by Emma Livingston, Staff Writer
On April 25, 2015, Della Hoffman and Eric Jean of Denver, Colorado set off on their first day of trekking through Langtang Valley in Nepal, home of some of the world’s most beautiful mountain scenery. Della and Eric were in the last month of their year long round the world trip, and Nepal was one of the stops they were most looking forward to. “We wanted to visit Nepal for a number of reasons,” Della explains. “First, we love mountains and had long been interested in seeing the beautiful Himalayas. Second, my parents had done a trip to Nepal about 35 years ago and had wonderful pictures, stories, and memories to share from their time there. And finally, a large portion of my students come from Nepal [Della is a teacher for a class of newly arrived refugees at Place Bridge Academy in Denver] so I was intrigued to learn more about their homeland.”
Hiking since 7:30 in the morning, the pair stopped to rest at a tea house in the tiny village of Bamboo. As they recall the scene in their blog, “The seating area was in a nice location in the center of the valley, right out over the river. The time was 11:55 am.”
“Tucked away in the Himalayas, Nepal is a small country with big things to be proud about,” says Tenzing Nepali, a Thunderbird student who hails from the Himalayan country. “Home to the highest peak in the world, we have always been a country that has fascinated the rest of the world. But what is most remarkable about Nepal and what I love the most is its people.
The Nepalese are one of the most hospitable and humble people you will ever meet. They will welcome you and happily share their meal with you even if they don’t have enough to eat. This spirit of giving and compassion is perhaps what has allowed the people of Nepal to weather through the most adverse situations with smiles on their faces and, personally, it inspires me to be optimistic and cheerful everyday.” Tenzing was preparing for finals on the Thunderbird campus in Glendale, Arizona Saturday, April 25th when, at 11:56 am, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck her country. Tenzing was forced to watch from afar as Kathmandu and many small mountain villages crumbled and while the number of dead and missing continued to rise.
In Bamboo Village, where Della and Eric were drinking their tea, the ground suddenly began shaking and giant boulders tumbled down from the cliff sides into the river. Some of the boulders crushed the tea house where they had ordered their tea. They ran for the shelter of a cave, where many other tourists and their guides had begun to gather. For five nights, and through many traumatizing aftershocks, Della and Eric, along with around 50 other guides and tourists from all over the world, banded together and helped one another survive. “The spirit of the group of people who stayed in Bamboo inspires me and reminds me of all the good people in the world,” Eric says in his blog.
Eventually, thanks to a satellite phone an Israeli tourist had rented before the journey, and persistent lobbying by families once they knew their plight, Eric and Della, along with all the other tourists sheltering with them at Bamboo Village, were rescued by helicopter and flown to a city where they could reach Katmandu and then their home countries. Though they are safe and sound in the US now, Della and Eric still grapple with complicated emotions of disappointment, sadness, frustration, helplessness, and guilt of survivors. Eric addresses these feelings in his blog. “I feel guilty about the resources that were expended to rescue us when so many other people in Nepal were in situations that were just as bad as ours or maybe even worse. Should I feel bad that my status as a tourist meant that maybe our rescue was given higher priority than sending supplies to a local village?” Della reflected on the difference between the experiences of the tourists and those of the Nepalese: “The villagers had just seen their world turned upside down. The tourists knew that the time there was limited, but for the villagers – it was forever.”
On a TV screen, far away in Glendale, Tenzing watched the catastrophe unfold on the news, “When the earthquake first struck,” she says, “I felt as if I had lost a part of my own identity. Many of the historic monuments and ancient temples that were so deeply woven in the fabric of Nepalese society have been reduced to rubble. In addition to that, the loss of human lives has been immeasurable. The earthquake has changed the meaning of ‘home’ for me.”
Seeing her home changed forever from across the world, at first all Tenzing could feel was a sense of helplessness. “I felt guilty that I was safe in the US while my fellow citizens were absolutely terrified. But soon, I was able to channel that feeling into something more productive. I realized that I was in a unique position as a student in the US and a SHARE Fellow at Thunderbird, I could leverage my network to raise funds. At that moment, it felt as if I was exactly destined to be at Thunderbird to provide help to the victims back home.”
Tenzing started a gofundme campaign to raise money for Kalyani, an NGO she co-founded that focuses on girls’ menstrual and reproductive health. In the aftermath of the earthquake, Kalyani has been distributing tents, medical supplies, food and water to remote villages. In two months she’s raised over $9000. In May, she was able to travel back to Nepal and volunteer on the ground, working as a translator for a team of American doctors from International Medical Relief.
“I was completely struck by the large number of displaced people who had lost their entire villages,” Tenzing says. “Some of these villagers had never even set foot in the city before. They were scared of the aftershocks and were just hoping that the ground would stop shaking. It was very saddening to listen to how many had lost their loved ones and also very unsettling for me to listen to the harrowing stories of how these people survived.”
As for Della and Eric, though they left Nepal to return to their home in the US, they still want to “spread information and news about Nepal and keep it in people’s hearts and minds.” They have also used their contacts to help raise money for Nepal. “We did a small fundraiser at a dance studio where I used to teach Zumba,” Della says. “The goal of that fundraiser was to raise funds to send directly to three families who lived and worked in Bamboo.” The people of Nepal, “need monetary support now and will continue to need it in the future.”
Tenzing and Della both agree that the people of Nepal continue to need donations and monetary support, but they also both agree that Nepal needs another type of support: “Visit Nepal!” says Della. “It is a lovely country that counts tremendously on tourism. Even the areas that were less affected by the earthquake are still suffering from the loss of visitors. Visiting the country is a great way to help with their recovery.”
As Tenzing puts it, “The people of Nepal want the path to development to be sustainable in the long-term. We have learnt many lessons from Haiti’s earthquake and want to revive our economy without being too dependent on international aid, so what we need are investments. And at this point, I want to make an announcement. Nepal is now safe! Our doors are open and we invite everyone to visit and help us get back on our feet.”
Many thanks to Tenzing Nepali and Della Hoffman for allowing me to use photos and quotes from their blog and gofundme pages, and for being so candid with their answers to my interview questions.
To read more about Della and Eric’s incredible experience during the earthquake in Nepal, as well as stories from the rest of their round the world trip, read their fascinating blog.
Tenzing Nepali is still raising money for the people of Nepal via her gofundme page.