*Note: These recollections were written shortly after the events took place in order to capture how I truly felt during the moments. I tried to write in retrospect as little as possible.
April 25, 2015 (Day 1):
It was just before noon on Saturday, April 25. I was hungover from a party the night before where my host family and I spent the night enjoying as much free drinks and food that our stomachs could handle. I was feeling lazy and planned for an unproductive, uneventful day. As I lay in bed browsing articles on my phone, the wall next to me began to shake. My first thought was, “Wow… a very large truck is driving by outside the window.” After no more than two seconds I realized that this was something else. The strength of the shaking was increasing enormously and everything on the wall was vibrating with force. I thought the walls themselves were about to crumble into pieces. My mind flashed to something I’d read about earthquakes in the national mountaineering museum (“A large earthquake takes place in Nepal roughly every 70 years”… and 80 years has already passed since the last one. “Experts expect another any day”).
I immediately jumped to my feet, the ground shaking beneath me, feeling like the dice trapped inside the magic 8-ball. I may be from Texas, oblivious to certain forces of nature, but I knew exactly what was going on. There was no other explanation. This was an earthquake.
Fight or flight mode kicked in almost instantaneously, and I was full-on-flight. I flew out the door and down the shaking staircase so quickly that I didn’t even stop to breathe or put on my shoes. I darted into the street full-speed where I was met by a hectic scene. People were pouring out of their restaurants, homes and shops and into the crowded road. Every person’s face read pure panic and terror as the rumbling continued. Grown women were wailing for their mothers. People were crying, screaming, running around in search of open spaces and their loved ones. We were all seeking a safe place, despite the fact we knew a force of this magnitude was inescapable. We were merely humans, though more like ants, caught in a battle between the elements. And we thought surely Mother Nature’s foot was about to smoosh us all in one swift motion.
The ground beneath our feet rattled on with vigor, while the towering buildings shook with the quake. And the noise I will never forget… like a pot of boiling water about to bubble over, or a train with too many screws loose, about to derail. Forceful, constant, and unyielding. I found what I deemed the most open space on the street (it wasn’t), watched and waited for the buildings to crash down, or for the ground to split open the way it does in the movies. “Is this the end for me?” I wondered frantically, convinced that my life was over. “I’m too young, I haven’t reached my goals. My family is too far. I can’t die.” I was desperate to tell my parents I loved them, but could not compose myself enough to press a single button. How helpless it felt to be on the losing end of this battle… there was nothing I or anyone else could do. Our powers as humans had reached their limits; the earth had put us back in our place.
So I did the only thing I knew to do in such a situation. I pleaded to the universe for protection.
The shaking and hysteria continued for what felt like an hour, but was only a few minutes. When the ground stopped moving, so did the buildings, and eventually the screams subsided as well. All the structures on the street remained intact. Everyone was okay. I was still alive. “Is that it?” I wondered. It felt like the earth had just played a giant joke on us.
I looked around and spotted Madhu, my hilarious host mother (or for all intents and purposes, my Nepali mother), standing a few yards away. I ran over and latched onto her arm, relieved that she was okay and that I had found a familiar face. In true Madhu fashion, she immediately scolded me for forgetting to turn off the television before bolting from the house in an effort to save my life. I laughed. Over the next 10 minutes we searched for and gathered the rest of the family. Then we waited street side with the hoards of people, preparing for the aftershock.
Looking around, trying to collect myself and coming down from the adrenaline rush, I noticed that while some people looked distraught, others appeared strangely aloof. Was this actually not such a big deal? Confused, I asked a few people if this happens often. “We get many earthquakes, but not like this.” It was unanimous. “This one was longer and stronger than any earthquake we’ve had before.”
While my body still trembled from fear, I sent out a few messages to my sister and my boyfriend, letting them know what had happened and that I was okay. Then I opened safari and quickly googled “nepal earthquake”. Bystanders huddled around my phone as we looked at the results. There were already several hits, with the top one being a geological survey reporting a 7.5 magnitude earthquake near Lamjung (later raised to 7.9). The Richter Scale placed an earthquake of this magnitude in the “major” category. I thought surely this would be making international news, and wondered if I had just experienced one of the largest natural disasters of the century. I attempted to call my mother, but the cell service had cut out.
About 30 minutes after the quake ended, the first aftershock arrived. It was strong. The panic resurfaced. People screamed and latched onto each other as the ground shook beneath them. I felt the need to take off running again. There were too many buildings towering above us, we needed to get away. But after less than 30 seconds, the shaking ceased. Not knowing a thing about aftershocks, I felt relieved. The earthquake passed, the aftershock passed, and we were all okay. I didn’t realize that there was more to come. Madhu set me straight when I inquired if we could go back indoors. Over the course of the next few days there were going to be dozens of aftershocks of varying magnitudes.
Because of the prolonged risk, we remained outside or near ground floor doors for the remainder of the day. Hotel Balaji served as the new HQ for news intake for family, friends and guests. Everyone conjoined here. We spent a large portion of the afternoon huddled around the television, watching horrifying videos on loop depict the destruction and death that affected Kathmandu valley. Because of all the old buildings crammed together along narrow streets, they seemed to have suffered the worst of it. I recognized many of the historical buildings that were demolished, particularly in Basantapur Durbar Square, where Dennis and I had celebrated Holi just last month. The same streets I had walked down last week were barely recognizable. Many of the UNESCO World Heritage sites had been destroyed or badly damaged. I felt lucky to be where I was in Narayangadh, and so thankful that everyone I knew emerged alive and without injury. Even our homes were still standing strong. Surveying the damage inside, we found almost everything in place. The damage was contained mostly to the bathrooms, where the mounted shelves fell off the walls, scattering glass and other shards across the tile floor. In the bathroom, the porcelain of the toilet had been smashed as well. But everything that was lost could be replaced, and everything that was damaged could be fixed. It was so minimal. We were all happy because we knew that it could have been worse.
I was able to have a long phone conversation with Dennis, and a brief one with my mom before connection was lost again. I was so thankful for this and for Facebook, which allowed me to contact friends and family, putting both them and me at ease during this crazy and desperate time.
At night, we all gathered on the street sidewalk with mattresses and rugs, where we would be sleeping to avoid any danger. We felt a few more aftershocks around midnight, waking anyone who had managed to fall asleep in these conditions to begin with. Sleep was scarce, and everyone was exhausted. I was woken throughout the night by passing cars, bad smells and itches from countless mosquito bites. I thought about the street children, refugees, the homeless and displaced persons who live in FAR worse conditions day in and day out, now with a new respect for their strength and endurance. I was already complaining after a single night.
About 5 AM everyone was woken up abruptly by a larger aftershock. After it passed, it was in our sleepy desperation that we decided it was time to get some rest inside. So we went into our rooms and passed out instantaneously.
I woke up around 9 AM… still drowsy but knowing that I couldn’t spend too much time indoors. The risk was too high and aftershocks were occurring by the hour. Despite this, things were beginning to feel a bit more relaxed.
Then rumors began to surface that another earthquake would “strike around 12”.
I knew this wasn’t logical, how could they know? But everyone aimed to be outside by 11:30 anyways. I took perhaps the quickest shower I’ve ever taken. When we got back to the hotel, we watched the news as the death toll climbed. I sat in shock, contemplating life and death and feeling so thankful that my Nepali family and I were spared. But it wasn’t over. Warnings blared out of every TV, radio and cell phone. Trucks drove by with loudspeakers urging everyone to shelter in a safe place. We were to stay alert for the next 2 days because the dangers of aftershocks were still very high. Because of this, everyone was on edge. I jumped at every abrupt movement and shout. Even when the ground was still, we all swore we could feel it shaking.
At 12:30 Madhu finished cooking lunch… Amit and I ran upstairs to the kitchen (which was on the 3rd floor) to eat as quickly as we could to lessen the risk of being caught in a dangerous situation. While we were stuffing our faces like savages, the shaking began. Madhu started yelling and we all took off downstairs with our mouths still full of food. I could hear screaming outside. The shaking was violent and increasing in strength. I raced down as quickly as I could, which wasn’t so fast considering the whole stairwell was convulsing. Once in the street I flew down to the empty lot where the rest of the family was calling me. And just like that, it ended. A 6.7 magnitude aftershock, which felt more like another earthquake altogether. After catching our breath, Amit and I laughed and swallowed the bites of food that were still in our mouths. Surprisingly, I gathered enough courage to go back upstairs and finish my lunch, even though I wasn’t hungry in the slightest. My stomach felt like a ball of knots. “Would there be an aftershock from the aftershock?” I wondered and worried as I scarfed down rice and dal.
I spent the next several hours fighting off panic attacks. More rumors surfaced that another earthquake was coming as strong as yesterday’s. I knew this was illogical and impossible to predict, but I was extremely frightened by the prospect of it happening, now knowing the nature of aftershocks. They were right about the last one, could they be right again? Could nature defy the expert opinions and statistics and completely obliterate this country one more time? I felt helpless. I wanted to be with my family, with Dennis. I plotted ways to get out of the country without having to take the dangerous mountain drive back to Kathmandu. I felt trapped, anxious and depressed. Luckily the news caught onto the rumors, and warned everyone in a radio announcement not to listen to the fear-mongering. Everything was going to be alright and the rumors were not true. Once I was convinced of this, I started to feel calm again.
For the remainder of the day, we sat in the courtyard of the temple a few doors down. While resting with a family friend, she confided in me. “Yesterday I believed, but today I am hopeless.” I tried to reassure her that Nepal will pull through, that international aid is coming, that the world is paying attention and they won’t turn their backs on them or leave them to suffer. As I said these words, I hoped that I was speaking the truth. I’ve put my faith in a global community which often (but not always) ignores or does too little for the countries which can do little for them in return. I hoped that the world would care enough this time around, and that it wouldn’t simply forget about Nepal after a few days.
That night, the family and I ate dinner at a restaurant across the street. We drank and celebrated being alive. I realized how lucky I was to have met my Nepali family. It occurred to me that if they had not offered me a place to stay, I would have been in Kathmandu during the earthquake. I don’t know what this would have meant for my safety or mental condition but I was so glad to be where I was. I wondered how I could repay them for all that they’ve done for me.
The temple compound was where we would sleep. As the evening approached, several families carried mats, rugs, blankets, pillows and mosquito nets into the small confined area. The setup was very innovative and reminded me of camping trips with my dad as a kid… Almost. “Same same, but different” as the saying goes.
Sleep was scarce that night. With Sudip’s mother, I shared a twin-sized mat and one medium-sized blanket. My joints and back weren’t happy. Mosquitos managed to bite through the net all night since we were pushed up against it. I looked forward to the end of the 72-hour “danger period” so that we could sleep in our beds comfortably again. As it turned out, this wasn’t much like camping with dad, after all.
**Please consider donating to Nepal relief funds through organizations like the Red Cross, Save the Children, Oxfam, UNICEF and Direct Relief.**
**Also please give your loved ones extra hugs and kisses next time you see them.**