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Nepalese expect disaster with upcoming monsoon

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(Editor’s note: This is Hamilton Pevec’s latest installment from Nepal, where he is helping to organize volunteer relief missions to rural parts of the country).

By Hamilton Pevec

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Special to The Sopris Sun

There is a feeling among all the relief workers and local people that when the monsoon hits, so will disaster. The surface has been loosened by earthquakes and prepped to wash away in the rain. “The monsoon is coming” has added a new level of urgency to our work.

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At the beginning of June. Robin, Collin, Devika and myself went back to the Dalit village, Bonpale, to determine if they wanted to learn to build earth bag houses.  We knew we had to pass through Palungtar, the village that previously ignored half of it inhabitants because they were from a lower caste. I felt compelled to go back and deliver the supplies requested by those excluded in an attempt to balance things out, right the social injustice. On one hand it felt good, but on the other I couldn’t help but wonder if this will only perpetuate the caste divisions. Just talking about it, even writing about it is a way of acknowledging that the system is in effect. I believe that if you want to induce major social change, one must begin with the language. “Choose your words carefully.”

The villagers in Palungtar were well organized. They had a list of requests and an order of priority for the anticipated shortage. My wife, Devika, did very well interpreting and being our liaison. In Palungtar she explained to Laxman, as the villagers listened: “You must give to the most needy first, make sure that the people are helped fairly.” Laxman nodded in agreement. He gave us a short tour of the houses that had been damaged or destroyed.

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There was one old woman living alone in a house with the end walls ready to collapse, leaning precariously outward. This has become a familiar look because the way the mud and stone are joined at the corners, the end walls aren’t really connected to the side walls and bare little weight of the roof, so they are the first to fall. Her buffalos were still living under this leaning wall of stone and mud 18-inches thick 15-feet tall. We instructed her to move the buffalos, “but where?” she replied. The old woman was sleeping in someone else’s shelter. Now she will have her own place and hopefully protect her buffalos.

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Recon in Bonpale

Bonpale, our next stop, sits on the side of a paved road. The village had been skipped by the NGOs. Half a mile on either side villages had received aid. This stop was a reconnaissance mission. Is it possible to build an earth-bag house in Bonpale? Do the villagers want it? I have revisited this village a few times. Each time I return I feel more respect and admiration for these people; they are more kind, better organized and more communicative than most other places I’ve visited.  

We spent about two hours doing site analysis. Robin and Collin decided that it was possible to bring in supplies. We all sat down to have a village meeting and the villagers unanimously agreed the rice fields took precedent over building because the fields are a year’s worth of food. All the people in the village would be preparing the rice fields; the monsoon waits for no one.

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Collin, from France, was spearheading the earth-bag project and was on a tight time limit so he and Robin needed to find another candidate village. I was going to go with them, but the timing overlapped with my next mission, delivering corrugated tin to a very remote village in a district I had never been to — Dhading.

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Dhading (June 7)

At first they wanted tin tunnel houses, then we offered them only tin and the whole village agreed. They had already begun the wood-beam frames of their new homes and only needed tin to complete the roof. A relief worker named Micole, a 24-year-old single mother and rare Nepali punk rocker with tattoos, was my village contact. When I asked how she knows this village she explained “It’s my mother’s ancestral home.”

I was nervous about this mission because it was so far away in a slide prone area and needed a big budget. We spent over $2,500 (U.S.) on tin and transportation, enough for 32 homes. The morning of our departure our truck did not show up, amplifying my nervous condition. Three hours late, we had the truck loaded and I rode in the back as the sun slowly heated the 4,000 pounds of materials; it was my first time inside a solar oven. We also carried a load of medicines, sanitary pads and snacks.

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The drive to Dhadingbesi (Dhading’s capital) took about five hours. Upon arrival we had to change trucks because the next leg of the journey was four-wheel-drive only.

Dhadingbesi was crowded and busy. The influx of refugees was evidenced in the few shelter camps that had been set up. Fancy-aid SUVs stood out among the old Mahindra four-wheelers. Within a few minutes of arriving, randomly, Micole met a friend of hers who she hadn’t seen in 12 years. “My friend was shot in the arm during the revolution” she casually informed me. “She will find us a four-by-four truck,” and she did! Two hours later we were slowly climbing up the hill heading into the backcountry. Over looking Dhadingbesi I could see seven refugee camps. We passed a big one and our driver told us that all these people were from the village where we were heading. It felt like a confirmation that we chose the right place.

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Forest-fire smoke thickened the air. I laughed at the thought of adding wild fires to earthquakes and landslides. A fine beige clay dust covered the road and most everything else around. A billowing dust cloud followed us up the mountain and filled our nostrils, as the windows on the truck did not close. In some places the dust was eight inches deep, the cloud so thick we couldn’t see three feet. The weather was good and I prayed for it to stay that way because I could not imagine passing this road if it was wet. This was perhaps the single worst road I have been on, even by Nepali standards. We crawled in 4-low until we reached our relay point six hours later.

The villagers were waiting in the night for us in a dirty roadside village called Dharkaphedi. People spooned together sleeping on tarps in the road under the stars. The steep valley walls left few options. Every flat spot near the buildings was taken. When I asked where I could put my tent they couldn’t tell me. When I looked around five guys came with me. It felt strange. Micole whispered to me “They are worried about you. They say this is a dangerous village that you need to stay close.” I was too tired and out of it to take them seriously.  

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I walked down the road and up the hill a short ways and found a suitable spot. In the night I heard falling rocks crashing, but the distant river flowing 1,500 feet below was quiet and soothing. At dawn I could see many cracks in the earth around where I slept.

The villagers began unloading the tin.

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Micole found me.

“I was worried about you. I didn’t know where you slept. Three guys came and slept next to you to protect you.”

“Really!?” I replied, because I didn’t hear anyone come close.

“Why would they do that?”

Micole said, “They don’t trust these villagers. They were worried because you are a foreigner, you are here because of them.”

As the sun rose, the tin was distributed in 10-piece bundles, each bundle weighing about 140 pounds. They were rolled or stacked, then tied and secured in the traditional Nepali way of carrying heavy loads — a strap around the forehead so the spine can take the weight. Men, women, young and old — some with a full bundle — began the six-hour trek to our target destination. The physical strength of these people always impresses me.

We walked down to the river, crossing two slide areas. The first is where the road got wiped out, leaving only a single track to cross. The reconstruction had begun with six guys watching one guy work. Going up the 50-degree slope in 110-degree heat with 95 percent humidity felt normal to me. I had one of those “Wow” moments, realizing I have been here long enough to handle these conditions.

Each village we passed was gone but still there. Piles of rubble had been transformed into stacks of materials. The sound of tools perforated the stillness, clacks and scrapes of lives being rebuilt. Some people used only wood; others were stacking stone again. This area was mostly Tamang caste, speaking another dialect I had never heard that sounded like Chinese.

The slow march carrying the heavy tin loads up the mountain showed visibly on the sweaty faces.  I must have drunk three liters of water every hour, refilling my bottle at each spring. As we gained elevation the view showed many different slide areas pocking the other hills, unhealed wounds, more disasters waiting to happen.

We rested in a bamboo grove at the peak of noon heat. Napping in the shade, and eating cheese and bread, reminded me of the personal satisfaction I get from these supply missions. The incline steepened after the naps. Did my legs betray me?

Reaching our target, the village was a familiar sight, everything ruined or damaged, wooden structures still standing. There were two collapsed churches. One was now a shelter. Basically the new tin roof held its shape while the stone walls collapsed. There was no centralized village area. The farms were spread out over the mountainside. The path led along the knife-edge of the ridge. Cracks in the earth along this side of the mountain made me question the stability of the ground. I have heard that bamboo is great for maintaining surface integrity and there was lots of it around.

That evening Dong, the 40-something head of the village, wearing a cap that said BOY, formally expressed his gratitude to me. I explained to him that I was just the delivery guy. The money was coming from hundreds of people from all around the world. Dong was impressed with the quality of the tin. “Deri ramro,” he said. “Very nice.” He invited me to his shelter for dinner; I did my best to respectfully decline. I went back to my tent to eat my bread, cheese and honey.

Dangerous village

The next day our host cracked open his hive and gave me some honey and some fresh green bean coffee he had grown. He wouldn’t let me pay for it and I felt weird. Micole relayed some stories to me she had heard at Dong’s place. About 25 years ago a man from this village, who was a trekking guide, found another man half dead in the snow; his expedition had left him there to die. The local villager carried him down the mountain and saved his life. The Frenchman turned out to be a millionaire. Since then he had built many schools, hospitals and churches. Most of the infrastructure of the area came from this one guy.  

A few years back, a group of French came to the opening of a high school and while they were passing through Dharkaphedi, the relay point, the villagers took the whole group hostage brandishing Khukuris, the traditional Nepali curved blade weapon. The angry villagers said “Why do you go there? Why are you always helping those other villagers, why don’t you help us?!” I don’t know if the situation got resolved, but in the end the French group had to be airlifted out. Micole went on to tell me that a man was murdered by those same villagers. She gestured with her hands how his arms and legs were cut off.

Due to the timing and distance, we had to go back to Dharkaphedi because it was where the road ended. We wanted to camp one night about a kilometer away from there. Even if the village was half as dangerous as they say, we didn’t want to be there for longer than we had to, or put ourselves in a risky situation. We opted instead to try to make it back to Dhadingbesi in one day. Another five hours of endless shaking. The good-old Mahindra provided a smooth ride compared to the truck.

After five hours of dust and epic views we crested the hill that overlooked Dhadingbesi. We stopped at the refugee camp to unload. One man told us there were about 200 people living there. I wondered if any of those people would go back home now that there would be a roof over their heads. But the truth is that these people have left not because of the condition of their houses, but the instability of the mountainsides. They are afraid and I don’t blame them. I have to admit that I am, too. I don’t want to do these deliveries anymore. At dawn I looked out over the valley. The air was cool, the pavement wet and dark clouds hung low in the north. The monsoon is here.

Hamilton Pevec is a documentary filmmaker and former Carbondale resident. He and his Nepalese wife, Devika Gurung, live in Pokhara. He is not a trained aid worker but is working to get supplies into isolated areas of Nepal.

Published in The Sopris Sun on June 25, 2015.