Bangkok, Kathmandu, Marriott, Nepal, travel

The tipping point

I’d been in Bangkok since last Thursday, night,  or more accurately Friday at 3 am when I was driven in a US embassy shuttle van to the Marriott hotel.  I’m no fan of chain plain jane cookie cutter bourgeois luxury establishments normally but after  a week sleeping outside in a dirt lot near my friends house in Kathmandu,  on pallets {initially –  we graduated to camp beds}  at the US mission not far away and leaning against the side of an Australian air force  aluminum tube at 35000 feet,  I was happy to surrender to an executive room,  a soft bed,  hot showers and meals that weren’t precooked 6 years  ago and packaged for America’s finest to eat in a foxhole under fire.
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But that was inside.  Outside was  the chaos and cacophony that is tourist  Bangkok.  I hadn’t been here since 1999 and  I wasn’t impressed then, with two   kids in tow we rushed through the obligatory tourist highlights ,  the Buddha,  the palace,  the river cruise and floating  market and then high tailed it out on the first train to Chiang Mai.  Bangkok was smelly,  noisy,  jammed,  dirty  and distinctly unrelaxing.  I remember the high point being when my youngest sagely pointed out a tuk tuk going the wrong way down a one way street and said he wanted to leave.

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And now,  outside the bubble of the Marriott, it was just the same.  Well sort of. “What was I doing here?” I thought  as I negotiated a sim card and a pair of shorts across the street.  “I’m supposed to be high in the mountains  on a trek,  not in the urban core of a teeming metropolis”.  I returned to the Marriott,  changed out of trekking pants and looked back at the tectonic shifts of the past few tumultuous days.  

Day 2 of the quake found us shuttling back and forth between  the American mission camp and Birendra’s house and neighborhood.  We’d put aside any thoughts except that of immediate needs.  With all the shops and restaurants closed tight,   no running water or power,  the only food for us was  MRE’s or meals ready to eat.  Sustenance but not satisfaction.  After one and a half meals I vowed I’d never touch them again.  I reverted to hot water,   the occasional trekking bar and a handful of pepitas.  Somehow a banana surfaced,  I don’t recall how.  And I wasn’t that hungry anyway.  I was living on adrenaline…  and purpose. 

I’ve never felt more fully alive.  Helping 3 Nepali  families find some stability in  their new chaos meant I had a role,  not just as passive trekker through  Nepal’s bounty of nature but as a hope,  a rock,  a force for good. 

Sitting with half a dozen older children,  showing them what happened in the earthquake,  why India pushes into Asia inexorably,  explaining the pressure of rock on rock and why,  now the major strain was released,  it would be safe again for many many years.  Whether it was absolutely true was besides the point; it was relatively true.  And the older kids could explain to the younger kids and to their parents too, that it was safe to go in their homes,  safe to start cleaning up, safe to start smiling again. 

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The smiling started with the younger ones of course,  it always does,  the immediacy of the now  outweighing the stern gazes of parents.  They smiled when we smiled; it broadened when we fed then apple sauce from MRE’s, about the only palatable part of the  packaged foods.  It danced across their faces when we played charades with them  it erupted in laughter when one of our jokes was translated into Nepali. And it became action in an impromptu game of cricket.  With kids smiling it became hope. 

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Yet despite all the science in the world the parents were worried about rumors of a deadlier quake within 36 hoursof the  main temblor.  The rumor, apparently engendered  from  the misinterpretation of a radio interview about aftershocks  with a team of  Indian geologists  meant the immediate proliferation of tent camps all over town as people were terrified of being trapped in their already battered homes by falling  brick or concrete plus of course the thousands of already newly homeless.

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These temporary townships had varying levels of sophistication,  ranging from simple tarps held up by slender bamboo sticks with strings tied to available utility poles,  planks ,  plumbing pipe,  anything vertical to your normal average weekend away camp tent, complete with flysheet and picnic table .  The army erected hundreds of their olive green pup tents in these encampments  ostensibly for two but in reality shelter for husband,  wife and two kids,  not to mention the occasional grandma. 

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There were  huge,  maybe 30 foot long  sunshades of colorful pretty cotton or nylon  fabric to help protect those sleeping out in sun and wind.

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And rain it did.  That second night it poured so hard that Birendra’s family overcame their fear of aftershocks and slept  in their downstairs hall with the front door open,  despite the protestations of their neighbors. Birendra said he didn’t sleep a wink of course.  The following night their camp was improved with drainage trenches dug in the sand and mud and slightly better weatherproofing aka more ubiquitous blue tarps. 

We were back at the American mission by midnight that second night  going through the thorough check-in procedure of passport check,  xray machine and metal detector.  I’d bought an umbrella the day before the quake and although it was a steady rain on our walk back through the darkened city  we were dry and  comfortable.  Trekking through a city instead of a mountain pass may not have been our intended path but I felt far more at peace than I could have imagined.  I guess there was no other word for it than love.  The love one feels borne out of compassion,   purpose,  meaning and acknowledgement.  The love that remains when all pretense is stripped away,  when masks drop and people really see and feel each other.  That was better than any meal or soft bed in the world I could have had right then.

And our mission came to be  how we could spread the love.  With word or deed,  with smiles,  a cup of tea,  some  biscuits we found in a shop that was bravely open. Love doesn’t have to be huge,  grand gestures or expectation.  Love is the simple,  the easy,  the pure,  acceptance of what is and creation of hope.

We were sleeping on wooden pallets with thick blankets.  Stephanie  made a pillow out of something.  I flattened empty MRE cartons to create a cushion against sprung nails and a pretense of a mattress. Our fellow refugees were long term expat residents of Kathmandu driven out of  their homes  by cracked columns,  broken pipes,  lack of power and of course a pervasive unease about being in any structure,  just like my Nepali families. 

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But although we are quick to criticize our governments in general,  this is one time they  came forward unreservedly and provided for their citizens. The US state department quickly put together this encampment,  providing food,  jury rigged a pump for hot water for showers from the swimming pool,  wireless Internet was fixed and made available,  water coolers,  tea,  coffee,  basic medical supplies,  daily briefings,  a feeling of safety and more than anything else,  hope – that most essential ingredient,  hope.  Our government came forth in a magnificent and munificent gesture of support for foreigners stranded in this city under stress.  The Canadians had their own tent. 

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The British,  after their embassy decided it couldn’t afford to keep its nationals for more than two days,  sent them to the American compound,  the Australians,  later to be our means of escape,   nationalistically and whimsically hung their own stars and bars on their little area of the main tent. 

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We both decided on that second day to make this bizarre voyage through a  Kathmandu under extreme stress one of positivity,  of progress. To broadcast  optimism, and  hope.   To take a shred of good news and inflate it to cover the city.  Not to give into despair and dark thoughts,  negativity or pessimism.
This was a challenge when an entire nation  saw its livelihood and infrastructure in peril. I started with Birendra,  ferreting out the good stuff,  that Annapurna wasn’t damaged and one could still trek there;  that Pokhara suffered only a little and was still a beautiful lakeside city; that he personally  had enough savings to get through a fallow period.  Talking with the  neighbors,  helping them see the upside; better housing,  improved infrastructure,  a possibly less venal government,  the world focusing finally on this gorgeous benighted country. 

At the neighborhood camps it  was neighbor and neighbor  cheek by jowl in their surface misery and deprivation,  sharing stories and  food,  each extended family  somehow managing on cold  rice,  or surreptitiously cooking  in homes you weren’t  supposed to go into or on outdoor fire pits.  One more organized camp we visited  was fed by the Nepali army and supplemented by the food the mostly homeless residents had managed to bring with them. 

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In the daytime of day 3  improved communications threw an interesting and perhaps auspicious bone at my feet.  A friend in Los Angeles who is  the  project coordinator for a  medical mission non profit focusing on children asked if I could help coordinate the delivery of medical supplies and a connection to a hospital with severely injured kids.  That got me thinking about the value of all the connections I had made over the last few years plus the new ones I was forging in Nepal.  I  called Birendra.  We all set off for  Children’s Hospital and the main  teaching hospital next door to find someone to talk to.  Sadly, it was like having a winning lottery ticket and no place to cash it.  The hospital was calm,  a UNESCO tent in the parking lot treating minor injuries. We couldn’t find a senior doctor or anyone from administration at all. 

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We went back to the compound and started firing off emails to NGO’s and Doctors,  hospitals and aid organizations.  The results are still trickling in.  We may not have immediately found our recipients but we’ve certainly  opened doors and the charity will follow up   

On the third night we found a dimly lit and rough and ready  Indian restaurant.  Two curry dishes only on the menu.  We took them both and asked for seconds. We’d noticed with the power  out over town that ice cream was a big seller whenever a store would open. It wouldn’t stay frozen forever  so the shop owners were basically giving it away and we delighted in bringing chili flavored popsicles to the Nepali kids in the neighborhood encampment.

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Day 4 was slightly better.  A few food  stores opened selling local produce and I brought Birendra a large cabbage.  It could  probably be framed as an artifact of the earthquake but I think he turned it into soup.

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He and his neighbors decided to move their families  back home as the 36 hour self-imposed deadline had passed.  His  kids were still scared but reason prevailed finally.  Warm dry beds or intermittent downpours.    Food at arms length or a 50 meter walk to the  bathroom.  The rain had cleared the air and gave birth to a beautiful sunset over the Kathmandu valley reminding us of what a lovely place this was  and would be again.

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We continued exploring the city as it slowly ground back to life.  People were visibly happier and more shops opened,  even optimistically,  trekking stores although most of the tourists had left.    For the fortunate locals who didn’t lose their homes it will be a faster recovery and thanks to extended families,  less problematic than perhaps when a sole breadwinner can’t bring home money.  For the Kathmandu  homeless,  they will survive on the generosity of neighbors and agencies and perhaps government.

The Canadian government put on an evacuation plane to Delhi on day 5.  That got us thinking of how we’d leave Nepal. Power was still out and the well  pumps accordingly  and Birendra had to retrieve by bucket and boil water from his underground tank to drink.  We heard  a rumor of cholera although I didn’t believe it.  Another rumor had fly infested dead bodies spreading disease.  I didn’t believe that either. Stephanie and I discussed the 8 hour bus journey to the Indian border by land and then train to Varanasi or somewhere.  The Indian  government was giving free 7 days visas at any airport and the two main land border crossings from Nepal to assist in evacuation efforts. 

I went to bed.   I awoke to the news that Stephanie had registered us for an Australian evacuation flight to  Bangkok later that day.  There were no guarantees we would get on it and frankly I was torn. Could we continue to help effectively now our local families didn’t really need us?  Professionals were now here. Fairfax County was the first to arrive then  LA County fire department with  60 search and rescue personnel  along with Ojai trained dogs {from the National Disaster Dog Search Foundation}.

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 The encampment was filling up with military personnel,  tons of supplies,  USAID workers and medical response teams.  What could we do?  To  volunteer further,  yes,  but we didn’t yet have an organization to take us and to go it alone meant another mouth for someone to feed.  Besides we were told  that civilians would have to leave the embassy compound and go back to hotels or their homes within 48 hours. 
Birendra’s mother in law’s family had moved into to his house that fifth day as her home was badly damaged and deemed unsafe.  We flirted with the idea of going to the mountains but a chat with a disaster worker said they didn’t need people to clear rubble.  There were  plenty of locals.  Besides,  I had a mission to coordinate this donation for the foundation and I could go that from any Internet and phone connection..

The decision was made for us when we told we had had 45 minutes to muster  at a staging point inside the compound for a bus trip to the airport.  I panicked.  Half our  luggage was at Birendra’s.  It would take half an hour alone to check out of the compound with the security  and another hour walking back and forth to get our luggage.  .  We’d packed all our stuff up  more or less at his house but it would have been impossible to get it in time.  Clothes I didn’t care about but my credit cards were there.  After frantic phone calls,  pleading with the evacuation coordinator who had said no delays and a security guard to escort me to the street outside the  compound without the lengthy passport checkout process  we got Birendra to deliver the luggage on his motorcycle.

The rest  of the day was like one of those Graham Greene spy movies.  The bus took us to the Australian ambassador’s residence for processing and tagging and checking and inspection then we were split  into two groups,  Australians and others – mostly Americans, taken to the airport,  filmed and interviewed  by the Australian media through  which I profusely thanked the Australian taxpayer

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and eventually loaded into the belly of a military C17,  given extra strength earplugs and disgorged in Bangkok after a 4 hour flight

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This quake was born in tortured rock and unleashed misery beyond telling yet  it also  engendered one of the most profound weeks of my life. Tipping points happen when systems are unstable.  It appears  my prior existence too  was due for a 7.8. If so, I welcome the new landscape and will continue to  sweep away my own personal rubble to build an evermore connected,  conscious and compassionate me. 

Bangkok May 2015

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Quake, Day 1

I had booked a hike in the Langtang region of Nepal a few months ago.  I thought I was hiking by myself but much later one of my friends decided to come too. Our trip formally started on Friday 24th to  include a city tour and was scheduled to leave Kathmandu  Saturday morning April 25th. I asked the trekking company If  we could delay for one day so we’d have time to both see the city and go shopping for the trek.  We were just about to leave to  go shopping when at 11.55 AM  all hell let loose….

We were upstairs in Birendra’s house making last minute lists of trekking gear to purchase.    Suddenly the house starts to shake a little.  OK,  quake.  Big deal.  Because I live in Southern California and am foolishly optimistic about tremors I thought the gentle movement  would just pass and be over in a few seconds but the quake just got  stronger and STRONGER AND STRONGER..    Not at all panicked but with clear intent to get out of the now severely  juddering structure,  Stephanie {my trekking partner}  grabbed me and said calmly “we got to get out NOW”. Taking nothing,  we dashed down from  the 3rd floor,  thrown off balance trying to get down rocking staircase  to the locked front door.  I couldn’t get the damn key in the old fashioned mortice lock because of the shaking, both my hand and the keyhole  not wanting to play ball..   This was all in the first maybe 45 seconds.  Adrenaline is pumping in full force.  Finally got the balky lock turned and  door open and ran into the unpaved street. ..

Neighbors  gathered  in the intersection of the tiny lane to the side of the house   but no one was panicking,  not even the dogs were barking,  just hundreds of raucous crows cawing above us in the blue sky. It was a very strange and surreal  calm.  Aftershocks every few minutes. Everyone looking at each other and obviously wondering when it would stop.

  The house is in the background

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After about 20 quiet minutes  “Over”,  I declared optimistically,  “a really big one,  let’s get up there,  grab our stuff and get on with our day”.  Little did I know.

In our immediate  neighborhood we didn’t see   much  damage.  I saw some surface cracks on the lower fascia of Birendra’s house and the steps had parted a little from the front entry.  I didn’t see any floor cracks and all the doors and windows I tried were still plumb.  “Good foundations”  I said. Other homes nearby seemed unscathed at first glance.

We walked out on to the lane next to the local temple.  First sign of clearly visible  damage was a fallen brick wall. Shoddy construction with no real foundations,  it just lay flat in the alley  like a brick laid path.

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The area was dotted with 3,  4 and 5 story homes,  some quite elaborately balconied and collonaded

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interspersed with simple brick one story workshops and open store fronts.  All standing unscathed.  Everywhere people gathering,  looking afraid and unsure of  what to do next.  Another aftershock.  We kept walking, talking.  On our way to Thamel to shop.  Here and there a cascaded  wall or a few bricks in the road fallen from a structure. Here and there knots of people every few tens of meters along fallen brick

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The fear in the air was palpable  but people were still quiet, calm,  their faces ashen with uncertainty,  that all of a sudden everything had changed and their normally predictable lives were upended. The earth moved again and again and kept on moving throughout the day  but the crying was subdued,  not outright panic.

We too felt this anguished energy,  running fast and fearfully  about 100 meters   through one alley with packed  3 story houses on either side and no place to get away from a falling building.  Through  another similar alley  and yet another.  In a wider space we slowed down to a walk  and moved  out next to the main  road.  Hundreds of people on what was yesterday an impromptu cricket pitch for a handful of local kids, now a gathering place of scared,  worried people. But  children were playing,  at least the younger ones keeping a tiny smile in the dusty air.  

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Everyone on cell phones,  no one able to make a connection on an overloaded network.  My Internet went on and off and then would remain off for what would be the entire day and into the night. I tried desperately to connect to the outside world but to no avail.

We had no news  no idea of anything; epicenter,  size of quake,  damage,  number of dead. All we knew was what had happened to us and what we saw with our own eyes. Stephanie started talking to 2 tourists from India who said the epicentre was in Chitwan and that Pokhara was badly damaged,  many dead.  We didn’t know if it was true or not but hungry for information we were happy to get any news. 

A  power pole  was askew on the main road just opposite the entrance road  to Thamel.  Electricity was off of course.

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We could see rubble and knots of people standing in the  street about 50 meters down.  Someone said “don’t go in there, too dangerous,  collapsed hotel,  many dead”.    Realization started to set in  that we were not going to be shopping today or hiking the next day or for several days if at all.

Staying on a main road,  wide enough to avoid the potential of a collapsing building we went down to another large crowd  of people sitting on a patch of dirt and bricks. On the way we saw two Chinese tourists stumbling along  wearing what looked like sleepwear,  a girl with bloody,  bandaged feet and the boy holding an equally bloody handkerchief to the side of his head. She looked like she’d walked through it been hit by flying glass.  Two Nepali men wearing traditional hats sat,  vacant looks on their faces as if they were in a trance.

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Virtually all the shops were closed,  their steel shuttered fronts were probably a good thing even though looting might have been the furthest thing from people’s minds at this moment.

In front of a paint  shop was a rorschach blot of white  paint running down the sidewalk from a  spilled container. 

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Next door a tea shop that amazingly,  was open. Dragging plastic chairs to the edge of the road away from the building and sitting cradling steaming  much needed Nepali milk tea we sat and tried to make sense of the morning’s mayhem with only what we’d seen and heard. 

A big,  no,  make that a  huge quake .  Aimless people just scared out of their wits.  Injuries,  deaths,  homes and business and infrastructure destroyed,  power lines down. Internet and phones out.   Shops all shuttered.  Who was going to feed everyone.  What about essential services.  Where was everyone going to sleep?  live?  defecate?  And what about us?  How would we survive this?

At least the tea was soothing and we hadn’t seen a single gun or crazy person.  We imagined LA after  a massive quake and shuddered {pardon the pun}.  At least we had a base at our friends home.  At least we weren’t injured.  At least we had a way out,  eventually perhaps when the airport would open – if there still was an airport –  we didn’t know.  At least we had options. 

Walking back to the main road I saw the Thamel general hospital and our first policeman waving people away.  We walked in to the body laden courtyard and saw maybe 20 people in various stages of triage.  Nurses setting up IV stands and other injured hobbling in,  bleeding or being carried.

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A man showed us  a back door out of the hospital leading to a cafe courtyard.  The veranda had completely collapsed obliterating half the place, smashed crockery everywhere.  I’d eaten there in previous visits. I felt overwhelming  sadness and grief.  We needed some hope.

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Past the rubble of a building  surrounded by soldiers,  we didn’t know that 50 people were buried inside or we’d have been digging with our bare hands.  The shop under my friend’s office was now windowless and the stock all over the floor. The stench  of broken pipes and sewage permeated the street and I made  a  quick thank you to the stars that cooking here was bottled LPG not mains gas in pipes.

We had to get some fresh air and we needed  food.   Running down to the wider artery of Kantipath and without a plan we saw a pizzeria –  Fire and Ice.  Closed yet not locked up,    the owner, an energetic Italian woman with an engaging smile,  was cleaning up broken glass.  We offered  to help and begged for anything to eat at all.  Like a true Italian momma who has to feed to live she sat us down and brought over the morning’s foccacia bread and a bowl of tomato basil sauce. 

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We were beyond ecstatic as she kept telling us about the smashed glasses and the Chinese constructed multistory building we were in that seemed to survive intact (we hoped) as we sat in it!. 

“Could we buy a bottle of wine? ” I asked,  totally uncharacteristically of me.  It was 3 pm and I am not known for imbibing.  Stephanie nodded too and Anna,  the cafe owner brought over a bottle of Spanish red.  As we were opening it an American man called David and his Nepali girlfriend walked in.  More foccacia and two more glasses rounded out the party. He lived here in town and added to our meager store of news by telling us that nearby Kathmandu Durbar Square was demolished by the quake.  We had been there yesterday on our tour and enjoyed an amazing  rooftop view of the heritage site and its many temples.
“Gone?”   I gasped.  We stopped enjoying our brief respite from the misery and got back to survival talk.

David suggested we go to the American mission just around the corner,  register so get news to our email it’s and friends  and see what they can do for us as it was increasingly apparent things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.  Thanking Anna who wouldn’t take any money from me but Stephanie had the bright idea to put $20 in the employee tip jar  thinking they’ve oils certainly need the money  we left,  back on Kantipath and walking around downed powerlines with one huge concrete  pole dramatically lying horizontally on the roof of a taxi in the middle of the road   “Wrong time,  wrong place,  pal”  I thought.  We saw no blood,   seemed like no one was hurt. A lucky escape

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At the American mission club the security was tighter than any airport but US passports got us in past triple locked doors,  xray machines,  metal detectors and 10 guards  to a huge baseball field surrounded by a Px commissary and various outbuildings.  This used to be the American embassy prior to some edict to move US diplomatic facilities to more modern secure buildings.  It’s now used as a social venue for expat Americans with swimming pool, gym,  sports fields and a cafe.  Two huge marquees served as shelter

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It looked like I imagine a ball field in Kansas to be.  Vaguely bucolic with an Asian  flavor in the eaves of the buildings.    There was some earthquake damage to brick facades and the wall of the swimming pool but as the US government said it was safe I guess it was safe. We registered our passports and I had my first MRE,  or military rations.  It  may have been “ready to eat”  meals but it was barely edible.

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Continuing on our photo quest and having registered so inquiries to the State Department would reveal to our families  we hadn’t been killed in the quake we walked back into Thamel and down towards the temple complex We’d been told had been destroyed.  Only yesterday we had sat in a rooftop restaurant with a view and enjoyed an hour and some light rain marveling at the ancient structures.

Although the walk down was somber,  frightening even through very narrow streets,  jumpy people, occasional  twisted concrete and brick rubble,  we did encounter a calm Hindu/Buddhist  temple  called “Janabaha”,  where the signboard announced that  persons of all religions were welcome and the temple  miraculously undamaged even though the large courtyard was at least 200 years old.  A few worshippers spun prayer wheels as did we; others relaxed on the patio.  Children played with dogs.  The temple itself was a lovely square structure  with an interior 4 sided  corridor of wrought iron and brass polished smooth by countless devotees. 

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To add to the charm of this seemingly earthquake proof haven   strangely angled mirrors hanging high on the courtyard walls  facilitated  rather unusual  “selfies”.

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Back in the streets next to Durbar Square there were mobs of  people scrambling over rubble and gazing at the temple square.   Several hundred years of history had vanished in 2 minutes.  We had no idea of the body count but the bulldozer frantically clawing at the huge pile of brick remains of the  main temple was probably not helping. A soldier warned me away from a higher vantage point but after a few more photos   I couldn’t stay and look any more.  It was sickening.

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Walking back towards Thamel rubble completely blocked one road so much so that we had to turn and run down  an unlit side alley.  There hadn’t been a tremor for a few hours but why tempt fate? Others were running too.

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The monotony of the broken homes,  scared people and uncertainty was pervasive.  We’d seen enough heartbreak.

We walked back to Birendra’s house slowly through deserted streets  in pitch black illuminated by cell phones and flashlights and the occasional motorcycle headlight.   Clusters of tents and blankets and cardboard  lay next to houses, on empty lots,    under walls(foolish I thought),  people were not sleeping at home tonight.  

Birendra and his family were not at home but in the empty sand lot a block away.  Every single family in the surrounding 10 homes was there.  Tarps were being erected over bamboo poles  to keep off the expected rain and blankets distributed. 

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It wasn’t particularly noisy,  people were somber,   fitful,  scared and worried. Birendra worried about clients canceling treks,  his newly built home,  his kids and their wellbeing.  I worried we’d get cold and wanted to sleep inside. From 9pm to 1am we patiently waited, dozing in the cold for the  expected  aftershock which didn’t come.  We moved inside to his house and slept the sleep of the damned.

Kathmandu,  April 25th 2015.
Magnitude 7.8 .

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