In light of the recent earthquakes in Nepal, Gabriel Olaer recalls his fond experiences of the beautiful city last year before the devastation, the importance of community and rebuilding.
Not even half a year ago, I was sitting on the steps of Maju Deval on the topmost level, being sheltered by this 17th Century structure. I was at a perfect vantage point as I watched everyone come out for Govardhan Puja, a Hindu holiday, to watch a cultural performance. Kathmandu Durbar Square that day was packed, and despite the chaos there was harmony.
While I waited for the program to start, I competed with locals for the best view. They snacked on instant noodles–eating them as if they were a packet of chips –peanuts, and tea peddlers offered the more organic (gluten free/vegetarian) options. I was trying to sketch the majestic pagodas that made up the Kathmandu skyline, while enchanting traditional music echoed. I also tried writing down the text on the streamer setup on the stage, with the help of two schoolgirls sitting next to me. “Just blankly staring at the beautiful structures, perched up high in a pagoda. Seeing how long and attractive the Nepalese people are. 29 Oct 2014,” I wrote. It was a beautiful, abstract piece of art – a bunch of tiny cabs, rickshaws laden in colour, women in traditional clothing, men with their pinkies intertwined, and western tourists wearing shorts and high white socks with cameras hanging around their necks.
This was a point in my life where I was yet to decide what I really wanted to do, maybe it was the itch in my feet that challenged me to pack my bags up take 6 months leave from work. My first moments in Kathmandu will always be as clear as if it happened last night, completely sober. It was almost so scary that I wanted to hop back in the plane. Arriving just after midnight, I braved through the airport that resembled a run-down bus terminal– it was chaotic and frightening. That’s what I felt at least. Funnily, I took it as a realisation that sometimes when see the bad in things, we learn to appreciate the good.
Nepal boasts a very diverse heritage and unique culture. Kathmandu, in particular, has lured travellers because of its mystique–the ancient temples, exotic festivals, and the fusion of Buddhist ways and Hindu teachings. To top it all off, the city’s nestled in a valley 1400m high, with the towering Himalayas as the picturesque backdrop.
The cobbled streets with balconies sticking out embellished by the delicate, carved windows spoke of an opulent past, while tourism has transformed this city to become a hub for shopping, dining, and entertainment. With the most humble spirit, the locals greeted me with, “Namaste” (I bless the Divine in you), and in an instant I felt at ease and welcomed.
It’s was a wholesome and happy place, or at least that’s how I saw it. In one of my entries I wrote, “No TV, No Vanity, No Flirting… Life is within reality… No malls, no net-cafes, and dancing is about fun.” I could never replicate the peacefulness of the quiet nights, spent up high in the mountains with only the light of a single candlestick. The silhouette of the mountains seemed to collide with the skies to form a tapestry that put me in a slumber.
Despite the hustle of big city, you still see the simplicity of life–the little children playing on the dirt roads and Indian businessmen sipping tea with their competition, down to the playful monkeys on Swayambhunath Temple.
The intricate carvings on red bricks created centuries ago are now just rubble on the ground. The smiles and delight from every beautiful Nepali, that lifted my spirit, are now temporarily replaced with sorrow. The greatest irony is, this is the place that saved me from my crumbling self, and now it’s my turn to help back.
In the wake of the natural disaster that has devastated this gem, it is important to remember that we can do something to help rebuild, if not, recover. A small contribution to organisations that are helping out Nepal right now will go far, missing a cup of coffee today may provide a temporary shelter for a family that may have even lost a loved one.
Words by Gabriel Olaer