Earthquakes and the Traveller's Incapacity

Earthquakes and the Traveller’s Incapacity

As anyone with a Facebook account or any degree of exposure to world news would know, the last week or two has been a pretty awful time for Nepal. One of the most popular pilgrimages for young hippies and hobos the world over, Nepal was hit on ANZAC day with a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake which crumbled centuries-old temples, buried Everest base camp and 20 of its inhabitants under an enormous avalanche, and has to date left 8 000 Nepalis and travellers dead and countless more homeless. While the news reports slowly peter away, the tragedy continues to devastate as the thousands camping out in the open without adequate access to water, food and hygiene face a public-health crisis on an enormous scale.

We always try to expect the unexpected when we travel, to be open to challenge and changes of plan. But neither I nor many of the other hundreds who found themselves in Kathmandu on April 25 anticipated being thrown physically and emotionally into the middle of a full-scale natural disaster. As images of the city in ruins flood Australian media, certain narratives are being told again and again. Stories of Everest avalanches and fallen temples are true and worthy of being shared, and walking through a demolished Durbar Square just 24 hours after seeing it at its bustling best was hauntingly symbolic of the fact that so much more than just architecture has been destroyed. But there are also a thousand stories equally worthy of sharing that aren’t being broadcast.

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Firstly, earthquakes – like other natural disasters – are painfully unfair, so much so that finding yourself powerlessly and inexplicably on the lucky side of fate in those situations makes you feel physically sick. For many foreigners in Nepal, the earthquake brought pure terror and paralysing uncertainty: being caught in rockfalls, seeing guesthouses fall metres away, pulling people out of rubble in Thamel and sleeping outside through continuous aftershocks in constant fear that the next one would send a building down on them. Many trekkers are still unaccounted for as days go on in the mountains, and I can’t help but think that a tiny tweak to plans would have changed everything for so many people I met.

But generally, we foreigners have been lucky. Along with well-off Nepalis, the majority of us found ourselves in relatively safe buildings in cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara, where access to communication, clean water and safe food is more guaranteed than in villages. Most of us had embassy lawns to camp on, or at least the option of eventually flying out of the country, and few truly experienced the collective grief of losing so many thousands of daughters, sons, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers and friends. One of the great tragedies of this event is that those who were most fundamentally affected – with houses or businesses that fell or were located in rural villages – will have the fewest resources at their disposal to rebuild.

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Secondly, Nepal is built on the back of the strength and unimaginably compassionate nature of its people, and it is what will hold it together over the coming weeks and years. The stories of selflessness I heard of locals and foreigners being taken in, sheltered, fed and comforted by Nepali people in the hours and even days after the quake blew my mind. These were people who had all the reason in the world to leave those they didn’t know behind and focus all their energies on the preservation of themselves and their families. Hotel owners sheltered as many as they could at no cost; shopkeepers who could have charged extortionate post-earthquake prices sold rope, biscuits, water and tarps for their original price, with many distributing goods en masse for free. Less than a day after the earthquake, I watched as half a dozen locals chased down a foreign girl who had dropped her wallet outside a store, picking up and returning every last coin. The strength of character and beautiful spirit of the Nepali people deserves to be on par with its magnificent Himalayan peaks as a traveller’s drawcard. This downheartedness made leaving Nepal feel like the world’s cruellest abandonment, but it’s also why we as travellers have to make responsible choices for ourselves rather than waiting to be told to leave.

Which brings me to this.

When you think about being caught in a natural disaster, you expect fear, and that certainly comes. What I didn’t expect was the crushing feeling of profound powerlessness that swept many of us in the days following the quake, realising that we – metres away from grief and destruction – could do almost nothing to alleviate the suffering. I fought against my own helplessness for days. At first, I assumed I could still go trekking, but as the scale of the disaster became more apparent, I figured I’d stay, reasoning that Nepal needed all the help it could get. So a group of us went and donated blood, but two days later, the hospital had received such a flood of Nepali donators that its stocks were full. We tried to do odd jobs at the hospital, handing out water and picking up rubbish, but even then our language barrier meant we often felt we were just creating more work by asking how to help. We thought we’d buy and hand out tents to people in camps, but within minutes of opening, shops had none left. The night after the first quake, I assumed I would get up the next morning and start helping people clear rubble from their houses, and I think many idealistic foreigners who flock to these disaster zones expect the same.

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Hopping on the cheapest plane out of a situation like that doesn’t instinctively feel like the kindest option, but I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that it is. In a genuine national emergency – where travel routes are cut off, aid is being brought through congested airports at half the rate it’s needed and access to shelter, food and clean water is limited – the last thing a country needs is another untrained do-gooder burdening while wandering around trying to help. Even harder to justify are the tourists mulling around trying to still book their treks to the Annapurnas. More ambitious companies are opening their doors again, but spending money diverting supplies to the mountains and taking guides away from their families onto dangerous untested paths is not a good idea.

For some, the idea of turning up in Nepal and posting sympathetically-captioned photos of kids in fallen villages on the way up to a still-being-cleared Everest base camp might be appealing – a story to tell on travel circuits that’ll put the bearded guy in the corner who climbed Kili last month to shame. Nepal’s economy needs it, right? Maybe you’re thinking about how cheap the flights are going to be soon. But travel should be about contributing as much as we take, and the best thing a prospective visitor can do at the moment is donate money to one of the reliable agencies (WHO, Oxfam, Red Cross or Save the Children) coordinating the relief effort, which will continue into the coming months and years. Don’t cross Nepal off your list; I know I will definitely be making a strange pilgrimage back next year – but give it time. Right now, Nepal needs your bank account much more than your backpack.

Photos by TIME, Sydney Morning Herald, ABC and Ottawa Citizen.