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In 1991, the New York Yankees had one of the best team slogans ever: "At any moment, a great moment." That's how I feel when I'm trekking in Nepal. Any turn might reveal an unforgettable sight: a train of yaks clanging up a hand-hewn stone trail; a dizzying panorama of razor-sharp, ice-covered peaks; a creaking prayer wheel spun by the energy of a mountain stream.
In Nepal, I was privileged to trek in two of my favorite areas: the Khumbu (home of Mount Everest) and lower Mustang, near Niligiri and the Annapurnas. There was much more damage in the Khumbu, but despite the sad sight of cracked and crumbling Buddhist shrines, I was happy to see the Sherpa, devout though many of them are, rebuilding their neighbors' houses first.
Since the earthquakes, many geologists have traveled these popular routes, assessing their damage and how fit the routes are for trekking. Their verdict: While the main trekking routes are deemed safe, there are always risks in the Himalaya, just as there are in Yosemite or in any raw, living landscape. Trekking is giddy, high-altitude fun, but tectonic plates are not theme parks; rocks can tumble, and earth can slide. Be mindful, and you'll come home with some amazing tales to tell.
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The most moving of Diwali's celebrations occurs on the final day. This is bhai tika, when sisters bestow a beautiful blessing on their brothers and are blessed by them in return. I knew where I wanted to be for this celebration, and that was Camp Hope, a tent village not far from Boudha. The camp's residents had been relocated from Sindupalchowk, a district east of the first earthquake's epicenter. More than 3,550 people died in that area, and 97% of its 66,688 homes were destroyed.
Project Hope is largely the brainchild of Sangita Shrestha Einhaus, proprietor of Kathmandu's architecturally stunning Dwarika's Hotel. Shortly after my arrival in Nepal, we had visited the camp together. It looked ordinary at first, a cluster of square, green tents and tin-roofed outhouses arrayed on a former soccer pitch. From the moment we entered, though, the kindness and charm of the 350 refugees, 81 of them children, warmed me to my core.
Laxmi, the author's 10-year-old guide around Camp Hope and through the rituals of Diwali. Photo Credit: Jeff Greenwald
During that first visit, Sangita had left me with two 10-year-old girls, Laxmi and Benita, and appointed them my guides. Self-declared best friends, they took my hands and dutifully showed me the kitchen, with its huge cauldron; the health clinic; the study rooms, monastery room and television room, where a pack of rapt children sat mesmerized by a Hindi soap opera.
The settlement is divided into departments, and everyone shares tasks. "It's from my training as a hotelier," Sangita said with a laugh. But there's a larger motive beneath this: Camp Hope is the first phase in a project called My Dream Village.
"Our goal," Sangita told me, "is to eventually rebuild these villages as genuine, sustainable communities that include everyone equally and have evolved beyond Nepal's caste-based society." (The project is under way, with geologists and architects determining where in Sidhupalchowk the new homes might best be built.)
The bhai tika ritual was held in one of the tents. I took part, along with Sean, one of Sangita's two sons. This experience was so moving, I can scarcely put it into words. Sean and I were surrounded by the young girls of the camp: our bahinis, or little sisters, including Laxmi and Benita.
We were draped in marigold garlands, sprinkled with flower petals and holy water and finger-fed chunks of banana (gleefully messy). We leaned forward as spectral lines of tika powders were applied to our foreheads. The girls placed their palms on our heads and blessed us with health and prosperity; we blessed them in turn and handed them gifts of crisp rupees.
Then we all took selfies.
When the ritual was over, I found Sangita. She was sitting in the community tent with an infant napping on her lap. "This earthquake, as terrible as it was, gives these people and Nepal a second chance," she said. "I want to help them take advantage of it."
She shook her head, as if genuinely confounded by her luck. "I can't believe what an opportunity I've been given."
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The day before leaving Nepal, I wandered the Kathmandu streets. The marigolds and Laxmis were gone, but outside a shop near a small pagoda I spied a souvenir T-shirt on a hanger. It held an image of Kathmandu's lost monuments, and a promise: "We Shall Rise Again."
It was encouraging to see. Nepal's destroyed towers and temples were, and will be, beautiful. But they're not the whole story. Nepal, for me, was never about the buildings. It's about the people.