The earth roars under Kathmandu

Kathmandu quake

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 door frame, you don’t climb under weak furniture, and you don’t run out while it’s shaking.” It’s incredible to me now, that just 24 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 seemed like a long time but was probably microseconds. I have no idea what is happening. Mingma jumps and heads for the door frame, “quickly, quickly” he says to us. I crawl on my knees to the door. We hold on to each other under the door frame while the world roars in our ears. It is only now, when I am under the door frame, that I realise 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-storey 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 a plastic bag covering hair dye. Mishra cries 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 practise 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 knows how long to wait. 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 buses 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, its 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.