Sanjay Saxena recipient Conde Nast Top Travel Specialist Award for India, Tibet, Nepal, Sri Lanka
India, Tibet, Nepal & Sri Lanka

Solukhumbu Villages
Earthquake Rebuilding Fund

May 12, 2015
I arrived home yesterday from Nepal and woke up this morning to learn that a second major quake occurred last night - this one, closer to Everest. Now, more than ever before, the outlying villages of Nepal need our help.

On my flight home, I wrote of my thoughts and experience in Nepal over the last week - all of which are contained in this report.

I did not photograph much in Kathmandu, but took a few images of our drive into the hills and of the Kunchok Village area and its inhabitants, in which area our help was centered. You can access the high res. photo gallery at this link and download lower res. images from my dropbox gallery.

Sanjay Saxena

HOW YOU CAN HELP

The day after the April 25 Nepal earthquake, I was on a plane headed to Tibet and Nepal – the timing was purely coincidental as my trip had been planned weeks in advance and I was not about to cancel because of the quake. I was traveling with vineyard owner/philanthropist Richard Grace to visit some of the schools and the clinic in Eastern Tibet, which his foundation had started and continues to support. I have been working with Ann & Dick Grace (the founders of the Grace Family Vineyard Foundation) since 2001, helping to establish and oversee some of their projects in India and Tibet.

We met up in Bangkok and decided to head to Nepal instead and help with the earthquake recovery efforts. We scheduled our arrival into Kathmandu for May 1, day six after the earthquake, figuring that the immediate search and rescue efforts would be on their final stretch, whereas as the rebuilding efforts would just be starting and that is where we and the Foundation itself could be most effective.

First Impressions:
On arrival in Kathmandu, I was greatly relieved to see that the city had not been leveled as I was led to believe by the media reports to date. We immediately went to the Bodha neighborhood of Kathmandu, where a number of our friends and guides live. Though there was no massive destructive damage like in Bhaktapur and Patan, there were building with cracks in their structure. Most severely hit was Sechin Monastery’s main assembly hall which had very dramatic cracks, but thankfully the structure held as hundreds were inside attending a teaching at the time of the quake. The monastery open space was a tent city not just for the monks but also for tens of local people too.

All across Kathmandu, people had tents and makeshift shelters of tarps set up in the back yards, gardens and any open space they could find. Since people did not know the structural integrity of their homes and fearing additional quakes they opted to sleep or work outdoors. What is really lacking here are structural engineers - seismologists who can ascertain which buildings are safe to go back into. The Government announced that the services of structural engineers will be free for all residents, but there just are not enough engineers to go around. By May 7 (my departure date from Kathmandu to Lhasa), 12 days after the earthquake, the engineers had not reached the Bodha neighborhood and our friend Dolma (an Honoree of the 2001 Unsung Heroes of Compassion), together with her family, including her 80+ year old disabled father, were still living under a tarp.

Immediately on landing in Kathmandu, I received a text message on my mobile phone from T-Mobile stating that while I was in Nepal all phone calls and data would be free so that I could keep in touch with my family in the U.S. – what a great gesture from corporate America! (See screen-shot on right) My traveling companions who were using other U.S. phone services did not get any such message and so my phone became the go-to phone for everyone calling families in the USA. Needless to say, T–Mobile has me as their life long customer. In fact, Dick Grace and a few other foreigners that I met all said they are going to switch soon as they returned to the USA. On the other end of the spectrum was the Hyatt Hotel management who would not allow any of the locals to sleep in their 35 acres of open grounds.

Another heartfelt story concerns Dolma Dhakhwa who runs a small Tibetan carpet export business (Reliance Carpet Industries), “I immediately went to visit all of my weavers, spread across the valley to give them bags of rice, lentils, and 2 months advance salary in anticipation that they may run out of food or have need for cash in the coming days.”

There is no doubt that Nepal is seeing an overwhelming response from the international community to help with the earthquake relief. As I walked around Kathmandu and drove out into the countryside, I saw flags from Sri Lanka to the USA on supply trucks, temporary housing, bulldozers. While Kathmandu city received a fair amount of quick response, the overall infrastructure here is completely taxed and apart from medical evacuation, the outlying village areas saw little or no aid all.

If there is a silver lining to this tragedy it was the timing of the earthquake. Saturday is Nepal’s Sunday, when everything is shut. All the schools, government and office were closed for the day and at noon most people were outdoors - especially the villagers, who were working in the fields. Thus the death toll was relatively low as compared to what it would have been had the earthquake happened on a work day.

Nepalese resilience
On May 2, Dick Grace, Samten Aungae (a Tibetan from Colorado who was visiting Nepal after 14 years) and I went to have lunch at a local pizza restaurant “Fire & Ice” and we could not get in - there was a 15-20 min wait because the restaurant was packed with tourists and locals. Less than a week after the quake, I saw more and more of the shops and restaurants opening up, life slowly returning to some form of normalcy (immediately after the quake the downtown area was like a ghost town). Shops in Thamel selling Tibetan artwork, native and trekking clothing are starting to open. All of the tourist hotels from the Yak & Yeti, the Gokarana (where we were staying) to the Hyatt were open for business. I also spent a night on the 5th floor of the Yak & Yeti and felt totally safe.

Immediate Relief:
We spent the first couple of days with Dr. Anil Sherestha (an Honoree of the 2005 Unsung Heroes of Compassion) and Director of the Nepal Orthopedic Hospital. It was here we learnt about Kunchok Village region, from a 15-year old boy whose mother was in the hospital recovering from surgery. He became our guide and took us to his village, located near the Tibetan border, about a 5 hour drive from Kathmandu. The area is made up of small villages, numbering about 200 house and a population close to 7000. After the quake the locals found that they had lost 113 members of their community, and over 300 had been injured. Almost all the houses were destroyed and those which were still standing were not habitable.

Funded by the Grace Family Foundation, Dick Grace, Samten and I took 10,000 lbs of food (rice and chura - a ready-to-eat mixture of rice, lentil and nuts) to the families here. Luckily, In addition to the dump truck loaded with supplies, I was able to rent a large SUV type vehicle. This enabled us to take three doctors along with medical supplies, that Dr. Sherestha was kind enough to spare from his hospital. This just in case we encountered people with medical needs. I am happy to report that all of the seriously injured had been evacuated to hospitals and less serious injuries already treated – a big 'thumbs up' for the medical evacuations teams that had performed their jobs so efficiently in this region. What was still very much lacking a week after the quake, was food supplies and shelter.

On reaching Kunchok, we learnt that we were the first to bring food to this region and we arrived there on day 8 after the earthquake! I can only imagine the plight of villages further afield.

The journey to Kunchok was almost as difficult as meeting the people of Kunchok - I could see the shock, the horror, the loss that they had experienced etched in their faces. Enroute we passed houses (it's traditional for locals to build close to the road) that had collapsed encroaching on the narrow roads. Occasionally we saw signs in English “Please help us.” Temporarily forgetting our destination, we made a few stops, then, after learning that some help had come to them recently, we continued to our destination. The black-top road ended at Chautara, the district capital, (which had been very badly hit but seen lots of Army medical help), and we continued on a very poorly maintained dirt road till we reached the villages around Kunchok. It took us several minutes to get organized and then we began distributing the food supplies to some 200 families.

I was once again moved by the resilience of the Nepali people and their serene nature. Instead of what could have been a riot and feeding frenzy, the villagers calmly made two lines (one female one male) and came to the front two families at a time to collect one bag of rice or chura that they would share among themselves. Even though we had 10,000 lbs. of food with us it was not enough for everyone. When our supply ran out, the remaining families did not get angry or riot - they simply resolved to wait for the next shipment.

What was most disconcerting for me was what I can only describe as "the smell of death” - the distinctive and disturbing smell of decaying flesh – knowing it was not a dead mouse in the basement or road kill on the highway, but people entombed under the rubble of their homes.

Long-term Commitment:
One of my primary goals in setting up Destination Himalaya was to use tourism as a means of empowering local people to attain financially successful careers. As such, Destination Himalaya and I are totally committed to staying with our Sherpa and Tibetan friends for the long duration. I am teaming up with my long time friend David Breashears (mountaineer and filmmaker) to bring the rebuilding effort directly to the Sherpa community with whom we have been so intricately involved with over the last two decades, (David, more than I).

David was in Camp 1 on Everest when the earthquake hit. "I'm really thankful to say that although our Base Camp was destroyed, none of our team were injured.” David reported via satellite phone. On April 28, David was interviewed on BBC's Radio 5 Live "Up All Night" program. The interview is still online if you wish to hear David recount what it was like to be at Camp 1 when the earthquake hit.

David's interview takes place time code ~ 02:23:10 - 02:38:52

The unanimous decision of our Sherpa team and Wongchu Sherpa, owner and founder of Peak Promotion (Nepal ground operator with whom David and I have worked with for over two decades), was to set up a fund to rebuild the three severely damaged schools in Chyangba (8,400 ft.), a village of 600 people in the Solukhumbu district. Most of the Sherpas that David has worked with, during his Everest career, and Destination Himalaya’s employs on our Nepal treks, hail from this region. It is their wish that the schools be rebuilt over the coming months. David, after 25 years working with the Sherpas knows them well, says "education is viewed as the most valuable investment in their future."

Because of our long-term friendship with Wongchu and the Sherpas of Chyangba village, David and I pledge to ensure that 100% of the funds donated will be spent specifically for rebuilding these schools, which benefit the entire community and not just one or two families. One of David and my goals is to rebuild the schools to be more earthquake-proof.

How You can Help:
We urge you to keep Nepal on your list of must-see destinations.

Kathmandu is open and ready for business.
Just a week after the quake life was returning to some semblance of normalcy, with shops and restaurants opening for business. Hotels had been checked by structural engineers and are open for guests. Travelers will not be able to see all the World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu Valley, as many of these temples and building have collapsed, but Nepal has so much more to offer a traveler.

Trekking in the Langtang Himal (which was very popular due to its easy access from Kathmandu) will be closed in the near future because of very major landslides in the towns and along the route. Trekkers to Annapurna and Everest regions will certainly see the effects of the earthquake, but that should not be a reason to not travel there. Trekkers will still enjoy views of the majestic Himalayan peaks and the company of the wonderful people of Nepal.

Make a Donation
Destination Himalaya does not have non-profit status nor a foundation, so we have teamed up with the Grace Family Vineyard Foundation to channel all donations to Khumbu Villages rebuilding effort. Grace Family Foundation is a tax-exempt non-profit charitable organization under section 501(c) of the U.S. tax code (Tax ID #68-0331455).

All contributions are tax-deductible in accordance with US tax law. Please make your donation check out to the "Grace Family Vineyard Foundation", and in the memo line please write “DH-Nepal Earthquake”.

Checks can be mailed directly to:

Grace Family Vineyards Foundation
1210 Rockland Drive
St. Helena, CA 94574

If you prefer to charge your donations to your credit card please follow the “Donate” link on the Foundation website.

Remember, 100% of all donations will be sent to fund the rebuilding of schools in the villages of the Solukhumbu district of Nepal. NO DONATION IS TOO SMALL.

Questions? Call us toll free at 1-800-694-6342.

Detail of mural showing the Sakyamuni Buddha
loaded with food supplies

Statue of Maitreya lighted by butter lamps, Drepung Monastery
en route to Kunchok Village

Monk at Buddhist Festival
Collapsed building in Chautara town

en route to Kunchok Village

tents set up in every garden, park and other open spaces

screen shot of T-mobile message

Kunchok Village region

terraced farmer's hut

over flow of patients at Nepal Orthopedic Hospital

Getting ready to distribute food supplies











moment of joy


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