Escaping the Nepal Earthquake & What Happened Afterwards

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A beautiful country ravaged by nature's fury

I was fast asleep on the bumpy bus ride, traveling from Kathmandu to Chitwan on the day when the devastating earthquake measuring 7.8-magnitude hit Nepal on April 25th 2015. 

(FYI, Richter Scale was replaced by Moment Magnitude Scale in the 1970s)

Reaching Bharatpur by noon, the district headquarters of Chitwan and gateway to explore the jungles of Chitwan National Park, we could see the people of the city were gathered out on the streets and in the grounds, staring intently at their mobile phones. Looking through the glass windows from inside the bus, the reason why people were out was anybody’s guess. I got down at my stop to make a call to the resort that was supposed to pick me up. 

The manager said “Sorry, I do not have the exact information on where your cab is, it’s been a bit busy here because of the earthquake.”

“EARTHQUAKE?!”, I repeated after him in disbelief.

He confirmed. “Yes, an earthquake just hit Nepal.” 

I ended the call and went outside to find my cab had just arrived. Prem Gurung, an elderly forest guide, visibly shaken, came up to me apologizing for the delay caused (because of the quake) and escorted me towards the jeep as he asked me if I felt the tremors. 

I was clueless, I hadn’t felt anything. And only now I figured the reason why everyone was out on the streets in Bharatpur. I also wondered if it was the earthquake that must’ve jolted me out of my sleep in the bus?

We still had no clue on the magnitude of the earthquake. Fortunately here in Chitwan district, that was the extent of the disturbance caused by the quake, people were driven out of their homes temporarily. Intently listening to the radio, we heard people calling in from all over the country, reporting the damage in their respective areas. We couldn’t figure out the extent damage or the seriousness of the situation yet, barely an hour passed by since the earth shook. 

Soon, the conversation veered from the earthquake towards me, Chitwan, the weather, all and sundry. We completely forgot about the earthquake by the time we reached the resort in Meghauli, an area far removed from the tourist crowd of Sauraha. If there was a crowd, there would’ve been chatter about the incident. In this remote corner, where nothing was affected, earthquake became the subject of our small talk, but only until late afternoon.

At around 4 PM, the manager informed me about the casualties of the earthquake when the cable connection finally got working. 

“600”, he said. And this was the number only from Kathmandu, mere hours after the quake hit. 

After the number sunk in, my head started spinning. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind - fear, anxiety, relief, worry, confusion, disappointment and all such emotions hit me at once. 

The earthquake hit Nepal at 11.55 AM.

It was now 4 PM!

I could only imagine the horror my family and friends must’ve gone through during these long 4 hours when I was not reachable in any way. Just the previous morning, I had decided I would go old school and travel without a local sim, just for the heck of it. Bad timing to disconnect, I realized. 

Phone lines were down in the country but thankfully internet was working. Quickly connecting to the internet, I waited for my phone to explode with notifications and as expected, it did! People were worried sick about my safety - family, friends and strangers alike. I let everyone know I was safe. It was very touching, the outpouring of concern from everyone. 

That evening, we were talking to the mahouts on how the elephants fared when the quake hit. They said the gentle giants were stomping hard on the ground and visibly shaken during the earthquake. I could only imagine how scary the ordeal must’ve been for all the animals that felt the tremors. 

The next morning, I woke up to mild tremors. I sat on the bed as the ground shook gently, it was a mild aftershock. It was surprising, our body’s naturally wired response to natural calamities such as this. Although the tremors were very mild, my heart raced like it was about to burst out of my ribcage! If a small tremor had me running out of the room, one can imagine how frightening it must have been when the ground shook like crazy for minutes.

As the day progressed, slowly the news about the scale of the destruction started trickling in. Along came the reports about the rescue efforts by the embassies of various countries, the valor of Indian army, the agility of the Ministry of External Affairs so on and so forth. My parents and friends were urging me to take the support of the Indian Embassy and fly back into India immediately. I couldn’t leave just yet. 

Here in Chitwan, the foothills of Himalayas, there was no devastation. Things were absolutely fine and it didn’t make much sense to me in leaving the safety of the jungles to head towards the devastated and resource-crunched Kathmandu. As people were making all sort of plans to leave the country, I didn’t feel the need to the flee as long as I could find a safe place. After all, the severely limited resources of Kathmandu were better put to use for local aid and relief efforts than rescuing foreigners who had come for a “vacation”, me included. I was safe here in Chitwan, so I decided against going to Kathmandu at least for the next 5 days much to the chagrin of worried folks back home. The only way I could help the situation immediately was keeping out of the way. And my motto always has been, if locals can survive, so can I. I decided to wing it with the people of Nepal.  

It was April 26th, a day after the dreaded event, rightly dubbed as the Great Earthquake. Things were slowly getting clear as the casualty count climbed higher, steadily. In 2 weeks, I was supposed to be trekking the Manaslu Circuit, a friend confirms that region is one of the worst affected, I was sure that my trek is cancelled. I had my return ticket booked for May 25th, it was only April 26th today. I was here in Chitwan at least till April 30th, but I decided to leave the rest to fate. I didn’t make any new plans just yet. 

On the afternoon of 27th, we were all sitting in the lobby, close to the WiFi router, sending updates and making escape plans. Just then, the ground shook violently. The tables and chairs shook hard as well, the vibrations were palpable and the noise was shockingly loud. We all ran away from the wooden porch building towards the pool, the water was swaying wildly as one single viscous body. Heart was pounding again, uncontrollably. This was a major aftershock and it lasted about 5 seconds.  

Later one afternoon, talking to the local staff, a friendly Indian Lady working in Chitwan, reminded me that if something has to happen, you cannot escape it even at the fringes and if not, you will be safe even in the eye of the storm. I took that advice to heart and decided to head to Pokhara which was verified to have escaped unscathed. While deciding what to do next, I was terribly conflicted. On one hand the fortunate turn of events that placed me out of harm’s way didn’t escape me and on the other hand there was this feeling of impending doom that things could go wrong the very next moment and that I should flee. All the bookings had been cancelled immediately at the resort, people who were there left the country in a hurry and those were to come, cancelled. The resort was empty by April 27th, the staff was given a well-deserved break, they started leaving for home too. The place was almost deserted except for me and a handful of staff. 

Torn between perceived safety and the actual situation on the ground, I spent the next few days with thoughts moving between participating in relief efforts, staying out the way, leaving the country and staying back. Things in Chitwan were fine meanwhile where I was well cared for. Meanwhile, in Kathmandu incessant rain, food and water shortage, unsafe buildings and blackout kept people exposed to danger days after the quake hit. They surely didn’t need one more person to take care of, I was staying away. 

On 30th morning, I made my way towards Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city which had surprisingly escaped any devastation even though it was just as close to epicentre as Kathmandu Valley, thankfully. Here in Pokhara I felt more strongly than ever that I must help with the relief efforts since I was already in Nepal but was quite confused on how I could help. Around the same time many articles came out suggesting that best thing you can do if you’re not a trained aid worker was to donate your money, not time and stay out of the rescue worker’s way! The logic seemed about right, I let go of the idea of volunteering. From past experience I knew I didn’t have the stregnth in me to face such a major humanitarian crisis, let alone help. I’m going to help Nepal stand on its feet by coming back as soon as it’s ready to take tourists. For now, I lay low. 

2 days after I arrived at Pokhara, I was resting in my room on 2nd floor when the floor shook lightly again. Once you have experienced an earthquake, you keep reliving the moment and imagining the ground is shaking. It’s not a feeling we are used to and we find it hard to let go of it so soon. I thought I was just imagining the aftershock, after all it was already a week since the quake hit. Later that day I found out that I wasn’t imagining, a 5.1 magnitude quake had hit Nepal again. 

I couldn’t shake off that terrible feeling of thinking anything in this world is permanent. I was filled with inconsolable regret about missing my chance to see the now destroyed, famous Hindu temples of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. I couldn’t shake off the finality of missing that opportunity, many of the century old monuments were reduced to rubble, lost for eternity and I sitting mere kilometres away from them in Kathmandu for 3 days thinking I could come back to them. While the civilization crumbled and struggled to stay afloat, the mountains stood resolute. They grumbled and shifted but they stood their ground, the fragile life on the other hand was torn to bits. It was as if the uncertainty of our existence was laughing in my face, sneering at my stupidity.

At first the feeling of extreme disappointment hit me, that my long awaited trek in Nepal was ruined. That I couldn’t see the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Then came the realization that my loss was nothing compared to the hundreds who spent outrageous amounts of money and mental energy in preparing to climb Everest. Then came the crushing realization that both of these selfish and rued opportunities were no match for the loss of livelihood and lives of the people who called these mountains home and those unfortunate visitors who lost their lives to the mountains. Resentment was quickly replaced with gratitude and I was embarrassed at my thankfully fleeting self-absorbed ego trip. 

Days after the quake hit, almost 80% of the future reservations were cancelled. Nepal is a poor country that depends a lot on tourism, even those not affected by the quake directly will be affected the sudden loss of income stream. Me and few others like me sauntered around in Pokhara, waiting for things to get better. While the short term survival is of utmost importance now, it’s the long term sustainability of the country that really bothers me. It isn’t easy picking up the pieces and starting all over again, from scratch, with no resources to begin with, but unfortunately that’s what the people of Nepal will have to do. 

Most of us, we are not the doctors who are saving hundreds of lives right now. We are not the people who are marshalling relief supplies and troops to affected areas, we are not the selfless volunteers working on ground distributing supplies and rebuilding houses. But if there’s one way we can help it would be by not cancelling our plans to Nepal. Just postpone your plans to the next season, whenever that is. Deep inside we all know that the mountains will never be 100% safe, and that’s an essential part of the adventure now isn’t it? So the minute the country is ready to take in tourists, you must go back.

***

Here's how you can help
While there are plenty of big charities you can donate to, I think helping the local teams and travel companies that are working on the ground at the moment could better support the relief efforts. Few teams that I know of are here, here and here.

Suggested reading on the Nepal Quake

***

I just returned from Nepal 2 days ago. As I prepared the mental notes for this post, I saw that another earthquake of magnitude-7.1 7.4 hit Nepal again causing a lot more casualties, just 3 days after I was in Kathmandu. Then, I could only pray for Nepal and thank my lucky stars, for saving me twice!

You Might Also Like

6 comments

  1. Neelima, there were moments in this read I felt you were too hard on yourself. However, like your 'fleeting self-absorbed ego trip', I realised these are self-doubts and conflicts anyone would've had at that point in time. Nepal will overcome and like you, it is the first love of many travellers and adventurers. I cannot, for the life of me imagine, the beautiful Bhaktapur crumbled; a place where I have a favourite family portrait. But what I can do is help Nepal. And I've already decided to travel to the resilient country once it has somewhat recovered from the devastation. May be late this year, may be next year. But I will make it happen.

    We are happy to have you back in safety and connectivity :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are right Amrita, I felt I was being too hard on myself too. But embracing the "life goes on" mantra being so close to the destruction turned out to be much harder than I thought. I can't wait to stay in one of those ancient houses around the Bhaktapur complex looking over whatever has remained of those temples.

      Delete
  2. Beautiful post - I felt your anguish, anxiety, relief and confusion. So glad you are safe and sound! I agree with you the best way to help Nepal is for people to go back when things get back to normal. I went to Sikkim just after the earthquake struck Nepal and though we had our doubts about our safety, the same thoughts crossed my mind a) whatever has to happen will happen and b) places like Nepal and Sikkim rely heavily on tourism and cancellations have a huge impact on their economy, more than we can imagine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly Chaitali, these tragedies alter our ability to judge risk in a big way. For instance, when I was in Nepal people kept asking me to come back immediately. To me, it felt like asking me to flee Bangalore if Mumbai experienced a quake. But most of the times, things become safe soon enough and whatever has to happen, will happen anyway. No point running. :)

      Delete
  3. I could experience just how torn you must have felt at every point - that's how powerful your post is Neelima :)
    Some of us have asked ourselves "What can I do for Nepal?". And I am one of those. I think I found an answer here - that this is the beginning of what we can do. Going/returning to Nepal some time from now might be of the ways of extending ourselves :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Elita, I wanted to put this experience in words because it turned out to be such a major catastrophic event and I was around it. Those first thoughts that run through your head, untainted by prolonged thinking, I wanted to remember those.

      And yes, you must visit Nepal. Loveliest people and even lovelier mountains. :)

      Delete

Find me on Twitter

Subscribe