"It started 10 days ago, with a text from Jon.
"Hey bud! Random question," he wrote. "Can you by chance go to Nepal this week?"
A cargo shipment had stalled in Dubai and he needed 400 filters delivered to 'quake-shaken Nepal ASAP. Could I be the mule? Of course I could. The timing was right.
I landed in Kathmandu 72 hours later with instructions to deliver the filters to Waves For Water country director Paul Rai and tag along for a week. "Soak it all in," Jon said. "Listen, observe, etc." I'd be an intern, I thought, and that was just fine. I disembarked the plane into Kathmandu's sticky night air, and as I crossed the tarmac my gaze lifted to the illuminated airport sign, "Tribhuvan International Airport." Except the "ational" was blacked out. So it just read, "Tribhuvan Intern Airport."
Paul Rai was outside customs to welcome me, whisk me away to the hotel and have dinner and a beer waiting for me. Hospitality game — strong. The next day we'd start at Waves For Water's headquarters AKA Binod Rai's compound. Paul and Binod (very distantly related) are childhood best friends and have lead the Waves For Water charge in Nepal with impressive efficiency and commitment — Paul on the front lines doing demos and taking meetings, Binod working behind the scenes translating documents, logging data and planning presentations. Together, with their military background and experience organizing/leading trekking tours, they are a logistical dream team.
Binod's compound. Hospitals. The car. Colleges. Restaurants. Parks. Government offices. The side of the road. The office is wherever it needs to be. No pretense. No pomp and circumstance. If the location is enough to get the job done, then it will suffice.
I had an idea in my head of what this work entailed. I expected to be delivering water filters to rural villages and tent camps, remnant bricks of fallen homes moved hastily to the side. I expected tears of sadness to turn to tears of joy. But one of the main lessons I learned from this experience was that we're not always on the front lines. And we shouldn't be. Because if someone else has an existing network we can tap into, then we really don't need to be seen. Establish partners. Train them. Empower them. On to the next.
Much of my time interning under Paul and Binod was spent watching the mechanics of this system in action. We did things like:
- Replenish Srijana Singh and two other nurses with 20 filters. Already trained with our system, they'd take the filters to a health post in Ghusel, a village in the southern Kathmandu Valley, to distribute and train the recipients in proper use.
- Deliver 50 filters to Laxmi Tamang, head of the Midwife Society of Nepal, who is distributing the systems in birthing centers throughout Nepal. She was so grateful for the support and said, "Thank you for doing what the rest of the organizations can't seem to do."
- Meet with a professor at a public health college, who connected W4W with Nepal's Director General of Education. With this connection we're working to get a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which clears a lot of red tape and would help us get the filters in more schools.
Replenishments. Planning. Meetings. Monitoring. Evaluating. And yes, training. We did the brown-water-to-clear-water magic trick and turned skeptics to believers with one swig. Then they took the systems, eager to deliver them to people in need. Eager to be magicians.
Binod had a lead on a kid, Madan, who was helping remote villages in the Northeast after a series of devastating landslides. With that, Paul, a local photographer named Lachpa, our driver, Vishnu, and I loaded the car and set off from Kathmandu. The 10 hour drive to Okhaldlunga took us on the scariest roads I've ever experienced (NOTE: I Googled it and found that on a list of the 25 most dangerous roads in the world, "The Himalayan Roads" — yes, all of them — were No. 5). The route was narrow and mostly dirt, had no lane divisions and often curved along steep cliff edges that dropped hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet. Just after lunch, we were descending a straightaway on a mild grade when the brakes of our SUV went out. Vishnu (whose namesake is the Hindu god of "preservation and protection") steered the vehicle away from the 150-foot drop and up a dirt embankment to stop us. The car nearly rolled, but we managed to get out safely. We dusted ourselves off and looked around. Everyone was OK. So we continued on. Paul arranged another vehicle and we made it to Okhaldlunga by nightfall. Madan was waiting patiently, and we did the training before we even checked into our rooms. He'd take the 30 filters to the people of Prapcha, who'd been displaced after their village was cut off from a landslide.
It's daunting, this work. The scale of need is massive and there's a strong sense of urgency. So you move quickly and never stop thinking and questioning and strategizing. Like you're running a race without a finish line. Here in Nepal, the rubble is nowhere near cleared. Aftershocks continue. Millions are displaced and here come the monsoons, here come the landslides. But probably the biggest lesson I learned from this trip is to focus on what's in front of you. Keep it simple. We have filters. People need them. And if you can bridge that gap — with hundreds of people or even just one — then you've made a difference. You've done your job. You've earned a beer. Then wake up tomorrow and do it again."
Madan K.C., 23 years old from Kathmandu, post-training and pre-distribution to the village of Prapcha
Brake failure doesn't mean mission failure. On the road to Okhaldlunga, this was a minor speed bump
Country director Paul Rai, training the trainers.
The best kind of bucket list
After a successful pilot phase in the village of Ghusel, three nurses are restocked with 20 filters
Nepal works on a long road to recovery — day by day, brick by brick