Memorable Trips

 

It has been six months since our post-earthquake housing projects in Archalbot and Bharte. We’re launching dental programs in or near these areas in 2016, so today Aamod needed to visit the Lamjung District government offices in Beshishar to get signatures that are required complete agreements in our new sites.  Yes, this sort of thing must be done in person in Nepal, not by fax or email or any other method, so Aamod has to travel 3 hours from Pokhara to Besishahar to get the signatures.  We decided that Dilmaya and I would accompany him to Lamjung and get out a few kilometers before Besishahar to visit The Bamboo Village in Archalbot. We wanted to see how everyone was were doing, and we also had to decide what to do about the earth bag house that didn’t get finished over the summer.

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Three good looking people suffed in to two front seats in a van to Lamung

We decided to go with local transportation.

There is a fuel shortage right now due to strikes along the Indian border, so prices for gas have skyrocketed, and most regular people are getting their cooking fuel on the black market. Transport has compensated by raising prices, by running fewer buses and taxis, and, obviously, by stuffing even more people in to the same number of car seats.

I took tons of photos last summer when Archalbot was building, so today we brought prints to give back people. I highly recommend this practice – it’s always much appreciated because until cell phones, most people had very few photos of themselves. Even now, sorting photos is always An Event. Older people will people examine each thing in the photo in great detail – the buffalo, the way their sari is tussled, the water pot in the background – and will ask questions like, “Only one of my sons is in this photo. Where is the other one?”

The first house we arrived at belongs to one of the last houses we helped with.  Last June there were about ten people with a few babies living in the tiny house hidden behind the clothes line.  Now they are still living in their new house and it looks great.

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While we were talking with this family, people from Archalbot started to notice us and come shouting excitedly down the road.  Remember Uttam’s sister in law, and the day she and her husband left to go cut bamboo after much cajoling?  She came bouncing down the hill shouting out to Dilmaya and me.

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The next house we came to was Uttam’s family – I admit this house is tied with the Golden Cottage for my favorite of all 150+ houses we helped with after the earthquake. I was thrilled to discover that, while living in the shelter they built last summer, Uttam and his brothers rebuilt houses on their own land. Just four days before we arrived, they had relocated the tin roof we provided on to their new stone house, which has yet to be completed and plastered. What a fantastic example of everyone pitching in the thing they have, and of the dignified resiliency that is so characteristic of Nepali people.

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July 2015

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June 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uttam's family recently moved their shelter tin on to this new permanent house.

Jan 2016 – Uttam’s family recently moved their shelter tin on to this new permanent house.

Uttam’s older brother had also rebuilt his house – so the whole complex has moved back on to the family’s land in six months time. I was really pleased to see that the older brother’s new house is made from plastered bamboo chim – the same building style we pressed people to use when we provided roofs for the original shelters. This house is actually cheaper and far more earthquake resistant than a heavy stone house (you can see Uttam’s stone house in the background).

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We spent a lot of time giving people photos of themselves. This activity produced too many great moments to choose from!

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Overall, the houses that we helped people build in Archalbot look good. In a few cases, people are living in them full-time. In many, they are sleeping in their bamboo shelters while cooking and storing belongings in their damaged houses. In a few, the shelters remain but aren’t being used, either because the family has relocated altogether or just decided not to actually stay in it. Kripa’s family used their tin to rebuild the buffalo shelter where we glamped.

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Buffalo & Goat Hotel, Jan 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The earthbag house is an interesting story. Our role here was as facilitator – my friend Robin had training and materials to build one earthbag home, and we provided a connection with a community that needed a house. I documented this process last summer right up to the point we had to put the building on hold for the monsoon, with promises to return this winter.

Well here we are this winter. The family with the half-earthbag, half-bamboo house has built a pretty impressive collection of houses out of it and they are living there full time.

There are many things I have to say about the earthbag house, so I’ll write about that separately. One of the things we had to figure out on this visit was whether or not we had enough manpower in Archalbot to call Robin back with tools and supplies to finish the house….and the answer was no. So this earthbag/bamboo house will stay as it is, which is a bit frustrating, but that’s that.

After tea and snacks back at our HQ in Kripa’s house, Dilmaya and I left Archalbot and walked back down to Bote Orar. We crossed the bridge that has replaced the one with a loose cable that held us up in the muddy road with a ton of corrugated tin for an hour and a half last summer. We got ourselves some knockoff Redbull in homage to the gallons of knockoff Redbull that kept us going during those hot months.

Aamod came reeling down the road from Besishahar and we clambored in to another crowded, swervy van. As the day became later we and switched to a bus in Dhumre, we settled in for the last two hours of our journey.

Yes, this is where it happens.  The inevitable road travel story.

As it turned out, somewhere up the road people were striking because an accident had struck someone in the road yesterday. There was a blockade that went for miles.

When we reached the blockade it was already dark out.  Our choices were to either wait it out until some undetermined time in the bus, or to start walking.  So we got out of the bus and set out past the endless line of stopped vehicles, some with people in them waiting for the 100% unpredictable hour or day that the blockade would be opened. The highway wound its way alternately through small towns and the middle of nowhere. We were still over an hour’s car ride from Pokhara.

There were still motorbikes coming by, so we made a plan to divide up.  Dilmaya and I hopped on the back of the first bike that could fit both of us, and rode it up to the mouth of the traffic jam. We waited there until Aamod caught up behind us half an hour later on another bike, and then we walked the last half mile or so to where people where crowded around the usual tires and logs blocking the road.  Behind the blockage was a group of women was sitting in on the pavement, not talking much. Some were fiddling on their phones. It occurred to me that they had probably just lost a family member or close community member on this stretch of road just 24 hours earlier – a strange contrast to the miles and miles of hassle that stretched out from either side of their circle.

Now we started past cars lined up in the opposite direction. Just to be clear: we were not a walkable distance from home.  Even by Nepali standards.

All of a sudden a jeep began rolling out past the innermost barriers of the blockade, headed in the direction we needed to go.  I turned around and saw it was an ambulance.

We sprung in to action. Aamod stopped the jeep and spoke with the driver who, understandably, told us that he could not let us hitch a ride in an ambulance. Aamod got on the phone with his brother in law, who is a doctor, and I stalled by keeping one arm in the rolled down window of the ambulance and talking to the drivers in Nepali.

“Sir, what ever shall we do? It’s quite cold out. We can’t possibly sleep here in the road.”

“I don’t know what to tell you- I’m not allowed to take people in an ambulance.”

“I see I see, but this is an unusual circumstance….” Etc.

I keep at this until Aamod has his brother in law on the phone, which he hands to the ambulance driver. Who then opens the back of the ambulance – and in we go.

And thus our day ends with us bouncing along in the back of this ambulance back to Pokhara. At one point, we drive through a checkpoint, and I lie down with my arm over my face, feeling slightly guilty, while Dilmaya sits next to me looking concerned and wearing a surgical mask that she has with her for general dusty road travel purposes. We roll through the checkpoint.

“Can I get up now?”

“Lie down! Not yet.”

It’s 9pm when we get to Pokhara; the ambulance driver amicably drops me off within walking distance from our office.

As Dilmaya, who was my partner in crime for the entire two-month adventure of our post-earthquake housing extravaganza, said: “Laura miss, our road trips are always very memorable.”

Oh, and one other thing – remember how the point of this trip was that Aamod was going to get papers signed by the district officials in Besishahar?

Yeah, well, there was some kind of meeting today and all the government employees were out of the office. So we have to go back to Besishahar for the signatures again.

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The early morning road from Pokhara to Besishahar

 

A Bamboo Village

I am so excited about this post. I started hoping I’d get to write that title a few weeks ago, and now here it is.

We went back to Archalbot today to see how things had progressed since our tin delivery about a week ago. In contrast to our first shelter outreach effort, where we left not knowing how many heads we’d actually covered, in Archalbot we found a village of new bamboo houses. Some of them are still in progress, for a few reasons. One is that the houses in Archalbot didn’t fall completely; most people still have homes that are dangerous, but not technically unlivable, which slows down the shelter construction. The second is that it’s planting season, so people kind of got something up as quick as they could, and plan to do their plastering and finishing in about a month.

Still…this was a pretty great sight to see. Let’s start with the earthbag house. It’s been covered in a bamboo frame and turned in to a pretty sweet little cottage with electricity and everything hooked up, and a neighboring home built right next to it, much like the attached houses they are temporarily replacing.

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Next up, remember Kushal? Here is a photo from the tour he gave me of his original house, and here he is in his new bamboo home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The site we glamped at in Kripa’s yard, which was previously the buffalo shed, is now a bamboo outdoor hotel (which unfortunately, I seem not to have taken photo of!) And this lady, Kripa’s neighbor, was seriously so happy about her bamboo cabin that she absolutely insisted we come back again after the planting season, when it’s all plastered and everything, to stay the night.

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I could post another load of these photos. They were just great, one after another.

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For the sake of transparency, I should admit that there was one woman who hadn’t built a thing; her tin was sitting on the buffalo shed waiting to be used. In the end, we didn’t pre-check all the frames or original houses in Archalbot, because we’d spent so much time there and the homes were so concentrated that we relied on the community to police itself (and in fact, it was a neighbor who brought us over there). This house is one of those that is ambigiously unsafe; cracks in the walls, but generally a more appealing place to live than a temporary house, so it’s kind of up to the owner whether or when they’re going to bit the bullet, move out, and rebuild.

We had an awkward interaction where I politely explained that she didn’t really need a roof – which I could see from looking in her house – so we’d be giving it to another family in the morning. I said we’d welcome do our best to provide anything else she could think of for something she actually needed. That was at 7:30pm. When we came to pick up the tin the next morning at 9:30am, we found the following:

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Well, that worked. For something.

So we have the successful, the more successful than we actually we wanted…and Uttam. Of all the houses in Archalbot, Uttam’s family’s are my favorite. Unfortunately they’re on borrowed land and in the last week and a half, the landowner said they can’t stay, so in theory they’re going to have to relocate this whole operation to their own land, where their ruined house is still taking up a lot of space. As a result they didn’t bother building the front wall. But I still give this house an A- overall, and an A+ for improvement from starting point.

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However the trophy goes to Uttam’s older brother, whose home is quite smaller. Remember when I this family didn’t want to go cut bamboo because they said nobody would help them? When Uttam’s older brother and his wife left for the woods with their tape measure, and when he showed me where he’d planned the guest area? This guy and his wife looked so proud of their house and so grateful that something in this world hadn’t proved to be a sham.

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When I took this photo of Uttam’s brother outside his house with his grandson, he called me over and pointed to the camera, and I knew he was going to say what people always say: “Please send me a copy of this picture.”

But he wanted something else.

“Show this photo to the world, ok?” he said. ”You know, something for people out there to remember me by.”

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Beautiful Things

We are building houses of many kinds around here, one of which is our own. In between trips out to Lamjung, I’ve been slowly setting up our new office. We’re moving from a one-room office to a four-room office, and anybody who knows me will know that I can labor for weeks or months over small decisions, and filling up a new space requires an infinite amount of decision making. It took me three weeks to choose carpet, and then the people who came to lay down the carpet did a really bad job, cutting jagged lines and making a mess of it. I had the store send them back and then stood there while they cut everything in straight lines. As they left we were chatting, and I asked them not to take it too hard. But this space is going to be our home and we’ve put a lot of care in to it, so it’s a real downer when people come and don’t take care, and besides, if I my job were to cut carpets, I’d want to leave each place I did and say, ‘That’s my work. I made that.’”

Anyone who’s ever worked with a contractor knows that this kind of thing doesn’t happen only in Nepal. But I feel confident saying that Nepal takes it to a new level. The kind of care people put in to their planting, or their outfits when taking a photo, or cooking, or weaving mats, just doesn’t get put in to home decoration. People are okay with leaky faucets and doors that don’t quite fit their frames and paint of any variety of ecstatic colors that overlaps lazily from structure to the next. I’ve learned that I have to lord over each person who comes here to put something together, just to make sure our work space doesn’t become an accumulation of unloved creations.

IMG_5081So it’s not exactly going fast, but it’s going.

One funny quirk of our new space is this sink outside the bathroom, which is just hanging out in full view of the rest of the office. Someone suggested that I get a local bamboo artisan to create a simple screen to put here, so that people coming out of the bathroom would have some privacy while using the sink.

So last week I asked Shiva to go to Mahendrapul with me and stop in at one of the bamboo furniture places. He pulled his bike over at the first one we happened to see, where there was a young man Umesh.

Off all the things we need to set up in the office, the bathroom screen isn’t the one I was most concerned about. But when I set about explaining what we needed, Umesh and I began to examine various chairs and tables and hangers he had in his store, organizing designs I liked. He was extremely attentive and enthusiastic, and as our conversation went on, he couldn’t help himself from admitting that he’d opened his shop just two weeks ago, after fifteen years of working for someone else.

“I told them, I can make anything,” he said, looking like he’d kind of been bursting to tell somebody this. “My hands are full of skills. I said, ‘Why are you keeping me down here?’ And I left and opened this shop.”

Being the choosy perfectionist that I am, I could easily have told Umesh thank you very much and moved on to the next place so he could get his business going with a different customer. He quoted me $90 for the screen – as expensive as one of our desks, three times as much as the chairs he sells. Way to raise the bar, my friend.

Instead, I went with him to our office so he could look at the space itself. And after all the discussing we’d done, I waved my hands and said, “Ok, the main thing is it has to be opaque from here to here. Other than that, do whatever you think will look nice. Make it your own style. By Umesh.”

“I’m going to make you a beautiful screen,” Umesh proclaimed. “This is a very new idea – it will be first of its kind in Nepal.”

Four days later he called to tell me it was ready. He put in in a taxi at his own cost and brought it to our office, and when I arrived to meet him, he was already standing in the road with the screen next to him, trying to hold his smile in.

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This bamboo screen is no doubt my single favorite thing in our new office. It is absolutely gorgeous and in the U.S. would sell for a few hundred dollars. It has the charming quality of being made from bamboo during a period of months where I’ve been, oddly enough, spending inordinate amounts of time in the hot sun encouraging and supporting the creation of bamboo homes as our small but mighty contribution to post-earthquake Nepal. But most importantly, it was created with a great deal of pride and love. One side is bent a little, the natural curvature of the bamboo, a perfect imperfection. What started off as a temporary wall to enclose a bathroom became this wonderful piece of artwork.  And as we were all discussing later, you should have some things that you keep around just because they are beautiful.

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Before Umesh left, he couldn’t help admitting another thing, which was that, actually, I’d been his very first customer. I said he was our very first artisian in our first professional office, and that I expected his career was going to go quite well.

“I’m never going to forget you,” he said as he left.   And I said, “I’m pretty sure I won’t forget you either.”

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Tractor Cowgirls

 

What a wonderful day!

After a week of endlessly trying to chase down corrugated tin, Dilmaya and I spend the entire day today riding around the hills of Nepal delivering roofs in Archalbot in Bharte.

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Our morning started off pretty slowly – I’ll spare you that part – but let’s just say there was heavy rain and 53 bundles of 12 foot, 60kg, corrugated tin involved – when you stack up even some of that tin and try to lift it, it’s as unmovable as a 12-foot block of concrete. There were two tractors and a jeep.  And, of course, one cute little Life Box.

IMG_0146We had a few special deliveries as well – cash relief for Bal Kumari, and a box of ceramic mugs for Muna Bujel’s family, which had completely rebuilt (minus tin) when I met them on that crazy ridgetop in Lakure. When I asked what else they needed, given that they’d done such an amazing job reorganizing their rubble in to a house already, Muna Bhujel looked around and kind of shrugged, like “Lady, look at this whole situation,” and said, “well a lot of our glasses were smashed.” So we threw a set of teacups for her.

It was nearly 11pm by the time we hit the road in Udipur on tractor #1, which was carrying 17 bundles of tin for Archalbot. Voila, Archalbot tin delivery! While we were here, we met three more families requesting roofs. I visited their houses and told them to start building. We’ll be back next week to check on the rest of Archalbot, and we can bring roofs for a few more families if they build before then.

Next, we had to switch to tractor #2 which was loaded up with our major delivery for about 50 homes all over Bharte.  This led to a situation and the following clip of video that pretty much says it all.  Here is what it’s like to try to provide aid for half a million ruined and damaged homes in Nepal’s hills.  An anchoring wire on a footbridge had popped out of the mud softened by the rains, and our tractor couldn’t get over it.  This video takes place about half a mile from a paved highway, on a 10-meter stretch of the only road that leads up to the village.  We did this for ONE HOUR before crossing this little patch of road that is the access point for the entire hillside of Bharte.

We finally got to our first stop in Sirwari, which was totally awesome.  When I first visited Sirwari about a week and a half ago, three families were living together under this tarp.  We asked them to build a good quality bamboo house and promised a roof.  When we arrived today, they had built this gorgeous bamboo community home for all three families!  I love this photo because you can still see their old tarp in the middle, hanging out until we can put it out of business with corrugated tin.  We delivered said tin that very afternoon, and promised we’d come back to see the finished product and spend the night.

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We looked at some of the other bamboo frames in Sirwari, and of course I wanted to take lots of photos and hang out and talk with everyone and Dilmaya was texting me madly to hurry up because we still had two tractors and a jeep full of tin and a lot of deliveries to make.  On the way, we picked up Sarita, Kripa’s young sister in law, whose house we’ve been staying in in Archalbot, and who’s become our pal.  The three of us crammed in to the two-person seating area in the front of the jeep, and we were off again, eating some lychees.

Our next stop was Bharte Banjang.  As far as I could tell, it’s the poorest, most remote and devastated area that we’ve visited.  Lakure is also quite remote, but people there had mostly rebuilt, whereas in Banjang, we met families with lots of young kids living between rusty tin or having moved in to the buffalo shed, with the buffalo.

IMG_0219We brought new tin for 10 homes, housing 49 people, to Banjang.  By now we were in a hurry, so I don’t have as many photos, but the building quality wasn’t as good in this area.  People didn’t have access to long bamboo nearby, so even though our coordinator in Bharte offered long bamboo off his land for free, nobody went and got it.  Many of the frames this community had made were far to low to stand up in.  Instead of the bamboo wall technique we saw in Sirwari, which is tight and can be plastered with mud and made permanent like Tulasi’s house in Parbat, people had simply criss-crossed bamboo, like this, which is far less secure.  This is kind of a mystery to me.  I wasn’t IMG_0233sure why so many of the people in Banjang had made structures with such obvious problems.  We decided we’ll do our best to provide day employment for some of the Sirwari people to come up and help the people in Banjang.  We’ll see how that goes.  In any case, at least these folks will be able to move out of the buffalo sheds and such.  I will venture to say that if we had not required that people build before providing these roofing sheets, this is an area where a lot of our tin would likely have sat in the yard or been thrown on top of unsafe houses.

From there we went to Lakure, my favorite spot in Bharte, where we delivered tin to Bal Kumari, and gave her $300 in cash that she was not expecting, to repay her loans.  Here is Muna Bhujel’s father with the teacups we gave him.  As you can see, he is pretty much speechless.

IMG_0236Then it was time to go to Besigaun for another 12 homes.  By now it was dusk, and as we headed out to our final few stops, it was night.  We made our deliveries in the dark.

Now, are you realizing we’ve left something out here?

Life Box, man.  Life Box.

We took this box out here and there to show people, but it was all so hectic that we didn’t really have time to do much with it.  I mean there wasn’t exactly time to dig a hole in the ground and bury the thing.

At our very last stop, we realized we had an extra bundle of tin, and this nice guy, Lok Bahadur Bhujel, and his son, came out and found us in the road.  They had built a temporary house but for now they’d covered it with a tarp, and wanted to ask us for help.  Well, as it happened, we had an extra bundle of tin that needed a home, so off it went.  Along with the Life Box!

Well, that was one of the more interesting days of my life.  All together, we covered over 50 houses and about 250 heads.  We’ll come back to Bharte in a week or so to check on things and see how some of these homes turned out. Dilmaya and I ended up spending the night at Sarita’s birth home in Bharte, and let me tell you, we did not have any trouble falling asleep.

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Follow Up in Bharte

 

Today Dilmaya and I went for a follow up visit to Bharte. I made my first trip here a little less than a week ago. We walked from Archalbot to Lakure, the hilltop where Bal Kumari lives, and it took five hours. I did some recording with Bal Kumari because I hope to include her in a radio story.

We visited a large school in Banjang that needs a classroom for grades 9 and 10, who are currently holding classes under this tarp.

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Banjang had a whole strip of houses in bad shape. A local shopkeeper, Laxmi, is going to to help oversee the construction of bamboo shelters here, so that we can come back next week with tin roofs.

IMG_9824We were especially popular with these kids, who followed us around this ridge top until we got to the house of the girl on the right, Ganga.  As you can see, they’ve moved in with the buffalo, so we’re gonna bring them some tin for a new bamboo house too.

On our way home, we visited the group in Sirwari that I met on my first visit a little less than a week ago. Three families are living together under a tarp in the yard, and they’ve begun organizing to turn this in to a bamboo community house. I called Santa, a young mother there, to say we’d be stopping by in the afternoon, and we were really excited to that they’ve already started! There was lots of bamboo piled up, ready for construction, and their tarp shelter had already been improved with thick bamboo posts.

We enjoyed some corn for snacks, and I took a lot of crap for
IMG_9839eating like a monkey. Nepalis eat fresh corn by pulling the kernels out with their fingers, not sticking the entire thing in to their faces like heathens. Oh well. It’s not the first thing I had a different way of doing. And it makes for a good photo.

It was after dark by the time the two of us wandered in to a hotel in Bote Orar. We walked for ten hours today, all of it either climbing up or climbing down. We were too tired to even discuss our day over dinner, so it wasn’t till the next morning that we rolled out of bed, still sore, and I took out my notebook so we could add up all the names and bundles of tin. We’ll come back next week to put roofs on over fifty homes!

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You Win Some, You Delay Some Wins

 

Well the earth bag house was coming along pretty well, but this week the rain started, which means planting season has begun. Colin has been working incredibly hard for hours a day in the heat, along with Moriah, an American volunteer who found out about the project on the facebook page that’s being used to coordinate earth bag building projects in Nepal. But completing an earth bag house in a week requires 8-10 people working all day, and we’ve had trouble getting consistent manpower from Archalbot.

I also have to confess that my part in the collaboration with the earth bag project went differently than I expected. After our experience in Parbat, I thought our main housing challenge was motivating people to gather bamboo (or other natural materials from the environment or their damaged homes) and build good quality shelters for us to provide tin roofing for. I expected, at the start of this week, that the earth bag project would be leverage for other local building projects, starting with Uttam’s bamboo house – in other words, that people’s interest in seeing the earth bag home completed would motivate them to fulfill our requirement that they also build a bamboo home for another especially needy family. I also expected that not everyone in Archalbot needed or wanted to move out of their cracked homes and live in bamboo houses. We thought we’d end up with be two high-quality sample homes in Archalbot – one earth bag, one bamboo – and residents would choose to one or the other them if they desired.

Instead, what happened is that once Uttam’s bamboo house started getting built, everyone became extremely motivated to go cut bamboo and make similar homes. It was much more successful than I ever imagined. And the earth bag house, while a brilliant long-term building solution, is extremely labor and resource intensive compared to familiar local building methods such as bamboo. With time and money scarce, everyone quickly became pre-occupied with the solution that met their needs and existing skills most efficiently. By mid-week, the strategy had reversed: we were pushing people to finish the earth bag home as a requirement for further tin distribution for bamboo houses.

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Uttam’s family’s two bamboo houses under construction

I realize maybe this is starting to sound a little weird – us putting these conditions in place for aid distribution, leveraging one community project against another. But that’s often the best way to collaborate as well as introduce new concepts or infrastructure in a place where people are used to doing things a certain way, and where the hierarchy of priorities is a well-entrenched survival system. We use this principle all the time when we do dental care. We have to put conditions in place that wedge new priorities in to this hierarchy: providing treatment only at the clinic and requiring people to go there to access it; charging nominal fees; making sure local shopkeepers sell toothpaste, but not giving the toothpaste out for free, so that people have to buy it themselves from the same place they buy sugar and soap. The reason for this isn’t for our benefit, it’s that the goal of our dental project is not to distribute toothpaste or provide one-off treatments, but to elevate the overall level of long term, sustainable oral health care in the places we work.  That only happens when people reorder their own priorities and behaviors, no matter what country or situation they live in.

Similarly, the purpose of the earth bag house is to train people in an earthquake-safe, affordable building method. But at first, it’s just a weird performance using rice sacks and dirt, so you can’t blame IMG_9549people for wondering if it’s really worth their time. It’s important to leverage the attractive elements of the project: the creation of a new structure, the intrigue of a new idea brought by foreigners, the incentive that we’ll provide materials to trainees for building one of these houses themselves. If we can capture participation based on these points, we can hopefully keep people’s attention long enough to teach the skills we want to transfer.  Like our dental clinics, the point is to see people absorb this safe-building technique over the long term because they realize it has value.

So leveraging earth bags and bamboo against each other was a great idea, but the thing I didn’t anticipate was that the time of year and the urgent need for shelter would make the one of the two so much more attractive. So for anyone out there doing earth bag building, my suggestion is, wait until about late September, just before the harvest time. Better yet, the best time of year would be December or January, the only season when there’s any semblance of a real break from field work. While earth bagging is a fast, democratic construction method compared to a block or large mud and stone house, it does require a lot of city-based resources and labor compared to other readily available options. There are almost no families that have 8-10 people in their household who can work intensively for 8 hours a day for a week, and definitely not during rice planting season. That means that families will have to hire labor, and that means other people need to have time.

IMG_9720In the end, Colin and Robin decided to have Archalbot build a bamboo shelter around the half-finished earth bag home, with the goal of returning to finish it up in the fall. So here is a photo of our nepal’s first earth-bag-bamboo-tarp home. Tarp soon to be replaced by bamboo.

In the evening, the community had another meeting about why the earth bag house hadn’t been completed. There was quite a bit of contrition – people hadn’t fulfilled their promises to help out. But there was still confusion over the concept that the earth bag house was a training opportunity, not a private building project. No matter how many times we explained this – and I speak pretty fluent Nepali, and Dilmaya is Nepali – the tendancy has been for people to think of the earth bag project as “Mahendra’s house.”

In any case, there was this slightly downer of a meeting, and everyone vowed that when Robin returns in the fall they will all be totally ready to devote time to completing the training. Then we went home to eat dinner, and I got a phone call from little Kushal.

A speaker system had been set up in the yard, and we had a rocking dance party. And why not, man. You win some, you delay some wins. When I left in the morning, there was cut bamboo lying around all over the place, ready for construction.

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Small Bundles in Big Spaces

 

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View across the valley, from Bharte

After my visit to Bharte, I went up to Besisahar to spend the night. Many of the international NGOs working in Lamjung operate out of a hotel called the Himalaya Gateway, and I wanted to sit in on a training by the Danish Red Cross on shelter distribution. Plus, I had to retrieve our first delivery of tin: two bundles for Uttam’s family.

I arrived bedraggled and hungry at the hotel at 8:15 pm after many hours of hiking up and down in Bharte in my flip flops (points for irony on the hotel name, Himalaya Gateway). I sat down and talked for a while with Laurienne, the head of CARE’s relief effort in Lamjung. I’d met her at one of the shelter cluster meetings and found her to be a really nice person, so I’ve kept in touch. It’s pretty funny that I’m running around in my flip flops in Bharte and taking a bus to Besisahar to a pick up our first two bundles of tin, while Laurienne is coordinating the transport of 1200 bundles of tin on 28 tractors – TWENTY EIGHT TRACTORS – we had a good laugh over just the image of 28 tractors climbing up the narrow jeep “roads” of Lamjung district. A bit of a nervous laugh, too. The delivery of all this tin is probably going to take a toll on Nepal’s fragile environment. The Red Cross has committed to almost four times that many homes in Lamjung alone – one of the less affected districts.

Speaking of damage, I got myself a pint of ice cream (“Ma’am, how many scoops would you like?…The whole container?…????…Certainly.”). I turned on the air conditioning in my hotel room which noisily and enthusiastically set to delivering air at the same temperature as the rest of the room. I took a shower and fell asleep on the fluffy bed.

The next morning I went to the Red Cross shelter training. It was super interesting, but probably not something I will be able to use much. The topic was how to conduct efficient mass distribution of tin sheets, building kits, and envelopes of cash. For your kind information, and so I can make some use of my training, I offer you the following tips on distributing thousands of corrugated tin sheets to remote Nepal: distribution area has one entry and one exit; recipients move through in a single straight line only, no criss-crossing; vests must be worn at all times and a flag clearly visible to signal that this is a humanitarian space; a question and complaint-receiver stays outside the delivery area.

Also, it is suggested that your team (and, one assumes, your tractors) arrive at your distribution area the night before.  Because there might be some problems with travel.  Maybe.

Mean time, I was coordinating our first delivery of a grand total of two bundles of tin for Archalbot. In the morning, I ran in to the Chief District Officer of Lamjung at the hotel, and of course, we are old friends. I said I was delivering two bundles of tin today in Archalbot and asked if he had any transport suggestions.

The Chief District Officer looked at me funny and said, “Two?” Awkward pause. “That…doesn’t seem like a enough.”

Right right, I said.  True enough.  But see it’s part of this thing that’s going step by step. I promised there’d be more.  There will totally be more.  Also, I’m two bundles ahead of the Red Cross, and I’m going to enjoy every bundle of my lead for each hour that it lasts.

It was about 2:00 by the time I hopped in to a truck with our two bundles of tin. The hardware store owner had a delivery vehicle that was headed south anyway, and agreed to take our tin sheets (and me) for free. And thank goodness this truck was large enough to house a killer whale, because only thing inside it was our two little bundles of tin, which you literally couldn’t even see in the gaping darkness.

We hit the road and I called Kripa to say I was on my way with Uttam’s roof.

IMG_9669When we arrived in Bote Orar to unload the tin by the side of the road, about eight people from Archalbot had come down to roll the sheets and carry them up to the village (note to self: get a tractor when it’s time to deliver tin to the other 15 families). I hoisted an end of one tin roll over my shoulder, uttam’s sister in law took the other, and we were off.

I could hardly believe it when I arrived at Uttam’s house.  I’d only been away for 24 hours, but what used to be the tarp shelter in one field was now two bamboo frames under construction, with lots of people about.

The family called me for snacks. They had gone to buy a few kilograms of meat – a pricey indulgence – to feed to all the people.

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Later, I was talking with Uttam’s brother. Even after all the days we’d been in Archalbot, working on the earth bag house, sleeping in Kripa’s home, stopping by to visit people in their yards and encouraging them to go cut bamboo, eating and bathing and washing our clothes with everyone else – after all this, Uttam’s family wasn’t completely convinced that we’d really show up with their tin.

It wasn’t until I’d called from the truck a few hours earlier, to say I was on my way from Besisahar with the tin, that the mood turned celebratory. That’s when someone was sent out to buy the meat.

Oh, and also, added Uttam’s brother, they’d made this excellent and spacious bamboo frame, and as I could plainly see, one bundle of tin wasn’t going to be enough to cover it.  They would need another, he informed me.

Very clever, Uttam’s brother.

Uttam and his brother building their bamboo house

Uttam and his brother building their bamboo house

If there’s one moment that will stay with me the most, it’s when I asked Uttam’s oldest brother, who is building the IMG_9677smaller upper house, to explain what each area of the inside would be when it was done.  He and his wife had clearly thought about this.  He pointed to the place where the kitchen fire would be, and the sleeping area (there weren’t exactly a lot of rooms, but that’s not the point).  I motioned to a spot at the edge of the house that was a few feet wide.  From the frame it was clear that the roof would slope down over it.

“What is this for?” I asked.

“That’s a place to stay if someone comes to visit,” he said.

Uttam’s family’s two houses are still going up, but before I left the next morning, I was happy to take this picture of his wife and two month old baby.  Another small bundle in a big space…nice improvement.

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Possibility of Tin

 

The first part of the group left for Archalbot on Thursday: Robin and Colin, the French volunteers, and our field officer Dilmaya. I came a day later because I was working on IMG_9463getting our new office set up. Actually I was busy repainting it with the wrong type of paint, so before I left for Archalbot on Friday, I had to call a painter to redo my redo.

On Friday I rode out to Bote Orar, where the road to Archalbot turns off the main highway between Dhumre and Besisahar. When I arrived at about 5pm, the earth bag house already had a one-meter deep rectangular foundation.  Not bad for one day’s work.

As dusk fell, Dilmaya and I accompanied some of the young men to a clearing on the edge of a terraced field for a community meeting. We sat across from the tarp-shelter in the field.

We’d explained the plan to our local organizers, Kripa and his cousin Surya: anyone who builds a shelter gets a tin roof from us; the earth bag house is a sample building style and we can provide materials if anyone else wants to do it; the family in the field will be a sample building project where the community works together build a bamboo house in a day. Kripa and Surya were getting a lot of questions about who would get tin for what, and they wanted to gather their neighbors and discuss this plan in front of us, to protect themselves from future accusations of greed or favoritism.

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With night falling around us, the discussion that unfolded was amazing. It basically boiled down to: “This organization is here to give us tin roofs for completed shelters. How are we going to help each other complete shelters?” They discussed the order of priority in the village – everybody agreed that the tarp family in the field was the top priority – and other matters such as where and how to get enough bamboo. Even the tarp family made their way over to the meeting, but they seemed guarded, unsure whether to believe us and everybody else. It was their neighbors who explained the plan and assured them they needed to start collecting bamboo.

People kept turning to us and saying, “How many houses are you going to build? Tell us and we’ll figure out who should get them.” And Dilmaya and I kept saying, “You tell us how many houses you’re going to build, and we’ll bring one bundle of tin per family. If we have the problem of too many people building, we’ll deal with it later. That’s never happened.”

Dilmaya did a great job of continually redirecting the discussion back to that point, that everything depended on their planning, and we’re there to meet them wherever they can get to. One guy asked if large families would be able to get more than one bundle of tin. We replied that’s not up to us; our allotment is one bundle of tin per family, and people can add more area with re-used tin or natural materials. “On the other hand,” we said, “as a community, if you guys tell us that a certain household really needs more tin than that, we’ll believe you.”  Because nobody’s going to be the jerk who tries to make off with unneeded extra tin under the scrutiny of the entire village.

There are still many of steps between this meeting and a rebuilt bamboo village in time for monsoon. But I’ve been doing community work in rural Nepal for nearly a decade, and this was as good as it gets at this stage. What you hope is that your attention will mobilize existing capacity and snowball in to a collaboration that combines the best of what we have with the best of what local people have. When we can frame our “aid” as an incentive, even though we want to give it away, people start to ask each other, How are we as a community going to capture the possibility of tin?  Our responsibility is to maintain a consistent and intelligent presence, to keep redirecting ownership back to the community, to closely monitor to make sure nobody’s taking advantage, and to live up to our word. We bring in a small quantity of crucial expertise in building, plus the final critical hardware: a new roof.

There’s also the simple value of spending time with people.  When we arrived, the corn field that needed to be cut down to make the earth bag house was still standing, and the family slashed it in half an hour–but IMG_9492they weren’t going to do that until they saw us standing there for real.  Kushal, the twelve year old boy we met during our assessment, called me almost every morning between Monday and Thursday, and he never had anything to say. He just wanted to see if I’d pick up.  Millions of rural poor go unseen by the world unless they are in the midst of a thrilling crisis that offers the chance for airdrops, mass collection of first aid materials, teeth-clenching field medicine, and smoky photos of catastrophe. But the persistent plight of invisibility and systemic disenfranchisement is too complicated and time consuming for most of the world to attend to by looking people in the eye.  It’s not the habit of our global society, of our governments or social organizations, to sit down in a clearing and say, “We’ll stay here and work on this with you. What do you think?”

I understand why large aid agencies can’t work like this. It’s not their job. They have the budget and infrastructure to strategize to best possible average and cast a wide net; their purpose is to get to the highest number of people, not to reduce the amount of waste or increase the amount of human connection. And Nepal needs them.  An organization like ours could never hope to reach any reasonable fraction of those in urgent need using our approach. But I’m reminded how much groups like us matter, even in the face of a gigantic task like building half a million houses in a few weeks. Because the best possible average still leaves out a lot of people, and for each one of those people, their house is 100% of the problem.

This strategy doesn’t always work, and I don’t know how things will turn out in Archalbot, although I admit I have a good feeling about it. But the hardest part is that you have to be willing to walk away if the community can’t carry its weight, and that’s devastating when it happens, because you and your team have put your heart in to it. You sit in the grass with people while they work things out. You tell them you are there for them and that you respect the wisdom they bring to the process as well as the result. When it falls through, it doesn’t just hurt your budget, it hurts your sense of hope and capability. It’s not something you write up in a report and send up the chain to management. You just go home and cry.

But what am I talking about?  Here’s to you, Archalbot.  We’ll stick it out for better or worse.  Show us how it’s done.

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The Heart of the Matter

It seemed we took all the right steps to set up our first transitional housing project.   I attended two of the cluster meetings of INGOs and government, one on health and one on shelter. I read articles and talked with people who know about various forms of building and disaster housing. I learned two things: that we should keep design minimal and focus on raw materials and local building knowledge, and that we could only learn more by doing. Combine this with eight years of experience coordinating grassroots outreach in rural Nepal, and you have the basics.

We arranged our first project through our dental technician in Parbat, an assertive, organized woman named Anita who’s been very proactive about contacting us with information on communities in need in Parbat. We made a delivery of emergency tarps and supplies to Parbat a few weeks ago that went very well. Anita helped us locate a 23 homes in a village called Tanigaun where people were still living outside. She visited to do an assessment and collected data from the local government.

If all that weren’t enough preparation to rely on, our plan was basically just what the major relief agencies are doing: deliver sheets of corrugated tin roofing, and let people build using local materials. We planned to add a day working alongside a few especially vulnerable families to get their shelters up faster. On Friday night, Anita was on the phone with our field officer Gaurab until midnight, getting 25 bundles of tin, wire, and nails on to a tractor, which left the night before so that the supplies would be in Tanigaun in time for our arrival on Saturday.

IMG_9410We were all in good spirits as we drove out to Kusma city at 7:30am. Four of our Gaky’s Light Fellows came to help build. In Kusma we met Anita and switched over to a jeep, which had the requisite 20-something boys covered in car grease clunking around underneath it with medieval looking tools right up until the moment we spun out of the lot with Gaurab and his friends sitting on top of the vehicle.

This is the part of the story with another bumpy 3-hour jeep ride on a dirt road through rolling green hills and the occasional village. One guy had to keep getting out of the jeep and laying stones in the road for us to loll over ruts and mud pits.

Which makes a good story—but honestly, a lot of Nepal is like that. The greasy jeep guys are always under your rented vehicle; the road is always rutted and laying stones to get over the next rut is just called driving. People sit on top of unreasonable modes of transport wherever they are. None of this is actually exotic in Nepal. And this is an anti-romantic post.

So I’ll cut to the chase…Tanigaun didn’t go anything like we thought it would. There was the welcome, the flowers, a woman grabbing my arm in tears. All the things you see in pictures that make you think you’re doing the right thing.

It wasn’t until we began helping people bring their bundles of tin to their houses that we realized we weren’t doing the right thing.

IMG_9373Many of Tanigaun’s homes have been damaged, some of them quite badly, and many are unlivable. A number of people were sleeping in the school. I visited the Dalit (in non-PC terms, low caste) area, and there were houses with large holes in them. Other houses had cracks of varying sizes here and there.

But there was plenty of reusable tin in Tanigaun. What’s more, a variety of public bamboo structures had already been made, using the same technique we hoped to help people with in their own homes. But if residents of Tanigaun were already in the habit of constructing safe, plastered-bamboo structures, why would anyone sleep in a school for a month?

In fact, raw materials were lying around everywhere, but the people appeared confusingly passive. One group of families showed us a shelter where they had four families living together, and begged us to reallocate more tin to them for space. But they were using corrugated tin as siding under a tin roof – which, in case you’ve never lived in a shiny tin house during a pre-monsoon summer, is a miserable idea, while a bamboo house with a tin roof is cool, sound-insulated, and sturdy. They had enough tin to cover double the area they were living in.  Already.

And that’s really the heart of the matter. Sheets of corrugated tin aren’t going to help anyone who isn’t motivated to build under them. What we should have done in Tanigaun was to come with nothing but manpower, demolition tools, and moral support. We could have provided tin later as needed.

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My heart sank all the way to my feet and I felt so ashamed I wanted to disappear. With all that planning, we’d still made the ultimate beginner’s mistake: providing material goods in place of mobilization. People were bickering over unneeded tin sheets, both exasperated with us and trying to impress us with their individual causes, playing out a story I’ve watched a million times—I’ve designed my entire dental care project to subvert this very drama.

I should have known. But this is exactly what all the experts are doing – without the personal contact that we were able to bring in.

It wasn’t until late afternoon, when we were about to leave, that I stopped at a structure I’d passed a few times. There was one plastered bamboo hut sitting in the middle of the village, and I finally stood still and inspected it carefully. A line down the center gave away that half was old, half freshly made. Someone came over and told me it had been the house-owner’s kitchen, and after the earthquake, he’d simply added on another half.
“Ah – here he is now,” said the neighbor.

I looked up to see a man in shorts and a cap walking toward me, weathered with a look of curiosity lingering on his features that made him seem both coarse and naturally kind. He told me his name was Tulasi.

“Did you make this house?” I asked.

“Yes.” He didn’t elaborate. But he didn’t look the least bit impatient either.

I asked how long it had taken him.

“The first three days after the earthquake, I couldn’t really do anything. But then I started and it took me about a week and a half. My daughter and I built it.”

Tulasi had a funny way of talking, almost a stutter but not quite. In all likelihood, this man, who is also Dalit, has faced a great deal of discrimination in his life. His daughter told me that it’s just them and her little sister. Their mother is “gone” – either run off or passed away, I didn’t ask which.

“Where is your original house?” I asked.

He pointed to an empty lot across the road. He’d already demolished his old, cracked house. There was nothing but a pile of stones.

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Every now and then, I meet a type of person who has a prophetic quality. It has a sound like a thick velvet curtain that mutes the noise and nonsense of the rest of the world. You probably know what I’m talking about. These are usually the quietest people, the ones who are simply being their wisdom. They have nothing to prove, and often nothing they need to achieve. They simply exist with tremendous grace.

IMG_9396The inside of Tulasi’s bamboo house was cool and smooth. While not luxurious, it was far more than an emergency hut, and will certainly shelter this man and his two daughters through the monsoon. It will be safe in case of another earthquake. If they take care of it, it will last years, and indeed, the original half that was the kitchen turns out to be five years old. They have plenty of time to rebuild their main house in safety.

His daughter raised her hand towards a joint in the ceiling. “It was just leaking right here,” she said, “but we put your tin up already. So that’s solved.”

Everyone else’s tin was still sitting in their yard.

I wonder if Tulasi noticed that?

On the way home we had a long walk through the valley. The river rushing by and the green hills tumbling all around, endless in every direction, my thoughts spiraling out the same way, uncertain where to land. Everything seemed like a fool’s errand, and we were all disspirited.

I kept circling around this image of that simple bamboo house. This guy had built something magical in the middle of a gloomy swamp, and he didn’t even seem to notice or care that it was amazing. He just needed a house. It was only amazing because nobody else seemed to believe in houses – in every other respect, it was the most obvious thing in the universe.

It wasn’t until a few days later that Robin reminded me the World Food Program just distributed 1.5 million pounds of unedible rice, or that there was another disaster where over 800 people died from a relief distribution of moldy grain. You want to bat 100%, but that never happens. In our case, people will find some way of using our tin, even if it’s not the way we wanted, or even if they sell it. We learned an expensive lesson, but nobody was hurt – actually somebody will benefit, somewhere – and expensive lessons at scale cost millions of dollars.

And besides, I’d met Tulasi. Maybe when I tell my grandkids about being in Nepal after the great earthquake, the only part I will really need to make sure they understand will be Tulasi’s bamboo house.

We still had plenty of room to adapt for our next project. These were my meditations as I walked along the evening river with the rest of the group. I suddenly remembered Robin had called me earlier in the day while I was dealing with the tin situation. He’s my friend, the crazy truck driver, who gave a presentation on earth bag housing recently. I have desperately been wanting to try this out, but haven’t been able to find anyone to help. I rang him back.

“Bad news for us, good news for you,” Robin buzzed in to my ear over a bad cell connection. “The project we had planned in Gorkha has been cancelled. So we need to build an earth bag house before June 12.  Do you have a place where we can collaborate?”

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