For this week’s Photo Challenge, Dense: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/dense/
Earlier this week, April 25 to be exact, marked the passing of one year since the Nepali earthquake. The anniversary was covered a little in the media if you watched carefully, and referenced in the coverage of the more recent earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador. But, it has largely been forgotten by most. Facebook reports from friends in Nepal focus on how little has been achieved since the first wave of humanitarian help, and after donations from all over the world poured in to rebuild homes and infrastructure, the news I hear is not good. Reconstruction projects are tied up in red tape. Little has been achieved. Villagers who lost their homes and possessions still live precariously in tent villages waiting for help. For many the aftermath of the disaster in frozen in time.
One year on for me, its a very different story. I can hardly believe its been only a year…a particularly challenging one too..with so many changes. New country, new job, new home…in a completely different corner of the planet. Yet a big part of my heart remains in Nepal.
Among the many reminders of our time there is a tapestry project that I worked on during the crisis. I’ve made a tapestry cushion in several of the countries that we have lived, picking a subject that appealed to me, as well being symbolic of my time in that country. After a long online search, I picked a beautiful peacock in shades of blue and purple. Its a memory of my time in Chitwan where we watched wild peacocks running around on the jungle floor. The plan was to slowly work on it, especially during all the travel required before we reached Jamaica. I started work on the tail, a little every night.
We spent the first two nights after the earthquake sleeping on Robert’s office floor. As we headed over to the safety of the Embassy, I grabbed a little overnight bag, a book, and the tapestry for something to do. In the days that followed immediately after the earthquake, I worked on the tapestry almost non-stop. There was something extraordinarily calming about the repetition of the “needle in, needle out”needlework stroke, giving my hands something to do and occupying the motor skills function of my brain, which handled the task of deciding the direction of stitching and what section to tackle next, leaving the rest of my brain to work on processing what had happened. I guess it was kind of a meditation.
Ironically, I was unable to finish it before we left. The kit I purchased had been mispacked and I had reams of purple and blue leftover, but ran out of the background colour. The manufacturer in England had gone out of business and I had to search online until I could track down the wool brand, identify the particular shade of white, and find a supplier that could mail it to me. After several months of unsuccessful tries, I was able to source the wool and finish the tapestry here in Jamaica. Yet the project is still not complete. Its yet to become a cushion and now I have to figure out where to buy sewing supplies in Kingston..the hunt goes on! Its tempting to somehow symbolically connect the project with my personal journey from Nepal to Jamaica, how all the little stitches over time form not just a picture, but their own tapestry of memories, challenges and unresolved issues that have been part of any big change in life, but especially this one….or something like that….
The last story I have out of Nepal (at least for now) is my biggest tale, at least in terms of my focus and efforts over the last year. The U.S. State Department has opened American libraries all over the world and Nepal we already had about six, plus the Book Bus and a seventh library inside the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu. But that space is small and security is tight, and the potential was there for a second Kathmandu site that could handle more outreach programs and deliver books to underserved communities on the other side of the city. As it turned out the timing of the opening was better than planned, as it came at a time when the few libraries that exist in the city were devastated by the earthquake.
Public libraries in Nepal are rare. Most schools don’t have them either, or only have a small selection of text books that are kept under lock and key. Lending libraries are even rarer. The plan to lend books out from the new space was often met with incredulity as people simply couldn’t believe that anyone would ever return them. Nepal libraries are usually reference centers and still only about books. American Spaces are more multi-media center with computers and electronic resources and, although Nepal mainstream is not really ready for new technology, the need is growing, and the new Innovation Hub will be at the forefront. Its very exciting, I’m just sad that I won’t be in Nepal to see it grow. It was a fantastic project opportunity, which was challenging to handle as it was educational for me, as I’m not a librarian. With the help of a small army–and despite a major earthquake– I managed to open it before I left. I’ll be keeping an enthusiastic online eye on its growth!
I spent most of my last year in Nepal opening a library. (Post to come on that one.) I would arrive at the building in Teku every week for months and would always notice three Hindu temple towers in the near distance. I had no idea what to expect, but wanted to find some time to go over and explore. It was just a few minutes walk away, but work schedules never allowed the time until one weekend –prior to the earthquake– I supervised a cleaning crew before our soft opening. At lunch time the crew headed out to get something to eat, and Kalpana and I went out to explore. Partnered with a Nepali, I got a little braver at snooping around. We struggled at first to find a way in through the locked gate, but we learnt that entrance was long forgotten and another path took us into the heart of the temple. It was a fascinating combination of cared for and unkempt, and clearly was in need of funds for renovation. The main temple was boxed in by traditional out houses, laid in a square. I’ve seen them used as meeting halls, schools and storage spaces. Covered verandas were piled high with old carved beams, stone cornerstones and salvaged religious artifacts. Dog sat caged and barking in one corner and we watched chickens run around in another.
Outside the main temple, lanes ran off to the right and left. Overgrown paths led to dirt tracks. Exploring further, we pushed open gates blocked by weeds or broken hinges and what we found was an amazing labyrinth of temples – small and large, ramshackle homes with laundry hanging outside, and inhabited homes and forgotten buildings…all jumbled together. Some buildings were so tenuously standing that they appears to held together with just one beam. It was like a secret, forgotten place.
Among all of this were signs written in Nepali. I asked Kalpana what they said. “They’re donations”, she said. “People donated money. But I don’t understand. Where did all the money go?”
It did seem extraordinary that such a significant site that was clearly of important religious significance had been left to such extensive neglect. Anywhere else in the developed world it would be repaired, groomed and open to the public, the gardens would be kept and visitors would stroll through them with a guide, and locals would sell coffee and trinkets to the tourists. But here the site sat lonely and unnoticed, just five minutes walk away from every day life.
Even though I was in Teku daily during my last month in Nepal, opening the library to the public, I never went back to the site. It was just too scary. The aftershocks meant that it was foolish to wander around in ruins. There was nowhere safe to run. A part of me didn’t want to see extensive damage to a site that I knew would never receive the funding attention that Kathmandu’s famous squares will receive, but I would have gone in the end…just out of respect. I am sure very much of it is gone and it won’t be recovered. I am so glad I at least got to take photos and have captured a little of it here.
About two weeks after the second quake, I was back in the Kathmandu Dhurba Square neighbourhood searching for a vacuum cleaner of all things… I wasn’t having much success as most of the stores were still closed, as many of the store owners had returned to their villages to help with the recovery. We were about to head back to work when, on a whim, we decided to stop and take a look for ourselves at the devastation that happened at this famous World Heritage site.
It was eerie. A lane had been roped for pedestrians to walk though the main site, keeping us away from the damaged buildings. Walking past piles of sorted rubble, tents, and cracked buildings, all we could really do was stare in horror. The palace roof was severely damaged, whole temples had completely disappeared and tourist vendors were gone and had been replaced by a tent village. It really looked nothing like its former self. For contrast, take a look at the short video I made just a couple of months before the earthquake. Here also are a few pictures:
I think international money will come in and rebuild the three Dhurba squares (Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur). However, outside of the World Heritage Sites, so much has been destroyed that will never be replaced. I hope what is rebuilt has a little seismic resilience built into the construction next time around.
This week’s Weekly Photo Challenge: Doors is an opportunity to feature Nepali doors – plain and ornate. I may have just left, but I think I’ve many a Nepali post still to come!
This is a photo of Bhimsen tower, also known as Dharahara, which I snapped a couple of weeks before the 7.8 Earthquake on April 25. In the immediate hours following that terrifying day, the tower was the first casualty of the quake that we were learned about. The numbers of reported casualties from the tower’s collapse vary enormously from 50-200 dead, but one this is for sure… although the quake’s occurrence on a Saturday was a blessing in so many ways, this wasn’t true for the tower. I imagine that lunch time on a Saturday was peek visiting hour on everyone’s day off. I never went up it and never seriously considered planning to go. I’m not claustrophobic, but I don’t like crowds in small places and the idea of climbing nine stories in a cramped space was very unappealing. I’m sure the views were terrific though.
Now when we travel through the center of town — which has been 2-4 times daily for me recently – my neck cranes to see the landmark that is no longer there. It reminds me, of course, of the twin towers and how the New York skyline is changed forever with their absence.
In the middle of the heavy flow of traffic, on a traffic island that’s really just a scrap of land, an artist has recently erected a four foot replica of the tower, as an attraction and reminder to passersby. I wonder how long it will take them to rebuild the real thing?
This is a photo of a photo, taken at the Climate Plus Change exhibition in Kathmandu last year. Among the collection of poignant, climate-related photography, this exhibit showed a number of before and after pictures taken inside the Kathmandu Valley, documenting the developmental changes over a relatively short period of time.
Can you actually believe that this is the same scene across just 13 years? The only real clues are the shape of the background hills and a small building at the right-hand foreground of the picture. Truly unbelievable. I have been here two years and I know that the sprawl continues to grow, probably at the same rate, its just harder to see when it occurs incrementally around you every day. Its been four years since the lower picture was taken and the Swayambhu area now has literally no patches of green, other than the hill that overlooks it. All this sprawl is in unchecked, unplanned, and unsupported by any growth in roads or services. Its a sad reality.
I lived in Kathmandu for several weeks before I spotted public transportation. The white taxis and micro buses were invisible to me. Maybe they just faded into the background behind the colour and confusion of everything else. Maybe my eyes were still trained to see the bright colours of Filipino jeepneys. I’m not sure. But slowly they came into focus; there they were: plain, white, rickety and very small. The idea of a Jeepney ride always seemed more fun than it actually was, as Jeepneys face inwards and there’s no view. But their colour baits you, which is actually the whole idea behind their outrageous designs. By contrast, the idea of riding in a Kathmandu microbus seems no fun at all. I can’t imagine actually cramming myself into one. Where would I put my legs? My head would scrape the ceiling.
It wasn’t until much later that I spotted the microbuses were all electric vehicles or EVs. It was a shocking revelation in a city that pays little attention to pollution or lead levels. It was later still that I learnt that EV microbuses were a USAID-supported innovation from a while back….of course. Despite the rust and hanging exhaust pipes they are still on the road. They may be the Jeepney’s poor cousin, but whatever would Kathmandu pollution levels be like if they belched carbon too?
On the dusty sidewalks, inches away from the busy traffic, there exists a kind of alternative consumer reality here. Street vendors are not starter businesses that aspire to work hard and some day afford the rent on a store. They are Dalits (or untouchables) who do not have many rights (including the right to rent property) that higher castes hold. There is a whole world of fruit vendors, cobblers, barbers –sales people of anything really–who set up for business on the side of the road and sell what they can to passersby. I suspect mainly to other Dalits.
I’m ashamed to admit that I rarely buy from them. They simply never sell anything I need, or their produce is so covered in roadside dust and grime that it is very unappealing. Yet I see the same vendors time and time again selling paltry little piles of something every single day, clearly enough to eek out some kind of income.
Its the fruit vendors that are the most eye catching with bursts of colour against the grey drabness of the pavement. Seasonal bananas and mangos from Nepal…grapes from India…apples from China. I particularly enjoyed these colourful carts.