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From Nepal: The caste system and disaster relief

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Editor’s note: This is Hamilton Pevec’s latest article after recent earthquakes in Nepal.

By Hamilton Pevec

Special to The Sopris Sun

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POKHARA Nepal — It made me feel like a good consumer spending a lot of money on relief supplies, more than $1,000 (U.S.) on tarps alone. One ton of rice plus 330 pounds of potatoes cost $470! Seventy mattresses and 35 yards of foam matting cost $600.  

We collaborated with a new group, got everything ready to go and booked a truck for 8 a.m. the next morning. By 10:30 a.m. it still hadn’t arrived; then we remembered it was Saturday. The driver told us he would be there, and then he must have remembered he doesn’t work on Saturday but failed to inform us. We took the extra day to do more purchasing, arrange another truck and Jeep, and go to bed early. The truck showed up on time a day late. It took three hours to collect all our supplies from around Pokhara, but once we were on the road, all the usual apprehension burnt off under the scorching sun, a cool 105 degrees.

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I sat on the pile of mattresses in the back of our Jeep we named Gaia-98. I am probably too used to the roads now. I don’t even notice the near misses and abundant close calls. The police checks have become routine. I chuckle to myself as they record our info by hand on paper. How will they ever crunch that data?

We were better organized on this mission than ever before. We assembled more supplies, made more direct contact and had a list to follow. This was a test run of our own personal evolution. I made a list of what we would drop at each village. The protocol: List the supplies that get dropped, our village liaison would sign it, translate it to Nepali and date it to become our official record.

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Our first stop was Palungtar. There were at least 70 homes and half were destroyed by the earthquake. The feeling was strange there. We all felt it, and it wasn’t just because this was this trip’s first drop. On the outside, the people were well dressed, gold dangling from their ears, fancy motorbikes and big houses that looked intact. It was not the grungy disaster look I had become familiar with. We unloaded the supplies, the count was made and then they started asking for more.

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“We need four more tarps,” many people said to Rooz and me. They asked all of us for just “four more.” We explained to them that if we have extra we will bring more later.

Robin said, “We need to pow-wow for a minute.” Her tone was urgent. “OK guys,” he continued. “There is another group over there saying that they were not included in the supply list, that all these people are Chettri and they will not share these supplies with the other half of the village, which is Gurung.”

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Our impact on communities became painfully clear: Our presence there had amplified the caste divisions. “What do we do?” someone asked. “Nothing,” said Rooz, “That is not our business.”

We took the Gurung info and request for supplies, but I felt a deep sadness. I was angry at the family we contacted for excluding half the village and I was shocked that these petty caste divisions are still practiced. I wanted to tell them off, but I judged them silently.

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Next stops

Sudip Luitel had already called me five times, asking “Where are you?” We picked him up and he showed us to his beautiful off, off road village. We entered another world, flat and tropical with lots of trees lining the houses and farms. We unloaded in a small field and the villagers came out to collect. They lined up very orderly and had a relaxed feeling the whole team felt. It was one of our smaller requests, with just 550 pounds of rice, 35 beds, and 10 tarps. We also included blankets, dhal, salt and sugar. We stayed to observe the distribution that Sudip handled very well. We were back on the road in 40 minutes feeling good that we were half way finished and making good time.

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Next was Bonpale, a Dalit village that is “low” caste and suffered a lot of damage.

We went there on our previous trip but returned to make sure they had enough food. They also requested children’s clothing but we didn’t have any. You wouldn’t know it from the road, but the village and most of the rice fields were destroyed.  We unloaded the rest of our food because the last stop was only requesting tarps and mattresses.  

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Just as we were leaving Bonpale we got a phone call from Madhu, our liaison for Raigaun. “Are you OK? Last night a relief truck was robbed by a gang on our road.” These kinds of stories are more frequent, at least once a week. We decided that if we got robbed we would not fight or protect the supplies. We climbed up the dirt road, with a new feeling of apprehension and adventure.

Upon arrival the whole village was outside waiting for us. We unloaded 41 tarps, 35 mattresses and 28 blankets. We sent our truck driver home and he wanted more money than we had agreed. Madhu, the local school teacher, wanted us to stay and eat. We declined, he insisted and we explained to him that we had to go. He said  “two more minutes.” They gave us tea and then his brother and he made speeches thanking us. It was quite sweet and felt real when they adorned us with garlands. It was a community moment.

A relief

Driving away, it was a relief for us to be done. It was a long day but there was still some daylight to spare as we looked for the campsite we used before. I fell asleep looking at the stars, thanking God we were safe and sound.