A Carbondale resident’s note from Nepal
Hamilton Pevec, a Carbondale resident helping out in Nepal following the devastating earthquake there last month, sent this note from Nepal:
May 4, 2015
A few months back, I was handing out paddleboard tour fliers in Kathmandu. I gave one to a pretty Nepali woman. She stopped, read the whole thing and asked me, “Is this your business?”
“Yeah, I manage and run the tours.”
“I am a travel agent. I am from Masel.”
I stayed in touch with her. Six days after the quake, I sent her and everyone else I know messages to check in and see if they were all right. Laxmi replied, “I am OK. I am with my family in the village. My father died in the house when it fell on him.”
How do you respond to a text message like that?
“I’m sorry for your loss, where are you? Do you need anything?”
“We are hungry and sleeping outside.”
Her village became our next destination. Our volunteer group has now become a disaster-relief team. We are made up of Robyn and Benedict Bolcet-Weller from France, Rooz Ostad and Fatemeh from Iran and me, Hamilton, a Canadian-American, and my wife, Devika, a Nepalese.
People have asked us why we are helping, and I say, “Because we all live here. We are not tourists, we are not travelers, we are immigrants, and we love this place.”
Robyn co-owns an old Jeep. This gives us the ability to deliver supplies to isolated villages. Prices to rent Jeeps have tripled as more people capitalize on the shortages that have risen out of the chaos.
The people with disaster experience say that you shouldn’t rush off to the affected area because you stress the already limited supplies or get in the way of the people who actually know what they are doing. What do you do when there are no trained professionals? And the ones who are there are being asked to leave the country? Now, the people like us trying to help however possible have set up a website database where we can enter where we went with supplies, what we delivered and what we know about other villages so that we complement one another’s efforts.
We had to scramble around town collecting the supplies we purchased the day before. We special ordered tarps because all the plastic shops were empty of the good, big ones. It was obvious that shortages had hit. The Nepali lady we were dealing with gave us the standard price list, and we made our order based on that. She said to come back the next morning, and we did, but the tarps did not arrive.
Plus, the price had risen illegally high overnight. Rooz explained to me that it is 6.5 rupees per square foot. If you raise the price even to 8 rupees per square foot, then you can be arrested. That was the current price. The only source of tarps that we know is playing games with us, but not just with us — with everyone who needs shelter from the inevitable monsoon.
It felt good to know that we had the leverage of our receipt to show the cops if we needed to prove our purchase. This economy is based on commissions; you cannot operate here without paying commissions in every form. It is such a normal part of life that it’s hard to see that this is how corruption has been seamlessly integrated into life and economy. How can you explain to someone that this is wrong when it’s been around since the beginning of foreign aid in 1951?
I didn’t want to arrive at our village without enough tarps. We suspected that we could find some in one of the smaller outlying towns. We found some more tarps — just enough.
We did a roadside oil change and broke our hood latch at the same time. We found out that our jack bar was missing — a sobering thought considering how often we break down. A tractor broke our last mirror off while trying to squeeze past on the one-lane 4×4 track. Later on, we picked up a guy who needed a ride, and he was from Masel, the village we were trying to find. He was a needed gift from the universe. The police stopped us at a roadblock. They took our info, our destination and names. They let us through.
I had never been in a disaster area before these past two weeks. It was obvious when we finally crossed the border from Nepal into post-earthquake Nepal. In the epicenter, Gorkha, there were no villages in the valley. They lined the hillsides, 15 minutes walking uphill; the destruction is everywhere. Gorkha was the old kingdom where Nepal began. The earth is red, the hills green and Manaslu Mountain white against the blue sky. Orange and blue dots speckled the hillsides where people had erected tarps next to their destroyed homes.
Many people walked along the dusty road. It felt crowded, even though we were far away from everything. As dusk fell, we passed a crowd of people standing around a pickup truck. On the pickup was an American Babaji I know from Pokhara. “Jay!” I called.
He came running over. “Man, we just had a run-in with the government police and military. I have been here for seven days, and where have you been, Mr. Police? Today, they kicked me out and tried to take all the supplies I have been distributing.”
He went into a lengthy description of how it happened with the hard-faced cop who would not soften with the names of prophets. “Om Nama Shivaya” Jay offers the police. “No, Shiva,” he replies. “Buddha? Mohammad? Jesus?” Needless to say, the officer didn’t loosen up.
“Where are you going? Which village?” Jay asked.
“Masel. It’s off the road near Pipal Dhara.”
“Good!” he replied. “We have been here for seven days delivering to all the villages that are along the road, but the ones off the road, even a little ways, are being ignored. You chose a very good village, but don’t go to Gyampasel. That is where the military is. By the way, did you bring any kombucha with you?”
As it got dark, we continued with a new level of apprehension and risk. Fortunately, our turn was before Gyampasel, and we discussed our strategy if we do have a run-in with the military. When I told Laxmi by cellphone about the military sending Jay away, she told me, “Don’t worry. You are safe with me.” “We are standing on the side of the road with six people. I am wearing a yellow scarf. Look for us!”
We were just a few minutes away but five hours late. It was too dark and the trail too steep to move the supplies to Masel. We stored the supplies in one of the few houses that didn’t collapse and spoke about how to distribute as Laxmi was our village liaison.
We decided that we had enough for two villages, so we chose Himalal, which is close to Masel. We ate a really good dal bhat, walked 10 minutes to the nearest hilltop and set up camp between a tiny, round chapel and a collapsed church. The full moon cast its light on the Himalayas and kept us up late around the campfire. It was a beautiful spot but had a strange, eerie feeling, as we rarely see churches in Nepal. This area is where a lot of the minorities settle, Muslims and Christians alike.
We met up with the Masel villagers in the morning and walked down the steep trail. Masel was 90 percent destroyed. A small village, but nearly all the houses were left uninhabitable. People have moved into their goats’ houses and buffalo houses. Amazingly, only Laxmi’s father died. Her mothers and brother were observing the traditional Hindu morning custom of wearing only white sheets, sitting, sleeping on the ground and eating only fruit for 13 days.
Her brother shaved his head and adorned the sheets, as well. He explained to me, “My father had two wives. My mother is the younger one. The older one did not have children.” Under a tiny tarp, the two women sat in their sheets, their collapsed house dangerously close.
Laxmi organized the villagers the next morning and distributed the food. In the excitement and good feeling of finally receiving some support, it was already too late when we realized that all the supplies were gone and we hadn’t made it to the Himalal village. Laxmi felt terrible. I said it was OK, but I felt bad, as well. I guess that is part of the learning curve.
Up on the road again, we packed the Jeep to leave and met an American who also was independently distributing supplies. Laxmi told him about Himalal village and then took him there. So, as Laxmi said, “When God closes one door, another one will surely open. I really believe that Jesus is taking care of us, even as Nepal hurts a lot.”
Tourists have come back to Pokhara. Kathmandu is operating again in the midst of search and rescue. The buses run, planes land and the hotels are opening their doors. Eighty percent of the bookings have been canceled as 48,000 tourists have left Nepal since April 25. For some, the earthquake is already gone. For others, it is still all too real. But the line is clear and thick.
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