Thinking in an Emergency Or, Free Tents as a Cautionary Tale

The seduction against thinking in an emergency comes, as we have seen, from two sources: first, from a false opposition between thinking and acting; second, from a plausible (but in the end, false) opposition between thinking and rapid action.

—Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency (2011: 14)

It was a rushed decision to accept the tents. But when Ngawang called me – he in New York, his family in his village in northern Nepal – his voice cracked. My mother is cold. She is sleeping on the ground. Not minutes later, news flashed across the Facebook feed: an old friend was organizing a massive effort to send donated tents to Nepal from the US and to work with Indian and Nepali manufacturers to make as many durable if impermanent shelters as quickly as possible. I reached out, asking if perhaps twenty of the donated tents could be set aside for this village in need. I mentioned that someone from my small New England town was heading to Nepal next week. There had been talk of baggage waivers –promissory notes against suffering.

And so I accepted the donation of twenty six-person tents. Send them to my office, I said. We’ll get them there next week. If they hadn’t been donated, I would call them an impulse buy.

The baggage waivers did not materialize but the tents arrived nonetheless. A colleague helped to carry them up from the UPS truck and unburden them of the cardboard in which they were wrapped. I cleared a large corner of my office, stacked the smooth, mineral gray duffels against the wall. Each weighed about twenty-five pounds; two could fit into a suitcase. Four would max out a normal amount of allotted weight on all of the passenger airlines heading to Kathmandu. Suddenly, the weight of these gifts felt enormous. I recalled a dear friend and fellow Nepal scholar telling me that she was in a large Costco-like box store days after the first earthquake. She stared at a wall of camping equipment and a tent display and just burst into tears. I felt like doing the same. I wished that there were a way to bend matter, to reassign reality to these folds of polyester with their aluminum spines and beam them across the world.

As I registered this cluster of pristine shelters in my office, I began to regret my decision. For all the good intentions, execution is everything in an emergency. Instead of focusing more energy on fundraising, writing, or connecting with people, I was now going to figure out this transportation puzzle. And such efforts may belie actual needs, by the time they reach their destination. Still, the good son remained desperate to get these shelters to his village. He considered using the hard-earned funds he had been raising for village reconstruction to pay airlines to deliver these tents to Kathmandu. But when we began to do the math – how much tin could a baggage fee buy? – the logic of this choice fell away. We all redoubled efforts to raise the tens of thousands of dollars that would be needed to create temporary shelters to get people through the summer but also, if needed, through winter.

As for the tents, we would have to rely, instead, on slower movements and other forms of connection to deliver them. A Nepali medical student packed up the first two, as she headed off to provide direct medical relief in communities along the Kathmandu Valley rim. Four more went with the doctor accompanying her. These were delivered to one of my research assistants – also from the same village as Ngawang – in one of the first massive thunderstorms of the monsoon season. The moment broke pent up heat and dust, and seemed to release a certain form of collective frustration, even as it was the first test of just how well these and other forms of temporary shelter would do in the coming months.

The tents that remained in my office took on a life of their own. They were a reminder to everyone who visited of what had happened and was still happening in Nepal. The pile grew smaller again as I sent four more tents off to a friend in Wyoming who was heading to Nepal. Baggage waivers again not successful, these four tents are now traveling to Nepal with another friend, this time from Boulder, Colorado. I tried to rationalize the cost of shipping them by saying that it was less than the airline fees but still there was a pang when I swiped my credit card. Not to mention the strange and ironic sensibility that I was paying to move around different forms of petroleum product and fossil fuel in the hopes of providing relief.

That left ten. Ngawang and I found a Tibetan friend raised in Nepal and heading back to continue relief work who was willing to take them. This time the airline baggage waiver was secured.  But she was in New York. I called our local coach service, which runs between the Upper Connecticut River Valley and Grand Central Station, and asked about the next bus out. Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am, we cannot accept any unaccompanied baggage. In the new world order that is not such a new world order anymore, I could not send tents alone to New York in the barrel of a bus. To do so was a terrorist threat or the equivalent of abandoning a child.

Ngawang and my daughter, Aida, loading up tents. Photo credit: Sienna Craig
Ngawang and my daughter loading up tents. Photo credit: Sienna Craig

So Ngawang came from New York to collect this precious cargo. We shoved as many as we could into travel-worn duffels that had made the trek between the US and Nepal many times. It felt as if to put these virgin shelters into such seasoned containers was to at some level prepare them for the journey that lay ahead: across oceans, into the stream of Kathmandu traffic on the backs of motorcycles, along the potholed Prithvi Highway to Pokhara, up the ‘green road’ to Mustang District, past waterfalls and the immanent threat of landslides, around switchbacks of cornmeal-colored powdery earth, past juniper forests, and, finally, home.

I wondered how the families would unwrap them when the arrived. In one moment of depression and desperation, I found myself obsessively reading the company website tent specifications: state-of-the-art aluminum, fine mesh windows, piping in a color the company called ‘orange Popsicle.’ Worlds collided. I wondered what locals would make of the E!power port and the E!luminate System that were features of this tent. Knowing the resourcefulness of the people involved, I imagined a soft luminescence of a solar bulb, salvaged from a home and strung up inside this 10”x10” structure. I could picture schoolchildren stacked cheek by jowl, playing games on someone’s mobile phone. Outside, their parents would sit cross-legged on saddle blankets and plastic mats, discussing which house to rebuild first, beginning to see stones falling into place.

And so, as much as I have come to view these tents critically – to see them as a cautionary tale against rapid action decoupled from careful thinking – they have also become weighty talismans. These tents are reminders that the possibilities for charity largesse are only ever as good as the nimbleness of implementation; that commodity chains come to live in the people who carry things, that ‘relief’ is a synonym for ‘those who figure out how to get things done.’ Across Nepal, the meeting of need has depended so much on Nepalis helping other Nepalis – people who might not have known each other before this disaster and who might not have thought to help each other if they did. Elaine Scarry reminds, “The habits of everyday life…often fail to serve in an emergency. But in the absence of our ordinary habits, a special repertoire of alternative habits may suddenly come forward” (2011: 15). Perhaps here are the seeds of new habits of mind. Naya Nepal, revisited.

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