Remembering a Lost Nepal

Santa Barbara Resident Returns to Homeland in Wake of Last Spring’s Earthquake

Effects from the earthquake last May in and around Kathmandu, Nepal, still linger.

Part of my childhood was spent in Baglung, then a small village in western Nepal with a wonderful view of Dhawalagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world. Part of it was spent growing up in a Gurkha army camp in Hong Kong, where my brother was born.

My father was an officer in one of the Gurkha regiments of the British army exclusively comprised of Nepali soldiers: The regiments were born out of respect for the loyalty and courage displayed by Nepali men and women warriors during the many battles of resistance against the British Empire’s attempts to colonize Nepal. The name Gurkha itself comes from the small kingdom of Gorkha, where the reunification of Nepal by the king, Prithvi Narayan, had started in the mid-18th century and moved the capital to Kathmandu.

Sadly, much of the town of Gorkha was reduced to rubble earlier this year, including the homes of many of its inhabitants, for it was very close to the epicenter of the 7.8 earthquake that struck my home country on April 25.

Author Sajan Chhetri with a Nepali girl during his visit this year.

After Hong Kong, we moved back to our village and only saw our father when he would get a leave of six months after three years of service. But when we did, he would have a great effect on us and in shaping our futures. He brought back stories of things we had never imagined: the many countries he had traveled during his service, operations, and military exercises, and about the world outside our little village.

Expecting letters from him, the trips to the post office was always very exciting. The postal workers would let us go through their mail, and a distinct envelope in a pile of letters with stamps bearing the head of the Queen of England could only be for us. Once in a while, the excitement would get to next level when the sole telephone office in the village would send a message, via whoever would be passing by, for us to visit the office at certain a time to receive a call from our dad.

During my father’s absence, I had many mothers, aunties, and grandmothers, including the mothers of the village who gave birth around the same time I was born. My cousins would be delighted to get their turn to take care of me, not because I was a delightful child but because it meant a break from working in the fields, weeding, collecting grass for the animals, or other chores. Our own mother was a wonderful woman who cared very much about personal discipline. She molded us into very different characters than our friends and neighbors. She would give us lessons in world history — Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the world wars — and gave us her own living examples of the value loyalty, giving, and lending a hand to those in need.

When I was promoted to 6th grade from the 2nd, simply for having better math and English skills, it was time to leave the village to attend a better school in Kathmandu. Kathmandu was very far from our village compared to today’s standards. The nearest town with bus service was a day’s walk for fast walkers with light packs. The road ran up and down the mountains and gorges, and we had to dodge domestic animals on their way to pasture and constant streams of donkeys carrying loads of kerosene, sugar, salt, oil, grain, and building materials, herds of sheep, and goats by the hundreds.

The perils of crossing rivers with fast currents on rickety rope bridges were complicated by their tendency to be partly swept away by monsoon floods and landslides. And there was also the danger of encountering leopards and other wild animals after dark. Just getting to the bus stop was half the struggle.

From there, the motorized transports were driven by inexperienced drivers, obeying nonexistent traffic regulations, who wove around each other on narrow highways perched on cliff sides hundreds of meters above rapids of icy Himalayan rivers. Thinking about it now, it was truly a risk to visit families during holidays and vacations and to go back to school.

There were other options: A few 45-minute flights a week took off from a tiny gravel airport in a village called Balewa, a three-hour walk from our village. One would’ve had to know influential officials or be very sick to get a seat on those flights, but nearly half of them would be canceled anyway due to the unpredictable Himalayan weather.

Into the Devastation

From where I now live in Santa Barbara, Kathmandu is still very far, almost 33 hours on two different flights through three different airports. I went there this past spring, after Nepal was hit by two big earthquakes in as many weeks. As much as I had talked to family members and friends about the devastation that an earthquake would bring to Nepal, and especially to a city like Kathmandu, perhaps human nature simply does not allow one to prepare for such a natural catastrophe.

Direct Relief supplies being unloaded in Nepal.

I was returning to Nepal just three months after coming back to Santa Barbara. I’d previously spent a month full of preparations and celebrations for my brother Rajan’s old village-style wedding in our father’s village of Mallaj, followed by another reception in Kathmandu. This time I was coming as a volunteer emergency response coordinator for Direct Relief, the well-respected, Santa Barbara–based humanitarian aid organization. As the plane approached Kathmandu, the devastation became personally tangible: I couldn’t see the iconic and historic Dharahara tower in middle of the sprawling city.

Instead, tents for temporary shelters colored in distinct orange and blue started to appear sparsely in the villages and then got denser, erected in every available open area, park, and stadium, between tightly constructed concrete and brick homes that had been built without much thought or planning for such a disaster. Once out of the airport, getting a taxi without the drivers tussling to get me into their vehicles was surprisingly easy compared to past experience. Many people had left Kathmandu for their villages after the second major quake, 7.3 on the Richter scale, of May 12. The traffic reminded me of the times before I had left for the U.S. to study.

After arriving home to the surprise of my neighbors and relatives, I managed to make my youngest sister cry, mostly from disbelief and joy, I hope. She had moved back from Sydney, and she volunteers to take care of 13 cheerful children in her extra time. She’s an architect for a Tibetan monastery and a Buddhist university in Kathmandu. It was sad to see the children displaced from their families. Once again they were forced to cook, sleep, and spend most of their days outside their rooms from the fear of another big one among many aftershocks. They would pause at every rustle of the plastic tarps above, sheltering them from the elements, or any loud noise or door slam, but thankfully, all remained alive and well.

This visit was surreal. During a Nepali New Year dinner at a Nepali friend’s parents’ home in Montecito, I had questioned the consequences of unrestricted building in Kathmandu; our country was so earthquake prone. Little did I know I would be in Nepal as a volunteer within three weeks. I attended various coordination cluster meetings run by the World Food Program (WFP), UN-run meetings with foreign military, civilian, government, and non-governmental medical teams, outpost clinics with doctors, assessment visits to the big city hospitals, village health centers among those pancaked school buildings, hospitals listing to their sides with the patients moved to floors or cold corridors of the buildings still standing, and in temporary tents. I was among destroyed offices, shopping centers, ancient cultural buildings, temples, and invaluable World Heritage sites with incalculable damage.

It was bizarre giving a talk to Rotary Club members in the banquet hall in a Kathmandu five-star hotel, now badly damaged and quickly patched, where we had had a big reception for my brother’s wedding just a few months ago. It was strange kicking a soccer ball around with the kids at the national stadium where I had practiced and played many soccer matches, now a tent city of displaced families.

At a café where the historic Dharahara tower would’ve cast a shadow, it was not hard to imagine how easily things could have been worse had that earthquake struck on a busier weekday. The tower had been reduced to a rubble of bricks a few meters tall; the icon of Kathmandu was really gone. The superstitious guards around the ruins chatted that another big one was due any moment; they gathered their clues from the barking of stray dogs and the cawing of crows.

Obviously the trauma of the earthquakes and daily aftershocks was embedded in those who lived through it. On top of all these superstitions, each day some religious figure or yogi would forecast an earthquake between certain hours, and believers and nonbelievers alike would drop everything and prepare for it. I thought this kind of forecast would’ve surely been useful before the big one hit. Or perhaps it would be more useful for the scientific communities that had been warning the government to prepare for a big earthquake for the last decade to hand over their findings to these revered religious figures instead.

The resource-poor country — with hardly any infrastructure or operational capacity to handle such a magnitude of incoming donations of food, temporary shelters, and medicine, along with teams of rescue and relief workers, medical professionals, and other aid workers — was clearly in a difficult logistical situation. Aid groups that had poured into the country ranged from those that made it their lives’ work to help the people in need and died in the process, those with various political motivation and religious agendas, and groups that were there to take selfies among destroyed villages and displaced people, for “Likes”; the phrase “disaster tourism” rang very much true in a country famed for its natural beauty.

A grateful Nepali woman

As people greeted us on our visits to sites, it was good to see that the local people already had smiles on their faces, hopefully for making it alive so far. Many had already started to rebuild their homes with the materials that could be easily procured, perhaps repeating what their grandparents did over 80 years ago when the last similar earthquake hit. If asked about how they were coping, it was still typical of the people to answer, “Yestai ho!” meaning, “So it is!” and continue with their lives.

And So It Is

It was a direct result of many unfortunate events, be it natural, manmade, or political, that had been plaguing the average Nepali for years. The political instability of the last 25 years and civil unrest of 10 years has made much of the older generation immune to misfortunes and psychologically stoic to government inaction. The mistrust and reluctance of the Nepalese people and Nepalese fund-raising organizations around the world was evident during a pledge drive for the prime minister’s fund for the earthquake relief effort.

But the phrase “Yestai Ho!” has been a double-edged sword. While it lets people start rebuilding their lives, it also fails to pressure the government for effective relief and rehabilitation of the affected during disasters or non-disasters.

However, there were indications that this belief had started to shift, especially after witnessing this generation of youth that had come together and started organized humanitarian efforts overnight. These local organizations made strides with unprecedented effectiveness to map the affected areas via information collected from mobile phones and social media of all sorts. This supported logistics through analysis to efficiently deliver medical help, food, temporary shelters, water, and sanitation. In addition to the local doctors and nurses who worked nonstop in the first week of the earthquake, doctors, nurses, engineers, and students had flown into Nepal from the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, and Europe to help these organizations.

This made me feel strongly that the younger generation now understands what we have lost, what we would not want to lose, the reasons the international communities care for us, and what Nepal could be with a little extra hard work. I felt a sense of pride and ownership in the people that they now realize a great opportunity to bring about changes in architectural, social, traditional, cultural, and political scenes.

Eventually, as the relatives found out about my trip, it was quite difficult to convince them that this was a humanitarian trip and that I would not be able to visit our villages. It was time to leave for Santa Barbara. My regular job as an IT engineer at the County of Santa Barbara was waiting in a perfectly beautiful city, my home for the last 19 years. It had already been more than two weeks, what seemed like one very long day.

Getting things done in Nepal is tough, even more so when one is a Nepalese, and it was a challenging character-building exercise of perseverance with a steep learning curve. And sadly, the driving force behind it all was the suffering of one-third of my people.

I left Kathmandu as the primary rescue and relief phase was giving way to the rehabilitation phase. The government and international organizations had started scrambling to get food, medicine, and materials for shelters to the remote areas by any means possible before the monsoon approached; the rainy season grounds the helicopters, landslides block the roads, the swollen rivers sweep away the bridges and isolate the people, and Kathmandu becomes very far away again.

What’s Happened Since

Many things have changed in Nepal since I wrote this article.

In September, the Constituent Assembly of Nepal unanimously passed a new constitution, and the change has brought much misunderstanding. Neighboring India has effectively enforced a blockade of cargo trucks that bring food, gas, medicine, and other everyday necessities from ports into the landlocked country. This is complicating the already challenging crisis for the people affected by the earthquakes as well as further burdening the economic health of the country.

During these tumultuous times, the people of Santa Barbara have been very generous and giving in many ways. Kim Anderson and Aaron Olson accommodated my efforts to raise funds by displaying our photos of the Himalayas as well as cultural and architectural heritage sites of Nepal for sale at the Handlebar Coffee Roasters. Christie Westerhouse from The Frameworks mounted the photos for display free of charge, and many friends, acquaintances, and coworkers contributed by purchasing those prints.

As a testament to love for Nepal and its people from the people of this country, and thanks to the generous donors, Direct Relief raised more than $6.5 million in cash for Nepal earthquake funds. It shipped more than $33 million worth of medicine, including recent airlifts of urgent medical supplement after a request from the Nepalese Ministry of Health and Population to alleviate critical drug shortage created by the border blockade. This was only possible thanks to very hard working, efficient, and capable Direct Relief teams that put these humanitarian medical aid together during times of difficulties in many countries around the world.

Here are two recent Direct Relief reports: Six Month Report on Nepal and Nepal Critical Drug Shortage.

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