happiness is...

happiness is...
kenya 2010

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Earthquake ramblings, part 3- Reaching the village

The first thing I saw as I reached the road at the bottom of the hill leading up to my village made my heart sink. The earthquake hit just before noon on a Saturday, which in Nepal is the time that Christians in the country are in church. The small church, perched on the cliff nearly 1000 feet above the river below, was destroyed- the back side was missing and through the open door I could see nothing but the gorge below. I knew the likelihood that the 50 people I had met 2 weeks before in that welcoming space were dead was high. I started the 30 minute trek up the mountain trail with a heavy heart, but also with anticipation of seeing people I have come to know and to care about over the last 7 months. The trip seemed to take forever.

The church- perched 1000 feet above the river below. The back wall and much of the floor is goneThe church- perched 1000 feet above the river below. The back wall and much of the floor is gone

I crested the hill and began walking up the road that goes through the center of the village. In all my other trips up, the first house I came to was the house of Dorje Tamang, whose family took me in and hosted me for 5 days during my first "vision trip" there. This time, as I looked to my left toward that house, I saw open space above the trees. It was gone...but as I rushed around the small fence that separates their property from the road, I saw them- the entire family- sitting on the ground huddled together in the area that used to be the cow shed. Dorje's mother looked up and I yelled "aamaa!" (which means "mother!"). Her face broke into a smile and I broke into a run. They looked absolutely incredulous as I appeared out of nowhere. Our group was the first to reach the village since the quake, 5 days before. When I saw them, I was overcome with emotion and could barely speak. Someone asked me, awed, "What are you doing here? Why did you come?" and through my tears I could honestly say, "Because I care about you. I was worried about you. I was scared and had no way of knowing if you were all right. You are my village- my people. I have been praying for you and I couldn't rest until I was sure you were okay." As sorrowful as I had been for the previous 5 days, I was now filled with such relief and joy. Don't get me wrong- the village was completely devastated and there was nothing but rubble as far as the eye could see, but the people were what mattered and this family was alive. It turns out that nearly everyone in the village was alive. Out of 200-250 villagers (my estimate), only 2 had died. In the village, no one (except church members) is inside at 12pm. Everyone is out in the field, or tending the animals, or sorting grain on mats in the sun. On the day of the quake, even the church members had finished early and left the building before noon. Only 7 remained inside when it hit, and were miraculously able to get far enough over in the room to avoid plunging into the river below when the back of the building and the floor gave way.

My "host family" for my first trip to the village- alive and wellMy "host family" for my first trip to the village- alive and well

As I walked down the road, further into the village, I was met by cries of "Karunaa!!" (my Nepali name) and hugs by adults and children, alike. I was given flowers by some little girls who had first given me flowers the night I stayed in my new house a few weeks ago. Over and over again people asked me what compelled me to come, and over and over again I answered that this was now my home, my village, and they were now my "family". I told them that I had been praying for them and that God had answered my prayers by helping me to reach them. I have no words to describe the bridge that this day built between my heart and theirs. For the longest time, I stood in the field in the middle of the shelter camp they had erected and people came to hug me. It started with a young woman from church whose parents were the ones killed in their home. She clung to me and sobbed into my chest while I kissed the top of her head (God made me tall for a reason) and she poured out her heart to me- though much of it I couldn't hear nor understand. Then others came. They would latch on and hold tight and let me hug them. Then those would peel off and others would come. It was one of the most powerful moments of my life.

I had heard that there was only one house standing in the village (a few others were still upright but badly damaged). Somehow, I knew it was mine. And I was right. At the far edge of the village, perched on the side of the hill overlooking the valley below, I found my house standing intact and undamaged. Supplies such as rice and lentils and "group food" were being stored in it to keep it dry and safe from animals. I found my landlord, who was living above the church and whose belongings were now in the river, and begged her to take my house back. Amazingly, she wouldn't. She said that she believed it was God's plan that I live in the village and in her house. She had been praying for me and for my return, and this was my home. She said that she and her daughter would move into one of the rooms, and that the other room and kitchen would be mine. Then she hugged me fiercely and repeated, "Yo parameshwarko yojanaa chha." ("This is God's plan."). I don't know what God intends to do through me, or to me, in this village- but I firmly believe he called me there and has a plan.

Walking down the road through the village.Walking down the road through the village.

I had to return from the village that day since the team (and bus) I had come with was leaving- but the plan is to return once the aftershocks and landslides have subsided a bit, and take personal items for the people in the village. Food, a medical team, and some supplies were sent in the day after we visited, and yesterday I was able to help arrange to have much-needed tarps sent (with the help of my roommate who works with another organization here in Nepal, helping with relief efforts) so they can have shelter against the coming monsoons. It doesn't seem like enough- but they are such strong, resilient, resourceful people that I know they will be okay. WE will be okay.

One last note... For all its faults, I am in love with Facebook right now. Immediately after the earthquake they devised an amazing app called "Safe Nepal". Anyone with Nepal listed as their location was flagged and people could mark them safe if they had made contact with them. I accidentally found another use. I took pictures of people in the village and posted them on Facebook when I returned home. Two of those people have Facebook accounts, and though I know they don't have any access to internet or electricity right now, I decided to tag them so that eventually they could see the pics. What I didn't consider was that since I was the first one to arrive in that village after the earthquake, no one from the outside had any idea if they were safe, or injured, or dead- and I began receiving messages from their friends and family thanking me for letting them see their family, giving them information, and also asking about others in the village, etc... Through FB I have been able to give information on when aid arrived, their status, their health, etc... and bring peace to very worried people. I love that!

Earthquake ramblings, part 2

One of the things I have learned while living in Nepal is to be patient. Well, okay- I am usually not patient, but I have learned that regardless of whether I am patient or impatient, things will work out in their own time and they will, in the end, work. That is what happened on Day 3 of trying to reach the village (Marming). The morning started out a little chaotic and with several group members vocalizing different plans and ideas for how the day should go. All I wanted was to head toward Marming, but I also had to realize that others had their own ties and their own agendas, which were no less valid than mine. That said, I was determined to do what I could to get there and knew I wouldn't stop until I had exhausted all hope. We were told by our host's family member that the road to Marming was completely covered in landslide and impassable, and that they had traveled to where we now were from that area the day before, and it had taken over 13 hours to cross that distance on foot, through the mountains. My heart sank because a 13 hour trek for a Nepali is usually double for a foreigner. Nepalis have the most amazing genetics that allow them to traverse the mountains like mountain goats. They are not only strong and have unlimited endurance, they also have incredible balance and the ability to walk on trails that none of the rest of us would consider trails. If the only route to Marming was a 13 hour footpath (for a Nepali), I wouldn't make it. That didn't stop me from insisting that we go as far as we could in that direction so that I could see, for myself, whether or not it was worth attempting. I didn't want to be reckless and I didn't want to be stupid, so if it looked impossible, I would accept that- but not until I was satisfied that I had done all I could to get there. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't do my best.

We set out with a plan to head in the direction of Bahrabise, which is the last reported village reachable by road, and then assess the  situation once we arrived. We stopped at several smaller villages en route, and set up makeshift treatment clinics. Most of the patients we saw had already been seen and treated for their larger injuries at a nearby health post or hospital, but many needed follow up care like wound cleaning, bandaging, and medication for pain or infection. We had a young Nepali physician with us, and he and I made do with the supplies we had brought with us. We laid down a tarp I had grabbed from my earthquake kit (thank you TEAM for requiring me to keep one ready) and sat the patients on that while we assessed and treated them. Though we treated several people, we were pleased with the lack of need for acute medical care. Again, things seemed to be largely under control. This was really encouraging. Of the patients I saw, one was a young girl who had an infected abrasion on her forearm. I had to scrub her wound to remove the infected tissue, which must have been very painful but she was really brave and stoic. When I was getting ready to leave, she (and about 10 of her young friends/family members) brought me a flower as a thank you. So sweet! That was the best payment, ever.
 Treating head wounds in a tent camp in Khadichaur.Treating head wounds in a tent camp in Khadichaur.

Finally, we were headed to Bahrabise. That is the village where I had planned to live while doing research in Marming, until a few weeks ago when I actually found a vacant house in Marming itself. I was shocked at the damage there. In Kathmandu, many of the older village-style homes and buildings made of brick or rock were destroyed in the earthquake, but many of the newer cement buildings (like my apartment) were fine. Bahrabise is a fairly large village and has quite a few cement structures, especially in the bazaar area, so I imagined that many of them would be standing. I was wrong. Being the epicenter of the 2nd aftershock, the intensity of the quake in this area must have been much stronger than it was in Kathmandu because the entire bazaar was destroyed. As we drove through the rubble, in the direction of Marming, I was beginning to lose hope that I would get much further down the road or that I would find many people alive in Marming if I did get there. We parked at the far edge of town, near a police outpost, and looked down the highway toward Marming. Several massive landslides could be seen and from the angle I was looking, it appeared that the highway was buried underneath. Intending to ask the police about the situation, we headed for the police outpost and one of the people on our team saw someone they knew from the area- and he was with a group standing by the "Last Resort" bus- which is an adventure camp located at the foot of the hill below Marming. He said that the road had been cleared until a few kilometers before the camp and that he was leading a group to Marming to assess the damage and the needs. Praise God!! I asked if I could join them, and 2 minutes later I was bouncing down the road toward my village.

That trip was the scariest of my life. Not just the part on foot, which we'll get to, but the ride. Five minutes down the road, we had to stop. 2 large front loaders were digging bodies out from beneath a huge landslide, and people were wrapping them in plastic and laying them by the side of the road near our bus. We had to wait for about an hour, all the while looking up at the steep hills above us and praying that the ground held firm. As we finally made our way past, and down the road, the reality of the enormity of this disaster began to sink in. Boulders the size of trucks littered the road. The usually green, lush hills were brown where the earth had given way and everything slid off the mountainside and either onto the road or into the river below. Trees were toppled and houses were nothing but piles of stone or brick. In most places, people crouched by these piles, not sure where to go or what to do- everything they owned (and perhaps people they loved) were trapped underneath. It was really sobering. For months I have said that if there is ever an earthquake, I hoped I'd be in the village and not in Kathmandu with the tall, crowded buildings. I was wrong.

We made it by bus until about 2Km before the village, where we had to stop and proceed on foot. In that 2 kilometers, there were 8 or 10 huge rock falls/boulder fields. The ground in this area is full of shale and it had sheared off in massive quantities and covered the road (and anyone on the road) when it fell. We had to climb over these which was daunting at best. I was particulary scared, for several reasons. One, I am scared of heights. The higher I climbed on these piles, the scarier they became. Second, there remains a possibility that the "slide" will again slide out from under you so I couldn't relax until I was safely up and over... but safely up and over isn't exactly true, either. New rock falls and landslides were happening all over the district and there was a very real possibility that another could come down while we were underneath. We passed a car that had been on the road during the quake and was literally smashed flat. Completely flat. The person/people inside had thankfully been removed before we passed by. Right before reaching Marming, the smell of death was strong and we were informed by the locals that 40 people had tried to flee via the road after the first earthquake, and were covered in landslide during the second one. Twenty people were killed and most were still trapped underneath. Please know that we were being safe, though. As desperately as I wanted to reach Marming, I wasn't going to walk knowingly into a death trap. Each step was measured, each route was assessed, and each phase was analyzed to determine if we should keep going. I wore a "Bob the Builder"-type hard had to protect against falling rocks. It wasn't without risk but it wasn't crazy. And someone had to reach them. After about 40 minutes on the road (and days of agonizing), we did it. We reached Marming.

(stay tuned for part 3)
Rock fall en route to Marming. That is a car in the center.Rock fall en route to Marming. That is a car in the center.
Aftermath of a landslide on the road leading from Marming.Aftermath of a landslide on the road leading from Marming.

Earthquake Ramblings, part 1

It was a Saturday like any other here in Kathmandu. It was around noon and we were in church,  1/2 way through the sermon, when the lights suddenly went out. That is nothing unusual in Nepal, where scheduled power outages are a daily occurrence- but somehow this was different. There was a sound and a vibration that came with it that felt...wrong. My pastor's eyes opened wide and he paused, and all of a sudden I stood up and yelled, "Earthquake!", and we rushed for the door. It was like trying to run in a boat on the crashing waves. The chairs and the people were crashing from side to side. Some of us made it out but I couldn't stay on my feet and was thrown to the floor against the wall closest to the door. The woman next to me grabbed onto me, crying, and said, "Please pray with me." So I did. I prayed for us, and for Nepal, and for safety, and salvation. I prayed for mercy, and protection, and the chance to see another day dawn. I have always known God has a sense of humor, but that day he outdid himself. I had spent the better part of the morning furious with a member of our church for something she was doing that I disagreed with from a cultural sensitivity perspective, and this is whose arms god thrust me into in what was possibly the last moments of my life. Funny how an earthquake can put things in perspective! After what seemed like eternity (but was closer to 2 minutes), the movement stopped and I rushed outside and up the stairs to join the others in the small grassy area in front of our church. Our buildings and those next to us were still standing but we lost a brick wall along our property and large cracks could be seen in other buildings and walls around us. A few minutes later, the first aftershock hit. I think that may have scared me more than the actual earthquake because I now knew what was coming. The aftershocks were frequent and scary, and eventually we moved to a bigger field behind our building and huddled together as a community to comfort each other and wait to see what was to come.

When the aftershocks calmed and we thought it was safe, we made our way toward a teammate's house. The damage was sporadic- some areas had a lot of collapsed walls, broken glass, etc... and others looked untouched. Nearly every brick wall/fence between church and our apartment had toppled onto the walkways and streets- but once we turned onto our lane, we didn't see any damage either to the houses or the surrounding walls. We went into our apartment with a 2 minute time limit, to grab what we'd need for a night away as well as items out of our earthquake kit, and food to share with our community. For the first time since moving to Nepal, I kept my shoes on while in the house. That isn't done here, but for 3 days none of us removed our shoes. For the first 2, we even slept in them. Our house looked like it had been ransacked by looters, with things strewn all over the house, bookshelves upended, and water covering the floor in the kitchen where the fridge had defrosted- but nothing was broken and there was no damage to the house. We grabbed our stuff, and as another strong aftershock rocked the house, we ran.

En route to my teammate's house, I was called by a fellow healthcare worker and told that my help was needed at one of the Kathmandu hospitals. Since all transportation was halted, I made my way by foot. The further I got from my neighborhood, the more damage I saw. The oldest buildings fared the worst. At the hospital, it looked like chaos, but was actually pretty well under control. Hundreds of injured patients were waiting, and hundreds more arriving, but there was a system in place that was treating those that needed it the most, and I was helping monitor and comfort those whose wait would be indefinite due to limited resources and equipment availability. I managed a couple of IVs, took vital signs, and helped upgrade a couple of fairly critical patients so that they were moved to the front of the waiting list and seen quickly, but my biggest contribution wasn't medical- I think it was in providing some comfort and compassion to people who had just lived through the most traumatic moment of their lives. Anyone could have done what I did that day- so I felt blessed to be the one given that opportunity. My teammate Steve had a hero moment, in my eyes. We were brought a young boy of about 3 or 4 years old who had been rescued from the rubble and brought to the hospital, but without his parents or anyone that knew him. He was mostly unhurt, but understandably terrified. Steve spoke with him and the boy told him the area that he lived and that he could find his house- so Steve scooped him up, put him on his motorcycle, and drove to his neighborhood in search of his house so that he could be reunited with his family.

After a long day, we all gathered at a friend's one story house to fellowship and sleep en masse. I am not sure if there is safety in numbers, but there is comfort in numbers. My roommate Carly and I slept outside on the ground, in sleeping bags. We didn't get much sleep, as every half hour, we could feel the rumble of tremors and with the stronger ones, we would jump up and run toward the opposite side of the yard to an agreed upon "safe place". When the rain started, we went in to sleep on the concrete floor of the kitchen. It was a long night.

The next day, we remained gathered and vigilant. The aftershocks continued to come, but with less frequency and less magnitude than before- until around noon, when the 2nd earthquake hit. This was a 6.7 with the epicenter near my village in Sindhupalchok. It was another long one- over a minute- but felt very different than the first. A group of us ran from the house and huddled on the lawn as the earth flowed, or slid, or undulated (we haven't been able to agree on a word) side to side. It was a surreal, almost nauseating feeling and after that, every little vibration sent us running for the door. One of my friends had to change the settings on her mobile because every time her phone vibrated she jumped, and panicked.

After another night on the floor in the "flop house", some of us decided that we couldn't sit around and do nothing, so we grabbed some medical supplies and work gloves, and headed to an area called Patan Durbar Square, which was badly hit, to see if we could help in any way. We were directed to a tent camp set up outside the square and were able to treat a few patients there, who had injuries caused by the quake. Our contact at that camp then took us to several other tent camps, as well, to see if we were needed. We treated a handful of abrasions, lacerations, and orthopedic injuries, but for the most part people were either healthy, or had already sought treatment at the hospital. Like at the hospital, things were pretty much under control and in a "hurry up and wait" mode. We felt glad to be able to help in a small way, but thrilled that we weren't needed in a big way.

Day/night #4 was spent at my house. I figured it needed to happen sooner or later, and the mess in my house wasn't going to clean itself. After a couple of hours of cleaning, I began to get a little overwhelmed- not just with the cleaning, but with processing what had happened and what was happening all over our country. I took a break and went outside with my guitar to play a little and unwind. As I started to play, they came. Old people, young people, children... they flocked in from around the neighborhood and stood outside my gate, peering over and listening. I don't have very many songs memorized on the guitar so I made things up. I sang about God's love for us and how, though the mountains shake and the earth trembles, we don't have to be afraid. I just sang and sang and sang. After I had exhausted myself and my fingers were sore, I stopped and smiled. One of the men who had been standing silently said to me, "You have brought solace to our hearts." Wow.

News started pouring in about the devastation in certain parts of Nepal. Though there were many pockets of devastation in Kathmandu, there were still more that were largely unaffected in terms of buildings collapsing and injuries/deaths- so in our area it was easy to feel like everything was okay. Almost like it didn't happen. The reports of other areas, though, were telling a different story. One of the areas hardest hit was Sindhupalchok, which is the district where the village that I am planning to do research in (Marming) is located. The epicenter of the second earthquake hit near Marming and reports were coming back that all the houses were destroyed, some of the people had died, they needed food, shelter, and medical assistance, and that no one had reached them since the quake. All phone towers were down and there was no electricity, so no one could call in or out. The reports came from staff at a nearby adventure resort who had trekked their tourists out on foot to a point where they could be rescued by helicopter. As soon as I heard the news that Marming was devastated, a fire was lit in me that I knew wouldn't be extinguished until I reached them. I have felt this before- the first time being after hurricane Katrina, when I felt desperate to go and help. This time was stronger- I have come to know and care about many members of this community during my previous visits and I was desperate to know if they were okay. I was also desperate to let them know that they hadn't been forgotten and someone cared enough about them to try to help them. That was easier said than done. For nearly 24 hours, I followed every lead I could to try to arrange transport to Marming. Reports of massive landslides blocking the road made vehicle travel unlikely, so I tried getting a spot on a helicopter bound for the village. The first day, storms grounded the helicopter. On the second day, it was canceled- reportedly due to bureaucracy. Day two brought plan B, which was to join another volunteer team headed to that district and try to convince them to help me reach Marming. After a frustrating day of Nepali-style processes and planning beginning at 8:45am, we finally hit the road at about 3pm. Sitting in the back of a rusty old pickup truck, in the rain, wearing a poncho and a hard hat to protect against falling rocks, i was finally content.

We were amazed at the devastation as we left the Kathmandu valley. The further we got, the worse the damage. In some towns and villages, the loss was nearly total and you could smell death in the air. Houses were now piles of brick and stone, and makeshift shelters and tent camps were erected in open spaces. We stopped at a few places to assess needs and damage, and to provide minor first aid. We arrived in Kharichaur after dark, and went to the "home" of one of our team member's families. Their house was destroyed, too, so we crammed 7 of us into their already crowded tarp shelter, and they fed us. That is Nepali hospitality. They lost everything, yet they were helping us help others. We slept in rows, in sleeping bags, on the dirt floor of the shelter- but it felt like home.

(stay tuned for part 2)
The Nepalis are very resourceful and this held true when making shelters