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Namaste from Nepal

Nepal
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A glimpse of the Patan Durbar Square, currently closed to tourists. © Iris Gonzales

On a sweltering hot, dry Monday morning after an impossibly bumpy three-hour flight from Bangkok, Filipino documentary photographer Jes Aznar and I walked down the steps of a dusty white air bus, into the thin Himalayan air, in the centre of Kathmandu.

This city of labyrinthine alleys and streets is now full of empty hotels and collapsed buildings; of cordoned-off temples and traumatized shopkeepers.

Nepal, one of five Himalayan countries, the land of Ganesha, the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on 25 April.

It was not the best time to plan a holiday.

It was like running toward a building on the verge of collapse while everyone else was storming out to safety. But there we were, on a trip we imagined and planned over the last 3 years, but had to postpone for the nth time for a hundred and one reasons: a plane crash, a child with fever, an urgent assignment.

We dreamt of that vacation: a trek in the Himalayas; yoga on a mountain village; a cup of the yoghurt-based lassi while sitting comfortably on a hotel’s balcony; bottles of ice cold, cold Nepali beer with barley; all that and more.

But the vacation turned into assignments, his and mine, to tell the stories of a country damaged by an earthquake; of how its women are holding out, or how far-flung villages are surviving on donated rice.

Standing in the middle of Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, a small building made of orange bricks, we didn’t know where to begin.

There was chaos even before we stepped out into the ocean of dusty white cabs that gathered outside, waiting for passengers who wanted a ride. Inside the airport, there were lines – perpendicular and parallel – and immigration officers who would suddenly leave their posts when it was your turn to step past the yellow line.

After we left the airport, what we saw amazed us.

Throughout the capital and nearby cities, there were signs of devastation everywhere. The streets were filled with dust, debris and boulders; there were heaps and heaps of fallen bricks and shopkeepers waiting outside the hundreds and hundreds of curio shops for fear that the earth would shake and tremble again.

On our first afternoon in the capital, we walked the long, narrow street of Nardevi from the popular tourism district of Thamel and saw our first glimpse of a destroyed country.

Some hotels were eerily empty except for one or two employees desperately waiting for things to go back to normal. We walked on and saw fruit and vegetable vendors waiting by the sidewalk, trying to make a living in these difficult times.

Nearly every building – be it a bakery, an antique shop, a neighbourhood store or an apartment – was supported by long, thick sticks made of bamboos or old wood pressed against the road, to prevent further collapse.

Some days are all about dust; thick, thick dust surrounding people working non-stop to clear the sidewalks of pile upon pile of rubble.

At least 8,800 people died that tragic day last April, we were told. Some villages were wiped out and thousands remain missing.

But this is what we didn’t expect: amid the devastation, the magic of Nepal shone through.

There’s a simple yet profound beauty to the place that awakens the senses and touches every nerve with pure clarity. You see it in the kindness of the Nepali people who will manage to smile and greet you ‘Namaste’ even in their most challenging times; you feel it in quiet mornings; you see it in the coloured prayer flags dancing in the wind; you hear it in the sound of the singing bowls and chirping pigeons; in the kindness of rickshaw drivers and in the laughter of children in tent cities.

Many times we found ourselves lost in the city’s maze-like alleys and nooks and crannies. Many turns seemed right only for us to find out that we had made yet another wrong turn. But getting lost for hours in Nepal is a magical journey because there is always beauty and healing along the way. You can lose yourself in the chaos and find yourself again because anything is possible in Nepal.

During one of our last moments here, we stood on top of a hill overlooking a city of pastel-coloured homes that glittered under the warm Nepalese sun on the Western edge of Kathmandu Valley, inside the Swayambunaht Stupa complex.

We saw lovers embracing and scores of brown monkeys. An enigmatic old man with sunburnt wrinkled skin and grey hair covered by a faded blue Nepali ‘Dhaka’ (headgear), sat alone in one corner of this hill, below Buddha’s giant pair of eyes, chanting prayers, almost in a whisper one could barely hear. Yet surreal as it was, the rhythmic sound cut through the silence of the afternoon, echoed down to the city below and soothed weary souls.

I closed my eyes to seal this music in my heart forever, a stark reminder that even in a devastated world, the spirit and the soul are never broken; and even in the most strange and chaotic places, one can still find one’s way back home.

Namaste from Nepal!

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