30 days 10 days: Disconnected


Well, I blew my “30 days from departure” post.

Its been busy, and I have come home from work drained.  But not so busy that I couldn’t have made an effort on some days.  I think the real problem has been the real lack of focus on the usual things that make departure memorable.  Forced to leave behind goodbye visits to places, people and friends because of the earthquake, I’m feeling disconnected from the whole departure process, which is sad.  And I’m not the only one.  I feel like others have checked out, or are barely functioning, or have simply lost interest in being here.  Others are still buried in the recovery efforts.  Everyone is physically or emotionally exhausted, or both.  These are the things that go on far longer than the earthquake does in the news cycle.

I’m feeling disconnected from Nepal, from arrival at our new post in Jamaica, even from the prospect of some time in the UK and Greece before we head to the US for home leave.  That will change.  The realities of pack out will force me to focus.  However, that’s the reason my blog has been silent all of June and I’d like to change that.  Just before the earthquake Wandering Cows challenged me to the Five Photos, Five Stories Challenge which requires you to post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo.  I had every intention of participating, but the earthquake got in the way.  Now perhaps it will help me reconnect with my own blog and serve as a more positive way to reflect on some of the smaller, poignant stories that I have from my time here.  So, Five Photos, Five Stories coming up….stay tuned!

Honey, did the earth move for you?


When your partner rolls over in bed it feels a lot like a tremor.  The simple movement of a leg or the adjustment of a pillow sends mini aftershocks through the mattress, which at 2am feels a lot like the beginning of another quake.  In the middle of the night its hard to be rational about these things. Sleeping through the night has been tricky for a while, after the quake its been more challenging still.    Before the second quake, it was sort of comforting that the aftershocks were rapidly decreasing in magnitude and frequency.  We felt them, paused to look at one another in the eye–an unspoken did you feel that?— and then continued with what we are doing.  Since the second quake, we know that the earthquake is not just a slowly dying beast, but one that can roar back to life at any time.   The ramifications of that mindset are everywhere….and its not just the bed springs that keep us on edge. After nearly a month of living in an earthquake zone, here are a few of the challenges:

Large earthquakes can bring a lot of after quakes.  I had no idea how many:

Nepal has had:
2 earthquakes today
33 earthquakes in the past 7 days
109 earthquakes in the past month
120 earthquakes in the past year

Large aftershocks trigger their own aftershocks, sometimes leaving you with the sickening feeling that this will never end.

Feeling after quakes all the time.  Everyone says, “Was that me?” ( or was that really a quake?)  Sometimes I’ve felt it, sometimes not.  And I do it too.  For my own sanity, I keep a bottle of water at eye level on the windowsill next to my desk. I’ve become super sensitive to the noises and rumblings of the building. I can feel and hear when pumps or AC motors turn on, and my eye automatically checks the water for movement.

The noise. When I think back to the major quake, I don’t remember any noise except the thud of my own heart and other people screaming.  But there is a noise that comes with the quake.  Some people say they hear a train coming, I hear rumbling and a bang.  Here in the middle of noisy Kathmandu there are plenty of unexpectedly slamming windows, rumbling trucks, or generators clunking back on that set of an alarm in my head.  I don’t run screaming from the building, but the hairs stand up on my arms.

The fear of other people.  I don’t like going out in public much at the moment.  I go, but now I particularly avoid being around too many people.  At the slightest tremor, they panic and scream, and waves of hysteria really don’t help. I don’t need to add being trampled to death to the list of dangers.

Birds.  A lot of the CCTV and tourist video captures the sudden flight of birds that take off seconds before we feel the quake.  They sense it before we do and startled crows are now another way to make you twitch.

Is it safe?  A year ago we went to a movie on the 7th floor of a Kathmandu shopping mall.  After, as we left, the city power went out and the generator took way too long to turn on.  We stumbled around in a dark passageway that was blocked with boxes and trash.  It felt like the most unsafe building in the city and we never went back. Apart from this incident, we’ve felt pretty safe exploring the city, enjoyed historic temples and the old Rana palaces that are now libraries and restaurants.  Before, an assessment was based on whether a place would have decent service or not make us sick.  Now I’m checking it for cracks and an exit strategy.

Exhaustion.   We work, function, cook, garden, shower and mostly carry on as normal but are completely spent by 8pm.  I don’t understand why I’m exhausted as though I’ve been carrying bricks all day… until I remember the disturbed sleep and the weight of all the stresses above – then it sort of makes sense.

Cee’s Oddball Photo Challenge Week 19


A little dark for this particular challenge, maybe? But where else am I going to share the odd side of Kathmandu’s recent earthquake? Tragedy was everywhere and now comes resilience and rebuilding, but there is a little strangeness also, still lingering in the corners.  Little reminders of what happened even after most of the debris has been picked up: a vase of flowers still standing inside a room seen through the gaping side of a building; billboards advertising events that were clearly cancelled; a paint store with its roll-down shutter still closed and paint oozing out onto the street…and these mannequins, who tell their own story.


60 days: Earthquake

S0054143 60 days until our departure from Kathmandu.  An earthquake was nowhere on my schedule – nor anyone else’s.  But it came and changed everything – some of it forever. There was so much saturation coverage on the news, and now it slowly becoming a secondary story…but the humanitarian recovery effort here is only just starting.  We are still recovering. We are ok.  We’ve caught up on sleep and the are over at least the first waves of shock and disbelief.  Amazingly everyone at work is ok too, many families and homes —-not so much. I was up a high A-frame ladder when it struck.  The ladder shook but didn’t fall, but I couldn’t get off it either.  I was surrounded by 7ft tall very high library book cases which carpenters had just put together for a new library I’m opening.  The metal cases are so heavy it takes 6 guys to move them and they were swaying next to me.  Eventually, I managed to get down, but by now I was the last one out and the floor was rocking so hard I couldn’t walk.  So I crawled out.

Once I got out the building, everything was still shaking and all I could do was run uphill, across the shaking car park to the metal bars of the fence. We held on tight until the shaking stopped and then ran down the to the Bagmati River away from buildings.  There was already about 100 stunned and frightened people down there, hopelessly trying to take in what just happened.  Around me were tall buildings with giant, scary cracks in them, and it started to sink in just how badly the earthquake had hit.  Suraj, the project engineer, had a car and said he would drive me home.  So we started driving through groups of stunned people and piles of bricks from fallen walls.  Once we got on to the main roads, we started to see fallen buildings, fallen ancient temples and wide cracks in the road.  Some roadways were blocked and we had to drive the long way around, all the time with the hand of the horn.  Cell phone service was down but I could get Robert with texts. I kept texting, telling him where I was at various landmarks, in case something happened.  About half way home the ground started shaking and Suraj yelled “get out the car” and we just stopped in the middle of the road and ran.  This was the second 6.something tremor and I looked around for something to dive under, but in Kathmandu there’s nothing safe.  We stood in a random car park, as far away as we could from the surrounding buildings, and watched electric cables and a tall glass building sway opposite.  It was then that I was the most terrified.  Dying seemed like a real possibility.
When it stopped and we calmed down, we continued driving.  When the next tremor came we were near a park, and stopped the car and ran into the open area.  This was the safest spot we had found and stayed there, along with hundreds of other people.  Its only about 10 minutes walk from home, but the tremors kept on coming and the thought of walking between cracked buildings and swaying electric poles made it too frightening to move.  I sat in the park for about four hours with support from families I knew.  No water, no toilets.  We just sat there and all froze every time the ground rumbled—which was frighteningly often.  The aftershocks just kept coming, again and again.  Eventually, the need to be home outweighed the fear of the next quake, so I walked home.  My area of town had less damage, as most of the buildings are newer and better built.  Our house was fine, except for some buckling of the cement driveway and some cracked exterior pillars.  We lost a few personal possessions like glass dishes, photos frames and plants, which all made a huge mess but, in the big picture, they were nothing.  Robert had been home alone for all it. The house had rocked and lurched badly, to the point that he thought it was sliding down a sink hole.  Getting back into the house with the two-way radio and supplies was a totally different world.
That evening we headed to the Embassy to sleep on Robert’s office floor because of the danger of afterquakes.  The Embassy is built to very high earthquake specifications, so even though it rocked badly with each after tremor, I felt so much safer.  We spent a second night there and have been taking in American citizens, Peace Corps volunteers and others who are camped outside in the Embassy grounds (if they have tents) or sleeping on the cafeteria floor, plus lots of kids, babies and dogs.  We were lucky enough to be able to go home to eat and shower, and are now back home to stay.
Just basic humanitarian relief will take weeks.   Although Kathmandu has taken a bad hit, there are more standing/undamaged buildings than expected and in some areas of town its not so noticeable.  The city is slowly coming back to a very slow version of normal.  Outside Kathmandu it is a very different story, and the villages are full of simple brick houses which certainly have collapsed, so the full story of the death toll will take a long time to compile.  We are all just so exhausted.  Its going to be a very different ,very weird last 60 days.

30 Seconds: Monkeyin’ Around

Monkeys are everywhere in Kathmandu, especially around temples or scraps of undeveloped land.  They are so fun to watch, but can also be annoying pests and even dangerous at times.  I had fun filming them on the Bagmati River last week. I think they were actually hamming it up for the camera. Here’s a few seconds worth.  Enjoy!

Sign Language: Signs of Change?


Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed these billboards going up around Kathmandu. They are meant to be arresting and thought-provoking.  And indeed they are.  On so many levels…  The problem of violence against women here is huge.  It cuts across all income, caste, and cultural backgrounds (much like statistics elsewhere, I believe) but is so prevalent and yet largely unaddressed publicly in the mainstream media.  Its not uncommon to hear NGO groups conduct awareness events or see street art with banners proclaiming “No to Violence Against Women and Girls”.  But on a billboard sign, next to a supermarket, next to the ads for concrete and building supplies?  Really? What does it mean?

It raised so many questions:

A magazine just for Nepali men… really? Actually, a magazine for relatively affluent, English-speaking, educated men.  That’s a niche market alright. But is its big enough to sustain a magazine like this? What did they have to say? I took a look at their website and was pleasantly surprised.  The articles were mostly about real issues rather than how to have tighter abs or buy flashy cars.  Articles like Choices in Contraception speak to the absence of real information here on taboo subjects.

A magazine published here? Almost everything here in from China or India, or imported from elsewhere.  Do they even have a high quality colour printing press in Kathmandu? Perhaps this particular niche market is one that already owns iPads and has easy internet access? Looking at their quality website, perhaps the main readership comes from an internet-based audience like so many magazines now in the developed world?

A magazine has the budget to advertise on billboards? Coca-cola, plywood, cement, rebar, paint and overseas educational opportunities… what else is there to advertise?  Here in Kathmandu, little else it appears.  If its not about construction (or the ubiquitous Coca-cola), then it seems there is no budget for billboards or posters.  Then, suddenly there’s this.  Maybe its not just about the cost?

What do men really think about this issue? Rape, sexual harassment in the office, feminism.. these are subjects that would be brave articles in Western mens’ magazines.  Brave in the sense that it might turn off readers.  I think its encouraging that Nepali editors are willing to take these subjects.  But what do the male readers think?

What does this mean in terms of changing attitudes?  Does this mean attitudes are changing? If gender-based violence cuts across all educational and economic backgrounds, will this eventually start to change with educated readers like this?  Why does every young man I speak to say that women should be empowered and that violence against women is wrong. But there’s so little evidence that this is happening. Is it just lip service? Will only real change come when the country develops?

And you thought it was just another billboard!…….

30 Seconds: Saturday at Swayambhunath

Nepalis work a 6-day week and Saturday is the day off.  Its a family day and the streets are quieter, so I decided to sneak off to Swayambhunath temple for a couple of hours to watch the monkeys and soak in the atmosphere.  I thought a 9am departure was pretty early and that I would get there before any crowds.  I was wrong!

Family time was in already in full swing when I arrived and the monkeys had long since split.  However, it was fun to watch the lines at temple, the coin tossing in the pond, and the general mayhem going on around me.  Families were setting up for a picnic in the most unlikely locations — and by picnic I mean cooking pot and granny peeling vegetables — and musicians blared and dueled with one another.  I just sat with my camera and watched.

Yet, surprisingly, there were still quiet corners.  As usual, I tried to capture a little here:  

On the Road Again?


This is probably not what Willie Nelson had in mind.

Despite its name, it does appear to be capable of mobility, yet it never moves. Its always parked on one of the main streets in Kathmandu, amid of all the chaos of micro buses and trucks. Judging from my general experience of Nepali toilets, I can’t even begin to imagine what its like inside. In a city with no such thing as chemical toilets and no drains, quite how it works, I’m not sure.. As for the red and blue buckets…the mind boggles!

30 Seconds: Bandh

Bandhs are general strikes. They have plagued this country in recent years: closing businesses, banning public transportation, and generally inconveniencing everyone for days at a time.  After a relatively bandh-free year, they are back and the Maoists who instigate them called for a three-day ban, starting today.  They seem to be having a harder and harder time making them stick…but still managed to take the chaos of Kathmandu down to a very strange kind of crawl today. Motorized vehicles vanished, schools closed, people walked to work or didn’t go at all.  The only vehicles allowed were essential deliveries, emergency services, tourist buses and diplomatic vehicles.  Those who disobeyed faced the possibility of confrontation or violence, so police were at every street corner.  Yet, despite the threat,  pedestrians filled the streets and the roads were quiet and more than a bit spooky.

So, in complete contrast to my earlier video of Kathmandu traffic, here’s a look at what happened today:

30 Seconds: Kathmandu from the Back Seat

We have drivers here in Kathmandu. I’ve a personal driver who takes us back and forth to work and motor pool drivers that take me to work events. Its a necessity really, not a luxury. I don’t think I could ever stand to drive here myself amid all the traffic mayhem or take the crowded, tiny micro buses that serve as public transportation. So I spend a lot of time in the back of a car, watching flashing images of people, places and things fly by the window. The surprising, the colourful, and the sometimes downright scary, make up for the monotony of traffic and the blare of omnipresent horns. Sometimes, I try to capture all of the craziness with my camera, but often soon as something interesting appears, it is gone. But, occasionally, I succeed and a little bit of the city is captured with my lens. Here’s a set of some of the better images, presented as close to realism as I can manage. Plug your ears!