It’s weird, to see part of a life for such a brief moment in time. Every time I do an interview, I always ask if there’s someone that’s stayed with them, the volunteer, the staff, whomever I’m talking to. Someone that long after your meeting, you still think about.
For me, there are many people. A man at the Dadaab Refugee Camp, who I’ve mentioned before, was one of the most personal motivating factors when I was going through cancer. Every time I felt sorry for myself, I pictured his face, his horrific tumor, still clear as day all these years later.
Traveling is strange that way. I guess life is. People come in and out, sometimes for longer periods, sometimes for shorter, sometimes for just a glimpse.
This weekend I went to Singati, a little more than 100 miles outside of Kathmandu. Because of the roads, dirt and rock, collapsing and treacherous on a good day, it took us 7 hours. When monsoon season starts, which it has already in many areas, getting there will become nearly impossible. A small and remote village, Singati is near the epicenter of the second earthquake. I went to visit a German/Finnish/French relief team there operating a basic health care unit.
While I’ve traveled for the Red Cross many times before, I’ve never been as part of a disaster response. And it’s hard to describe something you’ve never seen before. The extent of logistics, efforts, the machine, that goes behind setting up a health clinic in the middle of a devastated rice paddy. Eight trucks worth of supplies, driving more than two days over roads that, if in the U.S., would be closed with no further thought. And the people that are behind the work.
The Estonian water and sanitation guy, also a first-time responder, who transforms filthy river water into the nearly 2,500 liters of clean water the hospital needs every day to operate, plus an additional 7,500 for the community to drink. Given his obsession with water, I shouldn’t be surprised he is also a devoted user of the base camp sauna, which the Finnish include as a necessity whenever they deploy. The idea of leaving home without one is like forgetting your toothbrush.
The German technician who decides where to set up base camp, home to some 20 people over six week stints, and serves as a cook in the evenings. The first night I’m there, he has the dinner shift off. We eat one of the hundreds of ready to eat meals boxed in the corner, pasta and broccoli, made edible with hot water. The second night he makes rice, bought from a local store, with dehydrated vegetables and chicken donated from a company back home. He sits quietly with the group at the end of his shift, scanning his phone in silence.
The French doctor with the beautiful button necklace, made by her youngest child, one of the four she has.
The German administrator slash nurse who has lived in South Sudan, Pakistan, India, listing off more countries than I can possibly remember in her more than 40 years with Red Cross. She chain smokes, lighting her cigarette off a still burning one. She misses Africa.
And of course, the glimpses of people who have come to the clinic, traveling upwards of five or six hours on foot, up and down steep mountain sides, to see a Western doctor. One woman, who had suffered a miscarriage, was carried by a rotation of family members some eleven hours to receive care. Even hearing about it firsthand, it seems unreal. Like the automatic instinct I have when I hear another language being spoken, which here, is everywhere. That it must be made up, fictitious, this story they have. The way Lindsey can speak gibberish that sounds like Japanese. It can’t possibly be real.
Like Bikram, a 22 year old student, who lost not one, but two homes during the earthquake. His father rented a small house near the market so he wouldn’t have to make the trek back and forth from his more remote, mountainous home every day. The first earthquake took one, the second another. With the family livelihood gone, Bikram sought work at the health clinic helping with the registration desk. He has bright, intense eyes and sometimes understands my English, casually doing the head nod so common in this part of the world that leaves you confused, knowing something is surely lost in translation. He smiles constantly when he sees me, but makes a somber face when I take his photo.
Or Sudar. Sweet, sweet Sudar. His father carries him three hours down the mountain to spend the two hours after clinic hours in a safe, child-friendly space. He has trouble walking, doesn’t speak. At ten years old, he looks more like a kindergartener, if there was a kindergarten to attend. He plays with a Red Cross volunteer, beating a drum, swatting an orange balloon with a badminton racket that’s seen better days. He watches Nepali cartoons from YouTube on a doctor’s laptop, laughing and pointing and hugging anyone that comes near him. At 6 pm, his father will carry him back up the mountain.
I watch them all day at the clinic, greeting patients, doling out the limited medical supplies they have shipped in from Germany. Women sitting in a hot tent, patiently waiting for some sort of relief, even if it’s in the form of a Tylenol, a luxury here.
It’s a lot of glimpses.
In the late afternoon, after the clinic has closed and before the rain starts, I take a walk. It is there that I see another glimpse. And while I won’t have a face to associate with when the memory comes rushing back, I know it’s a glimpse I won’t ever forget.
Across the bridge from the clinic, I come upon a silent ghost town. The worst hit area. It reminds me of the time Sally took me to the Ninth Ward, some six or seven years after Katrina. Sets of dishes, framed photographs, broken Christmas lights, all sitting on bare foundations as if in wait of their owners to retrieve them. Frozen in time. Like it happened yesterday.
My stomach drops. The wreckage is unreal yes, indescribable, and I can feel my heart beating faster. But the thing that stops me completely isn’t the tremendous amount of rubble, piled stories up beside me. It’s the shoes. Shoes and shoes and shoes, all sizes and shapes. Belonging to people whose glimpses I’ll never see. One pair in particular guts me, a tiny pair of denim baby Converse.
In the evening, the clinic staff pile into their SUVs, trudging up the mountains as the rain starts in. They sit around a plastic table under a tent, sometimes chatting in French, German, broken English. Sometimes too tired to speak at all. New to each other, they form a tight knit unit for this specific time, dissolving to their respective countries when their time is finished.
It’s weird, this life. I’ve seen so many glimpses over the years, and I’m sure there will be many more in the years ahead. But if someone ever asks me the same question, Who has stuck with you?, I know my answer. It’s the baby with the denim Converse, that one glimpse I never met at all.