Nepal. The mere mention of the word conjures images of the lofty, snow-covered Himalayas and towering Mount Everest. Here in Kathmandu, the world of the Sherpa feels as far away from me as everything else that is familiar and known.
Now half a world away from home, I find I’m rediscovering my inherent and natural senses. New smells, strange tastes, constant sounds, bright colors, and the feel of the humid air on my skin all feel new, and overwhelm my mind. Traffic, consisting of a whirled mixture of cars, scooters, bicycles, and daring pedestrians, moves chaotically through the winding snake-like streets without order. Horns constantly sound and travelers boldly veer into traffic, often not leaving more than a hair’s length between them and others venturing down this concrete river. Sidewalks seem not to exist, leaving foot traffic exposed to the frenzied motorcade. Lifeline wires dangle precariously from building to building like synthetic vines creeping through an urban jungle. Rainwater from the monsoon washes down streets and creates murky lakes along the avenues that seems as if it would swallow a motorbike whole if it got too close. The sky, broken with clouds, gives a mixture of greys, blacks, and the occasional blue. Low clouds hug the surrounding mountains like soft blankets, obscuring our views of the loftiest peaks.
As our guide slithers us through the narrow and winding pathways of Kathmandu, we catch glimpses of fallen masonry walls, heaped in red brick piles. We see bamboo scaffolds covering shaken structures, attempting to salvage the heritage at the heart of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. Wooden beams push up tired walls, letting these weathered buildings breathe a last breath. While the earthquake that took so many lives and leveled entire villages happened over a year and a half prior, rebuilding and recovery in many ways resembled the immediate aftermath. Response efforts are not the coordinated and fast-moving endeavors we’ve come to expect in the West. A country lacking highly-organized infrastructure, such as Nepal, has no plan for these disasters. When the earthquake comes, the rubble is piled, people move homes, and life goes on.
Insurance coverage for homes is a foreign concept here, and aid from NGOs and the government is the only solution they know. Even that money doesn’t always trickle down to the common homeowner, and citizens are left to fend for themselves in many cases. We hear stories of people sleeping outside for weeks and months after the quake, while houses are torn down and new ones are built. Retrofitting is also a foreign concept, but one that could have great impact on those living in more rural areas and without the means to rebuild. That’s the story we are here to uncover. How does rebuilding and rebirth of these communities happen? What can be done to improve the process and relieve unnecessary suffering and death? How can outreach efforts like these be used on a more massive and grand scale? How can people like me, who before this week never set foot within 7,000 miles of a place like this, find ways to lessen the impact of catastrophes in areas like this?
As we moved our weary and jet-lagged bodies from our hotel to the Build Change office in Kathmandu on Monday, our mission here began coming in to slightly better focus. We met with Noll, our personal guru for this trek, and offered up our diverse expertise. Hours passed as we shared our backgrounds and devised a plan of action. We spent the afternoon interviewing the local Nepalese staff on their experiences working with Build Change, also delving in to how the earthquake affected them on a personal level. Some spoke of hardships, protecting families, living outside for months at a time, and rebuilding. For others, the pain was so sharp and near, that they were understandably unwilling to relive those terrible moments.
I’ve come to find in Nepal, hardship does not overcome life. Our dinner with 15 of the local Build Change staff was a testament to that fact. Mugs were filled with Tuborg and Everest beer, while small cymbal-shaped goblets beheld a Nepalese liquor I was too tepid to question. Music reverberated from the centuries-old wooden timbers and dancers swirled around between ankle-high tables. As we sat cross-legged on the floor, in the old traditional style of Nepal, we shared stories, had a few laughs, and celebrated recent accomplishments. The night eventually wound up, and we all parted ways, making new friends and recounting the fun times had throughout the evening. Good food, good beer, and good company. Perhaps this foreign land that seemed so shocking mere hours earlier had now shown itself to be familiar after-all.