Bangkok, Kathmandu, Marriott, Nepal, travel

The tipping point

I’d been in Bangkok since last Thursday, night,  or more accurately Friday at 3 am when I was driven in a US embassy shuttle van to the Marriott hotel.  I’m no fan of chain plain jane cookie cutter bourgeois luxury establishments normally but after  a week sleeping outside in a dirt lot near my friends house in Kathmandu,  on pallets {initially –  we graduated to camp beds}  at the US mission not far away and leaning against the side of an Australian air force  aluminum tube at 35000 feet,  I was happy to surrender to an executive room,  a soft bed,  hot showers and meals that weren’t precooked 6 years  ago and packaged for America’s finest to eat in a foxhole under fire.
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But that was inside.  Outside was  the chaos and cacophony that is tourist  Bangkok.  I hadn’t been here since 1999 and  I wasn’t impressed then, with two   kids in tow we rushed through the obligatory tourist highlights ,  the Buddha,  the palace,  the river cruise and floating  market and then high tailed it out on the first train to Chiang Mai.  Bangkok was smelly,  noisy,  jammed,  dirty  and distinctly unrelaxing.  I remember the high point being when my youngest sagely pointed out a tuk tuk going the wrong way down a one way street and said he wanted to leave.

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And now,  outside the bubble of the Marriott, it was just the same.  Well sort of. “What was I doing here?” I thought  as I negotiated a sim card and a pair of shorts across the street.  “I’m supposed to be high in the mountains  on a trek,  not in the urban core of a teeming metropolis”.  I returned to the Marriott,  changed out of trekking pants and looked back at the tectonic shifts of the past few tumultuous days.  

Day 2 of the quake found us shuttling back and forth between  the American mission camp and Birendra’s house and neighborhood.  We’d put aside any thoughts except that of immediate needs.  With all the shops and restaurants closed tight,   no running water or power,  the only food for us was  MRE’s or meals ready to eat.  Sustenance but not satisfaction.  After one and a half meals I vowed I’d never touch them again.  I reverted to hot water,   the occasional trekking bar and a handful of pepitas.  Somehow a banana surfaced,  I don’t recall how.  And I wasn’t that hungry anyway.  I was living on adrenaline…  and purpose. 

I’ve never felt more fully alive.  Helping 3 Nepali  families find some stability in  their new chaos meant I had a role,  not just as passive trekker through  Nepal’s bounty of nature but as a hope,  a rock,  a force for good. 

Sitting with half a dozen older children,  showing them what happened in the earthquake,  why India pushes into Asia inexorably,  explaining the pressure of rock on rock and why,  now the major strain was released,  it would be safe again for many many years.  Whether it was absolutely true was besides the point; it was relatively true.  And the older kids could explain to the younger kids and to their parents too, that it was safe to go in their homes,  safe to start cleaning up, safe to start smiling again. 

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The smiling started with the younger ones of course,  it always does,  the immediacy of the now  outweighing the stern gazes of parents.  They smiled when we smiled; it broadened when we fed then apple sauce from MRE’s, about the only palatable part of the  packaged foods.  It danced across their faces when we played charades with them  it erupted in laughter when one of our jokes was translated into Nepali. And it became action in an impromptu game of cricket.  With kids smiling it became hope. 

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Yet despite all the science in the world the parents were worried about rumors of a deadlier quake within 36 hoursof the  main temblor.  The rumor, apparently engendered  from  the misinterpretation of a radio interview about aftershocks  with a team of  Indian geologists  meant the immediate proliferation of tent camps all over town as people were terrified of being trapped in their already battered homes by falling  brick or concrete plus of course the thousands of already newly homeless.

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These temporary townships had varying levels of sophistication,  ranging from simple tarps held up by slender bamboo sticks with strings tied to available utility poles,  planks ,  plumbing pipe,  anything vertical to your normal average weekend away camp tent, complete with flysheet and picnic table .  The army erected hundreds of their olive green pup tents in these encampments  ostensibly for two but in reality shelter for husband,  wife and two kids,  not to mention the occasional grandma. 

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There were  huge,  maybe 30 foot long  sunshades of colorful pretty cotton or nylon  fabric to help protect those sleeping out in sun and wind.

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And rain it did.  That second night it poured so hard that Birendra’s family overcame their fear of aftershocks and slept  in their downstairs hall with the front door open,  despite the protestations of their neighbors. Birendra said he didn’t sleep a wink of course.  The following night their camp was improved with drainage trenches dug in the sand and mud and slightly better weatherproofing aka more ubiquitous blue tarps. 

We were back at the American mission by midnight that second night  going through the thorough check-in procedure of passport check,  xray machine and metal detector.  I’d bought an umbrella the day before the quake and although it was a steady rain on our walk back through the darkened city  we were dry and  comfortable.  Trekking through a city instead of a mountain pass may not have been our intended path but I felt far more at peace than I could have imagined.  I guess there was no other word for it than love.  The love one feels borne out of compassion,   purpose,  meaning and acknowledgement.  The love that remains when all pretense is stripped away,  when masks drop and people really see and feel each other.  That was better than any meal or soft bed in the world I could have had right then.

And our mission came to be  how we could spread the love.  With word or deed,  with smiles,  a cup of tea,  some  biscuits we found in a shop that was bravely open. Love doesn’t have to be huge,  grand gestures or expectation.  Love is the simple,  the easy,  the pure,  acceptance of what is and creation of hope.

We were sleeping on wooden pallets with thick blankets.  Stephanie  made a pillow out of something.  I flattened empty MRE cartons to create a cushion against sprung nails and a pretense of a mattress. Our fellow refugees were long term expat residents of Kathmandu driven out of  their homes  by cracked columns,  broken pipes,  lack of power and of course a pervasive unease about being in any structure,  just like my Nepali families. 

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But although we are quick to criticize our governments in general,  this is one time they  came forward unreservedly and provided for their citizens. The US state department quickly put together this encampment,  providing food,  jury rigged a pump for hot water for showers from the swimming pool,  wireless Internet was fixed and made available,  water coolers,  tea,  coffee,  basic medical supplies,  daily briefings,  a feeling of safety and more than anything else,  hope – that most essential ingredient,  hope.  Our government came forth in a magnificent and munificent gesture of support for foreigners stranded in this city under stress.  The Canadians had their own tent. 

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The British,  after their embassy decided it couldn’t afford to keep its nationals for more than two days,  sent them to the American compound,  the Australians,  later to be our means of escape,   nationalistically and whimsically hung their own stars and bars on their little area of the main tent. 

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We both decided on that second day to make this bizarre voyage through a  Kathmandu under extreme stress one of positivity,  of progress. To broadcast  optimism, and  hope.   To take a shred of good news and inflate it to cover the city.  Not to give into despair and dark thoughts,  negativity or pessimism.
This was a challenge when an entire nation  saw its livelihood and infrastructure in peril. I started with Birendra,  ferreting out the good stuff,  that Annapurna wasn’t damaged and one could still trek there;  that Pokhara suffered only a little and was still a beautiful lakeside city; that he personally  had enough savings to get through a fallow period.  Talking with the  neighbors,  helping them see the upside; better housing,  improved infrastructure,  a possibly less venal government,  the world focusing finally on this gorgeous benighted country. 

At the neighborhood camps it  was neighbor and neighbor  cheek by jowl in their surface misery and deprivation,  sharing stories and  food,  each extended family  somehow managing on cold  rice,  or surreptitiously cooking  in homes you weren’t  supposed to go into or on outdoor fire pits.  One more organized camp we visited  was fed by the Nepali army and supplemented by the food the mostly homeless residents had managed to bring with them. 

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In the daytime of day 3  improved communications threw an interesting and perhaps auspicious bone at my feet.  A friend in Los Angeles who is  the  project coordinator for a  medical mission non profit focusing on children asked if I could help coordinate the delivery of medical supplies and a connection to a hospital with severely injured kids.  That got me thinking about the value of all the connections I had made over the last few years plus the new ones I was forging in Nepal.  I  called Birendra.  We all set off for  Children’s Hospital and the main  teaching hospital next door to find someone to talk to.  Sadly, it was like having a winning lottery ticket and no place to cash it.  The hospital was calm,  a UNESCO tent in the parking lot treating minor injuries. We couldn’t find a senior doctor or anyone from administration at all. 

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We went back to the compound and started firing off emails to NGO’s and Doctors,  hospitals and aid organizations.  The results are still trickling in.  We may not have immediately found our recipients but we’ve certainly  opened doors and the charity will follow up   

On the third night we found a dimly lit and rough and ready  Indian restaurant.  Two curry dishes only on the menu.  We took them both and asked for seconds. We’d noticed with the power  out over town that ice cream was a big seller whenever a store would open. It wouldn’t stay frozen forever  so the shop owners were basically giving it away and we delighted in bringing chili flavored popsicles to the Nepali kids in the neighborhood encampment.

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Day 4 was slightly better.  A few food  stores opened selling local produce and I brought Birendra a large cabbage.  It could  probably be framed as an artifact of the earthquake but I think he turned it into soup.

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He and his neighbors decided to move their families  back home as the 36 hour self-imposed deadline had passed.  His  kids were still scared but reason prevailed finally.  Warm dry beds or intermittent downpours.    Food at arms length or a 50 meter walk to the  bathroom.  The rain had cleared the air and gave birth to a beautiful sunset over the Kathmandu valley reminding us of what a lovely place this was  and would be again.

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We continued exploring the city as it slowly ground back to life.  People were visibly happier and more shops opened,  even optimistically,  trekking stores although most of the tourists had left.    For the fortunate locals who didn’t lose their homes it will be a faster recovery and thanks to extended families,  less problematic than perhaps when a sole breadwinner can’t bring home money.  For the Kathmandu  homeless,  they will survive on the generosity of neighbors and agencies and perhaps government.

The Canadian government put on an evacuation plane to Delhi on day 5.  That got us thinking of how we’d leave Nepal. Power was still out and the well  pumps accordingly  and Birendra had to retrieve by bucket and boil water from his underground tank to drink.  We heard  a rumor of cholera although I didn’t believe it.  Another rumor had fly infested dead bodies spreading disease.  I didn’t believe that either. Stephanie and I discussed the 8 hour bus journey to the Indian border by land and then train to Varanasi or somewhere.  The Indian  government was giving free 7 days visas at any airport and the two main land border crossings from Nepal to assist in evacuation efforts. 

I went to bed.   I awoke to the news that Stephanie had registered us for an Australian evacuation flight to  Bangkok later that day.  There were no guarantees we would get on it and frankly I was torn. Could we continue to help effectively now our local families didn’t really need us?  Professionals were now here. Fairfax County was the first to arrive then  LA County fire department with  60 search and rescue personnel  along with Ojai trained dogs {from the National Disaster Dog Search Foundation}.

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 The encampment was filling up with military personnel,  tons of supplies,  USAID workers and medical response teams.  What could we do?  To  volunteer further,  yes,  but we didn’t yet have an organization to take us and to go it alone meant another mouth for someone to feed.  Besides we were told  that civilians would have to leave the embassy compound and go back to hotels or their homes within 48 hours. 
Birendra’s mother in law’s family had moved into to his house that fifth day as her home was badly damaged and deemed unsafe.  We flirted with the idea of going to the mountains but a chat with a disaster worker said they didn’t need people to clear rubble.  There were  plenty of locals.  Besides,  I had a mission to coordinate this donation for the foundation and I could go that from any Internet and phone connection..

The decision was made for us when we told we had had 45 minutes to muster  at a staging point inside the compound for a bus trip to the airport.  I panicked.  Half our  luggage was at Birendra’s.  It would take half an hour alone to check out of the compound with the security  and another hour walking back and forth to get our luggage.  .  We’d packed all our stuff up  more or less at his house but it would have been impossible to get it in time.  Clothes I didn’t care about but my credit cards were there.  After frantic phone calls,  pleading with the evacuation coordinator who had said no delays and a security guard to escort me to the street outside the  compound without the lengthy passport checkout process  we got Birendra to deliver the luggage on his motorcycle.

The rest  of the day was like one of those Graham Greene spy movies.  The bus took us to the Australian ambassador’s residence for processing and tagging and checking and inspection then we were split  into two groups,  Australians and others – mostly Americans, taken to the airport,  filmed and interviewed  by the Australian media through  which I profusely thanked the Australian taxpayer

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and eventually loaded into the belly of a military C17,  given extra strength earplugs and disgorged in Bangkok after a 4 hour flight

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This quake was born in tortured rock and unleashed misery beyond telling yet  it also  engendered one of the most profound weeks of my life. Tipping points happen when systems are unstable.  It appears  my prior existence too  was due for a 7.8. If so, I welcome the new landscape and will continue to  sweep away my own personal rubble to build an evermore connected,  conscious and compassionate me. 

Bangkok May 2015

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Quake, Day 1

I had booked a hike in the Langtang region of Nepal a few months ago.  I thought I was hiking by myself but much later one of my friends decided to come too. Our trip formally started on Friday 24th to  include a city tour and was scheduled to leave Kathmandu  Saturday morning April 25th. I asked the trekking company If  we could delay for one day so we’d have time to both see the city and go shopping for the trek.  We were just about to leave to  go shopping when at 11.55 AM  all hell let loose….

We were upstairs in Birendra’s house making last minute lists of trekking gear to purchase.    Suddenly the house starts to shake a little.  OK,  quake.  Big deal.  Because I live in Southern California and am foolishly optimistic about tremors I thought the gentle movement  would just pass and be over in a few seconds but the quake just got  stronger and STRONGER AND STRONGER..    Not at all panicked but with clear intent to get out of the now severely  juddering structure,  Stephanie {my trekking partner}  grabbed me and said calmly “we got to get out NOW”. Taking nothing,  we dashed down from  the 3rd floor,  thrown off balance trying to get down rocking staircase  to the locked front door.  I couldn’t get the damn key in the old fashioned mortice lock because of the shaking, both my hand and the keyhole  not wanting to play ball..   This was all in the first maybe 45 seconds.  Adrenaline is pumping in full force.  Finally got the balky lock turned and  door open and ran into the unpaved street. ..

Neighbors  gathered  in the intersection of the tiny lane to the side of the house   but no one was panicking,  not even the dogs were barking,  just hundreds of raucous crows cawing above us in the blue sky. It was a very strange and surreal  calm.  Aftershocks every few minutes. Everyone looking at each other and obviously wondering when it would stop.

  The house is in the background

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After about 20 quiet minutes  “Over”,  I declared optimistically,  “a really big one,  let’s get up there,  grab our stuff and get on with our day”.  Little did I know.

In our immediate  neighborhood we didn’t see   much  damage.  I saw some surface cracks on the lower fascia of Birendra’s house and the steps had parted a little from the front entry.  I didn’t see any floor cracks and all the doors and windows I tried were still plumb.  “Good foundations”  I said. Other homes nearby seemed unscathed at first glance.

We walked out on to the lane next to the local temple.  First sign of clearly visible  damage was a fallen brick wall. Shoddy construction with no real foundations,  it just lay flat in the alley  like a brick laid path.

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The area was dotted with 3,  4 and 5 story homes,  some quite elaborately balconied and collonaded

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interspersed with simple brick one story workshops and open store fronts.  All standing unscathed.  Everywhere people gathering,  looking afraid and unsure of  what to do next.  Another aftershock.  We kept walking, talking.  On our way to Thamel to shop.  Here and there a cascaded  wall or a few bricks in the road fallen from a structure. Here and there knots of people every few tens of meters along fallen brick

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The fear in the air was palpable  but people were still quiet, calm,  their faces ashen with uncertainty,  that all of a sudden everything had changed and their normally predictable lives were upended. The earth moved again and again and kept on moving throughout the day  but the crying was subdued,  not outright panic.

We too felt this anguished energy,  running fast and fearfully  about 100 meters   through one alley with packed  3 story houses on either side and no place to get away from a falling building.  Through  another similar alley  and yet another.  In a wider space we slowed down to a walk  and moved  out next to the main  road.  Hundreds of people on what was yesterday an impromptu cricket pitch for a handful of local kids, now a gathering place of scared,  worried people. But  children were playing,  at least the younger ones keeping a tiny smile in the dusty air.  

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Everyone on cell phones,  no one able to make a connection on an overloaded network.  My Internet went on and off and then would remain off for what would be the entire day and into the night. I tried desperately to connect to the outside world but to no avail.

We had no news  no idea of anything; epicenter,  size of quake,  damage,  number of dead. All we knew was what had happened to us and what we saw with our own eyes. Stephanie started talking to 2 tourists from India who said the epicentre was in Chitwan and that Pokhara was badly damaged,  many dead.  We didn’t know if it was true or not but hungry for information we were happy to get any news. 

A  power pole  was askew on the main road just opposite the entrance road  to Thamel.  Electricity was off of course.

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We could see rubble and knots of people standing in the  street about 50 meters down.  Someone said “don’t go in there, too dangerous,  collapsed hotel,  many dead”.    Realization started to set in  that we were not going to be shopping today or hiking the next day or for several days if at all.

Staying on a main road,  wide enough to avoid the potential of a collapsing building we went down to another large crowd  of people sitting on a patch of dirt and bricks. On the way we saw two Chinese tourists stumbling along  wearing what looked like sleepwear,  a girl with bloody,  bandaged feet and the boy holding an equally bloody handkerchief to the side of his head. She looked like she’d walked through it been hit by flying glass.  Two Nepali men wearing traditional hats sat,  vacant looks on their faces as if they were in a trance.

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Virtually all the shops were closed,  their steel shuttered fronts were probably a good thing even though looting might have been the furthest thing from people’s minds at this moment.

In front of a paint  shop was a rorschach blot of white  paint running down the sidewalk from a  spilled container. 

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Next door a tea shop that amazingly,  was open. Dragging plastic chairs to the edge of the road away from the building and sitting cradling steaming  much needed Nepali milk tea we sat and tried to make sense of the morning’s mayhem with only what we’d seen and heard. 

A big,  no,  make that a  huge quake .  Aimless people just scared out of their wits.  Injuries,  deaths,  homes and business and infrastructure destroyed,  power lines down. Internet and phones out.   Shops all shuttered.  Who was going to feed everyone.  What about essential services.  Where was everyone going to sleep?  live?  defecate?  And what about us?  How would we survive this?

At least the tea was soothing and we hadn’t seen a single gun or crazy person.  We imagined LA after  a massive quake and shuddered {pardon the pun}.  At least we had a base at our friends home.  At least we weren’t injured.  At least we had a way out,  eventually perhaps when the airport would open – if there still was an airport –  we didn’t know.  At least we had options. 

Walking back to the main road I saw the Thamel general hospital and our first policeman waving people away.  We walked in to the body laden courtyard and saw maybe 20 people in various stages of triage.  Nurses setting up IV stands and other injured hobbling in,  bleeding or being carried.

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A man showed us  a back door out of the hospital leading to a cafe courtyard.  The veranda had completely collapsed obliterating half the place, smashed crockery everywhere.  I’d eaten there in previous visits. I felt overwhelming  sadness and grief.  We needed some hope.

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Past the rubble of a building  surrounded by soldiers,  we didn’t know that 50 people were buried inside or we’d have been digging with our bare hands.  The shop under my friend’s office was now windowless and the stock all over the floor. The stench  of broken pipes and sewage permeated the street and I made  a  quick thank you to the stars that cooking here was bottled LPG not mains gas in pipes.

We had to get some fresh air and we needed  food.   Running down to the wider artery of Kantipath and without a plan we saw a pizzeria –  Fire and Ice.  Closed yet not locked up,    the owner, an energetic Italian woman with an engaging smile,  was cleaning up broken glass.  We offered  to help and begged for anything to eat at all.  Like a true Italian momma who has to feed to live she sat us down and brought over the morning’s foccacia bread and a bowl of tomato basil sauce. 

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We were beyond ecstatic as she kept telling us about the smashed glasses and the Chinese constructed multistory building we were in that seemed to survive intact (we hoped) as we sat in it!. 

“Could we buy a bottle of wine? ” I asked,  totally uncharacteristically of me.  It was 3 pm and I am not known for imbibing.  Stephanie nodded too and Anna,  the cafe owner brought over a bottle of Spanish red.  As we were opening it an American man called David and his Nepali girlfriend walked in.  More foccacia and two more glasses rounded out the party. He lived here in town and added to our meager store of news by telling us that nearby Kathmandu Durbar Square was demolished by the quake.  We had been there yesterday on our tour and enjoyed an amazing  rooftop view of the heritage site and its many temples.
“Gone?”   I gasped.  We stopped enjoying our brief respite from the misery and got back to survival talk.

David suggested we go to the American mission just around the corner,  register so get news to our email it’s and friends  and see what they can do for us as it was increasingly apparent things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.  Thanking Anna who wouldn’t take any money from me but Stephanie had the bright idea to put $20 in the employee tip jar  thinking they’ve oils certainly need the money  we left,  back on Kantipath and walking around downed powerlines with one huge concrete  pole dramatically lying horizontally on the roof of a taxi in the middle of the road   “Wrong time,  wrong place,  pal”  I thought.  We saw no blood,   seemed like no one was hurt. A lucky escape

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At the American mission club the security was tighter than any airport but US passports got us in past triple locked doors,  xray machines,  metal detectors and 10 guards  to a huge baseball field surrounded by a Px commissary and various outbuildings.  This used to be the American embassy prior to some edict to move US diplomatic facilities to more modern secure buildings.  It’s now used as a social venue for expat Americans with swimming pool, gym,  sports fields and a cafe.  Two huge marquees served as shelter

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It looked like I imagine a ball field in Kansas to be.  Vaguely bucolic with an Asian  flavor in the eaves of the buildings.    There was some earthquake damage to brick facades and the wall of the swimming pool but as the US government said it was safe I guess it was safe. We registered our passports and I had my first MRE,  or military rations.  It  may have been “ready to eat”  meals but it was barely edible.

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Continuing on our photo quest and having registered so inquiries to the State Department would reveal to our families  we hadn’t been killed in the quake we walked back into Thamel and down towards the temple complex We’d been told had been destroyed.  Only yesterday we had sat in a rooftop restaurant with a view and enjoyed an hour and some light rain marveling at the ancient structures.

Although the walk down was somber,  frightening even through very narrow streets,  jumpy people, occasional  twisted concrete and brick rubble,  we did encounter a calm Hindu/Buddhist  temple  called “Janabaha”,  where the signboard announced that  persons of all religions were welcome and the temple  miraculously undamaged even though the large courtyard was at least 200 years old.  A few worshippers spun prayer wheels as did we; others relaxed on the patio.  Children played with dogs.  The temple itself was a lovely square structure  with an interior 4 sided  corridor of wrought iron and brass polished smooth by countless devotees. 

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To add to the charm of this seemingly earthquake proof haven   strangely angled mirrors hanging high on the courtyard walls  facilitated  rather unusual  “selfies”.

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Back in the streets next to Durbar Square there were mobs of  people scrambling over rubble and gazing at the temple square.   Several hundred years of history had vanished in 2 minutes.  We had no idea of the body count but the bulldozer frantically clawing at the huge pile of brick remains of the  main temple was probably not helping. A soldier warned me away from a higher vantage point but after a few more photos   I couldn’t stay and look any more.  It was sickening.

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Walking back towards Thamel rubble completely blocked one road so much so that we had to turn and run down  an unlit side alley.  There hadn’t been a tremor for a few hours but why tempt fate? Others were running too.

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The monotony of the broken homes,  scared people and uncertainty was pervasive.  We’d seen enough heartbreak.

We walked back to Birendra’s house slowly through deserted streets  in pitch black illuminated by cell phones and flashlights and the occasional motorcycle headlight.   Clusters of tents and blankets and cardboard  lay next to houses, on empty lots,    under walls(foolish I thought),  people were not sleeping at home tonight.  

Birendra and his family were not at home but in the empty sand lot a block away.  Every single family in the surrounding 10 homes was there.  Tarps were being erected over bamboo poles  to keep off the expected rain and blankets distributed. 

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It wasn’t particularly noisy,  people were somber,   fitful,  scared and worried. Birendra worried about clients canceling treks,  his newly built home,  his kids and their wellbeing.  I worried we’d get cold and wanted to sleep inside. From 9pm to 1am we patiently waited, dozing in the cold for the  expected  aftershock which didn’t come.  We moved inside to his house and slept the sleep of the damned.

Kathmandu,  April 25th 2015.
Magnitude 7.8 .

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Leafy morning

Sitting in a garden  bathroom groggily contemplating a frog at 6 am is one way to welcome the day.  The early light filters through foliage but everything is still monochrome,  greys and greyers.  Under a large leaf sits this medium sized head,  moving slightly.  I thought at first it was a mouse but I could sense the sloping flatness of a frog after a few moments.  He {I’m guessing here}  and I just sat there looking at each other,  eyes resolving themselves out of the gloom.

The frog wasn’t hunting or darting,  posturing or preening,  just  sitting  under the broad leaves. Waiting for breakfast or serenity in a way  only a  frog can know. 

The garden in the bathroom was dry as it  hadn’t rained for a couple of days.  I wondered whether the frog was suffering from this.  Or was it I suffering from what I thought the frog might have perceived as a lack of moisture? I’m not able to guage the specifics of a frog’s happiness so I let that thought slip idly by, to join all the other thoughts that evaporate from consciousness, especially in that glorious jarring  shift from  dreaming to wakefulness. 

The light resolved,  froggy and I more clearly visible to each other.  Still gazing,  photons streaming across the 3 feet separating us.  A universe of difference in a tiny space. Or perhaps not, perhaps we were thinking exactly the same primitive Maslovian thoughts. Hunger,  survival,  safety from predators.  

We were both safe in this walled space,   too thick for a snake  to penetrate for frog and no evil thoughts shaking my calm in my little villa in Bali with that early morning sense of freedom from pain and suffering,  the day not yet imprinted on me. 

Frog moved back under a leaf and disappeared.  I took the sprayer and wet the garden down just in case my earlier notion  might have been correct.  Frog, now hopefully happily wet didn’t reappear. 

My own need for moisture surfaced. Time for wake-up tea. 

Lodtunduh,  Bali,  Sunday morning,  April 2015

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indonesia, Jet lag, Lake Tempe, Sulawesi, travel

From the other side

 Screaming at me silently in large clear letters.  Warning me or welcoming me.  A message,  or harbinger? Or just a simple hello? Whatever it is,  it’s a shock. 

In the middle of South Sulawesi lies a shallow body of water.  Tempe Lake is the remnant of an ancient gulf,  now landlocked.  It’s about an hour across in fast longboat,  roughly 50 square  miles of open water dotted with mats of water hyacinths,  reeds, water vegetable gardens.  Herons,  cranes and ducks share this aquatic  paradise with traditional fishermen and their ingenious bamboo framed nets. The water level and lake size ebb and flow with the seasons. 

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Here and there are floating houses.  Built on  bamboo rafts and tethered to an anchoring pole,  they swing to and fro with the wind.  Simple structures,  assembled piece by piece on the rafts from bamboo poles and slats,  corrugated iron sheets or woven matting for walls and roofs,  timber floors.  Wide verandas and rudimentary kitchen and toilet facilities. 

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Fish,  eat,  sleep.  Dry the fish,  inhabit for a month or two a  year  and then go back to terra firma to  sell the fish and to your other house and another job,  a real one,  farming perhaps,  or laboring of one sort or another. There’s tourism.  The lake is a star attraction.  It’s about eight dollars for a fast,  comfortable longboat across  from town to the floating villages.  Some enterprising  fisherfolk supplement their income by offering tea and refreshments to visitors.

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We drove from the other side of town to a muddy bank by the side of a fast flowing river.  Against the current, through a  riverine cityscape of warehouses  mosques,  workshops on one side;  homes on stilts in the mud,  sheds for boat repair and barges for fuel and fishing supplies on the other.

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The river opened up suddenly to the wide expanse  of the lake. 

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An hour of fast driving later we pulled up to one of these floating homes perhaps a tiny bit less ramshackle  than the other dozen or so in the village.

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Of the 4 people on board the  only defined role seemed to be that of the woman in the kitchen aft.  She made the tea and fried the bananas.

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  The men just sat and smoked,  talking. We were  on  the foredeck verandah in the breeze,  watching the birds and absorbing the serenity of the lake. 

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The walls of this particular craft were made of unpainted corrugated sheet metal. As we were leaving  I noticed in one corner was a word,  like one would spray as a graffito on a brick wall.  Yellow-red,  in large clear letters was the word “Randi”.

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  It didn’t register right away but unconsciously  I pulled out my camera and snapped it.  Then a minute later it  hit me.  My first thought; it’s an Indonesian word. I asked what it meant.  Heads shook.  Not Indonesian.  I went to my online translator.  Confirmed.  Not Indonesian. Randi  was the name of my wife, properly capitalized and spelt,   now dead 18 years.  What was that uncommon in English let alone non-Indonesian word doing on a piece of tin wall on a lake boat in the middle of Sulawesi?  Why did our driver pick that boat for tea amongst two or  three others?  Why did I happen to look up at that section of wall just as we were about to leave?

Some events spur one to action.  Others freeze you in fear.  Yet others are just ineffable,  insoluble  puzzles.  Setting aside the incredible,  the impossible,  the unbelievable and the unlikely,  what am I left with?

There isn’t an explanation …  except..   except… a message from the other side….  
  
July 31st, 2014,  Sulawesi Selatan,  Indonesia.

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The ultimate field trip

When I was a schoolboy,  we went on the occasional field trip. Museums mostly,  once the Ford car factory,  but my favorite were the geography trips.  Off we would pile into a coach,  excited school kids all along with a couple of teachers to ensure we’d be appropriately instructed and not kill ourselves or worse,  bring shame on the noble institution we were representing.  I think we even had to wear school uniforms.  One trip of note was to Malham Tarn in Yorkshire where we actually learned about glaciers  and what they did to the landscape  (not that there are any glaciers in England we could go play on  but hey,  we we were not at the Alaska Academy here,  we too were victims of geography) and to find fossils in the severely worn down and eroded Pennine mountains.  Another trip was to Arran Island in Scotland.  We were all in the full  flush of adolescence,  there were girls from a school in Paisley on the same trip  (yes there actually is a place,  it’s not just a pattern) and I think we  tried to discover the mysteries of Scotch whisky under the noses of our teachers,  it being logical,  given our location.  Distracted as we were I don’t recall any of the geography we were supposed to learn there.  On reflection though I think I must have learned to love field trips! 

The area of Upper  Mustang is the ultimate field trip.  It’s some of the most incredible landscape on planet earth,  centered on the steeply  eroded Kali Gandaki river valley,  whose namesake river and its merging  tributaries  drain the entire  Mustang plateau.  The river runs down from  the edge of the  Tibetan plateau right through the Annapurna range of the Himalayas  and eventually into the Ganges. The Kali Gandaki creates the deepest gorge in the world ( yes,  deeper than the Grand Canyon) as it runs  between two of the world’s highest mountains  of the Annapurna range Dhaulagiri and Annapurna.  What’s amazing is that 60 million years ago this  area was under the Tethys sea and when the  Indian subcontinent slammed into Asia it was   uplifted and the Himalayas formed,  draining that primeval sea away. And the river itself,  predates the Himalayas.  Nature,   always the great equalizer  with water and wind,  immediately started eroding the soft sandstone rocks out of which the hard granite mountains thrust. 

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The river narrows at Jomsom,  the start of our trek,  before it widens into a  beautiful floodplain.

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The river meanders throughout its floodplain on the Jomsom to  Kagbeni
trek on the first day.  It looks like a beach,  doesn’t it? 

The first night’s stay was in Kagbeni,  framed by apple orchards and   fields of buckwheat

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Windy,  cold but nowhere near as cold as it going to get! 

Leaving Kagbeni we walked along the edge of the river  as the cliffs deepened into tortured shapes,  blasted by the ever present (and often fierce) winds.  The whole trek was a series of climbs,  up and down these deep gashes in the earth. 

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Just before our ascent into the cliffside village of Cheli. 

I would like to have trekked with a geologist to really help me understand this extraordinary mix of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks.   The sheer range and variety  was astounding.  Here are iron encrusted hillsides shaped by the incessant wind

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There’s a jeep track carved out of the sandstone and mud.  These gabions  of the loose rocks lying around and buried in the hillsides are laboriously made up by hand – many hands apparently – and lifted into place  to stabilize the edges of the road.  I suspect they won’t last long given the amount of water flowing down the high slopes to eventually find its way into the Kali Gandaki

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Crossing one of the interminable and very windy passes we came down the back side,  sheltered slightly and rounding a spur was one of the most amazing sights I think,  on planet   earth; 3 folded mountains like the flag of..believe it or not,  East Friesland (now go look that one up,  geography buffs) in red and blue and black

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I know this photo cannot do justice but if nature was an artist   she’d be hanging in the National Gallery 

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Or this,  where the soft outer sandy rocks are exposing fantastic shapes that take the breath away. 

Some I named…

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This outcropping  I called the “sphinx and the matroshka doll” 

And this..

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The Leaning Tower of Penis

And in the same vein…

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One lucky  mountain  indeed!

Even Buddhist mythology has its part to play geologically. 

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These rocks outside Dakhmar are said to be stained with the blood of a devil slain in battle with the good guys of course! 

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Note the cliffside houses carved out of the soft  sandstone.  Dotting Mustang are these refuges from times past where villagers sheltered from enemies.

I didn’t meet any girls from Paisley on this,  my ultimate field trip,  nor did I have any disapproving teachers looking over my shoulder but I was definitely sampling raksi,  or rice wine, the local equivalent of Scotch,  to warm up in the chilly tea houses each evening.  And to top it off  I found a fossilized ammonite,  a roughly 100 million year old piece of history  washed out of the Kali Gandaki.

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Rip-off

Nepal,  as I wrote previously,  is a culture without shame when it comes to copyright and trademarks.. It’s not just trekking gear….  Here’s a few more examples that will give you a chuckle. 

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Yak Donalds?  Really,  but it’s right next door to

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Wonder if it’s open 24 hours…  But just down the road is

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For my non USA readers,  Applebee’s is a restaurant chain.  But wait,  there’s more

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Think Conrad would stay there?  And that’s all in one morning! 

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Maybe an offshoot?  The owner was a lovely man.

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The monk

James he says his name is. Just a  kid really ,  about 23,  spoke reasonable English,  wearing the deep maroon of a fully fledged Buddhist monk.  He has been asked by the trekking lodge owner to take us to the monastery in Gheling,  in a muddy village about half way to Lo Manthang. 

We’d arrived in Gheling after a fairly brutal 9 hours of slogging up one mountain  and down the next all the while thinking we were closer than we were.  It was day 3 of the trek and the late afternoon turned  coldest with the wind howling and my thin gloves useless,  my thick ones on top not much better.  On top of the weather,  there was an ongoing drama with the two Austrian ladies I was trekking with.  Apparently they were given a different itinerary by the organizer than both the one I was given and the one in the permit  (there’s an involved and expensive bureaucratic process to trek upper Mustang which states where you have to stay on each night).  We had walked to the village on  their itinerary (which I didn’t know then) and of course they wanted to stay.  For some reason (perhaps to meet this monk I didn’t even know existed? ) I got on my (very?  extremely?) high horse and insisted we keep going –  it was only early afternoon,  fine weather and of course,  I’m such a stickler for paperwork.  They were furious but I just marched off and they followed.  It actually made sense to keep on going as I explained to them later,  given the distances we had to travel to get to Lo Manthang,  our ultimate destination,  but for now they were quite upset.  The guide wasn’t helpful either.  He didn’t care where we stayed but when he pulled out his copy  of the itinerary he showed something different from mine  AND the Austrians.   Turns out there were five different itineraries which caused problems for us later but that’s another story. 

James,  really Jamu,  anglicized just for me,  took us to the monastery perched on a hill overlooking the village.  There were two halls,  a lower,  conventional Buddhist monastery,  with the standard two rows of wooden meditation benches arranged perpendicular to the altar and seating mats  behind the benches for visitors.  Apart from some lovely and lively murals adorning the mud brick building it wasn’t terribly compelling. 

The upper monastery couldn’t be visited by women –  a Buddhist quirk I had previously encountered at temples and monasteries in Myanmar as well  –  I wonder what the grand old man would have thought of that?  Probably the same horror as Jesus,  Moses,  Mohammed etc.  would for their respectively hijacked dogmas.  But I’m a man,  so I was allowed to ascend the rickety wooden ladder to the anteroom,  a rectangular chamber some 15x 20 filled with the miscellany of devotion.  Mats,  books,  candles,  a rice cooker,  a few chairs,  a cell phone charger,  a solar panel and lights  ( this village wasn’t on the grid at all,  as much as there is a grid in Nepal)  and a couple of folding tables.  Religion at its most mundane.  Another door was unlocked and we entered the almost pitch black space,   except for a tiny oil lamp burning on the altar.  Jamu turned on a  solar light and the approximately  20 x 20 inner sanctum revealed itself. There was a mat and low counter off to one side for the Lama of this monastery,  currently Jamu,  whose story I will relate below. Ornate  carved wood  floor to ceiling consoles with paned glass cupboards  above and locked cupboards below lined the other  two sides.
The fourth wall had a small window inset in the thick mud brick wall which Jamu opened.  In the increased  light I could see the entire chamber was painted,  but what paintings!  I shone my phone flashlight on them and was awestruck.

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Just a couple of examples!   I could not do any better with the poor lighting.  Jamu said they were painted about 30 years ago by the best monastery painter in India and Nepal.  A roving Michelangelo to be sure as the work was exquisite.

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Another masterpiece that will be seen by few in the flesh. 

The entire room was filled with art and artifacts to amaze.  On the alter there were intricately carved wooden and metal statues,   maybe 18 inches tall,  of figures from the  Buddhist pantheon. Behind glass I could not photograph them unfortunately.  They were definitely not your average laughing Buddha at the car wash.  These saints,  devils, princes of good and evil and spirit figurines  were,  according to Jamu,  some two hundred years old and from Tibet.  Along with the obligatory offering plate

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(yes,  I gave!)  and the carved Buddha’s of stone,  metal and wood,  there were piles of silk scarves,  amulets,  bowls for holy water,  plastic flowers,  a Pringles chip canister,  appropriated for use as an incense stick holder and  a solar lamp. 

The two pillars on either side of the altar had various item hanging from and strapped to,  including a corkscrew shaped tree root about three feet long –  at first I thought it was a metal industrial tool,  swords and daggers,  rifles from the rebels who fought the Chinese takeover of Tibet from Upper Mustang in the 60’s until the Nepali government put the kibosh on that (it is reasonably substantiated that the CIA was involved  in arming and funding the rebels which is why Mustang was closed to the outside world until 1989) and a real mummified human hand. 

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Yes,  I’m holding it,  it is dead and it’s real!

The hand belonged to a  thief a couple of hundred years ago  who came to steal the monastery art and valuables for his master who was in some sort of conflict  with Gheling (the story wasn’t that clear to me).  The thief,  apprehended in the act,  had his hand cut off by the Abbot of the monastery (so much for love and peace).

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The upper red building is the Lama’s private monastery.

The monastery was 483 years old and Jamu was the third son of a Gheling village farmer.  It’s customary to send a third son off to religious school for the priesthood and Jamu was dutifully shipped to monastic school near Rishikesh in India where he learned his passable English and after his studies and life in different monasteries he was appointed to look after the Gheling monastery for a two year period.  He has seven months left and then  he’ll go where they send him to do his work. 

Currently living with his family just down the lane from the monastery,  he said it was fun to be home with his brother and sister.  His  daily routine of early morning meditation,  births,  marriages,  deaths and fundraising and local volunteer work  to keep the ancient buildings from falling apart kept him busy.

As he showed me more of the ancient,  curious and unusual adornments of this tiny shrine,  I commented on the pretty yellow and white silk scarves (like the one in the photo above).  He said  the villagers donate them on almost any occasion for a visit to the monastery and he had a cupboard full of them.  He reached in and pulled out one of these offerings and gave it to me as a period gift. In a role reversal I wished him long life and the manifest blessings of the Buddha. 

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