Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What You Should Know and Can Do in the Aftermath of Nepal's Massive Earthquake

If you are interested in how you can help Nepal, skip to the end of this article. This is one of my longer and more preachy posts, and I'd rather you spend your precious time aiding the beautiful country that I called home for so many months. 

First off: I'm okay! For my loyal readers who might not realize it, I had been back in the United States for three weeks when the earthquake struck. However, I have family and friends who are there right now - some sleeping in US Embassy eating MREs, and others sleeping in hastily constructed tents.

My mom woke me up Saturday morning with news of the 7.8-magnitude quake. It hit me like a bullet to the heart. My dad had some Vonage credit left on his phone and after a few crossed lines, I was able to reach my aamaa, who assured me that my host family is safe. I don't know anything about the state of their house or village, but safe was the only word that mattered.

I haven't had contact with my aamaa since Saturday, so unfortunately, the answer to many of the questions many of you may have in your heads is "I don't know." I don't know anything about my students. I don't know anything about my school. I don't know anything about the teachers. What I do know is that Nepal is going to need a lot of help- but that it will pull through.

The people of Nepal are not worriers. When something bad happens, they simply say: "Ke garne?" "What can you do?" It's their version of "So it goes" or "Sh*t happens." When misfortune strikes, they look forward rather than backward. Change occurs through deliberate action, not wishful thinking. Where this philosophy came from, I don't know. It may be religious. It may come from Nepal's long history of independence and self-sufficiency. Whatever it is, it's engraved in the heart of the people.

There is a paradox here, however, which the earthquake has exploited. Much of Nepal's identity comes from its sense of past history. The destroyed, ancient temples that you have no doubt seen photographs of were sites of current and active worship until 11:59am Nepal time. Nepal is a country built on tradition and faith. Births, weddings, funerals...all adhere to very specific customs. For example, after the death of a parent, the body is cremated next to a river. The son is then expected to fast for 10 days, and to wear mourning white for one year. With the sheer number of deaths, and probable destruction of the funeral ghats, these rituals have been disrupted. You can imagine how distressing this must be for the Nepali people. Money can't fix their emotional and spiritual pain. We can only hope that prayers will help with that.

It is also worth mentioning that the media has been primarily showing the earthquake's effects on Kathmandu. This is not meant to downplay the tragedy in Nepal's capital, but elsewhere, the destruction is even more horrific. As you know, three of the other Fulbrighters were stationed in Gorkha district - the epicenter of the quake. Emily's host father told her that a friend ran out to her host grandmother's village. It was gone, and every one of its citizens was dead.

Your brain will try to numb itself as you read that last sentence. Our brain has a defense mechanism against such distressing events (read about it here). For one minute, fight your neurochemistry. Imagine not just the death of a distant loved one, but the deaths of their entire community in one terrible instant. Reports are just starting to come in about villages where over 90% of buildings have collapsed, leaving any survivors without shelter. I cannot easily convey to you how remote most places and villages are in Nepal once you move away from Kathmandu. There are few or no paved roads, and the ones that are there may have been blocked by landslides. The only way to reach survivors is by foot or by helicopter.

And speaking of remote, think also of everyone trapped at Everest Base Camp. EBC is located 39 miles from the nearest airport, and is inaccessible by any vehicle other than helicopter. I walked to Base Camp with people who are still there now (although dead or alive, I don't know). This is the worst possible time for a massive avalanche to sweep Everest, due to it being the peak of trekking and climbing season. Please don't join the school of: "They knew it was risky, so it's not as sad." Many people don't visit Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for Everest) for the thrill of it. It's a celebration of life, a journey of learning, a victory over physical and mental obstacles, a tribute to nature...or for some, the best job for supporting their families. No one visits Everest to die.

Nepal's last major earthquake hit in 1934, which was 16 years before the country opened its borders to the rest of the world. Even though over 10,000 people died and Kathmandu was effectively flattened, Nepal survived. Eighty years later, Nepal now has a web of loving global neighbors and the benefit of modern medicine and technology. It will survive again.

You should know, though, that Nepal is on the fourth and lowest tier of the Human Development Index. It is a poor, poor country, which my many photos from around Kathmandu Valley fail to convey. Please, if you have done me the service of reading my blog over the last nine months, consider donating to one of the following charities. It sounds like a cliche, but in Nepal, even a small sum goes a long, long way. Dherai dhanyabad. 

Catholic Relief Services - I have a special place in my heart for CRS. You see, they have a relationship with Mahaguthi, the fair trade company from which I bought most of the gifts I brought back to America.
Donate here.

Save the Children - I think my reasons for this are obvious.
Donate here.

Seva - At my school, I had the opportunity to work with a blind teacher that I adored. Seva normally benefits people living with blindness in Nepal, but they have set up a fund aiding victims of the earthquake.
Donate here.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

I'm on Top of the World

You've been waiting for this for awhile now.* The tale of harrowing adventure, bravery in the face of terrifying odds, courage against the most dire of nature's foes...or at least, a story of Alanna being miserably cold, sick, and tired. 

This is Everest Base Camp day.

I began the day, as one does, by crying. Then I stopped because my tears froze my eyelashes together. Why did I weep? Because as soon as I stepped out of the door in Lobuche, I failed to find solid purchase with the ground, which was iced over from the snowstorm the night before. We had 3 hours to go (well, it was supposed to be 2, but it became 3) up and down icy hills, and I was miserable. My boots were made for walking on dirt and stone, not Elsa's playground. By the time we made it to Gorakshep (the last "village" before EBC), I was ready for a long nap, but instead I got an hour-long lunch break and a metaphorical slap on the rear end to keep going. 

When we left the lodge on our way to Base Camp, the trouble began. Some of you have heard of AMS, or Acute Mountain Sickness, which is better known as altitude sickness. It is a rather mysterious illness that can start affecting the human body once it crosses 8,000 feet. Gorakshep's elevation is about 16,950 feet, and EBC is a little under 17,600--both are over twice the threshold for altitude sickness. The first sign of AMS is almost always a headache.

And boy, did I have a headache. While the ice had melted with the noonday sun, the roughly two and a half hours it took to get to Base Camp were pretty tough. The trail wasn't easy: there was more rock-scrambling and bouldering than we had done before, and the last few parts took us over glacial ice covered in a light camouflage of gravel, and through areas of active rock slides. (By the way, avalanches? Terrifying to hear, even from far away.)

We made it. I'd like to say that it was a relief, but I knew we had three more days of trekking back down ahead of us. This isn't to say that I wasn't super freaking excited. I mean, we reached our goal without dying or breaking legs or stuff. Now, Everest Base Camp is located on the Khumbu Glacier, right at the edge of the Khumbu Ice Fall (the deadly first part of the ascent for folks climbing Everest itself). The valley is filled with boulders, great chunks of blue ice, and alien green glacial pools. It is a desolate place of otherworldly beauty. I stopped at the outer edges of the camp where hundreds of other trekkers have strung up prayer flags in thanks for safe journeys. I added my own strand to the collection. A little further on, I could see the orange and yellow tents of the teams preparing for their two-month stay in the shadow of the world's tallest mountain. After some awesome photos, we turned back.

A porter carrying plastic chairs to the camp (the yellow blotches on the left).
The official sign, I think.
Jeff and Alanna, fearless explorers. You can see the terrifying Khumbu Icefall, where 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche last April.
It took literally all of my energy to lift my arms that high.
Nothing but rock and snow and sky.
The Yeti!
Good thing we did. The return journey was littered with stops as I tried to keep myself from vomiting over the cliff side. There were plenty of other hikers who were not so lucky in their gastric control. Jeff and our guide Rishi were uber-close to sending me back down to Kathmandu in a helicopter, which I resisted. Over the course of the next three days, there were times that I would wish that I had listened, but as I sit here comfortably and healthily in America, I'm glad I finished the trek with my own two feet.

*Anyone get the song reference? Anyone?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Mountain and the Sea

Nepal may currently be done with me, but I am not done with Nepal. There are a few more things that I would like to chronicle for y'all - the result of my Everest adventure, for example, and the end of my "5 Senses of Nepal" set.

A few updates as to my current whereabouts, however. Several months ago I made a plan with my father: to surprise the rest of my family by being home for Easter Sunday. I told my mother that I would be home a week after my actual touchdown date, and gleefully anticipated the look of joy (hopefully) or horror (hopefully not) on everyone's faces. 

On the morning of April 3, Jeff and I bid each other farewell, and I headed off to Kathmandu's Tribhuvan Airport (where I had to empty my entire backpack to prove that my Irish tin whistle was not a deadly blade). I jumped on the Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Halfway into the flight, I realized that there would be only a 20 minute gap between my reaching the terminal and the door closing on my next flight. I quickly made friends with a group of British volunteers who had to catch the same plane. I think we all made it.

My first flight was a little over 5 hours; the one to London was closer to 7 and a half. But I had a whole row to myself. That was a plus. 

And then I got to Heathrow. Seat of my 12-hour nighttime layover. Now might be the time to mention that I had no money with me. Alright, I had 250 Nepali rupees, but I had no globally accepted currency...or credit cards. Nothin'. So when I was told I had to find some place other than the terminal to sleep, I knew I needed to find a comfy chair rather than a comfy hotel room. I was actually required to enter the UK, so I got a shiny new stamp in my passport, and I found a squashy armchair in a Costa Coffee.

I was violently ill for most of the night.

The last flight, from Heathrom to JFK, also lasted about 7 and a half hours, but three seats to myself made a nicer bed than I had for the previous evening. Flying into the city, I saw the ocean for the first time in the nine months since I had left for the mountains. This was only the first major occurrence of saltwater to come. After landing, waiting for my luggage seemed to take forever - especially knowing that my dad was outside waiting for me. Finally, loaded with close to 30 kilograms (that's over 60 pounds) of bags, I staggered to US soil. I would like to say that I didn't weep when I saw my dad, but that would be a lie. Then I went to the restroom. When I came out, and saw my mom standing there, well...

...it was like one of those homecoming videos you see on Youtube. I have no shame. 

But speaking of tears, after we arrived home (and after I devoured Burger King fries and a shake), and I actually did surprise my sister (because my dad turned the tables on me surprising my mom), it was tearfest to the max. All happy tears. And then my grandparents were there, and there were gifts to be given, and it was just the perfect way to come home.

We ordered Chinese food for dinner. Of course I didn't eat the rice. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

16,000 Is a Big Number

Tomorrow is the big day...or so we hope. Jeff and I are currently sitting in the dining hall of our teahouse in Lobuche, located at 4910 meters, or about 16000 feet. Both of us have been handling the altitude fairly well - only shortness of breath. We're handling the cold well too. We just complain about it a lot.

After Namche, our rooms shrank to consisting of two beds, clothes hooks, and if we were lucky, a closing window. No more private bathrooms and no more showers. The menu is the same everywhere we go, but the prices seem to increase faster than the altitude. At least tea stays affordable.

I have plenty of stories to tell, but seeing as my fingers are frozen, most will have to wait until I get back to Kathmandu. Not that I'm in a rush. This is a desolate and beautiful land we are in. The paths are spotted with mani stones, stupas, and prayer flags. We often have to give way to yak trains, which announce their presence with soft bronze bells that, other than the river and the wind, are the only sounds.

It's snowing right now. Snow and ice make for tricky and treacherous trekking. In fact, today, our guide had to drag me behind him like a sled because my boots could gain no traction on the snow-topped stone. The other day, rather than risk falling on my face while going down an icy path in a shady pine forest, I chose to slide down on my butt - much to the amusement of the Indian Everest summit party hiking behind us.

No sign of the yeti so far, though.