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Finding salvation in the stories of Nepal's survivors

He had tried to stop his boozing but had relapsed, sneaking "10-rupee hooch."

One evening in the Dhading area northwest of Katmandu, he stopped his motorcycle at a roadside cliff. Perhaps, he thought, it was time to end it all.

He went into rehab instead. Six months later, in October 2013, Jay Poudyal began photographing and interviewing his countrymen and posting their stories online, finding meaning in connecting with fellow Nepalese, sharing their joys, their quirks, their sorrows.

"It really began as my own journey to understand the years that I lost to alcohol," Poudyal said.

Storytelling became his salvation.

After the magnitude 7.8 earthquake devastated Nepal last month, Poudyal began crisscrossing the country, mostly on his red Aprilia motorcycle, scouting places to deliver aid.

And he took his camera. He had to tell their stories.

::

On a recent Tuesday, he passed through the Nuwakot district, known for hot, dry foothills so inhospitable that one town is called Bidur, or widow. Poudyal had hired a truck and driver so he could deliver relief supplies he had helped gather.

The pickup truck rounded a bend and approached a village where he had collected stories.

"Oh my God," Poudyal gasped.

The guesthouse where he had stayed and talked to the owner was a heap of rubble. The snack shop where he had interviewed villagers had imploded.

Later, at a village called Ratemate, or red dirt, he saw youths sifting through red mud bricks and piling them up. The temple roof lay atop a heap of debris. Poudyal clucked his tongue.

"Just leveled."

He came across an encampment of Red Cross relief tents, a group of young Nepalese volunteers and plenty of trucks loaded with food and supplies. His truck turned off the main road and headed up a steep, rocky path, the relief effort fading in the distance.

"Every time I see a road like this, I just go," Poudyal said. "People don't see places like this. That's why I do Stories of Nepal."

::

When he launched his website Stories of Nepal, the 35-year-old Poudyal, who has a neat beard and favors shorts, T-shirts and Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, had about 100 likes. Now, since the earthquake, it has more than 110,000.

Poudyal pairs photographs with haiku-like captions, sometimes commenting on what he sees, sometimes quoting the person pictured. The captions are haunting in their brevity.

With a photo of Mina Tamang, a woman in a red sari sitting next to a basket of tomatoes: "After a while the tears also run dry. I thought it's no use anymore to just sit and cry with the children. I picked up these tomatoes from the garden to sell at the highway. Maybe I can earn some money and buy spices and rice. Now the children cry in fear but eventually they will start crying for food."

Poudyal initially posted names, but he has become so busy since the earthquake that he usually just lists the locations on the site, which he uses to raise donations for the remote villages.

With a photo of a grim man in a dirty T-shirt and cap in Sanistaar: "Too tired digging. Father keeps on telling me to dig into the rubble. I don't think he even knows what we are looking for. There is nothing of value. Too tired."

With a photo of a young woman, dressed in a plaid peasant blouse and red wedding beads, standing by her ruined home in Jyamdi: "I feel great relief to spill out my despair. Not everyone is asking for money. Not everyone is asking for houses to be rebuilt. Sometimes, all one needs is human contact and to hear that there are people out there who are doing what they can to help."

Unlike many photos from Nepal these days, Poudyal's images don't focus on rubble or emergency crews. Faces fill the frame, some smiling.

In a photo from Tinpiple, a middle-age mother in a red-and-green embroidered salwar kurta, or pantsuit, grins on her porch stacked with hay.

"There is no other choice than to endure," she says. "No other choice than to somehow survive and no other choice than to be for someone else. There is no other choice than to hope. No other choice than to cry and regret and no other choice than to sit and laugh."

Stories of Nepal has followers in Asia, Europe and the United States, but especially here in Nepal. They leave comments on the site and Facebook page.

"We have seen enough heartbreaking pictures. … it's posts like these that warm the heart when all we see is ache all around us," wrote Sujan Dhital, a medical student in Katmandu.

"It's people like you who make our nation proud. You cannot stop," wrote Rajashwi Sen. "You have to keep going. You are the future of our new Nepal."

::

There was a time when Poudyal's future was uncertain.

A college graduate raised in the capital, Katmandu, he moved to Australia in 2007 and quickly built a successful career as a graphic designer and teacher in Melbourne. Then his drinking worsened. He ended up homeless, panhandling.

That's when he called his brother in Katmandu, who sent him a ticket home in 2010.

"I thought maybe coming home would somehow make me stop," Poudyal said, and it seemed when he first arrived that "this whole fog kind of lifted."

Poudyal got married, started a graphic design company, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and stayed clean for a few months.

But then came the relapse and that night on the cliff. He has stayed sober for two years. With the support of his wife, who works in communications for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Poudyal sold his business last year and took to the road full time to collect stories and photos.

His first post was about the tea seller across from his house.

"Then it was the doughnut guy, and the newspaper guy," Poudyal said, laughing. "I started going out every day, just stopping people in the road, asking to take their pictures. Sometimes we would have tea or share a cigarette. And they would tell me their joys and sorrows."

Before the quake, Poudyal gravitated toward Nepal's oddballs and outcasts. He interviewed a transgender AIDS activist, a man who fell in love with a woman of another caste, a guy named "James Bond Rajkarnikar," and a female skateboarder who punched a police officer. He photographed a Nepalese woman with lavender hair and another who had tattooed her estranged father's face on her forearm after he died.

Reflecting on his work now, Poudyal explained that depression can be seen as a good thing in Nepal, part of vairagya, a Sanskrit term for detachment from the material world that leads to enlightenment.

"You jump into the depths of the ocean and you suffer and you come out," he said.

Poudyal recalled giving relief supplies to a woman with two daughters he had written about. "They had lost their house, they had almost lost their animals and they were sleeping outside," he said. Still, they found a way to joke about their predicament.

"She made us tea and we sat and laughed with the girls.... I once met an old lady in the far west who said all you can do is laugh at your own misery, and they were saying the same thing. And I can really relate to that."

After the earthquake, friends told him to take a break. But Poudyal couldn't stop. He saw too many surprising stories to tell, "stories of hope, of people rebuilding their lives."

"It doesn't just have to be earthquake and death and death and death. We talk about memories and hope and history," he said. "Eventually we will move on. That's the nature of life."

::

The village of Bhorle lies about 15 miles off the highway, down a narrow one-lane road carved out of a mountainside, the drop hundreds of feet to the valley below. There are no guardrails, no turnouts. The quake damaged the main bridge, its underside cracked and sprouting wires.

When Poudyal and the aid truck finally arrived at the village, about 50 residents quickly surrounded the vehicle.

Poudyal was drawn to a slight, middle-age woman in a red sari and head scarf, with a gold bindi adorning her forehead. As they stood in front of a buffalo manger, she explained how her home had been destroyed. Landslides blocked the road and their food supply.

"Her sons have gone to the market to get rice because they have not had food for the past few days," Poudyal said.

It was a three-hour walk.

He recorded and called each family's name, handing them a bucket and bag of staples: oil, salt, rice, biscuits and diarrhea medicine, along with tarps.

On the way home, he stopped in Nuwakot, where Ram Krishna Gajurel produced a cool yogurt drink and fresh apples and grapes from the ruins of his home.

"What he is doing is introducing the soil of Nepal to the world," said Gajurel, a farmer who wrote a book titled "The Search for Truth."

He likes to sit and talk literature and philosophy with Poudyal. His 20-year-old son, Shankar, was inspired by Poudyal to start his own Facebook page, Stories of Nuwakot.

They led Poudyal through their ravaged village. He photographed a woman carrying corn in a traditional conical basket, called doko, strapped to her forehead; a couple in a bamboo lean-to; and a trio of girls camped with eight others on four wooden beds under broken corrugated metal roofs.

"I don't know where to go, where to stay," one, Chunumaya Kumal, a mother of three, said as she heated a pot of rice over a fire of scavenged wood.

Poudyal left at sunset, wishing he could have stayed longer and vowing to return with more supplies soon. On his way home, he passed Dhading, where he had once climbed the cliff.

In coming days, a magnitude 7.3 quake would strike, its epicenter to the northeast of Dhading. He returned afterward with more relief supplies and, as always, in search of stories.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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