Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Sunday, May 3, 2015

To Nepal, with love

My brother was in Nepal for almost five weeks, and he left Kathmandu eight hours before the earthquake struck.

Between Kathmandu and JFK, he spent his layover in Dubai, walking past sleek perfume shops and turnbaned men and women with heavily-lined eyes and stiletto shoes. I imagine that the Dubai airport is breezy and sweetly-scented, the walls all windows, the air cool. I imagine my brother there, scruffy, a little bit smelly. He washed his own clothes in Nepal. I imagine that the well-dressed, well-coiffed women and men stared at my brother with amusement, mild repugnance, certainly a hint of jealousy in how free he must have seemed, not caring how he looked as he walked in flannel and denim through the beautiful airport.

His phone didn’t get service until he landed in New York, and so for many hours after the earthquake hit, he didn’t hear the news. Across the Atlantic Ocean, he must have closed his eyes and brought Nepal back: snow-capped peaks, torn prayer flags flapping, alpine flowers and glacial streams. Bright, noisy cities and towns; whitewashed temples; street venders. Crowds, smiles, wind scented of incense and something else, something sweet and smoky, faintly rotten. Dust on your hands and in your hair after a day on the streets. The teeming wildness of it all, and the flush of color on every sidewalk and wall.

It was only when he landed at JFK did he hear the news. First, he listened to frightened voicemails my mother had left—Call when you get here, call right away. And then he had to put away his phone to go through customs, and while he waited in line he wondered why my mother had sounded so afraid. No phones allowed in customs, he was told. The moments dripped by so slowly, and finally he took his phone out again and called my mother and she told him the news.

Now, he grieves for a place he just met. When I spoke to him on the phone the morning he arrived at JFK, I asked if he’d seen any signs, if he’d gotten a clue. Nothing, he’d said. No sign. Everything was fine: the sun shone, the people milled about, the temples stood. Now, he eats dinner with my mother and father, and drives the quiet streets of our hometown. Winter is finally melting away. The other drivers are orderly; no one honks; it seems so clean and sterile here. There is an absence of color, now that he’s home. He wonders about the people he met; so many faces he glanced at, so many smiles he exchanged, for my brother is a friendly guy, handsome and exuberant and chatty. He hears from a few of them; houses have been lost, lives have.

Eight hours before the earthquake hit, he boarded a plane and looked out at the Himalayas for the last time. Nepal had a piece of his heart now. The sun shone; the plane took off; there was never any sign.

Readers, kindly make your way to Cloudy Alberg, my brother Dave's blog about mountains, books, bikes, teaching, and travel. He's just returned from Nepal - he left Kathmandu eight hours before the earthquake struck. You can read his Nepali chronicles here, and learn how you can help.

(All photos on this page copyright Dave McCahill, 2015)

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