As I mentioned in the first blog post, our group was fortunate in meeting with Peter, the founder of Tsering’s Fund at his hotel. We had arranged to meet him for dinner and when we arrived we saw a huge truck being loaded with rice, tents, tarpaulins and various items useful to a village in need. Peter said that they were leaving the following morning for the home village of his friend Raj. This village had been completely flattened by the earthquake and had suffered fatalities due to the damage.
Sara and I saw our chance to do something useful with our time, so we cheekily asked if we could tag along. Less than 5 minutes later we had a jeep and a driver sorted for 6am, so with half an hour before dinner we went shopping. We decided that in our roles as health professionals it was in our interests to do our best to promote good hygiene and cleanliness, so that was the focus of our shopping trip. We went to a tiny shop 5 minutes walk from the hotel and began our mission. The main items on our list were things like soap, shampoo and toothpaste so that the families could look after themselves. We wouldn’t have dreamt of going out to a village with just these supplies but tagging along with 3 tons of rice seemed more appropriate.
As a side note we heard stories of medical teams swooping in to remote villages with all sorts of medicines and dressings but with no food, and bearing in mind some of these villages had been unreachable for weeks, to have a truckload of bandages and antibiotics turn up when your village is starving, is next to useless.
A minor dilemma we had was about exactly what products would be both suitable and the best value. Luckily it’s common for shampoo to be sold in sachets in Nepal, so that was perfect. Bars of soap were individually wrapped, toothbrushes sealed, it was excellent. But then the issue of sanitary towels raised its head. Disposable towels run out and create waste. Reusable products like washable towels need to be properly cleaned to minimise the risk of infection. Unfortunately we had to go with the wasteful option.
As we loaded our bags up and explained why we were emptying their shop, the owners suddenly became really excited and started throwing in donations of their own, as well as really decent discounts on the items we were buying. It was so incredible to watch them scurry through the shelves and then dig out a bag of hair clips or some other luxury item that they wanted the girls of the village to have.
With 5 full bags of sanitary goods, water bottles, rope, reels of hose, books, pencils and of course, toys, we dragged ourselves back to Peter’s hotel for dinner. I think they were quite surprised at how much stuff we managed to accumulate in less than an hour, but of course we were annoyed that we hadn’t thought of tagging along sooner, because we could have spent a whole day buying even more!
We spent dinner listening to the amazing stories that Peter’s team had to tell; Eric’s adventures rafting in Tibet, Pem Dorjee’s life as a Sherpa (he got married on Everest!) and Peter’s never ending efforts to improve the lives of Nepalese children.
Inspired and excited, we all retired early for the 5am start the next morning.
The drive to the village was long and uncomfortable but at the same time gorgeous and breathtaking. We weaved our way across the mountain roads, and across what used to be roads before the quakes hit. At some points there were piles of rubble 2m deep where landslides had covered the road, which we had no choice but to drive over. There were times when I was doubtful we’d get through, but then I remembered that the truck had literally just steamed on ahead, so of course we’d make it.
We arrived at the village at about 9am, and a crowd began to form around the truck. Peter (a dentist) began handing out sweets to the kids and got completely mobbed. We walked around the village, shocked at the utter devastation. Everyone here had suffered loss, many were lucky and had only lost their homes and their possessions, others lost cattle and livelihoods, some lost wives, husbands, mothers, fathers and children.
One infant was pulled from the rubble, alive, but something about his eyes hinted at a possible neurological injury. It was those like him, who survived against the odds, that kept the others strong and determined to rebuild. The road to the village had only just been cleared, so outside aid hadn’t yet reached the people there. The village’s school was completely destroyed but materials were salvageable, and tents were provided as a temporary measure. The biggest house, a two storey townhouse sorta building was still standing but completely unsafe.
We were shown around the village, led over piles of rubble where houses once stood, and told stories of loss and heartbreak. Then we got the balloons from the car. When the kids realised we had goodies we got mobbed. They were already eager to play around and loved having their pictures taken, but when they were given the toys, the atmosphere became electric. Balloons inflating as far as the eye can see, balls flying through the air, smiling faces… It was incredible.
After cheering the kids up for a while, we asked the women to line up to receive their (somewhat less exciting) goodies. The queue stretched back forever, but we got through it quickly, filling open hands with shampoo sachets, bars of soap, sanitary towels, hair bands, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
Then we stood aside while the guys with the truck got to work. 3 tons of rice and ton of lentils, distributed to each family. Not long after, I looked past the truck and saw a line of villagers carrying their rice to their makeshift homes. It was quite a sight.
Then came the awkward bit- the famous Nepali hospitality. These people who were poor before their homes were destroyed insisted on cooking us all lunch. We couldn’t say no because that would be rude, but taking food from those with nothing was excruciating. And really really tasty.
We left shortly after lunch, cramming ourselves back into the Jeep for the long bumpy journey back to Kathmandu. When we got back to Peter’s hotel, we all sat outside and talked about the day. The two photographers Wes and Eric looked through their cameras and showed us their favourites, competing against each other for the best photo of the day. Wes had been swamped by the kids, so his photos were mostly of bright colours and happy faces, while Eric walked around and spoke to the adults who had lost their homes, so his were more dramatic and evocative. Both sets of pictures showed our experiences perfectly, and captured the emotions vividly.
While we looked through the photos, black clouds crept above us and thunder rumbled menacingly, while flashes of lightning lit up the sky. We took that as our cue to put the expensive photographic equipment away and go our separate ways. I wanted to walk in the rain for a while, the events of the day had affected me and I wanted some time to process them. My colleague S didn’t fancy retiring immediately to the hotel, so we walked for a while around Boudhha, seeing how different the landscape was when the sun wasn’t shining. We observed a Buddhist ceremony in a tent outside Boudhanath, and then walked back towards our hotel, past one of the vast tent cities that had sprung up in a nearby park.
These impromptu housing estates were genuinely astonishing, as they popped up in every open space, and the inhabitants didn’t fit one particular class or caste; they were all just people who had been made homeless by the earthquake. We saw a couple of teenagers sitting in a large tent playing Angry Birds on iPads, while next to them was a bit of tarpaulin draped over some bamboo housing about 8 adults and 5 children. The government had opened up public parks and spaces to allow people to put up tents, and even military grounds were covered in tarpaulins, but some of the more exclusive hotels had increased their security to prevent anyone from camping on their lawns and being an eyesore to the guests. This was even more shocking considering that some of the more “famous” aid agencies had booked rooms there for their staff and volunteers.
We continued walking in the rain, enjoying the fact that we weren’t inhaling dust anymore (Kathmandu is a really dusty and polluted city at the best of times so when half of the buildings are in pieces, the dust is a real problem) and talking about what we wanted to do next. After about 2km we were both a bit tired and facing a long walk uphill when a car pulled over in front of us blocking our path. It’s a fairly safe city, but instantly my heart raced, wondering what was next. Tsering wound her window down and exclaimed “who do I see walking around in the storm?” and ushered us into her car. We gratefully accepted.