We’ve just returned from Nepal, safe and sound, but it was a close call.
We were in the historic town of Bhaktapur, just a few miles from Kathmandu. Bhaktapur is (or was) full of beautiful old brick buildings and monuments. Many of them looked as if they were about to crumble, even before the earthquake. Here’s what happened and how we survived…
We’d just finished a late breakfast and were about to exit a narrow alleyway when we were suddenly overwhelmed by a crowd of people madly rushing through the street yelling and screaming. It wasn’t immediately obvious what was happening. Sil and Charles both thought there was some sort of stampede and that all the people where running to get out of the way. Instinctively, we stepped back into the entrance of the alleyway. That’s when I felt the ground shake and instantly knew it was an earthquake. It was extremely disorienting. Even though it was the ground under us shaking, it felt like even the air wanted to knock us over. I’d describe it like being inside of a ping-pong ball being smashed back and forth.
What I didn’t expect was that almost immediately after the shaking started, thick dust filled the air making it impossible to see even a foot in front of us. It filled our mouths and nostrils. Even had we seen an open area or known where to run, it was impossible to see anything. Sil grabbed onto me and Charles disappeared (he was actually only a few feet away but I had no idea at the time). Bricks started breaking free from the 3-story buildings on either side of the alleyway and crashing to the ground.
I had some notion that there was some sort of cover above me, so I pushed myself as close into the brick wall behind me as possible, pulling Sil with me. I covered her head with one arm and my own with the other. Bricks rained down on us, crashing all around us and glancing off Sil’s back. Then one struck me squarely on the arm, directly over Sil’s head. The pain was immediately intense but I was more worried about the wall behind us collapsing. I was ready to run blindly into the street should we start to get hit harder, but felt the best thing to do was hold tight.
Charles was on the other side of the alley, also being hit hard by bricks. It wasn’t until the shaking stopped and the dust cleared from the air that we could see he was hit even harder. While Sil and I were at the very edge of the alley where it met the street, Charles was a few feet further in. Someone had grabbed onto him for protection and in an effort to provide some cover for her, he had left his own head exposed. A brick struck him squarely on top of the head and he was bleeding profusely, blood running down his face. Directly opposite Charles and less than 6 feet from where Sil and I had taken cover, we could now see a huge pile of bricks and debris where the wall had nearly completely collapsed. What a close call. Had any of us been standing just a little further in, we’d have been crushed.
We stepped out into the street and were shocked at the damage. Piles of broken bricks littered the street. Sheet metal roofing was thrown to the ground, bent and twisted. Broken wires hung low, blocking safe passage. We were very lucky that one section of the street was relatively clear and we were able to get past the debris into an open area. Bhaktapur has a lot of agricultural area mixed in with the city and it was one of these large cabbage patches were we saw a lot of people gathering.
Despite Charles’ shocking appearance, he had no signs of concussion. He was in some pain but completely aware of his surroundings and still in good spirits. The local Nepali people weren’t convinced. In one moment they urged us to go to the hospital and, in the next, to stay put in the open. For the moment, we chose to stay in the open, bracing for aftershocks. We managed to find some running water and cleaned up Charles’ head. Already, the spot where the brick hit was quite swollen. My elbow had also swollen up and I’d lost the ability to bend my arm, although I could still wiggle my fingers.
After feeling one aftershock role in then another and another, each declining in intensity, we made our way from one clearing to another. At the hospital we saw people being brought in on make-shift stretchers. They were clearly in much worse shape than us. We didn’t want to take away the limited medical resources from those with more serious injuries. As much as we were beat up, we felt that our injuries were manageable. Charles’ head stopped bleeding. Sil realized that her foot had been hit but was fairly sure it wasn’t broken (she knows how that feels). And to be honest, we were afraid of going back inside any building. So, we decided not to go inside the hospital, despite the urging of everyone around us. Their concern was definitely touching. They really cared that we stay safe and that we receive treatment.
Getting to our guesthouse became top priority. Our passports were there and we had a flight out in a few hours (we hoped, anyway). I managed to find my way through piles of rubble, moving quickly past buildings that looked as if they could collapse at any moment and ducking under a mess of potentially live wires. Luckily, there was no apparent damage to the building. When we chose it the day before we thought it rather lacking in character but now we were very happy to have chosen a newly constructed building. I managed to find a much safer way back, returning to Charles and Sil who waited amongst the crowds.
Returning to the guesthouse, we packed up our bags and found our way to Durbar Square, the historic and cultural center of Bhaktapur. Amazingly, the damage was more limited here. One monument was completely destroyed, others cracked or partially crumbling. But the buildings were all relatively intact. This is the first place we encountered any fellow tourists. Those who were in the square when the quake hit were ok. They reported that a large bell located near the center of the square had started swinging wildly and that roof tiles started to break free but that everyone was ok.
After surveying the damage, we managed to find a truck and driver who offered to take us to the airport. The road was damaged in a few spots but still passable. We had no idea if any flights would be going and when we arrived at the airport the police weren’t letting anyone in. We returned to the street and managed to find some food to eat. I have to commend the Nepali people for reopening shops as fast as possible. With limited water and no electricity they still managed to make sure people had water to drink and food to eat. Gasoline prices even remained unchanged from before the earthquake. Would the same thing happen in other parts of the world?
We returned to the airport as it got dark and continued to wait. Flight after flight was cancelled and we were prepared to try to find a guesthouse or to camp out in the open. Well-equipped tourists on trekking holidays set up tents in the airport parking lot. Against all odds, security let those on our flight and two others into the airport. We all moved through the building and out onto the tarmac. Even though we didn’t see any signs of damage, there was too much risk of aftershocks to stay inside. I’ve never in my life seen a runway full of hundreds of people as planes roar in and land and I’ve never heard such cheers either.
Our plane arrived and we boarded. Amazingly, we were only a few hours late in departing. Had we been on an earlier flight it would have been cancelled and had we been on a flight the next day, we’d probably still be waiting in Kathmandu.
We were so fortunate. What luck in standing just out of reach of a collapsing wall. What luck in being on just the right flight. But, more importantly, I can’t express how much I respect the Nepali people for their caring and concern, both for us and for each other. The weeks and months ahead will be difficult for the country but I hope to return one day.