We were beaming smiles at each other with the thought of shaking off the persistent dust, escaping the scorching heat of India’s wide northern plains and exchanging the bustling and screeching traffic with lonesome mountain trails as we crossed the desolate border to Nepal at Sonauli.
At that time we intended to spend at least a month there with enough time for extensive hiking expeditions to prepare for eventual challenges waiting for us in the Pamir, Tian Shan, and Hindukush later on. Furthermore we hoped that Kathmandu might be a far more pleasant and efficient place to bag some Visas compared to Delhi, especially with the Pakistani Visa in mind.
Everything should come very, very different though, already from the beginning….
As the rattling bus finally succeeded in mastering the curvy mountain passes and arrived in Kathmandu’s suburbs we got thrown out without much explanation where we are late evening, the streets dark and deserted. The traffic police put us in a taxi and negotiated a fair price to bring us close to the place where our couchsurfer was supposed to live.
We didn’t manage to contact the lady though and lacking address or other means of communication, we faced a night on the street or in a park – when suddenly a voice asked from behind: “Braucht ihr Hilfe?” (Do you need help?)
It was Axel, a guy working for the German Organization for International Cooperation (GIZ) in Nepal with his wife Dietmute, and – not exactly the most German situation – 30 minutes later we sat freshly showered on their couch and spent a pleasant evening together, followed by a soul pleasing breakfast of whole wheat bread, cheese, nutella, olives and coffee the next day. What a start, was our both thought!
We set off bags packed again to the Thamel area, Kathmandu’s old center, to see how to proceed. When all plans and ideas suddenly crumbled and got crushed like Kathmandu itself…
7.9 – when a number decides over life or death
Our minibus waited for the green light on a wide junction on his way to Thamel as the suspension was squeaking and the whole car started to wobble – all too used to bumpy roads, we didn’t even realize much of it. But the car was NOT driving. And pedestrians crashed violently down, hitting their heads and bodies onto stones and pavement. Motorbikes collapsed without maneuvering. The traffic signs flapped helplessly like gigantic leaves on a thin tree in storm. A second later a whole house collapsed just 40 meters to our left side. People screamed. The passengers left the car with panic and bewilderment written in their faces. We left as well, joining the hundreds on the streets who left their vehicles to run or to just stand on the road trying to grasp what is happening. An earthquake, it could only be an earthquake!
As the initial blow at 11:56h in the morning on the 26.04.2015 was mostly smothered by our vehicles suspension we still had absolutely no idea that we were in the in the middle of the worst natural disaster hitting Nepal since 1934. We had absolutely no idea, that it should claim over 7000 lives and injure over 15000. We were not aware that the chance to see Kathmandu’s ancient monuments was just taken away from us 20 minutes before it should have happened. But first and foremost we did not fathom that this missed chance might have spared our lives – Nepal’s ancient quarter had turned to rubble in that moment already.
Our driver tried to get a hold of the situation and gathered those passengers still around including us, directing us to another minibus that was not stuck between other cars and free to go. Every minute in that car increased the terror in our eyes as we passed by scenes of people trying to scramble through rubble of completely collapsed houses, blood smeared faces stared stunned at what once was their home, mothers blindfolded the eyes of their children as fathers screamed to move them away. Open space, open space – such a scarce thing in so many Asian cities has never been more crucial! Then suddenly another blow – more bricks crumbling, people screaming up again in new terror and our driver pushing the pedal to reach a safe place. Seconds later everybody left the bus running as we found the vast space of a military parade and sports ground to our left side. We followed and joined the already many hundred people sitting there in the grass, consoling each other to wipe away some of the shock from the faces.
It’s not over – after panic comes tension
Waiting for hours on the military field we remained in the dark about the severity of the disaster by what happened around us. While hundreds turned to thousands, military helicopters thundered over our heads, supply trucks and fire engines arrived, we got immensely soothed by the calm behavior most of the Nepalis around us showed. The frequent but lighter aftershocks always caused a concert of yelps, but in between people ran to the few small shops open to buy everything available, they put blankets or jackets on the ground and shared food and water in between them as the hours passed. A smiling man gave us a water bottle while mentioning casually that his village seems to be in ruins but he can’t reach anybody. We later heard stories of people carrying strangers endangering their own lives, digging in the rubble for bodies during the aftershocks but first and foremost: after the first devastating blow their was no expansive panic, but an assiduous, focused dealing with the situation.
We started talking with two immensely relaxed teenagers who suggested a concert for all the people around to ease the minds a bit – the feedback was so beautiful, we honestly nearly forgot the whole situation for a short while. Still, fearing aftershocks, we decided against finding a hostel (not knowing yet that many ceased to exist…) but to call our new friends Axel and Dietmute asking to stay with them one more night in their modern and sturdy house. Their reaction brought us back in touch with reality: They were packing and leaving their own house; everybody should sleep outside the upcoming night as heavy aftershocks were probable. Together with our two new Nepali friends we started a fast and fierce walk along ruined streets, as they guided us back to Axel’s neighborhood. We arrived just in time to jump in a fully loaded taxi heading to a makeshift camp on the parking ground of the GIZ.
Saved by Germans
Axel and Dietmute saved our butts a second time in two days. They obtained permission for us to stay with all the GIZ personnel in the camp – still unaware of the disaster’s dimension we were just as unaware that this stay should extend to four nights and countless aftershocks in the end.
Nevertheless, we can claim with certitude that we probably couldn’t have drawn a better lot in such a terrible situation. The small things soothed the mind: Having good German bread and great coffee (not to talk about the amazing Nepali food prepared by the Nepali kitchen crew), good company in all the fantastic GIZ people, other refugees, mostly Nepali but also from different countries including the fellow German travelers Joseph and Bernadette who escaped their hotel by a hairbreadth and the safety of the place itself.
All that got however more than outweighed by the continuous con-flux of terrible, devastating news. The death toll was rising and rising and rising. The first pictures we saw in the news of remote villages and Kathmandu’s center reduced all of us to silence. But what caused a different kind of agony was that awful, terrible feeling to just sit around and wait – it was worse for the GIZ people, as all of them seemed deeply connected and in love with that country, considering it their more or less temporary home. The central organization process of help was crawling along as the Nepali authorities and the UN as well seemed overwhelmed by the task.
During the third day in camp, as all the interns of GIZ grieved for the decision that they shall be flown out of Nepal by military airplanes, we faced an immensely difficult decision: Should we listen to our heart that ordered us to stay and do everything possible to help – or the brain with its cold logic advising us to leave us the best thing to do. Both of us being heart people, we still gave our brains the upper hand. We just had to realize that in the current situation, somebody without immediately useful skills (e.g. a doctor), without any connections within the country or knowledge of the language and no specific equipment, like four wheel drives or something, is nothing but a burden right now, just two more stomachs to fill in a situation where the shortage of basic supplies was a great threat.
We decided to leave. After the German embassy nearly put us on a military plane to Europe, we took matters into our own hands and steered towards India, as we got confirmation that a few main roads are free. As we hitchhiked out of Kathmandu it felt like a gigantic exodus, like everybody who had any chance is just leaving the city – probably a good decision. Buses where stuffed to bursting with sometimes 20 – 30 additional passengers on the roof. Trucks carrying supplies into the city, took loads of people out of it. Everything under tight watch of military and police, to prevent violence or panic.
We got very lucky and caught a car of a young Nepali couple till Barathpur, and from there three crowded, dusty buses to the border of India, where free government buses were provided to refugees to the nearby city of Gorakhpur. After two full days of exhausting journey we boarded a train with a free ticket to Delhi sponsored by the Indian government and slept a deep sleep in the rattling carriage.
Even in the light of this disaster we survived without much of a scratch, there is more of Nepal that stays with us. If people can be as amazing in such dark times, how great would they be in brighter ones? We can only wish and hope that help comes fast and plenty now, as the monsoon will arrive soon to make matters worse – but we are sure at the same time, that Nepal’s spirit will survive all the broken buildings and lost lives to remain what made this country an abode of smiles for so long.