15 May 2015

All Shook Up



Bhaktapur – Kathmandu - the place of devotees. It is also known as Bhadgaon or Khwopo – it is an ancient Newar city in the east corner of the Kathmandu valley.

This is where I was on Tuesday 12th May when the second earthquake struck Nepal and the northeast part of the country. It hit about a quarter to one in the afternoon local time and it measured 7.4 magnitude on the Richter scale and it’s epicentre was somewhere to the Base of Mount Everest.

To the northeast of Kathmandu.

The first one struck on Saturday 25th April 2015 at a few minutes after noon. Its epicentre was near the Gorkha valley. It measured 7.8 on the Richter scale.

The Gorkha valley is about 80 kilometres to the northwest of Kathmandu.

There have been perhaps a hundred aftershocks between the shakes.

I was not here for the first.

But I was here for the second.

Earthquakes that is.

Before these two events the last big earthquake in Nepal was in 1934. It is referred to as the Bihar earthquake and it recorded 8.0 magnitude on the Richter scale.

The first quake has already been named the Gorkha quake

The really big quakes seem to have been lunchtime events.

The Bihar earthquake struck at a little after 2.00pm in the afternoon.

I was in Bhaktapur at the time of the second of the 2015 earthquakes.

Looking - somewhat ironically - at broken temples.

In the city of Bhaktapur.

The damage here is enormous.

The loss is staggering.

Mother Earth has unleashed a most detestable wickedness upon a country and people that has so very little.

More than a hundred complete villages have been lost from the first quake.

I don’t know how many from the second.

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

An entire nation is timorous and people are sleeping on the streets.

Children are having nightmares.

The Great Temples have been broken.

Mourning Prayers are being chanted at dawn and dusk.

Burial rituals for the Hindu and Buddhist are continuous.

So many people have died.

The monsoons are coming.

This is an already impoverished nation whose geography is as impossible and inaccessible and isolated as it is spectacular and beautiful.

Of course it is.

It is the most the most gorgeous of places that are the hardest to get to.

I learned that a very long time ago.

Enormous slabs of the Himalaya were sliced off in the earthquake and they rushed down through the great valleys.

Mighty avalanches that devoured all before them.

This happened in the northwest at Langtang then in a band that went through the Gorkha valley and on all the way through to Mount Everest in the northeast.

I can only imagine.

Again this was after the first earthquake.

I’m not sure of the damage after the second one.

It only happened less than 24 hours ago and I haven’t heard any of the reports yet. Telephone lines and the Internet were down for a while and they are intermittent now.

So is electricity.

I think I was in a pretty bad place in an urban environment for an earthquake.

Not that I think there is a good place to be

Here is exactly where I was:


We were out in the open – in a long and narrow street with tall and damaged buildings on either side of us.

I was with my Nepalese friends Bhim and Kumar.

We had driven specifically to Bhaktapur to see the broken temples. I wanted to see the damage done by earthquake number one.

We weren’t expecting number two.

My friends and I were dawdling and pausing often sadly to reflect and photograph the damage done to temples and surrounding buildings when Kumar suddenly clutched at my arm and I simultaneously saw a crowd of terror struck people running our way.

Some appeared to be looking up.

I looked up and buildings were cracking up and falling apart and as my brain was processing.

E
      A
               R
                     T
              
              H
                       Q
                                              
                U   
       A
             K 
                    E

I

FELT

IT

It flung me around and I could easily have fallen.

But I didn’t.

Kumar still clutched at my arm and I looked around for Bhim but I couldn’t see him.

I saw a lot of people still running.

A lot of people crouched in doorways.

Mothers and fathers clutching frightened children.

There was terror in everyone’s eyes.

I could feel it.

There was some crying but not a lot of screaming and I felt another wave of the earth moving under my feet and a loud thump of a part of a building hitting the ground somewhere behind me.

Even though it was the earth that was moving I had to look up.

That is where death would come from.

Between waves the noise of stone and wood groaning and straining was the most frightening noise of all. I was dancing on the spot with Kumar clutching on my arm with his eyes shut and whimpering.

My eyes were all the time looking up and I was calling out my friend Bhim’s name.

I was moving away from the buildings that seemed the most fragile.

I was dancing on my toes and moving like a Scottish line dancer.

Kumar was attached to me with both his hands and he was swaying behind me.

He was weightless but his hands were biting into me

I was as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.

I was on edge.

I was scared shitless.

I was all the time looking up.

Bhim shot out of nowhere and I near jumped out of my skin.

“Are you ok Bhim?” I asked.

Glancing briefly at him but still mostly looking up.

I was frantic.

I glanced again and reached out for him and touched his face. I wanted to be reassured by touching him that he was alright.

A whole façade of a large building crashed not far from where we had come from and we all jumped.

“I am OK brother” he replied.

He too – like me - was now dancing on the spot.

Kumar opened his eyes and clutched now at Bhim as well.

Bhim was unhurt.

Hic cheek was hot and rough to touch and I could feel the trembling of his body.

Or was that mine?

Bhim told us had taken shelter in a doorway.

Nepalese have been drilled to do this since childhood.

They practice at schools and at offices.

The ground continued to shake and we had to get out from where we were.

“Where is the big square Bhim and Kumar?”

“That way” Bhim replied.

He pointed to where the building had collapsed.

Kumar closed his eyes.

“We must go” I insisted.

“Tell everyone in Nepali to go to the open ground in big square”.

I repeated this several times and Bhim and Kumar started yelling it out in Nepalese and people started gathering and running.

We paused first where the building had fallen as we had to climb over a large pile of it and I noticed at once that the doorway had collapsed as well. It was covered in brick and rubble so there was no way to tell if anyone had taken shelter in it.

“Generations of now questionable safety training” was all I could think.

I think I laughed out loud.

I was manic.

All the buildings on both sides of the long street we were in were three times the height of the width of the street. If any one of them came down they would come down across the entire street.

Big pieces of buildings fell off but they seemed to fall off slowly.

Like in slow motion.

I felt like we could avoid those.

It was the smaller pieces that scared me the most.

Single bricks or clumps of mortar or bits of cement.

Hurtling down.

They scared the shit out of me. 

To say the least.

We stopped at open areas when they appeared and when there were aftershocks we just stopped and went back to back and looked up.

There was a lot of people calling out and there was weeping but it wasn't loud.

There were eerie patches of near silence when it was just the buildings making the noise.

Creaking and crashing. 

The ground moved underneath of us in surges.

It rolled.

We called out if we saw buildings moving or bits of buildings falling off and we bolted accordingly.

We did this a few times.

We stopped when I was buggered too.

In the smaller open safer areas.

So I could catch my breath.

I still looked up though.

My neck hurt.

Dust in my eyes made them sting. 

I was wearing thongs and I am not very fit or used to running.

Even to save my life.

We paused at one more open area and both Bhim and Kumar pointed out to me a building that had collapsed and only the doorway seemed to had survived. Somewhat bizarrely during our run through the gauntlet I had teased him about the decades old Nepali government educational campaign of a go-to-a-dooway-in-an-earthquake and its merits. Here it is:


I paused to take the photograph and immediately apologized to Kumar and to Bhim and to the Nepalese Government.

Good policy Nepal. 

It may well have saved many lives.

It took us no more than twenty minutes I reckon to make it to the big Bhaktapur square.

It felt like hours.

We saw a lot of buildings and bits of building fall along the way.

Some fell pretty close.

We gathered a lot of people on our run and I suspect there were perhaps a few left behind underneath the rubble of bricks and mortar.

We may well have climbed over some in the rubble in our flight to the big square.

I am harrowed now at the thought of that.

I am despaired.

There were a lot of people at the square.

Like us they were all petrified.

All of them.

Many were grazed and bruised.

More were pouring in.

We waited it out for a few hours with only a few more little aftershocks then we made our way to the car and straight back to the school to check on the kids and the building. Kumar and Bhim were frantically trying to contact their families to check on their welfare.

All electricity, Internet and telephone lines were down.

The drive back was agonizingly slow.

Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets.

The roads were the safest open places for people to be.

The school was undamaged - well no more damaged than it was after the first quake I mean - and the  the children were not harmed.

Bhim and Kumar’s families were fine as well.

All were terrified of course.

They have been since Saturday 28th February.

It was a little after noon.

When Nepal was first all shook up.
  

9 May 2015

Broken Temples


Kathmandu is chaotic at the best of times.

At the worst of times it is worse.

It is dysfunctional.

It is the very worst of times now and I am here.

In the heart of it.

I am in Thamel.

I am in Kathmandu.

I wasn’t here for the big shake or for the many that rattled it for two days afterwards.

There were more than fifty.

It struck a few minutes after noon.

Local time.

My friends Bhimsem and Kumar and Mausam and Dolma all said they swayed from side to side.

However there have been many more since.

I felt one just a moment ago.

It was a little ‘un.

There was quite a big one this morning though.

An after shock.

I prefer unshaking earth.

I think most people do.

Being here is unnerving and I am shocked at all the damage done.

I am after shocked as well.

Buildings are leaning everywhere.

They are still falling.

Here are some:



Much has been lost and a lot of my very favourite places in the world are now just very large piles of rubble.

They were once very old temples.

Hindu and Buddhist ones.

Mostly Hindu.

Here are some:



There is much more damage in the villages closer to the epicenter of the earthquake.

Not even a hundred kilometers from Kathmandu.

Towards Pokhara.

East.

I had to come here and see for myself and help if I could.

There are many like-minded people from around the world here.

Many are with Agencies.

Some are from Government and others are from Non Government Organisations.

The non-government ones are NGO’s.

We are very small potatoes but we are nevertheless an NGO.

The Japanese and Korean NGO’s are highly recognizable as they are walking around Kathmandu in full emergency suits.

They are wearing hard hats and respirators and complete emergency micro-organism prevention suits.

Nothing is getting in.

They are communicating on two-way radios.

They are exceptionally cute.

There is distinctive national identity on the streets here as well. Tee shirts are emblazoned with national flags and names of countries are clearly spelled out.

There will be no mistaken identity.

I am not sure why.

I am starting with the Snowland School – the Kathmandu facility with hostels for the Buddhist refugee kids from the uber remote Dolpo and Mustang and Humla districts in the high Himalaya.

Near the Tibetan border.

They are mostly without at least one parent.

My tee shirt is plain pale blue.

It has no name or country printed on it.

It has a small label that says ‘Cotton On’ on the inside rear collar.

And the letter ‘M’.

I am feeding the children of Snowland and I am fixing their buildings with Nepali laborers. I have bought supplies with me from Delhi.

We came by truck.

We are starting with exterior walls.

Between building I am playing cricket and badminton with the children and I am singing and I am dancing with them as well.

We have also had sleep and cook outs.

I have introduced the Australian barbecue.

Without any meat.

If I have excess bricks I may build a small castle.

For the little Snowland Nepali Princesses.

I will work my way from the city to the mountains.

Where the big damage is.

After Kathmandu, the place I know best and I love the most and will need some work is in a district called Dhading.

It is a village called Katunge.

Say it Kar-Toon-Jay.

Katunge is to the east of Kathmandu and it is lush with mango trees at this time of the year. It is nestled on the side of a valley that is tiered with rice or lentils.

It depends on the season.

Steep walking tracks connect the village to other villages of the ward. They are cut into steep precipices and are unchanged after more than 2,000 years.

They are well trod by man and beast.

Life in Katunge is peaceful and serene.

It is gorgeous.

The first road to the village was only built a decade ago and it is not much a of a road really.

It is a rutted track.

It is impassable in three to four months of the monsoons.

These are only five weeks away.

Katunge’s isolation is a part of its beauty.

And it’s people of course.

It’s children in particular.

They are delightful.

Katunge was far closer than Kathmandu to the epicenter of the earthquake and many of its buildings have been badly damaged.

Some have been lost.

Fortunately there were no fatalities in the village or the Ward. The schools we supported in the district are all gone though.

All of them.

They have been completely destroyed.

Here is a before and after the earthquake picture of one of them.


It had a Visitor Centre on the second floor.

I had stayed there often.

So had many of my friends and family.

We liked it a lot.

I loved it.

Deciding to come to Nepal was an immediate decision.

I knew as soon as I heard about the earthquake that I would come and I started to make travel arrangements straight away.

I didn’t muck around.

Then I came as soon as I could be let in.

There were initial travel restrictions and the airport was closed for twenty-four hours.

It was a no-brainer though.

The decision.

It was easy-peasy.

I used to agonize a lot over ‘big’ decisions.

Ones that involved an element of risk or a large spend or if it theoretically had the potential to change a direction in what I perceived to be my life.

Game changers.

However I don’t any longer.

Agonize.

I haven’t for quite some time.

I simply couldn’t be bothered.

So I just listen to my heart.

I disregard the consequences or any other factor.

I am guided by a moral compass.

It makes things quite simple really.

So when things like this happen its also a lot easier for me to accept them and process them and assess my place in them and mobilize myself to do something to try and make just a little bit of an immediate difference.

Its no more difficult than deciding what to have for dinner.

Or what to wear to work.

In this instance it is simple consideration.

I assume I have a responsibility.

I assume we all do really.

Things are usually done better in a team don’t you think?

An amicable and sensible team where egos and silly things get parked aside for a good portion of the time and the job get done and everyone goes home to enjoy things that don’t have anything to do with work.

That would be nice.

Terrible things seem to happen in very poor nations.

Malnutrition and a starvation of opportunity

It is an abomination.

Nepal is such a place.

This is such a time.

The toll of the wrath and fury of Mother Earth can be counted here in the loss of thousands of innocent lives

Thousands have perished and tens of thousands are missing here.

Hundreds of thousands have been made homeless.

Avalanches and rock slides have buried entire villages.

Many ancient temples have been broken.

My friend Kumar - who has lost his entire village was talking to my other friend Sanina - who has lost her entire village, and they started reeling off the names of all of the villages they know that have been destroyed by the earthquake.

It was a very long list.

It alarmed me.

The names of villages went on and on.

Tarpaulins and tents are the items most needed

The monsoon rains are only five weeks away.

Roads up to the mountains will then become mud and they will become impassable.

Supplies of rice and other imperishables must be delivered up now or very soon.

It is harvest time soon so food wont be a major problem but there is no time to rebuild all the villages that were totally lost. Shelter is going to be the problem. It is now. Tents or other temporary housing are the only viable options for the estimated hundreds of thousands of villagers displaced in and around the Gorkha Valley regions alone.

The logistics required are terrifying.

I have heard quite a lot on the International news lately that Tribhuvan airport – Kathmandu’s only international airport has been ‘restricted to just one runway’.

It has only ever had one runway.

As long as I have been coming to Nepal any way.

That’s a strange one.

Never mind.

I have looked today at the broken temples of Nepal.

I have been putting off this necessity.

Because of the sadness involved.

They were once ancient and marvelous and beautiful things.

To see them broken is harrowing.

The two Nepali men I was with were visibly shaken.

They had not yet seen them either.

They – as was I - were particularly horrified at the state of the Kathmandu Durba temples.

We had no idea the damage would be so extensive. Bhaktapur is said to be even worse

Yes the temples were very badly broken indeed.

There are more worrying matters.

Many more other buildings have been broken.

As I have already mentioned – but its very important so I will mention it again - hundreds of thousands of Nepalese village people haven been displaced and the monsoon rains they are a coming.

They are only five weeks away.

Dirt mountain tracks that are cracked and damaged already will become rivers of running water and torrents of mud soon.

There is no time to rebuild homes so temporary homes need to be provided and non-perishable foodstuffs and medical supplies stockpiled.

The greatest immediate needs up in the mountain villages are tents.

In the middle of Thamel a number of main roads are flooded from fractured underground water pipes. This is a catastrophe that could easily lead to disease.

It will.

It will require major excavation works in a narrow and winding and busy vehicular and pedestrian area – and it covers a very large area - but repairs must proceed immediately.

The water pipes must be extensively damaged.

It is a major worry.

Yesterday was a happier day. Dolma - the head organizer at the School and I and Kumar the Dolpo Guide took twenty of the Snowland little ‘uns to Boudenath – which is the Tibetan Buddhist temple complex that is connected to their Guru Rinpoche.

It is Holy and very dear to them.

It suffered only minor structural damage in the earthquake.

The kids and all visitors like to do a circuit of the Temple spinning the prayer wheels and receiving blessings.

Prayer wheels are the same concept and derive from the same branch of Tibetan Buddhism as do the colourful prayer flags – which the Tibetan Buddhists call ”Wind Horses”. Like the prayer flags - where every gust of wind and flap sends a prayer – every spin on the prayer wheel also sends a prayer. The mantra that is written on most prayer wheels is, Om Mani Padme Hum.

At Boudenath the 20 little ‘uns got off the bus in pairs and held hands and formed an orderly queue.

They were all very excited.

So was I.

They were excited waiting for the bus and then it built the whole bus journey.

On the bus we sang songs and I told not-very-funny jokes and then bawdy tales of my children Tom and Totty and of my brother Richard’s children Ben and Georgina.

They weren’t too bawdy.

These are very innocent Nepalese children.

I didn’t sing any of the songs either. They were all in Nepali.

My Nepali isn’t very good at all.

However all of these children have met my heavily inked and multiple pierced Thomas on a couple of occasions and they like him quite a lot.

He also likes them a lot.

Many questions were asked.

All were answered.

Typically most of the little girls questions soon drifted soon to the theme of the sea and mermaids and things about dolphins and whales and oceans and shells.

It always does.

Nepali girls love such things.

Their favourite movies are Saving Nemo – One and Two - and the Little Princess – One, Two and Three.

The boys love Peter Pan – the Robin Williams version.

They also like Shrek.

Blessed be the Apple Corporation for the device that allows me to download the movies on my Mac and then beam it onto a wall in a faraway school in Kathmandu.

The little children at a number of schools watch them over and over.

And over and over again.

Before we all got off the bus - Dolma explained to the little ‘uns - in what I thought was an unnecessarily stern voice - that we would form a single line and follow her to do a circuit of Boudenath and spin each wheel as we went. She would then say when we had finished.

I announced then we had all finished we would go get an ice-cream.

There was a mighty cheer.

All kids love Ice-cream.

The Snowland kids don’t get it very often.

Ice creams can soothe a child’s fear

It is tiny cooling rush of sweetness that might wash away for a blink or two the terror of last week.

It is 2 weeks today it all started.

It was ANZAC day for we Australians and New Zealanders and Turkish people.

The 25th of April, 2015.

It seems much longer ago than that.

Ice cream is a global remedy

It is an instant mood lifter

Even if it is only a momentary thing