Or2k, a popular vegetarian café in the heart of Pokhara, Nepal has returned to normalcy. Trekkers, who recently returned from hiking along the Annapurna mountain range, race to the bottom of their banana lassies, young backpackers glue their attention to their wifi-enabled devices, a hip Nepali DJ plays remixes of classic Bob Marley tracks. But despite the semblance of business as usual, two words buzz through the minds of the restaurant’s international clientele: what now?
In the wake of the 7.8-magnitude quake that hit Nepal last Saturday, many travelers feel stuck — not by an inability to leave the country, but by an inability to help its inhabitants. Kathmandu certainly doesn’t need a barrage of well-intentioned volunteers who lack the necessary disaster relief skills to make a sizable difference, further depleting the city’s food, water, and shelter supplies.
As I sat in Or2k eating my shawarma wrap with a side of ketchup, I hypothesized about the possible detrimental effects of eager, unskilled volunteers. I remembered stories of Haiti, where the the lack of coordination of humanitarian efforts further exacerbated some of the disarray in the quake’s aftermath.
I was the ultimate tourist — the only tool in my arsenal was the ability to spend my money. I felt slightly more useful than a mannequin. Although close to the disaster geographically, I might as well have been watching CNN from my couch back home.
As I walked back to my guesthouse, Christian, a Brit that was sitting at the next table at the restaurant, shouted, “Simone, you’re exactly who I’m looking for.” Christian had just met Deepak Adhikari, the head of a local trekking company, who, with a consortium of other local business owners, was taking relief into his own hands. “We can’t wait around until the big NGOs show up. These are our mountains, our people. They need aid now, and together we have the resources to help.”
A few hours later, I found myself in Pokhara’s wholesale district, where my cab diver was helping negotiate the price of tarps, mattresses, and blankets sold by the meter. By the time we rolled back to Deepak’s office in an overstuffed taxi, the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) had amassed a substantial supply of rice, dal, warm clothes, and medical supplies to go directly to those affected most. “We’ll head out with the truck to distribute to the villages in the morning,” Deepak declared with the determined confidence of a proud father.
Whereas the media’s spotlight on the quake has illuminated the impact on the historical sites of Kathmandu and on the icy slopes of Everest, many rural towns near the epicenter in the Gorkha region have been hit the hardest and proven to be the most difficult to access. I learned this first-hand the next day as our truck pulled up to a river crossing on the side of the main highway three hours outside of Pokhara.
In order to get the supplies to our destination — a school surrounded by some of the poorest villages in all of Nepal — we first had to unload the supplies off the first truck, carry everything by hand over a suspension bridge, and then reload a different truck to haul the supplies up on a treacherous mountain “road.” Our crew, which consisted of two Aussies, two Brits, two Americans, and fifteen Nepalis was en route to the front lines of the quake less than 24 hours after Deepak first decided to take matters in to his own hands.
As we weaved up the mountain pass, I averted my eyes from the sharp cliff that sat dangerously close to the the truck’s left side. Collections of corrugated metal houses dangled like Christmas ornaments from the terraced mountainside. A few moments later, I felt the ground under the truck’s back left wheel begin to give. The crew, who were all riding in the truck bed with the supplies, leaped over the tailgate onto firm ground, as rocks beneath the wheel began to cascade into the valley below. Thankfully, no one was injured, and after securing the truck to some nearby trees, we were able to tow the truck from the edge of disaster.
For the remainder of the journey, we hiked past mud brick homes, which had be reduced to piles of rubble, and makeshift animal pens, which had been converted into outdoor sleeping quarters for fear of aftershocks striking in the night. When we arrived to the designated distribution post, we were greeted with warm “namastes” by a people whose tattered clothes and weathered homes covered unbroken spirits.
The distribution of food, clothing, and shelter to the seven villages was efficient and equitable. The sight of a young boy’s face cherishing a new pair of flip-flops and the sound of an old women doling out bags of noodles to her neighbors were two of the many reminders of the humanity we all shared that morning. Although many locals lost the majority of their already few possessions, their smiles were no less wide, their heads no less high.
By noon of the next day, our motley crew of teachers, businessmen, and mountain guides was hiking back to the highway to hitch a ride back to Pokhara. Tomorrow, we would begin to purchase and organize supplies to be taken out to another of the myriad of other communities in need of basic resources before the summer monsoon.
For those who, like me, have ever felt paralyzed from action due to the dauntingness of disaster, I hope you can remember the many ways to help that don’t necessarily require running into a burning building. For those that donate, I urge you to couple your donation with education about where your money is going. For those that volunteer, I urge you to carefully research where your skills are most needed, or those that simply keep Nepal in your thoughts and prayers, I urge you to remember this country that will undoubtedly need the world’s help even after Nepal falls out of the regular news cycle. The hardest part of humanitarian work, much like trekking, is deciding where to start. After your first step, often the hardest part of the journey is already behind you.