by Bettina Hoerlin
Ed. Note: Chestnut Hill resident Bettina Hoerlin, PhD, taught at the University of Pennsylvania for 16 years. Prior to that she was deputy and then acting Philadelphia Commissioner of Health. In 2011 she authored a book, “Steps of Courage: My Parents Journey from Nazi Germany to America”; it was recently translated into German (Tyrolia Verlag 2014).
No one is quite sure, but the population of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is said to be 1.5 million. The census takers can hardly keep up with its explosive growth rate, estimated to be an increase of 6.5% from last year. Undoubtedly this capital city has one of the highest urban densities in the world. The struggling citizenry is young and poor. They are also warm and welcoming. But they did not welcome a catastrophic earthquake that hit on Saturday, April 25, killing approximately 6,000 people and possibly many more.
Exactly a week before that tragedy my husband, Gino Segre, and I had stood on seemingly firm ground admiring Hindu temples, Buddha statues and ancient squares or “places of palaces.” Stunning artistic and architectural treasures, framed often by intricate wood carvings, dated anywhere from the 7th to the 18th centuries.
In Kathmandu alone, there is a concentration of seven sites that have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a prestigious designation. They had met the established criterion of bearing “…a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.”
In a whirlwind trip, we had visited four of the seven sites, each a tribute to the richness and beauty of Nepal. At noon on a cloudless day, April 18, we wandered around one of the sites in the heart of Kathmandu, Basantapur Durbar Square, where Nepal’s kings were once crowned.
The Square is open and generous, spread out over five acres. It was almost impossible to hit all 43 points of interest indicated on the World Heritage Monument Zone map. It is absolutely impossible to fathom that a week later, at the same time we had been in the square, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck. That blow, along with over 50 devastating aftershocks, has reduced a large part of the Square to rubble.
Our visit had been quick, just a few days. Currently, although temporarily, we live within a three-hour plane flight from Kathmandu. Gino and I are teaching at New York University’s new campus in Abu Dhabi. The satellite university is a grand experiment in bringing liberal arts education to the Middle East and creating an international learning center. The 600-plus students here come from over 100 different nations.
My husband and I have taken full advantage of Abu Dhabi’s location and delighted in trips to places we’ve never been, intent on building our understanding of the Middle East and expanding our cultural and intellectual horizons. The roster has included Oman, India, Turkey, Israel and Jordan. Our trip to Nepal, motivated by my desire to see the Himalayas, was the most recent. It had a strong personal agenda: 85 years ago my father had been among those first mountaineers who came to the Himalayas with the goal of climbing an 8000 meter (26,246 feet) peak, a height not yet attained. It took another 20 years for a mountain that high to be conquered. But in 1930 my father made several first ascents and set a world-record for having summited the highest mountain to date.
My mind was very stuck in those early heroic days of mountaineering, and therefore landing in Kathmandu came as somewhat of a shock. The heavy pollution, crazy traffic and sheer crush of humanity were staggering: people wearing dust masks, horns blowing, garbage everywhere. Buildings had been shoddily constructed to accommodate rapid urbanization.
There were frequent power outages, water shortages and a general level of chaos. It was not until we partook of the tourist agenda, visiting cultural and religious sites, that we began to appreciate the country’s historical underpinnings. Its natural beauty was fully revealed later on when, on a rare clear day, we feasted our eyes on the majestic Himalayas.
Long considered sacred in both Buddhism and Hinduism, the Himalaya range stretches for 1500 miles, its snow-covered peaks dwarfing the landscape. My father had attempted to climb the range’s third highest mountain, Kanchenjunga, which was referred to as “the throne of the gods” by the sherpas on the expedition.
Spirituality exudes from these gigantic peaks. While hiking the steep ridge in the countryside across from them, I hoped the approximately 800 climbers on Everest felt a whiff of it too. Or has summit fever dulled their sensitivities? The over-commercialization of mountaineering seems more threatening than global warming to the essence of the Himalayas. Our dusty hike was rewarded with a lunch of exquisitely prepared food, organically grown at an adjacent farm. We ate outside in a terraced garden. The view of the Himalayas was unobstructed. I felt breathless, physically and emotionally.
Aside from those unforgettable experiences, the most powerful memory of our Nepal visit was its people. More than in any of our other trips, we made friends. Admittedly, they were somewhat circumscribed: the knowledgeable concierge and the gracious proprietress of our hotel, the taxi driver who so charmingly drove us around, and the talented chef at the mountain restaurant who joined us at dessert.
But there were others as well, particularly a striking young woman and her chubby 5-month-old baby. They, along with her sister, had come to spend the late afternoon in the peaceful and pleasing Bhaktapur Durbar Square, an expansive open-air museum of architectural wonders. The baby instantly charmed me, although he was not quite as convinced as I that interacting would be a good thing.
But soon we wordlessly connected, this Western woman of a certain age and this Newari child, a descendent of Nepal’s indigenous inhabitants. While his mother proudly showed off her English, he and I touched fingers, made faces and silly animal noises. It was one of those moments I would like to relive.
Now their faces haunt me. Did they survive the earthquake? The city where they live, Bhaktapur, was once Nepal’s capital city and retains its cultural reputation. It has been among the hardest hit, reputed to be a ghost town. What has happened to the cheerful driver who brought us to the Boudhanath Stupa, one of the holiest Buddhist monasteries?
It has toppled, its piercing Buddha eyes no longer encircled by prayer flags. And are the holy men (sadhus) with their colorful painted faces still at the pagoda-like Pashupatinath Temple, where open air cremations take place throughout the day and night?
Ashes are scattered in the adjacent Bagmati River that flows into the Ganges. Reportedly, the cremations cannot keep up with the number of dead, reaching beyond 6,000 as of this writing. The fatalities continue to rise, with estimates of 10,000 projected. In high remote valleys, villagers remain unaccounted for and climbers are still trapped on Everest.
My photos, lovingly taken, bear witness to magnificence of the Kathmandu Valley prior to this humanitarian and cultural disaster. Looking at them only increases my sense of mourning, especially when I hear TV reports about more injuries and more bodies.
Rescue efforts appear to be uncoordinated, and life’s fragility hovers over the landscape like a trembling cloud. Somehow, however, the supernal Himalayas rise above the misery, both literally and figuratively. They persevere, stirring reverence, awe and courage. Their gods may imbue the Nepalese with the strength and resilience necessary for the future.
If you wish to contribute to Nepal relief efforts, there are many good organizations to choose from. Among them are: Doctors without Borders, www.doctorswithoutborders.org/; Habitat for Humanity International, www.habitat.org/; and Save the Children, www.savethechildren.org/