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Reflections from Nepal after second major earthquake

Images of people, villages, earthquake relief work  in Nepal

With word just now spreading about a second major earthquake to hit Nepal on May 12, 2015 – this time centered west of Kathmandu near the Chinese border – we’ve just received an update from Sanjay Saxena (of Destination Himalaya) about what he witnessed in Nepal after April 25 quake. His thoughts and photos are below.

And, as before, our prayers are with all the people of Nepal and India affected by this most recent earthquake. Please see our earlier blog post for a list of aid organizations working to help in disaster relief and recovery in this region.

Sanjay Saxena’s story: (click here for Sanjay’s slideshow)

The day after the April 25 Nepal earthquake, I was on a plane headed to Tibet and Nepal – the timing was purely coincidental as my trip had been planed weeks in advance and I was not about to cancel because of the quake.  I was traveling with vineyard owner/philanthropist Richard Grace to visit some of the schools and clinic that his foundation had started and supports in Eastern Tibet.  I have been working with Ann & Dick Grace (the founders of the Grace Family Vineyard Foundation) since 2001, helping establish and oversee some of their projects in India and Tibet.

Dick was denied entry into China and we met up in Bangkok and decided to head to Nepal instead.  We scheduled our arrival into Kathmandu for May 1, day six after the earthquake, figuring that the immediate search and rescue efforts would be on their final stretch, whereas the rebuilding efforts would just be starting and that is where we and the Grace’s Foundation could be most effective.

First Impressions:

On arrival in Kathmandu, I was greatly relieved to see that the city had not been leveled as I was led to believe by the media reports to date. We went straight away to the Bodha neighborhood of Kathmandu which is where a lot of our friends and guides lived. Though there was no massive destructive damage like in Bhaktapur and Patan, there were building with cracks in their structure.  Most severely hit was Sechin Monastery’s main assembly hall that had very dramatic cracks, but thankfully the structure held as hundreds were inside attending a teaching at the time of the quake.  The monastery open space was a tent city not just for the monks but tens of local people too.

Locals across Kathmandu had tents and makeshift shelter of tarps set up in the back yards, gardens and any open space they could find. As people did not know the structural integrity of their homes and fearing additional quakes they opted to sleep or work outdoors.  What is really lacking here is structural engineers, seismologists that can ascertain which buildings are safe to go back into. The Government announced that the services of structural engineers will be free for all residents, but there just are not enough engineers to go around.  By May 7 (my departure from Kathmandu to Lhasa), 12 days after the earthquake, the engineers had not reached the Bodha neighborhood and our friend Dolma (an Honoree of the 2001 Unsung Heroes of Compassion) with her family, including 80+ year old disabled father were still living under a tarp.

Immediately on landing in Kathmandu, I received a text message on my mobile phone from T-Mobile stating that while I am in Nepal all phone calls, data would free so that I can keep in touch with my family in the US – what  a great gesture from corporate America!  My traveling companions who were using other US phone services did not get any such message and so my phone became the go to phone for everyone calling back to the the USA.  Needless to say T–mobile has me as their life-long customer.  In fact, Dick Grace and a few other foreigners that I met all said they are going to switch soon as they return to the USA.  On the other end of the spectrum was the Hyatt Hotel management who would not allow any of the locals to sleep in their 35 acres of open grounds.

Another heartfelt story was Dolma Dhakhwa who runs a small Tibetan carpet export business (Reliance Carpet Industries), “I immediately went to visit all of my weavers, spread across the valley to give them bags of rice, lentils, and 2 months advance salary in anticipation that they may run out of food or have need for cash in the coming days.”

There is no doubt that Nepal is seeing an overwhelming response from the international community to help with the earthquake relief. As I walked around Kathmandu and drove in the countryside, I have seen flags from Sri Lanka to the USA on supply trucks, temporary housing, bulldozers.  While Kathmandu city saw a fair amount of quick response, the overall infrastructure here is completely taxed and outside of medical evacuation, the outlying village areas saw little or no aid all.

If there is a silver lining to this tragedy it was the timing of the earthquake.  Saturday is Nepal’s Sunday when everything is shut.  All the schools, private and Government offices were closed for the day, and at noon most people were outdoors, especially the villagers who were working the fields, and thus the death toll was relatively low compared to what would have been the toll had the earthquake happened on a working day.

Nepalese resilience

On May 2, Dick Grace and Samten Aungae (a Tibetan from Colorado who was visiting Nepal after 14 years) and I went to have lunch at a local pizza restaurant “Fire & Ice” and we could not get in – there was a 15 to 20 min wait as the restaurant was packed with tourists and locals.  Less than a week after the quake, I am seeing more and more of the shops, restaurants opening up, life slowly returning to some form of normalcy (immediately after the quake the downtown was like a ghost town). Shops in Thamel selling Tibetan artwork, native and trekking clothing are starting to open.  All of the tourist hotels from the Yak & Yeti, the Gokarana (where we were staying) to the Hyatt were open for business.  I also spent a night on the 5th floor of the Yak & Yeti and felt totally safe.

Images of people, villages, earthquake relief work  in Nepal

Immediate Relief:

We spent the first couple of days with Dr. Anil Shrestha (an Honoree of the Unsung Heroes of Compassion) and director of the Nepal Orthopedic Hospital. It was here we learned about Kunchuk Village region, from a 15 year old boy whose mother was in the hospital recovering from surgery.  He became our guide and took us to his village, located near the Tibetan border, about a 5 hour drive from Kathmandu.  Made up of small villages, numbering about 200 house with a population close to  7000. After the quake the locals found that they had lost 113 members of their community, and over 300 injured. Almost all houses were destroyed and those which were standing were not habitable.  Funded by the Grace Family Foundation, Dick Grace, Samten and I took 10,000 lbs of food (rice and chura – a ready to eat mixture of rice, lentil and nuts) to the families here.

In addition to the dump truck loaded with supplies, I was lucky to rent a large SUV type vehicle.  This enabled us to take three doctors with medical supplies with us that Dr. Shrestha was kind enough to spare from his hospital.  This just in case we encountered people with medical needs  I am happy to report that all of the seriously injured had already been evacuated to hospitals and other injuries already treated – a big thumbs up for the medical evacuations teams that had performed their jobs so efficiently in this region.  What was still seriously lacking a week after the quake, was food supplies and shelter. On reaching Kunchuk we learned that we were the first to bring food to this region and we only reached there on day 8 after the earthquake!  I can only imagine the plight of villages further afield.

The journey to Kunchuk was almost as difficult as meeting the people of Kunchuk – I could see the shock, the horror, the loss that they had experienced etched in their faces.  En route we passed houses (it’s tradition for locals to build houses close to the road) that had collapsed encroaching the narrow roads. Occasionally we saw signs in English “Please help us.”  Temporarily forgetting our destination, we made a few stops, but learning that some help had come to them recently, we continued to our destination.  The end of the black-top road was at Chautara, the district Capital, (which had been very badly hit but saw lots of Army medical help) we continued on a very poorly maintained dirt road till we reached the villages around Kunchuk. It took us several minutes to get organized and soon distributed the food supplies to some 200 families.  I was once again moved by the resilience of the Nepali people and their calm nature – what could have been a riot and feeding frenzy, the villagers calmly made two lines (one female and one male) and came to the front two families at time to collect one bag of rice or chura that they would share.  Even though we had 10,000 lbs. of food with us, it was not enough for everyone.  When our supply ran out the remaining people did not get angry or riot but simply resolved to wait for the next shipment.

What was most disconcerting to for me was what I can only call “the smell of death,” the distinctive and disturbing smell of decay – knowing it was not a mouse caught in the basement or roadkill on the highway, but people entombed under the rubble of their homes.

Long Term Commitment:

One of my primary goals of setting up Destination Himalaya was to use tourism as a means to empower local people to having financially successful careers, and as such Destination Himalaya and I are totally committed to staying with our Sherpa and Tibetan friends for the long duration.  I am teaming up with my long time friend David Breashears (mountaineer and filmmaker) to bring the rebuilding effort directly to the Sherpa community that we have so intricately involved over the last two decades.  David  was in Camp 1 on Everest when the earthquake hit.

“I’m really thankful to say that although our Base Camp was destroyed, none of our team were injured.”  David reported via satellite phone.

On April 28, David was interview on  BBC’s Radio 5 Live “Up All Night” program w/Rhod Sharp. The audio of the radio program is still online f you wish to hear David recount what it was like to be at Camp 1 when the earthquake hit.

David’s interview takes place time code ~ 02:23:10 – 02:38:52:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05s0vsn

The consensus among our Sherpa team and Wongchu Sherpa, the owner and founder of Peak Promotion (Nepal ground operator that both David and I have worked with for over two decades, was to set up a fund to rebuild the three severely damaged schools in Chyangba (8,400 ft.), a village of 600 people in the Solukhumbu district. Most of the Sherpas that David has worked for during his Everest career, and Destination Himalaya’s employs on our Nepal treks, hail from this region.  It is their wish that the schools be rebuilt over the coming months. David, with his 25 years working with the Sherpas, knows them well and says “education is viewed as the most valuable investment in their future.”

Because of our long term friendship with Wongchu and the Sherpas of Chyangba village, David and I will ensure that 100% of the funds donated will be spent specifically for rebuilding these schools, which benefit the entire community and not just one or two families.  One of David and my goals is to rebuild the schools to be more earthquake-proof.

How to donate:

Destination Himalaya does not have a non-profit status or foundation and so I have teamed up with the Grace Family Vineyard Foundation to channel all donations to Khumbhu Villages rebuilding effort.  Grace Family Foundation is a tax-exempt non-profit charitable organization under section 501(c) of the US tax code. All contributions are tax-deductible in accordance with US tax law.  A 100% of all donations received will be sent on to the project in the most expeditious manner.

Please make your donation check out to the “Grace Family Vineyard Foundation“, and in the memo line please write “Nepal Earthquake”.  NO DONATION IS TOO SMALL.

Checks can be mailed directly to:

Grace Family Vineyards Foundation
1210 Rockland Drive
St.Helena, CA 94574

If you prefer to charge your donations to your credit please follow the “Donate” link on the Foundation website.

Remember, 100% of all donations will be sent to fund the rebuilding of schools in the villages of the Solukhumbu district of Nepal.

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