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School Campin' and Hangin' with the Leeches

We’ve spent the last several days out in rural Rasuwa, a district right up along the China border and studded with unbelievably steep hills. The Himilayas tower, I am told, above the hills, but it is monsoon season so the clouds roll in and out. Half the time we are in the fog.

The damage, which is only in the old neighobrhoods of Kathmandu, is everywhere in Rasuwa. The towns have rows of cracked buildings punctuated by piles of rubble, but the damage is especially severe in the hill communities. Villages perch on meticulously terraced mountainsides and most of the trees have been long cut down. What is left is stone.

Most of the houses and schools were made of stone and completely collapse in the earthquake. The storms and wind on the mountain side demand some sort of shelter, so even before anyone was able to reach the villages, they had pulled off the metal sheeting from the roofs and cobbled together shacks for themselves. Beautiful hillside communities of rice and corn paddies, with stone houses brightly stuccoed now look like shanty towns.

There’s so much damage, we haven’t wanted to stay in any of the hotels or guest houses. A local principal offered to let us camp out in the play field. He actually gave us a classroom to sleep in, but it was the exact design I had seen in rubble too many times to sleep peacefully in it. We used it for cooking and work. Each early morning and evening we’d climb into Nepalese school benched – incredibly uncomfortable – and write up our notes, but at night, we’d head to the safety of the tents.

It’s been a hard place to do school assessments. The schools are often down or up long flights of stone stairs. We have to cross and active and terrifying landslide to get to the villages. And, there are leeches.

It’s the most bizarre thing. On one side of the landslide, no leeches. Drive a kilometre down a road studded with boulders that have come crashing down the hillside at random moments and you are in leech territory. Some hang on the leaves overhead and try to drop down on your head. Others hang out in the bushes and try to inch their way unnoticed onto your belly. In the grass, leaches wait for passing ankles.

I’ve been fortunate enough to dodge them, mostly because Bishnu and I are spending 4-5 hours sitting on school playgrounds or in damaged school offices to talk with headmasters and masons. Rob, Prem and Pasang have been out taking damage photos of housing near the school and talking with parents. Poor guys. They’ve been sucked several times. Thankfully someone nearby has had ash or salt nearby and can get the leeches to let go.

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