All photos and text are property of Dave Forney and may not be used without express permission.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Additional Musings on Nepal

I've decided to do one more post on Nepal, with a few thoughts about the country and the people there, and a few more pics to go along with that.  I hope it will entice you to visit some day.  



Nepal is a beautiful country!  The mountains are one of the main attractions, and they don't disappoint. Many people come from all over the world to trek the gorgeous Himalayas in Nepal.  The people who live in these remote areas, and even in the city, rely on the tourists for their livelihood.  I frequently heard locals talking about their concern as to what long-term effects these earthquakes might have on tourism. 


As horrible as these twin-quake tragedies were and are, I can ensure you that the people of Nepal will rebuild and recover.  Of course, the pain and scars will still be there with those who experienced it, but they are a strong and determined people, and they will be ready to welcome tourists back before you know it.  They want you to come and visit. While I was standing in the formerly picturesque mountain village (below), imagining what it looked like before the first quake set loose a cascade of rocks and boulders that wiped out the buildings in this picture, a young man came up to me and invited me to his "house".


This is where we wound up going (below), to his newly erected tent.  His house had been destroyed.  When the first quake struck he had been in the process of building a little lodge for trekkers.  It was his dream, and his future. He showed me how it had been severely damaged. Indeed, it was probably beyond repair.  But rather than giving up, he quickly built a temporary shelter for his family, and then began picking up the pieces to rebuild his house, and his lodge. 

He showed me how he was going to improve it over the original design, and where he intended to plant a flower garden, and herbs, and how he would make steps down a steep hill to a little hot spring, and on and on... That's the attitude of the people of Nepal--it's not that they don't feel the pain of the earthquake tragedies. They do.  Many have suffered beyond what most of us will ever know, or could ever handle.  Yet, rather than give-in and admit defeat, they are taking what's left and beginning to rebuild.  And they are counting on the tourists/trekkers to return, to ensure a future income for them and their children. 


Switching gears a bit, to religon.  Nepal is about 80% Hindu, about 10% Buddhist, about 5% Islam, and the rest is comprised of Yumaism (3%), Christianity (1.5%) with others making up the remainder.  
Everywhere one goes in Nepal, there are obvious signs of the two main religions--there are temples, shrines, prayer flags, monasteries, and all sorts of other symbolisms of their beliefs.  For example, returning to the Kathmandu airport after a relief flight to the North, the massive Boudhanath, one of the largest Buddhist Stupas in Nepal, dominates the city skyline.  


But as I said, the main religion in Nepal is Hinduism. The way people practice Hinduism-- what they believe, and how that plays out, can vary widely.  But since there are literally tens of millions of gods in Hinduism, the representations of these gods can be seen virtually everywhere you go in Kathmandu--from the shops (below), to the office buildings, hotels, houses, cars, and on every street corner.  


There are also many, many Hindu Temples throughout the city--virtually every street corner has a temple. Many are small. Some are large. This one (below) is massive, and is a World Heritage Sight. Its the Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most sacred temples in all of Hinduism, thought to be built around 400 A.D. 


Sadly, the reason for our visiting Pashupatinath Temple this day was for the cremation of a helicopter pilot who had died in an accident the day before. He was flying for a different flight operator--not the one we were working with. However, the flying community is small, and most of the guys at Fishtail Air knew this young captain well. Indeed, some were good friends with him.  It obviously hit them all pretty hard. I was honored and humbled that my friends at Fishtail Air asked me to accompany them to the cremation of their friend.  And I appreciated their candor in explaining what was happening, and the opportunity for all of us to talk freely about our beliefs and customs.


Here is a Sadhu, a Hindu holy man at the Pashupatinath Temple.  I went over and talked with him for a bit. Apparently he's spent the past 30+ years here at this temple, doing what the Sadhu do.


Whereas Kathmandu is primarily Hindu, the remote, mountain villages are often primarily Buddhist.  As such, there are a lot of monasteries in some of the most remote and rugged and beautiful locations, ranging from small (below) to massive.


It's also common to see Buddhist prayer flags fluttering all over the mountain villages, up on top of steepest spine ridges, actually almost every where.


Here's another monastery on a steep ridge that we passed on our way to a more remote/devastated area.  Not a bad view from there hugh? This one was fortunate to have survived the earthquake.  However, many were devastated, or their supply trails cutoff because of the twin quakes. The monks and nuns who lived in those places were desperate for help. As we do in all disaster situations, MAF was helping to bring aid and relief and supplies to EVERYONE who desperately needed them, no matter who they are, what they believe, or how remote their location.


Switching gears again--this time to the city of Kathmandu itself.  When I first got there, just a few days after the first quake, it was eerily quiet for such a large city. I didn't realize at first, how many people had fled the city.  But slowly, as things got back to "normal" it became the bustling beehive of activity I had expected.  Truth be told, I didn't really get to spend much time looking around--only about two hours total, one afternoon, during the entire time I was there.  But it seemed to have a very unique feel for a large city, different than anywhere I've ever been before (and I've been to a lot of countries and cities). I really liked it--the shops, the good cheap food, the friendly people--it had more of a small town feel.  It definitely is a place that a foreigner could walk the streets and just enjoy the place and the people.  Some day I hope I can return.



On a side note, I just couldn't cease to be amazed at the electrical wiring in Kathmandu. I've never in my life seen so many wires going everywhere, and yet it somehow seemed to work.  I would hate to be an electrician in that city. How in the world would you ever make sense of all of that?...maybe just run another wire.  In fact, it looks like that's what they've done.  :-)  But the truth is, even after two massive quakes, the electricity there was still more reliable than it was during the 8 years we lived in Kalimantan, Indonesia.  Go figure.


So here's a few parting shots that focus on the great aspects of the lively city and the gorgeous countryside, rather than the destruction.  Hopefully they will entice you to plan a visit to Nepal sometime in the future. You won't be disappointed, and you'll be helping the local people, who are so desperately counting on tourists to soon return to their country.





Friday, June 19, 2015

On Behalf of Everyone in Nepal--Thank You!

Here's some pics from a morning when we dropped over 4 tonnes of relief supplies in Khunde, a remote village high in the Himalayas, not far from Mt. Everest.  This was just one of the two helicopters that we had flying each day, and this was just in the morning hours.  We were scheduling two helicopters to fly a combined total of 16-19 hours a day (8-10 hrs each) during those first weeks, so you can imagine the amount of people and villages we were able to help reach.  (Oh, and just so the safety folks don't worry--they had about six pilots trading off, each one only flying a few hours a day and then swapping out with the next guy. The pilots were actually really enjoying it.)


Brent and I had the rare opportunity to go along on the flight that morning to see the impact that the flights were having on the communities and to help unload the supplies. See the story at the end to read about that.  I think you'll find it encouraging.


The mountains are seemingly endless--what qualifies as foothills here would dwarf the tallest peaks in the American Rockies.  This photo was taken on the way to the region where we were flying that day--these were just tiny mountains compared to the ones to come.


As we got further from Kathmandu, and higher up, the haze vanished and the sky was a brilliant blue.  The rugged beauty of the massive mountain peaks belied the devastation of scores of villages on their lower slopes.


The relief supplies were transported several days before, by fixed-wing aircraft, to Lukla (just behind us, further down the valley and not visible in this photo) where there is a short strip carved into the side of a steep mountain. From there, the helicopter made numerous shuttles up this valley, to two village locations at the upper end.  The trail to Everest base camp goes right up this valley from Lukla. However many hanging bridges were out, and sections of the trail gone, due to landslides.


Here is Khunde, perched on a saddle nearly 14,000' feet high, surrounded by mountains well over 20,000' tall.  The trail you see crossing laterally from left to right, below the village, in the lower part of the photo, is the trail to Everest South Base Camp.  Khunde is where we delivered the bulk of the goods that day.


Just up the valley from Khunde, and clearly visible from the helicopter, Mt. Everest claims the title of the highest mountain in the world at 29,028’ (8,848m). In this photo it’s the peak at the top, center, with a long wisp of cloud lifting up and off to it’s right side.  Just in front of the visible Everest peak is the large, broad Mt. Nuptse, also a very high mountain, but without a distinct, single peak. To the right is Lhotse, a very famous mountain, connected directly to Everest and ranked the 4th highest mountain on earth at 27,939’ (8,516m).


Here's a few shots of the helicopter moving load after load of relief supplies into Khunde--what would have taken many, many days of hiking (even in normal conditions) was done in the span of a few hours by the AS350B helicopter.

Again, I'd recommend you read the story at the end of this post to see the impact this had on the people.




Many people helped offload the helicopter each time it landed. It took less than 90 seconds to offload nearly 1000 lbs of relief supplies each time. All of the women and children were there too, watching with big smiles on their faces. They were so, so thankful and their gratitude was bubbling over through their expressions.


Brent and I enjoyed the opportunity to be out of the office for a few hours and helping with the grunt work.



Heres some very happy villagers standing in front of an impressive and growing pile of relief supplies. These were going to be divided up among the most needy, some of them being put onto the backs of Yaks and Sherpas and taken even further up and out, into even smaller and more remote locations.


We were deeply humbled by the gestures of gratitude from the people. Again, please read the story at the end to find out more.


A few hours later we were back in the office, busily arranging more relief flights like the one we had just been on--these pictures and the story of these grateful people could be multiplied many hundreds of times over the weeks I was there.  It was such a blessing to be playing a small part in the effort to bring help and hope to the people who's lives were devastated by the twin earthquakes in Nepal.


Here is the final story I wrote just before I left:

ON BEHALF OF EVERYONE IN NEPAL—THANK YOU!
 Dave Forney, Pilot MAF-Uganda  (Currently in Nepal)

Throughout the relief efforts in Nepal, our MAF DR team has been very intentional about utilizing the maximum capacity of the helicopters to deliver the most aid and relief supplies possible on each flight.  Translation: we’ve spent 99% of our long working hours either in the office, or out on the ramp, not wanting to take away any valuable space, or weight, on any helicopter flight where food or other relief supplies could, or would, have otherwise ridden.  So, imagine my surprise when a few days ago there was a rare opportunity for two of us to join one of the relief flights to one of the most remote and rugged corners of Nepal, without negatively impacting the purpose/capacity of those flights.  

An unrelated, charted, helicopter flight heading to a nearby location, was able to carry the extra fuel required by our relief helicopter, which freed up space for us to ride along.  My good friends at Fishtail Air—the pilots and flight operations staff with whom I’ve been working so closely over the past few weeks—absolutely insisted that I join the flight.  They said, “This is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for. We want you to see, first-hand, the huge impact that the flights are having in these remote communities, and the reason why the helicopters are needed.  It is a very rugged area—the famous Everest region.  We normally do many flights at this time of year to fly trekkers into and out of this area. We know the people who live in these communities. They are friends of ours.  You are a friend of ours.  We are thankful for the help that you and MAF are providing, and we want you to meet these people, and see how thankful they are.  And also, this is one of the most beautiful parts of Nepal, and we want you, our friend, to see it with your own eyes.” 

Well, after trying to find other loading and/or people to join the flight, and making excuses of why I shouldn’t leave the office for that long, or be the one to take up a seat, it was clear that both my friends at Fishtail Air, and my MAF teammates would hear none of it.  They insisted I go, and take my camera along to document it all.  Also riding along was Brent Palmer, a fellow long-time MAF pilot in Indonesia, recently assigned to IT at HQ in the U.S.  Brent, like every other member of our DR team in Nepal, has been working tirelessly behind the scenes, in the office here in Kathmandu, to help make the hundreds of flights we’ve coordinated go off as smoothly as could be possible.  

What an opportunity it was!  Cpt. Deepak initially flew us up to a small town called Lukla, where many start their long trek to the South Everest Base Camp . Waiting there at the helipad were nearly four tons of relief supplies, all packed and ready to be delivered to two locations further up the valley.  From there, Cpt. Ashish picked us up in the second chopper and flew us a few minutes up the valley to one of those locations, a small village called Khunde.  Carved into the side of a massive mountain, it sits high above the junction of two deep valleys, one of which leads directly to Mount Everest, clearly visible in the distance.  Over the next few hours, Cpt. Deepak flew back and forth many times, tirelessly moving thousands of kilos of tarps, food and other supplies, one load to Mende, followed by seven to Khunde, where we were able to help offload the supplies into the hands of the waiting villagers. What would have taken many days of grueling effort to transport overland (and that’s in “normal” conditions before the many recent landslides), was moved in a matter of hours in the high-altitude-capable AS350 B3 helicopter.

To say that the people were thankful would be a huge understatement!  I lost track of how many people, or how many times we were thanked. Some expressed their gratitude through english words, while others used their local language—their words not being understood directly, but their meaning coming through loud and clear.  Some communicated simply through their smiles, laughs and uncontainable joy at seeing the relief supplies offloaded.  Still others showed their appreciation through continually offering us hot milk-tea and crackers—no doubt precious commodities in a place this remote, and at a time like this.  Their gratitude finally culminated in the presentation of a handful of decorative “gather” (scarves) placed over each of our necks by some of the elderly women in the village in an impromptu ceremony that one of the the locals translated for us. He explained the significance of the gifts and gesture—the women expressing their deep gratitude to us, and to MAF, for the help we were bringing to their communities.  

We were deeply moved by the whole experience.  After so many hours in the office helping to facilitate flights like this, it was so encouraging to see the results on the other end.  The deep gratitude of the people, though expressed directly to us, is a message that deservedly goes out to ALL of YOU who’ve played a part in making these relief flights possible, both here in Nepal and throughout the world.  The people told us again and again that they had exhausted all the “other options”. They had tried to get relief flights through other avenues.  In the end, they said “you were the only ones who would, or could, help.”  

Many hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed in that area. But even more worrying to the local people was the fact that landslides had cut off the supply routes overland via Sherpas and pack mules to these very high-altitude, remote communities.  Many of the supplies that were brought in that morning were going to be put onto the backs of both Sherpas and yaks, and taken into even more remote locations, and given to those who had yet to receive anything.  The sense of concern and desperation in the community, that was so palpable when we first arrived, had all but vanished by the time we left.

A few hours later, we were back in the MAF DR office, in Kathmandu, again working feverishly to facilitate more flights like the one we’d just been on.  And once again I was up till midnight trying to sort out the jigsaw puzzle that would become a workable, efficient flight schedule for the next day, and the next, and the next…  But I had a new energy and excitement, having seen first-hand both the impact that the flights are having, and the immense geographical barriers that necessitate flights such as this. 

And once again I was reminded of how I’m just one very small part of a huge team that’s making it all happen—from each member of the MAF Nepal DR team and our spouses/families to the MAF staff working tirelessly in our home programs and MAF offices around the world; from each member of the Fishtail Staff to the many members of the dozens of NGOs who are responding; from the financial donors who are helping to fund the operation to the many who are praying without ceasing—each is playing their part.  And it takes ALL of YOU to make it happen.  


So, on behalf of everyone here in Nepal, thank you for the part YOU are playing to make this possible.  The people of Nepal are forever grateful!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Teamwork in Nepal

Here's some more photos, (and at the end of this post another story I wrote a day or two before I left).  Below, a few of the MAF DR guys in front of one of the choppers.  Actually, this was a rare occasion when there were quite a few of us out on the ramp...usually most of us were working feverishly in an office.


We secured major funding from UKaid.  That, combined with the additional MAF and Helimission subsidies, allowed us to provide the helicopter relief flights at a very cheap rate for the NGOs. Below, MAF's Vaughn Woodward shakes hands with the UK Secretary at the Department for International Development, Justine Greening, after she rode on a flight.


We worked with Fishtail Air, a renowned local helicopter operator, well-known in the alpine climbing community for their expert helicopter operations at very high altitudes in the most rugged locations.  They hold several world records for high altitude ops, including the highest rescue ever done by a helicopter.  Below, one of their advertising posters--a picture taken of that very rescue off of the upper slopes of Mt. Everest.


I developed a lot of respect for, and became good friends with, a number of the Fishtail Air staff, including Capt. Ashish, below.


During the frantic weeks after the twin quakes, we helped coordinate hundreds of flights for many dozens of different NGOs, from big international ones to small local ones.  Below, Mountain Child prepares to depart on another flight into some of the most remote, and high-altitude locations--places where they were already doing awesome work prior to the quakes.


The above pics might give you the impression that I was out on the ramp a lot. In fact, I was almost never out there.  I spent 99% of my time in the office, helping to coordinate and facilitate all of the flights.  I wish we would have taken a photo during the initial two weeks, or the days after the May 12th quake. Our office was literally crammed with about 40 people at a time, all day, every day.  But I think we were just so busy that we never thought about a photo, or didn't have the time to take one.  These were taken after things became a bit more "routine".  As you can see, the process involved a lot of time looking at maps and working out details on the ground, in order to make everything as efficient and effective as possible.


These guys are Sherpas. They are hard core!  They were arranging flights to bring relief supplies to their communities, which were some of the most remote and hardest-hit.  One of these guys has summited Everest 11 times, but been on Everest summiting teams 28 times!  The other times, when he didn't summit?--that was because he was helping the "tourists" who couldn't make it for one reason or another, back down the mountain so they didn't die.


One of the agencies who was in our office almost every day arranging flights was the SDC (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation).  They often bought us Swiss chocolate, which we were all to happy to accept. :-)  This scene cracked me up, as they were laying out a complex flight plan on the big planning map, using little Swiss chocolates to mark various locations.


While most of us were in the office helping with the logistics of planning, we also had several guys assisting on the ground ops side of things out on the ramp.  Again, they developed a lot of respect for their counterparts at Fishtail Air, who did a great job putting in so many extra hours to help things run smoothly.


And just in case you forgot, here's a few reminders of why we were doing all of this:


Photo by Daniel Juzi

You can see that even though some communities used to have roads or trails via overland, almost all of them were wiped out by numerous landslides.  It will take many months, or even years in some cases, before all of the roads, trails, and bridges are fully repaired.  Scenes like this one were visible everywhere, the helicopters flew.  Literally hundreds and hundreds of landslides took out trails and roads all over that region of Nepal.

Photo by Daniel Juzi

After the second big quake on May 12th, many people in Kathmandu were afraid to sleep in buildings.  The parking lot in front of the hotel were we were staying, was full of people sleeping in the open, or under tarps.  Almost all of the public and private locations in the city, where there was an open patch of ground, (where a building couldn't fall on you) had people camping out there.


A few parting shots showing what we were doing, and for whom.



Here's the second story I mentioned:

TEAMWORK in NEPAL
Dave Forney, Pilot MAF-Uganda  (Currently in Nepal)

It’s been almost a month since I landed in Kathmandu, to assist MAF’s Disaster Response team in their relief efforts following the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25th.  It’s hard to remember any individual day since I arrived.  Working 7-days a week, often 18-20 hours a day during the first few weeks, and now “slowing” to around 12-14 hours a day, the time here seems to be one continuous blur of relentless, behind-the-scenes efforts to help as many people as possible in the most inaccessible communities. 

With major funding provided by UK Aid, and additional funding from MAF, and Helimission, we’ve been able to access, and provide huge subsidies for, two highly capable helicopters operated by Fishtail Air, a renowned local helicopter operator, equally interested in helping their suffering Nepali countryman, but without the experience in DR situations.  Working behind the scenes, we’re helping to coordinate and facilitate many hundreds of helicopter flights for dozens of NGO’s, both international and local, initially to provide rescue and aid in the aftermath of the twin earthquakes of April 25 and May 12, and now to provide ongoing relief to thousands of people in the most remote, and hardest hit regions of Nepal. 

In my “normal” role in MAF I serve as a pilot, formally in Indonesia, and now in Uganda.  But DR situations are very dynamic, and the most effective response teams are comprised of people willing and able to fill multiple roles.  In this case, our MAF Nepal DR team is comprised of a handful of people from a number of MAF programs around the world—each person with a “normal” function and set of skills appropriate to that role, back on their home program, but filling a wide range of positions here…whatever it takes to get the job done.

In this situation I have been specifically tasked with overseeing the scheduling of the aircraft.  We receive many times more flight requests than we could possibly meet in any given day.  As you can imagine, virtually every flight request is “urgent”.  Many are considered “critical” by the agency requesting the flight.  Trying to utilize the two rotor wing assets at our disposal to their absolute maximum potential, with so many requests that are constantly changing, to so many locations where a helicopter has yet to land, is like trying to put together a huge jigsaw puzzle, when the picture on the box is constantly changing. It’s complex and dynamic, and requires patience, flexibility, and especially good teamwork.

And that’s something that I’ve really seen and appreciated here—good teamwork. I’m proud of our small MAF Nepal DR team, and what God has helped us to accomplish with the resources available, and the prayers and backing of so many people around the world. The figures are absolutely astounding when you look at the number of kilos carried, communities served, flights made, and lives saved, and/or impacted, by the flights that we’ve helped to facilitate so far.  Anyone familiar with this type of flight operation, knowing the types of conditions we’re working in, and the dynamic nature of the situation, would be shocked to see the stats.  But it’s so much more than numbers.  It’s about the people. Our team here is putting in unbelievable hours, in often unseen roles, to help bring hope to thousands—most of whom will never even know who to thank.  But it’s those people who make it all worth it! 

Back to teamwork—our MAF Nepal DR team is so blessed to be working alongside Fishtail Air. From the CEO and Chairman, to the pilots, operations staff, and engineers, all the way down to the cleaning crews, the entire staff at Fishtail Air have been outstanding!  Every one of them, without exception, has gone the extra mile, again, and again, and again during the relief efforts.  Some of these have become good, personal friends of mine. A month ago we’d never met. We come from opposite sides of the world—from different cultures, different native languages, different faiths.  Yet, working closely together over many long hours in the cauldron of high-intensity disaster response, friendships often form quickly… or the opposite can happen. In this case I’m so glad to say that the MAF team, and the Fishtail Air team, have worked splendidly together, and in the process developed both mutual respect and solid friendships along the way.  It has been nothing, if not an honor, to work with such a dedicated staff,  who are equally committed to helping those that are desperately in need, and thankful for the coordination that MAF is providing within the massive NGO community here.


Soon, my five-week assignment to Nepal will come to an end. I’m looking forward to seeing my beautiful/amazing wife and kids again!  And before I know it I’ll be returning to life as a pilot in MAF’s Uganda program, half a world away. Others have already started to arrive here from MAF programs around the world, ready to swap out the initial MAF DR response team, our bodies weary from weeks of non-stop work, but our hearts filled with joy at the lives saved, people helped, and friendships forged.  Will I be back some day? I hope so, but only God knows.  What I do know is that I will always leave a part of my heart behind here in Nepal.  In the short time that I’ve been here, I’ve grown to love and appreciate the Nepalese people, and their beautiful country.  They are a kind, generous, compassionate, and determined people, and wherever I am in the world, my heart and prayers will always be with them—my new friends in Nepal, both those I’ve worked alongside, and those whom we’ve served together in a time of great need.