In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake on April 25th, my friends and I gathered supplies and began to give buckets with basic food supplies—rice, dahl (lentils), beaten rice (this can be eaten uncooked), and some snacks—as well as water purification tablets, to some of those affected in the city. What we really wanted to do though, was get help to outlying areas where we’d heard the need was much greater.
This was easier said than done, however, and it was only three days ago that we were able to set out. In the meantime we were buying food in greater quantities, more buckets, soap, and blankets. The blankets, especially, were difficult to find, as shops were sold out and some shops were even cutting strips of thick cloth and selling them as blankets. Certain food items also took some time to find. Once we got them, we had to weigh them out and bag up two hundred family portions of the rice, dahl, oil, and beaten rice. The salt we’d pick up closer to our destination, as it was available there.
Arranging a vehicle to transport all of this, as well as government permission, was also a hurdle, and I’m very thankful for my Nepali friends that worked so hard to organize that part of it.
Our destination: Okhaldhunga, a district far to the north-east of Kathmandu, in the Everest region, where we’d heard there’d been a lot of damage but little relief. (The link will show you a map on Wikipedia.)
On Sunday we were finally all set: seven of us that included myself and two Nepali friends who live here in the city and several local students who come from Okhaldhunga or other remote parts of the country but study here in Kathmandu and wanted to help. The bus was two hours late arriving to pick us up—it had been getting its brakes fixed, though you wouldn’t know it from the ear-piercing squeals each time they were used—and I found out just how hard it is to load up nearly 2000 kilos of food, plus blankets and buckets. But neighbours pitched in to help us load up and we were on our way at about 9:30 am.
Leaving the city, we took the two lane road from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur—the biggest in the valley. I hadn’t been here since the quake and in some places the whole road had dropped and buckled. Traffic proceeded carefully. Soon we moved on past Dhulikhel onto to a very good road Japan built in the last few years; we took it through the districts of Kavre Palanchok and Sindhuli. It has really good reinforcements along the cliff side, as well as spillways and is solid and seems to have held up well during the quake. There have been some landslides, but they were minor, and easy to drive around. In one place, though, a large boulder had fallen from high up and the road was still littered with debris—the huge stone itself could be seen below where it had been pushed off the road over the cliff’s edge. Not somewhere you’d want to be when the earth is moving!
All along the way, evidence of the quake seemed much the same as it is in Kathmandu: houses that appear untouched are interspersed with those that are completely destroyed, their inhabitants now outside under makeshift tents made of tarps. There seems no rhyme or reason to why home has fallen while another equally ancient looking one is standing.
Shortly after we stopped for a dhal-bhat (rice and lentils) lunch, we turned off into Okhaldhunga, while the good road continued further into Sindhuli. Here the road got markedly worse; at one place the landslide was so extensive that vehicles had to drive down a ramp built up with rocks and sand and travel along the banks of the Sun Koshi River for a stretch before climbing up to rejoin the road again. Good thing this was where the road was close to the river; if it had been on a cliff above, as some parts of the road were, our journey would have ended there and then.
At about 3:30 we arrived at a long narrow suspension bridge: this was as far as the bus would take us. If I’d thought getting the supplies together and leaving Kathmandu was a lot of work, I soon found out it was easy compared to what was ahead. After unloading everything, we had to organize porters to carry it all across the long bridge over the Sun Koshi River and up a short, steep incline, to where a truck could carry everything up into the hills to the village. A local member of the armed police stationed here was invaluable in helping us to organize the porters, but it still took many trips to get everything over. Despite the situation, people were happy for the work, and we soon had everything across. The expected truck, however, didn’t arrive for over two hours, and it was dark by the time the supplies and all of us loaded into the truck and, because it didn’t all fit, the flatbed of a tractor. What followed was an hour and a half on a steeply ascending dirt road that had only recently been hacked out of the sides of the hills; before that the village had been accessible only by foot. This was the most harrowing part of the trip, as the road dipped and climbed up switchbacks and around more hills, leaving the river and the main road far, far behind. It didn’t help that lightning and thunder flashed around us – the truck was covered but the tractor had no tarp and we worried for our supplies should it rain. Despite delays where our drivers stopped for discussions with locals along the way—they were offered drinks which they thankfully did not take—alcohol and a road like this would be a terrifying mix—it didn’t rain and we arrived at the village of Palapu sometime after 8:30 pm. It had been about eleven hours since we’d left Kathmandu.
After another dahl-bhat dinner and night of uneven sleep we awoke to a beautiful dawn: it’s such a gorgeous place of natural beauty, and yet, as we were to soon see, the scene of such devastation. I’ve been to Okhaldhunga before but further north in the district; this area was remote and beautiful in a completely different way. Despite the devastation, the village was remarkably clean, and unlike some other remote parts of the country I’ve been to, each home had its own outhouse. There are no power lines here, but many homes have small solar panels for electricity, which the government subsidized about 8 or 9 years ago. It’s not a lot, but it’s something. Palapu is the headquarters for the surrounding village area—I was told there are about 1,025 households with over 7,000 people in them scattered in nine villages up and down these immediate hills. So far, only a few poor-quality tarps and a little food has come through to this entire area; of course it was not enough for the need.
We walked down to a village beneath the one where we’d spent the night, this one populated by people who are traditionally smiths; it was almost totally destroyed. Thankfully, because it was a sunny Saturday at midday when the quake hit, everyone was out planting the new season’s crop. We met a woman whose baby had been sleeping indoors at the time and was completely buried, but miraculously was dug out unharmed.
It was overwhelming to hear the stories of the families as they showed us what had once been their homes. While I was grateful we could come and bring some relief, I could see that it was a drop in the bucket compared to the need, which is so much greater than the little we were bringing. Still, I keep telling myself that it’s better to do something, even though it will never be enough, than to just stick your head in the sand because it’s so painful to come to places like this.
I had not realized there was such a large population in this area. The village elders were of invaluable assistance, making lists of those whose homes and livelihoods had suffered the most damage and had not yet received any help. We had brought 200 food packs, and nearly as many blankets (we were a few short because we just couldn’t get ahold of more.) About 150 families were identified in the immediate area that had been worst hit in the quake, plus they suggested giving packs to another 35 disabled people and extremely poor families who, though their homes were still standing, were also in desperate need of food since it has been in short supply since the quake. The remaining 15 or so packets would be sent by porters to a village three hours’ walk away that was also greatly affected. (We are going to try to get more to this place as soon as we can.) The locals who helped us really put a lot of effort into trying to see where the supplies would be most needed, I really admired the way they went about it. Even though some of them had suffered damage to their own homes, they didn’t put themselves on the list, telling us others needed it more. I just wished we had enough for everyone.
We had planned to distribute the supplies and be back on our way on Monday, but everything ended up taking a lot longer than expected; it was worth it to get it done right, though, and by mid afternoon the crowds had begun to gather—a small group of soldiers who’d come to the area after the quake helped us to organize the crowd. It took hours, as names were called out and checked off the list. It was exhausting and satisfying. The young people who had come along worked tirelessly and cheerfully, I don’t know what we would have done without them. The blankets that had been so difficult to find were among the most appreciated items—it gets cold at night up here and those with fallen homes of course had all their warm things buried under the rubble.
After dinner, the thunder and lightning that had been around last night returned, culminating in a heavy, short storm. This was a mixed blessing; the area is very dry and water has to be hauled from a distance, so this was needed for the crops—but it also meant that houses that had cracked but not fallen (so many) were further weakened and things inside damaged. Also, it brought the very real threat of landslides, particularly on the dirt road we had to travel back down the following morning.
After another night we were up before 5 am to catch the truck back down the hill—it serves as a transport system for goods, people, and animals, all of whom were present with us as we bumped down the hill. I’d thought the trip was scary at night, but now that we could see where we were going, it was even more so, but we made it safely, sliding here and there on the narrow benches in the back, bumping and banging.
A bus was waiting on the other side of the suspension bridge—a villager had asked them to make sure to wait for us—and we left shortly before 8 am, picking up more passengers along the roadside as we went. The bus made good time, and the road was more downhill, and even though it was not exactly comfortable, I started to relax. Relaxation, however, would be short lived.
It was nearly one o’clock by the time we entered Kathmandu, dropping a few of our young volunteers at their homes near Bhaktapur on the way.
As we drove up the ringroad between Tinkune and the airport, the bus swayed violently. An earthquake feels much different in a moving vehicle, but as people ran out of buildings and into the middle of the road, our driver realized what was happening and stopped. We were soon to find out that another 7.3 earthquake had hit, this time with the epicenter in Namche Bazaar, not far from where we had come from. This one has hit the villages we left just as hard if not harder than the first. And I can’t stop thinking what could have happened had we been on that slippery dirt road driving downhill when it happened; that relief is tempered by concern for people there whom I’ve only just gotten to know, and who are in a worse position now than they were this morning, which was already not good.
And now I’m home. When I left Kathmandu three days ago, people were starting to try to get on with their lives: people who could had returned to work, undamaged schools were preparing to reopen, the ripened wheat was being harvested. Tonight, everyone is instead preparing for a night out in the open; once again we are all filled with uncertainty.
I don’t really know how to end this, but I wanted to write it while it is still fresh in my mind and post it while I still have some power left on my laptop. The electricity is off again and my camera battery is dead, but I’ll try to follow up with some pictures from the trip when I can. In the meantime, I wanted to thank all of you, friends—known and unknown—your kindness enabled us to buy the supplies and make this trip. I don’t know where we’ll go from here, but we’ll keep doing what we can.
(Note: Since writing this the power has come back on—which is good news. After the 25th it took four days. I’ve also just heard that the road we took to get to Okhaldhunga and back is now blocked and inaccessible, so I’m glad we brought the supplies just in time.)