So, you all probably know that on the 25th of April, there was a major earthquake in Nepal. 200,000 homes were destroyed and another 200,000 damaged beyond repair. Almost 10,000 people died and many more were injured. Some of Kathmandu’s oldest temples, museums and monuments came down. Avalanches on Mount Everest and other mountains killed many alpinists and sherpas. On the day that happened, we were at a medical camp two hours east of Siliguri. On the way home, Michael got a phone call from Trent Ratzlaff, a former missionary in Kalimpong, a hill station 2 hours north of Siliguri. When Trent mentioned that it would be nice to do some relief work, Michael was quick to answer something down the line of: “yea, well I don’t think so, our field secretary would probably just encourage us to stay close to home and not get overinvolved…” Through a series of circumstances, two weeks later, three missionaries were found crossing the Nepal border to check out the damage. One of them (Shane Koehn), was from much farther yet than Siliguri. There had even been question of brethren from Bangladesh coming to help. Sadly for them, that didn’t materialize.
Trip no 1
This is not our first trip to Nepal as relief workers, but the first one that I took part in. Shane, Michael and Ethan went on the first one (May 11 to May 15).
[I have to say that right now (June 10, 2015, 11:37 IST) I don’t feel inspired to write, and that usually is not a good sign… I feel a bit sick still from the unusual effects the last trip had on my stomach.]
So, on this trip there were again three of us from Gospel Tract: Shane, Michael and I. Ethan stayed home that time to help the ladies with going to our massive shopping mall and (not so exotic) bazaars. We had a driver (Richard Bhujel from Kalimpong) and his brother Zoel (or Rajay) who lives just across the border into Nepal (in the town of Birtamod) along with us on this 6 day trip. We left on Monday the 18th of May around 10 in the morning. Border crossing was easy and fast. We had a little snack at Zoel’s and were on our way till Hetauda.
Here is a map that shows our route on the first trip. Somehow Hetauda didn’t show up properly on this picture, but it is the dot southwest of Kathmandu. We got there in time to find an open restaurant where we had good soup and tandoori chicken. We spent night there in a YWAM guesthouse. At 5 the next morning, we went on to Abukhaireni, were we picked pastor Thek (whose family lives in Thumi) up and went on to Gorkha were we had brunch. Some good momo! From there, the road got worse and it took another five hours to get to Arkhet. On the way, we met mostly with international aid vehicles, farm tractors, army truck and buses. It was on this last stretch that we saw the first serious damage. According to pastor Thek, at some point near Arkhet we may have been as close as 10 km from the epicenter of the quake. I think it may have been a bit farther. They say that area is closed to foreigners… Anyway, a lot of the aid vehicles were clearly identified (except for two land rovers) and brand new: UN vehicles were the shiniest. There was also Good Neighbours, Swiss Humanitarian Aid, USAID, Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children… (some of these may have been seen on the second trip only.)
In Arughat, we saw almost every kind of damage possible on a building: from a wall missing to big cracks to fully demolished houses to halfway built houses condemned… One two storey house had the first level collapse but the top level was in good shape. Another house had followed the opposite scenario. A three storey house only had the middle one collapse and some damage on top. A lot of destruction, and assuredly there had been some deaths. That was sobering to see.
Little boys were running alongside the car greeting us loudly with repeated “Namaste”s, and when we got tired of answering, they seemed to have a tendency to get angry.
So we got to Arkhet Bazar towards 2:30 PM on Tuesday the 19th. Michael and Shane bought some supplies for the villagers we were going to help while I looked on at different groups distributing blankets, rice, clothes, backpacks, etc. to whosoever wanted them and was physically present.
Around 4, all of us except Richard started hiking up to the village of Ghungun, in the area of Thumi. We got there in less than 3 hours. The trek is just over 5 km long and the elevation rise is almost exactly 1000 metres. We were drenched with sweat and were happy to “take bath” at a village water point. The darkness insured relative privacy. We had a large supper of rice, dal, chicken and Fanta; then we went to bed in the church. The church was the only building in the village that was still livable, though the stone walls had come down some, we were safe under the low tin roof. All the 24 houses in the village are damaged beyond repair. They were all built with mud and stone walls and slate roofs. CSI is paying for the basic material to build a new tin house for each family.
After a rather uncomfortable night, we got up fairly early and did some hiking around with Zoel. We did see the snowy Ganesh Himal peaks. It was nice. In the village, we soon noticed that a lot of people were not doing much of anything, and even though we would have liked to help them a bit to clean their houses up, Zoel thought they might take it as an insult, so we refrained.
We went back down to Arkhet Bazaar around 11 AM, and got down in two hours. We rolled on after rehydrating a bit and promptly had a breakdown on Richard’s Bolero. It took two hours to get to a welding shop and back with the part. Then, we proceeded on for approximately 30 minutes before we found the road blocked by a truck that had broken a wheel off in the middle of a tight curve. No help was expected before morning, so we headed back for the closest refugee camp, where we found a place to sleep. Actually, we got to help build our tent and dig a trench around it. Many people came to look at us and exclaimed about our working techniques. Later in the night, when we were in our tents with little clothes on, Zoel told us that the people passing by were saying that we looked like “white rabbits”.
The night was eventful, with little legroom and a few thunderstorms that got us and our beds wet. The next morning, we heard about another road we could take out from Arughat: the road to Kathmandu. So we followed that road and went through some clay I never thought a two wheel drive vehicle could go through. But Richard eased along all the way, till we got to nicer roads. We got to Kathmandu that afternoon, after 5 hours of driving. For brunch we had some soft drinks, sel roti, and small fried fish that we ate whole (head and all, yum!).
After a short break at Richard and Zoel’s sister and brother-in-law’s place, we went to inspect Kathmandu. I would say there is little damage to anything else than old buildings (especially historic ones) in Kathmandu. The odd house was down and I’m sure a majority of the houses had small damage, but even in Siliguri we have seen such. But then again, we didn’t see the whole city. We went to the historically interesting Durbar Square and looked around at the broken temples. We went by park and fields that were occupied by tents were people sought refuge under the aegis of Jean-Henri Dunant’s troops (the Red Cross). I bought a cap, 4 French books, one English book, a flag, a souvenir spoon and two post cards from half a dozen different shops. One storekeeper knew some French, so it was nice to converse in a mixture of Hindi and French. Interesting books about hippies in Kathmandu, Himalayan conquests by men such as Maurice Herzog (Annapurna first 8000), and about Pol Pot Cambodia. We had some awesome buffalo momo and a good mochaccino and bought some Himalayan honey in a specialty store. Had night at Richard’s brother-in-law’s. His name is Bharat, and he told us about his own efforts to help the people from his native village. Apparently he went out there a few days after the quake and took pictures of destroyed houses in several villages. He saw a group of people were butchering a goat. As he drew closer to them, one older man yelled at him: “sure take pictures of us, of our houses, of our village; take pictures so the world can pity us, but don’t help us!” At this point, Bharat felt bad for taking so many pictures and not offering to help. He determined that he would personally help his people as much as possible. He was curious about one thing however: why were they butchering a goat since they usually only do such on joyful occasions. The old man answered: “When the earthquake struck, I was in the house. My son dragged me out, and then he realized that his brother was also in the house, maybe sleeping. So he went back in to help him, but before he got back out, the house collapsed on both of them. I didn’t have the strength to dig them out, so they stayed under the rubble for a few days, while I was crying and going crazy walking in circles around the house. Now my sons have been buried, we have cried enough, now we will drink and have meat, and try to forget”. That touched Bharat. He is a soft spoken man, and the way he brought it touched me too.
The next morning we left eastward. We saw some damage there again. At one place, there was a crevice and one side was two feet higher than the other. Then we hit a nice Japanese-made road and switch backed our way home. We got home late on Friday the 22nd.
Trip no 2.
Richard, Ethan and I left our home in Siliguri in the afternoon of Saturday the 30th of May. We crossed the border and went to Zoel’s house in Birtamod for night. He was not at home, since he went to help rebuild in Sindhupalchowk area with 15 young men from his area. Sindhupalchowck was affected worse by the second big Nepal earthquake (magnitude 7.4) than by the first one (7.9), because it is close to the second’s epicenter.
The next morning at 5:30 we were again on our way. We ate lunch in Hetauda. We reached pastor Thek’s church in Abhukaireni by late afternoon, and had some time to go for a short walk before a thunderstorm forced us to retreat within the church, where we read for a few hours. That is where we slept, Richard, Ethan, and I plus two teenage boys, one teenage girl, two older ladies and a baby boy. I guess there houses were not fit for them to sleep in or something. They left around 4:30. We left (with pastor Thek along) around 8. We got to Arughat around 12, we drove through a different part of it than the first time, and I saw many more destroyed homes. There was a brand new hospital (not in use yet), that had suffered enough damage that it was going to have to come down. Médecins sans frontiers (a French organization also known as “Doctors without borders” in the English speaking world) had set up a tent hospital nearby. A little bit later, we were in Arkhet, base camp to climb to Ghungun. This time 3 or 4 boys came down from the village and offered to carry our luggage. I had expected some help, because we had more than one bag per person and very heavy ones at that, but they wanted to carry everything for us, so we just kept our water bottles and started hiking up. It took about exactly 3 hours. We were asked to sleep in a little tine shed instead of the Church, for some unknown reason… Someone mentioned too many bugs in the Church, but as we found out, there were also far too many in our little shack. The shack was not really wide enough for us to stretch out fully and hardly long enough to fit four people plus the bags. It goes without saying that the ceiling was low too.
In the morning, we were woken up by an old lady telling us to come have “chia” (tea) at her place at 6:30. We lazily rose from our uncomfortable beds while little children gathered to have a look at the foreigners. We would have tea and biscuits and look at the beautiful valley 1,000 metres below us or sometimes watch the helicopters steadily supplying more remote villages to the north. Then we would work a bit, and then quit again because no helpers were showing up yet, and would go strolling in the terraces or read in our shack, thought the heat soon made it unbearable.
The next three days were spent working on three houses. About a dozen of the villagers faithfully helped us to demolish a couple of houses and build three new ones. Materials were hard to find, and there wasn’t sufficient tin to complete our main project. Some people built smaller houses and pastor Thek built a bigger house for his family than what we planned. (our plan was 10ft by 20ft with tin roof and walls, rock foundation, four metal poles at the corners, and the rest of the frame out of wood) There was of course no nice wood to be found. Boards were not straight and usually we had to go with old dead branches to make the frame. We got really dusty the day we demolished an old two storey stone and mud house. And it wasn’t pleasant to be so dirty and sweaty at the same time!
Anyway, we were glad for the villagers help. It had seemed previously that they might not be an easy bunch to work with, but it wasn’t too bad. I felt handicapped because few of them knew any Hindi and I didn’t know enough Nepali to communicate and work efficiently. There were a few problems, such as pastor Thek and Richard not agreeing on which house to work on most (pastor Thek wanted to do his family’s house and Richard wanted to go on with the original project of building a house for an older lady).
The villagers would have tea at 7 in the morn, then not have a meal before 11AM. Only after 11:30 in the worst heat of the day, were they ready to work on the houses… We finally talked them into changing that and on the last day they were on the work site at 6:30. People took turns offering us food (and heaps of it!). They tried to honour us by serving meat each time, not realizing that I’d rather go without anyway… They would coax us to eat more, thankfully Richard was also not capable of eating as much as them, which made me feel better. The evening meals were around 8:30 or 9. Just before eating, Ethan and I would go down to the school through the corn terraces and take a bath at the water point, and sometimes also wash clothes.
The quality of the buildings we built was not the best, especially the parts built while Richard was not around to correct the people. I’m afraid they won’t build themselves such nice houses when we won’t be around and it looks like they won’t use the cement and the metal poles that CSI provided. And the coordination is lacking: we had to wait several times for cement, sand, gravel, bamboo, and wood to arrive, never mind the tin that never did show up.
We came down the mountain on Friday morning, another toasty day, and left pastor Thek up there to complete his house. We drove to Hetauda YWAM station that evening. I learned a lot of things visiting with Uncle Richard. He explained a lot of the differences between the Nepali tribal people (Mongoloid) and the Aryan castes and their dialects. Also some about the gypsies who originate in Nepal, India and Pakistan. I learned more about the Nepali calendar (I think this is the year 2072 for them) and found out that Saturday is the day of worship for the Christians in Nepal.
I asked Uncle Richard about how he met his wife also and it was very interesting to hear how their marriage was arranged. We talked about how we do in the Church too. He seems to have a lot of the same beliefs as us. He also talked about an angel helping him get home one night when his car lights went out. There is so much to learn from him, he is very interesting. He gave me more information about our previous missionaries, such as Trent, and how he got to know them. His help with knowing how to pay others was very valuable and his reminders to respect Nepali culture were timely. He taught me some more Nepali, and in turn wrote down and learned a dozen of sentences in French.
We left Hetauda at 4:30 in the morning, my legs and arms still itching from the bedbug bites in Ghungun… We reached home in early afternoon and took it easy since I felt pretty sick by then. I’m glad God kept me from becoming really sick on top of the mountain.
Now Michael is in Nepal again, and will meet with two CSI board members tomorrow to show them the different places where we could work. There may be a couple going there for a full term soon. I happen to know him, but I forget his wife’s name: Zach Trammel, who was a CPS boy in Montréal.
This is my last letter from India. I’ll be leaving this beautiful country in exactly a month. It was an enjoyable time, and I thank you all for praying for me. I hope you also feel ready to go wherever the Lord wants you to go. India was not what I had thought about when I put my name in, but I’m sure glad I went now.