My piece for USA Today on Nepal’s violent and frequent strikes that are paralyzing the country.
The long, convoluted saga of young monks evacuation from an isolated Nepali valley near Tibet:
My piece for the New York Times
And my latest on Nepal earthquake via NPR
As you all know I live in Nepal and have been writing a lot about the recent earthquake. I have also been trying to find ways to help Nepalis. I can’t be like the huge international NGOs but as an individual, as a family and as a community of friends and like-minded individuals we still can make a huge difference. I have chosen to help rebuild a village I know well . It is small enough – 100 households and about 500 people so that we can make a real difference. The story of this village and how we will help it rebuild follows.
On 25 April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, about 75 km northwest of the capital, Kathmandu. Because the earthquake struck at noon on a Saturday, most people were outside of their homes; schools, many businesses and most government offices were closed; and so the death toll was much lower than it might have been.
Even so, the earthquake left as many as 500,000 families homeless. Thousands of villages are believed to have been largely destroyed. The village of Kot Danda (Armory Hill) is one of them. Home to about 100 families, Kot Danda sits on a ridge on a high hill on the southern edge of the Kathmandu Valley. A long steep and narrow road connects it to the bigger towns and urban sprawl of Kathmandu, but it is far from the attention of the Nepali government and the international aid community. On April 25, the earthquake destroyed about 80 percent of the houses (see pictures). At the moment, several hundred people are living under makeshift tarps.
Time is critical. The villagers need to build temporary shelters to protect themselves from the monsoon rains that will begin in a few weeks. They need tarps and corrugated iron sheets. As soon as possible, they also need to start building better shelters to take them through the frigid Himalayan winter, which will begin in early November.
I am an American writer who has lived in Nepal for the past two years. My aim is to raise money for the people of Kot Danda who have lost their homes, first, to provide them with tarps and corrugated iron sheeting and, then, with the guidance of a village committee that will identify and agree the most urgent needs, to help homeless villagers build more permanent structures. I will disburse the funds, keep the books, supervise the construction and update the donors regularly. I am always reachable on my email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If we manage to raise more money that the village needs, the remaining funds will go to similar activities to the ancient Newar village of Khokana, just down the road from where I live. Much of that historic town is now destroyed, and many of its old mud-brick and mud-stone houses have collapsed or are too weak to be inhabitable.
The people of Kot Danda are extremely grateful for your donation. Nepal needs your help.
A brief history: Kot Danda is the village of our family friend, Keshav Thapa Magar, and his extended family. Most of the families have lived here since the 1750s. Kot Danda means “Armory Hill”, and the settlement was originally used, in the mid- and late-1700s, to store artillery after the army of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the King of Gorkha, invaded the Kathmandu Valley and united Nepal under his leadership. Keshav’s ancestors were all Magar, an ethnic group that served as soldiers for the Gorkha kings in the 1700s, and they were given land on the hilltops surrounding the Kathmandu Valley as a reward for their service and also to ensure that other invaders could not gain control of the hills or the trade routes entering the valley. link for donations is below.
My piece for the Daily Beast.
Lucas just turned 9 and he and I regularly butt heads over when he should practice violin and piano. Our discussions have at times devolved into my declaring that I was shipping his violin back to the original owner, his older cousin in New York. I am keenly aware that I am not a shining example of motherhood and that this is definitely not the way to make him love practice. In fact we both know that my threat is not deliverable. We live in Nepal and the convoluted, obtuse Nepalese bureaucracy would require so many permits that the violin is basically unshippable.
Living in Nepal required acquiring new skills. I had to learn to make my own yogurt and pasteurize my milk (after I tracked down a local cow). I learned the art of hoarding cooking gas and diesel and I learned to drive on death defying, precipice rimmed roads. Creating a successful violin practice seemed just another skill to develop. First step was to eliminate myself from the mix and bring in his father. John has boundless patience with our four kids that he mixes with a wicked sense of humor. He has a musical ear even though he has never played a musical instrument, but after helping in two years of practices, he understands bowings and tempo. He manages to have Lucas not only practice for 45 minutes but enjoy it.
There remained a huge hurdle. John spends most of every month living and working in Bangladesh (not part of our original plan when we moved here). He is gone all week long and often on all or part of the weekends. There are only four direct flights a week between the two countries which limits commuting. Nepal may have 12 hours a day of electricity loadshedding but the spirit of entrepreneurship still thrives. In Kathmandu, WiFi is ubiquitous and free in the myriad cafes and restaurants. It was critical to our adopting FaceTime as a new family member.
Now on practice days, I am the acrobat. Lucas plays as I hold my iPhone outstretched with one hand so John can see bowings and follow the music from Dhaka. With the other hand, I am DJ-ing with my Ipad on YouTube starting and stopping “Alison’s Violin Studio,” a brilliant teacher for the Suzuki book series, so John can advise Lucas on his performance.
FaceTime is everywhere for us. At dinner table, John joins us on FT from his Dhaka office. At bedtime, he says goodnight to Lucas and we then reconnect at our own bedtime. We’ll watch the BBC news broadcast simultaneously but in two different countries and comment on the Ukraine crisis as if we were lying in bed side by side. I’ll pop into a café for a caffe latte if I am in town so I can have a morning conversation in between his meetings. It is our survival mechanism as a family.
I do hate the separation and my emotions range from frustration, bitterness, depression and anger. What keeps me happy is that I love living in Nepal. I know I am incredibly lucky to be here. Despite the pollution, the traffic chaos and the looming earthquake dangers, I live next door to wide-open spaces where Lucas and I bike, run and hike. Not an option in Dhaka, a heavily polluted city of over 12 million people, and where my iPhone Dhaka weather forecast alternates between “haze” and “smoke.” Lucas adores being here and reminds me everyday how he enjoys his school.
I am far from alone in living a long distance marriage. Kathmandu is a big hub for the United Nations and other international organizations whose employees travel constantly. One friend, a fellow school mother, has experienced living apart from her husband for several years already when he was stationed in Khartoum, Sudan and the family in Kenya. This was before moving to Kathmandu. She told me today that he leaves Kathmandu next week for three months in Khartoum. Another mother is coping with two small kids as her husband is on a temporary duty posting in Myanmar (where the government lowers bandwidth to limit internet communications). And it is not only “trailing” spouses. A colleague of my husband commutes to visit his wife in the Phillipines. And an ambassador is trying out Facetime to ease the distance with his partner in the other hemisphere.
The international community commute is just the tip of the iceberg. Nepal is a land of families that live apart. Unable to find jobs at home, tens of thousands of Nepalese go to India and to the Middle East working mostly menial jobs for years at a time. Their earnings contribute 25 percent of Nepal’s GDP.
I remind myself every day that I am very lucky. FaceTime is just the icing on the cake.
January 15th is the 80th anniversary of the 8.4 magnitude earthquake that destroyed Kathmandu in 1934. Within a minute, 17,000 people were dead in Nepal and Northern Bihar. In Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, 80,000 buildings crumbled and 8,500 people died.
Though earthquakes are frequently felt in the capital city (two since August), earthquake history shows Kathmandu gets hit by a major quake every 75 years or so. In a recent email, the U.S. Embassy here in Nepal reemphasized the need for being prepared for the inevitable: “it is not a matter of if but of when,” I was reminded. We are definitely due. John, my husband, argues with my angst. “Earthquakes don’t observe anniversaries,” he reminded me this morning. Followed by the line he used to convince me to move here six months ago: “Earthquakes aren’t like pregnancies. They don’t have due dates.” We have learned some lessons in our half year in Nepal. I slept through the 5.0 magnitude earthquake in August and was shaken awake by John yelling “Earthquake!” We then walked out onto our balcony instead of doing what we were supposed to do: grab our son from his bed and get out of the house.
But today the anniversary reminds me of the cataclysmic possibilities. Knowledge is power after all and to be terrified all one has to do is go surf Google. The Kathmandu valley sits on an ancient lake bed, a big bowl of jello that in earthquake language is called a liquefaction zone, an area that magnifies shock waves. The mountains circling us volley the shock waves back into the valley magnifying the damage. In Kathmandu, earthquake talk is common. There are the worriers like myself and the ostriches, who prefer to keep their heads solidly in the sand.
Kathmandu is not the same city as in 1934. More than 2.4 million people now live in a densely urbanized valley where the population has grown by 500 percent in the past 50 years. Building codes are haphazardly enforced if at all. Buildings are built on the cheap with substandard bricks and concrete. The narrow streets are a spider web of black interlaced cables and electrical wires. When they crumble, the roads will be impassable except on foot. Lucas, my eight-year-old, has tagged buildings on the way to his school as those that will pancake and those that might stay standing. The former wins.
In a recent earthquake preparedness meeting, experts including OCHA, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, estimated that an 8.0 quake could displace 1.8 million, kill 100,000 and injure at least 300,000 people. Hospitals will be overwhelmed if not destroyed and clean water, food and medicine will be in short supply. Sounds bad? Now stop and think about how help will get into the valley. Experts believe that a large earthquake will make most if not all the impossibly narrow precipice-bordered roads into the valley (there aren’t that many to begin with) impassable and blocked by landslides and will seriously damage the airport. There are 19 bridges between our house and the airport. Looks like walking will be our main means of transportation anywhere.
The message from the UN and the embassies is straightforward: we have to survive with no outside help for at least two to three weeks. As a World Bank family, we fall under the UN security network. We have neighborhood wardens and every few months do practice drills. With phones and communications most likely unusable, we are on a radio system and do weekly radio check-ins. We store potable water, food and clothes in a safe area outside our house and have go-bags ready. My friends and I joke that they really should be called “stay bags” as no one is going anywhere outside the valley.
Lucas knows his earthquake drills from both school and home. Drop, Cover, Hold. We have identified the areas in our home which hopefully wont cave in. Lucas sleeps on the bottom level of a bunk bed (extra head protection). I make sure he has a flashlight under his pillow, water and a whistle. His clothes are piled on a bed corner at arm’s length (with an extra sweater in the present cold winter months) He has a whistle in his school bag too and he himself asked for a face mask. He reasons that this very dusty city will be choked in clouds of rubble dust. His school is well prepared too with food and water and parents have been assured that it will last several weeks for all the students. Lucas knows that it might take me more than a day to get to him.
We are at least a bit prepared. Many are not, especially many Nepalese who are fatalistic about earthquakes and see them as the hand of God (or Gods as there are millions of gods here). Years of covering war zones as a reporter has translated into my managing family earthquake logistics. I know that our best chance of survival begins with avoiding serious injury. Unfortunately, I can’t control that. It is the post quake panic and chaos that worries me a touch. Luckily, I live in a heavily agricultural suburb with a vast number of cows, buffalo, goats, pigs, chickens and ducks. Not enough for 1.8 million homeless but it is a start.
The earthquake preps have had light moments too. When a US embassy warden asked me for the satellite coordinates of my house, I provided him with the ones given to me by the United Nations. He emailed me back a few days later rather confused: “You live on the Indian border?” he asked. “I thought you lived in Kathmandu?” It is good to laugh in the face of disaster sometimes.