I was living in Bangkok in April of 2015 when I heard about the devastating earthquakes in Nepal. I had been working in central Thailand since 2012 and my contract had just ended so I was looking for my next move. I saw the news about the 7.8 and 7.9 magnitude earthquakes and I felt compelled to help in some way. Reports were coming in that Nepal was either running short or being price-gouged on many basic essential items. They needed tents, bandages, baby food, alcohol, peroxide, and diarrhea medicine among other items. I reached out to a few non-profits and organizations through emails and social media outlets. They were already helping in Nepal so I contacted them about what supplies and materials were best to bring. I went to the local Tesco-Lotus and purchased all the tents they had in stock along with other necessities. I also brought a variety of basic medications from the Boots and Watsons pharmacies.
I knew I would have a difficult time getting all these items on the plane and over to Nepal. My flight was with Jet Airways, so I contacted them about what I was doing. I received a response from the Thailand Country Manager, Mr. Anindam Choudhury, who was happy to help with my efforts. He allowed me an extra 30 kgs a piece in addition to my normal allowance of 30kgs all at no additional charge! This was very generous and more than what I was expecting. This was enough to get all the bags and items to Nepal. Below is the email I sent to the Jet Airways:
Below is the response from Jet Airways. It was for myself and another volunteer so thats why it says "each passenger" and "2 guests".
My first day arriving in Nepal, I felt a 4.6 magnitude aftershock. As a country boy from the Mississippi delta, this was something I was very much not accustomed to. It felt extremely weird, the entire building felt like it was lifted up, shook from side to side, and sat back on the ground. After recomposing myself, I managed to walk around Kathmandu getting familiar with the city and hearing the locals talk about how they were impacted by the earthquakes. Many of the hotels, shops, and restaurants were closed completely because some of the workers went back to the countryside to be with their families. I also learned that the government did very little to help them. The people I met told me their employer provided them with more assistance than the government. I met a local man who said his company gave him 10kgs of rice and 2 liters of cooking oil and that’s all he received as assistance during the earthquake. This was common to hear as I toured the area. I also couldn't help but notice that no one was begging or asking for hand outs. When I would speak to the people, they just wanted me to get their story out to the rest of the world and let people know they need help, but they never directly asked me for anything. This is a big contrast from other developing countries I've visited where begging is normal. Much of the international donations came from China and India but little of this has trickled down to the Nepalese people.
While exploring Thamel, I came across Succi. Succi is a woman that operated a girls’ orphanage in Kathmandu. She showed me the damage from the earthquake and how they were living. Although it was still standing, the earthquake had severely damaged their house, so they were living outside under a blue tarp. This was a common site to see because many of the buildings were unstable, so people were just living outside in the open in fear of aftershocks. When I saw them, the girls were playing Marioland under a tent in the front yard, smiling, laughing and having a good time. I gave her some of the supplies I had, which she was extremely grateful for. She was able to take me deeper into the area to meet other affected families and hear about their experiences. Succi is very well known in the community. She would stop and talk to all the people, especially the women, and listen to what needs they had and the best way to help.
I try to use what I have to offer to those that really could use my help. That’s why I prefer to work with hyper-local organizations over the big names. During my research, I found that Mission Rebuild Nepal was actually ran by Nepalese and on the ground helping people. I reached out to them to offer my photography and construction services and they were happy to have me work with them. Mr. Yuvraj Sharma from the Himalayan Climate Initiative was our contact and helped me get familiar with the organization and up to date as to what was going on the ground. We were going to be in the village of Sipapokhare, in the Sindhupalchowk District of rural Nepal about 3-4 hours north of Kathmandu. The project was to build core homes using bamboo and other material reclaimed from the old earthquake damaged houses. My role was to photograph and video the day to day activities of rebuilding this rural village.
There were many challenges associated with trying to make this happen. The first challenge was accessing the village. Landslides from the earthquakes blocked many of the roads leading to the village. This took some time to solve as materials and resources were very scarce at the time. When we were able to get to the village, we still had to find water to use. The earthquake drained one of the nearby lakes and rerouted one of the rivers which made it more difficult to find water for mixing concrete and daily use.
The earthquake destruction was very evident when we arrived in Sipapokhare. There were almost no houses still standing. Schools, houses, and other buildings were either completely leveled or barely still standing. I observed many of the villagers picking through the rubble looking for anything that was still salvageable. Over 9,000 people died and 22,000 more were injured during these earthquakes, also known as the Gorkha Earthquakes. There were flags placed where houses once stood. This was to show where they recovered a body. Needless to say, there were many of these flags throughout the villages.
When I met the people of Sipapokhare, they were very happy and seemed to be in good spirits. Through all my travels, I’ve never met people that were so happy and warm-hearted. They were very receptive and opened their homes to us and made us feel very welcomed. Our diet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted mostly of dahl baht, jackfruit, rice and lentils. I brought some snacks from Kathmandu and we would have the occasional bowl of ramen for lunch.
I try not to have my camera in their faces as soon as I arrive. It’s good to get to know the families and become familiar with everyone first. This also allows for them to become familiar with me and let their guard down after a while, which provides for more genuine photographs. I try to put myself in their position and I wouldn’t want someone to stick a camera in my face as soon as I saw them. The children are by far the first to become my friends, as in most cultures. They aren’t shy at all and run up and shake my hand and follow me around the village like my personal escorts. Day after day when we would come to work, the families would open up more and more. After a couple days they were completely open to me and would allow me to photograph them anywhere doing anything.
The base for myself and the other volunteers was about a 2 km walk from the work site. I slept in a tent outside of the house while others slept inside. Water and electricity were very unpredictable. It may come on for one hour, two days, five hours, twenty-four hours, or ten minutes and there was no way of knowing when it did come on or how long it would be on.
We would walk to and from site every day which took maybe an hour. After arriving back on base in the evening, we could shower if we had running water. If not, we could go down and bathe in the river not far from base. The evening included a vegetarian dinner and sitting around talking with the locals and other volunteers. I was the only photographer but there were other volunteer engineers that were helping with the design plans for the houses.
Each house costs about $450USD and is expected to lasts at least five years. The houses were paid for by organizations and individuals from all over the world through their headquarters based in Herndon, Virginia. Mission Rebuild Nepal rebuilt over one thousand houses in the area where almost 100% of the houses were destroyed.
The children were very happy and excited to have us there. They didn't hesitate to help us with whatever we needed and sometimes were more involved than the adults. Swinging pick axes, shoveling dirt, hauling bricks and rocks, it didn't matter, they were very eager to be involved. It was good to see the young boys and girls equally working very hard. Sometimes they would get too excited and the adults would make them go away and play but somehow they would make their way back to the area with rocks and wood and whatever else we needed. They also provided hours and hours of entertainment during breaks and downtime. The boys would do goofy tricks to get us to laugh and the girls would sing the Nepalese national anthem and other songs for us. I seemed to get along really well with a certain couple of boys. I called them "Tappy" and "Chappy" because one boy wore the same Tapout sweater the entire time I was there and his friend had pants with the buttocks area worn away, leaving his bare cheeks exposed for everyone to see, like a pair of chaps. These two boys would provide me with countless laughs and adventures.
I photographed with Mission Rebuild Nepal for about a week before I had to come back to Kathmandu. We were purifying the water with iodine tablets and I had some unpurified water that made me very sick. It was over a three-hour drive in a dump truck through the Kathmandu Valley and back to the city of Kathmandu.
I still reminisce on my time volunteering in Nepal. Years later they are still rebuilding schools and community centers in the affected areas. I've illustrated some of my photographs on t-shirts to help raise money for the people of Nepal and specifically the village of Sipapokhare. You can purchase a shirt on my merchandise page or support Mission Rebuild Nepal directly by clicking here. Thanks for your support.