Posts tagged ‘Nepal’

August 31, 2015

Final Construction Handbook

After returning back from Nepal I spent about three weeks working half-days to finish up the final document to provide to our partner Tearfund UK. There were several changes to be made based on their feedback that included drawing the stone with rubble infill more accurately, providing alternative wood details in the place of concrete and steel, preparing a one page poster that summarizes the information for homeowners, and preparing versions of both documents with no text so that they could later create a Napali version. The handbook is too large to include here, but I have attached the poster below. The techniques are summarized into six key points: (1) build with a strong foundation; (2) use horizontal reinforcement (ring bands at the foundation, lintel, and roof); (3) use vertical reinforcement (tie the foundation to the walls and to the roof); (4) connect the floor system to the walls; (5) provide junction and through stones to connect the walls together, and; (6) provide a gable that is wood instead of stone. The proposed techniques offer a hybrid solution that works with existing building methods in the region so that people can rebuild fairly independently and move back into homes as soon as possible. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to witness Napali architecture and way of life, and learn more about building in stone!


August 15, 2015

Elisabeth and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Air Travel Experience

So I have to share this story because after the fact I can’t help but laugh about it and want to remember what happened. It all started when I was packing my carry-on suitcase at my parents house before leaving for Nepal. They both warned me that my suitcase might be too heavy. I shrugged them off because I had flown many times, and no one ever weighed my carry-on. Off I went on my journey from Toronto to Chicago, to Abu Dhabi, and finally Kathmandu. Everything went smoothly until I got to Chicago. Yup, all of my problems occurred in the US. I arrived very early to my gate because I had a five hour layover. They were asking everyone to go up to the desk to verify peoples’ passports. This is where I made my only mistake…. I went up to the desk…. early. I should have known that the clerks would be bored and would target me. They weighed my bag and low and behold it was almost double the meager 7kg limit. They told me I would have to check it for an additional fee. Luckily I knew I was allowed two checked bags (I’m sure they wouldn’t have informed me of this if I didn’t know). I asked them to please please reconsider because I was going to be doing disaster response and could not afford to loose the bag. The male clerk responded by saying that it would not get lost. I asked how he could be so sure. I transferred a few necessities from the suitcase into my purse, and grudgingly let them take it. Then I got to sit back down and watch bitterly as the gate got busier and they didn’t weigh anyone else’s bags that were certainly just as heavy as mine. Then I got on the plane to discover that the flight was far from full!

Fast-forward to Kathmandu. There we were waiting at the baggage carousel and, low and behold, my carry-on suitcase was nowhere to be found! The following week was a lesson in patience and willingness to ask others for help and accept their generosity. Since the baggage claim folks in Kathmandu weren’t being very helpful, I called Abu Dhabi and, after a half hour of listening to the “sparkly” Etihad theme song, I finally got through and located my bag, which for some reason had not been loaded in Abu Dhabi. Even though it arrived in three days, I didn’t get it until a week later since we were away in Makwanpur for the field research. I borrowed shampoo, soap, hiking boots, a rain coat, a notebook, phone charger, and some drafting stuff!

The rest of the trip went smoothly but on the journey home I had another, far worse experience. I think that I had food poisoning from something I ate on the first flight from Kathmandu to Abu Dhabi. In Abu Dhabi I was feeling queasy, but since we were flying to the US, instead of having time to rest we had to go through US customs and then a long line of security (if I had been flying to Toronto I would have avoided all of that). What made it worse was that there was no washroom near the customs and security queue. I had to walk 300 meters to get to a bathroom and then by the time I was back at the line I needed to go again. I’m glad that my colleague Dan had gone ahead of me in line at that point. I knew I was going to be sick soon and so I asked a nearby attendant if I could fast track through security some how. She said I had to go back to the far washroom. I didn’t have that much time. A few minutes later I puked on the ground in the customs line. I felt better for a little while and so kept going, but then puked again right before putting my suitcase on the security conveyor belt. It was so embarrassing! An attendant at security wanted to direct me back to the far washroom but I put my foot down and told him I had come all this way and I was going to go through security and go to the washroom that was immediately on the other side! After that I felt okay again. I didn’t feel bad at all about the mess because they deserved it for the poor airport design! Luckily I had some water tablets so that I could rehydrate myself. They wanted me to wait until a medical team came and checked me out, but no one came and so I left for the gate. Later at the gate the same attendant was there and he held my passport because he wanted me checked out before getting on the plane! The medical team was apparently too busy (I think there were other cases of people being sick) and so eventually they let me go after I told them it had been two hours since I was sick and I was able to hold down water. I’m so thankful they let me on the plane; I’m not sure what I would have done otherwise!

I stuck to bread and crackers on the following flight and was fine. The next problem that arose was that I had a bout of restless leg syndrome that I get on rare occasions, usually because of low iron levels. I had never had it on a plane before though and it was horrible. I could not sit still for the life of me and so for the next sixteen hours I was shifting positions, doing stretches in my seat, standing up and walking up and down the aisle, and going to the lavatory for the sole purpose of doing squats. I am usually a big fan of window seats, but I am so thankful that I was on the aisle and had no one sitting next to me! Because of my restless legs I couldn’t sleep even though I was completely exhausted. It was the worst flight and longest 16 hours I have ever experienced!

Finally we arrived in Chicago, and upon exiting the plane, who was giving directions for transfers but the same attendant who made me check my carry-on thirteen days prior. I wasn’t going to say anything, but he recognized me and asked how the trip went. I told him that my carry-on did not arrive and he said he was so sorry. As we walked away, Dan and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Dan commented on how this was the moment of closure for the whole saga. I am thankful that despite the terrible air travel experience, I made it to and from Nepal safely. This experience gets to be added to my suite of memorable travel stories!

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August 6, 2015

Final Days in Nepal

The final days in Nepal were a bit of a blur as we switched into deadline mode to produce a draft of the training guide to present before we left. I hand-drew all of the drawings, scanned them, and then added the text and dimensions in InDesign. It was fun to draw by hand after so long! It also allowed me to produce the drawings fairly quickly. I drew mostly in isometric so that people unfamiliar with technical drawings would be able to understand the details. On Wednesday afternoon we presented, and that same evening we caught our flight home. Photograph of table covered in drawings

Team photo on the roof of Tearfund HQ: Howard, Dan, and myself

August 5, 2015

Patan Durbar Square

On Sunday we took a day off. In the morning we went to the same international church we had gone to the week before. During the service, a Napali pastor came and shared about a ministry for the blind, and a group of blind people performed traditional Napali music for the congregation. For the first two songs they played a harmonium (like an accordion but set on the floor) in a style I’ve never heard played before, and for the final song played a traditional stringed instrument called a Sarangi. The music was beautiful!

In the afternoon we grabbed lunch and then went to see a few sights and do some shopping.  Ben generously offered to be our tour guide! We chose to go and see Patan Durbar Square and then go to the Thamel district. Patan Durbar Square is at the centre of Lalitpur city, one of the three kingdoms that were situated in the Kathmandu valley. The square is full of Newa architecture, which is an indigenous style of building used by the Newari people in that region. The style is marked by intricate brickwork and wood carvings and is typical only to Nepal. I haven’t seen such beautiful architectural scale carvings in my life! Some of the temples had a similar style and then others were in what is known as Shikhara style and built out of stone. Two of the temples had completely collapsed during the earthquake, and the others were significantly damaged. There is also a palace in the square that was converted into a museum. Inside the courtyard there were a collection of carved windows and brackets that came from the collapsed temples and other buildings. We went to a cafe that had a rooftop terrace where we could sit and look over the square. Afterwards we walked some of the backstreets. I was kind of amazed by how many shops there were that sold all of the same brass plated hindu and buddhist statues and other symbology and wondered out how they all stayed in business! The streets were narrow and other temples could be found on street corners. Many of the buildings had the same style of carved windows, doors, lattices, and large overhands with carved brackets.

After wandering around the backstreets we grabbed a taxi to the Thamel district. It is the tourist shopping area and is an interesting mix of mountain equipment, souvenir, and clothing shops. Howard bought a small “khukuri” knife that is a type of knife still used by the Gurkha regiments in Nepal and around the world. I found myself a lapel pin of the Nepali flag to add to my collection. We went on a bit of a goose chase wandering through town to find a square by a fountain were Ben remembered a group of merchants sold yak wool blankets. We asked for directions a few times and were led a little astray, but I didn’t mind one bit because we entered a neighbourhood that seemed to be the hub of local activity. The streets were so narrow and there were so many people in this area that few cars passed through. We did find the square in the end and I bought a yak wool shawl. I also came across a wonderful shop that sold paper of all kinds. I bought several large sheets that included plain paper, traditional stamped patterns, leaf prints, and embedded flowers. I think the total I spent on all of the sheets was the equivalent of $3.50. I was hoping to find carved wood window frames or the traditional trousers that the Nepali women wear, but unfortunately we ran out of time and I don’t think the guys were as interested in shopping as I was! We had experienced so much in just one afternoon! I hope that there will be another opportunity for me to visit Nepal and have some time to explore Kathmandu and the surrounding region. The textures and historical layers and surprises reminded me somewhat of Rome. I could spend weeks walking the streets of Kathmandu and taking in the architecture, culture, and general activity! IMG_1554








July 29, 2015


Above the cloudsOn the fourth day of the trip it was time to split up with the engineers for a time. I went back to Kathmandu to get a head start on the drawings while they went to a region called Dhading to do market research and look at more houses. On the drive back it was still quite cloudy and we got a magnificent view of clouds gathering above and below us. So even though I didn’t get a glimpse of the Himalayas on this trip because in monsoon season it is rarely clear enough, I was put in awe by the clouds. As we got closer to Kathmandu the drive felt a bit like a video game as we cut in and out to pass large, slow moving trucks on the twisty road. Back at Tearfund headquarters I put together a makeshift desk and began producing rough drafts of the drawings. It was fun to hand draw after such a long time!


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July 28, 2015

Day 4: Agra

On our third and final day in the field we visited a region called Agra. This time we were a bigger group because Rita, Tearfund’s new shelter advisor, joined us. It was another journey down a narrow, bumpy, and curvy road. On our way there we drove into a cloud. While we walked around the sun would occasionally find its way through, but for most of our visit we remained inside the fog. At times it gave an eery feeling to the surroundings, especially when we came upon the ruins of a house. Once again we were welcomed by the people we met. The people kept wanting us to go further to see more houses, and eventually I think half the village were following us down the hillside!


Photograph of villagers following the team down the hill

Photo by Ben Keenan

We left early from the field because the wind started to pick up and the fog was getting wet. It was possible that rain could create bad road conditions. Getting back to Palung early afforded us some time to develop the list of drawings we thought needed to be included in the manual. It was a challenge to stay within our original scope so that we could accomplish the work in the week we had left!

Photograph of EMI team working at the hotel upon returning to Palung

Photo by Ben Keenan

New experiences:

– I ate a peach and pieces of pear (naspati: it tasted like a cross between an apple and a pear) that were offered to us by some of the villagers. Even though I knew I might regret it later, I decided to accept and eat them. Lo and behold I had some indigestion later on as a result.

– I learned how to say thank you in Napali, which is “Dahn-ya-bahd”. The group quickly came across a great way to remember how to say it: “Dan ya bad”. Dan wasn’t such a fan of this discovery and we would jokingly remind him of it for the rest of the trip!

July 26, 2015

Day 3: Tistung

The following day we headed out to Tistung, another region where Tearfund has beneficiaries. This region was a bit more out of the way and we needed to take a narrow dirt road that wound up the foothills. In some areas the houses showed significant cracking and so even though they were still standing, people were not living in them since another earthquake could bring them down. In other areas the houses were completely collapsed, probably because the forces of the earthquake were greater in those areas. The people we met were very welcoming and eager to show us their homes and share their stories. We found out that the earthquake actually happened during the day on a Saturday which was probably the best possible time since most people were not in their homes. We began taking note of common characteristics across the traditional houses that would inform the training guide. On our way back to Palung we stopped to see a waterfall and a small footbridge that were near the road. We encountered a woman shepherding a herd of goats across the bridge.

All of the houses are built on the hillside

All of the houses are built on the hillside

Proof that the guys were working very hard! On this house the outside wythe delaminated from the inside, something that through stones would help to prevent

Proof that the guys were working very hard! On this house the outside wythe delaminated from the inside, something that through stones would help to prevent

An image that shows how life goes on in the midst of calamity

An image that shows how life goes on in the midst of calamity

Photo by Ben Keenan

Photo by Ben Keenan


July 17, 2015

Day 2: Palung


Early in the morning on our second day we left Kathmandu and drove three hours south-west to a town called Palung. After getting out of the bad Kathmandu air the drive was very nice. The road curved out of the valley and twisted and turned through the foothills offering amazing views of the tree-covered hills and stepped farm terraces. On the way there we stopped at a cluster of houses on the roadside to begin our task of studying how they were originally designed, how they failed structurally, and what peoples’ plans are for rebuilding. The destruction was hard to see. We learned quickly that people are fearful of rebuilding with stone. It is unfortunate since stone homes can be earthquake resistant if built properly. Stone is also a free material, people have a large amount of experience building with it, and it is also suitable to the Nepal climate. People are considering building out of timber and corrugated metal sheets for the roof and walls, but it would do little to protect against the elements and would probably only last a year or two. Tearfund has quite the task ahead of educating the builders and homeowners about the improvements that can be made to stone masonry construction. The goal for our team will be to make the manual as comprehensive as possible and communicate the key elements of the building that need be addressed.

House that second story was being rebuilt out of wood

House that second story was being rebuilt out of wood

New experiences:

– I came across a gigantic cockroach in my hotel room.

– In Palung we had the traditional Napali cuisine of rice and dal (lentil soup). It was delicious and very spicy!

Rice and dal

Rice and dal

View of Palung from the Shankar Hotel

View of Palung from the Shankar Hotel

July 15, 2015

Disaster Response

I can hardly believe that I am writing this post from Nepal. I arrived late Saturday night after a long flight with stopovers in Chicago and Abu Dhabi. If you asked me a month ago what I would be doing in mid-July, this would not have been my guess. The opportunity came last-minute when I received an e-mail from Engineering Ministries International (EMI), an organization I have worked with in the past, calling for volunteers for a Disaster Response (DR) trip to Nepal. I was on the DR e-mail list because I did DR training at EMI’s ACDP Conference (Association for Christian Design Professionals) back in 2012. Since I had finished school, I decided to respond with my availability. I flew out two weeks after finding out I would be going on the trip. During those two weeks I did a lot of research into stone masonry construction. I am in a team with a project leader and structural engineer to propose improved construction methods for a housing rebuilding project that is being implemented by an organization called Tearfund. The issue that we are addressing is that people are already starting to rebuild their homes, but are often using the same methods as before. We intend to propose very simple solutions that work with their current methods to make their homes more earthquake resistant. We will develop a manual that will be provided in training to local builders and homeowners.

We spent Sunday in Kathmandu at the Tearfund headquarters. We went to an international church in the morning (apparently Nepali Christians worship on Saturday) and then met in the afternoon with the Tearfund representatives to plan out the next several days. On Monday morning we drove three hours to the Makwanpur region where we are spending a few days to study materials, costs, current building methods, and where the houses failed. Please continue to pray for safe travels, good health, and effective work and interactions. I pray that even though we are doing very physical work and won’t have time to develop deep relationships, that through our actions people will experience God’s grace. I look forward to updating you on how the trip goes! If you are interested in learning more about EMI or supporting them, check out their disaster response page on their main website.

View of Kathmandu on the drive out of the city

View of Kathmandu on the drive out of the city