A New Geography

Apr 28, 2017 | Nepal, Transformation


Deep fissures carve their way into my heart from watching the aftermath of destruction in Nepal, as well as from exhuming my own past. Two years this week since Nepal’s devastating earthquakes, and so many people still living in dire conditions.


  • The government has signed agreements for $3.1 billion in aid and is still collecting more, but it has spent only $330,000 so far. Source.
  • Less than 1% of victims have received more than the first $475 of government compensation. Source.
  • Tens of thousands of earthquake victims are still living in temporary shelters. Of 626,694 homes so far counted as destroyed in the quake, fewer than 4% have been reconstructed. The destroyed count is still incomplete, covering only the 14 worst-hit districts. 17 districts remain to be surveyed. Source.
  • The government recently razed Kathmandu’s largest tent camp to the ground. It held over 400 shanties and 2000 people who have nowhere to go. The empty land is owned by one of Kathmandu’s most exclusive hotels, the Hyatt. Source.
  • International non-government agencies say their aid projects face lengthy delays and they have to pay the government hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, bribes, and entertainment to get them approved. Source.
  • Women have become more vulnerable to trafficking. Financially destitute and without a home, they pay for a work placement abroad and find themselves sold into modern-day slavery or worse. Source.
  • Conditions for working abroad have been equally rough for men, with one Nepali working dying every 2 days in 2014 in Qatar. Men typically work brutally difficult jobs, 7 days a week, to send home money across years in the hopes of a home, a roof, an education for their children. Source.
  • Thousands of families will never be able to return to their villages—no road, no house, no land to farm, no money. They live under tarps to this day, waiting for the government to figure out a resettlement plan. Source.
  • Tens of thousands more continue to live in tarps and tents because they have no money, no employment, and no help of any kind to build a home. People say, “We have bugs and even snakes crawling inside the tin sheds when it rains. We cannot cook because the floor is flooded and clothes get all soaked.” “It gets cold at night, and like an oven in the day.” That’s in the summer. It has also been two long winters without proper shelter. Source.
  • Nepal remains one of the world’s poorest countries. One in four people live on less than $1.90 a day, one-third of children under five are underweight, and 40 percent of girls are married below 18. Source.
  • Tens of thousands of people will not qualify for any government help because they cannot provide documents proving their land ownership or their citizenship. Take Sunita Danuwar, a single woman unable to access any rebuilding funds because she had no citizenship card. She had been married off as a child, and then her husband left her for another woman. In Nepal, women obtain citizenship cards through their fathers or husbands. Having neither, Sunita was unable to access government relief funds. It took more than a year and the assistance of a nonprofit just for Sunita to obtain a citizenship card—so that she can begin to apply for government funds.


This is mostly news from just the past few weeks. Day after day, month after month, life feels full of suffering for people who have already suffered so much, and it’s hard to know how to begin to address it other than to bear witness and offer compassion. Tourism is rebounding, the climbing season is in full force, and yet people even in the middle of the capital city barely have a roof over their heads or enough food to eat. I don’t quite know how to reconcile myself to the realities of the world.

Within myself, it similarly feels as though the personal excavation of trauma recovery and childhood history is a slow, unending process of walking through rubble. To be sure, my life is far easier and more bountiful than the lives I describe in Nepal. At the same time, I feel like old parts of my life and way of being have been cracked apart. I live within an unsheltered heart, old armor gone and no new protection in place, more vulnerable than ever before to the events of the world. I have had family disown me. I have had ugly childhood events resurface. I have watched parts of myself push their way forward, refusing to be silenced. I have had a transitory mental breakdown. I have felt ashamed and confused of my own behavior and have struggled to make sense of how I fall apart. I’m not sure what feels more surreal, the moments where I’m coming apart or the moments where I’m keeping it all together. I remain a little perplexed by how these moments shift so fluidly from one to the other and back again. 

Again, this is mostly news from the past few weeks. It’s been an intense and difficult period within myself and within Nepal, and no coincidence that they are linked. The inner journey is hard in a different way from outer survival. My survival may not depending on plowing fields with rice, but I find myself moving through the motions of life, persisting through habit as much as anything else, and I can’t help but feel that’s how people in Nepal continue to get by.

The only way forward is through. In Nepal, I hold faith that the resilience of people who have survived for millennia in mountains will carry them through, even when their government and the earth beneath their feet work against them. In myself, I hold faith that this is an era of deep personal evolution which will leave me stronger, freer, clearer, more compassionate, more forgiving—and liberated from the past to some degree. For now, however, it feels like a new geography for which I have no map, little equipment, and meager shelter. Rough territory. What I do have is an amazing circle of people around me, people that I am increasingly learning to allow myself to be supported by. Here and in Nepal, what we really have is each other—and the bonds of friendship and community are what carry us through. My whole life I’ve worked to be of service, to help people, and yet I continue to learn anew how people are really what matter. Maybe part of resilience is being present and giving with others, even as you’re dealing with your own mess and receiving the support of others. It feels like this balancing act might be one of the secrets to life.

You can’t use rubble to rebuild the past. You have to clear out what’s left, reclaim what you can, and allow the remainder to be completely destroyed. Then you discover how to build something new, with new materials, a new design. I feel like I’ve been crushed under the weight of old rubble that finally piled up too high to breathe. Even as I’ve been starting to rebuild, I’ve still been slowly digging out the rest of the space for something new. Two years since the cracks formed inside me, and I find it hard to believe all the change that has come from it. Honestly, I’m tired of growth, introspection, and reflection–but it beats stagnation. This internal unfolding hasn’t been easy, yet somehow I feel like it’s a gift. In Nepal, in the outer world of survival, it’s not a gift, even if some good one day comes of it. I can only hope that in Nepal, despite the failure of government, people will find the resources, the resilience, and the heart to build something new for themselves.


Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you. –Sartre

The best teacher I ever had told me we are all better than our worst moments. Learn to forgive yourself. –graffitti

Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving; we get stronger and more resilient. –Steve Maraboli