Nepal.

16 days ago my feet were on the ground in Kathmandu, Nepal. My little family and our close friends were on vacation there. We found it wonderful in its difference from home. Thamel, the neighborhood where we were staying, is one of the central tourist districts. Buildings of all shapes and sizes crowded the narrow streets. The streets themselves were crammed full of people, rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, people, dogs. Small temples were scattered everywhere, and big ones arched upward here and there. The roads, although paved, were covered in heavy gray dust and many locals wore masks to filter the air they breathed. Shopkeepers stood in the open doorways of their stores, occasionally scattering water to help keep the dust down.

Jenia and Turtle heading back to Thamel from Durbar Square.

Jenia and Turtle heading back to Thamel from Durbar Square.

In all, Kathmandu was a bustling, vivacious, surprisingly vibrant place. There’s a blend of Hindu and Buddhist culture and the mashup is fascinating.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, on a hill in the middle of Kathmandu.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, on a hill in the middle of Kathmandu.

We mostly hung around the city, but did take a daytrip that included the 1,500 year old city of Bhaktapur, past its many brickyards and kilns with towering chimneys stretching up from the fields, and into the nearby hills to Nagarkot.

What a drive, what a place. The hillsides were terraced so that they could be farmed. We saw many crops being grown: grains, vegetables, etc. Houses were half built, people living in one level while building another.

The view from the observation tower atop Nagarkot.

The view from the observation tower atop Nagarkot.

The poverty of the place would have been surprising if we hadn’t expected it, and if we hadn’t been to places like Sri Lanka before.

But poverty doesn’t necessarily equate with unhappiness. The people we met were generally friendly, happy to see us, and even eager to pose for pictures with the fair-skinned strangers in their land. I chatted with a couple of traveling salesmen who were visiting the same temple as we were, and they educated me a bit on their religious traditions. We took pictures together, they snapping on their smart phones, and me with mine.

Women clean a railing of wax drippings near Durbar Square.

Women clean a railing of wax drippings at a temple near Durbar Square.

There were a few unpleasantries–the threat of food poisoning was always very real, for example. Monkeys are a mixed blessing, for they’re great fun to see, but not usually so great to interact with. Beggars were also often present at touristy areas–and why wouldn’t they be, considering that most Westerners are downright rich by comparison to the avearge Nepali? It was also necessary to be mindful of your surroundings, especially in Thamel, lest you get nudged by an automobile (this happened) or trip and fall on the treacherous shoulder. But we didn’t mind those things.

When we flew out of the airport, a place that seems to be stuck in the 1960s, mostly red brick and filthier than I care to remember, we had views of the Himalayas that left us marveling. Imagine cruising at 33,000 feet and the snow-capped peaks of the mountain range protruding from the clouds almost at the same level as the plane.

And yesterday, I came across a story on the New York Times website–an earthquake struck Nepal! The magnitude was 7.5-7.8, it said. So far at least 100 dead.

Now the story is running first and foremost on CNN.com and on the front page on most other news sites I’ve opened this morning. The death toll has crossed 1,900 as of this writing. The pictures that are now starting to flood into the news outlets are eerily familiar. Some of them are the very places we visited, albeit nearly unrecognizable. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has crumbled temples where the glorious ones we climbed and gazed from two weeks ago stood. There’s a heart-rending video of a collapse in Bhaktapur.

A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 25.

A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 25 in this photo from http://www.cnn.com

That the temblor caused such destruction is no surprise. The place is shoddily built, to be sure. Many of the structures we saw under construction were being assembled in a way which made me wonder if the builders were aware of squares and levels. Nonetheless, the news reports say that most newer buildings survived–the concrete construction is stronger than the old brick. It is the brick structures that suffered the most, and that amounts to some of the most historic ones.

It’s sad that such a beautiful place was struck so hard. All I can do at this point is offer prayers and consider contributing to the aid efforts that are already taking shape to help the beautiful people of Nepal to recover from this tragedy.

Should you want to donate, the Red Cross and Oxfam, as well as Unicef, are good places to begin.

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Sandstorm

In the there years we’ve spent in the UAE, we’ve seen plenty of sandstorms–all of them amounting to windy days with dust blowing through the air, lowering visibility dramatically at times. They’ve always been a far cry from the sort of thing that Tom Cruise battled in Mission: Impossible 4.

“That’s not real,” said Saif, one of the more fluent English-speaking students at school when I brought up the movie a while back. “It’s nothing like that.”

“What?” I said. “Movies are always exactly like real life!”

I’m not sure he understood my irony, because he launched into a long description of how sandstorms are different, not at all so dramatic, basically, and how, besides, there is no neighborhood of the sort shown in the chase scene nearby the Burj Khalifa either.

I completely agreed with him.

Until now. We had a doozy of a sandstorm the other day. The whole world outside became sepia. And Jenia and I went for a drive during it, too. The visibility was never quite as bad as that in the movie, at least not while we went all the way to Abu Dhabi, but it was definitely bad. The car looks as if we went dune-bashing in it, and we smelled dust for our whole drive. What’s more, judging by some of the pictures and videos I’ve seen from others, it may well have been as bad or worse than M:I depicted it in some places at certain times.

Here are some iPhone photos from the sandstorm that struck April 2, blowing across from Saudi and blasting the UAE ferociously.

The view from our Hili Complex window--the border with Oman is completely invisible some 130 yards away.

The view from our Hili Complex window–the border with Oman is completely invisible some 130 yards away.

Sandstorm II

Turtle, on his way to the car, was a bit baffled by what he accurately proclaimed to be “Sand!”

 

Driving in the storm.

Driving in the storm. It was certainly necessary to keep the ol’ eyes peeled and be very careful. Although there were reports of accidents (no surprise, since many folks drive during inclement weather just as manically as normal), we didn’t see any and had no close calls.

The 24,000 seat Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, almost invisible.

The 25,000 seat Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, almost invisible in the fierce storm.

HBZ II

What isn’t pictured is the surprising number of workers who were outside continuing their chores during this weather. We saw plenty of Pakistani (judging by their clothing) laborers on construction sites, as well as men trimming hedges, working in the median, and so forth. There was nary a surgical mask in sight, and most didn’t even bother to wrap a scarf over their noses. I bet there’s a bunch of people hacking up a lung about now.

If this isn’t big news on your side of the world, I understand. But it got plenty of headlines around here, including on outlets like Yahoo! News, The National, Khaleej Times, and Reuters, which reported air traffic delays in the region.

In all, this has been a blustery, nasty spring season. Jenia has had to postpone a few photo shoots because of the wind, which typically turns the skies a nasty shade of haze and therefore makes photos look bland and uninteresting. Last year there was no wind to speak of, and the spring was quite nice, although the heat rolled in quickly.

After three years I thought I knew what to expect around here. I was wrong! I didn’t expect this.

PS: the aftermath of the storm was interesting. It cleared up in Abu Dhabi as we were arriving. The wind remained, but I’m guessing it changed direction and blew across the water, so the dust was negligible. By the next morning, we could see for miles, with just a bit of haze still remaining. When we drove past the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, it’s domes and walls, instead of their usual sparkling white, were colored tan.