On the Way to Kathmandu, Nepal
On 25th of April, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal. The death toll is now above 5,000 and rising. In the wake of this disaster, Medical Teams International responded very quickly by contacting their emergency response team which I joined after the earth quake of Haiti in 2010. They had already sent a member to the ground to see how best the first response team should be deployed. The day after the earthquake, MTI contacted members of their response roster for volunteers to go to Nepal in 48 to 72 hours. It has been barely a month since I came back from Sierra Leone for the Ebola response but the need of the Nepali people is great. Since our mission is to provide medical care which they badly need, I volunteered. This time around I was chosen to be one of the first five-membered emergency response team. Since all the members are mostly from the west coast, in particular from Portland, Oregon, I was to rendezvous with them in Guangzhou, China. Only to find out later that the travel agent booked their flight a day early and I missed them by a day. I wished I was booked to fly via Europe, that would have made my trip a lot shorter. Crossing the International Dateline propelled me into the future.
We knew vaguely that we would be heading first to Kathmandu and from there to Dhading District west of Kathmandu about 30 miles from the epicenter.
On April 29, my flight took me from Boston to Los Angeles and then across the Pacific for a long journey to Guangzhou where I was stuck for over 12 hours. There was WIFI but I could not get into Google browser to check my e-mail, evidently there was active censorship by the Chinese government. I stayed in a hotel where I met a young lady from Indonesia and after breakfast we went exploring and ended up doing a three-hour hike up Baiyun Hill with a view of the city of high rises. We had no Yuan but I was able to recall enough Mandarin to speak to the guards who let us in without paying a hiking fee. Very few Chinese here speak English. The most amazing thing was we ran into many Chinese ladies hiking the hill dressed to kill; some with short minis and one was in a long evening gown, a number with high heels and at least two with a three-inch stiletto! Years ago when I climbed Kilimanjaro at the first station at 12,000 feet, a sign with a painted picture of a red high heel read “No high heels allowed”.
In the evening the plane to Kathmandu was barely filled. Before we landed I could see shadows of tall mountains nestling in the clouds then the glow of lights from Kathmandu in the distance which looked as though everything was quite normal, at least from the air. In the airport, chaos abounded. There were two sections the size of a tennis court filled with people, boxes, and carts. Apparently aids have descended to Nepal with hundreds of medical teams arriving and many of them from Asian countries, although only five were registered with the UN. My flight was not given a carousel for luggage, and it would be close to 2 hours before it appeared. Tons of unclaimed suitcases, boxes, mosquitoes were left unclaimed as it is not unusual for passengers to wait 2 to 3 hours for their luggage. Signs in Nepoli asking passengers to report if they have been to West Africa, I only knew that with pictures of burial and people in Hazmat suits. Outside crowds of people, peering into the gloom, I saw only a few people holding placards with names but with MTI or my name. Inside I finally spotted a woman with a small MTI logo on her shirt and she was coordinator who had been waiting for me while Niren, the driver slept in the van. It was close to mid-night. Soon it would be May 2.
The streets of Kathmandu were deserted. Dogs roamed aimlessly around, walking sluggishly as though in a drunkard stupor. They did not even try to avoid being hit by our vehicle. We passed a beautifully shaped Nepali temple draped with prayer flags. We finally drove along narrow alleys wide enough for one vehicle with and shuttered shops. The Hotel Himalaya was not lit but though the moonlight I could see it has a peaceful courtyard.
Early this morning I will receive security briefings. From the little I heard, the coordinator who arrived from Australia shortly after the quake slept in a hotel compound with just a pillow and a blanket as most hotels were closed. He had a hard time finding food and water as he was really heading to Liberia when the earthquake struck. The team that left a day early would try to start their clinic tomorrow with no help from the local health workers and just one interpreter after trekking 12km to a designated remote village with their medical supplies and trek their way back before daylight fades. Food and water had to be brought in from Kathmandu. We will camp in a compound outside the district clinic with a toilet for our use. It would all be very basic.
Since there will be no electricity, running water, or internet, it would probably be next to impossible to blog consistently. Here comes my first entry hastily written in the early morning in Hotel Himalaya, chanting of prayer in the background weaving in with the chirping of the birds.