Outside Perpective

Shaken in Nepal

, Nepal PCV

On Saturday, April 25, I woke up pretty hung over in Kathmandu. Friday had been my last day with the newest group of Peace Corps trainees to arrive in Nepal–they were returning to their training village the following afternoon, and I was planning to visit my training family in Sindupalchok, followed by taking a week-long vacation to Tibet with a group of volunteers. The previous night, we’d been out late having a few drinks, dancing, and neglecting to hydrate. If not for the queasy, almost debilitating feeling saturating my body and the allure of the weekly Kathmandu farmer’s market, I would have hopped aboard the 7 o’clock direct bus to Sindupalchok, which would likely have placed me in my homestay family’s kitchen at the moment the Himalayan earthquake hit.Instead, I lounged in bed, moseyed over to the farmers’ market, browsed in a bookstore, and hopped on a bus around 11. I put on my sunglasses, mask, and hat, and immediately passed out.So I was a bit out of it when, at the edge of Kathmandu, the bus began shaking and people started screaming. The Nepalis around me immediately recognized the tremors as an earthquake, and someone yelled that everyone should remain on the bus. Traffic stopped and buildings emptied onto the street.

nepalquake

Image from Katmandu, Nepal by Niranjan Shrestha/AP

The initial tremor would register as a 7.8, the largest earthquake in Nepal in over 80 years, and lasted about 20 seconds but felt more like five or ten minutes. After a minute of confused motionlessness, the driver started the ignition and continued ahead. Within moments, another tremor began. Soon after it stopped, another arrived.

Shortly after the third shock, a man appeared at the door of the bus and reported that the road ahead was destroyed. I followed a few Nepalis off the bus to view the damage. The road had split apart like a poorly broken chocolate graham cracker. Pedestrians and motor bikers were trying to negotiate the cracks while police redirected traffic down alternative roads. Everyone was out in the street, heading every which way.

As I walked to a nearby field, I tried making over a dozen phone calls, two of which went through. The networks were overloaded with the congestion of calls. Everyone and their mother was on their phone, except no one could reach even their mother. Over the next two days, the cell phone networks would fluctuate between being down and being too overburdened with traffic to connect calls.

After waiting in the field for half an hour (and, finally, contacting Peace Corps), I decided to abandon my travel plans and return to the city. Walking around the outskirts of Kathmandu toward the airport, the damage looked pretty minimal, though the streets were swarming with people. I hailed a few cabs and finally found one to take me back to the center of the city, where three of my friends were holed up in a guesthouse.

As we sped through the crowded backstreets, the severity of the situation became more clear. A building or wall (mostly brick) had collapsed on almost every block. People were headed every which way, with many congregating in the larger intersections. later, while surveying the damage with some friends, we spotted a wall that had fallen on and subsequently overturned a parked car.

Eventually, we happened to run into the group of Peace Corps trainees that was still in Kathmandu. We consolidated in the Phora American Club near Thamel and waited in a big field for further instructions. In the early evening, four of my volunteer friends and I were shuttled to the United States Embassy, along with thirty Peace Corps trainees, several Peace Corps staff members, and a bunch of American families.

Since then, we’ve been mostly confined to the Embassy,[1] permitted to leave on a sign-out, sign-in, come back early buddy system. The Embassy has taken in hundreds of American citizens in the past two days. With the airport closed until this morning and the uncertain structural integrity of many of Kathmandu’s guesthouses, many have accepted the cafeteria dining and hallway sleeping of the U.S. Embassy.

The accommodations have been luxurious, at least by a Peace Corps Volunteer’s standards. Although we’re mostly sleeping on the floor, there are land lines, internet, electricity, hot water, drinking water, meals, TV, and even a basketball court. I’ve snacked on Poptarts, Butterfingers, Gushers, Dr. Pepper, Gatorade, and a host of other American delicacies that I’ve sorely missed. We’ve also been eating MREs (Meals Ready-to-Eat), which are the packaged (and actually quite tasty) meals often eaten in the military. Gradually, however, the resources are running out and we’ve begun rationing cups, silverware, and a few other items. Depending on the extent of the road damage, the coming weeks may bring shortages of food, water, and fuel in the Kathmandu Valley, which will be particularly dangerous for Nepalis not living in their wealthy country’s embassy.

Peace Corps Volunteers have also been helping with various tasks around the Embassy at all hours of the day–everything from answering phone calls in the consular office to planning activities for the many expatriate children to cleaning bathrooms to cooking meals. I’ve taken calls from the US and Nepal about missing persons, entered, information into the Embassy database, checked people into the Embassy, mopped floors, and run various errands to help keep things running. It’s been remarkable to see our ragtag group of untrained people come together in such a way.

Image from Bhaktapur, Nepal by Niranjan Shrestha /AP

 

There have been over 45 tremors above 4.5 on the Richter scale in the past 60 hours, ranging from unnoticeable to jarring. The gaps between them have ranged from five minutes to five hours. With such frequent unpredictability, it feels as though my center of gravity no longer fixed but rather shifts around while I’m standing or lying down. Every inexplicable thud, every accidentally knocked desk is an instant for uncertainty and exchanged glances of panic. In the night, I awake from dreams of quakes to find myself in the real thing. Even as I typed this paragraph, everyone in the Embassy library froze as another shock rocked the room.

For me, the gravest news has come out of Sindhupalchok, where I was headed the morning of the earthquake. After finally making contact with my host mother on Saturday evening, I learned that their house, along with many others in the village, had been completely destroyed. their barn had collapsed and the livestock had been killed. My host grandmother died in the aftermath. The rest of the family has been without food and shelter, they tell me, and request that I not come for the moment.

For many other Nepal Peace Corps Volunteers, the news was the same. Most permanent host families were largely unaffected, although a couple of homes have cracked and are threatening to collapse. Many volunteers’ training host families, however, were devastated.

There is a tendency for tragedy to fade too quickly from collective memory. That is my biggest fear at the moment. Please hold these stories, the images you’ve seen in your memory so that they may retain their deserved intensity. They are far away from you, but they are just as much reality. Our cohort and a previous cohort of Peace Corps Volunteers in Nepal are discussing organizing some sort of relief effort from the U.S. to Nepal to aid our unfortunate and suffering families.

 

[1] This was written a few weeks ago, Ben is now safely back in America.

 


 

Ben WagnerThis is an excerpt from PCV-Nepal Ben Wagner’s blog Namaste, Nepal.  Ben is a 23-year-old from a small town in Westchester County, New York. He graduated from Middlebury College in 2013, where he studied neuroscience and global health.

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