One month before the Great Earthquake (as the Nepali refer to April 25th), we opted to climb to Swayambhu—Monkey Temple—instead of going up Dharahara Tower.
The remains of the Tower were the first thing I saw in news reports assessing the damage from what turned out to be the deadliest earthquakes in Nepal’s history. After all, it was the tallest manmade structure and built by the Royals, who had recently retreated into the jungle. At least, that’s what our guide told us.
As coverage of the earthquake tumbled into Connecticut, my mind raced, frantically trying to match up the shattered images with the places we just visited. Each time I saw another pile of crumbled brick, I wracked my brain: Was that a place we went? Was that?
The day we decided not to go up the Tower, our guide, Hari, had said, “The Tower’s nice but crowded and hot. Let’s go up to Swayambhunath. We get the best view of Kathmandu, and fresh air.”
That seemed good to us. I was traveling with my 12-year-old son, who loves climbing and heights, and he needed a good dose of rhesus macaques. We knew the highly social monkeys would be glad to see us. That’s a nice feeling so far from home.
We were so lucky. We went to Nepal mainly because my son is concerned for the people of Tibet. Many have settled in the Himalayas just out of China’s reach. We have Tibetan friends on the Shoreline—they run the Dharma Jewel shops in Mystic and Westbrook. We’ve learned a lot about Nepal from them—enough to know that when we planned our trip halfway around the world to India, we needed to cross the northern border and see the Himalayas for ourselves.
What we didn’t understand until we experienced it was how noble-minded and proud the Nepali are. There’s a quiet, innate reverence about the people that pulses through the entire place. It’s a nearly ethereal energy that permeates your soul as you walk or sit or simply stare. And there’s so much to stare at, so many amazing colors and shapes and symbols of strong lives.
We had three stops in Nepal: Kathmandu, the capital; Chitwan, the wildlife park; and Nagarkot, the mountains. It’s our introductory tour, we said. We’ll come back. We visited five of the seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley. We couldn’t have known that the sacred, historic places we were seeing would be gone in a month.
In Kathmandu, we spent hours at Swayambhu, a religious complex with the oldest Buddhist stupa, where we visited a monastery and art school. We strolled along the Bagmati River behind Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu temple in Nepal, where several families were honoring their dead with cremation ceremonies. We covered every corner of Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square, and waited for the Living Goddess Kumari to show her young and serious face through a miniscule window. We ventured to Boudhanath, the largest stupa in Nepal, and met a Tibetan Buddhist High Monk who lit 10 million Butter Lamps and had a million-dollar smile.
Later, we drove for six hours (covering 72 miles) down into the Valley, to Chitwan National Park, where we spied four one-horned rhinos swimming in a tributary to the Rapti, which flows to the Ganges. After that, we crossed back through the city and traveled an hour up, to Nagarkot, with a sunrise that painted the Annapurna range. We hiked for hours with our guide through Tamang villages, passing wobbly, newborn goats and coming face-to-face with rural life like we never imagined. Finally, we reached Changu Narayan, home to the oldest temple in Nepal, built in the 4th century.
The people we met and their families survived. Not all of their homes did, nor the buildings that housed and sustained us. In fact, every place we went has been damaged. Some are only rubble now, remnants of ancient fired brick, mud mortar and carved wood. Our photo albums are redefined. Rather than a beautiful flashback, we have an eerie “before” chronicle.
The whole trip keeps looping in my mind, like a well-loved movie. I still see and hear and smell that first magical day in this sliver of a country. We arrived at Monkey Temple just as family members came to escort a man for his 80th birthday procession. He wore a crown. At the top of the hill, he sat on the ground and shared his feast—monkeys, dogs and family around him. Nearby, average people and orange-robed monks strolled clockwise around the stupa, arms extended to spin every prayer wheel, each rotation returning their intentions ten-fold.
I didn’t fully realize until after the shock of the Great Earthquake that I had received ten-fold blessings from Nepal. In the weeks since the first earthquake and nearly 300 aftershocks, I asked a friend in Kathmandu what they needed most. “For people to come and not be afraid,” he replied. “We survive because of people.”
Isabelle Bruder Smith is a journalist and poet living in Colchester, and working in Old Saybrook. She will return to Pokhara, Nepal, in November 2015 with the Jimmy & Rosalyn Carter Work Project and Habitat for Humanity, to build 100 homes in one week.