Nepal was struck by a massive earthquake last week, the second in less than a month. While we were in Nepal months ago, our first post about our adventures published the same day as the first earthquake. We have many more tales to share about our time in Nepal - about the people we met, the stories they told us, and the culture and landscapes we witnessed. It seemed inappropriate, however, to post more blogs about our adventures in the darkest period immediately after the earthquake. We will return to those stories, but first I want to share a few thoughts about travel and forming emotional connections to other people and places.
The news and internet are filled with descriptions and images of the damage done by the earthquakes. Over 8,400 people died in the first one alone. Many news outlets have coverage of the disaster. If you'd like to read more, I recommend these articles:
The Washington Post infographic
The Wathington Post videos
There is nothing I can add to the news coverage, but instead I wanted to discuss how travel has affected my relationship with this disaster.
Often when major disasters strike, I find myself having trouble relating to them. I read about a group of people that died or a city that was destroyed and feel guilty because they largely feel abstract to me. I feel I should have this emotional response because thousands of people have died, but it can be difficult to feel that connection. I suspect that many other people feel the same way. Many times I search for a way to feel connected to the disaster because I feel disrespectful for not being moved by their situation.
These earthquakes have affected me emotionally in a different way than other major disasters. I have found myself regularly checking the news for the latest reports. I think and talk about the earthquakes frequently. I've gotten annoyed with people I've tried to talk to about the earthquake who don't seem interested or engaged in the conversation.
Perhaps it is because I have been to Nepal. When I read about how thousands of people are cut off from support because roads are not good enough for aid to reach them, the problem feels real to me because I've traveled on some of those roads and experienced their condition. When I see photos of tent cities that have sprung up because everyone in the community has lost their home, it makes sense to me because I have been in many buildings in Nepal and felt how cobbled together many of them felt.
We also had long conversations with several Nepalese people while we were visiting about their lives in Nepal. In Kathmandu we met one of Kelsi's former colleagues, whom she worked with closely up until last July. He told us about how he was beginning to build his own house and that day traveled throughout Kathmandu collecting items for the Hindu blessing ritual for the house’s foundation the following day. In Pokhara we had a long conversation with a family of Tibetan refugees, living in Nepal under political asylum. They served us hand-made momos in their tiny one room restaurant with only three walls at the back of an ally of souvenir shop. I've wondered about them in the time since the earthquakes.
One place in Nepal specifically has stood out to me in connection to the earthquake. In the city of Bhaktapur, located near the capital in the Kathmandu Valley, stands the Vatsala Durga Temple. Or stood, actually. Dedicated to the Hindu god Durga, the stone temple was erected in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century and was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. I took several photos of Kelsi in front of the temple.
We even captured a very short clip of me walking in the square where the temple stood. In this video you can see the Vatsala Durga Temple standing on the far side of the square.
Here is amateur footage taken in the same square during the earthquake. You'll see the temple at the very beginning of the video.
Maybe it's the fact that I've been to this square, in the very spot where the temple stood and fell, that I feel an emotional concern for those who live there. I don't doubt that our experiences in Nepal are certainly a big part of why I feel more connected than I do during most disasters. I wonder, though, if perhaps travel in general allowed for this type of connection.
One of the most lasting memories of our trip was our first night in Tokyo, the very first stop of our trip. Fresh off the plane from the United States, we took a long bus ride into the city, got aggravatingly lost trying to find the correct metro line, and eventually found ourselves walking through the city looking for cheap ramen after depositing our bags at our hostel. (Side note: We found the 500 yen, or about $5, ramen shop and ate one of the best bowls of soup the entire trip.) The predominant emotion I felt that evening was a shock that Tokyo actually existed and we were there. Japan had been a place I had read about and dreamed of visiting, but it was an abstract place... A mythical land that was super clean, always punctual, full of tasty seafood and people reading anime. To actually be there took Japan from an idea in my mind to a place.
This experience has been repeated many times on the trip. Standing in Tiananmen Square looking at the hammer and sickle flags and the preserved corpse of Mao turned communist China from a philosophical construction to an actual place. Bathing elephants in Thailand turned what honestly in photos looks like a fictional animal to an amazing, real creature. Crawling through tunnel systems that resistance groups in Vietnam lived in during the war made the story of their incredibly difficult lives an experience instead of a story.
And so when I read about Nepal, I suspect that it feels more real to me not only because I was there, but because of the general experiences of travel; places I've read about and stories I've heard repeatedly came alive on our adventure.
Travel or no, however, I think we can agree that the victims of wars or natural disasters deserve more than a footnote we only think about when we backpack as rich foreigners, even if that emotional connection is at times difficult. Nepal already was one the least developed places we visited… I can’t imagine what shape they are in now. It is my hope travel, both my own and that of others, will stretch us emotionally to feel that connection with other people and drive us to action, both to contribute to relief after disasters and to efforts to prevent them before.