Nepal earthquake - april 2015
Counting down from three weeks and the day had arrived. We were off. Excited to be heading to Nepal with Jody and her family. Originally she and I had planned to fly in just to get a tattoo and return. However, being a mother of three, her family wanted to join us for the opportunity to explore a new country. Initially I had thought that being with her family would mean I would be a third wheel and almost didn’t book the ticket. But when I told her, she was dismayed, for the main reason she was going was because of me, and to get a tattoo. Caught between disappointing Jody and being a third wheel, I decided that I would take my chances as I was sure there were enough things we could do without imposing and yet still enjoy each others company, so I booked the same flight and hotel.
Jody and I had been agonizing over tattoos and artists and were still unsure of what to get though we had a fair idea…but decided in the end to wing it once we reached the tattoo convention.
We arrived after a bumpy flight wondering if the pilot was fresh out of training. I had met another client on the plane who had mentioned her previous holiday that never ensued due to a lack of permission for the Andaman Islands – so I put my arms around her and told her this trip would hopefully be better…
Mi Casa was a quaint boutique hotel with the rooms named after the major mountain tops. We dropped off our luggage and headed for the Yak and Yeti hotel where the tattoo convention was being held. Jody and I headed in with the children and father following suite for their curiosity had been piqued. I was nervous about the childrens’ reaction to the various artists, and customers – especially as I introduced them to a friend who had skin modifications and scarification, which had freaked me out the first time I had seen them. The children were more curious than upset. Bill later told me that it was the extreme poverty that would affect them more, but I figured being from Delhi, they would have seen more than enough poverty to last them a lifetime. The convention was a buzz of needles and piercings and I walked around trying to find the Japanese tattoo artist whom we wanted to book, but she was too busy. Jody had her camera out and was taking pictures, with the kids trailing after looking rather bug-eyed at the entire scenario of dreadlocks, colors and disinfectant. Jody and I picked another artist whose gentle energy and beautiful artwork enticed us – and I asked Murrey if he could give me a tattoo or at least discuss the options.
Murrey spent twenty minutes drawing a lotus type of flower around my Mauri turtle tattoo. But the two were very different styles, rather than complementing looked more like a mess on my leg. He had quoted $160, but I told him my budget was $50. Luckily we decided that I would sleep on it and return two days later to get the tattoo done, since he was booked all day on Saturday and it seemed a better idea to get the tattoo done, in the morning when both of us were fresh. I didn’t want to rush into getting a tattoo like I had the previous year, and was relieved that he didn’t push it.
Jody and I went out that evening for a walk to see Thamel. Jody was searching for handmade Tibetan singing bowls and we scanned the shops making a mental note of things that would be interesting to buy. I needed to buy one pair of hippie pants for a friend but could see that Jody found it to be a shopper’s paradise. Since I couldn’t find the restaurant that Mary had taken me to before, we opted for a restaurant that sounded like it was playing good classic rock and walked three stories up to find a dingy but very popular bar. We surveyed the restaurant and opted to sit outside so we could talk and enjoy the music. Although I hadn’t eaten much food I was more interested in a beer and Jody ordered a virgin Pina Colada. We talked about our lives and issues we faced, interrupted by friendly Nepali locals who wanted to socialize – but our intense conversation deterred them so they ultimately left us alone. We left one glass short of a beer returning to the streets of Thamel that had closed but was buzzing with the beginning of a nightlife that closely resembled Hauz Khas village.
Saturday morning started out with a light breakfast and two cups of chai with the children and Bill. They did math practice which I found amusing, since I could never recall doing anything of the sort growing up. It was always more fun to observe other families and their interactions for it made me wonder if I could think of having my own family. An urge I had missed in my adulthood but one that had recently been raised as a thought. I showed them a video of a girl twerking only to end up being on fire which Bill googled to find out, that the video had been staged. Disappointed by such flagrant videos, I shared the acro-yoga video that reminded them of the circus acts they had seen. Jody joined us a few minutes later and we discussed the plan for the day. They wanted to go to three temples, and I wondered if there was any point going to the convention to find out how many tattoo artists would be interested in signing up for a yoga retreat. With Jodys medical background, she figured that most of the artists would perhaps not be interested in yoga of any sort so I opted to accompany them, as they saw sights that I had seen years ago, but would be fun to check out once again. After fifteen minutes of trying to get a taxi, Romero the owner of Mi Casa gave us a taxi to take us for free to the monkey temple known as Swayambhu. Thamel was interesting as ever with shops filled with old computers, old utensils and a general sense of old architecture. The narrow streets with its two storey high buildings, was reminiscent of old Delhi with some charm. The tall poles with its multitude of wires allowed monkeys to cross over, by balancing on them. Jody clicked pictures as the children pointed out interesting things. I listened to music while the driver named some of the sites; temples, Stupas and prayer flags decorated the ride up the hill to the entrance of the monkey temple. We paid the entrance fee and entered the first part of the temple which was a pond filled with coins. The idea was to toss the coins into a copper vessel in the middle of a water body. Success meant either world peace or your wish would come true. I wasn’t sure which. I photographed the photographers, Jody and Bill with their children. The children took turns being photographed beside a large bell, pretending it was a hat and the usual antics children get up to while I watched – mentioning that I wanted to do a headstand on the way back down – not beforehand for I didn’t want us to get kicked out. We climbed the steep stairs slowly stopping to admire the view, while I was stared at, since some of the local boys tried to figure out what my relationship was to the children and Bill. Jody was still at the bottom photographing everything in view. The local boys asked me if I was Indian or Nepali and I told them that I was Indian, that the children were mine and that Bill was my husband. Bill found it quite funny and preferred that made up story to the one where I could have said that I was their adopted daughter – which I agreed was less interesting. When we reached the top of the temple, we split up. I walked around, spinning the prayer wheels praying to the Gods for peace of mind and contentedness. Jody and Bill photographed their children running into pigeons whilst I continued exploration of the temple, awe over the view and hoping to glimpse the children monks. We lost track of time but done with the exploration I headed back to the family to ask them if we were ready to leave. Just then the ground started to shake. Jody caught ahold of Edith and Sherry and from the right Bill and Alice converged towards us and we huddled into a football formation covering the children while the earth shook in anger. I looked up to the right to see a Stupa crumble into dust not more than a few inches away from us. I started to chant Om Namah Shivaya and looked at another woman who stood opposite, chanting with the same energy but perhaps much calmer. We both looked at each other continuing to chant. Covered in a yellow-orange dust, once the rumbling and the earth stopped shaking, Bill told us to head down the stairs slowly. I took a second to survey the city before us, where plumes of smoke rose in the air, thankfully only dust and no fires, but couldn’t be sure. People tried to walk down calmly though there were a group of boys who wanted to push past us. I held onto Alice who was almost my size though a child whilst Bill had one child and Jody another. I didn’t want to separate so told Alice to hold on to the railing as I tried to figure out where we would be the safest as we walked down with tempered hurriedness. I stopped after a few seconds realizing that Bill was several steps behind us as was Jody. As we regrouped, for the fear of separation in the chaos popped into my head. Perhaps it was all the movies I had seen, for I made Alice move over to the left on the side of the wall, allowing others to pass as we waited for the rest of the family to catch up. We took shelter to the left behind a rock embankment which housed two statues and a tree. Bill had been trained for emergencies and told us to stay close to the wall, though we were worried that the hill would either slide down into us or the trees or statues would fall upon us.
The first thing I did after we sat down was to call my father or brother but the line refused to connect. A couple of seconds later I was able to get through to my brother and told him that we had been in what seemed like a major earthquake and were ok but were unsure of what to do. While talking to my brother the line got disconnected. Though we thought we were safe, I knew from previous experiences with earthquakes that aftershocks would occur and I was not wrong. What seemed like minutes later we felt several aftershocks…and they came in waves. I kept texting my brother, counting the aftershocks. A local told us to move away from the wall, and we sat close to a large group of Asians who were praying in earnest and when finished, took out their packed lunches and proceeded to eat. Bill pointed out the irony of the situation of eating a meal in the midst of chaos; it seemed fitting for it could have been their last meal…they shared a box of chocolate flavored soan papad – not my favorite, and I refused more. We sat through 8 aftershocks (that I was able to count) texting my brother post each one, that we were ok. after some time, the after shocks abated and we proceeded to the main road to be met by a man who had just finished attending a convention on emergency response. He scared us by telling us that the entire city had been razed to the ground and that thousands were dead. I don’t think this information helped any of us – for he had been in the earthquake at the top with us, but not covered in dust – so it could have only been an estimated guess. Upon reaching the ground, we saw that one of the concrete entrances had shifted a few inches and had a large crack in it. Wary of passing under it, we skirted off to the side, keeping to the open ground and looked for a taxi that could take us back to Mi Casa. There was a pile of rubble – but Nepal being similar to India, had a war torn look to begin with, so I assumed that it wasn’t to do with the quake. Some of the taxi drivers nodded their head saying no one would take us back but we had to get the passports. A taxi finally acquiesced and took us halfway into Thamel that was thronging with people clearly in shock and the city had an air of strange calm that I could only wonder as to how long it would last. The taxi driver refused to go any further and dropped us off in the middle of the road. The streets were lined with locals and tourists, and as we walked through Thamel with a child each in hand. We saw few buildings that had collapsed and even one which was just leaning onto another….that galvanized us to move quicker but we had to keep asking for directions for the maze of roads was confusing and we didn’t want to end up taking a wrong turn. We finally made it to the lane where our hotel was and were relieved to find it still standing. Romero came rushing out and hugged us – relieved that we were safe, and insisted that we spend the rest of the afternoon in the park. We hurriedly took our luggage from the rooms and waited in the park for hours still feeling wave after wave of aftershocks which seemed never-ending. There was no point going to the airport for it was closed. I tried my family once again, to let them know that we had made it back to the hotel safely and were trying to figure out what next to do. Unable to get ahold of my father or brother, I called my mothers cell phone and it went through. Upon hearing her voice I finally broke down into tears. With my back facing the crowd in the garden, I allowed a few sobs and tears and was reminded by her to be strong and hold on. Wiping the tears away, I did a few yoga stretches, alternate nostril breathing, and pulled myself together. One of the guests at the hotel who had been in a café during the earthquake approached me, to find out what could be done to alleviate back pain. I showed Inga a few exercises.
We still had a long evening ahead and I needed to charge the android – which had almost used the battery up to connect to the net to update facebook about the earthquake. Everyone I knew was aware that I was in Nepal - to get a tattoo… so much for that.
Once the dust had literally settled, our stomachs woke up but there seemed to be no food in the cafes or the hotel restaurant. We were lucky a woman walking past us with an armful of Wai Wai noodles (similar to Maggi but a lot tastier), gave three packets so that the children and I could eat. Bill, Alice and I went to the restaurant kitchen requesting hot water – for the noodles could be cooked in the water, without a stove. I asked Bill to leave my bowl at the restaurant for I was fed up of ping ponging between the garden and the restaurant and chose to eat at the table, while the android charged. There was no electricity but the restaurant had a powerful inverter which allowed some of the guests (myself included) to charge our phones. I used the facilities several times, by which point darkness had descended. I wanted to sit indoors away from the mosquitoes and cold taking my chances with the building, whilst other guests milled around packing and taking the odd phone calls from worried friends and families. Being the usual social butterfly, I struck up a conversation with two guests who were sitting at the reception area. The woman from Malaysia had just finished a trek and was getting ready to return to her country, whereas the gentleman shared that he was from Poland. I told him about the polish group WWO I listened to, though he hadn’t heard of them. I told him that my polish friends had translated that they sang the usual songs about love which he found amusing. We shared our backgrounds and why we had come when the woman from Malaysia excused herself and ultimately didn’t rejoin us. The Polish Journalist, Peter and I talked to each other for a while exchanging information about ourselves and discussed the political situation in India, whilst the hotel building shivered occasionally under soft tremors. Romero interrupted us to steal the Peter for he needed a translator to speak with a person on the phone while I tried to settle the bill. The card refused to go through and Bill paid in cash. As we sorted the bill out, I gave my business card to the Peter who promised to call when he was in Delhi, for he spent 5 months in Delhi, five in Nepal and two in Poland. It was a coffee date that would need to wait for June until he returned to Delhi. We continued our conversation till Bill came over to give the news that Diana from the International Red Cross had come to pick us up. She wanted us to stay with her as the house she lived in was earthquake proof, and Bill was her responsibility. Bill asked me to get the girls and his wife from the garden, for they had been camped out for hours in the cold. We thanked Romero profusely for his hospitality and said wished them well. As we walked down the lane, heading towards the main road of Thamel, we were met with electricity poles that had come down in the middle of the road, at some point during the tremors. Loading the luggage, Bill and I sat in the back with the children and Jody in the middle, and Diana in the front. We drove through the streets of Katmandu which had little evidence of the earthquake save for a few crumbled walls.
Dinner at the house consisted of biscuits, nimbu paani (lemon water) and bananas. Being a Saturday would have been a day to stock up but the earthquake clearly interrupted this. Diana had been sitting in a café with her husband and son when the earthquake hit. Before they felt the waves, she mentioned seeing bikers being knocked off their bikes. They had managed to get down a steep spiral staircase without incident. She gave us a tour of the house pointing out the safe places although the best thing to have done would have been to run outside. Tired but relieved to be safe Jody took the children to bed, on the first floor. I sat alone in the living room, blanking out in wonderment over the earthquake, unsettled by any vibration. Two glasses of wine and a breath of fresh air later I retired to bed.
At 12:37 I texted my brother that I was safe for a strong tremor had woken me, Jody, Diana and their families.
At 5:08 I texted my brother once again, for another tremor had woken us all up.
I slept through the tremors after that, aware that the bed shook, but exhausted by the stress.
The following morning my brother wanted to know if I could call the consulate, and find out about the evacuation plan for Indian nationals. I didn’t want to leave Jody and her family, for I felt responsible.
Tired of the stench of exhaustion and dust from the Stupa I took my chances and showered. Later the children told me that there had been a tremor. I never felt it for the heat of the water had erased all fear.
We ate a simple meal of potatoes, red pasta sauce, tuna (which I had loathed as a child growing up but forced myself to eat) and twisted spiced bread. We felt guilty for John and Victor refused to join us; they were worried for Diana who was at the office organizing relief.
It was during my second helping when the beeps started from the earthquake indicator. We rushed out of the main door, as the beeps changed into a high pitch whistle, only to see the entire house swaying. The ground swayed under our feet different from the first earthquake which had felt more like paper being crinkled in anger. The entire house resembled a tree being bullied by the wind. My phone rang as I watched the car hop up and down with the high pitch wailing continued. My father was calling to ask me to get in touch with the airlines as the lines in Delhi were jammed. I interrupted him to say that we were in the midst of another major earthquake but would call as soon as I could. My father remained calm, much to my relief, and we spoke till the earths' wrath subsided. I immediately tried the Katmandu office of Spicejet, and the Indian consulate but the phones rang and no one answered. Bill and I discussed that it would make more sense to get to the airport and hope that our scheduled flight would go take off.
At 6pm we left for the International Red Cross Committees office, where the Himalayan newspaper showed pictures of the devastation. Bill explained to the children several times why the earthquake had razed buildings to the ground by standing up on a chair and asking Sherry to shake it. The image of her father shaking under her strength allowed her to comprehend the situation a little easier.
We drove to the airport where there seemed little damage to buildings and the only evidence of the earthquake were the people camped out in open ground. Shops were closed, but it was a Sunday – and the same calm before the storm effect permeated the air.
The airport was thronging with tourists and a long line of Indians who were trying to avail of the evacuation. I held my breath as the man allowed us to enter the airport and it took forever to get the boarding pass as they had to be handwritten. The conveyor belts were no longer working.
Bill got as much information from officials passing by and we found that our Spicejet plane had returned to Delhi for they had been told that the runaway had a crack in it. It returned several hours later but couldn’t land for the airport was small and there was no space to park. The doors to the airport had been opened and passengers milled around on the tarmac close to the planes. Some tourists were smoking as oil tankers passed by to fill up the planes that had been able to land. If this wasn’t enough the heavens opened up and a steady drizzle ensued. We returned indoors, but sat close to the glass doors incase there was another strong earthquake – the choice for the people still left in Nepal now was to either freeze in the open or take their chances by staying indoors.
Eight hours later, we boarded the Spicejet plane bound for New Delhi, India. It was 2:53 am when the flight finally took off. Exhausted but relieved we were midair, I fell into a disturbed slumber.
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