On April 25. 2015 at 11:59 am local time a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 Mw occurred in Nepal with the epicenter near Lamjung, 77 km from the capital city, Kathmandu. It was followed by 79 aftershocks that same day and over 400 more within the next five days. As a result, almost 9,000 people died, 21,000 got injured and a few hundred people were reported missing. Among those affected by the earthquake was also a Polish woman, Sylvia Neupane, who lives in Kathmandu together with her husband and three kids. She has agreed to talk to me about her life in the Himalayas, about her trauma associated with the earthquake and her humanitarian work to which she has devoted her time. We met in New York at “The House” – a nice and cozy restaurant near Union Square. Soon you will understand that my choice for the venue was intentional.
Lets start with a cliché because we have to start somewhere to introduce you to my readers. Tell me why Nepal and not Patagonia? Coincident or conscious decision?
Sylvia: (laughing) you are right, everyone asks me that same question. It was a conscious decision. When I was 12 years old I moved with my parents to the US where we lived for a few years. After my mom died, my father and I came back to Poland. I went to High School, yet I could not find myself in the new reality. After I graduated, I decided that since I no longer knew where I belong I am going to travel the world so maybe one day I would find my place. I came back to the United States and I went to work. I saved some money and I set off on my life journey. After two years of traveling, I decided to visit Tibet and in 2004 I arrived in Nepal. When I landed in Kathmandu, I felt like I had already been here before and that’s when I decided that I would stay. I spent three weeks in Tibet, then I came back to Kathmandu. I learned Nepalese and I enrolled at the university and began studying Buddhism and acupuncture. During that time I met my future husband. Four years later we left for the United States where all three of my children were born. My husband did not like it there and after spending a year and a half in Poland we moved back to Nepal in 2012
Out of pure female curiosity: what your husband didn’t like about living in the US?
Sylvia: Basically, that women do whatever they want and they never listen to men (this time I burst out laughing). He has actually never admitted it, but I knew he did not like it.
Lets talk about your hotel. You have named it “Mi Casa” which is “My Home” and on the first page on the Internet you wrote: “A home rather than a hotel. Full of charm. Full of character. Bright. Sunny. Quiet. Unique. With lots of local colors. We love to have you here!” I saw pictures and I know for a fact that you have some great reviews. Where this idea came from?
Sylvia: People in Nepal are extremely nice, but although I can communicate with them in their own language and I respect their customs, to them I will always be an outsider because of the way I look. That is when I made the decision to find a job that would allow me to interact with people from my culture, who look like me and with whom I can identify. Obviously Kathmandu is a main destination for hikers heading to Mt. Everest and Annapurna that attract millions of tourists every year, so the idea to open up a hotel seemed like the right thing to do. When it comes to choosing the name for the hotel, I picked “Mi Casa” which is “My Home” because I wanted my guests to feel at home rather than at the hotel and I think I achieved that goal.
Before you settled in Nepal you have travelled a lot, so it is hard to talk about a cultural shock, however, tell me: was it easy to get used to all those differences? I refer to cultural, ethnical and religious …
Sylvia: Even though I have spent so many years in Nepal, which taught me a lot about the local culture and about myself, I still find in it some characteristics that I cannot accept. Let’s begin with the fact that Nepalese society is based on Patriarchate and the role of women is limited to serving men. For example, during the wedding ceremony the priest says: “until today you belonged to your father, from now on you will belong to your husband” – for any Western woman it is hard to come to terms with such a custom. Another issue is the reality of living. Nepal is a beautiful, but utterly poor country and people live in extreme poverty – especially in the mountains. Education is not mandatory, analphabetism reaches over 60 percent and “child labor” is very common and does not surprise anyone. Children never go to a doctor and women give birth at home. But, I have to say that I did not come to Nepal to change it – the truth is that Nepal changed me. The people who live there taught me to enjoy little things and focus on what’s good in life.
How does it feel when the earth shakes under your feet?
Sylvia: It paralyzes you with fear. During the earthquake I was with my three children on the third floor of our home and when we got trapped I thought we would all die. For century’s people believed that the Earth is their Mother and their Breadwinner and suddenly within a few seconds the same Earth becomes your biggest enemy depriving you of the feeling of safety. I still live under tremendous stress. Even though I am in New York right now, I am still on the edge and I react to sudden sounds and screams. For example, if an item drops on the floor or a door is slammed it makes my heartbeat rise. My life is set on “survival mode” and it is not a nice feeling.
In your blog you have said that time has changed its dimensions, that suddenly people stopped rushing somewhere and the best therapy to overcome the initial shock was taking pictures of people and their daily lives.
Sylvia: It is true. Photography helped me take my thoughts away from what was negative and forced me to focus on what was bringing me happiness. Besides, taking pictures of other people helped me realized that there are thousands of people around me in a similar situation to my family and in a sense this tragedy somehow unites us.
In Buddhism there is this teaching, which says that we face problems and difficulties in our lives because they force changes, otherwise we would continue living in the same state of mind or situation without thinking to ever change anything. Therefore, converting my traumatic experience into a positive energy, I came to realize that in reality my family didn’t suffer, we are safe – in a sense – and healthy, we didn’t lose our hotel and even though our home collapsed – one day we will rebuild it.
Has it ever crossed your mind to pack up and leave?
Sylvia: No, not once! Not even for a moment have I thought about leaving Nepal. I was pleasantly surprised with the attention I have received from my friends all over the world, who tried to convince me to leave the country with my entire family and stay with them, but I have decided that we are not going anywhere. In Kathmandu is my family, here is my hotel, here I raise my children, here they go to school and here is my home. I treated this situation as a test of my character and my faith …
You have mentioned, that although media all over the world kept on reporting on the dramatic situation in Nepal and the humanitarian aid kept on coming from everywhere, yet not everyone received it.
Sylvia: I was really surprised how quickly the entire world reacted and united in providing help to Nepal. I saw those huge containers piling up each day at the airport in Kathmandu. Unfortunately, Nepalese are not the most organized nation; the government is corrupted and the local agencies, which have been created to coordinate humanitarian efforts, are completely disorganized and quite ineffective. On the top of that, there are very few main roads in the country while most of the villages are high in the mountains. If you add up those factors you will realize that transportation of humanitarian aid to the remote places in Nepal becomes a real challenge. Americans tried to help out bringing those huge U.S. Army helicopters, which were able to transport a few tons of food and equipment at once, but they were not designed to land on the top of the mountain so after one accident they gave up on this form of transportation. In the end, food, medical aid and equipment like tents and blankets have been delivered to the police stations and city halls and they were sold to local people for a profit.
During the earthquake you lost your house, yet almost immediately you rushed to help other people. Why?
Sylvia: It was a way of forgetting about my own tragedy – my very own attempt to engage in positive action in order to find within myself hope and strength that I needed. In reality all the humanitarian help I provided is like a teardrop in the ocean, but Mother Teresa from Calcutta once said that if you help one person, it means a lot to this one person. So I thought that if we help this one village, it will mean a lot to people in this one village. Besides, I wanted to help them because I could.
My husband and I agreed that I will take $5,000 that we had put aside for the furniture for our new house that we no longer had. We bought food and tents and brought it to Baseri, a small village in the mountains on the borderline with Tibet, 160km from Kathmandu. My husband was born there. I know its residents, which is why it is close to my heart. There are 4,700 residents, majority women, children and elderly. Most men have left seeking employment in India or nearby Arabic countries and the women were left alone to deal with the crises waiting for humanitarian aid that might never come.
Your husband stayed with the kids and you left with your father-in-law, a hotel employee and the driver. Were you afraid?
Sylvia: I was afraid. My Nepalese friends tried to discourage me from traveling that far saying that I could be attacked and robbed. I contacted one of my friends who at that time worked for the Red Cross and I asked him for some advice. He told me:
- Sylvia – tell me who are those people who can potentially rob you?
- Some poor people – I responded and suddenly I realized that regardless of the situation – my humanitarian efforts, one way or another, will reach those in need.
Fortunately, the roads were empty and we were the first transport heading in that direction with food. When we arrived at Baseri, out of 700 houses only a few survived. Also the only elementary school collapsed.
How did you manage to organize food and tents in such a short period of time?
Sylvia: I contacted this small town I knew from my previous trips, that was the last point where I could purchase food and tents before I set off for the village of Baseri and I was able to place an order over the phone. During the upcoming trips I would buy supplies that came from the humanitarian aid from the local agencies, police or city hall in Kathmandu. I know it sounds awful, but it was not the right time to lecture anyone on the moral aspect of those practices. We had to rush to help people trapped in the villages high up in the mountains even if it meant paying for humanitarian aid that came from abroad for free.
I am curious to learn about the selection process – what made you choose one village after another?
Sylvia: It was very simple. After reaching one village, the next time we went higher up until we finally got to the end of the road. If we came across an obstacle like a river or a missing bridge, I would sometimes hire Sherpa to carry food or I would ask local people in the last village to inform people from the next village to show up in a week to collect food and tents. Usually I was able to find someone who would gather the information for me about those who needed help the most so when we arrived the next time we had a list with the names of those who will be receiving aid, which made the whole process very smooth. I guess this part is due to my Polish organizational skills J. In a similar manner we were deciding on distributing materials to build temporary shelters, which in most cases became permanent homes. It is worth mentioning, that people would not come and collect their food and leave right away. They would sit in front of our tent, talk to us and look at us with appreciation. For them what we did was a form of reassurance that after all the world has not forgotten them. It is as if we gave them back their dignity and faith in human beings.
So this is how you found Tandrang?
Sylvia: Yes. It is one of the most beautiful villages I have ever seen. It is located at the top of the mountain overlooking the river, but at the same time the poorest. There were only women, children and elderly people living in this village and one middle-aged man. For some unjustified reason, for years women would give birth to girls only. Under such circumstances, a man has the right to leave his wife and start a new family leaving her alone and no one will hold him accountable for her misery. It derives from their religious beliefs, which are stronger than the family bonds. In Hinduism, it is the son and not daughter that is needed during the burial ceremony because he needs to set his father’s dead body on fire so his soul would be released to Nirvana. Women feel guilty that they cannot give birth to a boy, and they accept the situation and they are forced to rely on themselves. Out of 15 houses in Tandrang, 8 collapsed so I brought with me bamboo and metal sheets for the roofs to construct shelters for the rainy season. I asked two men from my husband’s village to come along with me and help me build them. This was my gift to those women.
How did you react when you heard the news about the government’s decision to put a ban on individual humanitarian aid?
Sylvia: I decided to ignore it and I continued helping out for as long as I was receiving equipment and money for food from individual donors. Obviously there was always a chance that the army would confiscate our transport, but we were very lucky that it never happened.
How does the situation in Nepal look like a year after the earthquake?
Sylvia: Not good. Political and economical situation is equally bad and soon it may lead to a civil war. Nepal’s economy relies mainly on agriculture and tourism and therefore it depends economically on China and India that delivers electricity, fuel and gas. Since the earthquake Nepal was not able to pay it off so India put an embargo on those goods and Nepal was very close to loosing electricity completely. The situation with China is much better and they were willing to help out but then the roads that have been damaged during the earthquake make transportation quite difficult if not impossible in some areas. All of this contributes greatly to frustration among citizens especially in large cities.
In May last year you wrote on your blog that no one thinks about rebuilding their houses – everyone is focused on gathering food supplies for the rainy season that lasts from May to the end of August. How about you? Were you able to rebuild your house?
Sylvia: No. Mainly because the aftershocks have never stopped and they could cause the new building to collapse, so we have temporarily given up on this idea. For the first three months, like everyone else, we were living under the tents, then we moved to our hotel and most recently we relocated to a rented apartment.
Now it is time for two tricky questions :)
Sylvia: (laughing) Shoot!
Counter-productivity – such a monumental American word. I have to say that you are one of the very few people I know that doesn’t have a profile on Facebook, you closed down your Google page, you are not active on Twitter, and the title of your blog has nothing to do with your humanitarian efforts. I can understand your desire to keep privacy, but don’t you think it is counterproductive when it comes to the promotion of your charitable work and calling for more donations?
Sylvia: I have decided that I will be helping those affected by the earthquake regardless of other contributions. And I think I succeeded because after all many individual people supported me financially.
I agree with you, however you still need $5,000 to rebuild the elementary school. I am sure you have heard about: The Power of Networking J which is exactly what we are doing at this very moment. I will publish this interview with you in English and Polish on my blog, it will get posted on my Facebook, some people may share it with their friends and in this magical way thousands of people from a few continents who happen to be surfing in the virtual space – may come across this interview, get to know you and your work and maybe willing to offer you their help.
Sylvia: I think you are right. I may open up a page on Facebook, but not until I register my Foundation in New York. The whole process here is much faster than in Nepal.
From the logistic standpoint – what are the items that people should NOT ship to Nepal for the victims of the earthquake?
Sylvia: First of all we have to remember that their diet is very simple. It consists of rice, vegetables and lentil. Aside from those products we also add flour, sugar and oil. The cost of food donation for one family is about $70. Nepalese eat meat only once a year during the holiday that lasts ten days. Animals for them guarantee their survival – first they build a shelter for cows and goats, which give them milk and then they take care of the family. People in Nepal do not eat pasta and tomato sauce. Also, everyone has to remember that they do not wear used clothes. It derives from their cast system and their sense of dignity and very often they feel embarrassed and humiliated. It is a different set of values and we are not in a position to judge them. However, we will always accept blankets and tents.
At the moment you are collecting money to rebuild the elementary school. Where those who are interested should send the money?
Sylvia: The total cost of building the school is $5,000. I was able to collect $1500, so I am still missing $3,500. Anyone interested in helping people in Nepal can transfer money to my account on Paypal: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Packages can be sent to our hotel:
Mi Casa Hotel
Kathmandu 44600 Nepal
Once upon a time you have said that Nepal was never Shangri-la to you, however you named your hotel “Mi Casa”, which means “My Home” and ironically it is located in the close vicinity of the “The Garden of Dreams” – don’t you think that there is too much symbolism for you to deny the theory about finding your Dream Land?
Sylvia: (laughing out loud) I see you came well prepared. But, I have to tell you that it is a difficult question. (After a moment) Exactly one day before the earthquake, I was saying goodbye to a friend of mine who came to visit and who was staying with us for a month. I remember that I told him that day that I have finally found my place on earth, the place where I belong and where I built my home – and of all people – he knows best how much time it took me to find this place. The next day my home collapsed and right then I realized that in reality my Dream Land is where my heart is – with my family.
From the Author.
Sylvia is an amazing woman with enormous supplies of energy and kindness and I am convinced that our friendship will continue. From the first moment we met we both felt as if we knew each other since forever and I hope that my readers can sense it in the light tone of the interview. It is good to know, especially nowadays, that there are still people out there who in the face of their own tragedy are capable of helping others.
A huge Thank you and a big hug to editor – my friend Maria Qintyn🙂