KATHMANDU, Nepal – Even amid the misery, with entire neighborhoods sleeping on sidewalks for fear of a massive earthquake's aftershocks, even with no running water, no electricity, and anger and frustration boiling over — even with all this, you can still find hints of the picture-postcard image of Nepal many foreigners hold in their imaginations.
There, perhaps, is Shangri-la, off in the Himalayan foothills that loom up above the tiled roofs and arched gates of the colonial-era buildings that made it through Saturday's earthquake. There's the squeak of the rickshaw, the gentle calls of "Namaste," the blissed-out backpacker stumbling down tree-lined boulevards.
It was almost always more mirage than truth, and never more so than after the country's worst disaster in decades.
People here have long seen their struggles with crushing poverty, corruption and infrastructure failures, and with a political fecklessness almost Shakespearean in scale, overshadowed by the beauty of the land and its firm place in the collective popular romantic imagination.
As Nepalese now dig out from a quake that has killed 5,500 and counting, there's widespread pessimism that these ugly truths will become any clearer to an outside world smitten with an image that doesn't match the reality. There is even less faith that a government that many feel has consistently failed its people will rise to the occasion.
"I am not confident. Not at all," Sanjay K.C., a 37 year old businessman who has been sleeping outside in a tent since his home was destroyed, said Wednesday. "For more than 10 years they cannot even make a bloody constitution. How will they rebuild our country? They knew a big one was coming for years. Just think if they'd done what a normal government would have done and made arrangements?"
Nepal is blessed with resilient people and some of the most stunning vistas on the planet. But even on the best days, electricity routinely dies in the heart of the capital, Kathmandu, where the hum of thousands of generators is a normal soundtrack of life. There have been centuries of instability, oppression and bloodshed, and, in recent decades, a massacre of the royal family by the crown prince and a Maoist insurgency that killed thousands.
And now comes a disaster many have long seen coming.
Nepal sits near the colliding tectonic plates of India and Eurasia that mark the boundary of the Himalayans, and is ranked as the 11th-most earthquake-prone country in the world, according to Allen Clark, a disaster policy specialist at the East-West Center and former geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey.
The government tried to prepare for a quake, but political and economic turmoil over the last decade hurt the attempts to improve the national power, communications and social services infrastructure, and to organize the helicopters, train the workers and build the structures essential to being ready and responding effectively, he said.
"As a result, they are now almost totally dependent on outside assistance," Clark said, and the current response has been "piecemeal."
Government ministers have acknowledged they've been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster. They simply don't know what to do.
Now, as parts of the capital dig out from the destruction, others try to get back to a semblance of normal life.
Buses loaded with boxes of food from India and vans packed with the injured fought their way through mud-choked streets clogged with traffic five cars deep in places. Enterprising drivers tried to forge shortcuts on the dirt paths that passed for sidewalks. Motorcycles and scooters — some laden with as many as five people, including small children — sliced through the gridlock. Whole families sat together on top of their bags and bedding, staring at the traffic.
The air was a toxic mix of exhaust and dust and dirt, and many people covered their mouths and noses with masks in an attempt to filter the grit. A greasy sludge of mud and trash moldered in roadside ditches.
When asked if the congestion was like this before the earthquake, a young Nepali man shrugged and said, "No. It was worse."
In hard-hit parts of the city, dozens stood around and gawked as foreign rescue workers searched rubble for the injured and dead; bulldozers pushed debris to the side of the road. Every now and then, a policeman with a long, thin stick would come and chase away the throng. The crowd returned minutes later.
Sanjay K.C., the businessman, said he was impressed with the foreign aid groups and disaster teams who'd come to help. "But I don't see any evidence of my own government helping to rebuild and rescue."
In some neighborhoods, buildings stood cheek-by jowl, most of them upright, but some leaning on their neighbors like a drunk trying to sleep on his feet on a crowded train. Sometimes the damage was relatively minor, a balcony with one side tilting or giant cracks in the concrete. Sometimes it was a whole side wall or building facade crumbled into the street.
This is the reality of Nepal today — at least, of this part of the country. Yes, myth endures, and sometimes it is based in reality. But the reality here, at this moment, is not one of legend or romance but of two difficult truths: that things will not be back to normal for a long time, and that normal wasn't all that great to begin with.
Afzal Ali, a 27-year-old Indian who has lived in Nepal since he was 7, is one of many who have lived without electricity or running water since the quake. He has slept outside with family and neighbors for fear of aftershocks.
"Nepal was getting better before the earthquake, but now no one knows how far back this will put things," he said. "Everything," he says, "seems lost."