Nepal: Memento Mori

KATHMANDU. 25th April 2015. My partner and I had just come back from a long trek in the Kanchenjunga region of eastern Nepal, scaling high passes under volatile snow and bathing in the country’s surreal high-altitude scenery for more than three weeks. The rest of our little group of intrepid explorers had left on Thursday night on an outbound flight to Dubai, and the two of us were planning a long rest day to heal our fee and legs and try to quench our excitement by planning the next stage of our Himalayan adventures.

It’s 11:30 am. I have just been fetching breakfast from Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, still asleep as here most shops are closed on Saturdays. We are lying down, each lazily enjoying a book and vaguely discussing our next possible trekking routes. It’s pleasantly warm outside and enjoyably quietly as we lie slightly outside of the heart of both the city’s tourist and historical centres. Then suddenly the building starts shaking. I look quizzically at my partner, wondering where the tremors might have come from, expecting the small shake to quickly die out. Then the entire world trembles. I quickly get up to find that I can hardly stand as the tremors violently throw me from side to side.

“Get out!” shouts my partner and I leap through the door while he leaps out of bed. We are on the third floor. I run and bang myself against the walls as the tremors intensify and send me waltzing through the air as I jump down the stairs. My partner is behind me, naked, a pair of thermal bottoms in hand, unwilling to slow down under the cracking bricks. I reach the streets.

Two people have fallen from a scooter and one is crying. Others kneel unmoving on the ground. Down our street, which runs straight from Kathmandu’s Durbar Square to Thamel, a huge cloud of dust is blocking the view. The tremors stop, my partner has managed to dress himself and is standing behind me. I quickly check on the people around me, and everyone seems uninjured. My hand is slightly bleeding but nothing serious.

We look back at our building. It still seems sturdy. We rush back in to get a backpack and some clothes, and quickly make it back out into the open. We head to Thamel. To our left, we catch a glimpse of an old building that has crumbled to the ground. To our right, a modern one is leaning against its neighbour, the supporting wall in pieces. In front of us, walls and electrical poles have collapsed, one lies on the roof of a car. A French tourist walks in front of me, her knees are badly bleeding and she’s covered in ochre dust.

The ground trembles again and screams fill everything around. We escape the crowds as they seem even more unpredictable than the quakes, ready to trample you in a split second. We reach the Royal Palace Gardens, whose walls have also collapsed under the shock and decide to spend the afternoon on its grass, far away from anything that might potentially fall. Replicas come in waves, fuelling our blood already soaked thick with adrenaline and we let hours pass. We return to Thamel in the evening as the quakes seem to become less and less frequent.

Our guesthouse, like everything else around, is locked. We have our passports, we have money, and even a small smartphone for emergencies. But there is nothing to eat, nowhere to stay. The Ganesh Himal Hotel nearby gives us a blanket, food and water. Around the corner, a temple and two houses have fallen down. Policemen and rescuers dig the rubble with their bare hands and dig out a man and a woman, both badly injured and unmoving. A Nepalese man accosts us.

“Are you OK?”

“Yes, yes we are. How are you?”

“I am OK too. But, well, my house fell. My family is injured. One has already died. I’m happy you’re OK. Let’s pray to God. It was terrible”.

Tell me, what do you say to someone who has lost everything, including a person he loved, in just a couple of seconds. What do you say when you know that, if someone has the chance, financial and logistic, to get out of this hell to safety and oblivion, it’s you and not them.

We sit down on a straw mat on the streets, and try to get a couple of hours of rest. Around the city, tent camps are sprouting to cater for the slightly injured, the hungry, and the tired. The ground shakes again. It sets me on edge this time. We rush out of Thamel again and spend the night looking to the sky, eager for dawn, on a large side road. The earth rumbles, again and again and again. The night brings on a chilly wind and light drops of rain. I huddle up with my partner underneath a thin blanket, trying to keep our bare legs warm and ease the pain that is brewing along our spines. Tiredness makes moving slow and painful. Through heavy eyelids, we watch the military trucks dashing through the empty streets. Then the electricity is cut and we’re plunged in darkness. We stay in each others arms, and wait shivering for daybreak.

At 5:30am, we walk back to our guesthouse, where the staff are waiting for us. “Quick, quick!” They call. We gather our things in just a few minutes with the help of the receptionist, and wish each other good luck. With my mobile, I pick up a Wi-Fi signal and start looking for flights. Thai Airways seems to be flying to Bangkok today. I fumble with my phone to book us seats. It’s 6am, and the flight is scheduled to leave at 12:30pm.

Before heading to the airport, we decide to get one last look at the Durbar Square, a place that had enchanted us when we had first arrived with its beautiful temples and regal atmosphere. We walk the few hundred metres that had yesterday separated us from a thick fog of grey dust. A man walks next to us. He is drunk and staggering. “Nepal very bad……”, he says.

Now we understand the panic, the tears of our loved ones who watched the news at home. It’s a sight of apocalypse, a wasteland of rubble, of dust, of tears and fear, the frightful realisation of how many have not lived to see today. I watch a man crouching on top of one of these mountains of graves. I can’t look at his face. He’s crying as if someone he loves is buried somewhere deep. We escape in silence, and get a taxi to the airport. It’s early, but Pashupatinath is already burning.

I now almost miss the quietness of Thamel. The airport is over-crowded with people, most of them stranded by cancelled flights. It’s thick and busy, and it seems that our biggest fight will be held here. When our flight starts checking-in in Terminal B, we start fighting our way through with hundreds of people visibly happy to use their fists and legs to break through the doors, and through others. We get kicked, elbowed, pushed, pressed but sneak in relatively quickly to security. A young woman suddenly breaks into panic. She has apparently missed her flight and starts screaming and choking. She lets herself fall to the ground in utter shock, gasping for air as she curls herself up into a trembling ball of fear. The crowds in the building calm down and hush. They still respect pain, we all carry our own.

Then the world shakes again. It screams again. It prays again. It begs again, claustrophobic in an exit-less tightness that oozes terror. I’ve got my backpack over my head, hoping to protect myself should the ceiling break. But the building withstands the shock. We proceed to check-in, then again fight our way to departure. The airport is filled with people waiting for deliverance. The tarmac is filled with military planes and a couple of international passenger carriers. Turkish Airlines leaves for Istanbul to the sound of applause. Thai Airways goes back to Bangkok and people cheer. Our extra plane arrives and unloads aid packages and a group of reporters eager to get in. We cannot wait to get out.

We board the plane around 16:00, and towards 16:30 we get airborne, in silence. The staff onboard treat us to extra food, extra drinks, extra smiles. But everyone is curled under a blanket, quiet and pensive. At 19:30 local time, we arrive in Bangkok to a small welcome committee happy to give us a box of tasty pastries and a bottle of water. When we reach our hostel, my partner and I fall headfirst onto our bunks.

Before falling asleep, the heavy traffic of Bangkok makes the building shake. We leap out of bed in a second and stop ourselves just before rushing to the door. My heart is pounding in my head, my breath is quick and my muscles tensed. But I smile, and remember that finally we’re safe and that life can start now again. Well, tomorrow probably…

Please click here if you would like to donate to the Red Cross Nepal Earthquake Appeal.

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