Santa Cruz photojournalist Alekz Londos on what he saw while providing disaster relief in parts of Nepal where other organizations wouldn’t go
As we wrap up our interview, photojournalist Alekz Londos mentions how uncomfortable he gets talking about himself.
“I hate doing interviews. I get nervous,” Londos admits. “You make me nervous.”
Londos, a native Santa Cruzan who still lives here when he’s not traveling to aid and document disaster-relief efforts, is speaking intensely, as usual. He’s wearing a crisp, grey collared shirt and underneath it, a thick silver chain necklace. His beard is neatly shaped, his hair spiked. His eyes are green with a hue of reddish brown.
Londos has been telling me about his trip to Nepal this past spring. He landed two weeks after the magnitude-7.8 earthquake that decimated the region near Kathmandu, the country’s capital, on April 25.
The quake killed 9,000 people and injured 23,000 more. Londos was treating cuts and infections in small villages where the military, major media outlets or even aid organizations like the Red Cross wouldn’t go. At one point, two parents brought him their daughter, who had a cast on her arm. The family didn’t have the time or money for a trip to Kathmandu. It took Londos over an hour to saw off the cast himself and replace it with a splint, which he took off two days later.
He also passed out his survival kits, which he assembles himself. With 40 items, the “International Survival Kit,” which Londos also sells in local stores, is a combination of First Aid, survival and basic hygiene needs. It even has an organic, heirloom seed mix so that if it gets dropped somewhere, the seeds will grow and offset the carbon footprint the pack created.
The kit also has a rape alert whistle, but in Nepal those ended up in the kids’ hands. Throughout his 18-day trip, Londos heard their shrill sound all over the Himalayan foothills. “All the time, there was whistles,” Londos says, flashing a rare smile, “and the parents just let the kids have them, so the kids were always blowing them. That was fun.”
This wasn’t Londos’ first natural disaster. He was in New Orleans to pass out food after Hurricane Katrina. He was in Ghana for the Ebola outbreak last year. He volunteered in New York after Superstorm Sandy, and in the Philippines after the super typhoon struck there in 2013.
In Nepal, Londos wasn’t just bandaging injured villagers—he was also taking pictures. His images do more than show destruction of quiet villages. They offer a look at a people 7,900 feet above sea level eager to rebuild their homes and their lives.
What’s the first thing you did when you heard about the quake?
I was familiar with the area. I knew that most of the buildings and structures were built with rock and mud. And I had a friend who was there volunteering with a humanitarian organization. So I already knew what the structures were built like. Right away, when I found out there was an earthquake, I looked on Google. I knew the size of the earthquake and the approximate radius it would cover. I saw a town and a village and a city, and I researched their populations, and I came up with a couple hundred thousand people in a really close proximity. I was shocked; this just happened and no one even knows the severity of this earthquake. It’s not even in the news yet how densely populated this region is. I thought 10 to 20,000 deaths. I thought 30,000 injuries. My estimates were slightly high … I knew I was going to go, so later that night I set up a Go Fund Me [campaign]. I put it live the next day to get the money I needed for the plane flight.
What was the housing like in these Nepalese villages before the earthquake?
Imagine a serene, scenic, peaceful village with rock walls and nice pathways. Their trees and agriculture and their animals—just how they have it set up from the pictures I’ve seen—it seems like they live this perfect lifestyle in the Himalayan foothills. They’re sustainable. They live off the land. They recently acquired electricity in 2012; they’re away from war and pollution for the most part, and crime … They had a life that many people in America would dream of.
How different did it look when you arrived?
Apun, the village that I stayed in which was in the epicenter of the Ghorka District, is far out there. From Kathmandu, it took two hours on a paved road, six hours on a huge, lifted four-by-four vehicle on a dirt road—and then a three-hour hike into the mountains. So, I was at 7,900 feet elevation in the Himalayan foothills. It takes a whole day to get out there.
They don’t have fire departments. They don’t have a police station. They don’t have stores, and they don’t have hotels. None of that stuff’s out there. It’s just houses and villages. When the earthquake happened, it didn’t look anything like it [did before] … I was just shocked. They had three-story buildings that they built with rock, wood and mud. No concrete. Limited nails. Everything crumbled. The village that I stayed in had 69 houses. 68 were completely destroyed. What is different about this village compared to other villages is that it was built on a mountain ridge. That didn’t allow them to relocate and build some tents over here or over there. There was nowhere else for them to build. They had to move their entire house out of the way before they could even build a structure. That set them back days and weeks before they could build a shelter.
What was the first thing you did?
When I first went from Kathmandu, it was two weeks after the earthquake. We were the first ones to enter the region on any vehicle. So we got out to clear the roads and clear the debris and clear the rocks. There were cracks and divots [in the road], and we’d have to rearrange it just to get out there. There’s no driving [in the villages]. There were no cars and no fuel. There’s not even any roads.
Was anyone uncomfortable with you being there?
Not at all. Everybody was really thankful, giving, concerned for their other villagers. Everyone was asking, “When is more help going to arrive?” “Where is everybody?” “Where’s the government?” “Where’s our military?” “Where’s the aid organizations?” “‘Where’s the religious groups?” When they saw me, they would ask me. They would come around and see what I had to offer. When I would start treating a medical infection, people would come over; I would have lines of people and people surrounding me. My guide would help me translate. … I asked [him], “There’s 30 or 40 people around me, all talking and bumping into me. What’s going on?” He said, “They’re just so happy that you’re here. And they’re really scared of the earthquake, and they’re really scared of the aftershocks, and they fear for their lives.”
One of the aftershocks there was bigger than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. What were they like?
They happened all the time. I think I felt seven large aftershocks. Some would happen in the middle of the night, and you’re trying to sleep. People would wake up. You’d hear dogs start to bark. If it happened here, you’d hear car alarms. But you’d hear dogs bark and kids crying. During the day, everyone would get back and look to make sure nothing was going to fall. We’d take a step back from our work zone and make sure everyone’s OK.
The worst one was when I was just coming back from a medical mission. I was a couple hundred feet from the first house in Apun when I felt it, and it’s really strange because it’s the biggest one I’ve ever been in. The ground was moving back and forth. I had to look to make sure I’m not near a potential landslide. I had to make sure there were no rocks above me. I saw some crumbling and some dust coming up from a couple of houses … it was roaring and rumbling. I ran the rest of the way.
In a situation like that, how do you avoid Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
I’m trying to take good care of myself. I do get eight hours of sleep. I don’t use drugs. I eat 99 to 100 percent organic, and have for the past four years. I try to have good people around me in my life. I try to ride my full-suspension mountain bike when I can. I work out and I run. I’m trying to have that balance. … I may have [PTSD], or I may have it in the future. I’m trying my best to avoid it.
You were in Ghana for the Ebola outbreak. What was that like?
I made the decision that I was going to go, and I did a fundraising campaign. And I already planned my trip before President Obama sent troops, and anybody realized it was a problem. When I started going, everybody was like, “You’re crazy. What are you doing? You’re freaking out—the government has everything under control.” Then it started killing 400 people a day. I was in Ghana when it was happening, but I showed up two, three weeks before the international community and the U.N. even showed up with a staging area. I’m just walking around for two weeks, some white guy in Ghana.
I got abducted. I got robbed while I was there. It’s such a crazy place. And then eventually, [international aid workers] came in and they weren’t going to be set up for a month. I’d planned on them being there, and I was going to get a military flight to Liberia. But I was just way ahead of it, and I couldn’t sustain myself, because I was there for too long, and the airport stole $2,000 to $3,000 of my equipment. They took all my nuclear, chemical suits, all my Hazmat gear, thousands of pairs of rubber gloves and face masks—they took all of that. They took me into the office, and they said, “So, do you want to leave this country? Or do you want all your stuff back?” They were full-on threatening me. I’d get mad, and they’d just get in my face. I was not as successful on that mission as I wanted to be.
California is at risk for an earthquake at least as big as the one that hit Nepal. Oregon and Washington are due for one 10 times bigger. What do you think of the West Coast’s earthquake preparedness?
There are still a lot of old buildings and poor designs and poor bridges. I don’t think many people are prepared for anything—I don’t think they ever are. People aren’t concerned until it actually happens. If people were prepared, Red Cross and the government wouldn’t have to pass out as much food or bottled water or supplies. All people need to do is just stop at Costco and maybe buy some basic items and make sure there’s no expiration dates, so it’s good for a long time.