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 up 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 aftershock, 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, but now I want to stay and help. I’ll be returning to Kathmandu in two weeks and I’m resolved to help then. No doubt when I come back I’ll wish I hadn’t.