Time heals. And when it doesn’t, at least it dulls the first shock of a tragedy and gives one some semblance of recovery.
So a gathering to commemorate possibly the worst disaster in the history of a community, may, to a casual onlooker, assume the appearance of a celebration. At Kathmandu’s Durbar Square on Sunday, April 24, Nepalese youngsters, dressed in their best, walked about arm-in-arm, laughed and chatted and clicked selfies on their smart phones. Seen from a distance, through the big glass windows of the Himalayan Java Coffee, a popular café chain in Nepal, it could have looked like a festive gathering. Only the ruins of Durbar Square, the pamphlets motivating people to rebuild their heritage, the thousands of candles lit in memory of those who lost their lives and the presence of the international media were reminders of the fact that it was the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that shook Nepal on April 25, 2015, causing damage to both life and property.
And cutting off one of Nepal’s most important sources of livelihood – tourism – for the next few months. “Nepal politics has been in the doldrums for many years. Those in the government don’t care about the common people. But as long as we had a flourishing tourism, we weren’t hit by the political upheavals,” says a taxi driver in Kathmandu, who says his business dropped by 60% after the earthquake and is yet to revive completely.
Fall from high
For those in the niche business of mountain tourism, the 2015 earthquake was the second blow in two consecutive years. On April 18, 2014, an avalanche in the Khumbu icefall at the Everest killed 16 Sherpas. As the Nepal Tourism Board website says, “It was mountaineering that first opened Nepal to the outside world.” Of the world’s fourteen highest peaks – those above 8000 metres in height – eight are in Nepal. “After the 2014 avalanche only expeditions to the Everest were cancelled. But the 2015 earthquake impacted all mountaineering expeditions and treks,” says Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of Nepal Mountaineering Association. Among the first pupils to have studied at the school built by Sir Edmund Hillary in the Khumbu region of Nepal, Ang Tshering gave up professional climbing in the 1980s and owns the Asian Trekking company in Kathmandu. “We have two kinds of expeditions – mountaineering and trekking. While mountaineering requires more technical skill, treks are of shorter duration,” he explains.
He estimates a 95% drop in the number of foreign climbers coming to Nepal in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, in May last year. “We have two climbing seasons, spring and autumn. There was a 55% drop in the number of mountaineers and 68% drop in the numbers of trekkers last autumn. For the 2016 spring season we have seen an 87% return in the number of mountaineers. It is difficult to estimate the trend in the trekking crowd at present,” he says.
Ready for the risk?
Phurba Namgyal Sherpa, general secretary of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association, feels that the impact of the natural disaster has been less on mountaineers than on trekkers, because “mountaineering has an inherent element of risk, which serious climbers are willing to face.”
He was at the Everest Base Camp at the time of the 2014 avalanche. “It was around 5.30am. I was in my tent, when I heard a loud sound. But since ice fall is so common there, I didn’t think it was serious. Then another guide came and told me there had been an avalanche and people were trapped or injured and needed to be rescued. In ten minutes I was dressed and out of the tent,” he recalls.
Dr Nima Namgyal Sherpa, a high altitude doctor, who was also at Everest on April 18, 2014 has similar memories. “After the avalanche of 2014, there was another avalanche last year triggered by the earthquake. I see fewer tents in that area this year.” There are exceptions. Tony Fairbrother, from UK, was on his seventh visit to Nepal last week. “I was at Durbar Square on the day of the earthquake. I was nervous about coming this year but I also wanted to be here,” says Fairbrother, who went on an expedition before returning to Kathmandu to spend April 25 in the city.
But the lure of the mountains is not enough to make everyone overcome their apprehensions. The Sherpas, the generic term used for guides and other support staff who form the backbone of the mountaineering industry in Nepal, have not been untouched by a sense of foreboding either. “I have heard many Sherpas this year say that they will go north (towards Tibet), but not the south side (the areas impacted by the earthquake). Families are also scared to let them go,” says Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, one of the few women guides in the area.
Living close to nature has given the Sherpas an uncanny ability to sense danger. “On April 25, before the earthquake, I was with a group of clients. I remember watching a lizard and squirrel moving about agitatedly and thinking that something was wrong,” says 54-year-old guide Agasta Bahadur Mukhiya.
Feeling the Pinch
When they are able to go on an expedition, the money earned by the Sherpas is good. According to some estimates, a guide can earn up to $5,000 a year compared with Nepal’s average annual salary of $700. And this is what has lured generations to risk their lives on the climb. But with expeditions cancelled and tourists staying away last year, most felt the pinch.
“I had rented a house in Kathmandu because all the expedition operators are here. I had to pay a monthly rent of $ 75. My house in the village was damaged and is yet to be repaired. I had been booked for trips, but when they were cancelled I didn’t get any money,” says Anjan Rana, a trekking guide.
Of course, the Sherpas were not the only ones to have suffered. Shops selling mountaineering gear to tourists complain of poor sales. “There is 40% less business this year,” says Dhruba Raj Bhattarai, of Manakamana Export Traders. According to Sarad Pradhan, media consultant of the Nepal Tourism Board, the total drop in tourism in 2015 as compared to 2014 was 31%. “Countries like China issued a blanket advisory against travelling to Nepal even though only 14 out of 75 districts were affected. We are requesting foreign tourists in Nepal to use the hashtag # IAmInNepal now, when they use the social media, to attract others to come,” says Pradhan.
But disgruntled Nepalese – about one million of whom are directly or indirectly associated with tourism – are unimpressed by the efforts of the government. At Durbar Square, a shopkeeper selling artwork complains, “The government hiked entry fee to Durbar Square from Rs 100 to Rs 150 for those from SAARC countries and from Rs 500 to Rs 1000 for others to raise funds for repair. But nothing has been done yet.”
Engaged in the business of rebuilding their lives, few complain about the actual disaster. At a hotel in Thamel, Kathmandu’s busy tourist district, a hotel manager struggles to lock the window in one room. “The locks have stopped working since the earthquake,” he says with a smile, pointing to the cracks in the bathtub in the room – another reminder of that day. He also talks of water and power scarcity – power cuts of up to ten hours a day are common in Kathmandu and many of Nepal’s water sources were impacted by the earthquake, he says. Like the youngsters at the memorial meet in Durbar Square perhaps, his refusal to feel sorry for himself is not born out of lack of grief, but a determination to put the tragedy behind him and reclaim his life.
Climbing Sherpas of Nepal
It’s the most common title that fills the rank and file of the mountaineering industry in Nepal. From tour operators sitting in the comfort of their Kathmandu offices, to guides risking life and limb on mountains, the Sherpas of Nepal are synonymous with climbing. “Now their ranks are joined by people from other groups, and those Nepali people who earn a living from working in the mountains are also now generally accepted as being Sherpas,” explains the website of the Nepal Tourism Board. But many from other tribes feel the Sherpas resent this loss of monopoly. In the minds of the locals there is a clear line between the Sherpa clan and the Sherpa profession. Many from other ethnic groups do not like being called Sherpas.
Even within professional Sherpas there are hierarchies. Most start as porters, cooks and odd job staff, before graduating to becoming guides. “Among guides too there is a demarcation – those with international licenses and others,” says Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, one of the few women guides.
“The main guide, or the leader, can earn $60-70 a day while on an expedition. Others earn much less, about $15-20 dollars a day.” Not that the international license is a safeguard against every hazard. Take gender discrimination for example. Though an international license holder with experience of working abroad, Lhamu says she is yet to act as a guide on an Everest expedition. “People prefer men.” she says simply. Lhamu rues the absence of a uniform government scale for pay and qualifications of a Sherpa. In its absence, it is left to the expedition operating company to decide payment and other benefits.
In 2014, after the Everest avalanche, Sherpas went on a strike to demand more insurance. The government gave in and increased the life insurance cover from $10000 to $15000. The medical insurance cover was increased from $3000 to $4000. None of it is paid by the government, but by operators, or rather by the tourists who pay for the expeditions. “There is no mandatory scheme to support a Sherpa after his retirement, or to take care of his family in case something happens to him while on an expedition. Some companies have such schemes, others don’t,” says Damber Parajuli, president of the Expedition Operators Association – Nepal.
Written contracts are not always entered into. Speaking of the hardships of the last year, Phurba Sherpa says, “Licensed guides fared better because they had a contract with their employers which ensured that they got paid once they were signed for an expedition, even if the trip was abandoned. Non-licensed guides often don’t have such contracts and many of them didn’t get paid.” It is only fair for the guides to have been paid, because as Parajuli explains, “Once the bookings have been made, the client has to give the tour operators the money because we need to pay the royalty for the trip and also invest in food and lodging. If after that an expedition is abandoned because of natural conditions we don’t have to pay them back.”