The Artist in Nepal
M. Douglas Walton reflects about his time in Nepal after the devastating earthquake hit. What he discovered was a country clinging to hope and happiness to be alive.
article by Marlen Waters | photo by Martin G Meyers
Picture a man, sitting in his studio–an idyllic, secluded spot in the Lincoln Parish woods. You would never believe that M. Douglas Walton of Ruston experienced and survived the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the South Asian country of Nepal on April 25. For five days, Walton, his art touring group of 13 other artists and their guide were stranded in a mountain village with little food or water and no amenities. Included in the group were Monroe residents Jan Quiett, Susan and Rudy Miksa.
Walton’s group of nine Americans and five Canadians was on an art tour to Dubai, Nepal and Tibet. They’d spent several days in Dubai and three weeks in Nepal when the earthquake hit. “We were really excited about going to Tibet,” Walton said. Jan Quiett of Monroe had just joined the group two days before just for the experience of seeing Tibet. It was sunny and about 80°F and the time was shortly before noon. They had just enjoyed a nice Nepalese meal of rice, greens, tomato and potato-based curry. At the border, all tourists must walk over the “Friendship Bridge” marking the boundary between Nepal and China in order to transfer to a Chinese bus. They were about to walk across the Friendship Bridge connecting Nepal and Tibet as the earth began to shake.
“We were outside looking at our luggage when the earthquake started,” Walton said. “It happened so fast I don’t think we were really scared. We just knew we had to get out of the way. It was the villagers who basically pushed us to the other side of the road,” Walton said. The other side of the mountain road was a sheer drop off.
At first, the group thought it was a rockslide. Then they felt the aftershocks. “It’s a sound you’ve never heard before, but you were basically being pushed out of the way. Your whole entire focus was getting out of the road.” Truck-sized boulders crashed down from the hills, flattening two buses in front of the one reserved for Walton’s group. “But not one rock hit any of our luggage,” Walton said.
The quake had two epicenters, one near Katmandu, about 50 miles away from the tour group, and another where the tour group was on the Araniko Highway. When the earth stilled, the group — along with thousands of other quake refugees — walked slightly more than a mile to a flatter, safe location. By late afternoon the area was filled with an estimated 5,000 villagers from the surrounding area. The only shelter for the 5,000 people was make-shift tents of tarpaulins stretched over ropes. The group was separated into many “tents.” Not really knowing at the time how the rest of the group was doing. Rice and dhal (lentil stew) were cooked in large vats and they lined up to receive a tin plate full. As “guests” they were encouraged to go to the front of the line and received a spoon to go with their food. The Nepalese prefer to eat this kind of food by mixing it on their plate and then eating it with their fingers.
Suddenly Walton’s cell phone rang. His was the only phone among the thousands in the tarp city that had service. Walton and the rest of the group were able to let friends and family know the group was safe, and uninjured. Then began the four days of silence with the outside world. On the other side of the world, family members and friends began the task of notifying American government officials of their predicament.
The first night came. “It was raining, 40 degrees and pitch black,” Walton said. “Then the mountain across the way collapsed. The sound was the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life,” Walton said. That first night was hard, Walton said, “but by the next morning, the sun came up and we just knew it was going to be okay.”
On day two, the guide found shelter in a newer house that was made of reinforced concrete and on a nearby hill. “We ended up getting the bedroom,” Walton said. All 15 travelers slept in the same room and they had access to an indoor squat toilet. They had no electricity. Their food was about one-and-a-half cups of rice per day. Water remained a huge concern. According to Walton, one of the more memorable meals that their guide was able to forage was “a couple of ounces of beer and a handful of cheese puffs.” The group would end up staying in the house four nights and five days. According to tour member Barbara Lea of Ontario, Canada, “Our tour leader, Janaki Parajuli of NEC Tours, a long established Nepali tour operator, accompanied us at all times and ensured that every aspect of our travel, accommodation, food and access to medical help were met. His proficiency was truly tested during the earthquake and aftermath when he managed to keep us safe, fed, and sheltered and ultimately, safely back to Kathmandu.”
“From there it became an adventure of drawing, of exploring, of seeing the joy in the children,” Walton said. The Nepalese children are a curious and happy bunch, and crowded around as the artists began to draw and drew happily when invited to. They can write their names in Nepalese script and in English from a young age and they were very well behaved. “I was always in the moment,” Walton said. “When you draw you spend time studying and experiencing your surroundings not just quickly taking photographs. By exploring, you got to meet the people. It became an opportunity otherwise you would never have.”
What he discovered was Nepalis stripped of much of what they had owned, yet happy and glad to be alive. On the fourth day, six of the group were helicoptered out. Evacuating the people in the tarp city was a slow, monumental task, Walton said, partly because the only helicopters that could land initially held only three people. The next day when the rest of the group left, the children gave them roses.
The group was taken to a small mountain village. “It was as if we were transported into ‘The Sound of Music,’” Walton said, referring to the scene in the movie where the Von Trapp family escapes into the Alps, leaving their native Austria. “On our mountaintop, the children gave us a concert of music that became an unbelievable experience,” Walton said. The two-hour performance included folk music in the Nepali native language and in English, he said. “They got the adults to do chanting, then they decided we should all dance. This is the middle of their despair. They’re village was gone, but they had no sense of sadness,” Walton said.
After several days, all of the tour group made its way back to Katmandu — being separated, riding another helicopter, walking through barbed wire, down a steep embankment, through rice fields and over slippery steps and crowding into a Jeep with all their luggage.
Two of the group returned home to the states. Walton and the remaining artists decided to go back to the same places they had drawn just days before the quake and draw what remained. That gave Walton and his 11 remaining students “time to digest, time to process, to understand,” he said.
In an email Walton sent to his friends and students from the Hotel Vashali in Kathmandu:
It has been greatly important to each of us that we have stayed on in Nepal. The last few days have brought closure to each of us in meaningful ways. The drawings have gained a level of emotion and spirit that elevates the compositions to a level of greatness. My own drawings are the most significant of my career.
The group spent six days drawing and exploring the city. They discovered only part of the city was damaged, and much of what was destroyed were the old, historic temples and buildings they had seen intact just days before. Walton realized he and his students were the last people in history to draw the some of the historic sites. “So their drawings are of monumental importance,” In addition to his more than 450 drawings, each of the students did between 200-300 drawings each, he said. Walton plans to turn some of his sketches into large paintings (some as large as 15 feet) along with paintings from his students into an exhibition that will highlight the story of this faith filled nation and bring attention to the plight that they will face for years to come.
This devastating earthquake killed more than 8,800 people and injured more than 23,000. Hundreds of thousands of people were made homeless with entire villages flattened, across many districts of the country. Centuries-old buildings were destroyed at UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley. About 90 percent of soldiers from the Nepalese Army were sent to the stricken areas in the aftermath of the earthquake, with volunteers mobilized from other parts of the country. Rainfall and aftershocks were factors complicating the rescue efforts, with potential secondary effects like additional landslides and further building collapses being concerns. Impassable roads and damaged communications infrastructure posed substantial challenges to rescue efforts. Survivors were found up to a week after the earthquake. Repair estimates are $160 million to restore 1,000 damaged and destroyed monasteries, temples, historic houses and shrines across the country.
“After this experience, one’s approach to the understanding of life has been forever altered. … When you have nothing, that’s when you understand that, in reality, you have everything. I see life with a clarity I did not see before,” Walton said. “We had nothing, but we had everything. You had to let go. You had to have complete belief that what you needed would be provided.”