Travelling solo once again, I flew from the calm serenity of Bali to the hustle, bustle, city chaos of Kathmandu. Nepal – my 65th country. Following a seamless airport pick up I checked into my room on the top (5th) floor of the Hotel Potala in the heart of Thamel. Thamel is distinguished by its narrow streets crowded with various shops, travel agents, restaurants, bars and budget hotels. My old hotel was pretty basic but the staff were extra friendly and they served great local food. Sleeping was difficult though, as the back alleys that surround the hotel came alive at night with music so loud that even the window frames pulsated! (The T-section “clearing” I refer to later, is the one in the middle of this small photo to the left!).
Wednesday 22 April
My morning was spent booking my overland trip to Tibet via a backstreet Thamel travel agent (not an easy task!) finally handing over my passport for an emergency Chinese visa, which was due back Monday night. That afternoon – after being introduced by a mutual friend online just days before – I met Debi for first time. It was lovely getting to know each other over beer, curry and wine…
Thursday 23 April
Up early the following morning myself and Debi hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day. First stop the post office (next to the tall thin white Dharahara Tower, which was toppled in the quake, killing hundreds) so Debi could send some stuff back to the States. Around midday we got dropped at the bottom of the steep Monkey Temple steps, for a few hours up the hill taking aerial photos of Kathmandu, temples (which subsequently collapsed) and monkeys. The second half of the afternoon was spent in Basantapur Durbar Square, which was one of the worst hit city areas during the quake. That night we went for wine, pizza and cocktails with Debi’s Aussie friend Josh. The three of us pub crawled around Thamel into the early hours…
Friday 24 April
Following breakfast to clear our hangovers, we caught a tuk-tuk to Patan Durbur Square, another Unesco World Heritage Site badly damaged during the quake and where many people were killed. Here we spent ages taking photos of door ways, pigeons, temples and even more door ways. Rain stopped play around 3pm and we got a taxi home. I had already decided to spend a night out of Kathmandu – to see more of Nepal before heading to Tibet – and the hotel staff had recommended Bandipur. On discovering that Debi was not leaving town until late the following morning – and now my laptop was broken and I needed to send it home – I decided to leave town on the Sunday morning instead of Saturday. For our final evening together we dined at a lovely Israeli restaurant.
Saturday 25 April (part one)
Around 9:30am I dropped my broken laptop off at a small DHL agent in Thamel, paying for an 8-12 day delivery service back to the UK. After some last minute shopping, I hugged Debi goodbye in the 2nd floor reception of Hotel Potala around 11:10am. I planned to spend the rest of the day buying warm clothes and packing – as I was due to check out early the following morning for my planned overnight trip to Bandipur…………………….
Sunday 26 April (original plan)
I was supposed to leave most my stuff at the hotel, before taking a 6:30am bus west and slightly north to Bandipur. The journey should have taken around 5-6 hours, stopping for lunch along the way. I planned to get a room for the night when I arrived.
Monday 27 April (original plan)
I would spend the day retracing my steps back to Kathmandu, and Hotel Potala for one final night. My passport should have been waiting for me to collect from the travel agent with my Chinese visa approved (for Tibet)
Tuesday 28 April (original plan)
I was being picked up early for my much anticipated “roof of the world” 8 day overland tour from Kathmandu to Tibet. Finishing in Lhasa – the capital of Tibet – from where I would fly east to Chengdu, China.
Meeting Debi definitely shaped how I would spend my time in Nepal. If I’d chosen to go to Bandipur on the Saturday instead of the Sunday, I would have been over half way towards Barpak – the epicentre of the quake – at 11:56 on the Saturday. Also it turned out Debi’s Nepali visa did not expire until the Monday so she had toyed with the idea of leaving Kathmandu on the Sunday instead of Saturday. If this had been the case, we would not have crammed all our sightseeing into the Thursday and Friday (especially considering we we hungover Friday morning!) so would most likely have have been at one of the temple areas mentioned above when the earthquake hit. Plus I only hooked up with Debi in the first place after an impromptu evening with Hannah in Bali when plans suddenly changed and we managed to meet up before I left the country. Sipping sunset cocktails, I mentioned Nepal and Hannah suddenly remembered her friend Debi was there…
Saturday 25 April (part two)
* Please note that none of these images were taken on the day of the quake – except the three with the lamp post on the car. The street photos were taken on the morning I left Nepal after one last visit to the DHL office in Thamel, hoping it had re-opened (it hadn’t).
So I was in my room on the 5th floor at 11:56am when the earth quake started. I was now both computer-less and friend-less. But that was ok. I could find stuff to occupy my time for the next 24 hours. I was sorting through my things… clothes for laundry, those for my overnight stay in Bandipur and things that were staying behind. I had been to the ATM and there was money all over my bed. I had just opened the wardrobe door when I felt a huge surge and the wardrobe suddenly lunge towards me. I have only felt one tiny (weeny) earth tremor before – in Turkey – but that was enough for me to immediately realise what was happening. Thank god I was dressed as instinct took over and I darted straight from my room towards the stair well along the corridor, leaving my door wide open. The higher you are off the ground in an earthquake, the more movement you are gonna feel and the building, the walls, the floor were already violently shuddering. And it was noisy… creaking… moaning… like I was in a giant sinking ship, mixed with muffled screams already coming from outside. I don’t remember any of my thoughts at this point, but I knew I wanted out of this building before it collapsed on my head. Flying – or rather trying to fly – down each set of stairs was difficult. Zig-zag would be a better description as the hotel continued to shake from left to right. I don’t remember seeing any other tourists at this point. Just staff. One was directly in front of me, and he didn’t seem to be going as fast as I would have liked. I know I nipped at his heals. 5th, down to 4th, down to 3rd and onto the 2nd floor – reception.
The hotel was still violently quaking and the cries from outside were getting louder. It was at this point I had my first of many decisions that day to make. Continue down the last two – almost pitch black – flights of stairs, onto the crowded alley way below? Or stay in reception on the 2nd floor, where all the other staff were now congregating… plus one western couple I seem to remember. Like when you are on a plane experiencing turbulence and you frantically check out the air hostesses faces to see if this was normal… I looked from Nepali face to face. They looked petrified… but more importantly, I noticed that they were all standing in door frames. Of course. Its so obvious and we know that right? But in that moment I had completely forgotten. There was half a door way spare to the side of reception, next to one of the kitchen staff, and this is where I rode out the last of the main 7.9 quake. Apparently it was at a depth of approx. 15 km (9.3 mi) which is considered shallow and therefore more damaging than quakes that originate deeper in the ground. It was intense. Heart thumping. Mind racing although actually thinking nothing at all.
I’ve read conflicting reports as to how long that first main quake lasted. Some say under a minute, whereas others nearly five. All I can say is that it seemed like forever. Finally it subsided. I can’t say stopped, because I don’t think I felt complete stillness until I landed at Kuala Lumpur airport some 3.5 days later. The building wasn’t moving as much but suddenly everybody was. Again, instinct told me to get the hell out so with everyone else I ran down the last two sets of stairs and out into the alley way. Immediately outside I could see pavements had buckled, there were cracks in some of the buildings and the air was filled with dust. Thankfully however – miraculously – there was no actual buildings collapsed in the immediate vicinity. But it was chaotic. There aren’t many “open” spaces in Thamel but just round the corner from the hotel was a tiny T-section (shown in first small photo above), which had the most floor space of anywhere I could think of. I ran there then stood frozen – like many other people – wondering what the hell was going on, would there be more quakes, if one of these buildings collapsed right now, would it fall on my head (the answer to this was probably).
Suddenly I was thinking a little more clearly. I knew I wanted to stay alive. I knew there would be aftershocks. I knew the buildings in Thamel were vulnerable. I knew I wanted to get the hell out of Thamel asap. But I was standing there in a pair of shorts and t-shirt. No shoes, no underwear, no phone, no nothing. And I’d left my hotel room door wide open with $300 sprawled across it. And second to staying alive – the other emotion that suddenly gripped me – was that I didn’t want to face this on my own. I often travel by myself and normally it doesn’t worry me at all (I quite enjoy it)… but in that very moment panic set in as it dawned on me I was all alone, in a strange third-world city with no one to hug, make decisions for me, take my hand or lead me into safety.
I did not want to deal with this, but I had no choice. Whatever I did I had to do it quick. I ran back into Hotel Potala with my heart in my mouth and every part of me still trembling… back up the five flights of stairs to my “penthouse”. In the room I grabbed my small over the shoulder bag, stuffing it with everything that was on my bed. Money, credit card, tiger balm, tissues and some other random completely useless paperwork that just happened to be in reach. I spent another 10 or so seconds looking for my passport… only to then remember that I had already handed it over to a local travel agent some three days before. I grabbed my sandals, a half full bottle of water next to my bed and finally ripped my iPhone out from its charger. I somehow managed to lock the door on the way out.
Five flights goes on forever when you know there is probably another tremor on its way. As I sprinted down the stairs, I was also frantically trying to get my wifi to kick back in… Ridiculous as it might seem, in that moment I didn’t realise the extent of the quake. Didn’t realise it had extended to the airport where Debi now was or even that it had happened outside of Thamel. All I wanted was to find someone to be with. Josh. The only other living (as far as I knew) person in Thamel who must now be in the same position as me. I typed Debi an email “There has been a quake. I’m scared. Please can you put me in touch with Josh”. The email never sent.
Back into the alley way and straight back to the same “clearing”. Think think think. I need to find space. But where? Unfortunately me and Debi hadn’t really spent time (sober) walking the streets of Thamel and I had no idea which was the quickest way out of this maze onto the wider streets of the city. By now there were far more tourists on the streets. I went straight up to the first western couple I saw – we did eventually introduce ourselves but I cannot for the life of me remember now their names or where they were from. The girl was crying. I asked them which way should we go… the locals seemed to be heading in all directions. And I’ll say this now (though it would be relevant throughout my story) the local people I saw that day really panicked. I mean we were all scared… but the tourists definitely seemed to have a more practical approach to the situation. The Nepali however were scared shitless.
Me and my new friends headed in what was suddenly becoming the most obvious direction. It was probably only a five minute walk through the alley ways from there to exit Thamel but it seemed much longer. The earth was definitely still moving and on route I could see much more signs of damage. At last the street opened up a little and I could breath my first small sigh of relief. I wasn’t going to get flattened in Thamel. However I soon realised that this new area posed a whole different set of problems. Power cables! The streets were definitely wider but they were still backed my tall concrete buildings and strewn precariously between every building, lamp post, fence, street sign… basically anything that moves (if you’ll pardon the pun) were hundreds of dangerous hanging power cables. Moving down the road a little to where there was less people and less cables, we sat down in the curb. Waiting. At this moment a girl walked up to us… probably about 19 years old. She looked like a little urchin, dazed, tiny and shoeless. Doreen from Ireland. She said down next to me and muttered, “what the hell is going on???” Turns out Doreen was on her own and like me had just darted out of her nearby hotel. Its amazing what you end up discussing at a time like this. The normal introductions are replaced with assessments of wall heights, potential crowd crushing, which direction power cables might fall.
Around 12:45pm there was the first of many big after shocks, this one measuring 6.6 on the Richter Scale. Instinct immediately sent everyone – including us – darting into the middle of the road. Not really knowing what else to do, myself and Doreen simply clung to one another. In some ways it was actually more scary than the first. Afterwards we were to learn that this is when most of the structural collapse took place (including the tall white tower killing over 100 people). It probably lasted less than a minute but again it felt like much longer. And again, there was simply no getting away from it. You just had to stand there and take it… praying your wall, cable judgement was right and your little bit of pavement would keep you safe.
SAFE. That is probably the word that went through my mind that day more than any other. Such a basic need but in those hours that was all I wanted. I’m sure I remember learning in one of my marketing classes about our “hierarchy of needs” with safety appearing near the base. This core fundamental human need which so many – myself included – automatically just take for granted. With the second big tremor over I realised we needed to move again. More people were coming to the edge of Thamel and the streets were fulling up fast. Also the building topple/width of road ratio was still not 100% in our favour.
Ending up outside the Garden of Dreams (which were incidentally closed) I found a stretch of pavement where I calculated we would be safer. The power cables and some of the lamp posts in this stretch had already collapsed – squashing a taxi (no one was inside but we heard** a couple of people sat in the back had been killed earlier). On one side of the road the Garden of Dreams high wall was already partly destroyed and the other side was flanked by a lower brick wall, a wooden fence and large bush. We waited. We probably sat on the dirty pavement for another hour or so. The ground continued to quake. Sitting directly on the floor you could definitely feel the movement more and during each new tremor you would catch the eye of someone else – seeing your own terror reflected back at you – but both letting out a little knowing smile neither the less.
** I also have to mention here the rumours. By now communications were clearly down. You knew there had been a big earthquake. You could feel the tremors continuing. You could hear sirens going off and emergency vehicles on the move. You knew that people would have been injured or worse, and by now I had caught wind that this was making international news. But the worse part was the speculation and let me tell you, the rumour mill was in overdrive. “Apparently” this was only the prelude to the BIG ONE. “Apparently” there was going to be an even bigger quake in two hours time. Sounds silly to write it now but at the time it really did seem plausible and the possibility stayed with everyone throughout those first few days. Even Debi (who was at the airport for both quakes) heard exactly the same. Thank god it wasn’t true.
I was starting to get cold. Why hadn’t I grabbed just one outer layer when I’d gone back to my room. Again decisions decisions. One thing I knew for sure was that I was NOT going to sleep in my 5th floor Thamel hotel room that night. Or probably ever again. Doreen was also cold… and shoeless… and worried that she has left her door open with all her stuff inside. Her hotel was on the edge of Thamel so finally she decided to go back to her room and pack up, returning half hour later with all her stuff and a jumper for me. Another hour passed. By now it was about 3pm and Doreen decided to head off and try find her friends – who had left on a bus that morning for a music festival that was taking place an hour or so out of town. I gave her jumper back (she said I could keep it but she only had a tiny backpack containing all her stuff and I knew I had layers back at my room). We hugged and said goodbye. I was alone again. The tremors continued. What to do?
People reading this might think I am mad but it was at this point that I then decided to go back into Thamel and get some more of my things. Not everything (I knew that would take too long) but I was already getting cold and the evening was approaching, when temperatures would plummet. I was also dying for the loo. Thamel was pretty much deserted, except for a few dazed looking tourists sat around scratching their heads. I was probably in and out of that swaying hotel within two minutes – up the five flights, stuffing all my warm clothes into my daypack with my camera, and after going to the toilet I raced back down the five flights – handing my key into the still smiling receptionist. I’ll be back later for the rest of my things.
Heading back in the same direction, this time I decided to keep going. By now it was clear that the whole of Kathmandu was going to be sleeping on open ground that night. Everyone was bedding down and thats all I wanted to do. At the end of the main street where I’d spent most of my afternoon I found a dusty old car park, or it might have been a bus station. There were hardly any cars in it – or buses for that matter – but it was surrounded by single storey buildings (very important) and there were quite a few tourists milling around. I sat down in the dirt and decided to try and get comfortable. Regretting that I hadn’t yet been shopping for my Tibet clothing or sleeping bag, I put on all the layers that I had. The ground continued to move.
There were a group of western volunteers sat near me and I listened to their conversations. One of them had a local phone (I had zero reception on my UK sim) so I asked to borrow it so I could text my mum. The phone died as my message was sending so I wasn’t sure it had gone through. I noticed an older lady sat on her own towards the centre of the car park. I can’t remember her name, but she was about 65 years old and very very English. I’m going to call her Joan. I sat down next to Joan. This was probably my best move of the day. Not only did Joan have a mobile I could use (so I text my mum again – apparently she received both) but she then proceeded to pull out reams and reams of printed information from the internet, including what to do in Nepal in the event of an earthquake!!!
We should make our way to the British Embassy. I can’t believe the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind until that point. Staying alive, not wanting to be alone, keeping warm and letting my mum know I was alive. That is pretty much all that went through my mind that day, in that order. But unfortunately Joan had been calling the Embassy all afternoon and being a Saturday, apparently it was closed. OK, so this carpark is where I am going to sleep and I will worry about tomorrow tomorrow. The ground of the carpark was dry and dusty. And when I say dusty… I mean proper dusty. Like if you were to stand up and slap your bum a thousand times, thick layers of dust would still fall away from where you had made contact with the earth. But that was ok. I was alive. I was safe. I was lucky. Then when an Aussie couple to the side of me decided to head back to their hotel and gifted me and Joan an 18 inch square of clean cardboard each, I felt like I had won the lottery.
By now it was 6:30pm and starting to get dark. Joan and I exchanged small talk as we sat on our nice clean cardboard, leaning against an old car whilst the ground continued to shake underneath. A blonde girl approached some people in front of me and my ears pricked up immediately when I heard her say “I’ve just heard a rumour that the British Embassy is open”. That was it… I didn’t need to hear it twice. Of course, Joan knew the address and thankfully it was not far away, so with this Finnish girl, we set off. Not really knowing what we were walking into… like Tom Hanks in Castaway, I took my only friend – Wilson (my piece of cardboard) – along with me.
Constantly accessing and re-assessing the safest place to walk… the three of us zig-zagged our way to the Embassy. Its weird in a situation like this – especially with communication systems down – but its like your whole world exists in a bubble. Like the Truman Show we were now on the move so that bubble was gradually getting bigger. Suddenly the enormity of the days event began to sink in. There was a lot of structural damage on the way, worst than what I’d seen leaving Thamel. You could only guess what the rest of the city might look like. Flashing my UK driving licence at the front gate then leaving “Wilson” just outside the metal detector entrance, I stepped out of the war zone and straight into an English country garden. Ok the tremors continued, but in the British Embassy – for now – I felt SAFE.
An older British gentlemen (called Paul) approached me to sign in… and would I like a cup of tea. I realised then I hadn’t eaten all day, so the plate of cold porridge was also a welcome sight. That night I crashed out on the floor of a one month old earthquake proof hall, under a blanket and next to a young lad who borrowed one of my jumpers as a pillow. To say I felt lucky and relieved is an understatement. The sleeping tablet helped. The tremors continued all night – including two very large ones at 4am of 6.7 and 6am of 5.3. Even the staff who assured us that the building was quake proof made their way outside the building when they both struck.
Sunday morning and we were given our first – of many – regular briefings by either John Rankin, Ambassador to Nepal or Colonel Sean Harris, Defence Attache British Embassy Kathmandu and Commander British Gurkhas Nepal. We were given updates on death tolls, what was happening on the streets, what our next steps might be and the status at the airport. With no internet or working mobiles, these briefings kept us in contact with the outside world. Our new make shift camp was run by two (very hot) army guys, Duncan and Jessie. Not only were they very easy on the eye, but they also made sure the camp ran with military precision – which was exactly what I needed right then. Just tell me what to do. We were regularly fed, watered and we shared chores – and out of that grew community spirit, with everyone looking out for each other. By now we were taking on more and more people – of all nationalities – with everyone being advised to head to the airport as soon as they could to catch flights out.
For me however, my decision making was way from over. For one, I didn’t still have all my belongings and desperately wanted to go back to retrieve them. For two, I knew by now the extent of the damage and that my Tibet trip would definitely not be taking place. So where next? For three, my passport was currently at the Chinese Embassy and I wasn’t going anywhere until I had that back.
Trying to put the BIG ONE out my mind I finally decided to go back to Hotel Potala. Collect the rest of my belongings, pay up… and check out. The streets were pretty much deserted… but they were a mess with rubble everywhere. You could sense that most people were trying to gather up what and who they had, and simply get out of town. Everyone else was either sleeping or walking in the middle of the road. For the third time since the quake struck I headed back into Thamel and to my 5th floor room. Hardly slowing down as I climbed the stairs by reception, I asked the still smiling receptionist to prepare my bill for me. The hotel was deserted and once back in my room I broke the world record for packing. On the way out I settled up, offering a warm goodbye to the only two staff who had remained. Their season is now over. It was pretty emotional.
Relieved to finally it make it back to the Embassy and not needing to go anywhere until the Chinese Embassy opened the next day, I could finally feel myself starting to relax. About 30 minutes after my return however, the second 6.6 quake struck. Not quite as big as the first and of course, I rode this one out sat in the middle of a green lawn… but it was still a scary reminder about what this country was continuing to go through and just how very very lucky we all were.
More and more people started to arrive at the Embassy. Those who had travelled down from the north where the epicentre was obviously had the most distressing stories to tell. Everyone who turned up received a hug… a shoulder if they needed one… and a cup of tea. Also the second quake had meant that the airport had closed again so people who had originally been told by us to head there, were now being turned away and returning. A change of procedure was urgently needed so it was announced the British Gurkha camp – about 30 minutes out of town – was going to start housing all British Nationals, who were in possession of their passport. So as quickly as people were coming in, they were then being shipped out. This facility could cater for 400 people and had proper beds, showers etc. Of course, I didn’t have my passport so I wasn’t going anywhere.
I had been asked when I checked in whether I had any useful skills. I’d said no – thinking I’m not a doctor or nurse – but after chatting to Jane (a regular civilian just like me) on the check in desk, I realised that of course… I have pretty quick keyboard skills, and I don’t mind a spreadsheet or two 😀 As well as Jane the desk was manned by two older English gentlemen, Paul and Tony… lovely but, well lets just say Excel was not their strong point. I spent the next few hours reformatting the master spreadsheet so that it could be used effectively by the Embassy to filter, sort and count how many people were on site at any one moment and from which countries. For the rest of that day – and in fact until I left on day three – the four of us shared the checking in and out duties. It definitely helped to take my mind off what was actually happening.
Another night… another hard floor and more tremors. By now most of us had given up going outside for them as our bodies decided laying there riding them out inside was probably less disruptive than waking up completely and heading outside. Each night there was on average about 120 people sleeping together on the floor of that large hall, together with an outer hall, and then those who don’t mind the cold actually outside on the lawn. The split was about 50% British and 50% non-British.
It was Monday and I was ready to head out at 8am to go get my passport back from the Chinese Embassy. I’d already decided I was going to Cambodia as soon as possible – my mum was looking into flights – so all I needed now was my passport. Too easy! But I hadn’t figured on the reception I would receive that morning when I rocked up to the Chinese Embassy. With no eye contact all I got was “Closed” and “Come back tomorrow”. Trying to hold it together I calmly tried to explain that I didn’t want the visa now, just my passport – please. But despite my tears the men on the gate remained impassioned and defiant. By now a few other westerners had turned up, all in the same position as me… as the men on the gate proceeded to hose down the entrance to the Embassy; the water jet forcing us further and further back into the street.
Finally our persistence paid off when a casual looking man in a baseball cap came out and asked each of us which agents we had used to get the visas. About an hour, lots of questions, exchanging of phone numbers and business cards later… a man walked out with my passport in his hand. I never thought I would be so pleased to see that little red book. It was my passport to safety. Of course it wasn’t that simple… he needed permission from the travel agent before he could actually give it to me, so he then took me on his bike – back into Thamel!!! Eventually I was told I could have it back – if I paid US$100 as the visa had actually been granted*. Another half hour trying to find an ATM that had money inside it… and I finally had my mitts on my passport.
*Even though the visa had been granted it was worthless, as it was on a group booking valid for entry into China through Tibet only. I am now travelling to Beijing, so need to start a whole new visa process *SIGH*
Anyway back at the British Embassy and queuing for two hours to use the one and only available landline on site, my mum was able to help fit together the final piece of the puzzle. I was booked on an Air Asia flight the following day – via KL – onto Siem Reap, Cambodia (where I now told that Debi was planning on meeting me). One final night of army food, a hard floor and my last 4.0 shudder which woke me up around 4am… the time had come for me to leave. Its weird, I already felt like I had been institutionalised so the relief at being able to leave was also tinged with sadness for leaving the safe structure of the Embassy behind. Plus I met some amazing people there with whom I shared experiences that no one else will ever understand.
Apart from Debi that is. Which is why I was now so keen just to get to Cambodia and touch base with her again. The journey to the airport was pretty rough. You could sense the tension in the air as everyone was still trying to flee the city. Buses were busting. You could see more of the devastated city and you could see the funerals taking place down by the river. Thankfully the airport itself wasn’t as crazy as I had expected. I was with quite a large crowd from the Embassy all on the same flight so we sat together waiting for our boarding call. Of course we were delayed. Still darting a look at each other when you felt a tremor take place, realising the significance right now if there was another quake. So near and yet so far!
1:30pm our flight to KL was supposed to take off. 5pm I think we boarded. And then we sat on the runaway until 8.30pm. A tire needed changing apparently. And in case you’ve ever wondered what an earth quake feels like, its something like a tire being changed on a plane whilst you’re sat on it!!! Then we finally seemed ready to take off but just as we were beginning to pick up speed on the runway, the plane suddenly started to slow up, coming to a complete stop. I think everyone on that plane held a collective breath… before the pilot comes over the tannoy to say that we could not take off because there was a stray dog on the runway! Everyone burst out laughing. 9pm we finally took off. I thought there would be cheers as we did, but by that point I think most people were asleep. Exhausted by what had happened the last few days. And of course it is bittersweet. Selfishly glad you are leaving an unsafe environment but sad for Nepal… for the lost of life and the people left behind.
Landing in KL and continuing onto Siem Reap… is all a bit of a blur really. On top of three nights of broken sleep, this night flight, three glasses of red wine (had to be done!) then an adrenaline rush buying a new MacBookPro at KL airport in the space of just two minutes between transfers… landing in Siem Reap I definitely hit my low. First leaving my brand new – still boxed – laptop at the visa counter the other side of passport control, and not realising until I was in the baggage hall (I eventually got it back)… my main backpack not actually showing up (it turned up the next day and I had to go back to collect it) and then my promised airport transfer to the hotel not being there. All totally stupid little things, but it was just one little thing too many. I remember coming to a halt outside the airport, sliding down a wall and finally breaking down. For the first time I wondered why I hadn’t just gone back to the UK.
Somehow I managed to pull it together and made it to the hotel that Debi (and Kerry) had booked for us. Debi joining me later on that day for an emotional reunion. Obviously there were tears shed, but I was not prepared for the physical come down I was now experiencing. Apparently 143 aftershocks of magnitude greater than 4.0 on the Richter Scale had hit Nepal since the Saturday. From three+ days of constant movement, including sleeping directly on the hard quaking ground, plus your own nerves constantly on edge… all suddenly coming to a complete halt in the utter calm of that Siem Reap hotel room. It was deafening… it was intense… and it made me feel pretty nauseous. Like sea sickness. I also now realised that some of the movement in Kathmandu which I thought were tremors, could well have just been the terror racing around my own body. Either way, the involuntary physical movement continued inside me inside that Cambodian hotel room, for the next three days. And like the earthquake itself, the only way to deal with it was to ride it out. Which I did with the help of Debi – a few Xanax – plus all those who had written to me since the Saturday before with such lovely messages of love, concern and support.
One week on, and even though the internal shudders have finally subsided and the flashbacks ceased I still find myself doing the now-automatic scan everywhere I go — where are the nearest exits and can I find a place of safety beyond them? Cambodia therefore has turned out to be the best place to recover… for one thing are no earthquakes, tsunami’s or volcanoes to worry about. It’s much less populated than I had expected, nice and hot, easy to get around, with friendly people, a chilled out vibe and some really amazing temples. But the most important thing right now that Cambodia has to offer, is an abundance of lovely peaceful empty outside spaces. I am safe. I am grateful. I am lucky.
Thank you for reading my story. I realise that this account has been all about me and my experience, which won’t come close to how most people in Nepal have been affected by what happened on Saturday 25 April. But I wanted to get it all down in one go… I know people are interested, its been cathartic for me and I just don’t want to keep repeating it all to everyone I know. But of course, I got through this experience without any injury or loss of personal possession or loved one. I luckily boarded a plane out to safety and can now choose to go wherever I want. Over 7000 people lost their lives that weekend and those still living in Nepal will remain affected by this for many years to come. I am planning a big fundraising adventure during the summer of 2016 – walking from John O’Groats to Lands End. Its a project I had talked about doing anyway, but at the time didn’t really have any particular cause to raise money for. Now I most certainly do… so watch this space!