I have to preface this blog entry with two things:
- This is Drew writing this (which will be blatantly clear for those of you who know me… but Lauren wanted me to be clear on that anyway).
- Although I’m new to blogging I’m pretty darn sure I violated several blog etiquette practices… especially in regards to length and a severe lack of pictures
With that aside…
What would happen if America was in the same situation that Nepal is in right now? What if an earthquake destroyed a large percentage of the buildings in your neighborhood, but your house was still standing and structurally sound? What if many of your neighbors were forced to sleep outside on the streets in tents or, if they were lucky enough, in cars during daily thunderstorms for multiple days? Would you invite them to share the shelter of your home? But what if you didn’t really know them very well? What typical American really knows their neighbor anyway? They could be dangerous… especially in times like this! Once you invite them in, who knows how long they will stay… their house is destroyed or so damaged that it should be condemned, so they could expect to be their a long time….
How would an American respond to the current food and water crisis most Nepalis are in right now? Here in the part of Kathmandu I live in, it took several days for the stores to start opening up again (the majority are still closed). During those days, most of us didn’t have access to clean water…. (see our previous post about the water crisis) or food except for those living close enough to where they were handing out rice. So what would you do if you found a shop that opened and had water for sale? What if you were one of the first to notice that the grocery store was opening? How would you respond?
What if the banks and ATMs had all closed for multiple days and you had no access to money (especially if your pile of cash was buried under the pile of rubble that was once your house)? When the banks opened up what would you do?
With the danger of making blanket wide assumptions, I’ll tell you how this American thought to respond and what a contrast that was to the Nepalis around me. The house we are renting survived… no cracks in any walls. Pretty amazing, really. Around me several neighbors are still living outside in tents. I’ve seen my share of post-apocalyptic films (no shortage of them lately). I know what comes next… looters. Once the frequency of aftershocks had spread out to a few minutes between them, I ran inside (as my neighbors were yelling at me that it was still too dangerous) to grab all the valuables and food I could and stuffed them in backpacks. What didn’t fit I hid as best as I could… then locked every door including the gate to the courtyard (which meant the neighbors were going to have to find another outhouse to use as our had quickly turned into the communal one). Even though my building looked okay… I was taking my family to our office which I knew had been built to withstand 8.0 magnitude earthquakes with American architects, engineers, and general contractors. When we arrived at the office, I found out that our Nepali hosts had invited over a hundred people to take shelter there. I have to say, that wouldn’t have been my initial choice. I also noticed that we were the only ones who had any kind of belongings with us. Were we just braver than others (or just plain stupid) to risk running back into our house and grab things?
So it was going to be a little cramped, but I had safe shelter. Check. Now I needed to worry about my water and food supply running out (because I had my own stash in my backpack). Water was going to be the big issue. You can read our previous post about the steps we had to go through to secure a good source of water. The day after the earthquake, I noticed one small corner shop was open. I knew there would be a small chance that they would have water, and with the impending water shortage coming but I thought it was worth asking. To my surprise they did have some, so I bought as much as I could carry. Was I the first to discover this supply of clean water? Several people saw me buying the water but didn’t seem eager to get their own. Strange.
Food was more difficult to find. Our office building had recently received a large shipment of rice so they were set. Except as an American, I was going to have a really hard time eating rice for every meal for the near future. Four days after the earthquake I noticed the large grocery store near us was open. I convinced the Nepalis I was riding in a car with to pull over. I was prepared for pandemonium. This was going to be like Black Friday on steroids, right? I mean if we are willing to trample a grandma to grab the last Talking Elmo, what was this going to be like! I was so surprised to find the store was exactly like every other time I had been there, except a lot of food had fallen on the ground during the earthquake. I grabbed a basket and started looking for the high nutrition and enduring food. I bought more granola bars and nuts than I’ve ever bought in my life! When I went to checkout, each register has one or two people standing in line. I couldn’t believe it! All of the grocery stores in the city had been closed for 4 days! Then I looked at what the guy in front of me was buying… a razor for shaving. That’s it! And the guy behind me… he was super agitated because I had so much stuff in my basket and he only had a carton of juice and a box of diapers. Unbelievable!
Had a similar experience at the bank. There was only one bank that we could find open 4 days after the earthquake. It was a large bank in the center of town. It did seem like there was a lot more people than normal standing around, but I later found out the bank had allowed workers from nearby office buildings that were condemned to setup shop there. Inside, almost ever teller was open. Crazy! We exchanged $5000 which took the better part of an hour due to such an unusually large request.
I could go on and tell you about my experience buying out all of the prepaid minutes from a local shop for my phone that had run out… and how they thought I was crazy. Or how the lines at the fuel pump are only slightly longer than they usually are even though there is a fear that an aftershock could cause more landslides cutting off incoming supplies. But I think you get the point. These guys need a refresher on the doomsday manual! How can they protect their own with behavior like this… you got to be two steps ahead of everyone else to survive (I caught myself saying this several times to my Nepali friends here who reacted with blank stares). That is what survival is all about in a crisis right? Survival of the fittest! Every man for himself.
As I step back and look at the bigger picture I see a very different system here. I’ve heard so much about individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures but I never really got it until now. I’m an American. I value my freedom and ability to make my own choices. Success is measured by how far I rise above others around me… whether we are talking about school, business, net worth, longevity of life, etc. It is all relative. In a crisis, success is the ability to out-think and out-maneuver all those around me and secure as many resources as possible for me and my family. That’s American wisdom… at least my understanding of it. Here in Nepal, my survival at the expense of others (no one else is getting granola bars for around here for awhile!) is selfish, strange, and frankly irrational.
How can one possibly enjoy their standing house while all the others around them are sleeping in mud puddles out front? What is the point of surviving a crisis with flying colors if in the long run I’m the only one around left standing… Is life really worth living in isolation anyway? Will those who outlived their neighbors to survive on into a “post-apocalyptic” world feel like they’ve succeeded? Not here in Nepal.
I hope I’m in Nepal if/when I have to experience another crisis like this.