Most people probably know me from around Woodstock as the guy walking around town with his long dreadlocked hair wrapped in a bun on top of his head. Others may know me as a poet and publisher who has organized events in Woodstock for decades and an importer who sells colorful arts and crafts from Asia. But most do not know that I am also an anthropologist who has studied the fascinating and unique tantric and pagan blend of Hindu and Buddhist cultures in Nepal every winter since 1988.
Nepal is a small country in the Himalayas situated between Tibet and India. The incredibly diverse population is around 27 million people with about 2.5 million living in the capital city of Kathmandu. There are 123 different languages which means there are a similar number of ethnic groups between the flat farmland of the southern Terai, the hills, the Kathmandu Valley and the high mountain regions which include Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth. Nepal is also one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita income of about $1000 a year.
I am there every year for two or three months in February, March and April for the spring festival season. This year is a typical one of complicated political ambiguity. The coalition government of over 20 disparate parties continues unsuccessfully to write the new constitution which has been promised since the king was ousted in 2006. This indecision is the sad result of the 15 year bloody Maoist revolution. Most Nepali people are tired of the continuing political madness and want to just make sure that their families have enough food to eat and a safe place to sleep.
Then, suddenly, on April 25th the earthquake struck.
I was sleeping late after attending a jatra festival, where villagers pull a giant 60 foot tall temple cart which contains the god of rain Rato Macchendranath, followed by a night of drinking local moonshine with a Sherpa friend. He left at 5 a.m. and at 11 a.m. I was thrown out of bed against the wall of my small room on the third floor of a six story brick and cement guesthouse by the 7.9 [on the Richter scale] earthquake. While drinking glasses shattered as they were thrown around the room and the glass of the window rattled loudly against the iron grate, I realized this was the big one. I stood against the wall in the doorway of the attached bathroom because I had heard that the safest place during an earthquake is in an archway. As the building swayed back and forth dramatically as if on a swing I calmly thought “I am going to die. The floors will collapse and I will be crushed any second.” After about two minutes of intense movement and the sounds of screaming from outside it stopped. I was in shock and quickly ran out of the building joining everyone else who all ran to the nearest open space.
My room is very near the great stupa of Baudhanath which is a huge whitewashed dome with the eyes of the Buddha painted at the top. The most open space is a brick courtyard where tourists buy buckets of cracked corn and rice to feed to thousands of swarming pigeons. As I stood there in the quickly growing hushed crowd, no one dared to speak much about the “bhuichalo.” We all hoped it was over and realized that we were lucky to have survived, but then the constant aftershocks started. Thirty minutes later there was another large quake.
Some people walked around the UNESCO World Heritage site as if it was any other regular day taking selfies and marveling at the huge Buddhist stupa monument. I desperately wanted coffee, but every shop had closed immediately. I waited there in the open space all day and no shops opened and I was unable to eat that evening. Even with the constant aftershocks I quickly climbed the stairs to go to my room and grabbed my blanket to sleep outside on the ground next to the stupa. Every family did the same and would not sleep inside. This continued for the next four days that I was in Nepal.
The second day, although still in shock, I decided to walk the few miles into the center of Kathmandu to see the extent of the destruction because I had heard that many temples had collapsed. I took my camera and decided to historically document all the scenes I saw that day. I was deeply saddened to see that many of Kathmandu’s oldest and most impressive tall tiered pagoda temples had collapsed into dust and piles of wood and bricks.
When I arrived back at my room I optimistically decided that the earthquake was now over and because I was hot and sweaty from so much walking I would go to my room and take a quick shower. Being back in the room was very scary as I could still feel the movement of the quake and did not know if it was actually the building moving or a psychological effect. As I was taking the shower, another 6.7 earthquake came and I ran quickly out of the building, stumbling down marble staircases, wrapped in a towel screaming and laughing with nervous exhaustion from no sleep or food and after walking several miles.
The neighborhood of Baudha is a Buddhist suburb on the Northern edge of the Kathmandu Valley. We were very lucky that there was very little damage there: no buildings down or severe injuries, water supply did not stop and electricity was returned by the third day after the quake. Because the area is full of Buddhists, most people stayed positive and were not shocked by the realization that death is inevitable. The earthquake was actually a great Buddhist teaching that everything is an illusion and things are never as they seem to be. Like a rope on the ground can be mistaken for a snake, as a reflection of the moon in a mudpuddle is not the actual moon, the ground and the buildings that we live in are not as safe and immoveable as we may think. This is a disturbing revelation that can be very unsettling especially while the earth kept moving for days. The Buddha also said “all component things are destined to fall apart.” Of course, we can all die at any moment, but I think we are all afraid to suffer a painful death crushed by fallen buildings or to be trapped for days before expiring slowly.
On the third day after the quake I had an airplane ticket to India, but I had no idea if the flight was canceled or if any commercial flights were even available. One Nepali friend said they had heard that many countries were flying their citizens home for free because of the state of emergency. I called the American Embassy and they said “We are very sorry but we are not doing anything for American citizens. We are only suggesting that everyone reschedule their flights.” Another Nepali friend came by and I asked him to take me to the airport on the back of his motorbike to find out what was happening.
The airport was a post-apocalyptic anarchic mob scene full of thousands of people trying to escape the earthquake. Every office was closed and there were no airport employees anywhere to ask anything. Finally, I heard my flight was cancelled and my friend suggested we try an area called Hattisar where there are many travel agents. We found an open office and I asked for the next flight to India. He said there was an available flight the next day, but said we must make the transaction quickly because there was no electricity and the battery on his laptop was going dead. I handed him my credit card and passport as he arranged the ticket and as he wrote the last numbers onto a piece of scrap paper his laptop went dead. He said to take the scribbled note to the airline office and they would give me the ticket. I was able to fly the next day to New Delhi the capital of India.
I realize that I am still in shock. I had slept outside for four nights with many Nepali families on the hard ground covered with pigeon feces as around twenty stray dogs wailed and howled desperately all night around me. Luckily the locals had installed a huge tent because it rained three of the four nights. I did not eat for two days and barely slept at all the entire time. The biggest shock is that I am alive and that thousands have died horrible deaths. I keep asking myself why?
The official count so far is over 7000 people dead, but I am sure it will be at least twice that and possibly 10 times that when all the corpses are counted. I feel extremely fortunate to have survived this frightening ordeal, but I will continue to go back to Nepal every winter because it is my second home after Woodstock. I love the ancient culture and the friendly people. It is a similar community full of artists, craftsmen and tourists and regular working people with friends and families that love them who will also survive this tragedy and will continue to create and rebuild their shattered lives.
Shiv Mirabito is poet, publisher, artist & anthropologist who started writing when he lived on Allen Ginsberg’s farm as a teenager. His small press, Shivastan, publishes limited edition art and poetry books and broadsides on paper handmade in Kathmandu, Nepal. He has a small bookshop and art gallery in Woodstock called the Shivastan Poetry Ashram which hosts many events throughout the summer season.www.shivastan.com