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