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Travel

​Five Nights in Nepal: A Backpacker’s Story

I shot up in bed to the sound of a roaring crack along with the most intense vibrating I've ever felt in my life. It was getting stronger and stronger. I didn't know what was happening.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

I shot up in bed to the sound of a roaring crack along with the most intense vibrating I've ever felt in my life. It was getting stronger and stronger. The dresser, table, and bed were all vibrating across the floor, losing all of the stuff I had put on them. I didn't know what was happening, whether I was dreaming or not. I pulled the curtains open and looked outside. People were flooding into the empty construction lot in front of my hotel from all the surrounding buildings.

Annoncering

Earthquake. Time to get the fuck out. Without thinking I was up and in my sandals, grabbing things as I ran for the door. A thundering rumble now accompanied the vibrating. When I got into the hall, Moe was angled out, running down from the fourth floor. Or maybe I was the one who was angled out. Maybe it was the building.

"Come on, let's get the fuck outta here," he said. I could only respond with "Holy shit!" which I kept repeating to myself over and over.

As I made my way down the stairs I couldn't help feeling as if I was in a giant water bottle being shaken up. The building swayed. It vibrated. The earth roared. When I think of it now I'm surprised I didn't fall. People running out were doubled over to maintain a better center of gravity during the shaking.

I made it outside. The vibrating stopped a few seconds after. I thought I had better put on my pants. The only other thing I grabbed was my phone. I still wasn't sure if this was real or not. Some people were smiling in shock and relief while others' faces were full of fear. Some yelled, some huddled together, some held each other. Two young boys grabbed onto their father while reciting what I assumed to be Hindu prayer chants. I tried to cheer them up but they were too shaken. Worry was everywhere. To the shock of many, some people came out of buildings well after the initial quake, with bags packed. What was even more surprising was how quickly some returned inside.

Annoncering

That had been the fastest I'd moved in a while. Six days earlier, I was on an operating table for an emergency procedure to remove an abscess. It wasn't a big operation but it was the first I had ever gone through, and it also left a hole in my body. I was told not to travel and that I needed two weeks for an open wound to close and heal. No stitches. It has to close from the bottom up. I was staying in Thamel, a backpacker district in Kathmandu that all tourists stop in at least once. It's full of narrow streets and old, tall buildings made up of hotels, guest houses, tour companies, restaurants, and souvenir shops.

I sent a message back home saying I was OK and connected with the friends with whom I was traveling. They were safe and sound in Chitwan, which was unaffected. I connected with two friends I met traveling, who I was supposed to meet that day. They were fine as well, but I haven't heard from them since.

I was relieved that at least I had somewhat of an open space in front of my hotel. We waited outside for a few hours. Tremors came and went. They make the solid earth feel like you're out on rough, wavy water. The tremors were always followed by peoples' screams.

When we finally thought it was safe enough, Moe and I ran back inside to get some clothes on. Moe is an American from outside Detroit who I met two months earlier at the airport when I arrived in Nepal a few days ahead of the other friends I'd planned to travel with.

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We went to look for food. Everything was closed. All stores, shops, restaurants had their security gates down. Some street fruit vendors remained around. Other than that, Thamel eerily seemed like a ghost town, with people rushing away in all directions.

We walked towards the main road that leads into Thamel and began to see damage. Our hotel was mostly OK. Lots of furniture down but still strong and intact. The main street told a different story. A taxi lay underneath a fallen pole and downed power lines. The outer wall of the Garden of Dreams was half its height. It's a miracle that no one was under it when it fell. At least there weren't any signs of injured people there. The driver of the taxi seemed as if he would have been all right. Another fallen pole 20 steps away also hit nothing. Down an alleyway, a motorcycle lay buried under rubble. This was a good 20 to 30 feet of fallen wall. Again, no one seemed to have been underneath. I thought things might not be that bad, but knew I was being naïve. I had felt the power of that quake and knew that somewhere, something must be very damaged.

Phone service was off and on, but usually off. I wasn't able to make any calls. Some messages got out, but any data and Wi-Fi seemed gone as well. Moe and I headed into Thamel to check on our friend's bar. He, Peter, had called me in the morning while I was sleeping. I'd later find out he was calling to head out to Bhaktapur, the old capital district where 50 percent of the buildings were said to have come down. Luckily, he didn't go because I didn't answer the phone. We found him and another friend Kathryn, from the US, walking around looking for us.

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Peter's an ex-paratrooper from Australia living in Kathmandu. "Get a bag ready and meet back here in 20," he said. "We're leaving the city." I wasn't arguing. If anyone in our group knew what to do in this situation it was him.

Moe and I rushed back to the hotel and packed some things into knapsacks. I cleaned my wound and we headed out and brought Christian, a German staying next door, with us. When we met up with Kathryn and Peter again, he said that the people we were headed out of town with already left, so we were headed to a field. I suggested the big field that was behind the first hotel I had stayed at in Kathmandu. It was just around the block. I thought it was a police base, but in reality it's the office of the vice president, which has a police base on it, and a big open lawn in front The day before they had an event, so tents were still set up. We set up there for the night. It was open air, but there was nothing to fall on us, the ground was soft, and I had my sleeping bag with me.

That evening, Peter, Christian, and I went for a walk. Destruction lined our path. A high school we passed by was severely damaged. Much of it had crumbled. It's a good thing it was a Saturday.

Hundreds of people with nowhere to go huddled into open spaces of street intersections. Further down the street, others filled a field. We arrived just as food and water was brought in. People were lining up for food. All I could do was observe. There were many saddened faces, tired faces, fearful faces. Two men had just received food and saw us watching. They told us to get in line and eat. We didn't dare and told them that food was for the people here first.

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"You are our guests," said one man. "We have to take care of you. We have to give you what we have even in a disaster or else we are not good hosts."

That's the thing about Nepali people. They'll give you what they have, even when it's almost nothing. They'll treat you like family.

It started to rain when we arrived back at our own field so we moved under the tents, where many others were already sleeping.

At the camp. Photo by author

The next day, Kathryn found out that we were directly across from the American Mission Abroad (AMA) clubhouse and that they were taking in American, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and UK citizens. The AMA compound was set up as an offshoot of the American embassy and giving refuge. It's surrounded by high walls and armed Nepali police. It seemed like a good idea to move, given the amount of people pouring into our current location. It's safe to say the number multiplied four times over by the next day with those coming off the streets. Many had their own tents and slowly, and makeshift shantytown materialized. We also thought we'd receive information at the AMA. There wasn't any way of getting info online.

We gave our passports to check in and were given a tour of the facility. Another tremor hit during that time. Tents were set up in a baseball/soccer field. There were bathrooms but no running water from their well at the time. Maintenance teams connected the pool to the locker rooms the next day. Now we had hot showers, which was more than I could say for thousands of others. We had Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs), clean water, and cots or padded cushions to sleep on and blankets if needed. Really, we were in a good spot. I couldn't ask for a better place to recover from my operation. I'm at risk of gangrene and more if I don't take care of the wound properly, and this facility was clean. We had clean drinking water as well, and even a medical station.

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Canada's C-17. Photo by Moe Ahmed.

I learned there were other Canadians there as well, and that our embassy was non-existent. We had a consulate that was said to be a guy and an office in a building. I still haven't been.

More and more people arrived throughout the first few days. Tremors became less frequent as the days moved on, but a second earthquake the second evening made some people nervous. We knew it was a second quake because of the strength and length of it. A murder of screaming crows darkened the sky. Sometimes the birds fly before we feel the tremor. Funny how quickly you start to learn about earthquakes in a situation like this.

No one had any word from the Canadian government. What American officials knew was that our government personnel were on route from surrounding countries. The high commission for the consulate of Nepal is in Delhi, India. They were having trouble entering the country. They were also asking Canadians if they had any information. The only thing that was known was that we weren't allowed to stay at our consulate, and that the consular was a volunteer doctor from Nepal who did this as a second job. They had no answers and couldn't provide our citizens with any information other than to say they were in contact with the Delhi. Those who were there were referred to the British embassy. Later they were brought to the AMA.

On the 28 of April, the fourth day after the initial quake, two Canadian officials had arrived from Delhi. More were on the way. I didn't know until that time how many of us there were at the compound. Most of us were upset by the response from our government. Many lodged complaints right away about the lack of information and help. The officials that arrived weren't able to provide much help right away. They knew very little information about what was going on and asked our citizens to provide any information they had to help them out.

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Shortly after, they were gone. They had left to check on the consulate and Canadians at the compound were once again wondering who to talk to. There just wasn't enough staff to handle very many things at once, and there was a lot to do.

Canadians waiting for their turn. Photo by author.

Much of the information they had received was from Canadians on the ground compiling their own intel with help of family and friends back home. The movement of citizens in Nepal and at home has really helped push things forward here.

By nightfall, five officials had arrived from Delhi and surrounding areas such as Bangkok, Islamabad, and even all the way from Canada. They were working hard on providing as much information as possible, but there was still a lot of uncertainty. Talks of a possible C-17 flight out of Kathmandu to Delhi were unconfirmed, and many wondered what price tag it came with. My first information about the C-17 came from my mother back home speaking with the Foreign Affairs department. It seemed bleak as at one point an official told her most Canadians already had their own tickets booked out of Kathmandu so there was no point in sending a plane to get the others.

I'm happy to say that the following day we found out it was a free flight to Delhi. Flights home from Delhi are now a third cheaper than those out of Kathmandu, which are said to range over $3,000. Many feel the evacuation should be all the way home. After arriving in Delhi, citizens will be on their own and are expected to arrange their own plans to Canada. Many of the Canadians in the camp have now gone but some remain. It's unclear what efforts are being made to reach Canadians outside of Kathmandu.

As for myself, I'm beginning to see this situation in a new light. Lack of information has kept me ignorant to the extremity of the situation, but with information flowing from back home and finally being able to connect to news sources online, I feel lucky to be alive. Initially, I never felt in grave danger even while the building sounded like it was being torn apart. But the death toll keeps climbing.

People whose villages have been completely wiped out have started entering the city seeking aid. There are only so many supplies and facilities to accommodate the thousands of injured, displaced, and people seeking refuge. International aid seems to be pouring in from all sides of the world. There's a strong will to help from travelers as well. Groups of tourists are organizing to help in any way they can and I can't feel all but helpless here as I recover, unable to go volunteer for fear of having my still open wound become infected with all the dead bodies that'll soon start to rot.

Casey Fernandez-Irwin is a Toronto writer who has been teaching English on an island north of shanghai for the past two years. He came to Nepal to meditate and be around the mountains and was planning on going to teach English and martial arts east of Kathmandu in a small mountain village that still hasn't been heard of since the quake.