All Shook Up
Nepal's double earthquakes weren't just another headline to read and turn the page. They devastated "my people", places and faces I know and love, and schlep there to help. So the news was a landslide that buried everything else I had in mind.
It awes me how other people have gone on with their lives, Netflix queues and inane Facebook postings of sayings and dog photos as though nothing at all has happened. It's been three weeks since the first horrific shock waves and I'm still digging out of the rubble of other people's lives. Just moments ago, I dialed and woke my trusted taxi driver who a week ago woke me begging for help. His beloved father, a penniless aged widower, was sleeping in his field with no hope for shelter or food. And it was teeming rain, with bouts of lightening, monsoon season at hand. I figured Rembo, Rembahadur's chosen nickname for himself, wouldn't mind waking up to good news for once. Waiting for him at Western Union was half of the $500 he needed to make his dad life-saving shelter.
I already had $100 hand delivered by a mutual acquaintance, the best I could do. Still it ate at me that this was nowhere near enough to meet the dire need of someone I knew. All he needed to save his father's life was $500, and he'd reached out to me, with desperate hope. Not being able to fully help upset me so much, l had to swallow my perennial misgivings about asking others for money and reach out. Waiting for him at Western Union was the contribution of four others who understood like I do that while Rembo works 12-14 hours a day driving a tiny, meticulously clean, white Suzuki cab, he is an honest man caught in the web of evil that is Nepal. No matter how hard he works, the price of basics often gets so ridiculously inflated by extortion and corruption, he can barely pay his own little family's bills. He has no savings but he is very proud to manage to scrape together enough tuition for his son to go to a decent school where he is flourishing in sports, English and computers. He wants the boy to have a decent life--hopefully outside Nepal. That shouldn't be a problem since the country's major export is its citizens. The earthquake is not the only disaster they flee.
Nepal is a failed state, disgustingly so. The media continue to refer to it as impoverished. It is that in spades because its deeply rooted palace elite continue to suck the life out of it. They have such a parasitic stranglehold that beyond Kathmandu where they live in a luxury the earthquakes didn't dare upend, basic public decencies like electricity and water, roads and schools don't really exist. Every time Rembo drives me an hour outside the city to my guru's main monastery in the mountains and we turn off the paving onto a rutted dirt track, he grunts like the gearshift and apologies to me. "Sorry ma'am for the bumping but this is a road to a Buddhist place and those high Hindus in Kathmandu, they don't care about that." Indeed, the road to the great ancient stupa of Boudhanath, one of the city's more lucrative tourist attractions now that the government charges tourists to see it, was never paved until the late King had some ceremonial reason to go there.
The malign neglect comes with absolute refusal to acknowledge the existence of whole other regions of the country, especially its higher elevations with ethnic Tibetan people paying tourists adore, the people whose ancestors who created that stupa government lackeys are now profiting from. The Kathmandu Brahmins call them "bhotia", a miserable slang word for trashy outsider or foreigner. Merchants in Kathmandu refuse to serve them and airport passport controllers most often refuse to let them pass.
These regions and people were hardest hit-- many places obliterated by the two quakes, and, even with some international media limelight shining (long yayThe Guardian, NPR and Al Jazeera), they have yet to receive one iota of public help. The government turned back heavy- lift British and Indian helicopters that could've rained supplies on that disheveled terrain, in good part to monopolize the helicopter fleet and profit from renting planes to all private do-gooders desperate to get up there, lucratively relieving the government of responsibility to do its own job. They kept the American choppers waiting on Okinawa for three critical days. I heard government officially forbade Buddhist monks to continue their massive and heroic rescue and relief efforts across the Kathmandu Valley because it didn't like the optics of maroon clad Buddhists doing what the Chinese clad Hindu police should have been doing. Well, here is one of my favorite photos of the period: our nuns at work while the Nepali police, as usual, stand by watching.
Extortion, graft, corruption and venality are so everyday ho hum endemic in Nepal, its police, army and patronage bureaucrats make Afghanistan seem a sainted paradise. Those humungous fees trekkers pay for Everest go into their pockets, never ever to the Sherpas who face the brutal climbing challenges or to basic services for their villages. Nepal is the only country I know that you cannot send a package or stuffed envelope to because it will never reach the recipient. It's a country whose security police search your purse because they want the money and jewelry they're likely to find in it; I've had to slap hands over the years and scream on my way to the departure lounge. The UN Commissioner is begging countries to give more given the mega scale of the disaster but nobody's chipping in. Help is not on the way because they know the drill. The day after the quake, some NGO or UN person found all the relief supplies do-gooder governments sent for the minor 1988 earthquake stockpiled in an army warehouse. Others quickly discovered new supplies just flown in for free distribution to the devastated were being siphoned off for friends of the government who were selling the rest to the needy for exorbitant prices. And then there was the sudden edict that all aid money had to flow through the special Prime Minister's Fund. That cut everything off at the pass.
So you can't blame a hardworking family fellow like Rembo for his crushing poverty. The Nepali people are in truth exceptionally artistic, smart and strong. They are the legendary Gurkhas and ingenious Tamang who carved steep mountainsides into the famous tea plantations of Darjeeling. They are the brilliant Newars who crafted the wooden houses for which Kathmandu is named and the iconic statues and thangkhas that fill the Buddhist shrine halls of India and Tibet. They are the IT geniuses on HB1 visas in all major US cities, stalwart builders of Middle East pleasure domes, and purveyors of pashmina--their word that's now ours. On top of talent without end, they are generous to a fault. Stories about homeless refugees rooting through rubble to round up firewood and a pot so they can offer passing relief workers a cup of tea are not surprising. It's why there's a tsunami of NGO's flooding the land and why so many of us care deeply about this misbegotten country.
That's compassion for you.
And there it is to the left: small school kids packing donated supplies bigger than they are to send on to others who have nothing. Ignoring the damage to their own residences, the older children, monks and nuns in our sangha have been equally engaged, trekking to their home villages with supplies, digging neighbors out of rubble, providing medical assistance and distributing what food they could find.
These are the "bhotia", the very people that magnetize people to Nepal. And as usual they have been impeccably magnanimous. The Buddha should be proud. The magic of human splendor is very alive in all that abominable misery.
~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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