Red brick. Concrete mortar. Two stories; both unfinished. Reconstruction.
Chaukati, Sindupalchowk, Nepal. A region wracked by the 2015 earthquake. I hesitate to even write about it for fear of appearing voyeuristic. I have such little understanding of this place, of the people, of the event. I was not here. I do not speak the language. I cannot pretend to empathize. So please be patient with me. I choose to write about it because it is a story worth telling, regardless of how often it has been told. So as to not forget that it happened. And that it is happening. And that it is not a story of one particular tragedy, but of humans bound to this earth in the various ways we choose to live upon it; in various places, with various inherent challenges. So I do not want anyone to care about my writing about the earthquake. I want them to care about earthquakes. Nor do I want anyone to care about my writing about Chaukati. I want them to care about Chaukati.
Our visit is brief, assisted by the generous support of Suren Thami, his intrepid Land Rover “Maggie” and his friend Vicki. Suren dai was eager to return to the village – a kind of second home for him, which he had not visited since the earthquake.
We leave early morning to travel east, through Bhaktapur and Dhulikhel. Crossing the Indrawati River, winding south from Helambu. Into Sindhupalchowk District. Winding to the Sun Khosi river valley. Up to Bharabise Bazar. Forking further up the Sun Khosi. Take the new road along the river, up sandy and winding switchbacks. Crossing rivers. Cutting across old trails. Elegant terraces. Stone staircases.
Our climb to the village along the new road is likely slowed down by the fact that we were in a car. Locals pass us on foot. The road is magnificently slow and rugged. We arrive as families are in the fields tending crops and livestock. Rice, potatoes, wheat, legumes are in the ground and the majority of fields are still fallow, awaiting the next planting – corn. Various forms of life and sustenance scattered throughout the terraced hillsides.
We are graciously hosted by the Thami family, received as family Manbahadur dai and Bauju; Jui, Thuli, Ram Kumari, Bal Kumari, Ambika, Guatam.
When we sleep, we do so laid out on a concrete floor on the second story, four sleeping bags side-by-side. My last time here, 6 years ago with Shan also as my guide, we also slept on the second floor. But it was a dung and earthen floor. Stone walls. No mortar. No rebar. No reconstruction aid. The roof was stone. Tons of stone. And it all stood in perfect balance. At that time, stories of earthquakes were told in oral traditions, but few were first hand.
The family’s house in the same spot as it was in 2010 and the concrete hull currently under construction has the same design. But thousands of stones which made the previous home lay scattered on the slope below the new home. The house did not crack in the earthquake. It crumbled. Completely. Their new home is coming along two years later. Enough to offer us shelter tonight. Other homes are coming along too. Perhaps only three of the old traditional stone, mud and dung homes remain in the entire village. All new homes are concrete, rebar and corrugated roofing. It is easy to be nostalgic for the old look and feel of the place. But I hope these new homes survive the next quake. The link to traditional wisdom is alive, but it also shook and tore when the earth did too.
Perhaps the greatest gift (if that can even be an appropriate word amid such a tragedy) given to the Nepali people by our Mother Earth when she decided to tremble in 2015 was that she did so when they were mostly awake. They were tending fields. Tending life. Out from under the tons of stone, which would have collapsed on them had they been sleeping. Millions of people in hundreds of thousands of homes, sleeping under stone throughout the mountains during an earthquake would have been a vastly different scenario.
But they were outside. They were cultivating life and they continue to do so now.
Now there is a road. Electricity. And, of course, there is concrete, brick, and corrugated tin. Oxfam signs. Pre-fabricated housing designs posted to read and to follow, with the inadequate relief that has been delivered. Rebar thrust skyward waiting to be held by concrete. Promising shelter one day. Reconstruction. Development?
It is still a mystery how individuals survive and integrate trauma. How a society – a collective – does so even more mysterious. Stress, when within a reasonable margin, builds resilience: be it with bones, muscles, our minds or our spirit. How can collective stress transform into healthy resilience as well? Where is the line that divides stress from trauma? When can it simply be too much and create irreparable damage? Scarring. Restriction. Contraction. Debilitation. Injury. How do you heal? Because humans can, individually and collectively. Eventually. Survivors of the quake that I have spoken with over the past two years were surprised by how psychologically uprooting it was to have the earth shaking, constantly. Not just the two big quakes on April 25 and May 12. But the countless smaller ones, at times every few hours. The earth is, by definition, our grounding, in a very literal sense. But when it is no longer grounded itself? When the Earth is not the ground. What does that mean for our place on this earth? What then can we rely on when we cannot rely on Earth herself?
Many families, and especially the elders, prefer to sleep in the godes, the simple shelters used for tending livestock. Manbahadur dai took us up to visit Bauju at their gode, high in the jungle the next morning before leaving. She was pasturing their animals. She had slept their the night before, a significant hike uphill through the forest with no light. Thatch roof, thatch walls, fresh milk, chickens, water buffalo, cows. Wealth. These traditions persist, held by the forest and witnessed by the surrounding peaks.