Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Alex Ulin Nepal

I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal on April 20th and was picked up from the one-floor airport by Sarada Uprety, the volunteer coordinator for The Women's Foundation of Nepal. My plan was to live with this NGO while I learned from the women who had organized it thewmselves and helped with their various projects including a school, daycare center, organic farm, and textile factory. Sarada gave me a huge hug and took me back through the dark, bumpy streets of Kathmandu. It was late but still hot and humid and I could hear dogs barking on the streets. She showed me my room and told me I should sleep as long as I liked. I woke up to eggs, cereal, toast, and hot tea. The cook and housekeeper, Vishnu, took pride in stocking the international kitchen with everything possible to make her volunteers comfortable. She radiated love as she shared what she could in English and began to teach me Nepali words. After breakfast, i was allowed to take a tour of the area with my friend, Max, who had been studying in Nepal already for 3 months. I spent the next few days adjusting to the time change, learnring my way around, and making plans to assist the grade schol teachers for the next five weeks. Max and I planned a trip outside of the city trekking for my first weekend and before I really dug in and started my daily routine at the school. The one other volunteer and a few staff were also traveling because of the long holiday weekend.

Just on our way out of the city, I experienced crowded public busing, cows naping in the road, busy nepali chatter, and so much more. Prayer flags ran across all of the rooves along with the clothes out to dry. I sat cross legged on the bus up against the driver as he blared the horn around tight, mountain turns. As we hiked, Max taught me how to introduce myself to my classes. Again and again, I repeated phrases about my family, where I was from, and how hapy I was to meet everyone.

Just before noon on Saturday, we realized we had gotten slightly off route and so we  caught a bus in a small village to get back on track. Seconds after the busleft town, it stopped and began shaking violently back and forth. I thought our bus had a flat, then that it was being attacked. Max screamed from the back to get off and I used my new Nepali for the first time as I pushed my way to the front, "janu, janu" (go, go). The terraced farm hills around the bus were exploding in dust, as if we were being bombed,and the ground continued to shake. Together we ran to a small field where villagers were gathering. There, crouching on the ground and surrounded by falling homes, we acknowledged there had been an earthquake. We had no idea the magnitude, the epicenter, whether the ground could open up, or if Kathmandu was still standing. Phone service went down only minutes after the first quake and there was no way to communicate with anyone outside of the small Nepali village. We immediately went into crisis mode. We took out and memerized our map; we discused how we would look for open spaces as we moved and always cover our heads as a first response to shaking; we decided to stay out of Kathmandu until we had more news but to hike to the nearest highway where information and, if necessary, medical care might get through; we inventoried our food- a couple energy bars and some other snacks. We had already completed a day's worth of hiking (having started at sunrise and just now having started looking for a late lunch), but being tired was no longer an option, and so we hiked quickly, only stopping for large aftershocks and to try and gather information from locals. When we had to go between buildings, we ran. 35 aftershocks would hit in that first 12 hours.

I really cannot even begin to describe the terror and helplessnes I felt each time the earth shuttered beneath me. I cannot imagine the saddnes behind the wails of the women sitting in that field with me and watching their village give out with the earth; some urging men to go back in search of family. That first night, I lay awake as I prayed for the sun to come up so at least the shakes would not be acompanied by the darkness. The following nights brought the cruel joke of unrelenting rains and thunder spreading hypothermia and illnes among those who were more scared of their cracked homes than the cold and rain. No one knew if the next shock would be the biggest. Each shake sent families running back into the streets. As I got on a plane to Delhi a week later, I was crossing my fingers that the earth would stay strong just long enough for us to take off.

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