Photos of the Nepal Earthquake

Matt Faherty has just sent me about 30 photos he took of Kathmandu immediately after the earthquake. I’ve uploaded about five of them as header images, and have uploaded eleven of them below. As per my usual policy, I’ve tried to use photos of places and things, and to minimize the use of photos of unconsenting people. I guess I’ve also offset the depressing quality of Matt’s photos by simultaneously uploading a series of Kate Herrick’s incredibly cheerful springtime shots of Oakland, California as header images.

Here they are. They’re thumbnails, so you can click to enlarge them.

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Escape from Kathmandu

Matt Faherty reports that he, his mother, and his brother have managed to get out of Nepal. They’re currently on a layover in Istanbul, Turkey and expect to be back in the States later today.

A bit premature, but: welcome home.

10:38 pm, EST: Matt, Tom, and Mom have landed at JFK, which I believe qualifies as an entry onto American soil. Current conditions in the New York Metro area are calm: partly cloudy, 46 degrees, with winds out of the NNW at 11 mph. No charging rhinos, capsized ferries, hawk attacks, machete attacks, or earthquakes are predicted for this evening.

Matt: Try to lay off the adventures for awhile. Lunch is on me at Angelina’s–a nice, sanitary place. You won’t have to eat any “weird Indian dishes,” and I’ll handle the tip.

Postscript: I’d like to urge readers to give whatever amount they can afford to the relief effort, whether large or small. Here’s information for six reputable relief organizations, from Time magazine.

Postscript, April 29, 2015: An item on the Faherty family ordeal in the Putnam County News and Recorder. It’s behind a paywall, but I’m told that it quotes from Matt’s blog posts here at PoT.

Guest Post: Report from the Nepal Earthquake (by Matt Faherty)

An Earth Shattering Finale 

[I had received several posts from Matt in India since his last one, but hadn’t gotten the chance to post them here. Since then, he’d gone back to Nepal, where his mother and brother had gone to meet him. What follows below is his first-hand account of the earthquake in Nepal. We’d been joking for weeks about Matt’s just barely missing disaster on this trip. This time, it no longer seems funny.]

I am writing this post on a baseball field, under a tent within a compound which houses and supports American government personnel in Nepal. I arrived in Kathmandu from India the second time yesterday, April 24th. Earlier that day, my brother Tom and my mother arrived in Kathmandu as well. We have been together in Kathmandu for about 24 hours now, and our current top priority is to leave Nepal as soon as possible.

At 10 AM this morning, my mom, Tom, and I left our hotel, which happened to be adjacent to the infamous Alobar1000, and set out for Monkey Temple. I had already been to Monkey Temple, but for our first of three full days in Kathmandu, I decided to tag along with the others and re-run through a few big sights. To get to the temple we had to walk out of Thamel, our hotel’s district at the heart of the city, and make our way across a river to a hill overlooking the city on the Western end of Kathmandu. The walk takes about forty minutes and demonstrates the best Kathmandu has to offer: windy streets, dirt roads, old temples, and lots of hippies.

We arrived at the base of the hill by 11:15 AM. Monkey Temple is on top of the hill’s summit, and the only way to get there is to trudge up a hundred or so stone steps of increasing height. The hill was more crowded than last time I was there, with dozens of individuals slowly meandering their way up. As before, little stalls lined the stairs and the merchants harassed the poor tourists. Monkeys climbed trees, fences and small shrines, eating everything in their path and looking like adorable little furry humans.

Due to our slow pace (my mom and brother alleged jet lag), it took us thirty minutes to reach the peak. Right before getting to the top, we were stopped by a small ticket stand and each charged a relatively steep sum of 200 rupees to enter. We paid climbed the last few stairs to reveal the whole temple. At the center is a white structure which looks like an upside down, swirly cone. Surrounding the cone on four points are four white towers, roughly three stories high. Around the towers on two adjacent sides are a row of brick buildings which house a monastery and a couple of shrines. On the other two sides are a pair of two, square based, two-story brick structures which housed their own shrines, and a series of platforms jutting out from the hill-top which provide great views of Kathmandu. This local geography will be relevant momentarily.

Rather than examine the central structure, we took a left as we got to the summit and made our way over to one of the look-out points. Since we were facing east from the western end of the city, most of Kathmandu lay before us. At the city center we could see the Sundhara, a white lighthouse-like tower which I had climbed during my last visit. Adjacent to the tower is Basantapur, a collection of pagodas and large buildings which make up one of the main palaces for the now-defunct royal family of Nepal. Most of the buildings in the city are three to four stories tall, and look like well built shanties. Despite their shoddy appearance, Kathmandu’s architecture has color and charm, and looks nothing like the similar poor cities throughout Indian and China (my brother remarked that it looked vaguely like Rio de Janeiro, especially with the mountains in the distance).

As I turned away from the lookout point, I felt the first rumble. I don’t know if I heard it or felt it first, or if the two feelings were so closely aligned that I couldn’t differentiate between them. Either way, it was a low, deep bass that seemed to come from the city itself. At first, I briefly dismissed it as construction, despite how absurd it would be for construction to be large and loud enough to disturb this isolated temple.

Then the rumbling started to grow. Within five seconds of its start, it was clear that everyone was aware it. Most people stopped in their tracks, others gripped the railing or leaned against a nearby building. I stared at my feet.

The rumbling grew more. Within fifteen seconds of the start it took on a defined shape. The ground shook side to side. I stuck my arm out for support and landed against the white structure at the central buildings corners. Cries rang out around me. My mom and brother were somewhere behind me, but I didn’t know where. Everyone I could see was still frozen in place but now trying to stay on their feet.

The rumbling grew. Twenty seconds after the start of the rumbling, everyone began to move. People darted in different directions around me. They must have known more than me, because I tried to stay in place. By this point I had realized we were in an earthquake, but having never personally experienced one before I had no idea what to do, and everything was moving too fast for me to make any rational decisions. I leaned against the white building.

The rumbling grew. I was being jostled from side to side with every tremor. They seemed to come every few seconds. Debris began to fall around me. I didn’t have the time or stability to see where it was coming from but bricks were smashing on the ground behind and in front of me. I had to move. I had to get away from the buildings.

The rumbling grew. I stumbled forward, moving between the white building on my right and the square-based brick building to my left. I could hear screams and cracking buildings over the increasingly loud rumbling. A chunk of the white building not much smaller than myself fell out of the structure and landed five feet in front of me. I turned to my left and tripped alongside the brick building. When I got to the far end of it, as far as possible from the crumbling white structure, I crouched on the ground and put my arms over my head.

The rumbling grew. I briefly lifted my head and caught a glance of dozens of people crowding on a large platform in front of me. They were crowding near the railing of a platform jutting out from the summit, where under normal circumstances they could get another great view of the city. Currently it looked to be the furthest possible place on the entire hill-top away from another building. Everyone pushing against the far railing looked terrified, but they also looked safer than I was.

I still had no idea where my mom and brother were.

Through the violent side-to-side rocking, I pushed forward. A few other stragglers were still close to the central structure as I was, but they seemed to have the same idea I did, and were making their way for the summit edges. Using the railing, I managed my way down a short staircase onto the jutting platform. I stumbled over to the railing and looked back at the temple. All of the buildings were being rocked back and forth. The central structure seemed to be holding strong, but the white towers and the brick buildings were rapidly falling apart. Huge chunks had already been flung off and were collecting into rubble piles on the ground.

I was afraid that a piece of building might traverse the twenty feet from the temple area to where I was standing. I wanted to get as far away as possible. I looked over the railing away from the temple and saw only mountain side. A few individuals had jumped over and were hugging trees in the light forest and shrubs. I considered doing the same but it dawned on me that if the shaking got bad enough the very platform I was standing on might break off and slide down the hill, thereby crushing any people under it. That was probably not architecturally possible, but in the moment, I was ready to consider anything.

The rumbling grew. It reached its apex. I turned back to the temple complex and saw my mom and brother stumble down the same path I had taken. Behind them larger and larger chunks flew off the brick building and crashed in puffs of brown smoke mere feet behind them. The smoke clouds engulfed them as they ran over to the hopeful sanctuary which I and dozens of others crowded on. Behind the brick building, the white tower continued to struggle, until a handful of rapid and particularly intense tremors tipped the scales. This three story tower crumbled before my eyes in seconds. It looked like a controlled demolition.

I thought the whole place might come down. I thought the central dome might collapse on itself and the side buildings along with it. I thought Monkey Temple would be wiped off the map.

Then, in maybe ten seconds, the rumbling slowed, and then stopped.

I’m fuzzy on the timelines. My best guess is that the main quake lasted 1.5 to 2 minutes, but I can’t say for sure.

When it ended, I was standing beside my mom, my brother, and two dozen other terrified other individuals. We had to get off the hill-top as soon as possible, but we weren’t sure if it was safe to go near the buildings. Could an aftershock happen at any moment? However, there was no nearby exit, and the only exit besides the entrance was on the other side of the temple, so we went back the way we came.

Within seconds of the quake’s stopping, I pulled out my camera and began snapping everything in sight. We had a view of the entirety of Kathmandu in front of us and it did not look pretty. White smoke clouds rose out of particular clumps of buildings spread throughout the city. Even from the temple’s position of isolation I could hear a constant background of cries emanating from the city along with innumerable honking cars.

The area around the central structure was entirely covered with piles of rubble, mostly brick. About a quarter of the brick structure was gone and only the base and a jagged, broken wall remained of the nearest white tower. I’m not sure what happened to the other towers. A dozen individuals ran into a nearby monastery, possibly to save its artifacts, possibly to save its monks. Fortunately I didn’t see any casualties.

We quickly descended the stairs alongside dozens of others fleeing the temple. Half way down the hill we came to a clearing where the stairs are less steep and dotted with small stone shrines. The three of us went to a dirt area beside the staircase where others were standing and sitting. Within a few minutes, maybe 40 individuals had piled into the clearing. Some were crying while others seemed to be in shock. Nearly all were taking out cell phones and desperately trying to call someone, probably either the Nepali equivalent of 911, or a family member. Of course the phones were down due to the surge in use.

About five minutes after the first quake ended, we began to feel the after shocks. They came at decreasing intervals, until they settled into a range of about 10-15 minutes apart. These tremors were nowhere near as bad as the initial quake, but I’m sure they were still doing damage to the city. With every shock, a cry arose from the city, eerily reminiscent of the sound of a passing roller coaster in an amusement park, except the cries were fearful rather than joyful.

A Japanese man standing near us remarked that the earthquake was not over. He put his hand on the metal fence which surrounded his clearing and then advised us to stay where we were for a while. I touched the fence and felt it was still shaking.

With no buildings and only a handful of sturdy looking trees in the vicinity, we figured the clearing was an ideal place to get our bearings. There was a small gap in the trees through which we could see a chunk of the city. The individual white clouds throughout the city had merged into a general haze which further added to Kathmandu’s usual air pollution.

After ten minutes of looking out at the city, my brother noticed that he couldn’t find the Sundhara, the lighthouse-like building near the city center. I tried to find it and could not as well. We used our respective maps to try to coordinate its position, but the tower was nowhere in sight. It had fallen.

The Sundhara was probably ten stories tall, and (if I recall correctly) had been rebuilt 150 years ago after the old Sundhara had fallen during an earthquake. That means that the earthquake we just experienced had been strong enough to topple a 150 year old building designed to withstand earthquakes.

I remembered when I went up the Sundhara a month ago. There had been dozens of people standing on the platform wrapping around its top, plus dozens more inside. The earthquake had happened during mid-day on a Saturday. I’m sure it was crowded.

It was about that point that the magnitude of our situation began to dawn on us. A massive earthquake had just hit an impoverished country. Phones were off line. Electricity, plumbing and internet were also almost certainly compromised. The quake was so strong that it had destroyed century+ year old monuments. And here we were on the side of a hill with no idea where to go or what to do.

For the next hour we stayed in the clearing while we tried to figure out what to do. We were still experiencing aftershocks but at ever wider intervals, so it would likely be safe to go to the city soon. We couldn’t just sit on the side of the hill forever but it wasn’t clear where we should go.

Our objective was to find Internet access so that we could inform family in America that we were alive, but of course we didn’t have a data plan in Nepal and the Internet was likely down everywhere. Our hotel was in the heart of the city, where shabby 4-6 story buildings leaned on top of each other over narrow roads, and therefore was the single most dangerous place in all of Kathmandu. According to a bystander who managed to get his phone briefly working, the airport was closed.

I proposed the American Embassy. I figured the building was probably well-built, and equipped with Wifi and phones. In a worst case scenario, the Embassy could possibly even evacuate us from Nepal. At the very least the Embassy would tell us what the hell to do.

Unfortunately the American Embassy was on the opposite side of the city. The fastest route there was through Thamel, the city center, where our odds of getting crushed by a building were highest. Instead we opted to take a long route around the city center wherein we would travel along with flat river until we cut accross a more remote, and therefore smaller building-filled part of the city.

With images of 9/11 flashing through my mind, I advised my mom and brother to get masks for the walk (I had one from my last visit to Kathmandu). Given that we were far above the city, we didn’t actually know how much damage or carnage there was, but if there were collapsed buildings throughout the city there would be all manner of dust and debris in the air. Even if we managed to dodge the falling buildings, we didn’t want to die of mesothylioma or something in a few years anyway.

As we were preparing to leave, we bumped into a guy who seemed to know something about what was going on. He turned out to be a UNICEF employee based out of Burma who had come to Kathmandu for a few days on a training exercise. Now he was returning to his UNICEF camp to begin aid operations in his new disaster zone.

The first sentence out of UNICEF guy’s mouth was, “lots of people have died.” Then he explained that the next few days will probably be OK, then everything will go to shit soon afterwards. Given how awful Nepali infrastructure is at the best of time, it is surely in shambles now. The power is out, the water won’t work, and the local emergency services will be almost nonexistent. He advised us to stock up on food, water, and clothes as we tried to get out of Nepal as soon as possible. To that end, he concurred that the US Embassy was our best bet.

My mom noted that when a disaster like this occurs in America, the affected region is swiftly filled with helicopters and other emergency services. We didn’t see a helicopter until more than 40 minutes after the first shock. As we walked down the stairs to enter the city proper, we didn’t hear ambulance or fire engine sirens, we heard regular car horns and a dull background cry. We were in a Third World disaster zone.

We walked down the hill and set out for the American Embassy. We didn’t immediately see any collapsed buildings, but the streets were filled with people. They formed groups at every available clearing, ranging in size from a single family to over a hundred individuals. Older women and younger children were usually sitting down, while the men paced and tried their cell phones with little luck.

Every two or three blocks we would see a fallen building. Sometimes the foundations had collapsed, other times it was the walls, and in extreme cases, I couldn’t tell which part had given out. With most of the city built on bricks, huge piles of clay rubble formed alongside the roads. People gathered around the ruins. Some took pictures, others mourned.

The river area was flat, with a road on either side and only one or two story buildings along the roads. It was safe territory. We walked for thirty minutes, passing by dozens of groups huddled by the side of the road. Not all were mournful or even worried. Some of the younger individuals even seemed excited. Occasionally we weren’t even sure if the earthquake had been much of a disaster at all, but then we would pass by another collapsed building and see another hundred-man group parked at an intersection, and the devastation would become real again. More importantly, if this is what it was like on the safer city outskirts, how bad was it in the city center?

As we walked, we would still get hit by the occasional tremor. Whatever pedestrians accompanied us on the streets would sprint for the middle of the road, where we were least likely to get hit by debris. The earthquake was still not over but it was clearly subsiding. We hoped it would come to an end soon.

After walking for an hour and a half we came upon a main road which lead to the embassy. This street was packed with pedestrians walking in both directions. Some people were trying to find their respective embassies like we were, others were headed for the nearest hospital, and some were trying to find their own safe clearings.

The Thai Embassy is in a wooded area along a side street which branches out from the main road. Alongside the embassy lay a collapsed brick wall, roughly ten feet high and maybe 100 feet long. The entire wall had fallen over onto the street. This was the first of many fallen brick walls I would see on the day, and I no longer trust brick walls as a stable architectural creation.

While walking down the main road, I noticed that nearly all of the stores lining the street were closed. The gaps in the building normally occupied by shops were covered with metal sheets and padlocked. Oddly, I saw a few groups of people crowded around some closed stores and I heard a loud, sharp banging emanating from the group. As I got closer to one, I saw a young guy using a rock to smash a padlock on a pharmacy.

On this street was one of the main hospitals in the city. Through a driveway opening I could see a large courtyard packed with people milling about. Outside the hospital on the road was one of the few instances of organized Nepali government action I saw that day. About ten Nepali police officers were standing around and shouting at pedestrians and random cars to move away from the hospital entrance. As far as I could, tell they were superfluous since no one seemed to be hanging around the entrance for long anyway, but these men and women were still shouting angrily at the top of their lungs.

After thirty minutes on the main street, we finally arrived at the American Embassy. It’s a sturdy-looking, one or two story marble building behind a parking lot and a metal fence. We showed the guards our passports and made our way to a help desk outside. A few minutes later, we were sat down in an outside waiting area, along with about ten other Americans who arrived shortly after us, and an Embassy employee told us the situation.

The guy said the earthquake clocked at a 7.2 to 7.4 on the Richter Scale. It had been felt at least as far away as Delhi. Kathmandu was hit especially hard, and Thamel, where our hoetl was located, had been hit the worst, with numerous collapsed buildings. He took our passport information and promised to contact a family member (we chose an uncle) but there wasn’t much else they could do for us at the Embassy. Instead, we would have to walk towards Thamel to another US Embassy compound called the “American Club,” where we would be provided with some type of shelter.

Though we were already exhausted from walking, we set out for the American Club, which was an estimated hour away. We walked silently and didn’t see anything new along the way with one exception.

At an intersection there was yet another collapsed brick wall. Two police men armed with assault rifles were standing near the wall for some reason and a small crowd was gathered at one part taking pictures of something. I got closer and saw a shape on the ground behind the collapsed wall, covered in a white cloth. It was a dead body.

The American Club turned out to be a rather large compound right at the heart of the city. It’s basically a living space for the hundreds of US federal government employees who for some reason are staffed in Nepal. We flashed our passports again, and after going through a security checkpoint, proceeded inside.

We were shepherded to a baseball field filled with close to 100 individuals who on any other day would appear to be having a picnic. There were more than a dozen young children playing around with medicine balls, adults standing in circles talking, and even a table with snacks and drinks. We were told that we could hang out here for the time being, so we sat on the grass and took advantage of the free food.

An hour later, an Embassy employee asked us to gather around for an announcement. He said that if we felt no earthquake tremor for 24 hours, then it was officially over. Until that point, we were all welcome to stay here on the field. Dozens of US citizens and a few non-US citizens had already flocked here and set up mini camps. US government employees would be taken to the Embassy, but the rest of us were free to make use of this safe haven.

Unfortunately, there was also a good chance of rain, so everyone who was here would have to pile under a tent set up in the field. Fortunately, this is the American government we are talking about here so we got about as nice of an improvised set up as we could ask for. The Embassy delivered absurdly warm, fuzzy blankets by the van load. They gave us super-efficient mats to out on the ground that were allegedly water and cold proof. They couldn’t provide Wifi because the Internet was down everywhere but they did set up ample power strips for charging phones (and my camera). They even got us MRE rations (Meals Ready to Eat) for dinner.

At one point, after we had already laid out our cozy pseudo-beds, the Embassy employee announced that if it did rain, the tents would not be sufficient to stop the ground beneath us from becoming soaked. So he invited us to get heavy wood palettes from a nearby storage area to sleep on top of. At the moment I’m opting out of the palette and hoping for the best.

Both my mom and the Embassy employee jokingly referred to us as “refugees,” and at the moment that seems pretty accurate. All of our luggage, except for what we carried on ourselves during the day, is still at our hotel, which may or may not still be standing. We are trapped in Nepal as long as the Kathmandu airport is down. Even if Nepal’s mountainside roads weren’t in shambles, we couldn’t take a bus out of the country to China or India since we don’t have visas. We managed to get one email out to my uncle and we are hoping he can work some magic to get us on a flight to Mumbai or Delhi relatively soon. If we ever do leave Nepal, we will just have to head back home, since all of Nepal seems to be in bad shape and tourist activity has certainly ground to a stand still.

Some people have managed to rig a radio or catch some bits of phone time and collect some information. We are now hearing that the earthquake was between a 7.8 and 8.0 on the Richter scale, which even I know is enormous. (As I write this at 10:12 PM, I am feeling the first tremor in about six hours.) The quake was felt from Bangladesh to Delhi, though the epicenter was Nepal, with Kathmandu getting the worst of it. We’ve heard that Mount Everest had a major avalanche, and it happens to be peak season for climbing. Worst of all, the death toll as of 7 PM was already up to 700, and that’s in the major cities alone.*

About an hour after we had all settled into out comfortable blankets under the tent, and some people had managed to use their phones, I heard a weeping from the corner. I looked up and saw a girl, probably a traveler in her mid to late 20s, kneeling with her hands on her face. After a moment she stood up and muffled her cries into a friend as they embraced. She seemed to be trying to hold back her tears but clearly couldn’t, even as she squeezed her friend with all her might. Nobody had actually heard what happened, but it was obvious.

This is an odd end to a crazy trip. I feel bad for my mom and brother for not being able to see much of Nepal. It’s a beautiful country well worth visiting. I’m guessing I’ll be home within four or five days, though with all of the people trying to leave Nepal right now, I could be here for weeks.

*Irfan: As of April 26, 7 pm EST, the estimated death toll had reached 2400.

Postscript, April 26, 2015 (Irfan): More first-hand accounts of the earthquake, as reported in The New York Times.

Matt Faherty in Nepal Earthquake

I’ve just gotten news that Matt Faherty and his family are currently in an emergency shelter in Nepal, having been caught in the recent earthquake there. They’re unhurt, but trying to find a way out of Nepal. Unfortunately, the airport has been shut down.

NEW DELHI — A powerful earthquake shook Nepal on Saturday near its capital, Katmandu, killing more than 1,800 people, flattening sections of the city’s historic center, and trapping dozens of sightseers in a 200-foot watchtower that came crashing down into a pile of bricks.

Officials in Nepal put the preliminary number of deaths at 1,805, nearly all of them in Katmandu and the surrounding valley, with 4,718 people injured. But the quake touched a vast expanse of the subcontinent. It set off avalanches around Mount Everest, where at least 10 climbers died. At least 34 deaths occurred in northern India. Buildings swayed in Tibet and Bangladesh.

The earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.8, struck shortly before noon, and residents of Katmandu ran into the streets and other open spaces as buildings fell, throwing up clouds of dust. Wide cracks opened on paved streets and in the walls of city buildings. Motorcycles tipped over and slid off the edge of a highway.

I’ll update as I get news. Glad to hear you’re safe, Matt, and hoping you can get out soon.

Guest Post: Down on the Nepali Farm (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Matt’s adventures in Nepal. Last time, we encountered him vomiting his way through Kathmandu. In this post, we encounter him, however briefly, at the telos of his journey: the Nepalese farm, sponsored by WWOOF, at which he was to work, and for the sake of which the whole trip had been planned. Despite the praises sung of the agrarian life familiar to us from the examples of Cicero and Thomas Jefferson, it turns out that farming is, as Matt put it to me in an email, “pretty fucking boring.” Accordingly, Matt makes some authentic existentialist choices in this post, which begins with his arriving on the farm and leaving it within a day or so.]

Pohkara Day 2: Farming and Some Existentialist Choices

I’m not on the farm anymore. I was on it for two days, nearly died of boredom, and took a bus to Pohkara, the second largest city in Nepal. My current plans are to make my way throughout Nepal in an ad hoc manner over the next month until my mom and brother arrive. I will probably go to a few more farms, but never for more than a few days. Mostly I’ll hop between ever smaller cities and try to go on self-guided hikes, hopefully without dying on the side of some mountain alone. Here is a brief account of what happened during my two days of farming.

Pradeep’s farm is in a tiny farming community about 90 miles to the south west of Kathmandu. I took two busses to get there. The first took about 5.5 hours and cost $3.50, the second took 1.5 hours and cost $1.20. I ended up in a massive valley which was uncharacteristically flat for Nepal, though mountains could always be seen on the horizon.

Pradeep was not actually at Pradeep’s Farm. He was in Japan, presumably working, so the farm was being looked after by his brother (Balram), Balram’s wife, his mother, and a Nepali worker. The center of the farm is a cluster of buildings with a dusty stone ground in a lightly wooded area. Pradeep, his brother, and the wife live in a three room concrete structure. Next their house was a two room building where I and the other WWOOFers stayed, and the mother’s one room house. The trees provide nice shade and it’s a pretty relaxing area if you can tolerate the swarms of flies.

I’m not sure how big the farm is, and I since I don’t know how big an acre or hectare is, I couldn’t really estimate. He grows mostly corn alongside lentils and some mixed vegetables. There are also ten goats, 1,000 chickens, a cow, and a whole lot of bees (which are also incalculable). A few days before I arrived, three new goats had been born so I got to hold and play with some adorable tiny goats which could barely walk. On the other hand, adult goats never shut the fuck up and their weird humanoid bleating does not get more pleasant with time.

The two other WWOOFers were a French 23 year old guy, and a 28 year old French girl who didn’t know each other prior to arriving the day before I did. They were nice enough and I spent most of the two days with them. Unfortunately, they confirmed every one of my worst prejudices about WWOOFers by constantly blathering idiotic anti-wealth, anti-American, noble savage worshipping nonsense which it was my duty to challenge. If they weren’t constantly smoking pot, they probably would have gotten quite angry with me.

What little work I did was boring and tedious. The first day the work was actually kind of fun but it lasted a total of 30 minutes. First I dug some ditches to create a flood plain for future corn crops and I admit it was quite satisfying to see a field fill with water because of my work. A few hours later I stacked some eggs in a carton. That was it for the day. The following day I literally shoveled goat shit and carried it in sacks out onto the same field for about two hours. That was about as fun as it sounds.

I’ve always been under the impression that poor farmers are hardworking people, but now I have to call that belief into question. Balram seemed to work for an hour or two after sunrise, then eat lunch at ten and declare it to be “too hot” to work again until 4 PM, even when it was only about 70 degrees out. He spent most of the day lounging in the shade, talking to neighbors, and eating food prepared by his wife. Granted, I wasn’t at the farm for long and Balram seemed relatively well off (likely due to charging WWOOFers $5 per day for the last eight years), but still, this was not the desperate farming I expected. Maybe because farming occurs all year round in Nepal, the work is more gradual and spread out compared to the seasonality in Europe that I typically picture.

OK, so the farm was beautiful and the area was definitely off the beaten path, but there simply wasn’t much to do. I walked around the equally beautiful surrounding area for a total of about eight hours over the two days and saw everything I needed to see. What little work I did was tedious and the experience would not be improved by more work. So I thanked my host and got out of there.

Pohkara Day 1 was just a long bus ride and sitting in my hotel, so I’ll move on to Pokhara Day 2. By the way, it’s pronounced “Po-kuh-ruh.” If, like me, you naturally say “Po-car-uh,” the natives will not understand you.

Pohkara is a case study in why Nepal is better than India. If this same city with the same function existed in India, it would be a loud, dirty, overstuffed metropolis filled with swarms of scammers, beggars, and annoying merchants. Here in Nepal, Pohkara is a quiet, clean and rather pleasant small city filled with merely a manageable level of beggars and annoying merchants.

Pohkara is the second biggest city in Nepal, but I’m not sure if it exists for any reason other than tourism. The city is a base of operations for hang gliders, sky divers, parasailors, off road drivers, safari goers, hikers, and most of all, trekkers. For the uninitiated (i.e. me two months ago) trekking is long range hiking with equipment for mountain climbing and usually sleeping bags. Most treks in Nepal are organized group ventures with local guides that also require porters, guys who carry all of the equipment. Treks are quite expensive, usually costing between $50 and $100 per day. Pohkara is right in the middle of a mountain range famous for trekking.

The perfect place to be shoveling goat shit for a few months (photo: Wikipedia)

I only briefly walked through the center of Pohkara, so I can’t speak for the rest of the city, but the touristy area, known as Lakeside, is great, easily the most comfortable place I’ve traveled to on this trip. As the name suggests, Lakeside consists of a few rows of streets on the side of scenic Phewa Lake. The streets consist entirely off cheap lodges, western restaurants, trekking agencies, souvenir shops, bars, and convenience stores, but it’s all remarkably clean and classy. It has the feel of a decently luxurious ski resort, like Mount Stratton in Vermont. I guess trekkers tend to be pretty wealthy, and the locals have done their best to accommodate them.

Speaking of locals, Nepalis are much better than Indians by pretty much every metric. They are more polite, provide better customer service, have less aggressive merchants, have better style, and are more attractive. To be fair, Nepal still has a lot of the same annoying crap that India has, like beggars and merchants who hound me while walking down the streets, but they are less common, and even the merchants hound a lot softer so I feel less like a walking wallet.

Style might be a strange point of comparison, especially coming from me, but it’s hard not to notice it here. As best as I can describe it, young Nepalis tend to dress like Asian greasers. There are a lot of leather jackets, cool jeans, and that crazy puffed up Asian hair Japanese people sometimes have (it might be gel, but I’m not sure). The women dress more Western Indians too, with few saris and a lot more standard jeans and sweatshirts.

Today I used my favorite wandering tactic, pick a vague, faraway place and just walk to it. The location of choice was Lakeside itself, but my plan was to walk around the entire circumference of Phewa Lake, which has a surface area of 5.23 km. This was easier said than done. It took me almost six straight hours of walking to fail.

Phewa Lake is phenomenally beautiful. Its water is dark blue and folds into a mountain range covered with terrace farms and small farming villages. When the sky is clear, taller, snowcapped mountains can be seen in the distance. I don’t know how to describe it any more. Most of my walk was uneventful, so I just enjoyed the stunning scenery. Not that it has too much competition, but this has been the most beautiful natural place I’ve seen so far during my trip.

Early on, I took a detour to a field that jutted out into the lake. As I walking toward the water, a parachuter came out of nowhere and landed about fifty feet away from me. A bystander told me it was training day and asked if I had parachuted. I said “no, it’s scary.” He questioned my manhood. Moving on.

Rather than re-cross the field to return to the main road, I decided to cut through some farm land adjacent to the field. I thought I could walk around the flood plain segments by staying near the lake, but by the time this plan failed I was too far away from the field to walk back. Instead I had to try to make my way across the flood plains. This was surprisingly fun. The ground was a mixture of mud and weeds, and entirely soaked with water. But some parts of the ground were more soaked than others. If I stepped on a dryer spot, I was fine. If I stepped on a wet spot, I would sink into the ground. If I sunk too far into the ground, I could legitimately lose my shoe, or at least get my foot covered with mud.

(Random Note: I am writing this in a restaurant in Lakeside, and the guy sitting at the table next to me just seriously described the Appalachian Mountains as “wise.”)

It took me about half an hour to traverse 100 yards. I had to backtrack repeatedly as I ran into water logged areas. I got pretty good at figuring out what patches were wet and which were dry by looking at them rather than testing with a step, and on more than a few occasions I made a bad step and had to jump away while I was sinking into the ground. For once, my two years of long jumping in high school came in handy as I made some fateful leaps across water logged stretches.

An hour after getting back on the road, I was approached by a random woman and asked to volunteer at a nearby orphanage. I politely declined.

Doesn’t that landscape just scream ‘lentil farming’ to you? (Wikipedia)

A few hours later, I passed the lake and tried to cut my way across a much larger flood plain and save myself a few kilometers on the longer main road. I’m not sure if this land used to be part of the lake too, but now it was divided between farm and grazing land, and was fed by a couple of canals. The canals proved to be my main obstacle. They were too long to jump and I didn’t want to get my shoes or feet wet so I was trying to find a bridge or boat to take me across.

I came upon a remote bar-restaurant on the edge of the flood plain and asked if the small road jutting out from it would take me all the way across. The presumed owner said it would if I could find the boat in the canal 300 meters away. A boy about eight years of age cheerfully offered to show me the boat and I agreed.

The kid and I made some small talk for about five minutes of walking. He spoke some broken English but didn’t seem educated in it. Then, with no prompt whatsoever, he asked me for money. When I refused, he asked for chocolate. This was weird. It was he and I alone on a dirt road in a massive field in the middle of nowhere. I was basically being extorted by an eight year old. I politedly declined to give him money or chocolate. He turned around and walked back the house.*

The kid really did screw me over. I never found the boat and ended up walking along a windy canal for a kilometer until I ended back at the main road at the floodplain-lake’s most distant point from Lakeside. My attempt at a shortcut probably saved half a kilometer at most.

The best part of my walk occurred shortly after. I once more attempted to cut across the floodplain, but this time on a path that I could see made it to the main road in the distance. About half way along the path I stopped and just marveled at my setting. I was on a small grey dirt path in the middle of a dark green field surrounded by mountains covered in terrace farms. And I was completely alone. There were a couple of cows million around, but otherwise I may as well have been on an alien planet. It was unforgettable.

Then came the worst part of my walk. Thus far the road had stayed mostly flat along the base of the mountains, but now it inexplicably went up and down over the side of the mountains. I had already been walking for something like 4 hours without rest and didn’t really feel like starting to walk up hill.

About two hours later I began to get worried that the road was actually going to start going up and into the mountains rather than stay near the lake. Technically I didn’t actually know if the road wrapped around the lake as I hoped it would, and I didn’t want accidentally to walk to some nearby town away from my destination. So I made the daring (or some would say, stupid) decision to leave the road and enter a nearby cluster of terrace farms with the blind hope that I could keep circling the lake on some local paths.

This didn’t work. I said hello to some confused Nepali farmers,** stumbled down a path on the side of a mountain which I’m fairly certain was abandonded, and ended up on a beach occupied by a dozen young boys roughly between the ages of 12 and 15. Equally confused, they approached and asked where I wanted to go. I said, “Pohkara.” They said, “What?” I said, “Pohkara” correctly. They laughed and said I couldn’t get there on this side of the mountain. Ugh.

Miraculously I had a way out. The boys offered me a boat ride to the other side of the lake where I could walk back to Laketown. Yes it occurred to me that they were lying about the lack of a foot passage to Laketown to sell me this option, but I didn’t see a road on the mountainside and these kids seemed fun and honest. We briefly bargained until I agreed to pay 400 rupees ($4) for a ride across the lake. Since three of them rowed me, I basically paid each one $1.30 per hour.

The relevant boat was basically a 12 foot canoe and not especially stable. There were a couple of times when I was genuinely afraid of capsizing, which would have destroyed my camera, and possibly the $200 worth of Nepali rupees in my pocket.

These kids were fun. They like Eminem and Rihanna, and played music on their cell phones. They asked me a whole bunch of questions about America and seemed confused by our lack of a caste system. One kid was the de facto leader of the group; he had an earring and wore jeans. He had spearheaded the negotiations on the beach and was now constantly shouting orders to the other two rowers, though it was hard to think of what those order might be besides “row straight.”

When I got to the beach I fished through my wallet to get their money and they caught a glimpse of some American money. Their eyes lit up and they asked to see it. I showed them a one dollar bill and I got the idea to let them have it. I offered it for 50 rupees ($1=97 rupees). There were three kids and they saw I had more, so we ended up settling on 250 rupees for $3. The kids were thrilled.

I have one more observation about Pohkara. I don’t know if this occurs everywhere throughout Nepal, but there is only electricity here for about twelve hours per day. My hotel even has a daily schedule, since the times when the electricity is on varies ever day. I walked down Laketown’s main street last night at 9 PM when the power was out and it was pretty strange. Most places had generators to keep the lights on, but a lot of restaurants were completely dark despite being open. With so many generators running at once, the whole street had a constant low rumble which occasionally grew louder as I approached a store with a bigger, or maybe just louder generator. For a tourist town filled with young athletes, it was pretty dead by 9:30 PM.***

*Irfan: In the interests of family values, I’ve taken the liberty of deleting the rest of Matt’s tirade against this eight-year-old.

**Irfan: None dare call it trespassing.

**Irfan: Exactly the same phenomenon exists in Pakistan, where it’s called “loadshedding.” (Americans call it a “rolling blackout.”) The issue turns partly on the nature of public ownership of the energy supply, and partly on riparian law and the politics of water access and usage. I suspect (but don’t know) that Nepal and Pakistan face a similar dynamic, and possibly, similar sorts of water disputes with India.

Guest Post: Perfumed by a Nepal Night (by Matt Faherty)

[We resume the journeys of Matt Faherty, from India to Nepal. The literary allusion in the title of the post–if you didn’t catch it–is the Rush song, “A Passage to Bangkok.” I found one stanza of the song particularly appropriate to Matt’s somewhat pathos-inducing entry into Nepal:

Pulling into Kathmandu
Smoke rings fill the air
Perfumed by a Nepal night
The Express gets you there…

I mean “perfume” in a somewhat broad and metaphorical sense, as you’ll see from reading the post.]

Perfumed by a Nepal Night: Projectile Vomiting in Kathmandu

I arrived in Kathmandu at about 5 PM. I made it through customs and caught a taxi to my hostel, the Alobar 1000. The staff was young, mostly in their mid-20s, and not super professional. They took a while to actually set me up in my room and seemed more concerned with laughing and-or flirting with each other than customer service. At the time I didn’t mind because it fit the generally laid back manner of the bar. Now I mind.

Eventually I was led to my bed in a shared dorm room with about twenty other people. I sat on my top bunk for a few minutes before heading up to the bar-restaurant on the roof top.

From the restaurant I ordered a Chinese chicken and noodle dish plus a bottle of water. At about 7 PM, I ate my meal and talked with some other travelers for the next hour. At 8PM, I started to feel nauseous and had stomach pains. Around 8:15 PM I went to the bathroom and had bad diarrhea. I hoped that would be the end of it, but the nausea and stomach pains only worsened. I usually go to sleep around 11:30 PM or 12 AM, but at 9:30 PM I decided to go to bed because it was too painful to sit against a wall and talk to people.

For the next couple hours I tried to go to sleep but was kept awake by stomach pains. I stayed on my back since it resulted in the least pain. Whenever I tried to turn on my side, I immediately felt like I was going to throw up and nearly did so a few times.

More what?

At around 1 AM, I tasted something in my mouth which indicated that I was going to throw up. I stumbled off my top bunk and made it to the bathroom ready to puke. Nothing happened.

I waited ten minutes and then decided to go back to bed. Five steps out of the bathroom my nausea was so bad that I leaned against the wall and slumped into a seated position. I stayed there for five minutes before again trying to make it to my bed.

I fought through the nausea for about 15 steps, then climbed up my bed and tried to lay on my back. The final movement of laying down finally did me in. I sat up and vomited in my lap in numerous waves for about a minute. A few people around me woke up and tried to help. I was given a bag to catch some of the vomit, toilet paper to clean up what I couldn’t contain in front of me, water for re-hydration, and some anti-nausea pills.

After a few minutes I jumped down from my bed and went to the bathroom to change my clothes. My boxers and pants were covered in vomit, but my shirt was OK. I left the shirt on, changed into the first pants I grabbed (it turned out to be my bathing suit), and put on a jacket. At this point nearly all of my stomach pain and nausea was gone, but I felt extremely weak and dehydrated.

I staggered down a flight of stairs and through a few hallways to the front desk. Nearly every hostel I had ever stayed at keeps a staff member awake at the front desk for emergencies but Alobar 1000 was an exception. There were three staff members wrapped up in blankets, asleep around the room.

I’ve heard the food is awesome. 

I nudged one guy awake and told him that I had vomited on my bed and that it needed to be cleaned up, plus I needed a place to sleep. The guy rolled over, said there were no vacancies, and promptly went back to sleep. I woke him up again and said the same thing. He fell asleep again. I woke him up again and said the same thing. He told me to go to the rooftop restaurant and sleep on the floor (which was padded and people usually sat on while they were eating, so it’s not uncomfortable). Then he fell back asleep. I had to wake him up to more times to figure out where I could get a spare blanket until he pointed me to a sleeping bag.

I staggered up four stories to the rooftop restaurant and slept on the floor in the dining area. It was not an enclosed space, so it was quite cold, but I managed to get somewhat warm between the sleeping bag and my jacket. To the best of my recollection, I fell asleep around 2:30.

I was awakened at 6:30 AM by some cleaning ladies. After trying to go back to sleep for a few minutes, I walked down four stories to the front desk to see if they had responded anyway to my illness.

The guy I had nudged awake was sitting at the front desk with two other employees. At first he didn’t recognize me, but then I reminded him about last night. He asked me if I had cleaned up the vomit. That is, he wanted to know if after being food poisoned by this hostel, and being barely able to stand after profusely vomiting, I had staggered back to my room at 1:30 AM, climbed up to my top bunk, rolled up my vomit-soaked blanket and sheets, and put them… I don’t know where, he never told me. I told him that I had not cleaned it up.

He replied that if the blanket, sheet, or bed were damaged, I would have to pay for it.

My anger was only abated because I still felt completely exhausted and dehydrated. I told him that I would not be paying for damages caused by being poisoned by this hostel. What followed was a five minute long series of evasions and dodges by which the guy did everything he could to deflect blame from the hostel.

First he asked if I was sick from my recent flight. I fly dozens of times per year, including eight times in the last three weeks, and I have never gotten sick from it. Plus I didn’t feel sick until well after I had left the plane.

Second, he suggested that I had become sick during my previous travels. I had been through Bangladesh and northern India over the past three weeks, and I had never gotten anything worse than a cold which ended a week ago. I took antibiotics daily. Then I arrive in Nepal and a few hours later I get violently ill.

Third, he suggested that it was something else I ate that day. I had eaten a lentil soup doha at 10 AM, which is pretty much the most mild food in the world. I had eaten some chicken and rice on the airplane. When I arrived at Nepal I felt perfectly fine, even well rested. Then an hour after eating at the hostel I began to feel sick.

Fourth, he suggested that I was drunk. I had no alcohol that night, nor the night before, nor any night before for two weeks, when I had consumed a single beer in Calcutta.

Fifth, he suggested that I got sick from consuming food elsewhere in Nepal. I consumed nothing in Nepal outside of the hostel. The only time I had spent outside of the hostel was arriving at the airport, the taxi ride, and a five minute walk to an ATM.

Sixth, he threw his hands up and said we can never really know where these things come from and the hostel can’t be held responsible. All of the facts presented and the distinct taste of Chinese chicken noodles in my mouth as I vomited beg to differ.*

I can understand if someone has read up to this point and thought the hostel employee sounded reasonable. But here’s the rub: I was not the only person to get sick. Someone else had thrown up a few hours before me. That morning I spoke to two girls who had been staying at the hostel for more than a week and they reported that people were constantly getting sick after eating at the rooftop restaurant. They were so angry with the hostel that they offered to go with me to the front desk to confront the employees directly.

My schedule has been completely fucked up by this. I was planning on getting on a bus this morning to go to the farm to begin working, but now I felt awful and I had vomit all over some clothes (including my most worn pants). I asked the employee how long it would take to wash my clothes and he said it wouldn’t be ready until that night at earliest, but likely next morning. So I could either carry my backpack and vomit-filled clothes on two long bus rides to the farm and hope I recovered along the way way enough to be able to work tomorrow, or I could wait another day in Kathmandu to leave.

Because the hostel had poisoned me and messed up my schedule, I felt entitled to compensation. I considered my position and made the front desk employee an option. I asked to stay at the hostel another night for free, but I would sleep in a sleeping bag in the hotel restaurant so that I didn’t take up a bed and cost them money. Meanwhile, I would pay the 60 cents to clean my clothes. So I was basically asking them to take responsibility and compensate me at pretty much no cost.

They refused.

I ended up paying for the night I stayed and leaving a few hours later for another hotel. There isn’t much I can do now except write the worst review they have ever or will ever receive on Hostelworld.com and perhaps try to get a refund via Hostelworld.

Irfan: You can read my CO 350 students’ comments on Matt’s experience here. I used his post as a teaching tool in a unit of my applied ethics course on money.

Matt wrote the preceding post more than week ago. He’s much better now.

*Irfan: I’m very grateful to Matt to not having spared us any of the forensic-physiological details involved here, so that we can all think more carefully about the epidemiological and legal-liability issues raised by his experience.

Postscript, March 31, 2015 (by Irfan): I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that yet another secular-minded blogger has been hacked to death in Dhaka. (This comes about a month after a previous attack, mentioned in one of Matt’s earlier posts.) One machete attack is bad. Two is copycatting. Three, I suppose, would be a trend.

Meanwhile, a teenager in Singapore, Amos Yee, has been arrested for criticizing Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s authoritarian “founding father” (who deserved everything that Amos Yee dishes out in the video and more). Lee Kuan Yew was a dictator, just as Yee says. But he didn’t fool everyone.

I actually found Yee’s video exceptionally impressive, especially for a teenager. Props, Amos. You should be blogging for PoT. To close with Amos’s words:

There ya go, Lee Kuan Yew, an overrated, overglorified person, a dictator, and exceptionally Machiavellian in nature. Good riddance, Lee Kuan Yew. I neither hope [that you rest in peace] and neither will you rest in peace.

Amen.

Postscript, April 1, 2015 (Irfan): Matt sends along this item, from “the missed disaster list” for his trip. As I’ve said elsewhere, so far he’s just narrowly missed a machete hacking, a bombing, a ferry accident, a train accident, and arrest for offensive blogging. We can now add a fatal rhinoceros attack to the list. I suppose the rhino in question was not one  in name only.

Postscript, April 8, 2015 (Irfan): Matt sends along the following update:

You are not going to believe this. My credit card just got charged $550 by Alobar 1000. They are actually doing it. They are charging me for damages caused by them poisoning me. Someone may have to restrain me when I return to Kathmandu.

That strikes me as a straightforward case of fraud. I’d report it as a disputed charge to the credit card company and have them hash it out with Alobar 1000. A cautionary tale.

Anyway, if nothing else, this will be an interesting case study in non-governmental adjudication of private commercial disputes. Stay tuned!