It was a lazy, grey, Saturday morning at our home in Sanepa. Prakash was traveling in some villages in Nepal from Tuesday to Friday, was very tired and wanted to take it easy. We contemplated going out for lunch and watching a movie in the evening, or having a simple lunch at home and going out for dinner. The second option won the family vote… thankfully.
Prakash was half asleep in our living room on the sofa. Janani and Sumi were playing on the floor with legos. Sajjan was cuddling up with Prakash. I was in the kitchen, getting started with lunch prep, but in the process of writing a text message on my phone which was resting on a narrow table we keep our water filter on. The “bati gayo beep” (electricity ON / OFF signal) just went off and immediately, the narrow table started slowly rattling. In my mind, I thought, “why is the bati gayo / electricity making our table shake?” As the seconds passed and the shaking increased, I started walking over to Prakash in the living room. The confusion quickly turned into intense fear. Barely able to walk on the shaking floor, I hobbled to the landing between our dining room and living room. Sumanth and Janani and I crouched down and I covered them as best as I could. In Sajjan’s words, “Baba went flying off the sofa and I went with him”. They crouched down in the living room. I was screaming loudly and was VERY scared. Janani and Sumanth reacted to my fear and were crying uncontrollably. Prakash, having experienced three California earthquakes was calm and was holding quiet little Sajjan tightly. It went on and on… The shaking got worse, then finally subsided. My first thought, “let me call Tika Dai!” I called twice and couldn’t get through. We then walked quickly out of the house into our front yard. Our brick privacy fences had all crumbled – but our house and all neighboring houses were still standing! The landlord and his family (our neighbors) came out into the yard too – we were all shocked, stunned, and at a loss for words. We were huddling at our picnic table trying to calm ourselves and the children and the first aftershock came (minutes from the major quake); the landlord’s house helper asked us to not sit near the trees, but come to the open grass area in the landlord’s yard. We waited for well over an hour with about 1 dozen people in the yard. My phone rang, and I was so gratefully to hear Tika Dai’s voice on the other end. He was with a friend in Kathmandu, but was ok.
The landlord’s family was glued to their portable radio listening to the Nepali radio – my Nepali is pretty good, but I could only understand bits and pieces of it (poor sound quality, fast dialogues, vocabulary that I haven’t learned yet). However, the earth was still. Hunger soon crept into all bellies and we ventured into the house to muster up a very quick lunch. We were eating at the table and Tika Dai’s voice broke the silence, “Hello Madam!” He hugged Prakash and in tears told us, “Kathmandu katham bhayo / Kathmandu is finished”. Our hearts sank… He cycled home through destruction, rubble and crowds of crying people. Devotedly, he came to make sure our family was okay before checking on his own…immeasurable sense of duty. We sent him off to his family’s house about 0.5 kilometers from our home, and thankfully, they too were all okay (later that evening we got a call from Sonu and her family was also okay). He came back inside and asked us to take our lunch outside, it just isn’t safe inside, he insisted. We fearfully followed his advice and went back to the landlord’s yard. The Nepal Government, via radio, urged all people to STAY OUTSIDE. This guidance stretched from 12 to 48 to 72 hours.
Aftershocks kept coming. But sitting still, in a garden or elsewhere, for children is just not possible (who are we kidding, we adults are equally restless). The kids were playing with other neighborhood kids. So much of their conversations had the words “earthquake, aftershock, shaking, scary” in them. We place a half-full water bottle on the ground and were literally staring at it – when an aftershock came, the water would shake. Sometimes we’d feel it first, sometimes we’d see the water shaking first. Many times, we felt like the ground was shaking (vertigo or seasickness feeling) but it really wasn’t. We’d intermittently run into the house – to use the bathroom, get something out of the playroom, get something from the kitchen – but immediately came back outside. Phone connectivity was very poor, all electricity was out, but our internet connectivity was strong (charged by our invertor). We were so grateful.
Our garden has several very tall trees. Prakash adamantly felt we’d be safer sleeping in our home than out of it. We argued for a bit, Janani and I really wanted to listen and do what the masses are doing. Prakash wanted to be smart and do what was best for our family. His arguments were that the main earthquake is over (no matter what the numerous rumors suggested), potentially unstable trees falling on our tent could be worse, and our house walls are over 15 inches thick and it seemed / is much sturdier than the average house in Kathmandu. He won and we slept inside, but the kids and I insisted that we sleep downstairs in the living room (close to the front door and with no second story above our heads) instead of upstairs in our bedrooms.
We opened our doors to others. Tika Dai’s daughter just had a baby about 10 days before the earthquake. I suggested that she and the baby sleep inside our house instead of out in the open air. They initially accepted, but at 9pm discovered no feasible way to transport Rita and her baby to our home (motorcycle, bicycle and walking were all too uncomfortable for a new mom). Prakash also offered our home to the group of scientists he worked with in the villages. They were driving in their trucks a few hours from KTM while the quake hit, but managed to slowly travel into the city and made it back before midnight. Their hotel was initially closed, but opened in time for them to sleep there. In the end, just the five of us slept at home.
Needless to say, that first night was really really really long. We barely slept. During each aftershock (at least 4), I’d wrap my arms around our sleeping children and hold them near to me. Within seconds the shaking would stop and my blood pressure would gradually decline. I knew we were amongst the REALLY LUCKY ones – we had our lives, no injuries, food in our kitchen, water in our storage tanks, all extended family members and friends accounted for, and even internet connection to be in touch with those abroad! There was SO much death, pain, destruction, sorrow less than 1 kilometer from our house. Still, fear kept us awake most of the night.
Besides fear of severe aftershocks and a continuous vivid reel of the first quake playing through my mind, Prakash and I wanted to start mobilizing and trying to help those in need. We had food, shelter, water, family – our needs were satiated. Countless times, we’d be in our living room in the USA, watching CNN and wishing we could “be there to help” when mother nature released excessive amounts of energy elsewhere – and now we are HERE! And fully capable of helping given that our basic needs are satiated. On Sunday, we teamed up with our dear friends, Emily and Caleb Spear, from Portal Bikes, and gave it a go. Prakash and Caleb worked on getting more tarps to those needing shelter (a tarp suspended to create a “ceiling” with no walls provides decent protection from the rain and a bit of warmth from the 50 degrees low temperatures. As we are gradually realizing, connecting those in need with what they need is a slow process. A severe aftershock / second earthquake that afternoon swayed us enough to shift to sleeping in a tent in the yard. Feeling so grateful to still have our lives, no injuries, food in our bellies, and a tent to sleep in, we eventually feel asleep.
On Monday, our whole family ventured off to ICIMOD. We used our car for the first time (our brand new Ford EcoSport was delivered two weeks ago but we hadn’t used it because we haven’t received our license plate). We decided that now, it was worth using anyhow. The roads on this part of town are okay. They’ve all sustained several hairline cracks, but are very passable. Thankfully, the ICIMOD office sustained only a few minor cracks and the building was deemed safe to be in. A few employees and directors were there and met to discuss next steps. The directors offered Prakash the role of organizing efforts to assist a few nearby villages where ICIMOD already has a presence. Awesome! He has a green light to channelize ICIMOD staff and resources for relief efforts. After the meeting, we waited in a one hour long queue to fill gas into our car’s empty tank while the kids napped in the back.
Soon after arriving back home, the bati aayo beep sounded and power was restored! I was so surprised, anticipating a wait of days or maybe even weeks. Power was restored in about 48 hours – unbelievable. Again, we are lucky – many families do not have power yet (over 72 hours). The kids even watched a movie on our TV – I was just perplexed as to how “normal” our life is flowing while others in Kathmandu are dead, injured, homeless, hungry, thirsty, fearful, and desolate. I was enjoying our comforts but feeling like it is all a bit unfair. To add to this bias, we splurged, indulged and treated ourselves to a bucket bath. Feeling grimy, sweaty, smelly, I justified using some of our water reserves to bathe – felt totally guilty, selfing and indulgent, maybe it was even foolish, but it felt so good. All clean and no significant aftershocks, we decided to move back into the living room for the night.
Tuesday, ICIMOD officially opened its doors to employees. Prakash was the only employee on the staff bus this morning, whereas usually it is full! Both long-term and short-term planning meetings took place. Back at home, I was restless and wanted to mobilize. The kids, Tika Dai and I cleared fallen bricks and concrete from two privacy fences that were blocking half the roadway outside our home and our neighbors’ homes. It was a small insignificant task, but felt good to be doing something. Later on, we took the Spear family kiddos to our place so Emily and Caleb could more efficiently work on distribution of drinking water and educating locals on solar-based water purification methods.
Soon we are headed to school – it opens at 10am today (kudos to The British School!!).
This is just a small snapshot at our last few days. I know SO many of you are SO worried about us – sincerely thank you for your warm wishes and prayers. We are really just fine and so thankful and grateful for how mildly this massive earthquake affected our lives, home, neighborhood, school and work. It will forever be etched in our memories… the silver lining behind this dark cloud is bright for us. The next few weeks, months and perhaps longer, we will join the immense efforts to uncover others’ silver linings…