Ecumen Blogger Jim Klobuchar — The Other Side of Nature’s Beauty

The recent earthquake in Nepal reminds Jim Klobuchar of the country's majestic beauty — and devastating poverty.

My first view of Kathmandu in Nepal was from the backseat of a rickshaw being hauled by a barefooted runner who had boldly advertised himself as the best tour guide in town. He hauled me up and down the city’s Durbar Marg shopping district, then without changing stride he introduced me to carpet peddlers and sacred cows sleeping blissfully in the street. He identified centuries-old temples as we swung back to my hotel and then thanked me for what he said was a generous tip.

A few days later, two friends and I climbed a negotiable mountain that could be managed by three of us and a Sherpa guide, after which we returned to Kathmandu by air. It became a place that effortlessly   and simply thrust itself into my life.  It was not only the mountains and the trekking trails, the temples, and the fields of wild orchids on the mountain slopes. It was also the poor native ladies I met on the trail, hauling firewood in heavy wood baskets strapped to their foreheads. Invariably as they passed, they would smile and say : “Namaste,” which is pronounced  Nah-mah-stay. It is one of those lovely — and to strangers — mystical words in that part of the world. It is a simple greeting, but somehow and by common consent it acquired deeper meaning: “I praise the God within you.” Consider: Within you.  Within me.

And a few weeks ago, Kathmandu and the land of Nepal, that had become a genuine part of my life on 20 intermittent visits, were struck with a catastrophe. An earthquake killed thousands and, within minutes, spread to Mount Everest miles away in the form of an avalanche that took the lives of scores more.

Like you, we looked for ways we could offer help: money transfers and calls to those we knew — some of which were answered and others that will never be answered.

For all of the remarkable beauty of its mountain scape and the allure of its temples, its pure antiquity and the hundreds of thousands who visit each year, Nepal is a brutally poor country. It has practically no exportable agriculture. The money that rich tourists and well-heeled mountaineers and trekkers bring provides a reasonable living to Sherpa guides and caretakers. But it rarely trickles down. The places popular to tourists, like Kathmandu, yield little or no income to the rural poor. There is schooling, but advanced education is available to only a few.

When its king was finally deposed some 20 years ago, the parliament that replaced the royalty was inept and laced with corruption. The Communist Maoists, after failing to upend the government, finally joined it, but without any noticeable change in the plight of the poor.

Yet this is a place that stirs me like none other in the world. Maybe it’s because the poor seem to try so hard. Or maybe because of all of the incredible beauty of its mountain scapes — rhododendron trees 30 feet high, deep and mysterious sycamore forests that seem drawn from another world; the sounds of the yak herders coming down the trail, the children playing soccer with the tennis balls we brought …until one succumbed to a robust kick by one of the players and disappeared down a 2,000 foot gorge. Not to worry. We had 20 more tennis balls in our backpacks.

The man I will always remember most fondly from my travels in Nepal was called Lahkpa, the head  Sherpa guide or sirdar of the treks I organized in the Himalayas. He died several years before the monster quake of a few weeks ago. His widow and all of his children, including Dorge, who had reached the summit of Everest 12 times, survived the catastrophe.  Lhakpa would often join me as a trekking partner on our trips, and was delighted to hear me playfully join him in as he recited his Buddhist beads walking up the trail. I told him in the church in which I grew up we were very familiar with reciting beads, and he gave me a hung. He admitted worrying about the birthday party the others in the group were planning for “Jeem,” meaning me.  He said, “Jeltsen [the cook] doesn’t know where he can find 82 candles.” I told him one large candle probably could handle it. Lahkpa seemed relieved.

I loved every minute of those treks, the mothers toting wares to market, the mountain summits floating in the sky. Nepal and Kathmandu will survive the disaster with the world’s help, including ours. And is still a land of dreams — including what some Nepalese call Chomolungma (Everest), the Goddess Mother of the Earth.

That may be a fairy tale. The friendship Nepal needs today is not.