Dashain, a time of sacrifice and festival in Nepal is a huge holiday. It is a time families from throughout Nepal and abroad come together. In Kathmandu, more than half of the population goes “home” to the family village. It is even more important this year, after the double earthquakes of the spring. But this could be a sad Dashain.
There is a continuing blockade on fuel and other goods into the country. But the Nepalis continue to be a generous people in a time of hardship.
Young Nepalis are tired of their energy dependency on India and want solutions. Social media sites for ride sharing have popped up. There is a shortage of bicycles in the shops, so maybe a new mindset will prevail after this crisis.
The fuel shortage has and will continue to restrict movement.
The vehicles that should be taking people to their homes for Dashain, sit idle.
After the second world war, my father started a taxi company in Ontario, Canada. It failed. When I see these vehicles on the side of road, I think of men and woman, like my father, who took a chance and invested in either a truck, a van, a taxi, or bus. A down payment, and a loan to provide a better life for their families. But first mother nature and now a nation, is strangling that dream. For them it must seem like some twisted version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the “Grinch.” However, few in the world seem to care.
We went downtown today. We passed a long line of taxis, abandoned in front of a petrol station.
Each day we check the papers for some sign of relief for the Nepalis, but headlines offer none.
A few fuel trucks have crossed the border, but it is literally a drop in the bucket compared to the need. If it is bad in the Kathmandu Valley, it must be worse in the countryside. I can imagine that some of the hill towns are wondering about the supply of propane for cooking, or fuel for their tractors. I have also read stories about a shortage of fertilizer for crops.
All of this scarcity is happening at a time that is the equivalent to Thanksgiving and Christmas in the west. The weeks leading up to Dashain are usually busy with shopping and preparations (see our post here: http://willises.org/2013/11/01/a-rainy-visit-to-bhaktapur/). It will be a different, and more difficult, holiday for Nepal this year.
I keep checking the local news outlets looking for the “Everything is Resolved” message, but all I see is more of the spiral of pain for this landlocked country. Even with this going on, Nepalis continue to be generous as the tale below explains.
Imagine you were in one of those lines you see above, or facing one of those lines when the tank nears empty. Yet here is a tale from our most recent visitor, Ben.
Ben walked down to Thamel. On the walk back in the dark, he lost his way and asked a shopkeeper for help. The shopkeeper said sure, I’ll take you. Soon Ben found himself on the back of a motorcycle and delivered safe and sound at our gate. Think about that, the next time someone needs help. What is your excuse, when a total stranger can help a lost American without a second thought using his very precious fuel in the process.
A short time ago we were looking at our wealth. The value of our houses minus the debt, our stock portfolio after the slide, and our cash on hand. We looked at them as if they really mattered. However a new reality is settling into our lives in Nepal.
Today we looked at the cupboard to see how much food we have, we wondered how much cooking gas we have, we counted the drinking water bottles, and we checked the level of our water cistern.
Nepal is a land-locked country. The main supply arteries are through India, and at this point in time, India is choking these routes in a demonstration of its displeasure with the recently adopted constitution of Nepal.
Whether the grievance is justified or not, the results are clear. Nepal, a country that just 5 months ago had two devastating earthquakes, does not have reserves of food and fuel, and India is withholding both.
What happens when there is no fuel? Think about it. How does the food get from farm to market without fuel? How do those bottles of clean water reach your house without fuel? How do you cook the food if you have a gas stove? How do the people who work for you or with you get to work? How do the jets re-fuel for their next journey? Are they carrying aid or more fuel for the journey home?
Even without this crisis, our footsteps ring hollow as we walk the usual tourist spots and markets, but we tell ourselves, “It’s early. In October business will pick up.” But how will the travelers come when the domestic airlines are unsure of their fuel supplies… or the reverse, would you like to be stuck in some far off region of Nepal because the airlines/buses have stopped running?
Nepal has been dealt some severe blows lately, but this one is man-made, and it comes at a time Nepalis should be rejoicing a step forward after a decade of no government. Instead, there is a little fear mixed with anger and Nepali grit. The people here are impressive, but hurting.
So whether you are in Abu Dhabi, Washington, or Los Angeles, think about Nepal. Appreciate all the things that go behind the scenes to make your glass of water, your morning shower, and the good food you eat possible. We do, and will when we return to our home in California.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Everyone was safe. We set up the 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.
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
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
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.
Why? Well, it is related to a post I wrote, but didn’t publish on October 24th of last year:
I was on the Turkish Air red-eye from Istanbul last night, set to arrive in Kathmandu at 6:15 in the morning. A fortunate seating had me with 4 seats to myself at the back, guaranteed sleep and a full day of work the next day. At least in theory! It was the same flight my brother and his wife were on a month before, and the same flight my children were on last December.
The sleep part worked great, I was up and ready to go as we approached the airport. Then the first announcement: We were not cleared for landing, we needed to circle for a half hour. That was ok. It was the first flight of the day for the Tribhuvan International Airport, the only airport in the region. My fellow passengers, mostly Germans, gazed out the windows at the Himalayas breaking through the clouds on either side as we circled the valley. At the end of the half hour we descended into the valley, into the clouds. In my mind’s eye, I imagined the descent as it was on clear days, flying through the gap that leads down to the plains of Nepal and the border of India. The foothills that seem to rise up quickly as the jet approaches Kathmandu… but my recollection was interrupted by the roar of the engines and the plane tilted into a sudden steep climb. The voices in the cabin stopped. There was something wrong. We were pushed back into our seats. We popped out of the cloud cover. Nothing gentle about it. We were in a steep climb. “Were the mountains supposed to be so close?” I thought. The pilot calmly said that the runway wasn’t ready. We circled awhile longer. Then the pilot came on again and stated we were going to Dhaka, in Bangladesh, an hour away. Dhaka was clear and we had no problems landing there. The plane parked and was refueled as we waited in the plane. I searched for a wifi signal, but none to be had. What was Linda thinking? Around noon, we took off from Dhaka and headed back to Kathmandu, and without any issues, we were safe, but late, back home.
So what does that story have to do with a quiet weekend? The Kathmandu valley is not large, but it is surrounded on three sides by some of the largest mountains in the world. When the large jets leave the airport, they generally do a circle climbing out. The common joke is that if you live in Kathmandu, you live in the flight path of the airport.
Last Wednesday morning, the Turkish Air flight tried to make a landing, but there was too much fog. It circled the airport, then tried again. For reasons still to be determined, it missed the center line of the runway and skidded into the grassy (and damp) area between the runway and the taxi way. No one was hurt, but the front landing gear sunk into the mud and the plane blocked the runway.
It is still there, 72 hours later. Blocking the only way by air into the valley.
Apparently, up to 40 thousand people are affected. Travelers, business people, and workers returning home, or trying to get back to jobs overseas. I feel sorry for them.
The Transportation officer at work said “Do not go into the center of Kathmandu on Saturday!” There was a large protest by the opposition parties, mainly the “Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist,” so we journeyed around it… literally.
Our destination was Thimi. It is the ancient center of pottery in Nepal. The town was famous for its daily use items, made from the local clay. Pottery now competes with cheap plastics from China. What was the impact on the town? The driver dropped us off, however Thimi is not a tourist destination, so we were not sure where to go, the road we were on was one small temple after another. We followed the temples down the road, but we grew skeptical about the destination. Then we found a small square with pottery. A old gentleman waved to us to follow. We did, and the magic began. It opened our eyes to an interesting location.
After Thimi, we continued on our journey around Kathmandu to Boudhanath for lunch and some shopping. However…. we got stuck in the traffic in the middle of streams of buses and motorcycles on their way to the protest.
Finally we reach a corner and the protesters were let off. Their buses did a u-turn and left the road clear for us to travel.
We ate lunch at the Roadhouse Cafe. Then we spun the prayer wheels and sent off our hopes for our kids.
The trip around the other side of Kathmandu was uneventful, and we were home!