On April 25, 2015, a massive earthquake hit central Nepal, and the destruction, particularly in the Kathmandu valley and the mountains to the north and east, was widespread and devastating. Having left Nepal only one month before the earthquake, and with many people we knew living or travelling there, Katheryn and I watched the news coming in with dismay. Like many others, we felt compelled to do what we could to help. Our biggest contribution to the fund-raising efforts was a benefit sale put on at the Community Farm Store in Duncan, with the incredible help we received from all the people there. That event was very emotional for us, both in terms of remembering the personal loss of friends in the earthquake, and by the outpouring of support and the basic good will and humanity of all those who came by.
The response to the disaster from the people we knew in Nepal was also nothing short of spectacular. Without exception, often in very difficult circumstances, they gave shelter, brought supplies and helped rebuild the lives of those who had less than them. For example Arif, who is the son of our friend and jeweller, Malik, rented a truck, and with the help of his friends loaded it with tarps, roofing and supplies, and took it to hard hit villages where conventional aid would never get to.
I am sure that it was the story of this kind of grass-roots involvement that touched a chord with many that we talked to. In addition to the benefit sale, we had set up a fund-raising web site, and through the two we were able to send about $8,500 to Nepal. Some people who helped us had an agency or cause in mind, and since the Canadian government was matching donations that went through certain established organizations, we earmarked about $4,500 in that way. Many, however, wanted their contribution to go straight to Arif, without the bureaucracy and overhead costs of conventional channels, and so the remainder of our funds were sent directly to him and others we knew there. Throughout our summer sales we kept a donation pot at the front table, and with the exceptional generosity of a certain woman on Galiano Is, and so many others throughout the year, we had an additional $1,400 that we set aside to distribute ourselves when we went back to Nepal.
We knew it would be a different kind of a trip this year, so instead to flying straight into Kathmandu it seemed more appropriate to approach it slowly, giving ourselves time, perhaps, to emotionally acclimatise. This involved a lengthy, often gruelling, 23 day journey from Rajasthan in western India through Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to the Nepal border at Sunauli, and then onward to Kathmandu via Tansen and Pokhara, in total taking 10 local buses and one train. It may be the last of the big overland trips for us through India; there have been many, and they aren’t getting any easier. But it did give perspective. For instance, approaching the Nepal border late in the evening, there was a line of trucks parked at the side of the road starting at the 13 km mark. It didn’t seem possible that they were waiting to cross the border, but sure enough, 13 km of trucks with supplies were back-logged on the Indian side. The worst part is that this was a distinct improvement from the situation just 2 months before. Then no traffic was crossing this border, or had been for 4 months.
The region of Nepal adjacent to India, where we crossed the border, is called the Terai, and the people who live there, who have much in common with their Indian cousins, are the Madhesis. Finally, after many years of stalemate, Nepal adopted a new constitution after the earthquake. The Madhesis, however, were aggrieved that in proportion to their population they didn’t get as many constituencies as they deserved. The government argued that 10’s of thousands of Madhesis were actually Indian citizens, prodded by the Indian government to take advantage of the lax immigration laws between the two countries, and therefore India was loading the voter lists. If the Madhesis had the number of seats they wanted, the government said, it would effectively render Nepal a proxy state of India. The Madhesi response was to block the southern border crossings to India, through which perhaps 90% of goods – including food, fuel and medicine – arrive.
For all of the devastation caused by the earthquake, from the people we talked to, it felt like that 4 month embargo was the real spirit-breaker. The 1,000,000 residents of a capital city were reduced to cooking on open fires, and lining up for 3 days to get two liters of petrol. The cost of all basic goods soared, and tourism, a major money earner, dried up.
It was in this context that we arrived in Kathmandu. Probably the most remarkable thing was how normal it looked. Traffic clogged the street, pedestrians bought vegetables from markets, porters tumped bales of goods to shops, holy men in saffron robes sat at shrines, and life went on apparently uninterrupted. On this hand I say to anyone who is thinking about visiting Nepal: GO! There is absolutely no problem in getting whatever you want, and they need you!
On the other hand there are gaps, in people’s lives, and in the physical city, which will take a long time to recover. Almost at random, it seems, buildings have disappeared. You can see the outside wall of a four-story apartment that never used to be an outside wall. Ancient temples have collapsed, or are fissured by cracks, and many, many 4X4 beams have been toe-nailed into the street to support fragile walls.
Everyone you talk to – and, indeed, everyone you pass in the street – has a horrific story to tell. Mostly it is done in the Asian way, smiling, so as not to offend you with their tragedy. Some are odd: so many people left Kathmandu in the aftermath that, contrary to fears of famine, stores stayed open, and supplies didn’t run out. Many stories are similar: everyone was afraid to go back in their houses, fearing the hundreds of tremors which still shook the city, so they would run inside every few days to wash, and sleep out in the parks with everyone else under tarps in the rain. A few are beyond horrific: our cargo agent, a woman called Sujita, saw a 5 story apartment near her home collapse, in which 74 people were killed.
We stayed in the apartment of Shushilla, who we met last year, in an interesting area of Kathmandu called Kishibu. After the earthquake we talked to Shushilla, a teacher, about what could be done with our fund raising money, and she suggested a local private school which was helping children affected by the disaster to get a good education. Not really knowing what to expect, we went down with her to the Bright Fields Academy one morning. They had been notified of our arrival, and had selected 5 children as candidates for sponsorship, and had prepared a brief prospectus on each one. Dutifully each kid, aged between 5 and 10, was marched in with a parent or guardian, all looking like there was absolutely anywhere else they would rather be. For us it was also strange: our funds were limited, and it was like being asked to decide which of these children would prosper, and which would not. Feeling uncomfortable with the process, we asked whether we could just help the school in general. For whatever reason, the school thought that sponsoring an individual child was the way to go; so we asked some questions, said good bye, and walked back, confused, with 5 kids’ futures in my clipboard. Talking over the situation with Shushilla and others, we decided that the best solution might be to not pay the entire package for one student – which is all we had funds for – but to pay just the tuition portion for two. But we still had to decide: which two?
It was one of the events which brought home the magnitude of the disaster: these 5 children had lost parents, or the parents had lost houses and incomes. Telescope that out to the rest of the school, the neighbourhood, the city, the country. What can you do? We chose two kids, Naina and Shambu, and felt badly for the others.
With the rest of the aid money we had left, we made an excursion with Malik and Arif out to one of the villages where they had brought roofing and building materials. They were keen to show it to us. It was just an hour outside of Kathmandu, but down a road more suited to a 4WD than their little sub-compact Suzuki. And this was a nice clear day in the dry season; Arif had gone with his friends and a rented truck after an earthquake when it was raining. The truck driver had refused to go down the road, but they paid him more money and he took his chances. Some 25 families live in the village, and every single building was damaged. Most were typical, attractive two or three story brick Newari homes. In one the complete front third of the house had collapsed, and an elderly couple were living in the remaining open rooms, closed off with tarps. In another only the front wall remained. The more fortunate could still salvage a single story, with the corrugated roofing enough to keep them dry; others only had makeshift shacks of corrugated iron.
Malik had decided it best not to tell anyone in the village, Dhum Besi, that we were coming; otherwise he thought everyone in the area would show up for a piece of the hand-out. Nepali people are always hospitable to foreigners. When the families of Dhum Besi understood why we were there, everyone wanted us to come to their home. After I had done the tour, I was waiting for Katheryn in a room with a special treat, a bottle of coke. It’s a small village, I thought, she can’t be far. Not wanting to miss out on welcoming a guest, however, she was shown to a house well down the mountain, much further than anyone had counted on.
When she had climbed back up, it was time to give what we had. This amounted to about $15/ household. Once again, we felt overwhelmed by the scale of the need, and our insignificant contribution. Dhum Besi was comprised almost exclusively of one caste, who were farmers and metal workers. When the group was gathering for the hand out, another family of a lower caste arrived, and made the case that they should also be included. Members of the metal worker caste objected, and Malik had to smooth things over, diplomatically ruling that everyone present would be included, but no one else. I gave the money to the headman, and the crowd applauded.
On the way back Malik said that the village was disappointed. They felt they didn’t have any warning, he said, and would have put on a meal and a proper ceremony. Still feeling inadequate about the size of our donation, we asked what $15 would buy for a family. He worked it out: at its most basic, food for two weeks.
Between our fund raising responsibilities and visiting, we still had to do our business purchasing. In anticipation of an increased need for revenue in the country, we had set aside a larger budget for Nepal. We found that very easy to spend. In addition to the jewellery we always buy from Malik, we also have the double-knit, fleece-lined sweaters from last year. Then, just walking down a street, Katheryn saw a kurti (blouse) that she liked in a storefront. It was our kind of place; the owner, a young woman named Sita, designed everything herself, and her father Dol did the sewing. We made an order with her for 150 pieces.
Since we had bypassed Delhi this year, and the wonderful warehouse of Mr. Negi, we searched for a few interesting things in Kathmandu, and found Tibetan boxes masks, and other assorted rarities, at the aptly named Handmade Collection shop.
We also went back to Lal Babu for our felt slippers. You always know, when a Nepali doesn’t enthusiastically say how good things are going, that they are going bad. Like many others, it has been a hard year for Babu. He simply closed for 3 months during the embargo, since there were no workers, supplies or shoppers. When he came back to re-open, his landlord wanted the lease money for that period, even though he had had no revenue. At least his stock was undamaged.
Although not a commercial product, one of our regular stops over the years has been the quirky wine store set in the wall of the American embassy. We have developed a relationship with the manager, and he has been very good to us, giving us great deals on 10-year-old French wines, because the label is damaged. When we were mentally ticking off our Kathmandu connections after the earthquake, we came to the wine store and felt a shudder. All of those bottles on the shelves! It was bad, it turned out, but it could have been worse; they lost about $34,000 of stock, but no one was hurt.
Nepal has long been a favourite place of ours. Even before the earthquake it ranked among the poorest countries in the world. This seemed odd because the people never thought of themselves as poor. The roads were crap, nothing worked, and the power was out for half the day; life could be hard, but there was a deep equanimity, maybe coming from the scale and majesty of the land itself, that put things in perspective. A year after the earthquake, that admirable resilience is still there, but the spirit is fraying at the edges. It is easy for us; the hardships are only a temporary inconvenience. When we said our goodbyes it was with a nagging guilt that there was so much more we could have done, and we would tell our gracious smiling hosts: “There has been enough bad luck. Now things will get better”. But it was said more as a reassurance to ourselves, and they knew it, and they would agree because it would be impolite not to.
On our last night we packed up, and then went out for a bite to eat around 9. In our part of town this is late, and we were lucky to find a small restaurant with the light still on, selling momos and noodles. A few friends and family were at the three tables inside, winding down with whiskey and water. At one point the family duck was brought in to be fed. Naturally conversations were started, and the usual subjects were touched on. Then one of the men brought out his phone and said:”I have some videos of the earthquake”. And there he is, on the small glowing screen, that shows him holding his phone while the room shakes, and his family are thrown screaming into a corner.
Too often the news cycle spins us a different disaster every week, and there is certainly no shortage to choose from. The people we met in Nepal understood this, and accepted the help we were able to give with gratitude and dignity. The need for help was starkly apparent, but never was there a hint of grasping or self-pity. Our experience only increases our affection for this special place. Often we had to end our conversations with the assurance that we would continue our support when we got back. We hope to do this, and next year return with the ability to help, in whatever small way, however we can. And may it be, contrary to expectations, a better year for Nepal.