If You’re Not Moving, You’re Slowly Dying

11071132_10205313843739843_9050023052811964605_nI had planned a 10-day trip to multiple cities in Nepal. A country I didn’t know much about but had heard good things. After reaching out to Dil Sapokta, an Airbnb host, to book my stays in Kathmandu and Dinesh, a local tourist agency owner, I was ready to go. I made sure that I had a place to sleep every night and I had quite a few activities to keep me entertained, as this was my first solo trip of this length. Family and friends told me, why would you travel alone for 10 days? I, too, questioned my decision at times. But something told me that I needed to do this to become a greater person, to grow up and learn how to enjoy my own company.

So the day came, 22 April 2015. My flight was booked from Dubai to New Delhi followed by Kathmandu, Nepal. My one-of-a-kind brother and unfortunately also my roommate, dropped me off at the airport around 8:30 pm. Healways messes around with me, as an older brother should, and so he told me “bro, I’m gonna need you to survive this trip without me because it’s not just another city but you’re headed for the jungle”, but boy was he wrong, I was not going to be alone for one second.

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My backpack and I were getting comfy and already I was experiencing a culture change, and I absolutely loved it including the airplane’s food. Touchdown in New Delhi, a massive and beautiful airport, which was my place of stay for a few hours of layover before heading to Kathmandu. I sat there, browsing the Internet and thinking “what the hell am I gonna see in Nepal?” Because other than having a place to stay, jumping off cliffs and seeing greens mountains, I had no idea what Nepal had to offer. As the airplane got closer to Kathmandu, I began seeing countless mountain ranges and already I was shooting away with my camera. After landing, being greeted by multiple Nepalese (who shocked me because of how sweet they were), I had gotten my visa and found my way to Dinesh’s company mini van (keeping my guard up).

DSC_0018Driving through the city to Dil’s house, I remember a few major things: pollution, shitty roads and “a city that was moving”.

Before arriving at Dil’s, I got my trip plans situated with Dinesh, was ready to see the city by myself for the rest of the first day and get some rest, it was going to be a long and adventurous trip. So just like I had pictured it, when I walked into Dil’s house, neither Dil nor his wife were home (insert Samed’s typical sarcasm). His two kindhearted teenagers greeted me and showed me to my room. Within 15 minutes, Manisha (Dil’s daughter, 16 years old) had put together breakfast and lemon grass tea (everything garden grown), which was served to me…the only other person who’s done this for me in my life are my own parents, if that 😉

That day, I walked around the suburban neighborhood and watched the sun set (360 degree view of mountains) from Dil’s breathtaking rooftop. Dil and family gathered around and we had our first of many exquisite homemade dinners, while getting to know each other on a basic level.

My driverOn 23 April, Madhu (my lovely driver and friend) was ready to take me on my city tour. We visited multiple temples, including the Monkey Temple and one that celebrated death by cremating the bodies of beloved family members, something extremely new to me. Once again, I met various Nepalese people who left me speechless because they did everything to make sure that I was fully satisfied with every minute spent touring the city.

Madhu and I had a late lunch together overlooking a temple, and it was at that moment that it hit me – I was on vacation. After Madhu dropped me off in Thamel, the heart of Kathmandu, I walked around and saw more temples in Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 10.42.42 PMDurbur Square and really started my career in photo journalism (an employee joked with me about this in New Delhi airport when I was returning from Nepal). I met Dil at his office and we walked home, about 40 minutes, towards the mountains and got to know each other a bit more. Dil is a kind man, a person that is genuine, friendly and very down to earth. We had dinner together once again followed by the new love of my life – Dil’s garden fresh lemon grass tea, a must try!

Madhu picked me up at 6:15 am the next day as I was headed for my big day, The Last Resort, where I was going to relax and have a thrill by bungee jumping, cannoying, bungee swinging and water rafting in the middle of the Nepalese mountains near Tatopani. Madhu and I had made a slight mistake because I was supposed to get to the bus station at 6:30 am and leave by 7. We had a bit of trouble finding the bus and so “fortunately” I missed it. I was upset and asked to speak with Dinesh. After visiting Dinesh’s office, he managed to have Madhu drop me off at the local bus station to take a 4×4 vehicle (shared amongst 5 passengers), which planned to drop me off at The Last Resort before continuing to drop off the others. Today was 25 April 2015 and today would be the adventure I had been waiting for but one that I was not expecting.

After driving for more than two hours, grabbing a bite to eat and continuing through the eight feet wide mountainous road, which had small villages all over, suddenly a very young boy ran across the road, which caused our driver to fully brake (thankfully on time) and avoid hitting the kid. A bit confused, we sat there for a few seconds and suddenly I remember a storm of dust. This was it, this was the moment when the 7.9 Earthquake near Tapatoni, Nepalmagnitude earthquake had struck in Gorkha, Nepal (around 11:30 am local time) and none of us had a clue, although someone mentioned that there was an earthquake in India. All we knew was to rush out of the car, leaving behind some of our personal belongings and we continued to sit in a field nearby. As we were leaving the car, we heard every other house in this small village falling down, mothers and kids crying, fathers yelling and animals running around while the dust continued to rise. We stayed in this village for another hour and a half and on average, there was a severe aftershock every 5-10 minutes; and every 20 minutes or so we would see a group of injured people being dropped off in our area or taken to the nearest town.

By now, our six-person group, including driver, had turned into a family that needed to ensure that all members survived. This group barely spoke English so communicating with them was very challenging for me but we made it happen to the best of our abilities – we did everything to make sure our family was safe, while trying to help the Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 10.45.22 PMvillagers. There was a certain connection amongst us, I felt it deeply and we were determined. Four of the passengers decided to stay because they were nervous and didn’t know what’s best to do, we were in the middle of nowhere. Kathmandu was a few hours west, Tatopani was around 80 kilometers northeast and rock slides had blocked the road in multiple locations in each direction – we were trapped.

I was still extremely shocked and wasn’t sure what was happening. It was at this moment that it hit me really hard, I MUST continue moving to survive or I’ll go crazy and be stranded. So me and another passenger (Abinash, 21 years old), a local of Tatopani, decided to walk to Tatopani since he believed that it was a two hour walk, but I knew it was far away based on our location on the map. I must move! We began to walk through the road going east (downhill and uphill), it was a gorgeous view and as much as we were scared for our lives, we both tried to keep each other mentally occupied, remind each other to calm down and smile, and to keep moving; we had many interesting and diverse conversations in the next few hours.

It was around 3:30 pm (I was worried about the sun setting), we were getting restless and my GPS was still showing a far ways to Tatopani when another idea popped into my head. I knew I had to stop fooling myself, although Abinash offered me to stay with his family for as long as needed, I had to go back home to my family, Dil’s. I began asking people how far we were from Tatopani and multiple people confirmed that walking would take around eight to ten hours, and taking a vehicle was impossible. I told Abinash that we could take a motorcycle back to Kathmandu and he could stay with me but he was going home to his family, I continued asking him to join me but he wasn’t budging.

Bus ride back to KathmanduSo I asked a few motorcyclist if they would take me back to an area where I could catch a ride to Kathmandu and in return I would pay them. After a few tries, a solo motorcyclist accepted to take me, I called Dil (he said come home Samed) and my mom in the US with Abinash’s phone to inform them that I was totally safe (mom had no idea what was going on at the moment but was glad to hear from me; and I wasn’t really sure if I was safe yet). I received a few text messages from amazing friends that were asking about me, which informed me that the earthquake hit “near you” but I couldn’t respond (love you Zahra and Bolo).

We passed a few rock slides and then the motorcyclist told me to walk to reach a bus that was going to Kathmandu, he said no need to pay but add me on Facebook when you reach Dil’s and let me know that you’re safe. He then handed me off to another nice guy who was also waking to the bus with his dog. We reached the bus and the man handed me off to yet another person, who spoke a bit of English, before going on another bus. By the time the bus filled up, we had another hour or so before sunset, all passengers were glad to catch the bus but still shocked and on edge.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 10.48.11 PMOn the bus ride, I sat next to Sagar who spoke great English. We began to keep each other company (he was an accountant for a branding company and loved his job). While talking, he informed me that the epicenter of the earthquake was not too far from us (Gorkha, Nepal) and that it had a magnitude of 7.9, I was absolutely terrified. On our more than three hour journey back towards Kathmandu, we stopped a few times to pick up injured folks (passengers gave them their seats) and ended up dropping them off at a large hospital in a nearby city. Once again, Sagar kept me cool and told me that there was no reason to panic because nature can’t be controlled. He took my backpack from me (around 7 kilograms) and said that he had to hold it for me because in Nepal “the guest is a god”.

I learned quite a few things from Sagar about Nepal and also about helping others. Sagar and family reached their city before Kathmandu but he handed me off to an older gentleman that promised Sagar that I would get to Thamel (the bus wasn’t scheduled to stop there). We arrived and I began to recognize the area even though it was very dark and the city was turned upside down with destructions everywhere, people roaming the streets for safety, ambulances flying by and others (injured and non-injured) sleeping/sitting on the streets near downtown Kathmandu. The older gentleman and two younger guys got me to Thamel, an area I was familiar with, but their task was not done yet.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 10.51.00 PMThe streets were pitch dark but a few stores were somehow open. We arrived at a sports store and we were greeted by Raju (a mid twenty year old employee). He asked me where I was going and I showed him the location on my map (not too clear due to the hilly roads). He called Dil and asked him for exact directions, got me a taxi and told me to call him when I arrived (I had met this man for only three minutes in my entire life). The store had Internet and so I quickly updated my family and friends through What’sapp and Facebook, keeping a positive attitude and telling them “I’m totally fine, no wifi, g2g haha <3”. I took the cab to an area close to Dil’s and had the cab driver call my indescribably loving Nepali family (GEMS School) where once again Dil came and took me home, I also called Raju. But this time home was different. It was made up of a few tents with a total area of about 250 square feet and it housed around 100 people, yet another new family of mine (Dil’s neighborhood). All the houses were fine here but aftershocks continued to shake the earth, some quite large, and so we all knew to stay safe we have to stay under the sky for the next few nights.

When I (Aaron Rodgers) arrived at the tent (around 10 pm), Dil and family, now even larger, were serving the same warm and delicious dinner. Our family was larger because two new American girls (Lulu and Lauren) had arrived on the day of the earthquake from India. I greeted them and didn’t think much of it other than thinking they must be shitting their pants. They hadn’t slept in more than 36 hours and were drained but everyone was happy to be alive and together. The entire tent spent the night spooning each other to keep warm but by now I was 90% more calm and 200% more confident (it had nothing to do with the spooning, I swear).

We continued on with our lives without much running water or electricity for the next few days. We began sleeping in the house but every few hours the earth would shake, as this was the longest earthquake ever recorded with more than 79 shocks, so everyone would run back to the tent with small amounts of personal belongings. Lulu and Laura were now my new best friends and the only time that we weren’t together was when we were sleeping.

Hospital in KathmanduDuring the day, we pushed ourselves to think of ways to help Dil’s family, Kathmandu and Gorkha but it was nearly impossible to do so. We did however manage to visit UNICEF, other international NGOs and the US embassy, however they couldn’t allow us to help because we had no medical background and due to liability issues. At this time, the large after shock of 6.7 magnitude shook the streets but we continued our journey. We ended up finding one of the largest hospitals in Kathmandu, while walking back from the US embassy (after checking in with them, not too helpful due to uncertainty of the situation) with a few other Americans.

The hospital was overfilled inside and out with minimal and very severe injuries. We did our best to help, including donating pints of blood, buying water, glucose, cups and Band-Aids. We spent a good 3 or 4 hours there passing out water “pani” mixed with glucose and food to the injured and families, including inside the ER. While I was taking a break and snapping a few pictures, I kept having to stop myself from breaking down into tears (some injuries were absolutely gruesome).

We were drained and the sun was going to set soon, so once again we met Dil near the GEMS School. We arrived a bit early and so we started talking to children and teenagers nearby and started playing some games, this is one of my favorite memories because of the smiles on their faces.

Meals at Dil's Home Stay, KathmanduWe (Lulu, Lauren and Samed aka “The Pack”) played it safe and calm, but one day we decided to visit a few temples since things had calmed down and I was now the tour guide. After visiting one temple, it started raining hard and so we had to take cover at a local store. We heard that the Monkey Temple was closed due to damages and land slides so we headed to Thamel to see the city. Many streets were closed and so our taxi dropped us off nearby Thamel, and we began to walk in the rain while passing destroyed buildings.

When we arrived in Durbur Square, I kept asking the police where Durbur Square was and they kept pointing to the same area. It took me a few minutes to realize that the rubble I was looking at was the same color as the temples I had seen a few days ago, when the pigeons were being fed and tourists were walking around. Once again, we roamed the city for a few hours before feeling drained and overwhelmed. We headed to Dil’s for the night and were greeted by our family. The plan was to head to Pokhara the next day to at least enjoy Nepal for a few days and as we were getting ready to leave at 5:30 am, yet another aftershock hit. Lulu and Dil's FamilyLauren rightfully knocked on my door as I was putting on my socks and said, “we’re staying at Dil’s today”, and I couldn’t leave my Pack behind (smart choice). We relaxed and really got to know each other, while playing Minimize, a fun Nepalese card game, with the entire family.

We did end up taking the bus to Pokhara the day after, which was a beautiful nine-hour journey. Pokhara is a must visit and I will definitely go back. We continued to meet amazing people, enjoyed sunsets, paragliding, walks by the lake and some mental relaxation for a few days. I had to leave my beloved Pack a day earlier and so I headed to Kathmandu with a small local airplane since it was cheap and took 25 minutes in comparison to a nine-hour bus ride. I took care of some business in Thamel for a few hours before heading to Dil’s.

This was a special night because after my last supper (it really was emotional for me), the family left to relax while Dil and I enjoyed sipping on our lemon grass tea (me love you) while chatting for nearly three hours. Dil and I had become friends rather than merely family members. We discussed many topics including religion, culture, Nepal, Iran, politics, education, economics, food, etc.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 11.00.44 PMThat night I was going to sleep at exactly 10:58 pm (Friday, 1 May, nearly 132 hours after the 7.9 earthquake) when another aftershock struck but the neighborhood continued to rest inside their houses…it was now a norm. The next day, I left Dil’s to the airport and caught my flight to New Delhi at 9:30 am but I knew that there would most probably be more aftershocks. In New Delhi, as I was looking over my pictures and reading Lulu’s life lessons, “A New Sense of Grounded“, our Pack’s attempt at supporting the Nepalese people, I finally broke down in tears and felt alone.

I no longer had my Nepalese family, I was still worried about Lauren and Lulu (still wondering when they’ll arrive in Kathmandu from Pokhara to leave for the US, which is planned to be on 3 May) and I called Dil multiple times. I didn’t want to continue crying so I got up, washed my face and began writing this “note” on my iPhone’s Notes app, which has turned out to be my longest note (and longest consecutive hours of typing on my phone ever) in the last three and a half hours. I will not make any changes to this, other than grammatical and syntax (still a nerd) because this first draft is from my heart, and I didn’t once stop writing to think, other than looking at my pictures.

I wasn’t happy to leave Nepal, I was glad to be safe but I have a feeling of not being grateful for all that the Nepalese had done for me and my Pack. This feeling of not being able to physically help will always haunt me, Lauren and Lulu but we’re extremely glad to know that we have and will be able to help by bringing awareness to as many people as possible; by spreading the love we received from our Nepali friends and by helping raise funds for the millions of thirsty, hungry and shelter less families throughout Nepal.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 11.02.05 PMDil’s family is from Gorkha, the epicenter of the earthquake, and our Pack is happy to say that we will be transferring funds to Dil’s account (in small amounts to avoid any Nepali government intervention aka taxing and bribing). This money will be used to buy clothing, food and supplies for the devastated families in the small villages near Gorkha. I’m hereby assuring that not a single dollar will go to any other cause; you can hold me fully accountable!

If you can help, literally every dollar, dirham, pound, rial or rupee will help. The average Nepali makes around 120 – 150 dollars A MONTH. So your $20 or AED 73 is about 17% of the total monthly income of a working and fortunate Nepali. The nights are cold, people have already begun protesting against their government because of no signs of help and families are hungry. It would mean a lot to Dil’s family, the nearly 30 million Nepali people and me if you contributed.

May god, Allah, Buddha, Krishna or whatever you believe in bless you and keep your families for you. And one last thing, one of the biggest lessons I learned on this trip is that karma is real and it’s going to happen whether you like it or not!

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 11.03.36 PMKeep moving because “If you’re not moving, you’re slowly dying.” (Samed Yadegari). Much love and respect to god, my amazing family and friends, Dil’s family, the Nepalese people, the Pack and everyone involved on this once in a lifetime journey.

Signing off.

2 May 2015
10:10 pm (somewhere in the skies about 707 kilometers east of Dubai, local time 8:40 pm).

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