A traveler’s memories of Nepal :: By Eric Hansen
After his grandfather died in 2004, Kashish Das Shrestha, a Nepali photographer living in New York at the time, found himself with a surprise inheritance. Unknown to the 33-year-old, his grandfather, a longtime photographer in Kathmandu, had left him a suitcase of old slides.
“It was amazing,” he told me last year.
Das Shrestha returned to Kathmandu, restored the images of urban squares, bulbous monuments and daily life in the 1950s and ‘60s, and a year ago opened the City Museum on the third floor of a new concrete and glass building downtown. One wing was a gallery space devoted to the burgeoning local art scene. The other displayed prints of his grandfather’s photos.
Walking among the images on a warm, hopeful summer day last year, I didn’t know what to make of them. They seemed both old and new. Was the man smoking on the steps of a temple meant to recall a simpler time? Or did the photo act as a reminder of how little had changed, how Nepal was still in many ways transforming from medieval to modern?
Sadly, the earthquake that struck shortly before noon on April 25, and most recently, the one that struck on Tuesday, have left the question hanging. Overall, thousands have been killed and many more have been injured. The local papers estimate that millions are homeless. The City Museum withstood the trembling and even hosted workshops on how to assess damage, but many structures, including the landmark Dharahara Tower, just a couple hundred feet from the museum, did not fare as well.
Cellphone videos show shrines, including those snapped by Das Shrestha’s grandfather, were destroyed. Ancient, tiered, wood-and-brick structures began to shake, became hidden in clouds of dust and flocks of birds, and then, like a cruel magic trick, disappeared. The epochal transformations that fascinated Das Shrestha are even harder to understand now that so much is rubble.
When I visited Kathmandu last year, I was fascinated by the changes the city was going through. I went to check in with old friends and escape into the quiet of the hills as I have every couple of years since studying Nepali, the official language, and the culture of Nepal in 1996. But the city, a crucible of green against the white walls of the Himalayas, seemed so promising. I emailed my editor at The New York Times (“The capital has become surprisingly cosmopolitan,” I wrote) and began reporting a “36 Hours in Kathmandu” article, scheduled to be published this month.
It’s now on hold indefinitely, like so much in the country. Schools are shut. The government is reportedly transporting injured citizens from remote areas to the best hospitals in big cities, which are overwhelmed. Foreigners are sending tons of aid, or at least enough to crack the fragile runway of the small international airport.
The earthquake wasn’t a surprise. In Kathmandu, there was always talk about being overdue for a big shake. When I visited Elizabeth Hawley a couple of years earlier, the nonagenarian chronicler of Himalayan expeditions had gone so far as to chain the filing cabinets to the walls of her downtown home.
And it was impossible to overlook the fragility of so many buildings and historic sites. I had long wondered about the structural integrity of “cooked” mud slabs. My study-abroad host family in the suburbs had dug clay from beside their fields of rice, mustard and wheat, and shaped hundreds of bricks with a wooden form. The cubes dried in the sun until one night we stacked them in a pile as tall as the trees. A fire was lit from the kindling embedded in the bottom layers. Home-brew was drunk from a jerrycan. And the mound became a kiln that would become the makings of my older host brother’s family home — a wonderful but wobbly start, if there ever was one.
While I, like many, had worried about an earthquake, I was entranced by the Kathmandu of 2014. So much was happening. Two Sherpas had waved goodbye to the hazards of Mount Everest to open an airy atelier in a peaceful courtyard, where they made and sold beautiful watches. A designer had opened a stylish men’s boutique. A well-traveled pair of 20-somethings had opened a bohemian restaurant that not only was organic but also featured vegetables grown in their families’ fields. Other entrepreneurs had opened a dance club to rival Delhi’s coolest. Cafes doubled as “creative collaborative workspaces,” in Brooklyn parlance, and profits from one supported the creation of Wi-Fi networks in poor mountain communities.
The government was still astoundingly ineffective, unable to produce even a proper constitution, and gangsters supposedly ran the unions that organized the protesters who brought the city to a halt. Electricity remained unreliable, never mind sewage systems, building codes or the road network.
But fatalism was on the wane. Impatient young Nepalis were creating a worldly metropolis. It was possible to imagine a day when “Ke garne?” or “What can you do?” was no longer Nepal’s catchphrase.
To the village
Or so I thought. Along with spending a few weeks in Kathmandu, I also returned to the hamlet of Simigaun, one valley over from Everest, where I had lived with a family for a month some 18 years earlier. The remote village was like thousands around Nepal. It was basically terraced out of a cliff, a cluster of some 100 homes draped along narrow ribbons of rocky soil. And it still existed, I discovered, outside the government, the economy and the health care system, such as they were. If a wave of modernity had washed over Kathmandu, it certainly had not reached 7,000 feet.
To get there I rode a motorcycle east of Kathmandu to the town of Bhimeshwor, where a police officer agreed to show me the way up a dirt road in exchange for a ride to his post. Night fell before I reached the trailhead to Simigaun.
The next day, I met my host father for the first time in 18 years. He was in his 50s, and lean and muscular, thanks to a lifetime of subsistence farming.
Over the next three days, we traded stories, jokes and woes. He had fallen, smashed his face on a rock, and, loath to visit a hospital, drooled uncontrollably out of one corner of his mouth. We ate boiled potatoes, the only crop harvested that time of year and, as before, he reserved the least rotten spuds for me. In the best and worst ways, it felt like the village that time had forgotten.
Now it doesn’t exist. Everyone survived the earthquake, but it destroyed many houses. A powerful aftershock leveled the rest.
To many, however, the impoverished village had ceased to exist before the earthquake.
“Where’s my brother, your son?” I asked my host father one day.
“Gone to Kathmandu,” he said. “He wanted a better life.”
:: (Source: The New York Times):Photo:Before the quakes: The moon is seen glowing red as its rise during a total lunar eclipse from Kathmandu, Nepal, on Oct. 8, 2014. (NARENDRA SHRESTHA/EPA)