Special Report

Letters From Rajkot

Allen has asked that I post these emails from him here.  He says that they are "written on the fly to be timely, but also crude".  So they are edited for grammar and spelling, as he has asked, but not for content.

January 27


My report was out of date before I sent it, I guess. From the original 160 dead, I understand that they are now talking about 100,000. From my original perspective, I had no idea how bad it wasit wasn't bad where I was.

I spent today at the Shri Ramakrishna Ashram helping to put together food packages. The Ashram sends busloads (five today) of food and clothes and other stuff to the most heavily affected areas each day.

It is still hard to find an internet cafe with a connection, so my communications may be sporadic.

Take care,


January 30

Hi Gang

Just a note to let you know what is happening. Things seem back to normal around Rajkot. I have had trouble getting phone lines and internet connections since the quake, but the internet now (today) seems back to normal.

Since Sunday, I have been spending my days at Shri Ramakrishna Ashram, mostly putting together food packets production-line style. Sheela asked what goes into the packets and I'll do a bad job of answering because I don't know most of the names. We use 6"x8" plastic bags and fill them with, for example, dry snack stuff (puffed rice, sticks of some kind of dough like shoestring potatoes, but not potato, a few cookies, a piece of stuff like fudge called "sucree" (sweets). Some packets, instead of dry stuff, will have a handful of yellow peas in a sweet sauce. Some have Chapaties (or Gujarati equivalent). Much of this food is still warm when packed, made by women in local schools, etc. We also get buns, bread, and other miscellaneous items donated by individuals in small quantities.

The cafeteria has been turned over to the operation, and large baking pans (perhaps 3 feet by 5 feet) are placed on the floor and filled with food. We put some into a bag and pass the bag to the next group, which adds their next item from the next big pan. The last guy staples the bag shut and they are stacked in big sacks, usually 40 to the sack.

In the course of a day, we fill several rooms with these bags, and the next morning they are loaded on the buses along with water, warm clothing, blankets, medicine, and other stuff. I think that five buses per day is typical, with two headed to Bhujthe epicenter of the quakeand the others to hard-hit areas nearby.

I spent about five minutes today with one of the volunteers who had gone to Bhuj on the bus earlier and I asked what it was like. He said that in Bhuj there are almost no buildings left standing. People are camped in the streets. They are still digging people out. Bodies are being burned without the proper Hindu ceremony because there are too many bodies and the danger of disease is too great.

The nights are cold and the survivors sleep little because they are cold. Afternoons are hot, and they suffer from lack of water. The bus will arrive in a neighborhood and set up. They form a line with one member of each family who requests what his family needs, accepts it, and signs for it. They have had trouble with disorderly people, and actually had to flee one area with the bus being chased by unhappy people. They were afraid that the bus might be stoned, or they might be overrun. I'm told that the buses carry armed guards because, in earlier disasters, they have had buses attacked and robbed by highway bandits (This turned out not to be true of Ramakrishna Ashram buses)..

They have posted pictures from Bhuj on a bulletin board at the Ashram. It looks pretty bad to me, with some buildings squashed flat, others lying on their side.

On the last couple of days, I've gotten to the Ashram at 7 or 7:30 and cleaned the food area. At around 8 or 8:30, we start passing the bags of food out to the buses bucket-brigade style for the day's runs. At around 9, the production line starts with kids from the Ashram school. Later in the day, local men take over the line. There is also another line staffed by women, and much of the food is prepared by women volunteers. I have lunch at the Ashram, and we continue packing. I've been going back to Jikaka's at 8PM, and the line is still going strong.

I had lunch yesterday sitting on a chair in a room with other guests and some of the Ashram staff. Today, I ate with the boys sitting on the floor. We ate from dishes formed from leaves, and several guys go around with buckets of food and ladle some on each plate. No silverware, so I tried to master the art of eating soup with my fingers using rice as a sponge.

My rear end is sore from sitting on the floor, so now I sit on a low stool on the production linebetter for the rear, but hard on the back, since everything is on the floor. My feet are sore from walking barefoot on dropped food pieces that stick to my feet. By 8PM I'm dead tired. I eat supper with Jikaka and go right to bed.

I'm the only foreigner on the line, so everyone knows me. They have started calling me "uncle" or "grandfather", and I was interviewed by a local TV station for an outsider's impression.

We were visited by two Swedish teachers who wanted to volunteer themselves and their students. Yesterday, the whole group came and got a tour, but was told that they couldn't use any more volunteers, so I'm still the only non-Indian, as far as I know.

My line stopped at 3PM today for one hour because we were missing one food item, and it's time for me to get back to work.

I hope that everyone is doing well, and I'll try to keep in touch.


January 31

After writing the last email, I returned to the Shri Ramakrishna Ashram and the food line until it shut down for good in the early evening. The information from the returning field crews was that people did not want a few cold mealsthey wanted bulk raw food so that they could cook their own meals. I moved to a different building where bags containing 13 items, including sugar, cooking oil, and a warm shirt, were being put together and helped there for a while.

At 9AM this morning, I left with a convoy of four buses headed for Wankaner, about 40 kilometers north of Rajkot. When we reached Wankaner, we took on a local guide and headed for the village of Lunsar not far away. As we entered the town, we picked up a village elder who guided us through narrow streets half blocked with rubble to the center of town, where we parked the bus and started out on foot for a survey. The elder took us to each of the most severely damaged homes in the village. The head of the family was asked some questions (everything was in Gujarati so I’m clueless about a lot of the goings-on). A decision was made about what we would supply to that family and they were given a small slip of paper and told to meet us at the bus.

We had a large crowd with us as we moved through town including a bunch of kids, each one of which asked me "You are from?", "What is your name?", "What is your father’s name?", "What is your mother’s name?", etc. etc.

As we made the rounds, we saw many collapsed homes, mostly made of stone and claycertainly not earthquake resistant. Many of the more substantial buildings had cracks. I understand that no one was killed and I did not see anyone obviously injured. Most streets were partially blocked with rubble. Most buildings were single-story with a few two-story buildings. I took no pictures in Lunsar because, due to a misunderstanding, I thought I was not allowed to.

Back at the bus, we collected the slips one at a time and gave the person representing the family one or two blankets, one or two towels, one or two sweaters, four to eight cold meals, and, in some cases, the self sufficiency bag of 13 items. Although most of the people we interviewed and gave slips to were men, almost all of the pick-up people were women.

At one point, we stopped distributing and moved the bus because of concern that a badly cracked wall could fall on the bus as a backhoe worked nearby clearing stones and debris from the road. When we finished honoring all the slips, there was still a mob of people outside the bus asking for help. The volunteers had kept a running list of what was given to which family and two elders came aboard the bus to sign it. Then we left town.

We drove a few kilometers to another town and talked with the first person we met. He apparently said that not much was needed, because we turned around, parked, and handed food packets out the bus windows for a few minutes and then left.

As we headed back toward Wankaner, the driver would see a small village off to the side somewhere, and we would be headed down a dirt road toward it. We would drive through town, stopping to give out food packets, mostly to children. None of the villages other than Lunsar had much visible earthquake damage, but the people were obviously poor and happy to get the food packets. I felt like Santa Claus distributing food to kids out of the bus window.

Back on the main road, we would occasionally stop to give food and sometimes blankets or sweaters to people sitting, working, or camped near the road. At Wankaner, we dropped off our guide and headed for Rajkot, arriving at about 7PM.

We will be going out again at 10PM and I wanted to get this out before then, so it is even less polished than my usual tarnished style. I will report on the next trip as soon as we return.


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