Before the earthquake, I spent three months studying development and social change – as well as Nepali language and culture – at a small American organization in the center of Kathmandu. I lived with a host family full-time and also got to spend a couple weeks living in a village in the rural, heavily mountainous Mustang region of northern Nepal (as well as one week in the rural plains of the Terai of southern Nepal). I can’t possibly express the profundity of the experience in a few short sentences… the experience has completely changed my outlook on the meaning and truths of culture. Living in Nepal was difficult, especially at first – load shedding meant that, for months on end, 16-18 hours per day electricity would stop flowing to certain sections of the city. My shower was a bucket of lukewarm water in a dark room, and the thick layers of pollution trapped in the bowl-shaped city meant wearing a mask on my 30 minute walk to school every morning. But, as these difficulties turned into annoyances turned into habit, I began to absolutely love everything about the culture – how it had welcomed me with open arms at every turn, shoved food into my mouth in every room as a customary hello, brought me to puja ceremonies with my aama and holi celebrations with my daai.
Living in Kathmandu as a Westerner, the aspects of Nepali life that I had at first understood as chaotic faded into normalcy. My sense of cultural center became flipped upside down, and eventually destroyed altogether. As I learned to eat all of my meals with my hands, ride the bus gasping for air and clinging on to hundreds other people for hours on end, and lightheartedly argue with taxi drivers in Nepali over whether I deserved the tourist price or the student price, I began to understand that so much of what I had thought of as objective aspects of living are actually entirely culturally subjective – and that the West had done a hell of a job engraining its standards of normalcy into the deepest levels of my consciousness. You ask what my biggest takeaway has been – that one is definitely way up there. Culture in the United States and culture in Nepal don’t exist relative to each other, and there’s really no standard measurement upon which to judge them.
When the earthquake hit, I was with fellow Batesie [sophomore] Alex Ulin on a public bus just outside of the valley. I had been in Nepal three months, and she had arrived a few days before to work with a women’s organization in the city – we had decided to go trekking for the weekend, to get away from the bustle of Kathmandu life for a bit. By U.S. standards, we were in a relatively remote area – about a minute after we stepped onto a bus, it started violently shaking from side to side. People around us seemed confused at first, and then scared – nobody had any idea what was going on. The bus kept shaking and shaking, it felt like it might overturn at any moment. I looked outside and saw a crowd of people flailing their arms and sprinting toward our bus – behind them I saw pillars of dust and dirt rising from the hills around me (I later realized they were collapsed buildings and houses) – I thought maybe we were under attack. We shoved our way through the crowd and off the bus, as others followed. We ran to a nearby field where a crowd of villagers had begun to gather – some praying, some crying, and some screaming. We were the only non-Nepalis in the area. We stood, sat and paced in that field for three hours as tremor after tremor continued to come – as the Nepalis we were with watched their village collapse. No one knew what was going on, and we all understood that, if this was the end, there was nothing we could do. We didn’t know if the ground was going to open up under us, didn’t know where the center was, had no idea of the extent of the damage outside our line of sight. Eventually, Alex and I decided we had to make our way to a major road, to a place with food and shelter for us. We said goodbye and good luck to the friends we had made, and hiked a few hours to the larger town of Dhulikel, pausing in fear every time we felt another tremor and running every time we had to travel next to or in between buildings. Right as we arrived in Dhulikel – just as we entered the old town – the first large aftershock hit, sending rubble and bricks into the streets all around us. I remember sprinting for a field with our hands over our heads. After two hours sheltering in Dhulikel, exhausted and scared for our lives, we found a group of people who were leaving on a bus – we got on the bus and stepped off once we reached a nearby guesthouse. I’ll never forget how the driver refused to accept payment, instead wishing us good luck and safety.
We eventually made our way to Kathmandu and met up with a few other students and staff from my program. We sheltered at the program center for a week, and did our best to help out with relief efforts. We spent long days (and nights, sleeping under tarps outside) debating what to do next, how we’d be able to be the most helpful – what the least selfish thing to do under the circumstances would be. We received an evacuation mandate from my university, and the embassy recommended leaving. Needless to say, our parents were not happy when we told them we would prefer to stay. In the end, though, we decided the resources we would be taking up, as untrained and unspecialized students, would do more harm than good. The truth is, if I stayed, it would have been for myself and not for Nepal. There are thousands and thousands of Nepalis staying in camps right now with more than enough willpower to do what has to be done. I didn’t want to contribute to the problem with my own personal white savior complex. So we left.
If I have learned one thing studying development in Nepal, it’s that development – more often than not – is a colonial process for Westerners to exert influence and arrogantly impose values onto cultures and peoples they label as “inferior” or “underdeveloped.” No one was “underdeveloped” until the West invented the idea of “developed.” Aid and relief processes, as I’ve experienced, are all too often similar. Even if well-intentioned, arrogance can fuck things up in ways outsiders have trouble fully understanding.
A few days after the earthquake, Alex and I were working with a women’s organization to help organize the camps and distribute hygiene supplies and food. The organization had spent a full morning organizing information about the camps–-which families were sleeping where, who needed what, etc. At about 12:00 P.M. that day, a truck showed up with a well-meaning tourist who had bought $1500 worth of noodles. He and two armed police force guards he was with rolled up to a camp and started flinging the noodles off the back of a pickup truck into a group of people as if it were candy. Grinning, they seemed to feel like heroes. Slowly, the group became a crowd, and the crowd became a borderline riot. Some walked away with armfuls of noodles, while women (traditionally looked down upon for displaying aggression), children, those with disabilities, or those who happened to be in the back of the crowd remained empty handed, frustrated, and even physically hurt by the stampede of people chaotically rushing for food. It could have killed someone – just one example of well-intentioned ignorance doing more harm than good.
As it says on my Facebook, since leaving Nepal my friends and I have struggled a lot with the distance between us and the place that has given us so much over the past few months. Having spent three months studying Development and Social Change in the country – and a considerable amount of time each doing our own independent research in that field – we’ve each had a good deal of on the ground experience with community work in Nepal and established a fund hoping to help funnel money into the right places. So much of the money going into the country now WILL be squandered by bureaucracy, cultural politics, and international egos. Our fund skirts this by directing money to organizations that aren’t already in the headlines and that are doing absolutely essential work and which we have 100% faith in the integrity of. These organizations are all small and Nepali led, are working around the clock and struggling for funds, and deserve so much more attention than they’re getting. So far we’ve raised $7,500, and are goal is to push $10,000 within the next week. Anything you can do to help us out by spreading the word will make a HUGE difference. The link to donate is below.
A thought to end on – just because the news cycle has phased Nepal out doesn’t mean the crisis is over. For many in Nepal, the worst has yet to come. I’m sure you’ve heard about the second major earthquake earlier this week – and the turmoil it will cause, the ways it will compound already-scarce food supplies and disease risk. It’s truly absurd that I am completely safe right now – with more than enough shelter, food, and water – just because I was privileged enough to be born in America.