It’s been three months since I relocated to Nepal and I’ve experienced so much in this short period of time. It feels like lifetimes since I left the States in October. I’ve taken in so many new sights and sounds and have been consistently overwhelmed trying to process it all. There have been many ups and downs, as with any endeavor in this little life, and I am optimistic about a productive and enlightening rest of my stay here.
On a daily basis, I’m confronted with so many juxtaposed scenes of beauty and tragedy, determination and indifference, peace and chaos, amidst other conflicting emotions. It’s been hard to make sense of it all.
There are days when two and a half decades of rigid Western indoctrination take a stronghold over my consciousness and I become quickly frustrated as innumerable challenges arise. I’ve often found myself overwhelmed by the problems at hand and wondering how I can make an impact in just half a year. Other days I’m able to wake up with a heaping bowl of gratitude, take a few deep breaths, and be a much more patient observer of and contributor to the diversity of life all around me.
I’ve been intrigued by Nepal for as long as I can remember – having an aunt, uncle, and three cousins on the other side of the globe will do that to a kid. A family vacation after fifth grade helped me grow closer with that clan here and exposed me to a mysterious, faraway land with impressive mountain views, exotic jungle animals, fascinating ancient architecture, and cows sitting comfortably in the middle of city roads. My eleven year-old self couldn’t comprehend the lasting impact of this experience, but looking back it clearly left a deep imprint on my soul.
As the years went on, I was fortunate to grow closer to Joshua, Ezra, Leah, Keith, and Shakun through shared time at family reunions and the boys coming to the States for college at the same time I was at school. The brotherhood between us was strengthened during these formative years and invitations, both implicit and explicit, to spend more time in their home country were always the subject of some discussion.
Coming to Nepal had been a dream of mine for so long, and now that I am here and have gotten to experience both life in the hectic capital city as well as in a nearby village, things are more complicated than I could have ever imagined.
Nepal is a perpetually complex nation in the midst of a uniquely difficult time. Still in the early stages of recovery from last year’s earthquake, the country must attempt to prepare for a future where further devastating demonstrations of Mother Nature’s wrath are a constant possibility. An ongoing fuel embargo at the Indian border has made most transportation and all goods increasingly expensive. The fact that this small landlocked nation relies on its southern neighbor for the majority of its imports will be a potentially crippling problem for the forseeable future. In addition to these current difficulties, civil rights injustices, government corruption, and widespread poverty have all been woven into the fabric of the country for decades if not centuries.
I can’t pretend to have nearly enough awareness or historical perspective on most of these issues to speak on them at length with any type of eloquence. That being said, it’s impossible to ignore the omnipresence of these harsh realities whilst living here. Their widespread effects permeate through all interactions and create a disorienting sense of contrast when experienced amidst the spectacular beauty of the natural landscape and the unmatched kindness of the local population.
As my feelings of stagnancy with my job and life grew over the last two years, Nepal was always in the back of my mind as a potential destination for a new perspective. Once Josh finished his studies and moved back home to Kathmandu to begin building a future for himself and his country, the wheels really started turning in my head. I knew I wanted to escape the office environment I had been working in and find ways to work outside with my hands to use my engineering skillset more creatively. I also knew I wanted to break free from the urban and suburban lands of America’s Northeast where I had lived the entirety of my life. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly miss all of my wonderful friends and family in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and beyond. I just knew I needed a deep breath of fresh air and a chance to expand my awareness of what a human life on this beautiful, dark, twisted, fantasy of a spinning rock could be like.
When the Spring 2015 earthquake hit Nepal, killing 9,000 people and leaving countless others injured and homeless, my family in Kathmandu quickly sprung into action leading relief efforts. Early actions included organizing dangerous trips to remote areas across the country to deliver short-term relief supplies in the form of food and temporary shelter. The ongoing second phase of these efforts, which I have been participating in with a small but dedicated team of volunteers and locals, is focused on reconstruction efforts in the form of safe and low-cost structures. We are focusing our efforts in the village of Okharpauwa, which sits 90 minutes outside of Kathmandu by bus and has a population of 500 that consists largely of subsistence farmers.
Our reconstruction design harnesses the amazing power of bamboo, which has a strength-to-weight ratio comparable to steel and can be easily worked using a few simple tools. In case of destruction from a major earthquake, bamboo’s low weight reduces the potential for injury upon collapse. This is an especially important point for us, as falling debris from high stonewall constructions caused much of the harm last spring. Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on the planet and is thus a renewable alternative to traditional timbers. Not only does it provide essential safety benefits, its continued use can help combat the global issue of diminished forest resources.
One of the most important aspects of our work is encouraging the villagers to take responsibility for the future health of their community. Rather than just deliver supplies or structures, the emphasis is on skill sharing and development. We want to ensure that the villagers can best provide for themselves and their families in what is sure to be an uncertain future. All of the reconstructed homes in the village were built without paid labor, relying instead on the community members coming together to support one another.
Our volunteer team of three Americans and one Spaniard has a diverse range of engineering, building, and conservation experience. Leveraging these talents with the expertise and uncanny resourcefulness of our village partners has been one of the most enlightening and rewarding parts of these efforts. Both villagers and volunteers alike have shared various building and landscaping tricks learned along the way, and we have all learned so much from each other despite a challenging language barrier.
Our on-site host Prem-Ji is an energetic community leader, and is really the only local with a conversational grasp of English beyond a few simple words or phrases. Prem’s enthusiasm towards both teaching us volunteers Nepali and learning English himself is equal parts amusing and uplifting on a daily basis. His English has improved dramatically due to his diligence over the last two months. At any given moment during the day, he is bound to break out into a hilarious nonsensical string of random words we have taught him along the way – “Mustard! Peas! Pick-Ax! Twice!” Every so often, he will casually say something so heartwarming and kind that it absolutely stops me in my tracks. He is truly the consummate host, sharing insights like, “Daniel-Sir, you are my brother, and it is my responsibility to teach you what I know.” I am so eternally grateful to Prem and his family for making me feel comfortable in such a foreign environment and for the development of my Nepali language skills. The first few weeks in the village were definitely an immersive and isolating experience the likes of which I had never been through but I feel amazingly comfortable there now. I still have so much more to learn, but I am now at least decently conversational on a few different topics which has really opened up my interactions with and ability to work alongside the villagers.
I have learned a wide range of useful skills but more than anything, working in Nepal has been a constant lesson in patience and adaptation. New challenges are continually arising, especially with supplies always difficult to come by. Transporting building materials in the current fuel situation is often unreasonably expensive, and there are some days when we can’t even seem to round up enough saws with which to cut bamboos.
I’ll never forget sitting in countless office meetings in my previous life the last few years, feeling suffocated by the four bland walls around me and uninspired by the inefficiency and monotony of it all. I used to daydream about getting out into the world and working in a less restrictive and regulated environment. Now there are times when scheduled meetings are repeatedly postponed or simply never materialize with no notice or explanation. Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true.
Then again, many of our villagers are just struggling to get by, especially through the oppressive cold of winter. How can I blame them for reorganizing their priorities to best ensure the survival of their families? These words are no hyperbole – 5 villagers have died in recent weeks as long, cold nights have only gotten longer and colder. Every day I observe weary sixty year old men and women toiling long hours in the fields and carrying heavy loads up steep hillsides just to have enough food to eat. The fact that these folks are donating any of their precious time and resources on these building projects to benefit the greater community going forward is a constant inspiration and reminder for me to take a step back and really look at the bigger picture.
We are hoping that we will soon be able to purchase and deliver a shipment of warm blankets and/or jackets for our friends in Okharpauwa as they battle this tough winter. Us volunteers are blessed to have warm layers and our down sleeping bags to crawl into in our tents at night, but the villagers simply aren’t all as fortunate. Seeing toddlers and seniors alike lacking proper winter jackets in houses with no source of internal heating breaks my heart and causes me to have increased sympathy for this population that is already recovering from a tragic natural disaster and trying to operate beneath an unbelievably unresponsive government. For example, the National Reconstruction Authority only just recently got itself organized in the last month. Local news this week has reported that official government-sponsored reconstruction will not begin until at least April, marking the one year anniversary of the quake. We are doing our best to operate within this difficult climate, and remain determined that our collective efforts will be able to make a lasting impact.
The following GoFundMe link directs to a page that was set up immediately after the earthquake to raise money for relief and early reconstruction efforts. The page tells the story of how these efforts have developed in the months since and provides useful data and anecdotes specifying how all funds raised to date have been implemented. Any further contributions made to this fund will have an enormous impact on enabling us to provide the winter supplies mentioned above, as well as to continue to provide novel structures that will help this community rebuild and recover. From all of us here, we sincerely thank you in advance for any donations you are able to give, and for just reading these words and learning about our work.
Nepal Villagers’ Earthquake Fund
I have three more months left here in Nepal this year. I fully expect to continue to be challenged and inspired by both the work and the people here. I am excited to finish our newest project of building an office/community center in the village, and can already picture the many classes, youth events, and communal meals that I hope will fill this space with life and light in the years to come. I also hope to get involved with reconstruction efforts at the local school, and to just continue to integrate into the lovely Okharpauwa community that has so graciously welcomed us into their lives and homes.
I am forever indebted to the Leslie clan here for opening up their world to me and allowing me to have this remarkable and diverse experience. I could write endlessly about our precious family movie nights at home in Kathmandu, getting to know the dynamic young woman my baby cousin Leah has matured into through hours spent studying for her high school math and science exams or looking through her brilliant photography work, and timeless days and hours spent exploring town with Josh, Ez, and Ashley. I’ll save those words for another day, but it’s safe to say this Nepali stint has been a unique family experience the likes of which I will cherish throughout the rest of this lifetime.
One final thank you goes out to all of my other family and friends who have sent notes and messages of support and inquiry over the last few months. It is always so ridiculously awesome to feel your love from across the globe and reminisce on the people and experiences I have been so lucky to come across on this journey. I love you all so very much, and if my responses have ever been short or nonexistent, it’s only been because I’ve been wrestling with how exactly to organize my thoughts about such a wonderful, bewildering experience in a concise fashion. And a special shout out to Jordan Brown for spending her holiday vacation coming to get a glimpse of life in Nepal and for joining Josh and I on a trek to Annapurna Base Camp. We really made it JB! Hopefully some words and photos on that extraordinary trip will follow in a blog post to come sometime soon.
If you’re really still with me at this point, thank you for everything. Much love to all and to all a good fight.