Then on April 25, 2015, an earthquake destroyed large sections of the city, as well as much of the rest of Nepal, including many of the historic sites, temples and shrines. It actually lifted Kathmandu vertically by about three feet, making Mount Everest slightly shorter, too. Aftershocks have plagued the country for weeks, now, doing more damage. The death toll, so far, is estimated to be over 8500 people, but since so many villages are inaccessible still, the toll may well be much higher, and growing. Many of the places I visited both in 2013 and 1994 were destroyed. I have no way of knowing how many of the people I met or even just passed in the streets are still alive. All I can do is donate money to relief agencies and try to keep alive the memories of sites that may be permanently lost to future generations.
In 1994, on the plane ride over, I met a very nice, kind Nepali man who spoke English well. He told me a bit about his family and the country after asking me questions about myself. He was a fairly successful business man, dressed in western clothes, including a business jacket and tie. For most of my stay in Nepal, then, it was rare to see western clothing, though occasionally I would see a man wearing a western style business shirt and long pants. After we landed in Kathmandu, the gentleman wrote his home phone number on a piece of paper, gave it to me, and told me to call him tomorrow; he wanted to invite me to his house to meet his family. Stupidly, I was over cautious and suspicious of his motives, so I never called. Perhaps it was my western conditioning to be cynical that inhibited me. By the end of that trip I had learned enough about the Nepali people to know that he was probably being both polite and sincere. He and his family would probably have enjoyed having me over, probably for a meal, and would have considered it an act of friendliness and hospitality to a guest in their country.
At that time, there weren’t very many hotels in Kathmandu. The few good hotels were extremely expensive. Travelers without a lot of money generally stayed at guest houses in the Thamel district. The first night, I stayed at a guest house which was small, but four stories high. My room was a small addition built on the rooftop. It had a wonderful view with windows all around the room, and it even had its own western toilet and sink. Unfortunately, the toilet never flushed. The water pressure didn’t work that high up in the building. There was no heat in the room, and the steps were difficult to see in the dark when the power went out, as it did every evening and often during the day. Power outages were a normal fixture of life in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Many of the villages outside of the cities didn’t have power, at all.
The next day I moved to the Kathmandu Guest House, probably the largest and nicest of the guest houses. It was still there, doing a great business, twenty-one years later when I re-visited, again, though it had changed and become more like a real hotel. In 1994, it was popular not only because it was in a beautiful building, but also because it had its own generators; when the power died, the generators kicked in, so guests were not as inconvenienced by the outages. The staff also provided a small, portable heater for guests who requested one. Electric heat, or heat of any kind, was an extremely rare commodity throughout the city, then. December and January in Kathmandu aren’t quite as cold as you might imagine, given Nepal is in the Himalayas, but temperatures do get down to freezing or just below freezing at night. This meant sleeping in layered clothing with my down jacket on top of the wool blankets. Even so, I was miserably cold that first night in that first guest house, so I was grateful for the portable heater for the rest of my stay in that city. (While in Pokhara, I had to survive without heat for the three days I was there.) Best of all, The Kathmandu Guest House offered western toilets and showers, even if I did have to share them with other guests. According to its current website, the historic part of the guest house was damaged in the earthquake, but the newer section is still open and housing some of the foreign disaster aid groups.
The summer of 2013, I traveled to Nepal on a guided tour with a small group of travelers I had toured India with in the weeks before. Our hotel was a modest sized, westernized, four-star, but not very expensive hotel with many of the western amenities, including a concierge, gift shops, nice restaurants, and a bar. My room had heat, air conditioning, TV, a western shower and working toilet. The power did not go out once in the five days we were there. There were many affordable, western hotels scattered around the city, though the cheaper and smaller guest houses were also still fairly common, especially near the more popular tourist sites. The people we met at the hotel or the sites we visited were warm, friendly, and pleasant.
While I wandered around Patan Durbar Square in Nepal, looking at the wares spread out on tables vendors were selling from, an old Nepali man talked me into buying a pair of earrings. He just smiled at me, bowed his head a bit, and pointed to them. He didn't shout the usual kind of hawker sales pitch I heard all over India and along the main streets of Kathmandu: "Miss, where you from? This very good buy! You want!" Instead, he just patiently waited, giving me space and time to buy or not. When I picked up a bronze statue, he nodded, and said, simply, "Krishna. An important god," and said nothing more. When I picked up the earrings, he laughed and said, "Yes, those will look very nice." He smiled, as though it made him happy to see me with the earrings. I couldn't resist his smile. I bought them. A middle aged Nepali woman talked me into buying a couple of medallions I didn’t need or want simply by smiling and quietly showing me the medallions dangling from her palms. She bowed to me, then placed them back on her stand and just watched me, smiling. I asked her about them. She explained what the symbols meant, politely, smiling. "This one will not bring you good luck," she said, "but it is a symbol for a good life." I still don't know what she meant by that, but her honesty inspired me to buy it.
Our local guide was extremely kind and patient as well as very knowledgeable. Unlike our guide in India, he didn't get mad and yell at the members of our group who ran off to take photos or shop instead of listening to his talk about the places we visited. He didn't take anything personally, but seemed grateful that I and a couple of others stayed to listen. He smiled at us and recited what he knew about each place, but also showed us when, where and how to bow when we should, introduced us to people he knew at the sites, including a few Buddhist priests, and patiently answered our questions. He often sat on a wall or step for awhile, waiting for us to finish photographing or admiring something. He never hurried us - a rare quality in a tour guide. In 1994, I had to pay local guides who hung around the sites for a quick tour of the different temples, palaces, or other historic buildings. Some guides were better than others. Most hurried me through the sites, impatient with questions. At that time there were still yogis, naked except for a loincloth and dirt smears or dust all over them, including in their long and disheveled hair and beards, who would sit on the ground in the dirt in one of the squares and pretend to be meditating. They let tourists take photos with them for a price. One of my guides said, sadly, “These are not real holy men. There are no more holy men in Kathmandu. Only fakes wanting your money.” On my last trip, there were not even fake holy men there, only pilgrims, worshipers, and tourists wandering in and out of the temples and shrines.
In 1994, most of the roads were either made of dirt or so old and covered with dirt, sand, dust and dung from cows, water buffalo, and goats that I could barely see the crumbling asphalt. There were some cars and trucks, but most forms of transportation were bicycles, motorbikes, and sometimes carts pulled by water buffalo. In 2013, there was a modern system of two and four-lane roads running throughout the city. The level of dust, dirt and dung was minimal and generally only obvious in the narrow alleyways that still wind through the city and in the old sections where the ancient temples, palaces and other sites still stood. However, honking horns and other sounds of traffic disturbed what used to be a relatively quiet city.
Twenty-one years ago, pedestrian traffic reigned in Patan Durbar Square and the other tourist areas. Vendors hawked water, juice bottles, jewelry, t-shirts, postcards and other tourist junk everywhere there was any space, including right in front of temples. Women washed laundry in the ancient fountains and draped their clothes across the stone steps of the wide stairs surrounding some of the large temples like a granite base. Their colorful sari cloths decorated the temple areas like enormous, colored prayer flags lying flat on the ground. Cows wandered, scrounging in the dirt for grass. In 2013, only children darted in and out of the water pouring lightly from the fountain pipes, although occasionally someone would fill a plastic jug or bucket with water. The temple stairs were full only of people climbing or sitting on them, talking with others or resting from the day’s heat. Vendors still hawked wares, but most stalls and shops were on the outskirts of the square or in the streets jutting out from it. Cows, however, still wandered around, foraging along the sides of the buildings and roads. Pedestrians still ruled there, but motorbikes and small cars or trucks bullied their way through the crowds at times. Some of the buildings had been restored or painted. The whole square – which was much larger than an actual square – was still a place where the gods lived and the past intersected with the present for the purpose of homage, gratitude and the appreciation of beauty. I thought that would never change. Then I saw photos online of the destruction of Patan Durbar Square after the earthquake. At least one of those temples had been rebuilt decades ago after a 1934 earthquake. Is it possible for all that was lost to also be rebuilt some day? Would it be the same? I cannot think about all the people who must have been walking in that square when the quake hit. Surely some did survive, but the photos make it hard to imagine how they could have.
On my last visit, after touring the grand stupa, I walked into a tiny, dark shop the size of my small driveway at home. The walls were covered with shelves cluttered with small bronze, clay, or wood statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, Buddha seated in various positions, charms, photos of the Dalai Lama, rolled bundles of prayer flags, incense sticks, postcards, maps, posters of the Himalaya mountains and, of course, Mt. Everest, and the Annapurna range. Various items of jewelry were displayed under glass along a small counter, and along a window many wooden neck and wrist malas dangled from metal hooks along the low ceiling. “Hello,” the shop owner said. He gestured with his hand to come near and look at the jewelry. I smiled and pointed to a wrist mala lying among the necklaces and earrings. He took it out of the glass case and showed it to me, pointing at the intricately painted beads. “I make, myself,” he said proudly. “You will find this nowhere else.” He showed me some beads he was working on. They lay on newspaper spread across a small stool behind the counter. “Only two now, maybe more tomorrow,” he said, pointing to the two malas made of those beads. “How much?” I asked. They cost the equivalent of one dollar. I bought both, handing him a large rupee note and telling him to keep the change because I knew the malas were worth much more than that. His labor and artistry alone were worth more than that. “No, no,” he said. “I have change.” He firmly handed me the smaller rupees. He smiled, bowed slightly with his head, and said, “Namaste.” I will probably never know if he, his family, or his shop survived the quake.
I often wear a sandalwood wrist mala that I got at a different shop across from the grand stupa on my right wrist and use it as a mala, fingering the beads and breathing, thinking a mantra, as I sit in a department meeting, or to calm myself before replying to a student, or if I need to stay calm in some other situation. Calm, peace. I wish those for Nepal, too. I gave one of the beaded malas to a good friend who wears it as a good luck talisman. I wear the other beaded mala on my left wrist, now, almost all the time, as a reminder of the spirit of that shop keeper: Namaste.
How You Can Help
Here is a link to a list of organizations providing disaster relief to Nepal that the Better Business Bureau has accredited as trustworthy, good organizations to donate money to: LIST One good group I recommend, which is not on that list, is the American Himalayan Foundation.