Thursday, August 13, 2015

Stray dogs and tin sheds

It was the sound of men making offerings to Lord Shiva around a symmetrical tree beneath my room, which first woke me.  About the tree they walked, mumbling loudly; hands lively as they visualised their God and their conversation with him. This was the daily ‘normal’, and would become my daily alarm clock.  As I watched the men deeply immersed in their private worlds with Shiva, I sensed as a voyeur should – intruding and invasive; uninvited.  The tree, perched on the edge of the mountain-side, held particular significance for the people of Changunarayan, and so the men placed tikka powder upon its bark – the trunk reddened with past offerings the monsoon rains had yet to wash away.
Opening the roof top door, I was projected into a dreamily still morning.  A soft pink glow had residence in the sky and a loosely draping mist clung to the valley floor.  Warmth embraced me, and the faint gentle aroma of earthy rain was in the air.  The city lay peaceful yet; spread before me some fifteen or so kilometres away and I could barely discern the odd musical tones of bus horns in the distance.  I inhaled deeply.  I was here.
Beyond faded hills on the opposite side of the valley, the 7406m massif of Ganesh Himal stood reflecting the sun’s morning glow in hues of pink, yellow and orange; at once I felt both insignificant and unassailable – “I am here Nepal; finally!”
I had planned this trip to the country of my childhood dreams for my entire life – for as long as I could remember; plotting where I would go, what I would wish to see (Sagarmatha of course), what I would eat and what I would photograph.  My planning then had been through the eyes of myself as a tourist – the country would show me what I expected of it; I would not need to go looking for the real Nepal.  I would no doubt wear those stupid pants that become shorts, and I would walk about Thamel in search of hiking boots and a trekking agency in an awe-filled daze.  That was then.
Now that lifetime of dreaming has slipped by with adventures in other lands and even living for six years in two different countries.  My youngest child spent the first two years of his life living overseas.  Now approaching fifty, my view of travel has changed.  My awareness is that of gently interacting with the country and its peoples; embracing their culture and not imposing my own.  It is as if I am looking for home; a home where I can give my whole heart.  So – I am here looking for the real Nepal. 
It is three months after the April and May earthquakes.  It is monsoon.  An acquaintance running treks to Everest base camp advised I stay away during monsoon; “oh it’s raining all the time” he said.  I had no intention of going to Everest base camp.  The trekking trails up towards Everest were closed anyway.  He had never been to Nepal during rainy season; his clients did not wish to get their feet wet.  Neither did he.
I was here with intent to help (in some small way), people affected by the quakes.  Tourists had spent decades travelling to Nepal in their stupid cut-off pants; eating in the homes of Nepali on the trail to view the world’s highest mountain; dropping their rubbish and money along the way.  Where are they now? Nepal was devoid of tourists – scared off by after shocks and landslides. Much of the foreigners that were in the country were “disaster tourists” – pointing invasive cameras at devastation so they could go home and say they had seen it … that they had been here.
“Help” … surely we should be asking the Nepali what “help” should look, feel and sound like for them.  Being in this country so soon after such a monumental event still felt like some sort of intrusion, yet I knew that decades of being “helped” already (schools, hospitals) should continue now more than ever; but in what form?  After asking some of the Changunarayan locals, myself, along with other “volunteers” decided to build temporary shelters for homeless people in the nearby town of Sankhu.  This ancient trading town of around five thousand people was the worst hit in the Kathmandu valley – losing ninety percent of its ancient buildings and homes to the quakes with a death toll of almost three hundred.   I had fundraised in New Zealand for the purpose of helping somehow and so had my travelling companions – we had money to burn!  Walking through this town devastated by the quakes was comparable to walking through a war zone.  I could barely fathom that three months after the fact people were still digging out their homes using rudimental tools, devoid of modern technology to help get the job done quickly and efficiently.  This was Nepal.  Rubbish was strewn everywhere; scrawny stray dogs rummaged around for a morsel to fill their tiny aching belly’s; chickens skitted about unapologetically – knowing the dogs had little or no energy to be bothered with the chase. 
And everywhere eyes … watching as we foreigners slowly took in the broken landscape; overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of destruction brought to this once beautiful settlement.  I could not use my camera straight away.  The shock needed “to land” first of all.  No amount of photographing would ever explain this to a purveyor of my images once I got home.  This was too much.  There was a tangible feeling of death; no camera could ever capture that.
Once again the fleeting feeling of intruding washed over me as Nepali lifted their heads from their work and watched silently as we wandered unhurriedly down the towns main business street – a muddy, filthy, stinking shadow of its previous self.  “Namaste” I offered … to no one and everyone.
Nepal is attuned to tourists – tourism is the second biggest industry behind agriculture.  It creates jobs and wealth for many along with supporting the once thriving cottage industry.  Nepali were always the subject of the tourists gaze; now it appears the gaze was upon us … creating an awareness of awkwardness in me – an intention to action hanging in the air as rancid as the smell of faeces that also hung heavily.  Treading cautiously through mud, rubbish, broken bricks and rubble, I felt the first drops of a warm rain contact my skin.  Slowly they intensified until quite suddenly they amalgamated in an urgent blanket of wet warmth as if the Gods were somehow trying to erase the devastation and start anew.  Drains filled quickly with water and over-flowed whilst dogs and children ran for cover.  People kept digging with a slow monotonous rhythm as if keeping time to the beating of some silent drum.  This was Sankhu – broken but fighting back … in its own time.
Our small group built ten temporary shelters.  Nothing more then tin sheds in reality.  In the grand scheme of things ten was never going to be enough.  I asked myself time and time again – who are we building these for? Us or them?  Perhaps it was a little of both.  Grateful families welcomed us into their broken homes and tents for chia and food; unassumingly wishing to show appreciation for the shelter we provided them from daily rains and an approaching winter.  We could not speak the language of the other, but there lay an implicit understanding that transcended any spoken word; eye contact hanging longer than it would normally – “thank you” spelled out with the eyes, hands … heart.  Thank you came also from me for the opportunity to be shown that being in Nepal with an “intention to help” might not have necessarily meant me helping Nepali – but rather Nepali helping me unravel and reveal the essence of humanity.  They helped me to find the real Nepal.

1 comment:

  1. Thx K. Sensory aware and valid introspection. Well done.