1 June 2015

Before the Rains

These are dangerous and timorous and desperate times

I have returned to the Island from Nepal and I have been wandering about a bit in a daze.

I have been a bit clumsy and forgetful and have not been quite myself.

I lost something over there.

Perhaps I left a little of me behind.

I think I did.

I suspect some of my heart.

Many tears as well.

I wept a fair bit.

I feel no shame at weeping.

None at all.

I saw suffering of the like I had never seen before and witnessed fear that was as cruel and cold as it was unfair.

For the life of me I cannot understand why nature would unleash such terror upon a country that already has so very little.

Where is the justice in that?

The anguish and agony I felt at seeing our schools all broken and beaten up is impossible to put into words. Nor either is the hollow dread in little children’s eyes.

They don’t understand why the earth quakes and building fall down and people get crushed and die.

How can one describe such a darkness?

There were no tears for me.

That would be a waste.

When I flew back to Singapore from Nepal last Sunday I was dirty and dusty and smelly. I had a hotel room booked near the Snowland School but I spent much of my time sleeping outdoors with the children.

Much of the population of Kathmandu slept outdoors since the first earthquake and again since the second earthquake.

Nothing could crush or fall on you outside.

It was safer there.

On the Wednesday after the second earthquake I was badly shaken and my back and my head ached and I craved a shower and mattress so I returned to the hotel.

The water for my shower was a trickle of tepid brown water that washed some of the grime from me but no matter how hard I scrubbed my skin still prickled with fear and concern.

Despite my exhaustion I tossed and turned with vexation.

I had grown used to the frequent after-shocks however there was quite a big one sometime around 3.00 am that made me open my eyes and I watched in a dream-like state as a crack appeared in the ceiling of one corner of the room then raced it’s way to the other side of the room.

The bricks of the building shuddered and jarred and they creaked and groaned and I dragged myself to the lawn outside. I lay awake there – huddled in my blanket - until the sun poked its dawn rays into my weary eyes.

It is strange now sleeping in my own bed.

I feel discomfort at the comfort.

There is a lingering sense of guilt being here too that washes over the sense of relief I feel that the earth is not shaking. There is also a rage within me that no-one seems to really understand or for that matter care.

I get that news is news and headlines only last for a couple of days.

Big earthquakes only make the front pages of newspapers for a few days before the birth of Royal babies and elections and atrocities in other far away places push such events into the back pages and then they quickly disappear altogether.

It doesn’t dilute my dismay though.

We people care about what the media tell us to care about and with the here and now of the Internet our emotions flash and burn bright and quickly.

So I carry my own grief silently.

I have heard it said that grief does not change a person.

It reveals them.

I am not sure yet that this is the case and I do not really care either.

This whole concept of human capacity and empathy for grief is mystifying. I don’t think we people are programed for adequate emotional responses once the dead exceed more than a few dozen in number.

I see but can’t comprehend the blank looks in people’s eyes as they tell me how terrible things must be ‘over there’ before they move onto complain that their coffee is cold.

I get it but I want to fucking kill them.

It doesn't just level off either.

It rapidly just gives up.

100 dead.

10,000 dead.

A half a million people homeless.

There is somehow this resetting at zero for the majority of us.

Few people outside of Nepal really give a fuck about the Nepalese.

Why would they?

They are not a part of most people’s lives.

Nor are they affected.

They were just images on the television screen that are no longer there.

I understand this but it still saddens me.

It riles and it angers me.

I know it shouldn’t and I don’t wish it to distract me.

And I do not wish my grief to overwhelm me.

I am not the one who has suffered and there is much that needs to be done.

When I left Nepal to return to the Island I was waiting in the lounge for my flight to be called.

There were not many people there for the lounge at the Tribhuvan International airport is hidden atop some cunningly placed staircases behind an obscure doorway.

I don’t know why.

I shuffled to my normal corner spot near the smoking room and I immediately noticed a very large Anglo Saxon guy hunched over in a corner on his own.

I could tell he was an American by both his hand luggage and his teeth.

The former was emblazoned with the stars and stripes and the latter were straight and big and dazzling white.

Both are the American way.

I dumped my dirty bag and retreated immediately for a cigarette and when I returned I noticed that the big American guy was quietly sobbing.

I wandered over.

How could I not?

“Are you OK?” I enquired.

I patted him cautiously on the back.

This was something that was now familiar to me, as I had been doing this for a fortnight.

Patting gently on the back.

It was a stupid question I know - as he was obviously not.

OK.

The poor guy was ashen white and his eyes were bloodshot red with sorrow and fatigue. He appeared to be about the same age as me.

He wiped his eyes and sighed and told me his name.

I won’t repeat it here.

He told me that he came from a small rural town in the mid-western part of the United States and this was his first ever trip he had made overseas.

He was a few years older than me.

He had come to Nepal to find his daughter.

She was about the same age as my daughter.

Both our daughters were on great adventures travelling the world.

My daughter was on her way to Nepal before the first earthquake struck.

My Totty.

She was in Cambodia.

His daughter was in Nepal that fateful day.

Like my daughter, the American guy’s daughter had travelled with her best friend through Asia, and the highlight of her trip was always going to be Nepal.

To see the great mountains of the world.

At his wife’s request his daughter had messaged home every single day she had been away. She was their only child and his wife was very worried that she was so far away from home.

So too was he.

Every Sunday they would talk on Skype and he said they had never seen her so happy.

She told her Dad that she felt so free and that she never knew that the world was such a big and exciting place.

He told me that the last message they got from her was telling them that she and her best friend had arrived in a mountain village called Langtang and they were going to go on a trek to see some of the tallest mountains in the world.

He said they sounded very happy.

I felt something clutch my heart when he said the word ‘Langtang’.

My good friend Dil - who is a mountain guide - walked up to the Langtang valley one week after the first earthquake and he said there was almost nothing left. He told me that he talked to a local villager who was one of the very few survivors up there who was returning from a faraway pass when the earthquake struck. The villager told Dil that he felt the earth shake and move and shift and then an avalanche of ice and rock that blocked out the sky fell from the mountains and swallowed everything up.

No one in the valley survived.

This happened from Langtang all the way to the base of Mount Everest.

More than one hundred villages have been consumed.

The American guy did not know any of this before he arrived in Nepal or even after he arrived.

All he knew was that there had been an earthquake in the country and his daughter had disappeared.

He booked his flights for Kathmandu while his wife and the family of his daughter’s friend sold everything they had to try and raise funds to arrange for search and rescue missions. When he arrived in the chaos of Kathmandu it took the American guy several days to find someone who could take him north through the broken roads to what was left of Langtang.

It was immediately apparent that no one was alive.

He lingered and searched nevertheless.

Now he was going home.

I didn’t know what to say but I stayed with him until his flight was called.

His flight left before mine.

His tale could easily have been mine as both my daughter and my son were to meet me in Nepal.

They wanted to trek.

They have been there before.

They will return once again.

So of course too will I.

I will never stop returning.

There are many broken buildings in Nepal and the land has been ravaged and torn from not one earthquake but two.

There may be more.

Life goes on though.

It is hot and dusty there now and there is a shortage of clean drinking water and shelter and there is great suffering.

There has always been much suffering in Nepal.

It is a land of endurance and the people are born tough.

They are survivors.

The monsoons are coming though and the dust will turn to mud and the mosquitoes will arrive and the roads to the mountains will become impassable.

Much work needs to be done.

We need to grit our teeth, pull together and get on with it.

Before the rains arrive.

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 2nd June 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 25th May.

It was a little after noon.

When Nepal was first all shook up.