Have you ever experienced a beauty so incredible that you’re stupefied? Something so stunning that upon first witness, your mind turns to the equivalent of a car with a dead battery, unable to turn over? Tic, tic, tic. As if that’s the most it can muster in response?
Nepal is stupefyingly beautiful.
In the short week that I have been here, I have been reminded of all of my favorite places, the lush landscapes of Oregon, Hawaii. The frenetic magnificence of Delhi. The places I’ve only seen in the movies, Peter Jackson’s New Zealand. A beauty that is spiritual, mystical. The colors, saturated and piercing, turn drying laundry into masterpieces. The horns of painted trucks, a sing-song noise I’ve yet to find outside of south Asia, seem a fitting soundtrack; soothing and melodic. Even the way people greet each other, Namaste, I bow to the divine in you, is excruciating in its profound beauty.
But I feel guilty just saying that; even thinking it. That Nepal is beautiful. Because the reason I am here is far from a beautiful thing. It is, in fact, horrific.
I sit in a tent with Eliza, a passionate mental health professional originally from Hong Kong but working in Nepal with the Japanese Red Cross. It is absolutely sweltering, but the heat doesn’t seem to affect her. She is part of the healthcare relief team. They are providing external first aid, she is helping with internal wounds.
I am in Melamchi, in the Sindhupalchok District, some three hours northwest of Katmandu. The destruction is everywhere. Buildings, lives turned upside down. I’m here to see a health care training the Japanese Red Cross is running for secondary students from five local schools.
While we wait for the training to get started, Eliza tells me the story of a local boy whose grandmother brought him to the Red Cross following the earthquake, a boy she has been seeing daily. He had lost 35% of his body weight in the past month. He wouldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. It was quite understandable. When the earthquake struck, he was buried alive. He is four years old.
Later during the training, I watched as kids practice first aid with each other, both of the physical and psychological type. How to deal with broken bones, open wounds. How to support a friend who had lost a family member in the quake. How to deal with such a loss yourself. Nepal, in all its stupefying beauty, has a critical need for mental health care for kids who have dealt with death. At age eleven? How can I possibly reconcile this in my head?
And even as I sit there, befuddled at how this is at all possibly fair, I notice a young girl in the back of the room. Her long thick hair is perfectly plaited in matching pigtails. Her eyes look like gems from a jewelry shop, deep, intense amber. She laughs shyly with her classmates as they fiddle with bandages, fixing pretend broken bones. Most of the children in this village have suffered extreme loss as a result of the earthquake. I doubt she is an exception. She is absolutely beautiful.
At the end of the day, my driver Anil (taking on the roads in Nepal necessitates a PhD level skill set) and I head back to Kathmandu. About an hour outside of Melamchi, we stop for tea. It is pretty much the best tea I’ve ever had, the perfect proportion of milk and sugar. We climb to the rooftop of this roadside café, up rickety stairs that make me feel a bit like Indiana Jones. From here, peeking through the clouds, I see the Himalayans. As in the mother range of fricking Mount Everest. A rainbow looms above, almost taunting in its beauty.
And I think again, this is unfair. Because less than an hour ago, the smell of shit was pungent and permanent in my nose. Open defecation is a huge issue in Melamchi and promotional posters encouraging the opposite plaster the two makeshift toilets the Japanese Red Cross use at their compound. “Toilet” and all, after two months in the unforgiving heat, the smell causes sick to rush to the back of my throat when I go to pee.
But here I am, an hour removed from the shit and the broken bones and the buried alive, and this moment makes me giddy in the way that Thunder Mountain Railroad did when Lindsey and I rode it as adults for the first time, creaking slowly towards the peak, clutching each other in our gold mine carts, a combination of laughter scream the only way to express our excitement. I start to think my tea must be laced with something; it’s impossible to experience all this beauty without chemical enhancements, right? Not when death and grief and loss are so significantly present?
I don’t know how I am going to do this. How I am going to write this story. That’s what I’m here for, after all. To remind people not to forget about Nepal. That with monsoon season quickly approaching, like one of the crazy motorbikes that crowd the roads, right around the corner, unseen until it’s right on top of you, this disaster will get even worse. People are living under tarps, shelter that can’t withstand monsoons winds. That Haiti raised $488 million, Nepal a paltry $30 million. How am I supposed to find my nice, pithy lede? My compelling call to action?
How am I supposed to do this when my every other thought is Nepal is so f*&!ng beautiful?
I don’t know. I am at a loss.
I am, well, stupefied.