BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Monday, June 15, 2015

Nepal's Unshakeable Beauty and Magic

My latest piece for Starweek:

Kathmandu - The chaos begins long before I even reach the city center. It begins right at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, a small building made of orange bricks, then on to its jam-packed parking lot, an ocean of dusty white cabs with no air conditioning.

It is a dry and sweltering late morning and I am in the Himalayan country of Nepal, known for its enigmatic beauty and also for a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck a month ago. From the plane, I walk inside to what seems to be the immigration, Customs and baggage area. There were several lines of people – perpendicular and parallel – and I’m not sure where to fall in line.

When I finally find the right immigration line, the officer leaves his post without a word, leaving me wondering whether I should just walk through the unguarded exit of the airport or move to another queue. Turns out, he went to help an elderly man who tried to enter Nepal without paying his visa.

There are all sorts of people at the airport – travelers, aid workers, journalists, non government workers – all off to somewhere. Outside, in the noonday heat, a swarm of taxi drivers are racing against each other to win over the next passenger who exits the airport. And one can hear the honking of cars, the shouting of parking attendants and the whistle of security guards as they try to bring order to the disarray of vehicles all desperate to get out of the parking lot as quickly as possible.

The scene at the airport is a perfect metaphor of what I saw throughout my stay in Nepal – people are doing their best to rise above the chaos, to rebuild their lives amidst the disorder, to go on with the daily grind even if it seems impossible. One can see this in the many tent cities all over the capital, in the unpaved roads filled with fruits and vegetables vendors, in the stupas – ancient Buddhism shrines – and temples and in the many curio shops all over Kathmandu.

Rebuilding officially started a month after. It took a while because the people were really shocked, says 22-year-old Success Ad, my Nepali guide and translator.

“In my village in Gorkha, everyone was crying and shouting,” Ad says.

He believes it would take a year or two before the situation will go back to normal.
At the same time, he says, Nepalis are learning a lot from the Philippines, after surviving Yolanda (Haiyan).

“It’s like the Philippines, in a way. You survived Haiyan so we are trying to survive, too,” he says. As what happened in the Philippines, the help of international media is important, he says, as it brings attention to the situation on the ground.

I am here exactly a month since the  earthquake, which left at least 8,800 people dead and injured more than 23,000. The earthquake occurred at 11:56 a.m. on April 25, with the east district of Lamjung  as its epicenter. It is said to be the worst natural disaster to hit the country since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake.

It caused an avalanche at Mount Everest, killing 19 people on the mountain that day.

Ad, manager of Happy Home Hotel, says the hotel staff was having lunch on the rooftop of the building when the earthquake struck. “Now, they don’t want to eat there anymore.”

Indeed, there is damage almost everywhere. The road where our five-story hotel is located is closed because a building, also five stories high, has slanted and is leaning on another building, putting all the buildings on that side of the road – our hotel included – at risk of falling like dominos.

Most homes are propped up by whatever support the people can find – stilts made of branches, old wood or bamboo – to prevent further collapse. Some roads are filled with the thickest dust and dried mud; some are closed to motorists because they are too damaged for people to pass through. There are heaps and heaps of fallen orange bricks everywhere.

In Thamel, a tourist place, vendors manning the souvenir stores and curio shops opt to wait out on the streets for fear that the earth will tremble again.

Everyone has a story to tell – of survival, of hurting, of trauma, of losing loved ones, of losing homes and a lifetime of hard earned money, of moving on and of finding healing.

And everyone is trying to do their best to help.

Prateebha Tuladhar, a Nepali journalist, believes that women are playing a significant role in the rebuilding of her country. “Women are holding out better,” she says.

The trauma of the people, she says, goes beyond the memories of that day. Some are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and are having difficulties continuing with work or with their relationships.

When the earthquake struck, she narrates how her mother and sister stood strong to save their family.

“My mother seems to be very strong. She was always telling us not to panic,” says Tuladhar of her 56-year-old mother. As the whole family stormed outside, her mother went back to the house to make sure everyone was safe. After the earthquake, her 30-year-old sister instinctively picks up her newborn baby whenever there is an aftershock.

She says even the government is too shocked to act quickly. But individually, everyone is trying to help. She especially notes how women are working on individual actions to help ease the situation.

Tuladhar puts the spotlight on a project initiated by her female friend, A Tiny Little Perspective. It is a project that helps provide nutrition packages for mothers and their newborns.

Dipti Sherchan, an anthropological researcher, founded the project. Days after the first earthquake, she found herself among two newborns, a 7-day-old and a 3-day-old, in the camping area in their community. The mothers, she says, all looked traumatized.

“Every tremor would lead the mothers to move along with the villagers to a nearby tent, holding on to her baby, and after things became a bit calmer, return with their babies to stay inside a room,” 
Sherchan says in an e-mail interview.

The initiative provides nutrition packages that contain relief materials catering specifically to the needs of pregnant women, post-natal women and their infants.

There is a bucket filled with rice, lentils, salt, biscuits, multi-grain cereal; a box filled with a mosquito net, sanitary pads, nutrition supplements like vitamins, calcium and iron; water purifier, soap, toothpaste and toothbrush, toilet paper rolls and baby products such as blankets.

Despite all the damage, Nepal is still worth visiting, even in these times. Its beauty, deep, raw and profound, is still very visible because it is seen more in the everyday life than in its damaged temples.

It is a magical journey, a feast for the senses. It is bursting with colors, with its well-dressed women in their long saris and adornments of jewels; its Lung ta prayer flags that are everywhere – blue, green, red, white and yellow; its rickety rickshaws decorated with glittering makeshift canopies and its hundreds and hundreds of shops and roadside stalls selling anything from bright yellow mangoes to antiques from the Himalayas.

There’s also a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds: its stupas with Buddha’s giant eyes, surrounded by the colorful prayer flags and the never-ending noise on its roads; the honking of cab drivers who seem to drive with no rules and limits, and the rhythmic sound of Nepali songs that blare from their radios.

Nepali food – from curries to dumplings – is a gastronomic adventure, with strong Indian influence and lots of lentils and spices. There’s a lot of rice and roti and the freshest vegetables. You never want to stop eating. There’s authentic lassi, the popular yoghurt-based drink, sweet, plain, banana or what-have-you.

But more importantly, it’s the Nepali people that make one’s visit worthwhile. They are always warm and happy despite what they are going through, always ready to greet and welcome visitors with Namaste and a warm smile.

On one of our last moments here, we stood on top of a hill overlooking the city of Kathmandu. We lingered for a long, long time, forgetting the minutes and the hours, admiring the city down below, those hundreds of small pastel-colored houses glittering under the warm Nepalese sun, taking it all in and getting lost, grateful to this Himalayan country for opening its doors to us and revealing its beauty despite the devastation.

I close my eyes one last time before leaving the hilltop, in an attempt to seal in my mind’s eye this magical, breathtaking view, to keep in my heart forever. It is a stark reminder that even in the most chaotic places, the spirit and the soul, in all their beauty, are never destroyed.

To know more about the Tiny Little Perspective Project, please email or visit