Spontaneity tends to lead to either something incredibly good, or shockingly bad. The idea to work for All Hands Volunteers falls firmly in the former. Having very little idea of what to expect, I flew from Cochin to Delhi and on to Kathmandu and spent a couple of days exploring the capital before finding my way through a maze of streets to the base of All Hands.
Kathmandu needs tourists again. The number of tourists in Nepal should be lower now anyway, due to it being off season, but not this much. It seems that what they need is a resurgent influx of tourists. Tourists bring in money to pay taxi drivers and shopkeepers, buy food and beds in restaurants and hotels and almost more importantly, to bring normality back to this sturdy set of people. The trekking season will begin again soon, and if you were in any doubt about venturing back to the Himalayas post-earthquakes, don’t be. I’m told that tremors still occur on a weekly basis, but often they’re not even felt by the majority of people and that they’re becoming smaller in frequency and scale.
I’d been delegated to the Sindhupalchok All Hands base, the main one being in Kathmandu, where I was told the order of the day was demolition and rubbling, whatever that meant. The demo team are taken from the long term volunteers (2 months plus) with obvious preference for those with experience in that kind of job.
I, myself, have only signed up for one month – so far – and the closest thing to demolition I have is destroying years’ worth of Lego houses and spaceships, so I joined the rubble ranks and after a day to settle in while the others were first aid training, we set off to one of the sites.
I realised straight away that compared to mountain roads in Nepal, Indian roads are as smooth as a smooth thing on a smooth day. I’m glad we were in Jeeps and not Tuk Tuks.
I hadn’t fully, emphasis on fully, understood why it was that we, a bunch of foreigners and some local volunteers, were required to clear debris from houses when surely the people whose house it was or government workers could very well do that themselves! That was, until I remembered the scale of the disaster, saw that the roads going up to the homes affected were simply out of reach of any heavy machinery and the locals themselves had to harvest their crops, set up temporary housing for themselves and their livestock, look after their injured, try and respect the two family members who died and physically and psychologically recover from what must have been a truly horrifying experience.
Not just one experience either, the second earthquake hit Sindhupalchok directly and so just as civilians were beginning to readjust to life after the first one and take stock of what had happened, the second one set them back even further.
All of this meant that the ‘houses’ I envisaged clearing debris from, were not houses anymore. They were piles of rubble and wood. They were heaps of and heaps of work that for a family of 16, most of which are the young and the elderly, who now live in a single corrugated iron structure, was simply unmanageable.
The site we set to work on had already had a day’s labour completed on it and yet I couldn’t even make out where the houses had been before. Carrying, throwing and wheelbarrowing rocks away from the mounds and onto several other growing pile of rocks further down the site seemed somewhat foolish until, more than a few hours of labour later, we started hitting the outskirts of the house. We’d found the walls. Finally it dawned on me that we weren’t just throwing rocks around.
It took us another two days to clear the three houses, stabilise the walls and level the floors so that once we’d gone, they could finally rebuild. They weren’t joking when they said that this was going to be tough but enjoyable work, we had to move thousands of rocks of varying sizes with only pickaxes, spades and gloves for company. To say my limbs are slightly sore would be an understatement. Luckily the views were simply stunning, the company was great and the choice of musical backing – from guess the Portuguese Disney song to rather aggressive Eminem – was, mostly, brilliant.
It was obvious to see what it meant to these strong, resilient Nepalese people. Two days of rubbling down, many many more to go.
All Hands supports its volunteers while they’re here but it costs them money to do so. It would be fantastic if you could help support them by either donating to their cause or buying tools from their wish-list that can be sent over for us to use. If you’d like to then please follow the links above!