HELP OR DIE : THE NEPAL EARTHQUAKE RELIEF JOURNALS
DAY THIRTY SEVEN: THE FUTILITY/ WHEELBARROWS/ DIFFICULT PEOPLE.
It had been 4 days and we were still at the school site. It was slow going because the site was so huge. Also, there wasn’t enough space for us to put all the rocks. The rocks had built up to a fairly high mound at the bottom of the site and then slowly spread towards us, yet we had only cleared half the site so far. Meanwhile the rubble pile had slowly overtaken it’s designated boundaries and was now blocking a path the villagers used to transport goods as well as choking the buttress roots of a huge bodhi tree that the locals worshipped as a nature god. We needed to find a new dumping area. We located the beneficiary, an old lady farmer who lived by the site.
‘Didi, can we put rocks over there?’ I said, picking up a rock and pointing to a free area nearby.
‘Hajur.’ She replied, wobbling her head.
I didn’t know what the word ‘Hajur’ meant and I still didn’t know what the head wobble meant either. From what I could gather the head wobble could mean anything, depending on the context. I looked up ‘Hajur’ in the Nepalese phrasebook I had in the hope that it would shine some light on the situation. It meant ‘sir’.
‘Okay… Sir… Hmm that doesn’t clear anything up.’
‘Hajur.’ She replied once more, wobbling her head.
‘So is that a yes or a no?’
‘Hajur.’ She replied once more, wobbling her head.
‘Ummm okay well uhh what about there?’ I asked pointing to another area.
‘Hajur.’ She replied, wobbling her head.
‘Good to know, good to know… What about the rubble, can we put that over there?’ I asked, picking up some rubble and pointing to another corner of the site.
‘Hajur.’ She replied once more, wobbling her head from side to side ambiguously.
‘Is that a yes or a no?’
‘Hajur’ She replied once more, wobbling her head.
I realized then that if I could probably say anything, there was a good chance she’d keep wobbling her head in response. I decided to test the theory.
‘What about ducks? What should we feed ducks to get their plumage bright and shiny?’
‘Hajur.’ She said, wobbling her head.
‘And what time will the cruiseliner come to pick us up to go to Hawaii?’
‘Hajur.’ She said, wobbling her head. The rapid pace of my questions meant she never stopped wobbling her head, each wobble growing wider in radius and faster in velocity than the last. I was suddenly struck by the fear that her head might snap off her neck and roll into the bushes, never to be found again. I decided to stop.
‘Alright guys…I know it’s the fourth day and we aren’t even half way through but look… Uhh… We gotta… Do it I guess.’ I said, my rousing call to arms having no visible effect on my charges. Over the last few days, through my own terrific intellectual insight I had worked out the key to being an adequate Team leader: Just let everyone do what they wanted to do, in the way they wanted to do it, as long as they got results. But it didn’t seem to be enough. We had been in Melamchi now for 12 days and things had begun to fall apart. Everyone on the rubble team was slowly going crazy, mostly from the exhaustion brought on by a combination of various illnesses, the heat, the hard manual labour and the sheer unending amount of rocks and rubble that we had to clear. You would clear one wheelbarrow after another and it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to the pile. You cleared one room and before the feeling of accomplishment could settle in, you would look over and see the room next to it full of more rubble and more rocks. And it wasn’t just within the site. It was the growing realization that once one site ended, there would be another site waiting for us, bigger and harder than the last one and then another and then another and so on and so on into infinite.
My bones throbbed as if I had a fever, my vision flickered in and out of focus and my grip was weak. Every wheelbarrow I was barely able to take, every feeble shovel scrape, every half-dead pick swing was purely out of the fear of being labeled in Bull’s words, a softcock, but after a while I was too tired to even give a shit about that.
Truva, Shooked and Bull were the engine of the team, working at a pace that left most of us in the dust. They had been working with Many Feet on the Phillipines project previous to this so were in top form. But even they too were losing it.
Wheelbarrows were a major source of conflict. I don’t know how it started but Bull, Truva and Shooked began to wrestle each other over the wheelbarrows, almost getting into fistfights over who should take it.
‘That’s my wheelbarrow!’ Yelled Truva, as Bull tried to wrestle it off of him.
‘It’s my fucking wheelbarrow! I ain’t no soft cock! We ride together, we die together!’ Bull would counter, fending off Truva with one arm while grabbing at the barrow with the other.
‘Give it to me.’ Shooked would interrupt, joining the fray, grabbing a handle and trying to drag it away from the other two. And whoever won the battle to take the wheelbarrow in the end, before they could leave, one of the others would then find the biggest, heaviest, nastiest rock and plop it on top with a shit eating grin. And this was repeated with every wheelbarrow, the same weird game. Who got to take the wheelbarrow, loaded heavy with rocks up to double the height of the wheelbarrow, like it was some rare pleasure to enjoy. It was not. The wheelbarrows sucked major ass. It was a true test of will and personal power, to precariously guide a rickety steel basket of rocks, weighing as much as yourself or more, down a precipitous, uneven dirt and rock terrain, up an unstable rock ramp to the dumping spot repeatedly, all day long. Sometimes you would just get away with it, narrowly missing out on tipping it over by a mere flea length and you would feel you’d won a contest with no prize. Other times, you would topple over, taking yourself down with it. What could you say? Wheelbarrows sucked major ass.
That’s why it didn’t seem to make much sense that Truva, Shooked and Bull were fighting over the right to run this gauntlet of death in the heat, through the tiredness, over the uneven rocks, again and again and again and again and again. But it was fine by me. Every time I tried to take a wheelbarrow, they would descend on me like vultures upon fresh carrion.
‘Give it to me you softcock. I’ll take it.’ Demanded Bull.
‘No I’ll take it!’ Truva would argue.
‘Fuck off. It’s mine.’ Shooked would join in.
‘No, no, okay you take it.’ I’d concede, walking away and leaving it to one of them to take.
‘You fucking softcock.’ Bull would declare.
‘Yep.’ I’d concede.
Again, I don’t know how it started but Bull, Truva and Shooked, everytime they were about to go up one of the ramps would make the sound of an engine revving and then shout in a loud voice,
‘I’M A FERRARI!! VROOM VROOM!’ Before hurtling up the ramp to dump their load at the end while making more loud car noises. What could you say? They were losing it too. We all were.
Maran on the other hand refused to take the wheelbarrows. Not that I minded, it was just the way she did it.
‘Hey you big, strong, sexy man, come take this wheelbarrow.’ She’d say to me. ‘Hey you weak, helpless, oppressed waif, you’re an insult to feminism.’ I’d reply.
Maran had in general, begun to grate on everyone. Everyone else on the team was cool. But all it takes is one turd to stink up the whole joint, and Maran hung in the air like a thick stench slowly poisoning everything. As we continued through the mirage of days, most of us had less energy to pretend to be nice to her, her constant demands and complaints wearing everyone down. Maran had a good heart and meant well, but she was a high-maintenance princess, whining about everything- the rain, the dirt, the heat, the insects, cigarette smoke, the hard work, my sweaty arm touching hers in the jeep, everything that we had been warned about and signed up for. Not to say that we didn’t complain, but there was a certain vocal tone to her complaints that when you heard them, made you not want to listen to her out of fear that you might lose your self-restraint and brain her with a rock to shut her up for once.
Maran wasn’t a bad person by any stretch, she was just a walking compendium of social behavioural defects. She didn’t mean to, but she just rubbed people up the wrong way. For example, she was one of those people who liked to tell you how to do something she herself couldn’t do.
‘Dick, I’ve been watching you and when you pick, and you use too much energy.’ She said to me that day. At first I thought maybe she knew what she was talking about but when I watched her pick, she resembled like a senile old woman scraping the ground with a spatula while making weird squeaky ‘Eh eh eh’ noises like a battered mouse.
She was also the kind of person who loved to criticize people but was unable to take criticism herself. The third day on site she had told me how bad the scrunchie I was using to tie my hair looked on me.
‘Dick, do you realize how awful your scrunchie looks? Look at it!’ She said, taking a photo of the back of my head and then showing it to me like I would give a shit.
‘Does this look like a catwalk to you?’ I said pointing to the rubble and rocks everywhere.
‘Are we supermodels here? Because I know I’m no supermodel but neither are you.’ I snapped. Maran walked off in a huff to brood in the shade.
I theorized that perhaps she had been sent to test my Buddhist philosophies.
‘Must pretend to love everyone.’ I tried to remember every time she said something to me.
Things came to a head later that day when Bull accidentally spilt some dirt from his shovel onto her shoe.
‘Eeuuhhh… You put dirt onto my foot! How dare you do that!’ She exclaimed angrily.
‘It was an accident.We are in a rubble site in a disaster area shoveling dirt. Things like this happen.’ Bull explained curtly. They didn’t really like each other.
‘Well, I think you could be a bit more careful next time.
‘Well don’t stand right in front of me when I’m fucking shovelling!’
‘Bull, you obviously have some kind of anger problem here.’
‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’
‘See what I mean? You’re very aggressive. You know Bull, I think we might need to talk about this.’
‘No! What is there to talk about?’
‘Well I think maybe you need to be a bit more sensitive.’
‘Maybe I do, or maybe you’re a bit too fucking sensitive and you need to get over yourself. Did you ever think of that?’ Bull snapped. Maran stared at him with her big wet eyes and began to weep silently. She then quietly walked over to the shade of a large tree where she sat down to sulk for half an hour, feeling her feelings deeply while the rest of us worked.
She was due to return to Kathmandu at the end of the week but at the last moment had changed her mind to stay on another week. This was going to make things very difficult. I thought about the week ahead and the kind of constant conflict I would have to mediate between Maran and Bull — who now were no longer officially facebook friends — and Maran and everyone else. It was only going to get worse.
After lunch, Maran again approached me to take her wheelbarrows with her usual sexist demand.
‘Hey you big, strong, sexy man, come take this wheelbarrow for me.’
‘You know Maran, you frightened, objectified, inferior woman, if you don’t take wheelbarrows, that means the rest of us have to pick up your slack and then we have to take more of them, and then we all get more tired, quicker. If you believed at all in the principles of equality, you would start doing your share of wheelbarrowing. You don’t have to take full ones, just take half ones.’
‘But I can’t. I have metal in my back.’
‘What? Like an android?’
‘I have three collapsed vertebrae from a car accident. All this work that I’m doing is damaging me.’
‘You have metal in your back and you signed up to do rubble in Malemchi for three weeks? You do realize it’s basically heavy lifting eight hours a day, six days a week don’t you?’
‘I just want to help.’ She sniffed.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I have been.’ It was true. She was constantly whining about how much her back hurt whenever she did pretty much anything. I just hadn’t realized because I’d stopped listening to anything she had been saying several days back, tuning out the sound of her voice and replacing it with relaxing elevator music instead. Even when she was talking directly to me, I would just nod and say uh huh, staring at her mouth move but hearing nothing but smooth jazz and the sound of waterfalls somewhere in Hawaii.
‘Bad back huh?’ I smiled to myself. Another week on rubble with her was going to be unbearable, but there was no way I could ask her to leave on the basis of her personality. In a perfect world that would be ideal, to just like walk up to her and say, ‘Hey Maran, we all had a chat and we came to the conclusion that we are all statistically happier when you aren’t around.’ but it would cause too many political problems back on base. But with newfound knowledge of her medical problem, I now had some rational reasons to use as leverage that would also help me pretend like I was asking her to leave because I cared for her personal safety.
‘Maran. Listen. As team leader, I’m very worried about having someone with a serious back injury lifting heavy rocks all day on my team.’ I lied.
‘If something bad happens to you, I will feel personally responsible for it.’ I lied again.
Wow this is some good bullshit im saying right now. I thought to myself.
‘I just don’t think I would be a good team leader if I was to let you keep injuring yourself like this. Do you really think it’s a good idea to stay on another week to do more heavy lifting in your condition?’ Maran’s huge wet eyes slowly grew huger and wetter and eventually began to weep.
‘I mean we all want to help out and I admire your courage, but back injuries are serious problems.’
‘I know, I know… Last time I did some volunteer work in Iceland and it really messed my back up for months afterwards.’ She conceded.
‘Really?’ I said, spotting more potential evidence for my case, while trying to not look into her weeping eyes. Maran had the kind of eyes you couldn’t bear to look at out of the fear that they would suck you in like twin black holes and drain you of your life force, only to spit you out again a hollow eyed zombie left to wander the lands for the rest of time, looking for something that didn’t exist, to sate a hunger that would never leave you.
‘Please don’t stare at me like that it fucken freaks me out — wait up — so you have already done volunteer work in Iceland that messed up your back?’
‘Yes. I had to see a physiotherapist for a long time after that.’
‘Well, look it’s your call but in the end, your back is pretty important thing. I mean I’m no medical anatomist but the back is that thing that holds all your arms and legs and head together in the same place.’
‘I know, I know.’ She said, looking up at me and crying.
‘If you don’t have a back, with nothing to hold everything together, all your arms and legs and head might drop off and it will be very difficult to put you back together again. I assume you have heard that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ nursery rhyme yeah?’ Maran nodded, blowing her nose on a tissue.
‘Exactly. People might mistake you for a doormat and might try and wipe their feet on your limbless torso. Is that what you want?’ Maran shook her head and wiped her eyes dry.
‘Please don’t take this the wrong way. It’s not that we don’t want you here, it’s just that we don’t want you to injure yourself.’ I lied.
‘With your back, all it takes is one wrong move and boom… Your legs will peel off like banana skins and you may never walk again.’ A little bit of fear to finish it off. I thought.
‘Yes… I know… I know the risks…’ Maran said, staring at the clouds and fanning her neck with her hand as her body wracked with gentle sobs.
‘We all want to help, but sometimes the biggest help is to not help.’ I said.