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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