Sunday, July 2, 2017

From Central Europe to Central Asia

Hello hello hellooooo! I am in the middle of a 6 hour layover in Istanbul, on my way from Budapest to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It’s Canada Day and there’s a good chance I’m the only person in this whole airport who is aware of it. The wifi is NOT working because it’s a stupid system where you need to get a code via text message and for whatever reason I just can’t. I’ve taken a very long nap, eaten, and now am bored enough to finally get around to writing a proper update.

A couple of weeks ago I handed in my thesis on sex work policy blahblahblah. I was in Budapest for 10 months, and they went by super fast. I learned a lot of useful new skills and definitely gained some knowledge and understanding that should help me out in the future. There were about 30 people in my program, and we were split into two classes for mandatory courses. This means we all saw A LOT of each other for that 10 months, and became super close. As people have been leaving this past 2 weeks to start internships around the world, there have been a lot of tears. It might be a long time before I see a lot of them again. Now I’m fighting back tears in the airport so I’m going to stop this nonsense (next day edit: I will miss many people immensely, but having gone through this before I know I’ll see a lot of them again somewhere too!!).

I was lucky enough to have several visitors while I was in Budapest. My Dad and his lady friend Teri came in November. My good friend Dawn, who I met in Korea, came for a couple days in May, and my brother was there a couple weeks later. Finally, Mom and Grandma came for a couple of weeks and caught my graduation ceremony. I was also able to travel a little tiny bit. I made it to Brussels to visit another old friend, Kate, to Barcelona for Christmas because the ticket was cheap and it was warm, to Ireland to visit Conor, to London to see Natalie and Hridi and to Austria with Mom and Grandma. I had many more intentions of traveling, but between school, work (online teaching), and doing a tiny bit of volunteer English teaching, and visitors, my schedule was constantly packed.

The final component of my degree is an internship, which I am completing with UNICEF in Uzbekistan starting MONDAY (hasn’t sunk in yet, caps are to convince myself haha). I’ll be there for 3 months, working on a report of a capacity-building program. I’m certain I’ll find out many more details in the coming week. I’ve done pretty limited research on the country and it’s capital Tashkent, but it sounds like I might come out of it being able to speak a few sentences in Russian (???), which hasn’t ever really been a goal of mine, but I guess could be cool! And I’m very stoked about interning at a UN agency. UN internships don’t often turn into jobs afterwards, but I don’t even care about that. Just getting the experience, making some contacts and finding new potential references is great in itself.

When I’m done my three months, I’m hoping my American roommate from Nepal comes for a visit and we can do a week-long silk road tour. Then I’ll be home in Canada for October, at which point I intend to eat the equivalent of at least 3 whole pumpkin pies. I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving since 2011, so the pumpkin pie eating is a pretty big deal.

What’s in the works for November is what’s really exciting. While applying for summer internships, I accidentally got a job. Some of you will be familiar with CUSO International, an organization that sends people from Canada and the US to work with their partner organizations in various countries around the world. I applied for a position that started in July, but they contacted me about a position starting in November in Myanmar. I have very few details other than that…the final stage of the process is to get matched to a suitable organization, so I’ll need to wait on that. However, it’s seeming increasingly likely that I’ll be in Myanmar for 2018, an incredibly exciting prospect.

That’s the update! If you read this, it means I successfully stayed conscious long enough to get on the plane and get to somewhere the wifi. Instead of sleeping last night I got some friends to come over and drink all the leftover alcohol in my flat ;), and am riding what is sometimes referred to as “the struggle bus”. (Next day edit: I bought some water shortly after writing this and the young guy was like “are you tired” and I was like “I’m SO hungover” and he was like “me too”).

24 hours later:

I’m sitting in my new (to me, definitely old in general) flat, somewhere in Tashkent. A UNICEF driver dropped me off here very late last night, about 3AM. Getting through the airport took an eternity. Myself and a Brazilian couple needed to get our visas at the airport, and we had to wait about 40 minutes for the guy who gives out visas to even show up. Luckily the couple was friendly, had just left Montreal after 6 months and proved me wrong about nobody else knowing yesterday was Canada Day. Getting through customs declaration also took an eternity. Had to get all of our luggage scanned right before leaving the airport. When I found him the poor driver looked bored to death, so I apologized, and apologized again when he lifted my 28kg suitcase into the back of the vehicle.

The outside and the halls of my new building are definitely nothing to brag about, but the flat itself is huge. Living room, kitchen, big bedroom, fully furnished AND air conditioned J. Someone was even thoughtful enough to have some bread, water, juice and eggs in the kitchen for me to use today! Unfortunately, as far as I can tell I’m internetless, and I also just have no idea at all where I am haha. The same driver is coming to pick me up at 9AM tomorrow to take me to the office, at which point I hope to be buried under an avalanche of useful information, as well as enjoy an internet connection. NEED MY FIX!

I’ve made an uncharacteristically meek decision to just stay in today, rather than go explore. I have no local currency, no internet, no map, and still haven’t quite wrapped my head around the idea that I’m not in Budapest and that I need to go to work in an office tomorrow morning. I slept most of the morning, did my unpacking, watched Mad Max (the ONLY movie I have on my hard drive haha), and will take some time to prepare for tomorrow. It’s taken up nearly the whole day already.

July 3 edit - Sending this from the UNICEF office in Tashkent, will update more later. Much love to everybody, but especially my Dad who turns 67 today, and who pre-emptively accused me of forgetting his birthday 3 days ago. Touchy in his old age I guess.

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!