On Adventure, Returns and Investigation

On June 11th, I boarded a plane to head to back to Nepal, my peace corps home of over two years.

This trip marks new territory for me. Up until this point my traveling soul has favored new exploration, ushered by a youthful case of the travelers bug – which causes those infected to seek the novelty of new places and dive into the unknown again and again. The impulse to buy a ticket to some far off place is like an addict’s itch for a drug: it’s impulsive, like a twitch. What did I do when I got my $700 tax return a couple years ago? I bought a ticket to Peru, with neither a clear plan nor a second thought. When travellers discuss their ventures among themselves there’s an underlying sense of inspiration on the verge of jealousy – of ego – over who has managed to reach the most places, or the most exotic places, or to avoid “the real world” for more months – or years. It’s a culture of it’s own – a transient population of lusting wanderers with a seemingly insatiable urge for escape.

For my part, something about my time in Nepal cooled my case. That isn’t to say I’m not still up for spontaneous international adventures. But – I’d like to think I’ve found a way to control my addiction. Yes, I’d like to think that. I’d like to think that my case was driven by simultaneous urges for adventure and to feel like a global citizen; to better understand places and perspectives outside of my own. My time in Nepal brought that with more depth than my previous travels, satisfying my impulses enough that there’s no longer such a sense of urgency about them. On the other hand, maybe I’m just growing up? Or perhaps international travel has simple become my new norm? Either way, Nepal has become a second home to me, and one I expect to return to throughout my life, though I never expected to do so this soon.

This trip marks the first return to my second home, to a place that I know intimately well. Consequently, the idea of it has not evoked the usual nervous excitement of most international flights. Instead the idea brought a mix of natural familiarity and a fresh kind of nervousness – nervousness over what precisely I would find returning to a place I’ve known so well but that has undergone something so completely transformative.

Around noon on April 25th, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rattled the country, followed by dozens of aftershocks and another 7.2 quake. In immediate reports, the media portrayed an urban disaster along the lines of the Haiti Earthquake 5 years earlier. Beyond images of rubble and rescue teams, the media fixated on the lost heritage sites, the avalanches on Mt Everest, and foreign fatalities. While these were significant tragedies in and of themselves, they presented a very limited picture of the disaster. Nepal is an extremely mountainous land-locked country of the Himalaya, with elevation ranging from a mere 200ft to nearly 30,000ft in a span of just 120 miles; with 82% of the population living in rural villages that require hours (and sometimes days) of off-road transit and hiking to reach. Knowing this and watching the news half a world away, I knew from the beginning that the story was far from complete. With every photograph, I wanted to claw the edges apart to see the bigger picture – to see the setting beyond the rubble, to see the extent of the damage beyond Kathmandu.

To date, over $4.4 billion U.S. dollars of aid has been promised to Nepal for both relief and recovery, mostly to International Aid groups rather than local NGOs or ministries. The Nepali Government has promised $1500 to every family with a destroyed or badly damaged house and $2000 to those who have lost a family member. The Government was dysfunctional before the earthquake, failing to agree upon a constitution over nearly a decade of debate; it was overwhelmed by the international disaster response, unable to manage or coordinate efforts. Two months after the initial earthquake, many rural families have received nothing more than a tarp, if that, say nothing of the $1500 to rebuild their homes.

It is a chaotic situation that everyone is already comparing to the dual-disaster in Haiti – the earthquake itself, and the mess of aid afterward. Beyond immediate relief, what are the real impacts of aid? How effective is it, and what are it’s realistic limitations? How does recovery begin, and for whom (how can it be equitable?)? How can international aid and the local government assist a population that can barely reach under normal circumstances?

I am returning to Nepal – to observe on the ground, to investigate these questions, and to play my part in this story of recovery and continued development.