When the Grinch Stole Dashain

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.

The new generous gift of this year’s Dashain, 250ml of petrol

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.

Few vehicles = crowded rides
I hope they are watching for low hanging wires!
An Electric Bus, over flowing with people.
One of many lines of empty vehicles waiting for diesel fuel.

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.

I don’t see a happy ending, but wish for one.

No Diesel, No Petrol, No Relief – Dependencies Part III

No Diesel / No Petrol

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.

No End in Sight – An Article in today’s Kathmandu Post

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.

Dependencies Part II

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.
Meanwhile it is time to fix up the bikes….



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.

Vehicles lined up for fuel

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?

Thamel – Unusually Quiet

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.

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.

Gathering together

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.


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.

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.
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
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

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.

Ta Prohm, Our First Day in the Ancient City of Angkor

The first place we visited was one of our favorites, Ta Prohm, also known as the “Tomb Raider” temple as in the movie with Angelina Jolie. Let me set the atmospherics with our own video:

Ta Prohm 

We walked through the forest to the one of the gates surrounding the complex. It was an opportunity to spot some of the wildlife.

Can you spot the parrots?
Bee Hives

The gate

Ta Prohm is one of many temple complexes that made up the ancient city of Angkor. It was one of our favorites. It has been purposely “unpreserved,” and gives you the feeling of discovery as you walk the grounds. The trees and vines have found purchase between the stones of the structure, slowly pushing apart what men put together, giving the place both a timeless and yet fragile atmosphere.

Angkor and its suburbs were over 400 square km, larger than New York City, and with an estimated population of over 750,000 it was the largest city of the pre-industrial world.

The stone works were carefully fitted together by mortise and tenon joints

If you could travel back in time and show the residents of the city a picture of their labors being pushed aside by nature, what would they think? What would you think if someone showed you a similar picture of your city? By the way, one of the reasons suggested for the city’s eventual failure was climate change. Ponder that!

Will future visitors of the ‘Ancient City of Los Angeles’ wonder the same?

A civilization lost in time
Slowly disappearing

Lost in time…. Wait! What was this relief of a stegosaurus doing at Ta Prohm?

Visiting Bangkok

I’m going to risk sounding like a jaded traveler, but here goes…. I really can’t remember how many times I’ve been to Bangkok in the last 32 years, though the first time was December, 1983. The most recent, was yesterday.

Bangkok is where we went for teacher conferences when working in Kuala Lumpur, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. Bangkok is where my son and I had “that talk” about the birds and bees. It is where Angus and I had suits made, strutting around like the peacocks we were. It is the city I was sure would die under it’s weight of gridlock and pollution and be abandoned as it sank into mud below the river. It was city where my wife caught Typhus. It is where I first learned my father was dying. So I carried a lot of baggage on this journey.

Let me first start by saying that the Bangkok of today is amazing. I was not expecting to be impressed, but I was. In 1983, we traveled by tuk tuk, from one neighborhood to another, choking on car exhaust as we crawled along. You can still get stuck in traffic as you can see in my photo above, but some of those vehicles are Priuses, and the taxis and buses are running on natural gas. That is just another day on the road for this Southern California native. There is no longer that gray cloud that used to hang over the roads of Bangkok (and alas still hangs over the roads of Kathmandu). Drivers can also take one of the many elevated toll roads that now criss-cross the city.

Boat stop at the Jim Thompson House

Linda and I did not need a taxi except for the trip to and from the airport. The rest of the time we used either the elevated “SkyRail” metro system, or the Khlong Boats (canal boats).

As it turned out, many of our visits were close to the boat line. There may be times when the canal smells ripe, but not when we were there.

The ticket takers move up and down the sides of boat collecting fares.

The boats are not for the faint hearted. You step from the dock to the boat, without the benefit of steps, as the boat rocks back and forth against the tires protecting the dock. Ticket collecting is also a challenge. There are no aisles joining the rows. The ticket collector moves down the sides of the boat:

There are also splash guards that the passengers control with rings that will move the blue tarp up and down the side of the boat. The ticket takers have to also watch out for bridges. Notice in this next video as the roof of the boat is lowered:

We used the boats to visit the Jim Thompson House. Thompson was a former OSS officer in World War II who made a lot of money developing the Thai silk industry. He mysteriously disappeared in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. The house is actually a collection of traditional Thai houses that Thompson joined together. No photos allowed of the inside, but I could enjoy photographing the orchids in the garden:

20 March 2000

We traveled on boat to Sukhumvit Soi 15, and walked to Cabbages and Condoms. It is a restaurant we went to years ago with Andy’s second grade teacher and other friends.

At the time I had a lot of explaining to do with my son regarding the importance of condoms. It is more than just a name at the restaurant, it is a mission. The mission, as the name implies is family planning. The food is delicious. Their sense of humor is infectious.

Will you ever look at Santa’s beard the same way?

One of journeys on the SkyRail took us to the Weekend Market. But as we were getting off the train we stumbled upon the opening ceremonies of the Muaythai University World Cup. MuayThai, “The art of eight limbs” because just about any pointy part of your body can be used, also known as … Thai Boxing! It was held outdoors beside the National Stadium’s rail stop. We saw the prayers, warm-up, and opening round between Algeria and Iran (the music plays during the round). We know absolutely nothing about the sport, so please disregard our comments!

We continued to the Bangkok Weekend Market. It is huge! On a typical weekend 200,000 shopper wander the cramped aisles separating 8000 shops on 30+ acres. As horrible as that sounds, it was still fun! I’m not sure how many bargains were to be had, but it was fun for the photographer.
Our friends Susan and John recently moved to Bangkok. At dinner I asked Susan why they chose to live in Bangkok, when they could live anywhere in the world. Her answer: A great public transit system and a surprise each time she leaves her front door. I’ll have to say the same for this visit. It is a place memories are made and I look forward to our next journey to Bangkok.

This was not our hotel in Bangkok, …

Not our hotel’s lobby

This was not our hotel in Bangkok, we were staying in the nearby Novotel. The picture above though shows a very pleasant lobby with my favorite coffee shop, a ubiquitous sight throughout Bangkok.

One of our objectives on this trip was to get thorough physicals. Several of our friends had done that in Bangkok, and I remembered seeing “medical vacations” featured on the American tv news program “The Today Show”. The agent for our insurance provider suggested Bumrungrad International Medical Center. We had no idea what to expect. The name “Bum Run,” along with my unfortunate pronunciation of the neighborhood, “Ploen Chit,” lead to some of my typical poor attempts at humor.

We went into the medical center at 8AM and by 11:30 we were having lunch near by. We went to Bumrungrad for the Executive package with 28 various tests, including a cardio stress test for me.

It was quiet a process that ended as it began with a visit to the doctor’s office where the doctor reviews the results of the tests with you. It was a long session in which I kept expecting the other shoe to drop, however, the results for both our doctor visits were summed up in the picture below:

This is not our hotel’s lobby, but it is an example of the type of building going on here. We have been visiting Bangkok since 1983, as a couple, then with our kids, for pleasure, for business, and now back as a couple.

Not our hotel’s lobby

It has changed a lot over the years. Large condominium/apartment towers have sprung up round the city, dwarfing the classical single family homes. The vehicle traffic, that use to be dominated by the three wheeled tuk tuk and buses, now compete with new SUVs and luxury sedans. This place seems to be thriving.

So if is not our hotel’s lobby, what is it? It’s the Bumrungrad International Medical Center!