I wrote home to let my loved ones in the US and India know that I wasn’t in the middle of disaster, and I waited. It was strange watching the American and Indian media and my friends Facebook feeds obsess over Nepal for twenty-four hours or so, then promptly forget it. In the three days I was stuck in Pokhara, Nepal promptly gave way to the Baltimore race riots which promptly gave way to TONY nominations.
Driving through Kathmandu was probably the closest I have come to feeling what it was like to be in a city ravaged by war. It wasn’t terrifying or dramatic like it was seemed in the news, but somber. It was an entire city in grief. For a place that is famously bustling to a point of chaos, known for its frenetic energy, a smaller Delhi or Mumbai, Kathmandu was still. You could walk down the highway, but couldn’t necessarily drive, there were big rifts in the pavement. Many were inside their homes and caring for family. Others were still sleeping in the squares. The world heritage sites, the temple complexes were filled with piles of rubble. It was only three days after the disaster and there was still a huge gap between the known casualties and the predicted ones. Many of the villages north and east of Kathmandu still had not been reached by rescue efforts, and the magnitude of the rebuilding needed was only just coming into focus.
Now, several months later, my hiking guide is having trouble feeding his family because tourism stopped completely. I was his last trekker. My old friend in Kathmandu has put off travel plans and adjusted his work life to focus on contributing to local outreach efforts and to continue raising awareness and funds abroad for relief and rebuilding. Despite the grand events and news fury having passed, Nepal is at the very beginning of a long recovery.
I didn’t understand, until I visited Nepal, that earthquakes of this magnitude have happened every 80-100 years for all of history. Kathmandu is built on a fault line, and throughout all time the geography has been both protective and crippling. Residents in their 80s lived through the most recent earthquake and their grandparents lived through the one before. In the context of my project about ancestral roots and belonging to a land, I was impressed by peoples’ resolution to remain where their forefathers established themselves. Kathmandu will rebuild itself knowing it will fall again on its grandchildren and I suspect the future generations will also be proud to live in the city of their forefathers.
I volunteered for a couple days with Amod and met his family, but kept the flight I had booked back to India a month prior. I felt both relief and an intense guilt on leaving. My day spent lifting fallen statues and tossing bags of rice onto trucks made too little impact. I badly wanted to contribute something tangible, but lacked the skills and resources to be much more than one more mouth to feed.
Now time has passed, relief efforts are much more organized, but tourism, a major part of Nepal’s economy has taken a huge hit. Maybe one thing I can do now is to remind whoever I can that Nepal is a stunningly beautiful place filled with loving, centered and resilient people who deserve our support and friendship. There is no reason to stop visiting or to forget the place exists. Even during a time of crisis, I was welcomed and protected.
I can also encourage you to learn about Amod’s group, the Global Shapers Kathmandu hub, which is an affiliate of the World Economic Forum but unique amongst international organizations focussed on disaster relief because it is based in Kathmandu and partners with other local NGOs to work towards the long term wellness of Nepal. This approach seems more connected to people and development than simple disaster relief.
Not long after leaving Kathmandu, I arrived in Chandigarh, a city that had been unfamiliar two months earlier and now felt like coming home. My relatives took me in once again, and convinced me to rest a few days before heading north to Ladakh and Kashmir where I would continue learning what it means to say ‘misty has the Himalayan pre-dawn.’