Then Kathmandu goes eerily quiet

I am scared tonight, more than I was yesterday after the quake. It is the evening of the second day and I’m frightened because it’s dead quiet. There is no sound. The relentless hustle and bustle of Kathmandu has been silenced. Even the barking dogs are quiet. I look all the way up the valley and the apartments are dark and empty, many darkened apartment windows are visible in the moonlight.

Hundreds of people are camped under truck tarpaulins down on the riverbank but they are silent too. Last night they were noisy as they set up tents for their first night by the river. All through the night people talked, the sounds of drinking and laughter arose; it seemed festive but for the collective screams as each aftershock rocked the valley.

Still a noisy city last night was normal. This second night terrifies me more because it is weird for Kathmandu to be quiet.

**

This morning I woke still having no power, no Internet, no phones, no radio, no newspapers, and no TV. I had no idea how bad the quake was. I tried over and over and eventually got a phone call through to Australia. I discovered from my son in Australia that 1300 people were dead in Kathmandu. He told me the images were terrible. He knew more than me, even though I was standing in Kathmandu and he was in Australia,.

Today a friend and I walked the city to see if others were ok. We saw devastation everywhere. There were electricity wires running all over the ground and poles down across the roads. I tiptoed around them, copying other locals tiptoeing across the wires too. Sometimes I needed to duck under the poles or step too close to a broken house in order to avoid the danger. There were many broken houses leaning strangely with walls gaping open. Sometimes, the streets were narrow and the leaning houses seemed to loom over me. I walked quickly past; worried any second the houses would fall over with my steps.

As we walked rescue choppers were flying overhead, up into the mountains and back again. This was a sign that things were bad. Their job is to bring in the injured to hospitals. I shuddered every time I saw one.

Finally we got to the teahouse and saw friends. Tenzing had the look of a terrified man, he scampered around not sure where to sit; he told us his home village had been hit by an avalanche. Then Sunita kept suggesting we sleep in the jungle tonight, she said we could take food and stay there till the danger passes. I saw she was terrified and to her the jungle was more predictable than the city; but sleeping in the jungle just wasn’t safe for me.

In the afternoon the ground trembled again. People started screaming, running out of the teahouse. Another after shock, this time a big one. I grabbed my bag and ran too. We waited again, out in the car park. Eventually there was nothing to do but walk home again.

**

That was today, now I stand here listening to the silence. I am here on the roof of the apartment waiting the night out. Tomorrow I have flights for Lhasa Tibet. I hope that commercial flights will run because I desperately want to get out of this city.

The rooftop is safe. There are no apartments overhanging it, and no cracks in this or the adjacent buildings. I have a bag packed by the door. I will leave the door open while I sleep. That way if a big quake comes I only have a few meters to run and I can lie flat out on the marble roof until it stops. I hope tonight is calmer. The strong shocks kept me awake all last night, sometimes sitting bold upright on the bed, gripping my bag, trying to decide if I needed to run or stay. Each time they’d quiet down again, and I’d breathe a sigh and try to sleep.

**

That second quiet night rolled on endlessly. Sometime in the small hours a dog began to howl, a crying sound that echoed up the valley. I shuddered and hoped he wasn’t able to sense earthquakes coming.

The morning finally arrived. I catch a taxi to the airport 5 hours before the flight because I expect the airport to be chaotic. The streets are still. The taxi driver plays quiet sad Nepali folk songs. I look at the disaster in the streets and the tent cities that have arisen. I feel a sense of sadness and guilt that I am leaving. It seems bad to be leaving when I could be helping.

Even in this earthquake the dichotomy of escape and value is present. I was desperate to leave a few hours ago, now I want to stay and help. I’ll be returning to Kathmandu in two weeks and I resolve to help then. No doubt when I come back I’ll wish I hadn’t.

The earth roars under Kathmandu

It’s a quiet Friday spent reading in a coffee shop, chatting on the advantages and disadvantages Nepal faces after 30 years of international aid. The topic turns to the regular disasters Nepal faces: landslides, avalanches, monsoon, and–you guessed it–earthquakes. I say, “In an earthquake you climb under a table.” However in Nepal there is rarely a heavy table to climb under. My friend says,  “Stand in a doorframe, you don’t climb under weak furniture, and you don’t run out while it’s shaking. It’s incredible to me now, just twenty-four hours later I would need to use this information.

Saturday rolled around just like any lazy Australian weekend. A slow breakfast first, plans to make a trip across Kathmandu for a coffee meeting, and then come home to get some serious writing of a new newsletter for clinicians.

We arrive at Bikash and Mishra’s apartment. Over Nepali style sweet milked coffee Shelly tells of her recent Sanjiwani Public Health Mission week long dental camp. Suddenly, Kathmandu releases a deafening roar. The coffee splashes out of the cups and across the table. Water in the fish tank gushes over the sides and the floor is suddenly swimming. I sit frozen; puzzled for what seems like a long time but was probably microseconds. I have no idea what is happening. Mingma jumps and heads for the doorframe, “quickly, quickly” he says to us. I crawl on my knees to the door. We hold on to each other under the doorframe while the world roars in our ears. It is only now, when I am under the doorframe, that I realize this is an earthquake. It seems to go on for a long time.

When it stops. Bikash and Mishra appear with their one-year-old baby and two teenage sisters. Mishra is crying loudly. We all stare at each other stunned, and then the silence is broken. Suddenly everyone is moving, “Hurry, hurry, get out, get out, get out!”. We race down the stairs and out into the narrow street.

Once out of Bikash’s apartment we head down the narrow street looking up at the sky trying to find the clearest place to stand. Anywhere where there is not a tall building hanging over us. Everyone in the street clings together in a spot of street where a high fence hides a vacant block of land. We look up, no high buildings to fall on us in here, but the gate to the vacant lot is locked. The neighbours begin shouting, men grab rocks and break the fence down. People pile into the vacant lot. Just two houses away is a 7 story skinny apartment block, swaying with the land. We all look at it terrified.

Women cling to each other crying. A man is wearing just a towel. A woman has her hair in plastic bag covering hair dye. Mishra cry and shakes. She sits down and people rub her feet, she looks as if she is having a panic attack. She vomits. People pray loudly together. Some little girls come up to me to say hello and practice their English. A man who’d spent the morning knocking down a brick wall decides to continue his work and we laugh; he has extra help from the earthquake today.

And we wait.

And wait.

Shocks come every 10 or 15 minutes. No one know how long to wait for. How long do we stand here in the vacant lot amongst the piles of bricks?

I check the news on my phone to see if we can work out what is happening. Google tells me the Australian ABC news have reported the quake, 7.7 on the scale, with the epicentre 80 kilometres outside of Kathmandu. I realise my family might hear this news, so I quickly text. Simple messages: “I am ok. Whatever you hear on the news don’t worry. I am fine.”

We wait a few hours amongst the piles of bricks in the vacant lot.

Eventually we decide there is no option but to walk the two hours back to the apartment. We head out, picking the safest looking streets. This valley city is haphazard, with narrow streets and even narrower brick apartment buildings. They’re mostly 4 or 5 stories high, with several small apartments on each floor. We choose streets that are not too narrow, with not too many high houses.

Along the way we see groups of people everywhere. Sitting in small parks, vacant lots, in the sanctuary of small farm plots. All of them sitting, talking, and waiting.  All afraid.

We see injured and dead people too.

Cars and busses are at a standstill all along the highway. Ambulances scream past, as do trucks loaded with police. The air is thick with dust. We see fallen houses. Row after row of collapsed brick fences, are plopped over still in their fence shape, they look like they’re just lying down waiting to be propped back up again. There are wide cracks in the road. Walking carefully down the centre of the road, we see buildings collapsed all along it. A bright yellow four story apartment block is half gone, it’s interior exposed. An ancient looking brick house reveals large pottery water jugs and deep inside a person already sorting through the rubble. Everywhere is littered with bricks and debris.

I think, “This must be what an apocalypse will be like.” I had no idea what had really happened to Kathmandu.

Part 2 coming soon…