I had literally no idea what to do with myself after the earthquake. My insurance company told me in no uncertain terms that I was no longer covered for trekking in Nepal and I didn’t fancy being stuck up a mountain at 5000 metres with no way of getting down if altitude decided it wanted the entire contents of my lungs and the vast majority of my reasoning. I couldn’t go to India even if I wanted to just yet, the embassy had stopped issuing 3 month visas in favour of issued-on-the-day two week permits for people that just needed to get out of Nepal. I idly looked into flights to other places, many people were eyeing up Malaysia on account of the direct flights from Kathmandu and the fact you could just get stamped in for 90 days on entry, but then no one knew if flights were leaving Kathmandu right now. At first, no one even knew if you could get to Kathmandu full stop, we’d no idea what state the roads were in. A lot of people were looking at ways to try and help, get involved with the relief effort, but I have no medical training or building skills or basically anything that could be considered useful. I could probably knock them up a nice margarita but I think that would be pretty far down their shit-we-need-right-now list.
Shit loads of little grassroots relief groups had sprung up around the town run by both locals and backpackers, you could see supplies being amassed and loaded onto trucks to go out to the Gorkha region, they had lists of things people needed and you could buy stuff at the supermarket and contribute. I guess everyone felt just as helpless as I felt and this was how they were channelling that helplessness. So basically I had quite a lot of time on my hands and literally no idea how to spend it apart from shovelling momos into my trap whilst staring at the lake, until one morning, a week after the ‘quake, I quite fancied a spot of muesli for breakfast so I wandered into David’s Restaurant down the road from where I was staying, ordered my rabbit food and got chatting to an Aussie woman called Anne. Turned out she was involved with a grassroots organisations based in this restaurant, Unaffiliated Locals of Nepal, a group of Nepali people and foreigners who wanted to get immediate supplies out to villages in need of short term solutions. They were focused on smaller villages who hadn’t had any help yet, and with a special focus on the Dalit villages. Lots of old traditions that are illegal these days are still a thing in many places in Nepal, especially rural areas. Such as sending women and girls outside to live in a shed during menstruation, because bleeding profusely from your genitals whilst it feels like someone is twisting everything inside your lower body into knots isn’t miserable enough. And the caste system. The Dalit people are the so-called Untouchable caste.
They’d noticed when they were delivering supplies to some villages that they’d form two queues because no one would queue with the Dalits. Some people would even refused help if it meant they’d have to share it with the Dalits. So ULoN gave priority to this caste and their villages, simply to make sure they got the help they needed. Anne explained all of this to me over breakfast so I said if there was anything I could do to help, I was at a permanent loose end, just give me a shout. Turned out they were loading a truck up at 7pm that night and every extra pair of hands was welcome so I duly showed up for that, chucked a bunch of stuff onto the truck with everyone, and was told they’d be having a meeting in the morning at David’s and everyone was welcome. So I showed up for that too because it was better than lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. Next thing I knew I was handed a bunch of money and asked to go and locate blankets. I was given an idea of where to look so off I went. Other people went after tripals, tarpaulin, and some people were after this sort of carpet underlay stuff. This is what people were asking for right now; shelter and warmth. The underlay was to be cut into mats for pregnant women and children to sleep on, blankets to wrap themselves up and tripals to protect them from the weather. Monsoon season was coming and thousands of people were homeless.
Marc and Liza, a German couple, were funding raising from people back home and they wanted their money to be spent on food. They’d found a wholesaler who offered them rock bottom prices for rice and dal so they dealt with that side of things. Jak, a businesswoman from New York, managed the whole operation. Steffi, a Swiss chick from a small town managed to raise an absolute shit tonne of money too from people back home and she looked after all of the donated funds. Narayan, a local bloke who owned a hotel up the way, he sourced vehicles for us to drive the supplies to the Gorkha region. Lucy, an Aussie chick, she liaised with people from an NGO actually in the region who located and recced villages that needed help to find out exactly what was needed. Santos worked at David’s and he called around for us, locating tripals etc and negotiating a price.They had a nurse on board who someone had drafted in from a local hospital, she got medications at wholesale prices and went out to villages to help tend to the injured when she was needed. All of this had sprung up in the space of a week. The level of organisation was epic. And when they asked me if I could take over inventory and volunteer coordination I thought, well why the fuck not? It basically involved keeping track of everything coming in and out of the store room and making sure everything matched Steffi’s figures so every penny donated to us could be accounted for, and after meetings to discuss where the help was going next and what was needed I’d get money off Steffi and give it to volunteers who would go out and buy the stuff. It was a full time job at first with meetings seven days a week.
Smaller organisations like ours were having better luck than the huge charities. There were all manner of rumours flying around that the charities were being stopped from delivering aid by government road blocks, to what end I’ve no idea. But the charities had to play by the rules, they needed stamps and paperwork, whereas our trucks could just roll on through. We’d heard it was worse in Langtang with hardly any aid getting through, and there was even a rumour that the president was insisting that all international funds go through him first with nobody believing that he’d then hand them out as he should. The whole thing was a fucking mess. Nobody believed the government could or would help them. Those first couple of weeks were all about getting first aid, shelter and warmth to people who needed it. I was based entirely in Pokhara and I only went out to one village called Ratomate in the Namjung region, not a Dalit village, it was one of the last places we went to before we started turning our attention to long term needs. We loaded up a truck with food, medical supplies, a doctor, and water filters because their water supply had somehow become contaminated and many people were sick. Then off we went on the six hour journey into the village. You can see the damage everywhere. Some buildings were flattened, some partially collapsed, some seemed ok but people were living outside in tents and under tarps anyway because they were too scared to stay indoors, aftershocks were still rocking the ground every day, several times a day, and the next one could easily trigger their roof caving in on top of them.
We rolled into the village and jumped out of the trucks. When they get to a village they do a walk through to see exactly what’s needed. Ahmed walked through with one of the village men, and me and one of the foreign girls followed behind, taking photos to show people back home where their money was going. The first thing they showed us was the school. Well, the bricks and equipment that used to make up the the school anyway, it was totally flattened. The rest of the village was in various states of collapse.Some buildings were cracked, some were levelled, some partially collapsed. As we stood outside one pile of rubble one of the few English speaking men said, “This is my house.” I mean, what can you say to him? What words could you possibly have for a man whose home was reduced to nothing more than a pile of stones in less than a minute? “Well, that sucks, but we brought you some rice…” I wasn’t sure why we were bringing food until that point but that’s where Marc and Liza wanted their money to go. Most food is grown in the village, they had access to roads so they could get out to get rice and dal or supplies they couldn’t grow, but standing with this man who’d lost everything in front of what used to be his home, damn right we’ll bring food for them. They’ve got fuck all else now. So many people have to rebuilt everything from scratch, who am I to begrudge them a bag of rice?
After we’d walked through and ascertained that they did need what they’d asked for the aid is handed out to a representative from each family, rather than just being left for people to help themselves, and the doctor settled in for an afternoon surgery session with the villagers. I sat under a tree and watched the kids play cricket for a bit and figured I’d take a few photos for the ULoN Facebook page because people love photos of kids playing cricket don’t they? I mean, I don’t, I hate kids, show me some goats and I’m happy but I can do without pictures of spawn. Anyone who knows me personally knows how I feel about spawn. Being surrounded by a hoard of zombies hell bent on tearing my brain from my skull and enjoying it as a light snack or as part of a nutritious main meal is less of a nightmare than being surrounded by children but as soon as I took my camera out to photograph them, they flocked around me to see what I was taking photos of. There was this one kid though, the only kid in the village who spoke any English, and he ran off to get me a sack to sit on so I didn’t have to sit on the floor. There was something about this kid, like he was an old soul, as if this wasn’t his first lifetime. I actually quite liked him. He translated all the questions from the others and chastised them when they started firing questions at me in Nepali.
We were made to feel very welcome in the village and I get the feeling that it would have been the same regardless of whether we’d rocked up with a doctor and a truck full of food and corrugated steel roofing for them. We hung out with a family at their relatively undamaged home, they picked fruit from their trees for us to try, I mauled all of their goats, and later that evening many people in the village gathered and cooked dal bhat and we danced to music and had an awesome time. Ok, I say “we” danced, I don’t dance, even that thing I do after a few vodkas couldn’t be classed as dancing, it’s more like uncoordinated flailing, I remained very much seated. As for the food, we were served first as is custom, then our hosts ate, and the cooks eat last. Seriously. There’s no benefit to being the cook here. The smokers smoked and eventually I crawled into my sleeping bag first. We were being put up in a temporary shelter, there were a couple of these shelters and they’d offered us both of them and when we asked who we’d be putting out they tried to insist that no one would be put out. We knew that wouldn’t be the case, we’d seen the ruined houses and could guess how many people were homeless here. We could easily fit into one of the the shelters.
Later that night I was woken by a tremor. At least I thought I was. I sat up and looked around. No one else budged but they’d have crawled into bed suitably stoned. I lay back down and closed my eyes and maybe half an hour later there was a definite albeit very short tremor that shook things off shelves. I lay there and weighed up my options. Even if the shelter did collapse it wouldn’t kill us… and it was about 3am… and I was very very tired… yeah nah fuck it, I wasn’t gonna go and stand in a field right now. The following morning, as the doctor saw more people, a few of us were taken on a walk around the village by one of the English speaking guys which was really cool. He invited us pick some chillis to take home too, one of he girls tried on and as tears flooded down her face she insisted it was really rather enjoyable. Uh huh. Nope. My raw chilli eating days are well over, and even then I only did it on a dare at 2am by the kebab van after the correct quantity of booze required to numb all of my pain receptors had been consumed. The others spent a bit of time playing with the kids as I tried and failed to avoid the kids, then we were off again, back to Pokhara.
Eventually it got to the point where we couldn’t find villages who hadn’t had help yet, at least none that could be reached without a helicopter. Throughout the effort we were already sharing donations and supplies with other organistations such as Karma Flights, and Steffi had been researching where to put the rest of our money as we still had a lot. Helping Hands were starting to build shelters that would withstand a monsoon using a design that was approved after the disaster in Haiti, made from corrugated metal, it was the longer term solution people would need. She attended a few meetings and watched one being built and decided that it’d be the perfect channel for the rest of the donations, and we all agreed. So that was that then. I’d spent a month working on this, hopefully making some manner of difference. I think we made a difference but seeing the scale of the destruction around the country on the TV it almost felt futile. The epicentre of the first earthquake was in Gorkha which is closer to Pokhara than it is Kathmandu, but I heard that geology played a large part in the destruction of the capital. Pokhara is built on bedrock, Kathmandu on a sandier base. I don’t know, I’m not a scientist, I can just tell you how normal everything seemed. We spent nights in bars watching incredible storms, and I do love a storm despite having a lightning rod for a face, but whilst you’re sipping beer with a roof over your head you can’t help but think of the plight of the thousands of people rendered homeless. Monsoon wasn’t even here yet and already there were days when the roads became rivers as the rain poured down in buckets.
There are lots of ideas for the direction the relief effort should take. I personally think hospitals should be a priority but loads of people are obsessed with rebuilding schools. There’ll be a knock on effect of course, the first wave of deaths came with the earthquakes but there’ll be more due to disease and poverty. Even business owners in the towns and cites will start to suffer as tourists stay away. Pokhara is like a ghost town. Narayan told us that even though the trekking season has finished, usually at this time of year there’d be lots of Chinese tourists, but there’s no one. Hotels, restaurants, trekking companies, they’ll all suffer too. And people back home will forget. Once something else happens, another disaster perhaps, once it’s not being beamed into their homes anymore they’ll forget that this will take Nepal literally years to get over. The aid will dry up. The government will likely break their promises to provide every village with roofs. But right now, thank you to everyone who donated their time to source supplies, and especially thank you to my friends and family who donated their hard earned cash and trusted me not to spend it on hooker and crack.
Stayed at: Hotel Celesty Inn