Gorkha

The next phase of our eleven full days in Nepal between May 8 – May 18 started on the morning of Sunday, May 10. It began with the arrival of a van hired from Nepal Sanctuary Treks at Ron and Cheryl’s in Bhukuntole near the British School. After expressing our gratitude to Ron and Cheryl we went to Kalimati and picked up the other three people of our original group (Lisa, Knight, Heather Knight, and Chris Butler) and the four other’s who had decided to join us – a paramedic from South Africa, two EMT’s from Texas, and a volunteer firefighter from Virginia.

On our drive out of the Kathmandu valley, David decided to call Becky Paris, a friend from our time in Pokhara when he was in primary school. Becky is now an anesthesiologist/trainer at Tansen Hospital. David asked her what she knew of NGOs involved in Gorkha district and she suggested we look up World Vision, as they had been assigned that district. Gurkha is not too far off the road to Pokhara so we decided to take the detour and see if we could make a connection right away with World Vision.

We arrived in Gorkha around two in the afternoon. I had called my friend Kiran Shrestha in Pokhara. He’s a Rotarian with connections. He called Nakul Thapa, the President of the the Gorkha Rotary Club, who met us when we arrived in town. We asked him if he knew where World Vision was in Gorkha but he had no idea. Wondering what to do next we saw several UN vehicles drive by and enter the Gorkha Inn which had been set up as their headquarters in the district. We made our way toward the Inn with the intention of finding out what was going on and how we might fit in. As we reached the entrance, Nakul recognized a man in a vehicle exiting the Gorkha Inn parking lot. After a brief conversation between Nakul and the man in the car, he stepped out and introduced himself as Dr. Joshi of WHO. I introduced our group as firefighters and paramedics.

Dr. Joshi recommended that we follow him up to the Gorkha District Health Office. When we arrived he invited us in and asked what kind of work we might be able to do. After explaining our skills which included treating injuries and building temporary shelters, he suggested we might be able to help construct temporary shelters in which local health workers could continue seeing patients. We thought this was an excellent idea and a perfect fit for our abilities.

I was impressed that Dr. Joshi opened up his laptop and brought up the same UN coordinating website that Ron has shown me the night before. He began looking at the health cluster pages to see which villages had health posts that had been destroyed in the earthquake. He found two that were fairly close and we could possibly complete in the few days were had to offer. Dr. Joshi spoke with us in English, but I occasionally spoke Nepali with his staff members. I explained that I’d learned Nepali as a child in Tansen and that my father, Dr. Carl Friedericks, had started the hospital there. This, I’m sure added to our credibility and their willingness to give us an assignment.

We left the District Health Office with assignments to build two temporary village health centers. We were given two letters introducing us to each VDC (Village Development Committee). The two areas were Gankhu VDC (population about 3000) and one for Mirkot VDC (population about 6000). One of the letters was for the health worker in charge of the VDC Health Centre. The other letter was for the Secretary of the VDC, an appointed administrator and representative of the Government. The letters authorized us and instructed the local officials to allow us to operate in the village area.

Authorization letter from Gorkha District Health Office

Authorization letter from Gorkha District Health Office

IMG_3877 - 2015-05-10 at 19-53-49The road to Gankhu was unfinished but passable, we were told, but even so our driver was unwilling to take his van on it. The road to Mirkot was even worse. We decided to go to Gankhu first; it was a smaller place and easier to get to. If we were successful there, and we had enough time, we would go on to Mirkot.

 

IMG_3868 - 2015-05-10 at 18-38-07We asked Nakul Thapa, the Gorkha District Rotarian, to help us find transportation to Gankhu. He found us a small bus which we hired for the journey. It was a hair raising journey!  Chris Butler admitted he made a mistake sitting at the front of the bus as it careened down the hill from Gorkha, swinging off the single lane tarmac on the outside to pass a bus or truck laboring uphill. He said, “I run into burning buildings, but this scares the sh*t out of me!”

Despite hiring the entire bus, we picked up passengers along the way. They turned out to be family members of the owner of the bus returning to their village after the earthquake had frightened them away. We were happy to share our bus as we ventured deeper into the hills and submitted to the same environment and risks everyone in Nepal was facing.IMG_3874 - 2015-05-10 at 18-40-28 This family had lost their house, but were returning to the village to pick up the pieces and continue. Besides two young boys, there was a new born baby girl. David began talking with the young mother and shared his own family pictures with her. Chris later commented on how gorgeous this woman was.

When we arrived the Nayasanghu, the main village of Gankhu VDC on the new motor road, I showed the letters to a shopkeeper who informed us that the health worker had returned to Gorkha for the night but would return the next morning. The letter, however, immediately gave us credibility among the townspeople. My fluency with the language was also immediately noted and appreciated. Feeling welcomed, I said we would consult with the health worker about a location for a temporary health center and we would like to camp somewhere for a few days. Our bags and totes containing medical supplies were unloaded from the bus and we were taken to the school yard where we pitched camp.

Nayasanghu School, Gankhu, Ward 5

Nayasanghu School, Gankhu, Ward 5

The school was very close to the old health center so we thought it was a good location. We could also treat people who would show up when word got out that we had medical supplies. The District Health Office also authorized us to treat patients with injuries and had given us forms to use to help with district-wide data collection.

IMG_3910 - 2015-05-10 at 20-12-17

Collapsed classroom walls.

The outer structure of the school buildings, at first glance, looked okay. But looking closer we saw that several interior walls had collapsed and parts of exterior walls bulged or had collapsed. They were all too dangerous to enter. During April and May schools in Nepal are on summer holiday. Annual exams are in March followed by a two month break. But school was due to begin again by the end of May or early June. No temporary shelters had been built for classes in this village and we wondered where teachers and students would be meeting. Hopefully another group like ours would be assigned to set up temporary classrooms in the school yard.

Village children came to see what was going on when we set up camp in their school yard. Though all of them were living in make-shift structures, usually under a tarp, they were all clean, well dressed and happy. They enjoyed playing football (soccer) and being curious children. Several practiced their English with us and one boy was even able to act as translator when people showed up for treatment.

Playing football with village children.

David and Chris playing football with village boys at our camp in their school yard.

It was evening by the time we settled in. Still gripped by jet lag and several days of travel we were in our tents and asleep by about 8:30. It was hot and it didn’t cool down much at night. We never knew exactly how hot it was but we guessed it was around 95 degrees F.

 

Forty five years

Forty five years ago I came in direct contact with Tibetan culture for the first time. Prior to that I had seen Tibetan caravans traveling through Tansen, Palpa, Nepal. I was well aware of the situation on the other side of the Himalayan mountains and I had even been in the audience when the Dalai Lama visited my school in Mussoorie, U.P. India soon after his escape from Tibet in 1959.

It was December, 1964. I was sixteen then. We had holidays in the winter because the school was in the mountains and I had been invited on a bird collecting expedition up the Kali Gandaki River. We hiked from Pokhara up over the Ghorepani pass to the Kali Gandaki and then up the river from Tatopani to Lete, Ghasa, and the amazing bend in the river at the foot of Dhaulagiri. (I’m sure I can claim to be one of the very first expatriates on what has come to be known as the “Annapurna Curcuit” and very definitely the first teenager.)

Trekking in Nepal, age 18

Trekking in Nepal, age 18

At this point I stood in the deepest gorge above sea level; the river runs at 6,000 feet above sea level while both Dhaulagiri to the west and Annapurna further to the east are above 26,000 feet. Another amazing thing about this bend in the river is the abrupt climate and ecological change from subtropic and temperate to desert alpine; from the lush southern slopes of the Himalayas that get drenched with monsoon rains to the arid trans-Himalayan plateau of Tibet. Culturally, of course, there is also a remarkable abrupt change – from Indian Subcontinental to Central Asian.

Now I’m sixty one. It’s been forty five years since I was on that expedition. Further up the Kali Gandaki River, just beyond Jomsom on our way up to Muktinath, the three of us – two Americans and a Briton – found ourselves surrounded by armed men on horseback. They demanded to know where we were going and what we were doing with guns. I wasn’t carrying one, but the other two had shotguns for bagging larger birds we would be sending off for the Chicago Natural History Museum’s collection of Himalayan birds. One of the men on horseback rode over and grabbed a shotgun and examined it. It was passed around and examined carefully. My collegue opened up one of the shotgun shells and showed the horseman the tiny birdshot inside. We were suddenly surrounded by horsemen howling with laughter when it was clear to them we were hunting and collecting birds. We showed them a few specimens.

In broken English and Nepali we managed to communicate with these rough riders. We discovered – and had already guessed – that they were Khampa warriors who were engaging and harassing the People’s Liberation Army across the border inside Chinese occupied Tibet. When they learned that two of us were Americans they did the thumbs up sign and said, “America, good!” They pointed to the sky and indicated supplies were dropped by American planes.

The conflict between Tibetans and Chinese Communism has been going on for over fifty years. The armed struggle by this tiny group of warriors stopped ten years later (by 1974). That is an interesting story all its own. Since then the Dalai Lama has tried to reach an understanding with the leaders of China about the occupation of Tibet. But this is a story that many people are well aware of especially since the world wide protests against Chinese suppression of Tibetan human rights during the Olympic Torch Relays earlier this year.

I have visited Western Sichuan, or Kham – where the Khampa warriors come from – but I have not been to Lhasa or any part of the TAR. Someday I would like to go there, someday when both Tibetans and Chinese recognize their interdependence and can live with mutual respect and affection for each other.