Monday, September 19, 2016

Welcome to Budapest! Now ignore all the fun distractions and study you scoundrel!

Dear reader, hello!

It’s been almost 3 weeks since I arrived in Hungary, which means I’m long overdue in updating you on what’s happening over here. Apologies to my patient and flexible family and friends who let me drop into their lives for a few weeks and then disappear into a kind of void from which I’m generally pretty terrible at staying in touch from. Seriously, much Canada love.

Last photo I took in Canada? Dad running to help my dumb brother put gas in his car.

On to Budapest! Budapest looks like this:

Vaci walking street
Looks like a church?

I've heard the funicular is super FUN

I arrived 3.5 days before my very first day of orientation, which was enough time to do pizza, beer, set up a cell phone and start the apartment search. It was not enough time to get over jet lag or actually finish the apartment search.  Luckily, the public transportation in Budapest is an extensive and easily navigable system, so getting around was a breeze, especially considering the last foreign public transit system I learned to navigate was in Kathmandu (system might be an exaggeration). Another plus was that my AirBnB (not a bed and breakfast) was exactly what I was expecting, in a great neighbourhood and with no unpleasant surprises, so I had a nice private room to relax in at the end of long, exhausting days.

On school:

The first two weeks at school were made of orientation sessions; way more orientation sessions than you could even wrap your mind around. Sessions with admin, about health care, about immigration, about various student clubs, about fired safety, etc. 

On top of orientation, we started a mandatory academic writing class. Many of my classmates are non-native English speakers, and I think these classes exist to help even out the playing field before we start into a year of heavy reading and writing. This pre-class class led to having a paper due before any of us even started the classes we registered for, which seems to be an omen of the year to come. Several instructors have warned us that it’s going to be a huge workload, and hoped that we had had a relaxing summer (luckily I did!)

School is split into 3 terms: Fall term starts now and ends in December. Winter term starts in January and ends in March. Spring Term starts in April and ends on June 10 (it’s a short one!) My thesis is due on June 10, and then my official residency permit ends on June 30. By this time I will hopefully be on my way to start a 2 month internship, the final component of the program. I know, I also kind of can’t believe I’m subjecting myself to another internship. But, as they say in Nepal, what to do?

As expected, my classmates come from an extraordinarily wide range of backgrounds. North American, South America, Africa, all regions of vast Asia and of course Europe (EU and non-EU) are represented. Some are coming from well-established positions within governments and NGOs, some are transitioning from the corporate world, and some (like me) are getting into something brand new. So far our conversations in class have been incredibly interesting and I’ve learned about many new issues.

I’ve been pretty wary about developing too many activities outside of class as I’m going to have 8 classes in the first 2 terms, plus a few little smaller courses throughout (finally forcing myself to learn Excel), plus write a thesis, plus apply to various internship programs. I’m also attempting to keep up my VipKids teaching (the online thing with the Chinese kids) since the pay is so good and the commitment so minimal. I’m also trying to exercise and eat healthy. I heard that can be tough during master’s degrees since it’s take more time than not exercising and eating garbage.

I’ve decided to get involved on a small level with one program, called Olive, where I’ll be teaching an English class to various refugees and newcomers living in Budapest on some Saturdays. This seems like the easiest way for me to use a skill I already have to do something good in the community without a huge time commitment, and the program seems really great so far. While I am working with lower-level English students, the program also provides subject specific academic tutoring to students and has a class-auditing program for students who are aiming to be accepted into Master’s degrees in Europe. It’s a really neat initiative, ad I’m super glad they have asked me to help (even though I was such a mess last week that I missed the first meeting with them because I thought the email said Thursday instead of Tuesday. Great work Thompson.)

Enough about school! I’m already sick of it. I finally found an apartment, after an arduous five days of hunting and 12 apartment visits. I live in what is called District VI (Budapest had numbered districts before the Hunger Games was written, if you’re wondering) near Andrassy Ave., which looks like this:

I’m about a 10 minute walk from Heroes Square, which looks like this:

Which is in front of People’s Park, which is a huge beautiful park filled with bars and huge sprawling lawns and even a thermal bath. It’s great. Now that I’ve finally found a bicycle (another arduous task it turned out), I’m about a 15 minute bike ride from school (12 in the morning when there’s less traffic) on a road with beautiful, huge, well-respected bike lanes.

The apartment itself seems to be pretty typical Budapest style. You enter a huge front door from the street that takes you into an open courtyard. The building is built around the courtyard, so that all the apartments are positioned around it in a big U shape. The ceilings are tall, almost too tall, and the door are too. Like this:

This apartment was appealing because the landlords had put such care into making it look nice. There are nice curtains, new furniture, and freaking chandeliers in every room.  I’m pretty pleased with it. I share it with a roommate – a German girl who is in her second last year of med school and doing an exchange semester in Budapest. Europe seems to have a very popular network of schools student scan do exchanges between, and Budapest seems like a very popular destination.  So far she’s great, but just like my last German roommate, she buys way too many sweets and chocolates and is way too generous about sharing them. That’s a slippery slope you guys.

Welp, congratulations if you’ve made it this far again! I generally only expect my Mom, Dad and Grandmas to ever make it this far. I literally don’t even expect my own brother to make it through start reading it in the first place? Oh well. If anything interesting happens I’ll update, but I might just get sucked into a blackhole of schoolwork instead.

Goodbye for now!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Nepal's New Crisis: Life During the Siege of Kathmandu

Hello again! Time for a less formal update.

As many of you know, after a 2 month visit to Canada, I've returned to my English teaching work in Kathmandu. My visit home was lovely. I got to spend a lot of quality time with friends and family, I spent all my money on beer and gained 10 pounds from pies, doughnuts, ice cream and beer. I know this because my Nepali students were kind enough to point out my weight gain. It was good, but alas, I was running out of money and needed to return somewhere I could get a glass of beer for less than $7.

When I left Kathmandu in August, things still seemed kind of...earthquake-y. Lots of piles of debris. People still a little on edge. Some tremors. One of the first things I noticed while driving from the airport to my friend's apartment was that Kathmandu no longer seemed earthquake-y to me. A welcome and encouraging sign. However, there was something else that I noticed before I even managed to get IN a taxi. FUEL SHORTAGE. I landed back in Kathmandu just a few days into a fuel shortage that has turned into a crisis in following weeks. I have good timing, always have. I paid twice as much for a taxi as I normally would have, and found out later that if I'd arrived a couple days later they were charging 6 times more than I would have usually paid. The situation has continued to get worse. I arrived on September 29, and it is now October 11, and less than 200 oil trucks have crossed from India into Nepal in that time.

Why is this happening? It's incredibly confusing, and technically nobody has claimed responsibility for the stranded trucks at the India-Nepal border. It has a bit to do with a new constitution, unhappy ethnic groups near the borders, Indian imperialism and bureaucracy. Feel free to search it for yourself, as I'm certainly not qualified to explain it to you. What I'd like to tell you about is what everyday life is like in a city that's under a fuel siege.

When I arrived on September 28, road rationing had already been implemented. Vehicles with odd number license plates were allowed to drive one day and even numbered plates the next. A couple days later private vehicles were banned from buying petrol at the gas pumps. Some of my friends started walking to work in an effort to save their remaining gas for emergencies. As public transportation became overcrowded, people turned to bicycles. By the end of the first week of October it was becoming difficult to find bikes for less than $100. Getting to and from work and school has become a daily struggle and source of stress for people, and the slow down has had a bigger negative impact on the economy than the spring earthquakes did.

Parked taxis lined up blocks away from the pump, waiting days for their turn.

I have been lucky because I live only a 15 minute walk away from where I work, and about a 40 minute walk from where I would usually go out at night. If I want to go further away than that, things get a lot more difficult. I've managed to take a bus to the other side of town once, but had a lot more difficulty getting back. Kathmandu busses are usually pretty full, but what's happening now is madness. On almost every bus you can see people riding on the roof and hanging out the door with just the ball of one foot on the step. Around 9 PM the busses stop running, and we depend on taxis. However, taxi drivers have to wait in line at petrol stations for days at a time until they can refuel, and in the last couple weeks, taxi prices have skyrocketed When we're able to eventually find a taxi, we then have to pay 3 times or more what we'd normally pay for a trip. Even worse, schools don't have fuel for their busses and hospitals don't have it for their ambulances.

 Not only is getting around the city becoming difficult, getting out of the city feels like a far-away dream. In just 30 minutes you can drive out of Kathmandu and into the hills for beautiful hiking and day trips. But you need gas to do that. You also need busses to transport tourists around the country, and without them the industry as a whole is suffering. Tickets to Chitwan, one of the major tourists spots in south Nepal, have become scarce. Tickets to Nepal's second biggest city, Pokhara, are still available, but it's unclear for how much longer. Tourists attempting to hire private vehicles are also having difficulty. The shortage also applies to jet fuel, and it's been fortunate that most airlines fly shorter flights and are able to refuel at their point of origin or even in India.

In addition to transportation woes, Kathmandu depends on gas to fuel its generators and cook its food. Load-shedding is part of everyday life in Kathmandu, and many higher-end houses and apartments, restaurants, tourist shops, hospitals and hotels use generators when the power goes out. Not being able to use your generator at home is usually at most an inconvenience, but at a hospital it can make a life or death difference. Businesses dependent on tech suffer for each period they are unable to use machines and connect to their servers and restaurants lose money when they cannot serve customers.

As for cooking fuel running out, this poses an even graver issue. Restaurants serving limited menus and missing out on income is one thing, but families at home running out of cooking gas is a much bigger problem. Traditional Nepali food is rice and lentils, foods which are only really edible when cooked. As people have started to run out of cooking fuel, they've turned to wood fires. In Kathmandu, we don't have much access to wood, so this is not a viable option for the whole city. Out in the countryside, there is wood, but having villagers chopping down forests creates a pretty serious ecological dilemma later down the road.

It's not just the physical and logistical problems of this shortage I want to address. The burden is also psychological. This isn't my first crisis in Nepal, and in some ways it's almost as crippling as the first one was. An earthquake is an unstoppable, unpredictable force that brings death and tragedy. After the earthquake, we were all just lucky and happy to be alive. And within the first week there were already signs of relief and improvement. This shortage was created by a blockade/embargo that nobody accepts responsibility for, for reasons that so far we've only been able to speculate on. The world isn't paying attention (which is fair), and nobody is coming to the rescue. Instead of getting better, the situation has only continued to deteriorate over the last couple weeks, with no end in sight. Those trucks didn't stop coming because of some natural, uncontrollable force, and what's happening is fixable now and was avoidable in the first place.

Misinformation is rampant, and many remain hopeful that it will be over soon, but nobody knows for sure. This is surely what it feels like to be a pawn in a game of chess, waiting for the players to make their decision without having any idea what it is that's going through their minds. And as we wait, we are totally stranded, unable to move, unable to live our lives because we can't get where we need to go. Frustration is building, and with the big holiday just around the corner, the situation could get tense. People are coping as best as they can, just like they always do, but they can't last like this forever. And unlike the earthquake, there must be somebody somewhere who can be blamed for this crisis, and we may even someday figure out who it is. In the meantime, we're stuck motionless in this city, hoping things will return to normal sooner than later, just trying to make it through until our holiday vacation starts.

PS- Sorry for the lack of photos! Not on top of my photojournalism game apparently. But feel free to search online and have a look at some of the images of people hanging off busses and huge lines of trucks at the borders!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Nepal: Chhori's Post-Earthquake relief efforts

April 25, 2015 is a day that will be remembered in Nepal for generations. Our world was literally shaken up, our foundations cracked, and our ancestral villages reduced to rubble. We were incredibly lucky that all members of Chhori were safe and physically unharmed. However, all around us we could see the destruction, devastation and grief, and it broke our hearts. Within the first week after the earthquake, Chhori started strategizing with INGOs and coordinating immediate relief projects in an effort to do whatever we could do to heal.

Kathmandu's central Ratna Park filled with tents 3 days after the earthquake.

Several of our members are closely connected with the VDC (Village Development Committee) of Belkot in the district of Nuwakot, one of the 11 districts heavily affected by the earthquake. We were able to get specific numbers on how much and what kind of food, shelter and medical supplies were needed directly from villagers on the ground. On May 1, with help from Planete Enfant Nepal we were able to deliver aid to 141 families. 

Delivering food in Belkot

 Our second visit after the earthquake was to Sankhu, a community 20 KM east of urban Kathmandu. On May 6, we were able to deliver aid to 5 families. While in Sankhu we conducted an assessment of increased risk of trafficking of women and children, and found that people were aware and concerned about their own vulnerability and the safety of their daughters at this precarious and stressful time. We spoke with one woman who was so worried about the safety of her daughters that she requested we find a safe shelter for them immediately. Fortunately we were able to oblige her request and found a safe place in Kathmandu. More recently, we have been able to open a fully functioning shelter in Sankhu for other at-risk women and girls to help combat trafficking.

Many of the village buildings had collapsed

About 2 weeks after the earthquake, news reached us that a large number of displaced families were still living under tents in the Gongabu Buspark area of Kathmandu. While conducting an assessment in this area on the 17th of May, we encountered two pregnant women and two single women with young children. Due to the poor conditions they were living in, we relocated the women and their children to our office space temporarily. We were able to provide financial support to the two pregnant women and their husbands, helping them to afford food, water, shelter and healthcare for 2 months. 

Children of single mothers enjoying activities while sheltering in our office.

During our assessment in Gongabu, we found that many people were simply stranded in the Kathmandu area with no money to get home and nobody to help them. From May 17-30, we provided money for bus tickets for 30 people to 16 various districts in Nepal and Darjeeling, India. With the help of Geneva Global, we were able to coordinate emergency food support to people in staying in a large futsal shed in Gongabu. We reached 107 people over a period of 10 days. We were also able to provide psychological first-aid, counselling, medical checkups and sanitary napkins to 110 people in 3 different tents in the Gongabu area.

Chhori's nurse providing medical check-ups in Gongabu

As the President organization of the Campaign for Rights network, Chhori organized meetings on May 5th and June 15th with many grassroots NGOs working to support and empower girls and women working in the entertainment sector in Kathmandu to determine the effect of the earthquake on this population. We found that many of the girls had lost their rented rooms and were struggling to find new ones. Many had returned home to their villages (many young people did this in the week following the first earthquake). Most of the businesses that they work at, including bars, restaurants and massage parlours had been closed for weeks, leaving the workers without a source of income. Several groups had confirmed deaths among their contacts, and many more women and girls were unaccounted for. Chhori became even more determined to provide increased shelter space for these women and girls.

Campaign for Rights Network meeting

In Mid-may we visited a group of families who had set up a temporary shelter in Kathmandu's Model College in the south part of the city. These families had been told that they would be ask to leave in a week's time in order for the school to reopen and resume classes. Many of the families told us they had nowhere to go, and were unsure of their futures. Chhori provided psychological first aid to many of the parents and children here.

Children playing beside their temporary shelters at Kathmandu Model College

From late May to June, after the psychologically devastating May 12th earthquake, Chhori worked with Planete Enfant again to organize a psychological first aid, counselling, medical checkup, mediciane and sanitary napkins for 300 people in Kirtipur, a village on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley.

Psychological First Aid in Kirtipur

Our next stop was the VDC of Chaugadha, again in Nuwakot district. On June 20th, we brought sanitary napkins and safe-menstruation awareness brochures. We also provided psychological first-aid, counselling and medical checkups with a focus on reproductive rights for the villagers. While we paid special attention to women and girls, we included men in our services as well, recognizing that all people were traumatized by the earthquakes and needed support.

Our private counselling tents

We then heard from our contacts in Belkot, Nuwakot, that four families were desperately struggling to get back on their feet. On June 25th, with help from private donations from abroad, we were able to provide these 4 families with sheet metal to make monsoon-proof temporary shelters and some cash for purchasing basic supplies and food. In Jiling, another VDC in Belkot, we were able to provide tents and clothes to 15 more families that were struggling to stay afloat. Temporary shelters had become the critical item in post-earthquake survival, as monsoon season makes it impossible to safely build new houses.

Delivering heaps of lentils and rice

In late June we shifted our focus towards the special challenges facing women and girls in this post-disaster time. We had witnessed girls being forced to practice chaupadi even though their whole families were sleeping in makeshift shelters. Chaupadi is the practice of isolating menstruating women from the household and men in the family. Usually they live and sleep in a small shack apart from their house. In the best of times it is an unfair and unsafe practice, and during the post-earthquake the risks have increased. After witnessing this injustice, Chhori started to advocate for improved awareness of menstrual health, encouraging other organizations to include sanitary napkins in their relief packages. 

We were made aware of another area in Nuwakot called Urleni, where girls were vulnerable to traffickers. From the first of July we were able to establish an emergency shelter for girls in this area. Overall, throughout the aftermath of the earthquake, we provided shelter for women and children in Nuwakot, Sankhu and Kathmandu, and several young women and girls are still living in our new Kathmandu shelter and being supported to pursue formal education. Additionally, several women received financial support to re-establish their lives after losing their homes in the earthquake.

Chair-person Hira Dahal talks to girls in their chaupadi hut

Our most recent action, as of July 5th, has been through our association with the Beyond Beijing Committee (BBC) to petition the government of Nepal to provide specific care and support to pregnant women, new mothers and their newborns, and to ensure that women are included in the relief and rebuilding decisions being made at the local level.

Chhori, like most Nepalese these last few months, has been doing everything in our power to help those worse affected by this heartbreaking disaster. Drawing on our strengths and prior knowledge and experience, we were quick to focus in on the needs of women and girls in some of the worst affected areas, knowing that there was a risk they would be ignored in this critical time. Our staff worked very hard and were extremely brave throughout this time, even as the aftershocks continued and we slept outside for weeks. We owe much gratitude to Planete Enfant Nepal, Geneva Global and private donors from overseas via our foreign volunteers, all of whom were quick to offer and deliver support and provide the financial backing for our actions, interventions and advocacy. We’re so relieved that the sense of emergency seems to finally to subsiding, giving us the time and clarity to focus on long-term recovery and rebuilding and growth as our country shifts its focus to instituting a new constitution.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Post earthquake (x2!) update

Hi again! It’s been so long! I was on such a roll and then that second May 12 earthquake interfered with my motivation and I got totally sidetracked. But I’ve developed a nice little plantar fasciitis issue and don’t feel much like getting off my ass to do anything, so I think I have time for a wordy update.

I think where we left off, things had been getting back to normal. In the couple weeks after the April 25 EQ, I had gone back to both working at the english school and volunteering with Chhori. We had been out to the restaurants and hung out having drinks. Things were still a little scattered, but people were ready to get back to ordinary life and rebuilding what was destroyed. We had started cracking jokes at all the fear-mongerers and alarmists. Like, get over it guys. Yes, there were several earthquakes daily, but nothing bigger than a 5.0. You can only feel something below a 5.0 if you are sitting down and not moving. If you’re walking, in a car, or ever showering you won’t feel anything smaller. It was unnecessary panic. We were laughing at work on Monday because the EQ alarm had gone off and we hadn’t felt ANYTHING.

Then May 12, Tuesday, rolled around. I was in another organization’s office, sending emails. I was alone in a big meeting room on the second floor. Mid-email, the shaking started, but slowly at first, so nobody panicked. Then we realized that it wasn’t stopping, but was instead getting worse. I ducked under the table I was working at and held on, hoping that a French NGO with the presence of mind to install an EQ alarm had also made sure the building could survive one too. I could see mayhem in the stairwell out of the doorway to the room, saw my colleagues running down the stairs, saw the French director of the NGO trying to grab small children as they ran by her towards the stairs. I think her and I were the only one that got down and stayed down. One of my colleagues ducked under the table with me for a few seconds, but when the shaking let up for a second she was also gone down the stairs.

When the shaking did finally stop, I made eye contact with the director and was like “Wow, that wasn’t supposed to happen.” What I meant was, earlier that week I’d read that there was a 0.5% chance of an EQ bigger than 7.0 striking Kathmandu. 1/200. I packed up my stuff as quickly as I could and went outside. The sent a few messages to make sure everyone was ok. And, wonder of the internet, before I had any information myself, my friends living in Korea were already sending messages. They might have even sent it before the earthquake was over haha!! Everybody I knew was okay again, but my Nepali colleagues were super spooked. Crying, freaking out, and like, this weird paralysis of not being able to act. I wasn’t sure what to do…I probably would have been fine with going back inside the house to be honest with you. But my colleagues had gone off down the street (a tiny street lined with HUGE houses I might add!)

And, this time again, I KNOW that the ground was shaking, and that there were several large aftershocks in the first hour, but I barely felt any of them. I think I only felt one. So I walked down the scary street to where my friends were standing in a place that was slightly safer, but still not really. This was because within minutes of the EQ, everyone who had one got in their car or jumped on their motorbikes and was flying around trying to get home or to their family. My biggest fear from earthquakes has become the panic that ensues afterwards. I said “guys, is there an open field over there? Can we go there for like 30 minutes?” Success! So we chilled, my boss trying to decide what to do with the 2 women and their children who were looking to her for direction. 

She ended up deciding to take everyone to her neighbourhood with her, and they would all sleep outside under what they call a futsal, a sheet-metal-roofed shack/shed thing. She tried to get me to come, but I definitely didn’t feel like that was the right idea after witnessing the levels of panic amongst the local population. I was feeling okay right then, but I knew an anxiety attack was building in my chest, and what I needed to do was find my foreign, non-superstitious, sarcastic, prone to drinking when stressed, cheese-eating friends to regain my sense of security as soon as possible. Luckily, one of my EQ buddies from the first round lived nearby, and is in an EQ safe house, so I walked over there. My house wasn’t walking distance, and the busses and taxis were CRAZY.

When I walked over to her neighbourhood, I found my friend and her roommate sipping tea at the local tea shop, just chilling on stools like nothing had happened. I knew instantly I had made the right decision. Possibly my 3rd thought after the earthquake had finished was “maaaaaan do we have to sleep outside again? That really sucked. UGHHHHHHHH”. And apparently they had been thinking the same. We decided to wait it out inside. We got ahold of another EQ buddy, and she brought a brick of cheese, cookies, other snacks, and a bottle of lovely tequila. Exactly what we needed. I did some quick anxiety relief yoga that’s been helping, we ate cheese, drank tequila, skyped with our other EQ buddy who had left (my former roomate), and set up our beds in the living room and tried to sleep.

We managed to sleep most of the night, but all of us woke up at about 3AM to a HUGE tremor. We parted ways the next day, I headed back to my house. It was so different from the first one, even though it wasn’t that much smaller. I didn’t work on Wednesday, but I was back in on Thursday. So I was back sleeping in my room the night after it. I think the big difference was that the uncertainty was gone. After the first one, nobody knew what was going to happen. Nobody knew how the city was going to react, whether supplies would keep coming in, whether the lights would keep working or if the busses would keep running. This time we knew, things were just going to go back to normal.

Another big difference was that the destruction was so much less terrifying, mostly because everything had already fallen, and everybody who had been in an unsafe building was sleeping outside. So it wasn’t quite so overwhelming in that sense, but the emotional toll was HEAVY. It’s now May 29, and people are still sleeping outside because they are scared. Astrologers here keep predicting big earthquakes, and enough people believe or even half believe that it has a real impact on daily life. It was the worst trick the earth could have played, letting everyone sink back into a sense of security and then striking again. This time it’s taking much longer for people to move one. Everyone is on edge, jumping at the slightest sounds or movement. A lot of us try to laugh it off, but that doesn’t make it less real.

The ground continues to shake. Just today there's been 3 tremors over 4.0 and one over 5. And our experience tells us that, most likely, it will stop in a second, so there’s no need to panic. But, our experience also tells us that YOU NEVER KNOW, so better be prepared for it to NOT stop or to get worse too. To make it worse, there have been several severe thunderstorms here this past week. My roomates and I aren’t particularly afraid of thunderstorms, but the locals definitely are. And a few days ago, while the high winds of the thunderstorm were causing the sheet-metal shelters on the top of roofs to rattle and blow around, a nice little tremor shook us up from underneath. There’s been something like 270 earthquakes 4.0+ since April 25.

Mental health has jumped up the list of priorities, and now when my organization delivers material goods they also deliver mental health services. It’s going to take a long time for this country to heal, especially when our trauma is revisited every time we feel the earth shake, which happens every day. But people are taking amazing steps and actions to rebuild the countryside, and the tourism industry here is ready and able to welcome visitors to most areas. I like to think the worst is probably over, but the truth is I’ll never make that assumption again, because I’ll never forget that ANYTHING above 0% is still completely possible.

Thanks for tuning in and maybe for the next one I’ll have something lighthearted, whimsical or even zany to report on! And by the way, estimated Canada return is early August 2015. See some of you then.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Earthquake Diary #5 Wednesday April 29: Hunting for an Outlet

For the first time since the day of the earthquake, I woke up in my own bed and cooked myself my own breakfast. My German roommate slept in later than me, as she hadn’t been able to sleep well at all in the terrible German embassy. Mid-morning, my British roommate returned home from her embassy, and told us about some Mexican ‘earthquake friends’ she knew who knew a way for us to volunteer. AND, they had electricity AND wifi at their hotel (we had neither). So the 3 of us packed up our gadgets and power cords and headed up the road. When we arrived, the wifi was in fact working, but the electricity was out, which meant my dead laptop and phone were useless. We also found out that the Mexican girl’s big plan was to walk into a camp with like 4 bags of rice and hand it out to people, and I was like “oh, ok I think we’ll pass then.”

My German roommate got a call from the organization she volunteers at asking her to come in and bring her laptop, as they had work for her to do. I went with her, and we stopped at an ATM so she could withdraw some of the cash she had received in donations from Germany. I noticed that there was an outlet in the ATM, and having no shame, plugged in my phone. I waited for my roommate to go home and come back, charging my phone in the ATM shelter the whole time. Some of the Nepalis laughed at me when the realized what was happening. Didn’t care. When she got back, we walked 20 minutes to her office, where there were a tonne of people around. Turns out they wanted her help redesigning their homepage so that it was more earthquake oriented, and to collect the latest news updates. I was able to charge my phone, but not my laptop (forgot the damn adapter!) and sat there soaking in information from the internet. 

At least 3 Facebook groups had formed in an effort to try to coordinate all the separate volunteer actions that were taking place. One group was geo-mapping all earthquake related events and calls for help. There were countless villages where all the homes had been destroyed and no aid had arrived yet. At this point I hadn’t wrapped my head around the names of the districts, and it was all unfamiliar and far away. But it seemed like so many people in Kathmandu had heard the pleas for assistance and wanted to help in some way. My roomate’s organization, Himalayan Climate Initiative, had also sent some volunteers out to one of the camps to do a needs assessment and hand out some supplies. We had made it through the immediate threat to our survival, but now there was a new sense of urgency in Kathmandu.

After a while, once I had written down some potential places to go and volunteer for the next day (it was too late at this point for today), I gathered up my stuff and went to search again for some electricity. But first I stopped at home, because I had run out of clean underwear! So I came home and handwashed like 7 pairs, using up as little of our precious water supply as possible. I can handle dirty shirts, dirty bras, but dirty underwear is just TOO FAR. I noticed that several of my neighbours had also hung out some laundry to dry, so I must not have been the only one who had exhausted their clean underwear supply.

Once that was taken care of, and I had hung them up, it was time to find some electricity. I knew that the hostel had generators and wouldn’t even notice one extra white girl plugging her shit in to leech of their power supply. So I walked on over. When I got there I chatted to some of my friends there, and this is when I found out that one of their coworkers was missing. He had been trekking in Langtang Valley, where some huge avalanches and landslides occurred, burying the entire village of Langtang. He had been guiding two guests, and so far they had only heard from one of the guests. I had met the trekking guide before, and this was some of the worst news personally that I had received yet. All we could do was hope for the best. Some people were walking back to Kathmandu from this valley, and it took about 4 days, so there was still a chance he was on his way back.

I hung around the hostel to sit in on a meeting they had scheduled to organize their own relief efforts. They had collected some donations just from current guests, and had plans to buy supplies and drive them out to a village the next day. They seemed to have everything under control, so I left before it was over. I hadn’t been walking around at night since the earthquake, and usually I feel really safe in my neighbourhood, but everything was so unknown and my situational awareness so heightened that I wasn’t sure if it would be safe. Luckily, of course, I had no problems on my short walk home, other than a few more aggressive than usual neighbourhood dogs (poor things were just hungry). The animals had REALLY been on edge for the last few days; most notably dogs and birds. 

I should also mention that the weather had been TERRIBLE since the earthquake. It had rained every day, was chillier than usual, and on Tuesday or Wednesday it actually HAILED. It was like nature giving Nepal the finger. While this had never really affected me, not even in the camps, I knew that it was bad news for all the people who had lost homes and were sleeping outside in flimsier tents than what I was lucky enough to be sheltered by. And as the ground continued to shake, we knew that this loose, wet earth would be extremely dangerous to those in the mountains.

To finish off Wednesday, we stress ate nutella , peanut butter and biscuits in the kitchen with our headlamps on. This day got lost in our minds, because although we actually processed A LOT of new information, it really felt like we hadn’t DONE anything. We decided that tomorrow, we needed to DO something, HELP some people. The need to help was our driving force at that point, as it seemed was happening to everyone else in the city too. Must be one of the steps in the emotional process post-disaster.

Stay tuned for misadventures in volunteering and more stress eating!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Earthquake diary #4 Tuesday April 28 - Coming home

I woke up at the American camp, ate a banana and come biscuits I had brought to avoid the nasty oatmeal this time and took an AMAZING HOT SHOWER. I don’t even have one of those in my apartment here. It was a little chlorine-y but didn’t care. Preparing to leave camp meant charging my phone (electricity was hard to find for a few days), checking my messages and internet things, stocking up on a few extra of the terrible meal packages to take home (preparing for the impending food shortage), and grabbed 2 litres of water for home too (for the water shortage). 

At some point, the guys in charge said they had news for Canadians regarding an evacuation. The question on everyone’s minds for the last day or 2 had been “should we stay or should we go?” There was so much uncertainty and fear-mongering it was really difficult to tell if Nepal would descend into utter chaos (Haiti) or kind of return back to normal. So I went to listen to what they had to say. A military plane would be landing, bringing relief supplies, and the empty plane would be able to take any Canadians to Delhi for free. My first thought was ‘Delhi, ew”. I wrote down my details just so that I had been officially recorded by the government as being alive and in Kathmandu, but declared I wouldn’t be getting on the plane. My second thought was “My aunts are gonna be soooo angry if they hear there was an evacuation plane and I wasn’t on it” hahaha. 

Eventually I got all my stuff together and headed out for the last time. I collected my confiscated butter knife at the door (we actually don’t have enough of those in my house so they are very precious). I could always come back in the next week. There may even be people still camped out there! When I got home, I met my German roommate, and I think we had some lunch. Then the plan was to go out and SHOP, because we were still unsure about the impending food/water shortage and disease outbreaks and riots that had been promised. The shop near our house where we usually buy water from was out, and we took that as a bad omen. Instead, we walked a few blocks to a large department store called Bhat Bhateni, and luckily, it was open and functioning like normal. They even had water!! “Maybe things won’t be so bad”, we thought. We grabbed a taxi back, and didn’t even get overcharged by TOOOO much, another sign of things returning to normal.

The power was still out at our house, but we were able to cook using the gas stove. Our water was also not working as the tank had been damaged, so we were relying on the water we’d stockpiled in various buckets, bowls, bottles, cups, pots, and even in our clothes washing machine. I cooked up the sausages that had been in the freezer so they wouldn’t go bad. Our British roommate had decided she would stay at the British embassy one more night (some people slept out side for the WHOLE rest of the week). Our place was in fantastic shape, no cracks even. The whole neighbourhood was in great condition.

The ground would still shake occasionally, which was still terrifying, but the tremors were becoming much less frequent. I noticed that my landlord had an english newspaper and we asked to look at it, and we saw more photos of the damage. It said that thousands of people had left Kathmandu to return to their villages, which had been hit very hard. We had no internet access so this was our only source of information.

The last significant event of Tuesday was a radio interview I gave over the phone. My cousin’s sister-in-law works at a radio station, and she wanted to know what was happening in Nepal. So, around 10PM Nepal time, in my totally dark house, with my headlamp on, on a phone network that could cut out at anytime, I talked about my experience. I was very concerned about saying something untruthful or making damaging generalizations, because the truth was all the information I had could have been nothing but rumours (MUCH of it was). So I was pacing around my room and formulating my answers as coherently as possible. And when it was over, I slept in my bed for the first time in 4 days, and I think I only woke up once or twice from tremors, so it was a GOOD night!!

Stay tuned as we figure out how to help and things getting back to normal.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Earthquake Series: Part 3 Monday April 27. So is it safe YET?

Monday, April 27

Wake up at US Embassy Facility - 5:30AM

I woke up REAL early, and REAL hungry, possibly by a tremor, around like 5:30 or 6. My friends had slept in another tent (their tent was full when I had arrived), and were all still asleep. I couldn’t believe how well I had slept, or how much better I felt. I braced myself to eat cold pasta for breakfast, but was informed that if you searched thoroughly enough you could fine OATMEAL. YAY! And I managed to find one!!! I once again failed to properly use the heating packet, so I braced myself to eat cold oatmeal. This oatmeal tasted like muffin batter! Apparently the diet of an American soldier overseas consists of just sugar in different forms, including a literal packet of sugar to make “juice” with and a packet of table syrup (to put on what? My oatmeal?). Not wanting to waste the precious non-pasta meal, I forced myself to keep eating until it was finished. 

The US camp actually had very lovely washroom facilities for us to use. The water was being pumped out of the swimming pool, providing us the luxury of hot showers, which I don’t even have in my apartment here. I didn’t take one on this day due to lack of any shower supplies, but definitely put hot shower on the mental to-do list. I brushed my teeth (I forgot to mention last time that I went about 36 hours without brushing them) and it felt so good. 

Team meeting @ US camp: 7AM

At some point early in the morning, the security guy who has been put in charge gathered us together to inform us that he would not tolerate blanket hoarding, and if he caught anyone with more than 1 blanket in the upcoming night, he would kick them out into the street, even if it was the middle of the night. I actually laughed a little, because, like, what a crazy, overreactive, extreme American thing to say. My American friends later confirmed that they too thought the punishment seemed a little extreme for the crime. He also informed us about the safe haven, the shop part of the building that had bullet-proof glass. We were to run into there in the case of “people coming over the walls”. *GIANT EYE ROLL HERE* Get over yourself US Embassy. We found out later that this asshole hadn’t even been in Nepal for the quake. No street cred.

Leave from camp: 9 :30AM

My friends and I discussed our options for the day, not sure if we’d be spending the night in the camp again or not. My American roommate had left for the airport around 4AM. We had no idea if she would actually get on a flight or not. I decided to leave my stuff there but leave for the day. My one friend had been with me at the farmer’s market when it struck. Here house is on the other side of town, and she hadn’t felt safe enough to go home since Saturday. I offered to go with her to check on her place and her roomate, as she hadn’t heard anything from her yet. We checked with the consular staff to see if it was safe, and she made a displeased face and said “well, we’ve heard of some muggings”. We went anyway, because that seemed pretty unlikely to happen to us in the middle of the day. Before we got in a taxi, we walked over to the hostel (very nearby) so I could check on my friend again. He had been working non-stop since Saturday, all day and all night, helping guests get to their embassies and evacuate and such. So he was passed out, but at least I knew he was still safe.

Take taxi to Patan: 10:00 AM

We jumped in a taxi, but screwed up and took it from the main tourist area where they always overcharge anyway. PLUS earthquake price. We had no idea what earthquake price would be. We agreed to 800 rs, (usually 300 tops) and took off. Along the way I asked the driver how his family was. They were fine. How was his house? His house had been destroyed. We drove past Ratna Park, and he pointed into the tent-filled area and said “my family is here”. This was our first time to drive through other areas of the city, and seeing the tents helped the situation to sink in a little further. Along our way, we still didn’t come across any scenes of total destruction. Mostly we noticed small piles of debris, small walls toppled, makeshift tarpaulin tents in odd places and bumps in the road that we were pretty sure hadn’t been there before. When we got to our destination, I gave the driver 1000, told him to keep the change, and use it to keep his family safe and healthy.

The tents in Ratna Park

Arrive at friend’s house: 10:30AM

My friends neighbourhood was comletely intact. The only noticeable differences were a bus park full of busses that should have been running, more people than usual walking around with nothing to do, and a community electrical plug-in that someone had set up on some steps. My friend’s apartment was even more unaffected. Her water was running, her electriciy was working AND there was wifi. It was like some magical earthquake-proof castle. We pulled out our devices and internetted furiously for like 2 hours. We stress ate a whole bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter cup mini’s. Eventually, I needed to head back to my apartment to meet my German roomate and decide our action plan. My friend decided to stay in her apartment because it was so luxurious, had an earthquake-proof wall and her roomate would be staying there too.

Head for home: 2PM

We walked to the main road, saw NO taxis, but did see a bus that could take me home!! So weird to be riding on a bus, just like it was a normal day. On the way back, the bus passed a temple that had been TOTALLY destroyed. Like, you couldn’t even tell it used to be anything. Part of a statue in a roundabout had come down. The stadium was full of people (no roof). Malls were missing windows and parts of their signs. We didn’t drive by the site, but it was clear that you could no longer see the Dharahara tower where it used to stand. Eventually we got back to the park, and it was full of tents. I hoped to myself that the majority of those people still had houses they could return to when the aftershocks had subsided, and were just sleeping outside for safety like me. At this point, the bus got PACKED, and some of the fear instilled by the Americans started to rise in me. “Shit, what if someone does something? Tries to rob me?”, amongst other silly things. Of course, unsurprisingly to anyone who has been to Nepal, when it came to my stop, I made the helpless foreigner motions, and about 10 people started shouting for the driver to stop, and were moving out of my way, and helping me make my way towards the door, just like they always do. Stupid fear-mongering! Works way too well!
The temple was 10 times bigger than these pillars, now just rubble.

In my apartment: 3PM

On my way home, I noticed that some of the shops in my neighbourhood were open, which I took as a wonderful sign. I got home, talked to my landlord, and chatted with my German roommate. Apparently the German embassy was not nearly was well set up as the British or American. They weren’t given food until lunch that day (so like, almost 24 hours without), and she had shared everything she had taken with others. This includes her sleeping bag. She said three of them were using it! They didn’t provide them with anything, they had to dig their own toilet out in the backyard, and they didn’t help them to figure out flights home or contacting family in Germany. Sounded like the embassy staff were practically trying to be as unhelpful as possible to a bunch of people that had just been through a traumatic experience. Not very cool. 

Leave for embassies: 5PM

While we chatted, there was a knock on the door, our new British roommate to move into the American roommates room! Talk about good timing to move apartments. She had luckily managed to catch us at home. We all agreed to go back to our embassies to spend one more night to get us through the high-risk 72 hour period for aftershocks. This had been originally 24 hours, extended to 48, and finally to 72. We had gone the whole day with no serous aftershocks like Saturday or Sunday, but if they weren’t staying here I definitely wasn’t going to stay here alone. We agreed to meet back at home again the next day around noon. We packed up my German roommate with enough food for the evening, I grabbed my shower supplies, and we headed out again.

Arrive back at camp: 6PM

Back at the American embassy facility, I managed to get a spot in the tent with my friends, as some others had left from there to go to the airport. I ALSO managed to grab a camping mat! WOO! Major upgrade from my cardboard (but I still kept it under the mat anyway because it was like my Wilson). I rummaged through the food and opted for ratatouille. There was a Canadian couple in our tent, and one of them had actually figured out how to use the chemical heating packs! So her wife explained to us how to do it, and we got excited for our hot food! We joked about how Americans and Canadians WOULD be the group of people to survive a huge earthquake but then all get diabetes during the aftermath. So. Much. Sugar. I somehow managed to screw up cooking my thing AGAIN, but it at least was warm. That evening, the couple who had left in the morning were spotted walking back into the camp around 8AM, and we were all like “shiiiiiiiiiiit”. They’d gone to the airport at 10AM, sat around all day with no food or water, were told their flight would be leaving the next morning instead.

People who failed to get on flights arrive at camp: 8PM

Background: the Kathmandu airport is TINY. One landing strip, 5 docking station (is that an airport or a spaceship? Whatever). Their plane arrived at the airport, but had to wait while aid planes landed. Eventually, it had to fly off to Calcutta to refuel. It returned later, but the same thing again. Aid planes were being given priority (understandably, most would agree). Their plane ran low on fuel a second time, and gave up for the day. I cannot even begin to imagine how chaotic the airport was. I landed right after they cleaned up the Turkish Airlines plane that had crashed (just a little, no fatalities), and I thought it was mayhem THEN.

Big bedtime tremor: 9 or 10 PM

As we were settling into our beds, we felt one more large tremor, enough to cause us to sit up abruptly, but not enough to make anyone get out of bed. I think we all went “UGHHHHH STAAAAAAWP IT!” I was immediately glad we’d decided to sleep outside again. I was asleep within 30 minutes from then.

Stay tuned to hear about the end of immediate threat of danger, the beginning of learning about the extent of the damage and incredibly uncertainty.