house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Geo Terror

I've tried all sorts of tricks and trivialities - even house work, unsuccessfully - in order to avoid a topic so closely linked to Nepal that there's no writing about one without mentioning the other. The country sits atop the geological equivalent of a pressure cooker; it straddles the line where the Indian tectonic plate is pushing Northwards, against and under the Eurasian plate, something quite common and necessary in geological terms, but rather ominous for the ants on top: us.

In the (unimaginable) past, this jostling of the earth crust created the Himalayas. Now, the Indian plate slides under the other 2 inches every year - but gets stuck for decades. Pressure builds up. I don't know how to say these words so that they may reflect the kind of pressure, or the forces at work. And I have no words for the terror I feel, writing this.

On 25 April 2015, there was a sudden release of this built up underground power; a sudden move, a thrust, an earthquake. It had more energy than 20 nuclear bombs - the equivalent of 200 years' of Northward movement of the Indian tectonic plate. It pushed the Himalayas southward, and lifted the Kathmandu valley, shifting it 3 meters to the South, like shaking a heavy carpet. It lowered Everest by an inch (to be measured more accurately this year...); I have all this data from a National Geographic documentary I forced myself to watch.

The earthquake - and its most severe aftershock, on 12 May - killed 10,000 people and injured 22,000. It triggered avalanches and landslides that obliterated whole communities, in the Langtang valley and around Everest. It displaced more than one million people, and destroyed invaluable cultural landmarks - temples, both Buddhist and Hindu; not just empty museums of a foregone age, but very much part of Nepalese daily life and spirituality.

Footage from the earthquake shows some of these buildings falling. It shows flocks of birds darting across the sky, and - like in a mirror - flocks of people underneath, rushing already to help the victims. Rescue teams, human chains, incredible survival stories.


Lives saved, lives lost, lives changed: we watch this from afar and wonder who makes the choice, who's doomed and who's spared. Two years later, it's still hard to see all the impacts and links, the full tapestry - but some shocking details stand out. How human traffickers moved fast, in the chaos after the earthquake and ensnared countless young girls for the Asian "markets" (filth that they are, both clients and suppliers, and may they please rot between tectonic plates for all eternity). How violence against women increased, and how single women found it harder to get help - food and shelter - after the earthquake. How their children - deprived of food at a crucial stage - are now stunted for life. How a whole generation of young Nepali men are still migrating to the building sites of the Persian Gulf - which makes the rebuilding of their own country more lengthy, tricky and costly. And as for this rebuilding of Nepal - how homeless people couldn't wait for their government to help and cobbled their houses back together, more unsafe than ever.

There is another narrative, the "could-have-been-worse" viewpoint, supported by some striking statistics: the earthquake happened at lunchtime, on a Saturday. Children were not at school, people were not indoors, but out and about. A year earlier, an earthquake forecast for Nepal had imagined as many as 40,000 dead; in April 2015, four times fewer people lost their lives. A report, after the event, declared at least 10,000 children saved by the fortuitous timing.

I cannot tell you how much I love this fact; it's more than the normal degree of joy, that things turned out well for these children. The truth is, I feel part of that tribe of children, saved. On 4 March 1977, a Friday night, I slept in my bed, sick with a fever. A nuisance: my parents had to cancel going to a dinner party. The earthquake woke me up: the room shook, lamps swayed and broke, the floor - or was it the earth itself? - groaned as if a giant was waking. The door batted open and shut like a wing, catching my mother's face as she ran in to grab me. The fridge - in the hallway outside - fell with a colossal thud. Above my head, the walls were splitting open, plaster rained on my bed and I rolled away from it, until I fell on the floor. A moment later I was in mama's arms, and then it was over.

At the other end of town, the building with the dinner party, and half of my family, were gone. Two tribes - the lost, the saved; and earthquakes blindly herding us into one or the other; and still we go back and trust the same buildings, the same earth crusts to hold us safe, and we accept forces and odds we can't begin to understand.


Some say that the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal did not relieve the full stress amassed between tectonic plates, miles beneath Kathmandu. Ominous voices whisper, "there will be other earthquakes..." Sure, any infant could tell you that. But I must say, having watched people in Kathmandu go about their business, along those narrow roads, with those crumbling buildings overhead, and a sky full of dust from all the building sites; but witout a sign of anxiety or fear; and trusting the land with their children, their frail and ancient parents, their pregnant bellies; and always with those easy, wide smiles narrowing their eyes like too much sun: whatever it is - short-sightedness or wisdom - it's also a kind of resilience; these people know earthquakes and choose to have fun in between.





If you got this far, maybe you'd consider leaving me a short message - it's lonely to keep writing without anyone stopping to say hi. 

2 Comments:

At 16 March 2017 at 05:34 , Blogger Rupert Wolfe-Murray said...

What an amazing article. Thanks for this Monica. I really needed it as just got to Nepal and was blithely unaware of any of these details about their terrible earthquake. All I knew was that it was big and bad and like the people you mention at the end of your article I was having fun and not worrying about it.

I feel honoured to have learned the full story of your own family in 1987; I didn't know all these details.

It is remarkable how quickly people pick up their lives after such devastation, but I suppose that's a parable for life itself.

Now I will read your other articles on Nepal.

 
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