Nepal quake: A dif­fi­cult evac­u­a­tion

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY TEO CHENG WEE

When news of Nepal’s earth­quake broke on Satur­day, my first thoughts turned to the many Nepalis I met on my two trips there.

I’m not the most ex­tro­verted per­son, but you can’t help but make friends with lo­cals in Nepal, es­pe­cially if you do long treks among the coun­try’s fa­mous Hi­malayan moun­tain range, as I did in 2010 and 2012.

Each trek I did took three weeks, dur­ing which I met a new fam­ily ev­ery night be­cause I stayed at a dif­fer­ent lodge along the cir­cuit.

This is on top of the dozens of guides and porters I ran into as we moved from vil­lage to vil­lage.

‘Heart heavy’

My heart is es­pe­cially heavy be- cause of my trekking ex­pe­ri­ence. Nepal’s moun­tains are stunning, but they’re so re­mote that they are not ac­ces­si­ble by car.

Any help needed in those ar­eas would take a long time to ar­rive, I im­me­di­ately re­al­ized.

I had a first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the dif­fi­culty of a he­li­copter evac­u­a­tion dur­ing my first trek along the An­na­purna cir­cuit.

About eight days into our trek, as we crossed 4,000 me­ters, my friend de­vel­oped acute moun­tain sick­ness, a po­ten­tially fa­tal con­di­tion brought on by low oxy­gen lev­els at high altitude.

Our guide de­cided my friend needed to see a doc­tor that morn­ing, but Manang — the near­est ma­jor vil­lage where we could get help — was a half-day trek away.

With my friend drift­ing in and out of con­scious­ness, we fran­ti­cally grabbed our heavy bags and hur­ried to Manang, fi­nally get­ting there past lunchtime.

The clinic may be the best one for miles, but it was tiny, with ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties. Af­ter a quick check, its res­i­dent doc­tor said my friend needed to re­turn to the cap­i­tal Kathmandu. The doc­tor used the vil­lage’s only tele­phone to call for a he­li­copter.

“It may not come if it is too dark, or if the weather sud­denly changes,” he warned. “Let’s hope for the best.”

Thank­fully the weather did hold up and the chop­per just made it be­fore dusk set in. I was al­lowed to ac­com­pany my friend, but the he­li­copter couldn’t carry any more peo­ple, the pi­lot told me.

That meant our guide and porter needed to make the long trek back to Kathmandu them­selves, spend­ing an­other three to four days on foot and bus.

In some ways we were lucky. Lucky that Manang was just half a day away and not fur­ther. Lucky that Manang was one of the few vil­lages along the cir­cuit with a he­li­copter pad.

If this much ef­fort is in­volved in evac­u­at­ing one per­son from the moun­tains, the lo­gis­tics needed to help the hun­dreds trapped on Ever­est, and to air­lift those in need of ur­gent med­i­cal help, would surely be oner­ous.

As I’m writ­ing this, the death toll has passed 2,000, with most of the news com­ing out of Kathmandu and Ever­est base camp. But th­ese aren’t the only af­fected ar­eas and the toll is cer­tain to climb.

For those who sur­vive, there are wor­ries about ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties like shel­ter, food and wa­ter, in a coun­try whose GDP per capita is 3 per­cent of Sin­ga­pore’s, and where elec­tric­ity sup­ply in the best of times can be patchy.

It is dif­fi­cult, even for a hardy peo­ple who are used to the va­garies of the moun­tains and its sud­den weather changes.

Just as dev­as­tat­ing for the lo­cals would be the sight of their cap­i­tal and its UNESCO World Her­itage­listed Dur­bar Square be­ing lev­eled.

Many Nepalis strike me as deeply re­li­gious, reg­u­larly pray­ing and giv­ing of­fer­ings at the many cen­turiesold Hindu and Bud­dhist tem­ples and shrines in the square. Their spir­i­tu­al­ity helps them to cope with what­ever cards life deals them.

Much of the square is now sadly rub­ble.

But they can be sure many peo­ple who have been touched by their re­solve and hos­pi­tal­ity will be pray­ing for them.

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