the nepal earthquake

words & images colleen fugate

On this particular morning, I woke up to the sound of a radio screaming the news, muffling the cries of the water buffaloes and the fluttering of the pigeons just outside my door. The Himalayan air felt fresh and crisp after a night of pre-monsoonal rains. As I stepped outside, just in time to see the sun rising over the misty mountains, the Nepali woman who I was living with pointed to a small sugary cup of tea for me. Her husband was sitting next to her on the porch, already finished with his tea, and laughed as I greeted the mice darting around the kitchen next door.  

It was another beautiful morning in Chiti Hayta, a village of about 5,000 people nestled up in the mountains of Lamjung province, about 180 kilometers northwest of Kathmandu. After I was sufficiently buzzed from the caffeine and sugar, I packed my backpacks and began the long descent down the mountain with over twenty-five kilos strapped to my body.

Part of the way down, a bus screeched to a halt to offer me a ride. I was muddy, sweaty, and already exhausted and, thus, decided to risk my life in a beat-down vehicle whirling around slippery, narrow cliffs rather than getting lost trekking an unknown mountain path. As I climbed on, I instantly regretted my decision. The bus was packed with people standing and lying in the aisle, and I competed with goats and roosters for a place to stand. I looked out the window and felt that early morning happiness fleeting with the smell of body odor and animal piss.

About two hours into our journey to Pokhara, we passed by another typical Nepali village, with the exception that everyone seemed to be standing outside. Suddenly, I saw men in the street waving their hands at the bus to stop. My first thought was that there had been an accident ahead or it was one of Nepal’s many protests. The bus stopped but continued to shake back and forth for what felt like minutes.

People were yelling and fighting to look out the windows. The man next to me, aware that I didn’t speak Nepali and had no idea what was happening, looked at me grimly and said in English, “earthquake.” As I processed what he had just said, I caught a glimpse out the window of the trembling houses and swaying trees, not even realizing that I was holding my breath as I watched it all unfold.

Alone and with no information, I assumed that earthquakes were part of normal life in Nepal, like the roosters and the goats on the bus. The bus continued after only a few minutes, slowly pushing its way through the crowds of people in the streets (I later realized that the people were looking to distance themselves from buildings and the potential for falling rocks and landslides). Everyone on the bus was on their phones, trying to call loved ones as we continued to Pokhara, stopping periodically for the strongest aftershocks and to move fallen rocks.

In the weeks that unfolded after the April 25 earthquake, daily life was clouded by a haze of fear, exhaustion, and stress. The ground continued to shake relentlessly as people tried to salvage what was left of ordinary life. In Pokhara, shops remained opened, restaurants served food, and transportation continued to run, all creating a sense of uneasy normalcy that everyone knew was a façade as fragile as the buildings that were crumbling around us.

They say that disasters bring out the best and worst in humanity, and the earthquakes in Nepal were no exception. Almost immediately, people on the streets in Pokhara began collecting donations and organizing grassroots efforts to get supplies to some of the most remote villages. Local organizations focused all their efforts on relief and helped to coordinate volunteers and the logistics of visiting affected communities. Thousands of people around the world started online campaigns to raise money, and the international community poured millions of dollars into charities and large aid agencies. In the almost two months that I spent in Nepal prior to the earthquake, I learned that Nepalis are some of the most generous, kind-hearted people on the planet, and for many that disposition to help certainly did not disappear in the crisis that was ensuing.

Unfortunately, though, many relief efforts were stifled by the corrupt Nepali government, completely unprepared for the disaster that had unfolded, and quickly trying to take advantage of foreign relief aid coming into the country. In addition to reports of money already siphoned away, the government also created roadblocks and inspections of relief supplies to be able to confiscate materials to resell to wealthier earthquake victims who would have the money to buy them. Even some ordinary Nepali shop owners selling tents, blankets, and dry foods suddenly raised their prices far beyond what any shortage would require in order make larger profits off the situation.

As the tourists fled within days, international relief agencies began to arrive with their flashy SUVs and deep pockets, seemingly to be more of a media spectacle than a solution to the disaster. A man I spoke with from the Norwegian Red Cross said that some agencies don’t provide any relief outside the cities because there are no film crews or reporters to document their do-gooding. Even regular people full of good intentions, donating time, energy, and money seemed to care more about their Instagram pictures of the disaster and their selfies with victims than the help they ostensibly were trying to provide. 

The longer I stayed in Nepal, the longer I felt an air of ego and greed attach itself to the simple act of helping someone else. I realized that good intentions, even the best of intentions, often are not the only intentions. The desire for recognition, money, personal fulfillment, and the feeling of doing something “good” are all there, mixed with the desire to help others. I saw it in others and I see it in myself: The roots of the problem in how we provide aid are much deeper than what is seen at first glance.

I always wonder why the global community can donate millions of dollars and coordinate with countless organizations to alleviate suffering, but at the end of the day, that the same suffering never seems to be fully eradicated. No matter how much money is raised or how many people try to help, it never seems to be enough. We blame bureaucracy, corrupt governments, and greedy people, often without fully recognizing the greed and ego in ourselves. This is not to say that we shouldn’t help others in any way possible, but to truly examine why and how we provide aid.   

In many ways, it’s those underlying intentions behind providing aid that have more meaning than we would like to think. Though the global community opened its heart to Nepali people in the aftermath of the earthquake, we ignored the injustices, and our own stake in them, that existed long before the afternoon of April 25. The fact that the images flashing across CNN were of the tragedies on Everest—where many Westerners were trekking—and the destruction of the World Heritage sites—which Westerners often visited—somehow sidelined the tragic loss of human life in remote areas around the earthquake’s epicenter, where many Nepalis were living.

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