Writing, Lizards, and the Quake Brain


At first I thought “Who wrote that?” Then I realized it was me. It was a combination of two of my posts written for a teacher audience. Such memory lapses are not uncommon since April 25th.



I would much rather be writing about exotic shopping or festivals.


I probably should and could write more about the earthquake experience, but as a group, and I mean those living here, we are not thinking as clearly as we should. We call it quake brain. 

What is “Quake Brain?” I think it is when the reptilian part of your brain, the ancient piece at the base of your skull, is sucking away valuable resources as it is always on call to take flight and bolt for the nearest exit. The reptile brain is responsible for compulsive behavior. In quake brain, the higher cognitive functions of the primate neocortex just get in the way of survival, so those functions are on the short end of the blood supply. That is why, by the end of the day, we are mentally exhausted.


Yesterday I saw an example of this. I went for an end of the school year party on the rooftop of a teacher’s apartment. People were either sitting in chairs or leaning against the railing on the edge. The weather was great and the sun was setting behind one of the Himalayan foothills. It was beautiful. Then the air of the neighborhood filled with crows. Without a pause in the conversation, the people leaning against the rails, moved away from the edge. They were embarrassed when they realized what they had done. We didn’t feel anything, but that lizard, reptile brain we possess at the base of our skull, the one now full of energy was saying “Danger! Move away!” It was right….There was another trembler. 



Of course there is zero scientific evidence for any of the observations above. It is just all the wild speculations of a blood starved neocortex.

Heading back to California tomorrow for summer vacation! Not sure how long it will take, but eventually the various parts of my brain will adjust to a new status quo, California chill.

Earthquake Fatigue

Three weeks ago our world in Kathmandu changed. Global plates, constantly in motion, get stuck, pressure builds, and then they slide in a lurching motion that stirs the surface, our world.

We counted ourselves lucky. It was the weekend, it was in the middle of the day. Many people lost their lives, but it was not the predicted “Big One” that was going to kill into the six figures. We counted our blessings, but the “what if’s” that were shared were wearing.

  • “What if it had been at night?”
  • “What if it been a workday?”
  • “What if it had been a long weekend when our staff and students scatters to the four corners of Nepal: Langtang, base camps, Namche Bazaar.”
Linda’s desk at work after the April 25th Earthquake

It could have been so much worse.

By the time we gathered together as a staff 4 days later, we had to gone through severe aftershocks, water shortages, and a rising sense of uncertainty about the ground beneath our feet and the country we had come to love. We shared our stories, and bonded as if we had survived a battle.

Gathering together

We were certain about what needed to be done. Online learning for the families that were out of the country. We are a Google Apps campus and have been using Google Classroom since the start of the school year. We added calendar alerts for the parents to monitor student assignments.

We setup a relief site to channel the offers of financial help from our friends around the world. We reached out to numerous remote communities effected by the earthquake. We found out what they needed, then using funds from our donors, we purchased supplies locally and we delivered them, traveling along remote mountain roads.

Linda and I went on one of those trips, to the village of Balthali. First we traveled to the town of Banepa in one of the school’s vans. At Banepa, we purchased rice, oil, and salt to add to the blankets and tarps we brought from Kathmandu.

Negotiations over tea
Banepa Storehouse

Everything was loaded into two Bolero trucks. A Bolero is a small heavy duty four wheel drive truck from India that is a popular means of transport onto the paths called roads in Nepal.

Rice, tarps, salt and oil

Linda rode in the cab of one of the vehicles and learned about post earthquake life from one the Balthali villagers. I stood in the back of the other truck, hanging on to the frame, not unlike I use to do when traveling to the land fill with my father fifty years ago. I bruise a little easier now and was careful not to bruise my painful ribs, I had injured the previous week, any further. The ribs? No, they were not injured stretching out to save a neighbor from falling into a crevasse as the earth split open. I injured them reaching for the TV remote while pivoting my overweight body over my ribs on the arm of an easy chair.

Linda

Bill
The ride was up into the mountains on a small narrow road. Below is a short video from my iPhone.

Along the way we passed villagers harvesting the fields. The same work that saved many of them as the earthquake happened in the middle of the day.

Potato harvest
Two hours up the road, and the higher we went, the greater the devastation. When we reached the village of Balthali, we pulled into the administrative center. The village development council showed us their books indicating how the previous week’s aid was distributed. We then unloaded our trucks into their storeroom.
Rice
Blankets
Two of the village girls talking to Linda
One of the leaders took us on a tour of the village. Over ninety percent of the homes were destroyed or severely damaged. He showed us the damage, and how the tarps that were brought on the previous trip were being used.
shelters in ruins

family in front of their ruined home
Nepal is a collection of villages and every village has a story. Not every village has a benefactor like the school. Visitors to Nepal have often marveled on the sight of villages clinging to the sides to mountains. Now many are clinging to the edge of existence. 
The above was suppose to be the end of my post. I had done my mental rewrites and was ready to put thoughts on the screen on Tuesday night. Maybe with some uplifting phrase about the country finally getting to normal. We had power, internet, and our favorite restaurant delivery service, Foodmandu, was back up and running.

On Tuesday we were enjoying a nice lunch of leftovers from Imago Dei that had been delivered to our house the previous evening. At the table we were not talking about earthquakes or tremors, but laughing about Catholic upbringings and guilt. Then it started shaking. Easy at first, then with a gathering intensity. Everyone went under the cafeteria tables. It was only adults as all the elementary kids were playing on the field. The shelter of my table was already filled with bodies and I only managed to stuff my head inside, fully conscious of my exposed back. It was a 7.3 earthquake. Again. Another major earthquake.

This time it was a school day for us (Nepali schools were closed). There was a loss of confidence, a loss of sanity, but no loss of life. Training kicked in. Students and faculty gathered on the field. Linda and I were in charge (as we have been on many drills) of the ninth grade. Like all of the other grade leaders, we had our emergency bags. We took attendance. Each group either held up a green card if everyone was accounted for, or a red card if someone was missing.

Green is good.

Everyone was safe. We set up the command table. 

Command table

We still had internet but cell service was problematic. We used email, our webpage, and Facebook to reach out to our community. Quickly everyone was able to contact their family members either by text or phone. However the city was in chaos. People had rushed out of buildings into the streets bringing all the traffic to a stop.

We set up the tents (again) and passed out water and food.

This school has been absolutely brilliant in its preparation.
However stress is beginning to show. Linda and I have everything we need: power, water, internet, and shelter. I think we are developing “sea-legs” where we don’t react or feel every sway of the earth. But people and animals are acting oddly. I saw two snakes in one day, I had never seen any before in Nepal. Stories of dogs and monkeys losing hair. Birds flying into windows. Our local cuckoo literally was going nuts. His call, rather than being a melodic “cu koo…. cu koo, was speeded up with no pauses between his calls, “cukoocukoocukoo”. 
People are nervous. There are many more tents setup around the city. It is a city on edge, a country clinging onto the edge of the world. In three weeks, we get to hit the pause button. We will be taking our summer leave back to Riverside, California. But Nepal will have to move on. We will be back in August to help out.

Caught in the Kathmandu Earthquake

I grew up, and still have a home, along the San Andreas fault in California, and for my sixty plus years, I have been hearing warnings of the “Big One.” I point out to my family the San Andreas Fault as we drive through or by the Cajon Pass, White Water Canyon, or Fort Tejon. We spend most of our time overseas, but our kids, born in Malaysia, have set up residence in Southern California. Last Christmas we gave them stocking stuffers for their  “Go-Bags,” with what we thought would be the essentials needed in case of a big earthquake. The “big” quake, not those minor 5.0 and below that barely disturb our days as Californians.

Likewise Linda and I had our two go bags by the door of our house in Kathmandu. Before we arrived in Kathmandu 19 months ago, the out-going tenant of the house we rented offered to sell her earthquake alarm. We passed. Within a week of our arrival, we were jolted out of our sleep by an earthquake that hit a remote part of southwestern China.

Since that event in August of 2013,  the earth had been quiet for the most part. Each year at work we had earthquake drills. The kids lined up, we took head counts, senior students and faculty had roles setting up triage tents, and search and rescue teams. The school stocked blankets, water, medical supplies, and energy bars. We had plans in place for how parents and students would be reunited. This was a level of preparation I had never seen in my experience in education in California, Germany, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates.

I let my brother know I would not be available online

Linda and I went shopping on Saturday morning. We bought our usual supply of frozen meat and dry goods at ‘Phora Durbar’, the US Commissary. We also purchased several large bottles of pasta sauce and bags of bread flour. The Commissary is difficult for us to get to, so we were stocking up on everything we would need before returning to California for our summer leave in early June.

We finished putting the groceries away just before noon.  Linda heated up leftovers and went upstairs. I thawed some lunch meat from the commissary and started heating up the George Foreman to grill a sandwich. Then the world changed.

It happened so quick. One moment I am doing the mundane. The next I am in “flight” mode. It is the surprise that gets you. Our friends Molly and Chip are from Nebraska and were until this week earthquake neophytes. Chip said at least with a tornado you get some warning.

I sprinted to the front door with the first rumble and braced myself in the frame of a security door by the time the severe shaking started. Linda was upstairs against one of the walls. It was like the hands of giant beast had grabbed the house and was shaking the contents out. Appliances fell to the floor, a heavy wooden screen from the Philippines fell, pinning the door to the hallway closed across the

kitchen

same path I had just passed.

It took minutes for the shaking to stop, but it seemed like forever. Linda rushed down the stairs yelling “Out” and we were out in the driveway. We waited a few minutes and then Linda and I went back in. She got her shoes and jacket, and made sure the grill was off. I grabbed my boots, jacket, and the go bags.

Our house was built by a Nepali civil engineer who works in California. It is surrounded by a high wall on four sides. The house and the wall were still standing. A testimonial to his skill. In the past if I had any complaint about the house, it was that the windows were not sealed tight. Keeping out the cold air of winter or the dust of the dry season was a lost cause. But when the earth shook, the windows did not break.

I had trouble putting on my boots. My hands were steady, but my feet wouldn’t stop shaking.

We opened our gate. The walls of many of our neighbors had collapsed. Their houses were still standing. Everyone was out on the street. The lady across the lane asked if we were ok.

The school we work at is only a hundred yards up the road. It was obvious that the greatest damage in our neighborhood was to the nerves. Nobody wanted to be near a tall structure.

At school, we found about fifty people in the middle of the field. Students from a play practice, students who were taking mock AP exams, construction workers, and a few teachers and their families, and staff. We sat in the field under leaden skies as wave after wave of aftershocks shook the ground.

We still had internet that first day. We passed out iPads and many used the school’s laptops to charge up their phones. Communications with loved ones was paramount. Many of the school’s students were on sports trips out of the country. Linda and I left phone messages and used Facebook and Gmail to inform the community of our status and to communicate with our families, but it was the middle of the night back in the US.

Between aftershocks, we started pulling out the emergency supplies, handing out thick wool blankets and water. As the afternoon waned, we put up the large, metal framed tents, but we were nervous about the frames holding up through the shocks. Linda and I went back to our house and filled up bags with food, including homemade bread. We dragged out a large gas stove from the teachers’ workroom and hooked it to a propane tank. Emily, one of our young resourceful teachers made a great meal using our food and food from the school’s canteen.

It turned out to be a very cold wet night. The tent provided shelter from the light rain, but everyone was cold. The only bright spot was making connections with our loved ones back in the US during our evening.

The cold and the rolling earth kept us all awake.

The next day, breakfast was hard boiled eggs and peanut butter from our shopping trip the previous morning. Parents and students were being reunited which was good news. But there was no power to our area, and the batteries that kept the cell and data working throughout the city were running out. That and the continuing shakes drained the spirits of our group. Linda and I went back home, checked in with our Nepali neighbors, and started to clean the house. It was good to bring some sort of order to the chaos of the house. Then the second earthquake/major aftershock hit and we scrambled out of the house.

We spent the afternoon on the school’s field. But by the evening we had setup our own tent on the

Our neighbors across the street with their tarp shelter

driveway of our house. We made it comfortable with a mattress from our roll-away bed and warm with our sleeping bags. Then the heavens let loose with a deluge,  flooding our driveway and the tent with water. Lots of water. We thought about all the people we saw under tarps in our neighborhood. I’m not sure if they did what we did or not, but we went back into the house and slept close to the door with clothes and jackets on, ready to run out the door. Linda told me the earth was still shaking that night, but I had succumbed to exhaustion and stress, and was blissfully asleep. We later learned that at school the tents were flooded, and following the aftershocks of the evening, the teachers, their families, and the staff slept in school vans.

Monday was warm. No power. No cell service. No internet. We caught a ride to another section of town that had all three. On the way, for the first time, we saw for ourselves some of the damage the rest of the world was seeing on their television or online. We were also able to catch up on the news through services on the internet. It was humbling. We were inconvenienced, but we were alive.

We mourn the loss of so much life. The devastation of world heritage sites saddens us, especially Bhaktapur, one of our favorite locations. But Nepal will persevere albeit with a lot of help in the near future. If you had Nepal on your bucket list of places to visit, it is good to know that Nepal is not just the mountains or the temples, or the ancient sites. It is the people. They are poor in wealth, but rich in spirit. They are generous and wise. They haven’t lost any of that, and in the near future when the roads are repaired, and services are returned, visit Nepal, and meet these wonderful people. We are glad we did.