Journey to Okhaldunga, Pokali

I’m awake but the brain hasn’t started working. Suddenly I hear Rebu’s voice outside my door panicking and realise it is now 6 am and we should be in the taxi bus headed to Okhaldunga, Pokali at 5 am. Somehow I don’t believe we will make it today. Its an awfully long way and on very bad roads once we reach the turn up into the mountains.

We get to the meeting point by 6.15 - over an hour late. The taxi driver knows what our mission is - otherwise he would have left already. The huge sacks of school bags get hoisted onto the roof rack and are tied down. Feels top heavy already. This is a 4 x 4 heavy vehicle - the only thing that will get up the steep inclines where the roads are only roads by name. Up in the mountains these cuts are mostly mud, sand, rocks and shale - the suff that doesn’t stay in place when there is a tremor - and very narrow with steep walls on one side and sheer cliffs on the other. You have to be made of tough stuff to drive them, and I find myself closing my eyes knowing that each year in Nepal dozens of people become statistics for the records on these mountain passes. 

The taxi bus has a limit of 9 in the 3 rows of seats. We are already 12. I’m wondering about the laws regarding passengers and the weight and the tires and all the things that ignorance would prevent me from considering - and think we have to find a better way to manage this next time.

The journey is 250 km - Google maps puts it at 171 - and a 3.5 hour journey. It takes us 10 hours with a 45 minute lunch and too frequent pushes up the slopes because the tyres are slipping. With 9 passengers it wouldn’t be a problem. The last delivery we made the truck never made it to the top and we had a 1 hour walk to the school up steep inclines while porters from the village came down to fetched the bags. These mountain people are tough, resilient and uncomplaining. Actually Nepalis never seem to complain about anything - except their corrupt government. At some point a package of medical supplies falls from the roof as the rope slips loose and the thin cardboard breaks into pieces down to the river. Its a 30 meter drop. We wait for a few of the passengers to collect the items.

Around 4.00 pm I get out to shoot the final push up to Pokali, and walk the last 200 meters. As I come into view the village elders rush down to greet me followed by the crowd of 150. Namaste they shout - I’m shaking hands and greeting until I see Rebu looking confused. She is outside the taxi standing unnoticed by the huge crowd that has gathered to greet us. 

I’m just the photographer, I tell them. They have missed the point. Rebu is a woman. Women are not noticed here - especially in these remote communities. The army have organised everything - to keep order and because they have a base here. The army captain greets me and I’m surprised by a strong smell of alcohol. People are rushing toward me with beautiful garlands freshly made from the trees in full bloom. The petals feel cool and alive on my skin. It feels like a royal visit - I stoop to the garland given by a little girl aided by her mother -  they have been looking forward to this since they heard we planned to do it and we were so late arriving the tension must have been unbearable. 

Everything is arranged and I keep getting told to sit down for some kind of ceremony. I explain that I’m only the photographer - not the donor - Rewati Gurung is the donor I tell them - it is her project and her’s alone. Please let me photograph this - its the only way we can bring the message to the world. 

They find this hard to grasp. The army captain brings one of his men forward and assigns him to me. Good I think to myself - I need to work between video and stills. I hand him my iPhone and ask him to stay behind me always. Great - now I can work.

An official speaks into a microphone and it sounds more like a revolution with the thin fidelity of the speaker echoing in the mountains and the whole village crowded in the school grounds. They are so welcoming and so friendly - this attention on their children and the school is rare.

Rebu has her chance to speak and now they are listening to her. I’m happy for her. This is exactly the village life she grew up in except hers was the flat lands of the Terai and this is mountain. The same mud and stone houses, the same corn growing, the same rich vegetation. She was one of the few to leave her village and get higher education. She moved to Dharan where her Uncle lived and studied English Literature. She told me it was English literature that opened her eyes to the world. 

After the ceremony we get a tour of the school buildings. They look fine from outside, but inside the walls are falling apart - stones everywhere - tables broken and - well you see it everywhere in Nepal. There are no surprises anymore.

After the ceremony we are the guests of the stationer who sold us the exercise books, pencils and whistles. This is his childhood home. He was born under the second highest waterfall in Nepal - a 345 meter drop that cascades gently at this time of year but during monsoon produces such a volume of spray that the walls of the cliff turn bright green with vegetation. We get taken to the falls and have fun taking posed pictures under the spray.  This waterfall produces an independent electricity supply for the area. They get power 24/7. 

The house is one of the few that remains standing - the walls inside are damaged and it isn’t very safe - but they will rebuild. A daughter prepares food over an open fire. We eat traditional food and they are happy when I eat Nepali style with my fingers. There is no vent and the room even with the door open chokes me with the smoke. Rebu says this is the scene from her childhood - exactly. She doesn’t like me saying its toxic. Such is the power of our childhood memories. We don’t want them to be disturbed. For now we eat inside and sleep under a vegetable tent to the sound of the waterfall above. 

In the morning the taxi is over loaded again with passengers going to Kathmandu. They left to come to their villages after the earthquake and are returning. The taxi bus has broken a fuel pipe on the stones and has only half the power. We get out to push more than a dozen times and eventually hand one passenger over to another vehicle because we simply don’t have the power to get over these rough roads.

Entering Kathmandu from Bhaktapur and Thimi, the highway has dropped a meter in one place - a brand new road barely opened with new geography. Houses that broke in the quake lean precariously against buildings that would otherwise be undamaged. People along the roadside are taking their houses down brick by brick. Its a weird scene. They will probably start to rebuild again and all I can think is how resilient these people have to be living in the constant threat of another quake.