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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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