Nepal Earthquakes Evoke Memories and Call for Action

Flag of Nepal

On Saturday, a series of powerful earthquakes devastated much of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. The destruction affected the northern part of the small Asian country too, threatening and claiming lives as far away as Muktinuth—a holy site in the mountainous Annapurna region—and around Mt. Everest, where a Google executive and adventurer was killed.

At least 2500 humans died in the cataclysm, and tens of thousands have been injured or displaced. Nepal, one of the poorest nations on Earth, was not prepared for this tragedy. The country's entrance into the modern age had just begun.

It's always been a place out of time, almost a separate world—filled up with incomparable natural beauty, ancient constructions and a population of humans who are intensely intelligent, kind and openhearted. I only know this because I was there.

In the fall of 1996, I spent six weeks in Nepal. Most of the time I lived in an apartment in Baluwatar, a neighborhood that also housed some embassies and the Prime Minister's residence. So it was nice. But the power still went off every night at 7pm for at least a couple hours.

And the best water came from rain collectors. There was a huge public bath about five blocks down the road, and it was always filled to capacity. I found out from my landlord that my building was one of about 1000 apartment buildings in the vicinity with indoor plumbing.

Across the street was a cigarette shack that also sold liters of San Miguel Beer. From where I lived, I could take my green, all-steel Chinese bicycle to the tourist area, Thamel. That place was crowded with multicolored shops, cafes, bright welcome signs in dozens of languages, the smell of a hundred food carts and auto-rickshaw drivers clambering for attention. The damage to Thamel was not as bad as in the rest of the city. Even so, many tourists and shopkeepers have fled for fear of old—some extant for more over a century—mud-brick buildings collapsing around them.

I rode to the gatherings of very old temples and palaces, some dating back centuries. Patan Durbar Square, where I sat and watched the King and Queen of Nepal drive by in a shiny black Soviet Zil on their way to a holiday sacrifice, is gone. These old and royal buildings and some of the lives that surrounded them—strangely familiar yet hauntingly elusive—no longer exist.

For two weeks I hiked through the Himalayas with a friend. We took an old Sikorski Helicopter up to the mountains to a town called Jomsom and visited the Kingdom of Mustang. We stayed in primitive inns or stables at night. At that time, much of the Annapurna and Mustang districts were without electricity, phone service or motor roads. The hillsides werecovered with apple orchards, buckwheat and marijuana fields.

We rented a couple horses and rode them to Muktinath, where we could not go on because of the altitude. We stayed at a hostel in nearby Ranipauwa. The place had a flush toilet, and the innkeeper had filled the main hall with faded Bon Jovi posters. After a couple days rest, we hiked back down the mountain for 10 days, until we stumbled on a road and flagged down a bus headed back to Kathmandu.

Of all my travel experiences, the ones in Nepal continues to compel me because of the sense of grace and eternity that seemed to radiate everywhere I went. All human places are subject to tragedy whether through nature's intervention or our own. Nepal has certainly had its share of the latter.

Neither graceful or eternal, these sorts of disruptions demand our attention. This blog isn't really about me or where I went. It's about an amazing place in our world that has come to a precipice and tumbled over. Because of Nepal's essentially unique position within human culture—which I have tried to relate and remember here—please consider sending some help; use this vision of the past to help ensure a future for Nepal. Here's a handy link that explains how.