“Did you see, outside? Maybe not. You came in late. Anyway, you should wear sandals in the house – there is still a lot of broken glass, hoina (no)?” says my landlord, Mr. Shah. The crunching of shards beneath his hard dress shoes echoes through the living room.
“Soba didi has been cleaning the flat for your arrival…she’s lost everything, you know; her house has been destroyed,” he continues.
I don’t know what to say, and sheepishly stare at the floor. “I’ve seen,” is all I can mutter.
The date is May 2, 2015, one week after Nepal’s devastating earthquake. I’ve just returned from the mountains to the flat I’ve been renting in Kathmandu, a place I’ve called home for six months.
Soba rushes in with a plate of warm chapatis and curried potatoes. She smiles at me, and I sense no grief from her as she sets the plate on the coffee table. “Kasto chha? (how was it?),” she asks of my time spent trekking in the mountains.
I feel embarrassed that such banal conversation glosses over the realities of her home, and the devastation across Kathmandu. But I’ve been finding that people seem to need this – to feign normality, and focus on something other than their grief for just a minute.
“Rhamro chha (very good),” I answer politely.
They call her didi, which means older sister, but it is also the name reserved for the house maid, one of the standard components of an affluent Nepali household. Across the courtyard, her humble brick apartment lies in ruins, the contents of her life spilling out onto the grass.
The evening light casts long shadows through the horizontal slats of the living room window, illuminating the floral-patterned cushions on wicker chairs where Shah, Soba, and I sit.
Shah is dressed completely in white, his head shaved with a small tuft of hair visible at the back, as is customary for Hindus mourning the loss of a loved one.
I don’t know if someone close to him has died, or if he’s dressing this way as a symbolic act. I can’t bring myself to ask.
The previous day, I’d been at a café with two mountaineers when their friend (also a mountain guide) came in. He’d lost his girlfriend in the earthquake – she was at Everest Base Camp and was killed in an avalanche. None of us talked about it. He was just trying to be okay – trying to put one foot in front of the other.
I can’t bear to look Soba or Shah in the eye. The silence builds to an unbearable crescendo, until a minor vibration in the floor causes us all to jump. Our eyes widen, meeting each other with a quizzical look that says, “Did you feel that, too?” Our bodies stiffen, prepared to drop everything and bolt for the door.
But it's nothing – just a passing truck maybe, and we settle back into our wordless tension.
Outside the window, the streets are lively with the sound of people reclaiming their lost lives, but inside, the silence is so thick every sound becomes accentuated. The creaking of the wicker chairs, a cup of tea clapping against its saucer.
"I've been issued an evacuation order…two days from now I'll be gone,” I lament. The chapatis, which I’ve not dared to touch, grow colder by the minute.
I sense no disappointment in them – after all, this is what foreigners do in Nepal, they come and they go. "It is probably for the best," Shah concludes, his words instantly followed by another heavy silence.
I don’t want to leave. I feel ashamed of how fortunate I am; that I can just pick up and fly away from this disaster. How will Soba manage? I wonder. How will so many others fare against these new realities?
This room, this moment: in the years since the quake, I’ve kept returning to it in my mind – mostly because of what I did not say, what I could not express at the time. How sorry I felt for Soba, for Shah, for the friends I had made in Kathmandu. This single moment in time has, for me, become a great symbol for all of that dhukka (suffering).
At the very least I could have expressed my sorrow towards them for their loss. But I didn’t. I just sat there – embarrassed, introverted, unsure what was the right or wrong thing to do.
“It's getting late,” Shah announces. “We are all glad you are here safe from the mountains. Let us know if we can help with anything for your departure.” Shah motions to Soba, who turns to me and smiles with a youthful exuberance as they both part.
Alone, I devour the chapatis.
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