I met Kalyan Gurung in 2008 during a trek in Nepal with my wife and a friend. He had been assigned to be our guide; his young cousin Raju Gurung was our porter, carrying three overloaded duffels in a wicker basket suspended from his forehead with a tump line. We started our trek in Solu, in the hilly farmlands five days’ walk below Lukla, where most Everest treks begin. Half a day to the east was Meidel, Kalyan’s childhood village.
Kalyan had grown up tending goats in a steep hillside pasture. Before he was a teen he loaded a basket and began portering, the only way for boys and young men to earn hard cash in the area. But he also stayed in school. Kalyan was smart and driven—he saw portering as a path to a trade.
When we returned to Nepal five years later, in autumn of 2013, we hired Kalyan again to lead a 13-day trek around Manaslu. This time our group was larger, and Kalyan managed a support team of porters, cooks, and assistant guides numbering over 25. He was a smooth and capable leader, tending solicitously to our group of Western trekkers (some of whom had never done a trip like this) and then slipping away to nurse the blistered feet of the young boys he had hired to carry our loads, encourage those who were struggling, and discipline the laggards. He was 29 and on his way to earning his second master’s degree. To broaden his client base, he had learned four languages (English, Chinese, Korean, and Hindi, in addition to the various Nepali dialects he spoke). Soon after our trip, he would launch his own guiding business. He was finding a place in the upper ranks of the country’s small middle class.
When the first earthquake struck on April 25, Kalyan was at home in Kathmandu. Although he is unmarried and childless, he is the de facto leader of a large family of siblings, their spouses, and children. It took us more than a day to learn that he and his family were OK. (At least 8,000 people were killed by the quake.) On May 3, we finally heard some details: “My family is still in the tent outside of home, where my small room has been damaged. So I am searching for another apartment, but most of the houses are broken here. My home in the village is also damaged. I sent some money to repair it to my sister. With me are my five brothers, their wives, and four children. We have rice and dal. We cook outside and eat. There’s no variety, but it’s OK.”
Characteristically, Kalyan was not sitting still. With various groups he had helped organize relief efforts in the harder-hit towns around the city. On May 1 and 7 he was in the ruined city of Khokana, south of Kathmandu, where, he wrote at his Facebook page, “we put some drops of water in burning fire,” distributing food and supplies to 1,300 people. On May 10, he and a team delivered 750 sacks of rice to Nuwokot District, northwest of the city.
We knew that even though Kalyan and his family had survived, his work would suffer. Though he led several treks each year and worked on occasional mountaineering expeditions, his passion and much of his income was in city guiding: lecturing tourists about the extraordinary historic and religious monuments of Kathmandu and the neighboring cities of Patan and Bhaktapur. Now, many of the 300- to 450-year-old buildings in these cities’ historic squares, with their elaborately carved wooden doors and friezes, lay in ruins.
Three of us who had done treks with Kalyan, along with a couple of friends, collected a substantial amount of money and wired it to Nepal to help him and his family rebuild. He thanked us from the bottom of “my terrible, earthquake-broken heart” and said he thought he might be able to return to work soon.
The second major quake struck on May 12. This one was centered northeast of Kathmandu, very near the Solukhumbu District and Kalyan’s home. “The latest earthquake mostly affected the Everest region,” Kalyan said. “Ninety percent of houses are destroyed; most of the schools are damaged.
“My situation is changed by second earthquake, Dougald Dai. [“Dai” means “older brother.”] My house in the remote village in Solukhumbu, which was repaired after the first earthquake, is totally not working. My sisters are staying in the cattle house. Me [and my family] in Kathmandu are staying under tarpaulin.”
Kalyan’s Facebook posts yesterday reflected the profound psychological blow of the second quake, a phenomenon many working on relief efforts have observed. “[The] survivors are staying living dead with low heartbeat. Pale, depressed faces, self-questioning: What is happing here? God want to kill all of us?”
Repeatedly, in emails and Facebook messages, I’ve urged Kalyan to stay strong. Last night he said, “I am strong, Dai, not much scared. If it happen, it happen. Nobody can stop it.”
Kalyan will be OK. He’s got the drive and capabilities to rebuild his life and business. He’s a doer. Raju, the porter on our first trek and assistant guide on the second, has flown to Korea to work. But many in Nepal are far less fortunate. More than half a million have been displaced from their homes. Weeks of persistent monsoon rains are about to arrive. Remote villages are cut off by landslides, and some still have not seen outside help. It is likely many people will die this summer from their injuries and disease.
There are many ways to support the people of Nepal. One respected clearinghouse for community-based relief and rebuilding efforts is Global Giving, which is halfway to a $5 million emergency fund-raising goal for Nepal. Kalyan frequently volunteers with The Small World, an organization founded by his longtime employer, Karma Sherpa, who organized our treks. My wife and I have supported this organization, which builds and maintains schools and girls’ homes in the Solukhumbu district. We also have long supported the Colorado-based dZi Foundation, which has an extensive staff in Nepal and works directly in the areas hardest hit by the May 12 quake. Ben Ayers, dZi’s Nepal Country Director (and a 15-year resident of the country, now rendered homeless himself), gave this update yesterday:
Short-term relief is urgently needed. But among the most important things Western trekkers and climbers can do to help the Nepali people is plan a trip to Nepal. In 2013, tourism accounted for about 4 percent of Nepal’s GDP and directly or indirectly employed more than 1 million people. A visit to Nepal would inject much-needed cash directly into people’s hands. Much of Kathmandu was spared serious damage, and the splendid Buddhist stupas at Boudhanath and Swayambhunath, along with the sacred Hindu temple at Pashupatinath, were largely unharmed. Pokhara and the southern and western areas of Nepal are undamaged and ready for visitors. And the mountains abide. Plan a trek. Climb a peak. Buy food in the villages, hire local porters and guides, and pay them well.
Kalyan’s next plan is to help rebuild the schools where he studied and laid the foundations for his career. “I went to three schools in Solokhumbu, one in Meidel,” he told me. “I am just observing which is worst [damaged], and then I am going to help.”