This is going to be a hard post for me to write for a lot of reasons.
Going to Nepal with Denis was a very scary thing to do. Throughout the process of preparing to go I just kept thinking at least I’m not going alone, if we are together we will find our way no matter what happens. I was so happy when he met me in Bangkok. It had been a month since I had seen him and deciding to go to Nepal together under the circumstances was insane. Having him solidly by my side made everything feel a bit better.
The trip was the most solemn I have ever taken. The air was heavy and silent as we sat by the gate waiting for our plane and the mood did not shift throughout our journey. Everyone was quiet. No one knew what would await us when we landed. Customs went smoothly for me but it took Denis a bit longer. I remember waiting anxiously just out of sight hoping that nothing was wrong but his passport was just having trouble scanning.
Once we left the airport, however, things changed. People crowded the terminal waiting for friends and family to land. We were met with open arms by Sughanda, the head of Hand and Hands Volunteer Society (HHVS), who we were there to help. His wife Shova followed behind silently taking pictures as we piled into a little car and began our journey through Kathmandu to our home for the next 9 days.
I remember looking at the city from above as we flew in and being confused by the lack of destruction visible from above. The feeling continued as we drove to Pepsicola, a planned living area near the Pepsicola plant. Nothing seemed destroyed, business seemed to be going along as usual. The solemnity of the plane was gone entirely.
Pepsicola is a very solid looking area. The buildings are square and built to code. We moved into our new bedroom, which we shared only with each other, and took pictures with Sughanda and all of our donations so that he could post them on the HHVS Facebook page. They fed us dinner and sent us to bed. It was so unexpected to be taken care of so well. We came packed with MREs, sleeping bags, and water filters. We hadn’t expected clean water, let alone a clean and soft bed to sleep in at night. And here we were being treated as honored guests and told that tomorrow they would take us on a tour of Bhaktapur, the old part of the city. We were more confused by this than we would have been by utter ruin and didn’t quite know how to feel about it, I still don’t really know how to feel about it. That we were well fed and safe while so many were cold and hungry.
It turns out that Bhaktapur is also the urban area that was hit the hardest by the disaster. As we toured the area we were shown ancient holy sites that had been destroyed and others that stood as strong as ever. We were shown houses that had fallen down to rubble as well as houses that looked fine on the outside but were destroyed inside, which explained some of the lack of destruction visible from the air. We visited schools, relief tents, and other public spaces were people had moved to take shelter in the wake of the earthquake. Everyone was working together to make the best of a bad situation. Sughanda talked with the locals and translated as much as possible so that we could understand what was really happening there.
With a slightly better understanding of the disaster we set about determining what was needed by the villagers of Bhotang VDC, a mountainous set of villages that HHVS had worked with in the past who were in desperate need of aid. We spoke with two members of the village who were able to make it down to the city about what they needed. We made a list and figured out what we could contribute with the funds that we were raising. The next day we went out to purchase foam that would be used as sleeping mats. We had cut the foam into smaller pieces and were wrapping them into rolls for storage and transport when the second earthquake hit.
I don’t remember recognizing what was happening, I just remember leaping over the mat and missing, sliding to my knees and trying to run toward Denis as the ground pitched and rolled under my feet. I remember holding onto his hand as we ran as quickly as we could over the traitorous street to an open field just a few houses down. I remember holding onto Denis while trying to keep the tears from my eyes after the shaking had stopped and finally understanding why earthquakes are so often used when someone wants to depict the end of the world.
The whole street gathered in the square. Everyone was looking for loved ones. I sat on the ground and petted the dog, Lucky, until someone got me to move closer to the center of the field. Reports started to come in once the cell signal returned that it was a 7.4. We waited in the hot sun and flies bothered the open cut on my knee. Everyone asked if I wanted to clean it but I didn’t. Eventually someone convinced me to and we went to the corner store for a bandaid and some water. We had to try twice since the first time an aftershock shook us back to the field. It was a game of hide and seek, people would drift toward the shade to combat the heat and when the shaking began they would all emerge from their hiding places to the safety of the open sky.
Things slowed after the earthquake. A tent village began to pop up in the soccer field near our house. We spent a lot of time outside waiting once an aftershock hit. We quickly learned that watching the rebar on the top of an unfinished building would give us the most warning for an aftershock. The whole community came together and talked and shared snacks and tea while we waited until we hoped it was safe to go inside again. No one knew what would happen next. The second earthquake wasn’t supposed to happen, so who knew what would follow.
Denis and I made a bed in the study on the ground floor and the rest of the family slept outside. Going upstairs was something you did quickly, just in case. Our meals were just as wonderful but they were all made on the porch. The roads to Bhotang were completely destroyed again and while we hoped they might be cleared in time for Denis and I to visit we knew that the chances were slim. We continued to gather the supplies that we could but everything felt too slow, too insignificant in the face of the worsening situation for those around us while we were kept safe.
We began to get frustrated and nip at each other. Sughanda could be frustrating to work with at time because he would only listen to Denis and never to me, even if we said the same thing. Denis made an effort to help voice my ideas but I still found it difficult to deal with. Denis became lost in his work of finding some work to do and I felt useless. We focused on raising money since we knew that would help and it was something we only needed the internet to do. I tried to think up housing that could be easily fabricated and provided to the people but it felt pointless, especially when Sughanda seemed completely uninterested in my ideas. We contacted organizations to help provide food, shelter, anything, and never heard back. It was tough, but we kept going. We had each other.
One of the most difficult things that I experienced in Nepal was going to the ICU of a hospital in Kathmandu to see a family whose sister had been airlifted from Bhotang. The hospital was overflowing with people. Beds were setup in all available spaces, in hallways crowded with families, doctors and nurses. We went into the crowded ICU for just a moment. I met her eyes but didn’t know what else to do. We were quickly hustled out to the hallway where we stood with the family. They didn’t speak English but their pain and worry were palpable. We gave them what money we could, they had nowhere to stay, no money, no food, and a beloved family member was at death’s door. Her sister broke down in tears as we moved to leave and I offered her the only thing I could think of, a hug. I struggled to keep tears from rolling down my face as we walked away.
There was a form you filled out to get a helicopter for aid work. Denis had joked about wanting to get us a helicopter by the time we left. I told him he should just do it, that it couldn’t hurt since it didn’t look like we would be able to get to Bhotang by land. An hour later we had tickets on a UN aid helicopter to Bhotang VDC. We still don’t quite know how it happened. That night we packed everything up that we could. We could only bring 15kg each because we were taking a passenger helicopter and not a cargo helicopter. The next morning we went to the airport.
It was odd to just walk into an airport. There were birds in the rafters and we went to a small side room to have all of our things weighed to make sure that we wouldn’t be too heavy for the aircraft. We never were asked for any sort of identification. We waited until they told us to come with them to a van that transferred us to where our helicopter was parked. Everyone was amazingly nice. Our pilot loaded us up and we lifted off to Bhotang. Although it’s a 7-10 hour ride by car to Bhotang, it is only a 20 min helicopter ride. We enjoyed ourselves, took pictures and soaked in the novelty of the ride. Soon, however, we approached Bhotang.
As we circled above we saw the destruction. At first it looked like things were mostly okay but as we drew closer we saw that most of the things that looked like standing buildings were really tarps. The stone buildings had crumbled in the wake of the two earthquakes. It looked as though a giant hand had swept down the side of the terraced mountain, scattering the lives of the people who lived there as it did so.
The whole village came out to meet us as we landed. I felt like a deer in the headlights. What would these people expect from us? The saviors coming from above in a helicopter? What we had brought seemed so insignificant. We knew that more was on its way as soon as the roads were clear but suddenly bringing the spices instead of some rice seemed a silly decision. It made sense when we were choosing and it had been Sughanda’s suggestion because it was smaller and we could bring all of it at once, but staring out at a sea of faces who had lost everything it seemed like the silliest thing we could have done.
We unloaded our supplies and the pilot let us know that we had one hour, rather than the planned two, since the weather was taking a turn for the worse. We walked up through the crowd of people, through a makeshift temple of tarps filled with praying villagers and incense, and up a set of rough stone stairs where we set our bags. We were told to hurry past some buildings which seemed to loom more than they did stand, closer to falling down than staying up. I will never forget when I asked one of the representatives who spoke English how many buildings were safe. We knew that 80% had fallen from the first earthquake but we had no news regarding the second. He stopped, looked around, and pointed to count 1… 2… 3… 4… 5. 5 houses were safe of 170. And safe is relative, safe was determined by the villagers with no real way to test them and no idea if they would be able to stand the next aftershock.
We spent our hour collecting as much information as we could. Denis documented with photos while I spoke with the female representative. She showed me her makeshift home and told me of all of their problems. We talked about sanitation and sickness. She told me how her new home was built well but that they had to scavenge the materials from the ruins of other buildings, risking their lives in the process. The homes were built with few tools, if any, and there wasn’t enough waterproof material to keep everyone safe and dry. They said they were lucky really, other villages in Bhotang VDC were out of water completely, either moving to the central village or walking all the way to the central village just to carry the water they found there back home. I took notes so that we could try to develop a plan to deal with all of these issues and so that I could pass the information on to the doctor’s coming after us.
After awhile we passed out the supplies we had bought. I taught the women to use the sanitary towels that we brought and they seemed amused that we thought they needed showing. The leaders expressed concern over the 3 solar chargers that we brought since they would not be enough to go around. We took some photos with the group for HHVS and walked back to the helicopter. We were told that a committee would decide where they were needed most and make sure that they got there. We weren’t sure if that was going to happen. As we left we saw that the group had already descended on the supplies.
That night we met the first doctor arriving from the US. It felt like an exchange was happening, trading us for him. We heard that he would be getting the tour of Bhaktapur the next day. Suddenly, we found ourselves on a plane back to Bangkok and all of it was just gone. This family and this world that we had created. And then so was Denis. And I still don’t know what to make of it all.