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Natural disasters, by their very nature, don’t distinguish between religious, economic or cultural boundaries. They will happily lay waste to whatever lies in their path, whether it be a remote rural village, a presidential palace or a nuclear power station.

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…It’s what happens next that defines them.

IMG_2451Over the past two decades, I have found myself following Mother Nature’s destructive course around the world. I was in Sri Lanka after the devastating Christmas tsunami of 2004 and in Haiti just a few weeks after one of the worst earthquakes in living memory had destroyed Port au Prince, leaving over 200,000 dead and a further 1.5 million people homeless.

Both these rate amongst the top ten deadliest natural disasters of the past 100 years.

Nepal’s two recent earthquakes, by comparison, come quite a way down the list. Their longer lasting effects though will affect far more lives as the weeks and months unfold. Next month sees the arrival of the summer monsoons, when landslides, leeches and heavy rains will inevitably affect the relief efforts and cause even more problems for the thousands left without adequate shelter or the most basic of provisions. The rains will contaminate the water supplies and bring with them water-borne diseases, poor sanitation and intolerable conditions.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the United States in 2005, she was described as one of the deadliest storms in history, causing widespread destruction and loss of life across great swathes of Louisiana, New Orleans and America’s Gulf Coast. The 2011 tsunami that hit the northeastern coast of Japan brought with it nuclear meltdown and damages estimated at over $300 billion dollars. Years later, both Japan and the United States, two of the richest countries on the planet, are still dealing with the aftermath of those destructive forces of nature. What hope then for Nepal?

One of the poorest countries in the world, Nepal’s infrastructure is devastated. Heavily reliant on tourism, her World Heritage sites lie in ruins and her lucrative trekking and climbing routes have been decimated by avalanches and mudslides. Welcome and essential as the current outpourings of sympathy and aid are, I can’t help wondering how long it will be before the world moves on to the next sound bite. It has been five years since the Haiti earthquake and many of the scars still remain amongst the shattered ruins of the country’s capital. At the time of the disaster, the country was swamped by relief agencies. Everyone wanted to get in on the act. Today, the NGOs and the investors have long gone and the tented refugee camps have been replaced by sprawling squatter camps on the outskirts of the city. Many Haitians are in a worse situation now than they were before the earthquake, and this is a country that, at the time, was the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

I remember the day I took this photograph.

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We had been stopped at a road block and I remember asking my driver about the significance of the flags fluttering amongst the twisted wreckage. It seemed incongruous somehow that this one building should stand out amongst a seemingly endless landscape of indiscriminate destruction. He informed me that it had been a maternity hospital. On the day of the earthquake there had been 125 women and children in there.

…They were still inside.

For some reason this one image has always summed up the sheer hopelessness of Haiti’s plight for me. The relief agencies had taken the time to place flags in the rubble, but none of them had had the time or the resources to recover the dead from inside. Over the coming days I was to see far worse sights amongst the slums and refugee camps of Port au Prince, but somehow my thoughts always returned to this one emotive image.

Five years on, it still exerts a powerful hold.

…I just hope Nepal’s story has a happier ending.

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IMG_0109Well, I was sort of hoping that the past three months would culminate in a worldwide apocalypse that would render anymore updates futile. However, in light of a total lack of burning fireballs, biblical plagues or flesh-eating zombies, I am compelled to bring my earthly ramblings up to date.

A wiser man than I once wrote “…Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do”. That is probably still going to be true, no matter what I do, but the last 113 days has taken me from the northern shores of Canada’s Great Slave Lake and through the slums of Sao Paulo, before finally dumping me in a small Nepalese village close to the Indian border. It is a journey that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. I have travelled by antiquated aircraft and bone-jarring buses, stood beneath the hypnotic majesty of the Northern Lights and shared an array of potent liquors with everyone from the ‘Snow King’ of Yellowknife to a 90 year old Nepali grandfather in the foothills of the Himalayas.

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What I need to do now is sit down, take a breathe and try to make sense of it all. I may be sometime!…

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Assuming I survive the rigours of the Canadian Arctic I am off back out to Brazil this coming October, to lead a team of volunteers into the slums of São Paulo. Now many might see that as a testament to a mind laid waste by Larium and swamp fever, but to me it sounds like the start of a whole new adventure.

I was last in Brazil 12 months ago, working in the north-east of the country for a company called Charity Challenge. The job back then was to look after a pair of teams working on the renovation of two crèches in the heart of the São Francisco Valley, near a town called Petrolina. I remember us arriving at work that first day, to be greeted with a series of concrete shells that were overgrown with weeds and littered with the broken reminders of years of neglect. The scale of the work was daunting to say the least. The playgrounds were a tangled mass of weeds, rusting metal and old car tyres, whilst the classrooms themselves were little more than a dingy collection of sombre rooms filled with cobwebs and mosquitoes.

Over the coming days though we cleared the jungle and removed the rubbish, built walls and sandpits and began to transform the walls of the crèches into canvases of colourful murals. We overcame heat and dust, giant toads and limping tarantulas. We cleaned floors and windows, tiled bathrooms and inflated enough balloons to launch a small car. We also had fun! Our mission had been to help create an inspiring and safe environment for the children and by the end of the project we were a mass of grinning smiles and grubby, tear-streaked faces.

There are few things in life more likely to raise the spirit than the sound of a child’s laughter, especially when that child has grown up in a community denied the basics that most of us have grown up taking for granted. I still recall my last day there, looking down at the grinning face of a small child covered in face paint and clutching a smiley balloon…

…Twelve months on and I have no idea what faces me in São Paulo, but if last year was anything to go by, it promises to be interesting…