The first strings of a melody slid into the corners of the room as the musician strummed her guitar. The nearby interpretive dancer stood frozen in place, eyes cast upward as she waited for her cue. The tiny grandma behind me bobbed from side-to-side over my shoulder, attempting to see past my tall frame. I slouched deeper into my folding chair.
Minutes earlier, a volunteer at the Honen-in temple in Kyoto had stopped my aimless meander. With alacrity, he ushered into a room and said only: “Yes, yes, good.” I took it on faith that I’d like wherever they were leading me. Each new temple I visited presented an exercise in futility as I accepted a colorful pamphlet from the cheerful worker. Few were ever in English. I would walk away studying that page as you would a piece of delicate art, running my fingers across the lines of kanji—Japanese characters. Like those workers, the Japanese seemed nonplussed by my blank stares when they spoke Japanese to me. People directed me around the country with effusive Japanese and enthusiastic gesturing reminiscent of an episode of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I rarely knew what was happening. Instead, I learned to revel in the floating sense of discovery as each new experience unfolded.
In the temple, the song picked up speed. The singer began a cheerful tune and my brain snapped to attention. I understood the words. How unexpected. She was singing in neither Japanese nor English. In that heartbeat, my awareness jolted me six years back in time to the side of a mountain in Nepal. Surya, my infuriatingly optimistic guide in the Himalayas, chanted the chorus of a Nepali folk song. He was prodding me to echo his lyrical voice, as I had every day since we started our trek. As the weakest link in our hiking trio, I was slower than the rest. My Nepali was the best in the group, however, so Surya taught me Nepali songs as we trekked. The maze of lyrics and translations kept my mind from dwelling on the long days of 4,000-step staircases through dense, old-growth forests.
The easiest to learn was a folk song about a bird, Resham Firiri. It has a lilting chorus and it’s contagiously popular across Nepal. Other trekking guides would hear me coming in the distance as my voice bounced through the tall trees and the rough forest floor. As the source of the off-key—but enthusiastic!—rendition of their country’s beloved folk song, the guides rewarded me with boyish smiles. As our groups slid past each other on the narrow trail, their voices lifted in song for the chorus, making sure it reached me. Then they slipped further away, continuing down the trail away from us, carrying the tune to other ears.
In the temple, the Japanese singer and dancer progressed through the song’s verses. Past memories floated around me like the seeds of a plucked dandelion catching the breeze. We erupted into applause at the song’s end and the singer spoke for several minutes. From the vibe in the room, I imagine that she was talking about the earthquake and her song as a tribute to the people of Nepal. Throughout Japan, collection plates at temples and street corners noted that donations for the day would go to relief efforts. So, in my mind at least, she was speaking to that. Then she launched into her next song, the incomprehensible lyrics were in Japanese this time. I was free to sink back into the flow of Japan.
As I write this now, the bouncy words of the chorus dance through the room, whispering memories of the past. That song linked two seeming disparate moments. Forged together now is a mountainside in Nepal and a dim room in a Japanese temple three thousand miles away. My Nepali guide’s child-like voice sings in tandem with the crisp female vocalist lit by the soft temple lights. I breathe in musty wet forest as I remember a petite woman in red as she sways and twists and flows around the room. Somehow, impossibly, time and space blended these two moments. They crystallized, forever linked for me.
Last year, I shared the bubbling laughter and connectedness I felt on a dala-dala in Tanzania. The women that day banded together to help me find my way, and cheered me on as I skipped into my hostel. Three years ago, I hung from my taxi window in a roundabout in Yangon, Myanmar. A love of travel swamped me—a love for the flood of scents that rush across you, the random, delightful experiences you never plan but find only by chance.
The world has rallied together to support Nepal. Our collective focus turned toward this small Himalayan nation, mourning the losses to people and history alike. And in the temple that day, I breathed in the drifting incense and realized yet again the reason I travel: for the connections. I travel for the ability to pull together a deep and nuanced story of the world and our shared role on this planet. Chimamanda Adichie shared a powerful TED Talk about the dangers of the single story. She spoke to the dangers of media and stereotypes that give us only one way to view places and people flickering across our news stream. Last month, Nepal featured briefly on our collective radar. Mention the country and our first thoughts flit toward images of vast devastation. Thoughts swirl around the amount of human life affected by the earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley. Those images motivated the world to donate to extensive recovery and relief efforts needed across Nepal.
This moment in Japan reminded me that this is but one story of Nepal.
Let’s not forget that Nepal has many stories. Many pieces of the country’s culture, people, and history went unsaid as we watched the earthquake disaster unfold. It’s easy to leave the country on that note. It is, however, short-sighted.
As Nepal rebuilds, it’s these other stories of a warm culture and a welcoming tourism industry that we need to continue telling. Through these other stories we form nuanced understandings of this complex nation. Alongside the rebuilding efforts, businesses are looking for ways to move ahead. A Nepali-run adventure travel company reached out to me for advice. In the wake of such a powerful narrative about Nepal’s destruction, they wondered how they can help the world remember that they depend on tourism dollars for their livelihoods. They are not downplaying the severity of the disaster relief—this work is imperative to their recovery. But Nepal is a small country, and tourism impacts even the remote villages. I spent two months volunteering and traveling through rural Nepal in 2009. My tour guides were quick to paint for me a snapshot of their daily lives. They shared stories about the love of their life living in a small village beyond the trekking path. They described for me unparalleled dal baht they longed for at their parents’ remote farm. To a person, they had journeyed from the country’s tiny villages into the bigger cities to make money so they could support their families back home.
I often write about grassroots tourism. I wrote about it for NatGeo. I launched an entire site dedicated to supporting the concept. Local-level travel has the power to impact the world. Spending tourism dollars directly within a local economy allows those people to use those funds to eat, live, and lift themselves out of poverty. Donations provide the deeply needed short-term relief, but the country’s long-term recovery strategy relies on rebuilding their tourism industry.
So why should you plan that trip to Nepal? Now, as ever, the transfer of dollars from the developed to the developing world through economic support and tourism has the greatest long-term impact. And maybe not right now, but in the coming months, and likely by the next trekking season, they’ll be ready for you. The Kathmandu Valley has a long, long path to recovery. It will take years. But much of the rest of the country is still working. The airports are running. Trekking guides are eager to help tourists tackle Annapurna Circuit. As the Nepalis in the Kathmandu Valley shovel rubble, they are also rebuilding their homes, rebuilding their hotels, and rebuilding their businesses. In the wake of the earthquake, those who want to rebuild their livelihoods in tourism are left wondering how they ask the world to come visit.
The Nepal tragedy already begins to fade from the media. As we move into summer and long for the cool breezes of fall to assuage the unrelenting heat, think about Nepal. The country is more than the latest victim of a natural disaster. Nepal is a beautiful, vibrant country with Nepali people eager to show you another story of their home.
Below are some of my favorite photos from my two months traveling through Nepal in 2009.
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