On the 25th of April a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal between Kathmandu and Pokhara. I was in Pokhara when it hit.
I didn’t realise what was happening at first. In fact, my first thought was that they must be doing some digging somewhere nearby and that the machinery must have exploded. The earth shook, people were screaming and running out of their houses, but then after a while it stopped and everything was fine. People were talking excitedly, and it all seemed very novel. The buildings around us were fine – things had fallen down, sure, but nothing had collapsed.
What struck me the most was that they seemed to know how to handle it. Everyone had run out into the open, away from the buildings. ‘Does this happen a lot?’ I asked one of the locals who were sitting outside. ‘Every 6-7 months,’ he said, shrugging, ‘but usually smaller’.
It was my first earthquake. ‘Well that was kind of exciting,’ I told Tom, as we walked down the street. ‘I hope it happens again!’ Tom shot me a dark look ‘No you don’t, the aftershocks can be worse than the actual earthquake.’ Tom was from the US and he’d experienced earthquakes before. ‘Besides which,’ he added ‘it may have caused a lot of damage elsewhere’.
And it had. Walking further we’d heard of weak buildings and construction sites collapsing, and of a few people dying. And the power was down. It seemed strange – it had been so short, and quick – the earth just rumbled and shook a bit, and then it settled down.
But the worst of the damage hadn’t occurred where we’d been. As soon as we got back into town, we heard about Kathmandu, and about the little villages along the Pokhara-Kathmandu route. A bridge was supposedly cracked, the death toll was going up by the second, there’d been avalanches and landslides, and whole buildings just falling in on themselves.
It was dawning on us that the tremors we’d felt hadn’t been quite so harmless. Everyone in Pokhara was stressing; the damage was much less here than in Kathmandu, but there was still damage – and the aftershocks kept coming. We were advised to spend the day outdoors, and at night I slept with my passport, phone and wallet on me, the door unlocked in case I needed to jump up and run out, which we did every time a tremor hit.
The worst things was having no information. There weren’t government officials around telling people what to do or how to handle things. The power was down, the internet wasn’t working, and I had a flight on the 27th to Singapore from Kathmandu.
I used up the last of my phone’s power and data to tweet to Air Asia about whether my flight was still going – they tweeted back letting me know that it was, and that I needed to be at the airport for it.
Well that was fantastic. The ATMs weren’t working, I was almost completely out of cash, I didn’t know what things were like anywhere else in the country but the rumours were pretty terrible. The local airport had closed down completely, so the only way to get to Kathmandu was by road.
The owner of my guesthouse warned me strongly against it. ‘There have been huge rocks falling’ he told me, ‘trucks have fallen off the side of the road, the bridge is cracked, the aftershocks keep going. It’s very, very unsafe.’
I knew he was right but I didn’t really have a lot of options. I hadn’t registered my whereabouts with Smart Traveller (only because I hadn’t planned a lot of my trip in advance, so I didn’t know where I would be) so it’s not like the Australian Government would know that I was stuck here and needed to get out.
I was out of money, my phone was out of power, I had no way of contacting anyone to let them know where I was or that I needed help. This was a 3rd world country with high levels of poverty and homelessness, and if I didn’t get out of here asap I was probably going to have to become temporarily homeless myself. I’d have to risk it.
I woke up early in the morning, ate the nuts I’d bought previously, and made my way down to the bus stop. It was chaos, and the buses were not running. ‘Too dangerous,’ one of the staff told me. I think one of the buses had gotten hit by a rock and now none of them were going until they knew that it was safe again.
I plodded back to my guesthouse. Now what? ‘Hey!’ a taxi driver called out to me, gesturing, ‘You want to go to Kathmandu?’ I walked over. ‘Yea I do’. ‘There are three other people who want to go – I’ll take you there for 3000rs’. I thought about it; I didn’t have 3000rs but maybe I could trade something for money.
Raj, the owner of my guesthouse, tried again to dissuade me. ‘Maybe you go tomorrow’, he said, ‘It should be fine tomorrow’. I didn’t want to risk it – a lot of my stuff was at Fireflies, including some travel documents, so if it was still standing I needed to go there first. And what if the buses still weren’t running tomorrow, but there was nobody else who wanted to split a ride or no taxi drivers willing to take us by that point?
I walked up and down the street, looking for somewhere I could get money until – finally – I heard of a single ATM that was still working. It had a sign there saying that it might eat your card if the power went off while you were using it, and that you then had to contact the bank and they would retrieve it for you the next day. I hoped that wouldn’t happen. I waited until someone else had used it successfully before trying myself. I have never appreciated having cash on me as much as I did at that point.
I went back to the taxi driver but one of the people they’d thought would come along had pulled out, and they wanted us to find another person, pay extra, AND told us that if the bridge was cracked that they would just leave us there, without giving us even part of our money back. I was tired and desperate enough to give in, but the two guys who I’d been going to share the ride with – both middle aged Belgian men, were determined not to be taken advantage of like that.
We walked around for ages trying to find another taxi driver to take us, but understandably, there weren’t many who were willing. It took hours before we finally managed to convince a young man to drive us up. I ran down to the shops and grabbed as much food as I could fit in my bag – if things were as bad as they’d said in Kathmandu, I figured they might not have any there – and we set off.
The taxi ride was tense. There were lots of tremors, and occasionally the driver would lose control a little – just like when you’re driving in the rain and your car hydroplanes. There were lots of stones and rocks on the road, some of which we had to get out and move. There was one bit that was pretty worrying – a tremor hit and these huge rocks fell onto the road and we missed them by just a few seconds.
Along the way we’d pass buses and trucks, some just crashed on the road, some that had fallen off the side of the mountain, with little bits and pieces all the way down.
Most of the villages along the way had been completely flattened, although there was such a huge difference in the way people were reacting – there were a few where everyone was gathered outside, laughing, smiling and taking care of each other quite cheerfully. And then in some places you’d just see people sitting outside these ruins, rocking themselves with glassy eyes and blank faces – or, worse, people moaning and crying. That was chilling.
We stopped late in the afternoon at this street side diner for lunch, where they fired up their stove and fried us some fish and potatoes. It wasn’t a choice, that was all they were willing to cook. I couldn’t complain, food was food and we were starving. We sat outside and ate, everyone on tenterhooks, and drove off again as soon as we were done.
The devastation was much worse as we got closer to Kathmandu. It was slow going – the streets were unrecognisable, there were piles of rubble everywhere and whole building collapsed like packs of cards, or fallen at an angle like toy houses that some toddler had knocked over. Many had split, and furniture was hanging off the resultant ledges, in mid air.
In the few open spaces – parks and courtyards mainly – there were huge camps, with tents made out of blankets. Everywhere people were pulling down banners and advertising to use the tarps for shelter. I was worried. What if I got to Fireflies and it was just a pile of rubble? What if there were bodies that I recognised?
It was hard getting to Thamel, because when you can’t recognise the streets or surroundings you just have no idea where you’re going. It took us a fair while to navigate there, but the good news was that Thamel wasn’t too bad. Everything was closed, and some buildings had collapsed, but it was not as bad as most of what we’d seen.
One of the big reasons that the damage had been so bad was that building regulations weren’t often followed in the poorer parts of Nepal because they couldn’t afford to, but things were far better in Thamel, which was full of tourists and their money. I later read a really great article about this in The Guardian:
In many cases, the rush of urbanisation has produced some of the most dangerous built environments: multi-storey buildings, over-reliance on concrete and a loss of knowledge that protected previous generations. The pressure to meet the needs of growing populations, along with improperly implemented building regulations, can lead to lethal weakness…
Around three-quarters of all deaths in earthquakes are due to building collapse. Low-cost and informal buildings are most likely to fail, meaning that earthquakes disproportionately affect the poorest in the community, and usually leave them even poorer. The technology and skills to practically eliminate this scale of fatality are available. Yet they are not reaching the people who need them most. Earthquakes are not just a “natural” crisis: they reflect a poverty crisis.
– The Guardian, Nepal Earthquake: a disaster that shows quakes don’t kill people, buildings do
We had to leave the taxi because the roads were blocked with rubble, and walked to Fireflies – which, I was so relieved to see, was not damaged, and was still open. The atmosphere there was lovely actually, everyone had pulled together and were trying to do what they could to help, while people regularly went out and got information from various embassies and authorities and kept everyone else updated.
I gave a lot of my food away, and walked around with Grant, a photographer, who wanted to capture the aftermath. I felt super awkward taking photos, but I had my portable power pack stored at Fireflies so I could charge my phone again, and took 2 or 3 photos of just the street outside Fireflies.
We wandered around and checked out the camp grounds, where people were doing mass amounts of cooking and sharing it with everyone around. That was so heartening to see. A lot of the shops were abandoned, and some people were looting, but a few others were still open and running – albeit with highly inflated prices.
Grant took a photo of a little boy who then came up to us and demanded money. We didn’t have any but we did offer him food; he refused, and angrily asked again for money. I suppose you get all types. Most people were happy enough to be photographed though, and Grant always went and showed them the photos, and they would smile and cheer up (he was a good photographer).
There was no electricity, no water, no data, and barely any phone reception. There was one place around that had wifi – Paradise Hotel – and everyone would go over there and crowd around trying to get onto the network so that they could notify their families that they were okay. You had to literally spend about an hour trying to connect before you’d get on for a moment or two, would rush to send a message saying that you’re safe, and then you’d lost the connection again.
It felt a bit like being in a movie, with the way everyone pulled together. Some people just didn’t know how to react though, and as the tremors kept going I’d still see locals running indoors whenever a tremor hit. I was stunned. Surely, after seeing all the buildings collapse, they’d realise that you’re meant to run out and not in when the tremors hit?
One of the other guests at Fireflies reminded me that a lot of the people here were not educated, and that while we might think that it’s common sense, they just didn’t know any better, and they were scared and not thinking logically. It made me realise, yet again, just how thankful I am that I’ve had a decent education.
I was going to sleep outside, but then it rained and I slept inside instead. By this point we were getting a bit desensitised, and we’d figured that if Fireflies hadn’t collapsed yet, it wasn’t going to collapse in the night while it was raining. Plus we were too tired to deal with the rain outside; we figured we’d risk it and run out if anything seemed like it was going to break or fall.
The next day was when my flight was meant to leave. We weren’t getting much proper information, just rumours. Everyone was trying to figure out if their friends were alive, and if we could do anything to help. Apparently Israel had sent two planes full of aid, and people wanted to go join them. People came recruiting with various little aid projects.
At Fireflies they cooked up vast quantities of dal bhat for all the guests. I couldn’t eat it, it would have set my stomach off like anything, and with no water to flush I thought I might actually block up the toilets. There were a few more places open at this point – I don’t know how – and I walked down to this place called Delai-la and got some water and yoghurt. They were insanely generous and let me have it for free, refusing to let me pay. The chef was crippled but was still there, cooking away for people.
I was touched. It’s insane how generous people can be in times like this. I mean, they can also be pretty terrible, in all fairness – Kieran, one of the other guests, had left his bike parked outside the hostel, and someone had siphoned out the petrol. I guess you just do what you have to do.
We’d heard that there were insanely long lines at the airport, and that you had to get there five hours early for your flight. One of the other guys at Fireflies, Vejde, was on the same flight, and we caught a taxi there for 600rs, double the usual price. There was a long wait. There were huge lines of Indians, because the Indian government had sent special flights to retrieve them, but they had to wait for hours in the hot sun and they were starting to get agro and fighting.
We had flights booked, so we went inside. It took us an hour and a half to check in. Some staff came by and handed out some biscuits, Vejde got out his juggling balls and juggled a bit to the delight of a little girl watching him with wide eyes, and we ended up meeting Antoineta, another traveller from Portugal who was also catching our flight.
Then there was immigration, and security. This was the hellish part. We were waiting and waiting and waiting in line for hours, unmoving. Flights were constantly getting cancelled or delayed, and you were waiting nervously, repeatedly checking the boards, to see whether yours was one of those. We were tired and hungry, and our flight, which was meant to be at 4pm, got delayed till 9pm. 9pm came and went, and the board still said ‘check-in’ for our flight.
The airport lounge was filthy. There were literal mounds of litter everywhere, the toilets were overflowing, it was stuffy and awful and there was no way to distract ourselves. It felt like we were going crazy. We were so hungry, but the only food available was junk like chips and chocolate.
I was so desperate for some food or anything that wasn’t going to be really greasy and sugary. And we were thirsty – it was 300rs for a bottle of water and we were all almost out of cash, having gotten rid of it as we were leaving since we thought we wouldn’t need it anymore.
We ended up leaving the line and sitting on our bags after a few hours, and they switched to calling people for flights so that there wasn’t any point lining up unless they called you anyway. We found a few other people whose flight had been meant to leave the morning of the day before. I suggested we play cards – none of us had any, but we tore up some paper, made our own cards, and played shithead for a while.
Then at 11pm we heard that our flight had been diverted to Calcutta. What did that mean, we wondered? Was it cancelled? Should we stay or should we go? A woman came round and told us that it was rescheduled till the next day. It was awful. We were tired, we were starving, we were dirty, we were feeling pretty sick from eating just chips and chocolate all day, and it felt like we were going crazy from boredom and that our butts were getting numb from sitting on our bags, but there weren’t any free seats.
My phone is almost dead, I’m almost out of data, and there’s no wifi working. I struggle to get some reception and send a quick message to let them know that my flight is delayed before I’m completely out of credit and my phone dies. It’s so bad that we decide we’ll just go back to Fireflies and return to the airport the next day.
Immigration makes a fuss, but the Air Asia officials say it’ll be okay, and we manage to get let back out of the airport. We walk outside and it’s impossible to get a cab. One van says he’ll take us back into the city, but only to the bus park, and that it’ll be 1000rs per person. We don’t have enough money, the bus park is ages from our hostel and we don’t think we’ll be able to find our way in the dark and amongst the rubble.
We wonder if maybe we should just sleep outside, where at least the air is cleaner. As we’re discussing this, a Nepalese man retches loudly and spits out a healthy gob of saliva right next to the people sleeping on the sidewalk in front of us. I shudder. Maybe not.
As we’re still trying to decide on what to do, our attention is caught by two kids fighting each other. Not play fighting – they look like they’re trying to kill each other. Vejde tries to intervene, but they’re both livid, and we hear that maybe it’s about drugs or money, although we don’t know Nepalese so we’re not sure what they’re saying. It’s the last straw; we give up and go back inside.
At least by this point, Air Asia is handing out blankets and inflatable pillows, and the inflow of hopeful passengers has paused while the outflow has continued, and I finally manage to get a much vaunted couch on which to lay down and nap. Vejde and Antoineta sleep on floor.
There are more tremors at night, but nothing falls. The next day, our flight is tentatively postponed again till 1:30pm. We’re morose and low on morale but the officials tell us to consider ourselves lucky – getting out in a day or two is the best we can hope for, and otherwise we might have to wait a week.
Try waking up really early due to the noise in a cramped, overcrowded and incredibly dirty room where the stench from the toilets is slowly pervading further and further through the air, with your stomach simultaneously upset and rumbling with hunger. At least they’ve refilled the drinking water. The three of us suffer the stench of the bathrooms and brush our teeth – it’s a small thing, but it feels good.
We watch the screens, keeping an eye on the delays. It’s hard to guage how things are going – the 7am flight is still boarding at 10am, but the 8.30am flight has finished boarding. We perk up every time we hear a plane taking off. There are rumours of aid planes taking up space and preventing commercial flights from landing or taking off.
Most of the planes, we are told, circle around but can’t land, then use up too much fuel and have to divert to neighbouring countries’ airports. Flights from China and India seem to be going well though, they’ve definitely been given preference – I suppose being the most powerful neighbours gives them priority over everyone else.
I wish I could sleep more, to help pass the time, but no luck – I usually can’t stay awake but now I can’t sleep. I haven’t showered for days, I’m in the same clothes I’ve been wearing since I left Pokhara, my hair is a tangled mess, my skin is blotchy, my stomach hurts, I’m tired and exhausted and I just want out. The airport is awful. I remind myself that at least I’m safe, alive, and will get to go home soon. It’s better than those people who’ve lost their families or homes, and far better than being stuck here.
But all I can think of is getting to use a clean toilet. Getting to shower. Eating some eggs or veggies or fruit. Being somewhere clean and getting to breath fresh air.
We get ridiculously excited when the screen showed ‘security check’ at quarter past twelve. But they only let men through (two lanes for men) while the women were kept waiting. Vejde went through, while Antoineta and I continued waiting. At least, we thought, that must mean that our flight has landed?
At around 2pm the status of our flight changes to delayed again, this time till 4pm. But there’s a huge cheer when they finally put int he call for Air Asia at 3:30pm. We went through and met up with Vejde again, who’d been faring much better than us – they had real food on this side, although only intermittently. Every time they got new supplies, the crowd would mob the shop and it would disappear almost instantly.
We waited at gate 5. The US army plane left and ours arrived, to loud cheers. We still had to wait for passengers to disembark, and they had to clean and refuel, The staff almost got trampled once they opened the doors up to us, everyone was so eager to get on and get out of here.
Of course, it couldn’t be that simple. There was a problem with the tires, so they said that we’d be delayed by an hour. An hour later they said they’d changed the tire and we’d be another 45 minutes before we could take off. At 8pm they said they were done, and gave us a safety demo. We then had to wait until we were authorised for take off – only one flight could take off at a time.
We got on the runway at 8:30pm only to be informed that there was a dog on the runway preventing us from taking off. Only in Nepal. It took another 12 minutes before the dog was removed and we were cleared again.
Nothing can quite capture the joy of getting off that runway and up into the air. It was finally over. We were finally out of there. Air Asia was super apologetic, and did give us all free meals of fried rice, which at that point felt like the most delicious thing in the world.
I keep getting asked about how terrible the whole ordeal was, and how I’m doing, which feels very strange – I wasn’t hurt, I didn’t lose anything, I didn’t lose any loved ones. I was fine. But it was really sad to see, and it’s one of those things that you go through that really makes you think about what’s important.
The final note to this is about Fireflies, who were absolutely amazing, and who still are. In the aftermath of the earthquake, they mobilised and created this group called Bring Thoughts to Action – whose blog you can check out here. They’re all about creating sustainable change in a very holistic way – focusing on both environmental and social changes.
They went around building shelters and toilets for those in need, teaching girls how to make reusable sanitary napkins, distributing food, provided farmers with agricultural resources with the promise that part of their resulting profits would go towards micro-finance and education for the community, and many other initiatives like it.
“Our initial mission is to empower communities by supporting investment in different projects to create self-esteemed and self determined societies”. If you feel like getting involved and helping, please click here to read more.