Deeply personal

I have no wish to add to the commentary on the disaster in Nepal caused by a major earthquake yesterday, and followed by numerous aftershocks and at least two other significant quakes of well over 6 magnitude on the Richter Scale.

There is a wealth of information, distressing and tragic images and news updates as casualty figures rise. It is an overwhelming tragedy and the coming days critical as a picture emerges of the extent of the situation, including the remoter areas nearer the epicentre. Information is aplenty and I do not plan to add to it.

My words are about how deeply personal this tragedy is, and that is for me at a distance, physically removed from the situation. However, I am strongly connected having lived in Nepal for approaching six years. Nepal, and especially Kathmandu hold a very precious place in my heart. I am struggling to process this.

This earthquake is not unexpected. We have long known that a major earthquake is due, or even overdue. Nepal sits on a highly seismic line, which give us the spectacular Himalayas as a result of the tectonic plates shifting through history. We have long feared an earthquake of this scale but we have always hoped that it would not happen.

When I first arrived in Kathmandu in July 2000, fresh off an overnight flight from Scotland, to take up a new job in a country I had never been to, I was spellbound by the city. But even in my first few days, I started hearing about “the earthquake”. I quickly learned that Nepal is highly vulnerable, and that Kathmandu particularly was in a highly precarious position. The population density, fragility of many buildings and concentrated construction on top of a ground which used to be the floor of a lake and now prone to liquefaction all being factors which would intensify the impact of an earthquake. I soon became very aware of earthquake risk, but did not know what to do in the event of a tremor. I did not have to wait long before I was pushed into action. The deep Gujurat earthquake in January 2001 caused swaying of buildings and dizziness in beings even as far as Nepal. Not long after, in July we had a rattling 5.9 earthquake while I was lying in my bed dozing off one Monday night. As the shaking intensified, I realised I had no clue what to do and I was lying there thinking”what-do-I-do-I-need-to-shelter-in-a-doorway-or-is-it-under-the-bed-or-should-I-run-outside?” when I realised that the shaking had stopped. Nothing had been damaged, but there were shouts of “bhuichalo” (earthquake in Nepali) outside, dogs were frantic, people gathering outside and I settled on my rooftop balcony feeling safer on top of a building than in it, and unwilling go to back to bed in case a bigger one came.

That night there was no further seismic action, nor was there much sleep. My paralysis when the earthquake started galvanised me to learn more and without doubt prepared me for future earthquake experiences, and in particular the 2004 quake which caused the massive tsunami. We were in Port Blair in the Andaman Islands on that day and returned to Kathmandu a few days later, with an intensified dread of the anticipated “big one” which we knew was already overdue.

There have been a number of deadly quakes in Nepal in recent decades, but the last massive one was in 1934 measuring 8.4. Seismology experts have calculated that a quake above 7 on the Richter scale is likely every 60 – 80 years. Hence the sense that a “big one” was overdue or imminent. Returning from a major earthquake, into a vulnerable area caused incredible stress. This was not an irrational fear, but a very real likelihood. We just had no idea when it might happen. We developed a plan of action for when such an earthquake came including a rendez vous point and communication back up. One particular friend and I worked through which supplies to hold, and which necessities to stock and a plan of action.  When she visited me in Yangon, she told me how that had now become a plan which she had jointly developed with a small number of friends in Kathmandu. They would join forces, each with different supplies if needed.

We left Nepal in November 2005, and a major reason was the vulnerability to earthquake. We had moved house to a safer place, but still felt that the risk was high and when the opportunity arose for work in Mongolia this was welcome. But I am still highly aware, and have written of earthquakes and mentioned more than once, that one of the reasons we are so taken with our home here is because it is small and likely to be safer in the event of a quake.

I was in a car heading home yesterday lunchtime, when hubby phoned and broke the news of the earthquake. As soon as I got home, I spent most of my time checking up online, seeking news of family and friends in the affected area. Having lived there for so long, and with family across the whole affected region, it was an overwhelming task trying to seek reassurance about so many people. There were so many updates from friends, family and former colleagues all over the world, desperately looking for information and sharing any updates they found. Thank heavens for social media. Although phone lines were mostly down, internet was more functional and soon messages came through from those who were safe and knew of others on Twitter and Facebook. In no time, #nepal and #earthquake were trending on Twitter. This morning we continued to receive news that loved ones are mostly unhurt. After the initial relief, we realise that many are homeless. Most spent the night outside, either under tents or on the roadside either because homes are destroyed or unsafe, or due to fear because of the aftershocks.

A great deal has been done in terms of preparedness in recent years, but the geography of the Kathmandu valley and population density are fundamental features which intensify the impact of the earthquake.  Hospital patients are being treated outside as there is no more space inside. Water and food will urgently become limited. One piece of welcome information was that although Kathmandu airport was closed to regular traffic, it was still able to function and late last night the first relief supplies arrived from India. The national and international communities have mobilised and a humanitarian effort underway with emergency coordination mechanisms already activated. A State of Emergency has been declared.

However, we still do not know the scale of the situation. The coming days are indeed critical, particularly given the strength and number of aftershocks on the weakened and fragile structures. Gradually we are learning more, and each new piece of information cuts deeper.

While I am protected from the immediacy of this catastrophe being at a distance, I cannot say that I am not affected.  This post is a personal, selfish catharsis from an individual trying to process and deal with the scale of this disaster. It is deeply personal.

We are holding the people of this Himalayan region close in our hearts at this time and holding out hope for a rapid, effective response reaching and treating casualties quickly and for a strong recovery.

Namaste.

Dreaming of Borneo

There are some magical places on our planet which conjure up a real sense of mystery and enigma.  Some are real and some are mythical – Zanzibar, Shangri-La, Machu Pichu, Inca Trail, Kathmandu, Timbuktu,  Silk Road, Mandalay and Borneo are a few which spring to mind.

I lived in Kathmandu for many years, and when I left even for a few days,  I used to love sitting in the departure lounge of whatever airport I was in when on my way back to Nepal.  I used to get a quiver of excitement tinged with disbelief seeing “Kathmandu” on the flight departures board, and a greater twinge at the thought that not only I was heading right there, but that I was actually living there!  That shiver of excitement was evoked without fail every time I returned to Kathmandu.  I remember one friend being surprised that Kathmandu was real – they thought it was one of those mysterious, mythical made up places – perhaps like “Atlantis”.

That suggestion of mystery and romance is contained in so many places.

Borneo for me, is one of those places.  Now I have to confess that until very recently I actually believed that Borneo was a country. I only recently learned that it is in fact an island, part Malaysian, part Indonesian and with Brunei nestling on its northern shores.  I have long dreamed of visiting mystical Borneo with images of rainforest, volcanic peaks and possibly even Tarzan having featured in my imagination and dreams. How unfortunate that I knew so little of the island.

???????????????????????????????So, in the spirit of carpe diem, the wish bucket and not squandering time while I am well, I have decided to spend some of my leave in Borneo.  (Thank you AirAsia and Agoda for making dreams affordable 🙂 ).  Tomorrow I will travel to Malaysian Borneo.  I know that there has been major deforestation and that my expectations of the island will be different to the reality.  But the other purpose of the trip is about removing myself even further from the roundabout and putting myself in a space where I can disengage, relax and focus on my emotional and physical wellbeing.  I imagine it will also provide rich material for the creative side.

borneo rainforestIn fact, I am not sure at all what to expect.  That is part of the mystery and enigma. I promise that whatever I do find, I will share here very soon.

Sweet dreams……….

There’s more to Twang than Twang Arm!

It is another Big Landmark Day today.  On 5 October 2009, I had the surgery which would confirm the diagnosis of breast cancer which makes it three years since my mastectomy, three years of extreme lopsidery and three years since Twang Arm came into my life.

There is no love lost between Twang Arm and myself and not an ounce of respect afforded in either direction.  So I want to upstage Twang Arm in a mischievous kind of way today.

The idea came to me the other evening, when I was preparing to go to my writing group. We had set ourselves an assignment and (as too often happens) I was delving into my writing archive to find something to take along.  So often as the day of the group approaches, either I am scrawling away at the eleventh hour trying to finish it, or conceding that I have not created anything fit enough to share and digging deep to find something from past writing.  As I had been out of Yangon, in the capital the previous week and into the weekend I had had even less free time to write, and I resorted to the archive.  I went back a number of years, to my time in Nepal when I found so much inspiration around me, observing little snippets of ordinary daily life, and sharing this.  I was rapidly enveloped in nostalgia re-reading the writing and remembering those numerous moments.  Very like our recent “celebrating the ordinary” challenge which Marie of Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer laid before us.

And I found this poem below, which I had written years ago and completely forgotten about. Memories flood back of the Kathmandu streets and the calls of what I termed the Twang Man”  as monsoon retreats and the cooling temperatures of the approaching winter.

The man with the strange twanging instrument

Outside the bedroom window

along the busy path

of soft mud

swollen by endless weeks

of the season’s monsoon rain,

the morning traders pass

calling, singing, tempting

all to trade with them

Wheeling bikes

laden with fruit, vegetables, fish

to sell.

Bamboo mats, rice nanglos

small matted stools

for us to buy

empty rice sacks, bottles

to collect for a few rupees,

pressure cookers, gas stoves to mend.

A new noise

unfamiliar

competes with their calls

Twang! Twang! Twang!

Who is that man?

What does he carry

against his right shoulder?

A strange wooden object

with a music like string

which he plucks at

as he walks silently

along the lane

Twang! Twang! Twang!

Soon he is seated

in a neighbour’s yard

silently, patiently teasing

the wool filling of the winter quilts,

freeing them of their dampness

brought by the summer’s rains,

repairing them for the coming cold

readying them for their winter work

protecting young and old alike

from the penetrating night time chill.

As the rains slowly come to an end

the man who brings the twanging sound

visits so many streets, yards, homes

silently patiently

day by day

as the skies become clearer

and the cold creeps daily closer.

His work ensures that

each family will sleep

in the warmth and comfort

of the freshly repaired quilt.

In these short autumn weeks

shawls, woollen hats and socks

slowly appear on the city folk

as he readies them

for the night time cold.

In these short weeks

he must earn

enough to feed his family

for the coming months.

Outside the bedroom window

along the busy path

of dried, cold, dusty earth

cracked by daytime sun and night time chill

the morning traders pass

calling, singing, tempting

all to trade with them.

Less one familiar sound

Twang!  Twang!  Twang!

 

Coincidentally this is also Twang Man’s season in Nepal, and if I close my eyes and let my mind drift to the Kathmandu streets I can hear his call.

Chilling in Chiang Mai – Part 2 of the Adventure

A quick glimpse of our Chiang Mai retreat – in pictures for now.  More thoughts coming on the subject of online friendships ………….

Chiang Mai was resplendent in colour, trees blooming (purple jacaranda, yellow laburnum, scarlet Kapok), brilliant pinks of Bougainvillea, fragrant frangipani and so many other tropical blooms.  We spent the days there with a friend from Kathmandu, reminiscing and wallowing in nostalgia.  Marvellous!

Chiang Mai nestles at the foot of a range of green hills, and a trip to the city is not complete without a visit to the hilltop temple at Doi Suthep.  A flight of over 300 steps leads you to a serene, spiritual and peaceful temple.  Accompanied by great view of the city

And my favourite image of the whole trip – this beautiful and serious picture of 2 young monks – posing for the little pink camera set on auto timer to capture their presence in the temple. 🙂

All in all, a true experience of harmony, vitality and adventure!