Barely two months after the devastating earthquakes had hit Nepal and with a palpable feeling of trepidation, I found myself in a jeep traversing the lush and dramatic foothills of the Himalayas on my way to Kathmandu.
My first worry was that I was there too soon – that I would end up getting in the way of a country trying to rebuild. My second worry was that in visiting so soon after one of the country’s darkest hours it would feel, to all concerned, like the worst kind of voyeuristic tourism.
We stopped at a rickety roadside dabba at the top of a mountain pass and while we ate some local snacks there was a sudden clatter from a nearby house as a section of scaffolding crashed to the ground. The two women running the dabba looked nervously at each other, their fear obvious to see. They reassured each other it wasn’t another earthquake. The memories of the tragic events were clearly still so raw and fresh and it acted to only heighten my concerns.
The bustle and energy of Kathmandu, however, provided a fast-acting tonic. I immediately found a pulsating city eager to welcome me. The vast majority of residential and commercial buildings had withstood the earthquakes and with some patching over of cracks were operating once again as homes, businesses, and community facilities. People had wasted no time in attempting to rebuild their lives, clearly seeking comfort in returning to daily routines.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of tourism for a country whose economy still reels from decades of civil war and corruption. I stayed in Thamel, an area of the city teaming with tour operators, trekking shops, guesthouses, bars, wifi’ed cafés and as many banana pancakes as you can shake at a tattooed backpacker. All were open and energetically promoting their services from the doorsteps of their empty establishments.
Only a smattering of other tourists were wandering the streets, a much different scenario than I imagine I would have seen before the quakes. My hotel owner told me proudly how they had reopened for business weeks ago – as soon as his workers had returned from their villages, where many had gone to help rebuild in the immediate aftermath. But he bemoaned the lack of trade and spoke forlornly of having to make redundancies if it didn’t pick up.
And so it was that I observed two disasters in Nepal, the terrible and destructive earthquakes and the resulting blow to its crucial tourist industry.
Suddenly, my worry about coming too soon felt silly and naive. Before my trip I’d read what news I could about Nepal, but nowhere had the city’s reopening for business been discussed (this excellent one in The Guardian, came out after). And in hindsight, I shouldn’t have expected it. The journalists that had flown in and done pieces to camera in front of piles of bricks had played an important role in raising awareness about the disaster, but by its very definition news is the reporting of abnormal events and it would be unrealistic to have expected those same journalists to have returned a few weeks later to report on how normality was returning. Normality is not, after all, newsworthy. Looking back I should have taken a bigger cue from the hotels and other tourist companies that happily took my bookings before I’d arrived. If businesses are open then it’s because they want and need business and that should’ve been my primary gauge.
And so what of my second fear, that the experience would feel uncomfortably like prying on people in the moment of need? Well, that also proved completely unfounded. Everyone I spoke to showed pride in how quickly the city was being repaired and recovering to rise again. They were only too happy to have outsiders witness the strength of character Nepal had shown in the aftermath of the disaster. In Patan museum, one lady commented on how glad she was that tourists were beginning to return. It felt utterly undeserved, almost to the point of embarrassing, to receive such a reception for visiting a place normally so firmly on the tourist trail.
The warm reception didn’t, however, act to diminish the sadness of the physical destruction and the knowledge that so many lives had been lost. The city’s famous Durbar squares and temples had been flattened, leaving plinths bare of the centuries-old structures they had previously proudly held. Wooden struts now supported the sections that were stubborn enough to remain upright. They will be rebuilt in time, but it will not happen overnight.
It’s been almost a year since the 7.8 and 7.3 magnitude earthquakes and following tremors hit Nepal. Since my trip 10 months ago, Nepal continues its efforts to rebuild amidst blockages of aid and political instability, including a hastily assembled constitution. With varying accounts of recovery measures, I can’t say what Kathmandu and the surrounding hills look like today. But what I observed as a traveller last June was that Nepal’s recovery is critically tied to rebuilding its biggest industry. While in the global news, we’re encouraged to donate to our favorite charity and believe that recovery is dependent on our giving, it is in fact about supporting a country in doing the things it does best. It is a lesson I feel humbled to have learnt and which will stick in my memory far more resolutely than the sight the ancient temples would have.