The Quiet Strength of the Nepalese
As I sit in my seat on this airplane flying me out of Nepal and all of its heartbreak, I am full of mixed emotion. I am what you would call a seasoned traveler at this point. I have seen my fair share of the world’s beauty and the world’s suffering, but none has touched me so deeply. People who lost everything fed me. Those who have made their new homes out of chopped trees and tin on top of rubble provided me shelter. I shared cups of tea with women whose daily plight is something I can only join as a visitor passing through. The things I have experienced this week will forever change me.
I am beyond desperate. With every rock I mount I feel my legs burn, pulling my body and backpack up like an anchor. My breath is shallow and short, I’m afraid if I don’t get it under control I will hyperventilate. We’ve been trekking for only two hours and just now reached the base of the mountain. I don’t know what I expected, but the Nepalese heat is relentless and consuming. Monkeys pass us but I can’t be bothered reaching for my camera. I try concentrating on the sound of the cicadas rather than the ringing in my ears. I think of Tennessee. I think of my mom and our conversation while I was sitting in the Dubai airport on my layover. She was having trouble getting our dog Maddox to stay outside because the cicadas were so bad and the sound was driving him crazy. I begged the sound to wash over my mind and give me the strength to ascend. My eyes searched ahead to every piece of shade I could walk toward. They weren’t many, but I’m making those my targets.
“Raj, I’m so sorry, I must take another breather.” I don’t even feel embarrassed asking to stop anymore.
To catch my breath takes several minutes each time we stop. I can’t believe Karuna, the young teacher who lives at the base of the mountain, makes this journey every single morning to teach in the school we are headed to see at the top. It doesn’t feel humanly possible.
Raj is very patient. I don’t know what he must think of me. We only met the night before and I was so tired from my flight to have a proper conversation. He isn’t aware, but I know his personal story, which includes tragedy beyond this earthquake. I want to impress him as much as I’m sure he wants to impress me, but right now I am in survival mode and try hard to focus on his banter. We have been arguing about whether we are climbing a mountain or a hill.
“Please, lie to me and tell me we are half way?” His smile was warm and comforting. In the few hours we have had together, our conversation has not slowed. We have many similar views on the kind of work we want to do with our lives, and the world in general. He is charismatic and I can tell the people he is taking me to meet must depend on him a great deal.
By the time we finally reach the first sight of houses, I nearly fall to my knees. The devastation is heart breaking and I try to contain my emotion. I instantly feel ashamed for my lamentation the entire trek albeit thankfully it was only inside my head. An entire family welcomes us, and it is the family who my friends in New York asked me to find. I feel relief as much as I feel heart break.
The mom brings me tea and a chair, and I gratefully sit quietly and watch Raj. He is deep in conversation with the father, Hari, who is recounting the details of the earthquake. They are some of the lucky ones.
It is Raj’s first time back to Gerkhu since he left to study in Australia nearly two years ago. Building Bridges Worldwide, the link between all of us has flown him home to Nepal to see his family, and to meet me and see how we can be of service to the village with whom they made friends while building a medical center in 2011.
Hari’s son Krishna has come home from Abu Dhabi for a month to help with reconstruction. His job in the UAE military is much higher paying than one he could get in Nepal to support his family. It is also his first time home in a year and his first time to meet his four-month-old son.
I pull off my boots, wiggle my poor toes and stare at my incredibly swollen ankles proud to have made it to our destination. Hari’s daughter giggles and says something in Nepalese to her mom. Raj laughs and explains that they are admiring my red toe nail polish that was neatly manicured a day before while wasting time in Bangkok. It makes me feel shy and silly.
I sit inside the kitchen with the women as they prepare our dinner of dhal bhat (rice and lentils) and saag (pumpkin greens). This is a ritual I am very comfortable with, sitting on the earth floor around a charcoal or wood burning fire; cooking with women I don’t share a common language with. Most relationships I have formed around this globe started with the breaking of bread. I try to help by chopping onions, although my head is still not quite right and I feel weak and dizzy from either the altitude or too much travel. My meals in the last 48 hours have been spread across my layovers in the airports of Milan, Dubai, Bangkok and Kathmandu before my final destination of this quiet, worn village.
As much as I try to be a personable guest, I decide to lie down and close my eyes for my head to stop spinning. Hari’s daughter offers me her bed but as soon as my eyes close, Raj asks if I would like to walk on into the village and meet the headmaster of the school before it gets dark.
When we reach the medical center that Building Bridges built exactly four years prior, I am sad to see the report we got was incorrect. From the front side, the building looks unscathed. But from the back, you can see the entire ceiling and most of the walls have collapsed in. I know the volunteers who labored beside the locals including Hari’s family will be sad to hear the news.
The school is completely gone. Nothing but rumble remains. You can see some the pictures of giraffes, monkeys and butterflies Raj painted on the walls. Chunks of concrete have crushed the school desks. Losing six students was inconsolable, but the amount of lives lost would have be significantly higher had the earthquake happened on a weekday while school was in session.
When I finally do lie down to sleep in the room shared with Raj and Hari’s wife and daughter, I say a prayer of gratitude that my path in life has brought me to this exact moment. I pray for guidance on how I can be a voice for these beautiful people. To be able to tell their story with reverence. And another prayer for my visit here to bring good to a people who have a quiet strength I have never seen before.