Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Nepal Earthquake - 80 Life-Changing Hours in Kathmandu

In a departure from the normal posts you usually see at The Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet, what follows is an account from a previous guest poster, MikeC, of his time in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu during the recent devastating earthquake to hit the country.  A big thank you to MikeC for his willingness to share his story with the readers here.  I hope you find it as engaging, thought-provoking and life-affirming as I did.

If you are keen to see MikeC's previous work, follow the link below to hear about his amazing journey through the less-travelled parts of Northern India. 

'Northern India...Off the Beaten Track'

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Background to the events...
At 11.56am on the 25th April 2015, Nepal was hit by a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake. The epicentre was close to the town of Gourka mid-way between the major tourist hub and trekking jump-off point of Pokhara and Kathmandu. I was in Kathmandu at the time, preparing to depart for a month’s climbing in the Himalayas. This is my description of events taken from diary entries from the quake up until I was able to get out of Nepal, some 80 hours or so later.


The day of the earthquake...
I had just returned from some last minute shopping to get some things I needed to go climbing; some snacks, and the odd piece of essential clothing. I returned to the hotel and my friend Neil and I agreed to have half an hour to sort things out, have an early lunch and then head over to one of the Stupas in Kathmandu. A few minutes later, everything changed. Sitting on my bed for a few minutes reading, I initially felt a small vibration and the power went out. Being a common occurrence in that part of the world, I momentarily gave it little thought. That quickly changed when the full force of the earthquake hit. When the shock started, I decided to get out of the room and out of the hotel. I ran down the corridor, down the stairs and into the reception of the hotel where I was able to hold onto a supporting wall under a lintel. I remember looking outside and seeing walls, buildings everything collapsing around me. The shaking went on for about a minute, although at the time, it felt much longer.


Aftermath...
Once the quake stopped, we got out of the building and went onto the street, fearing aftershocks. Once on the road, a realisation of the damage started to hit home. Power lines were down, walls and buildings had collapsed, power was out, there was no phone reception. We went to a small car park; away from power lines and tall buildings and waited. Among us were many locals and foreigners. Most of whom were scared, confused and wondering what had just happened and whether it would happen again. Many people had injuries, thankfully none too severe, but some help was provided. There were two aftershocks while we were in the car park, during the second of which we met Hana, a South Korean girl who was travelling on her own and was understandably terrified.


(source - MikeC)



Making a plan...
After spending an hour or so in the car park, we talked and decided upon a plan. Many people didn’t do this, and I believe this made our lives over the following days far easier than they could have been. Preparation in these situations is key and taking a few minutes to take stock and assess a situation can save your life. We decided that we needed supplies and to be safe. We returned to our hotel which was still standing, I gathered a survival bag consisting of water, food, clothing, water purification tablets and medical supplies. We then went to Hana’s hotel so she could do the same. On the way, we saw complete devastation, collapsed and subsided buildings, more power lines down, cracks in pavements, roads and buildings as well as lots of people shocked by what had just occurred.


(source - MikeC)


Shortly after our thoughts turned to friends in Kathmandu. Both for ensuring they were OK as well as getting some local advice on what to do and where to go. Fortunately having spent a long time in Kathmandu over the last 12 years, I know the city well. So, we decided to set out for my friend, Basant’s office (as we couldn’t get any signal on our phones). It was a half-hour walk past more destruction. We got to Basant’s office around 3pm, but there was no one around. We spoke to one local who said he knew him, but had not heard anything. So, we decided to keep moving and get away from buildings. We headed down to Ratna Park, open, safe and with lots of people. This would give us chance to take stock. On the way, we walked past the clock tower in Kathmandu, the clock frozen at 11.56am. A poignant reminder of what had happened only a few hours ago.


The Clock Tower - 'stuck' at 11.56am (source - MikeC)


Taking stock of things...
In the park, we were able to sit and take stock. We didn’t want to go and had nowhere to go to. Neil was able to barter an old pair of sunglasses for some tea; we had a couple of drinks and talked about what had happened and what we thought was going to happen. There were a few more aftershocks, but none too bad. We waited until sunset, but decided to head back before it got too dark. We knew there was a small, but open café close to our hotel and there might have been a working Internet connection. On the walk back we saw further destruction. Buildings collapsed, shell-shocked people sitting on the side of the road, people trying to gather what they could from the ruins of their houses and their lives and people looking for loved ones. The realisation of what had happened perhaps starting to sink in.


Telling the world I was alive...
We returned to the hotel and café and somehow was able to get online. Of course, Facebook was inundated with messages, posts, comments etc. We were all able to get a message out to people that somehow, by some inexplicable piece of luck, karma; call it what you will, we were all alive. We remained in the café until around 11am, taking advantage of social media and electricity while we had it. We also had a hot meal, not knowing when we would do so next. After much discussion and consideration, we decided to go back inside. In hindsight, this was one of the two mistakes I made during the four days – I’ll get to the other later. We did however pack our bags carefully with all equipment in/attached to it. To say we slept is an overstatement, we rested, but a number of small aftershocks as well as nerves kept me awake. Around 5am, a 5.6 aftershock hit us which sent us scrambling out of the building and me cursing myself for my stupidity and putting us in danger.


Day two...
We spent the next few hours in the café garden, still with Wi-Fi, but little else. We were able to update people about our condition and to formulate our next plan. We had heard a rumour about the British Embassy wanting to make contact with British Nationals and that they were formulating a plan. At the time we believed this was true; this was the second mistake I made – as time went on, we learnt how quickly misinformation and rumour can spread. We made it to the British Embassy, I spoke to the Commanding Officer – the embassy is quite militarised and it run by the Ghurkhas. The Officer told me him and three staff were looking after 158 British Nationals, they had little to offer, but said they could take myself and Neil in, but Hana, being South Korean would understandably not be allowed in. It was also suggested we go to the airport and the South Korean Embassy.

It was here that we saw the worst of people. It was the only time. Overall, I was blown away by the kindness and generosity of people – I’ll get onto that, but this was the one time I witnessed exploitation of the situation. The taxi journey to the South Korean embassy would usually be a few hundred rupees, maybe £3. When I finally found a taxi driver, who would go, they wanted 1500 rupees per person. After an exchange of expletives, he left and we abandoned that plan and went to the airport. Unfortunately, 10000 other foreigners had the same idea. The airport was chaos. No one knew what was happening, no staff had turned up as they were either injured, dead, or had gone to check on/look for their family. We quickly decided to abandon that plan and head back to Basant’s office. Thankfully when we arrived, he was alive and well. We discussed what had happened and were able to get a copy of an albeit small newspaper. It told us of the death toll, but we all knew it would rise.


Making a plan to get home...
We started to discuss onward flights and getting home. After calling home on Basant’s somehow working landline, I tried to call the airline, but at 12.50pm mid-call a 6.5 aftershock sent us running outside, by the time we were able to go back inside, the line was dead. We realised we needed somewhere to stay, which wasn’t inside. Next to the office was a small park run by a group of Hare Krishna’s who had a commune for people of all faiths and beliefs. They very kindly welcomed us to live with them. They couldn’t offer much, just a piece of grass and a tarpaulin for a roof, but it was a wonderful gesture, one which we will never forget.


After getting settled and speaking to some of the others in the park (we were the only foreigners), I decided we needed another plan. While the airport was no use, maybe the airline offices would be able to help. We found quickly however that they were all closed; staff having gone home and many without power. It didn’t take us long to abandon the re-booking plan and decided that buying any flight out was the best solution. This of course would only work with an Internet connection. By this time the power in the café had run out, so we went on a Wi-Fi hunt with dying batteries and no way to charge them. Hana knew of a Korean café which according to some people she had met still somehow had working Internet. We tracked it down and amazingly it worked! We were partly relieved, but knew we had many more obstacles. The first being the structural integrity of the building. It was standing, but a number close to it had collapsed and were dangerous, so we didn’t want to linger. Just before the battery died, I was able to get a flight booked with Qatar Airways for Tuesday evening which was a great relief. Hana was able to get one for herself for the following morning. We were overjoyed and left to go back to our new home in the park.


Helping others...
On the precarious walk back past unstable buildings and through dangerously narrow streets; we met a group of Czech people who had just got back from their trek, but having missed the force of the quake. Their hotel was unusable and they were in need of shelter and accommodation. We suggested they came with us and they were delighted at the offer of somewhere to stay. They were well equipped for camping and mostly self-sufficient which was great as none of us wanted to overly burden our hosts. We returned to the camp to be given a plate of rice with a few vegetables. A moving gesture given what the people had gone through. We felt touched that as complete strangers, the generosity of those who had nothing extended to giving us a warm meal.


(source - MikeC)


Exhausted people began to bed down for the night around 10pm, but none of us really slept, the pouring rain, the aftershocks, the nervous conversations of people and the general apprehensiveness made sleep elusive for a second night. Around 5am the following morning some people left to assess their homes. For most the news was bad and they would be forced to return.


Day three...
Later than morning, I went in search of food. We had mostly been living of energy bars and peanuts and I felt some fruit or vegetables would not only prove a welcome break but keep us healthier. I was beginning to worry about the outbreak of disease, there was no running water, the sewers had backed-up and rubbish was piling up. I was able to find some fruit from a market which was a great relief. It was more expensive than usual, but not overly so. I was impressed at the self-control of people for not panic-buying. I believe the good-nature of Nepali people and the concern for others maybe prevented hoarding. Such discipline and concern or others, I don’t believe would have existed in the West.


Assessing the damage...
We decided to go and assess the damage around Kathmandu, gather a few more missing possessions and get a better idea of what was happening in the rest of the city. We were able to find a couple of restaurants and cafes which were somehow functioning. Somewhere to get a cup of coffee and a meal was a great relief. Not only for our own well-being but also because we didn’t want our hosts to feel obliged to waste food on us.


We returned for our last night to the park and spent time talking to the locals. Much of this was dedicated to dispelling rumours. Rumour, we learnt was one of the biggest problems here. A lack in knowledge about earthquakes meant people believed all sorts of stories most of which lacked any scientific evidence. Many times we heard people saying ‘there will be another earthquake at 3:30pm. This was of course complete rubbish, but created panic and hysteria. A few basic lessons in plate tectonics gave some of the locals a little more comfort in understanding what was happening and why it was happening. This was the first evening when we heard planes and helicopters flying overhead. Mostly aid planes and helicopters flying to the mountains to rescue people stuck. It was a reassuring sound to hear, but didn’t make sleep any easier.


Day four – time to leave...
The following morning was sunny and warm. I decided to take a short stroll around to assess what was going on. Not much had changed, but a few people had begun to go home. I saw a few Red Cross tents, but little else. The Government had begun to deliver water in large tankers and people were (again without panic) filling up containers. This was the morning of our flight and knowing the chaos of the airport, two days previously, I wanted to give ourselves a lot of time. After meeting Basant, changing clothes and getting ready, he asked if I could take one of his volunteers, Giulia, to the airport as well and help her. Around 9:30am, we set off for the airport expecting the worst and in no way assuming we would be leaving. Check in for Qatar Airways was easy, Etihad for Giulia was anything but. The previous day’s flight had been diverted to Delhi as there had been too many planes on the tarmac for it to be able to land. While of course the aid was needed, the clogging up of the airport probably caused as much harm as good. Much of the blame of this has to fall on the Indians for acting without thinking. Eventually we were all checked in, through security and ready for departure. We all had a few hours nervous delay as more rumours spread about cancellations, but in the end we were all aboard our respective flights and heading home to great relief, exhaustion, but also a fair amount of survivor guilt.


Emotional effects of leaving...
Things for me really hit home when I landed in Doha, firstly seeing lights on, having electricity and Internet was all very unusual. I walked past a restaurant in the airport around 1am and it was full of people eating, drinking, relaxing and doing normal things, a few snoozing on their chairs. I thought back to the last 4 days, could there be a greater juxtaposition in any given period of time?

The day I returned home I went to the supermarket to get some things which I had had to leave behind. I ended up walking past the vegetables and found myself looking at the mushrooms. For no particular reason I don’t think, but I remember looking and thinking, what has happened to our world where people demand to have a choice between eight different types of mushrooms while most of the people I had been living with the last few days probably won’t eat tonight. Many of the injustices in the world came crashing home at that point. While I don’t think of myself as an overly materialistic person, this experience has taught me so much about the world and what we deem important. It has also taught me the kindness and compassion which most people have. It also reminded me of the importance of being prepared. I’m not talking about constantly remaining on edge expecting something to happen, just that when it does; taking a few minutes to take stock and consider your options so you can make informed decisions can be the difference between life and death.


MikeC - Safe and Well (source - MikeC)


Personal thoughts and advice...
For whatever reason, my hotel didn’t collapse while others did. That is just the way things happened, there is nothing you can do about that, but you can be prepared to make decisions. We were, others were not. Everyone suffered, we, I believe suffered less as we were prepared and didn’t panic. I hope that no one has to go through what we and the people of Nepal have recently gone through, but if you do, take stock, come up with a clear plan of action, don’t make rash decisions, take rumour with a big pinch of salt and be prepared. Water, clothes, high energy food, water purification tablets, medical kit and a solar charger for your phone are all vital things and can keep you alive. A pen and paper with phone numbers and addresses of travel companies, embassies, the emergency services are all indispensable. For me, being able to write my experiences also made a big difference in enabling me to re-tell this story so that I can share my experiences and hopefully help to prepare you for what might happen if you are unfortunate enough to experience anything similar.

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The relief effort to help the people of Nepal is a huge task.  The priority is to help those in need now; those caught up in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.  Based on who he saw 'on the ground' in Nepal, MikeC has suggested the following charities, should you want to donate to help those affected by this catastrophic event.

Medecins Sans Frontieres - http://www.msf.org.uk/country-region/nepal-earthquake-emergency-response

The International Red Crosshttps://www.icrc.org/en/document/nepal-earthquake


Water Aidhttps://www.wateraid.org/uk/donate/nepal-earthquake-relief?id=NP9999%2c15/QBB%2cCshOth%2c15/QBB/00A


7 comments:

  1. A fascinating account MikeC - it's interesting to hear that you were able to help in a tiny way, reducing panic by sharing a small amount of knowledge on what was happening. I bet you've never been so glad to have been well prepared, even if it sounds like luck played a part too. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Preparation was key along with taking the time to make sensible, informed decisions. Many people are unwilling to make decisions and this, ultimately creates problems. Having the knowledge about seismology as well as knowing the city very well certainly made my life easier. Improving the knowledge of local Nepali people is going to be a major part of ongoing development efforts as well as my fundraising focus moving forward with Nepal.

    Mike

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  3. An incredible story, I can't begin to image what it was like with so many aftershocks - not being able to trust the building you are standing in. He's a very lucky man.

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    1. It really is, isn't it, John! Luck was certainly on Mike's side. What really touched me was the kindness shown here by Mike and his friend to Hana and the help that they all received from those they encountered in the aftermath.

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  4. I Dont think it is a diary entry
    Its soooo long

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    1. I don't think a diary entry has to be a certain length. I think it is important that Mike had the room to write the events of the earthquake and his feelings at the time in whatever space he needed. It is a very popular post and has had many readers who have persevered to the end of the post and found it a very moving account of someone caught up in, what was, a tragic disaster.

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  5. I have been through your blog and I found it very helpful for planning my travel in future and also will help in planing tour for others too.Tour operators in Delhi

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