The Earthquake in Nepal
By Everett Potter
It’s difficult for anyone to watch all of the images of devastation coming out of Nepal, but I find it especially disheartening. In 2009, I spent three weeks traveling around the country –- on foot, in ancient rickety airplanes flown by Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines, and in vehicles that were barely worthy of the name — with the remarkable Dr. Antonia Neubauer, founder of both the adventure travel company Myths & Mountains and READ Global, which builds self-sustaining libraries in Nepal and other countries. The trip with Toni was alternately delightful, disorienting and eye opening, from navigating the barely manageable chaos of Kathmandu to trekking to remote mountain villages in the Solu-Khumbu region that literally clung to the side of mountains. The country was staggeringly beautiful, yet transportation, sanitation and even foodstuffs were in short supply even then. Roadblocks and demonstrations were common, and the decade of Maoist insurgence known as the People’s War had ended but its wounds were still fresh. Poverty was endemic and there was a sense that the country was held together with hope, prayer and beneficent NGO’s.
During the last couple of days, seeing people pulled from rubble and hearing tales of villages that can’t be reached is not surprising. Before the earthquake, many of Kathmandu’s streets looked medieval both in terms of aesthetics and construction. As for “remote” villages, until you visit Nepal, you have little idea just how remote they are. The topography gives fresh meaning to the terms “rugged” and “unforgiving,” words typically bantered about in a Chevy SUV commercial. There are simply no roads in many parts of the country, just well-worn walking paths.
When there are roads, they’re invariably overcrowded and treacherous, clogged with trucks that are always driven too fast, that pass on blind mountain corners as a matter of course. The roadways are essentially so ungovernable that the US State Department forbids its employees to drive any distance at all. They prefer that they fly instead –this in a country where remote airstrips at 10,000 feet can end in 2,000 foot plunges.
The best way to explain the terrain and the ridges of astonishing mountains that draw climbers from all over the world is to understand how compact it all is. In less than 100 miles, the country literally rises up from sea level at the Indian border all the way to the top of Everest at 28,029 feet. That’s an awful lot of geology to cram into the distance between New York City and Hartford, Connecticut.
What stayed with me most from my trip to Nepal are memories of the people we met. To generalize, they were almost universally gentle but many also exhibited an inner toughness. Seeing the destruction of centuries old temples is one thing, but witnessing how many human lives have been lost and how many remains have yet to be recovered is another. The Hindu cremations at Pashupatinath Temple along the banks of the Bagmati River have become near-industrial in the wake of the destruction.
The phrase “Ke garne?” is often said in Nepal, and it translates as “What is to be done?” typically uttered with a shrug of the shoulders. Well, two suggestions come to mind. First, you can dig into your wallet and reach out to various aid organizations, which will be glad for your help. The New York Times has already pulled together a bona fide list that you can find here. You can also prepare yourself for your next trip to terra incognita by following some sage advice from Toni and my friend and colleague Wendy Perrin at her website.