Sometimes, on a clear day, you can see the Himalayas. When the haze and fog and dust lifts, torn up into the sky by descending rainclouds the massive white peaks take your breath away. They tower over Kathmandu like watchful guardians, reminding us of the beauty, tranquility, and power of nature in the bustling and overcrowded streets of Nepal’s capital.
I saw the Himalayas on April 30. The day I left Kathmandu. The day I was driven to the airport by a selfless Nepali friend who was taking me away from the city while he stayed. I went with my other Canadian friend who is in the same programme as I. While we were at the airport we were scared another aftershock would hit, preventing us from leaving the city. Every loud noise we heard, every vibration we felt from the runway, we held hands – worried that the ground would once again erupt. It was like the movie “Argo”, about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, in the scene where the Americans clear Iranian airspace and begin to cry tears of relief. I don’t think I was able to breath easy until that plane took off from the Kathmandu runway. I was sitting beside my friend even though our seats weren’t actually together. The plane was half empty because the airline increased their prices. On Monday I looked for a flight to Dubai leaving Wednesday and the price was CAD4000. I was fortunate that when I booked my flight to Canada for Thursday, prices were still affordable.
I have been reluctant to write about my experience in Nepal following the earthquake, mostly because I don’t know what to say. I am safe in Canada now with my family, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m incredibly lucky. I came out of the initial earthquake with a little bump on my head, I had shelter, I was able to get food, and I had drinking water. I was able to fly out of Kathmandu.
I feel guilty. So incredibly guilty that I can afford to get on a plane and fly to another country, while millions of Nepalis lost their homes and their loved ones and are still living outside. I can talk about my experience, but it’s not my experience that really matters – it’s the millions of Nepalis whose lives were upturned with the shaking at 11:56 on Saturday morning and who must now work to rebuild them. I want to talk about them. About the kindness I experienced, not the fear. Not just of Nepalis, but of all people following the disaster.
I was alone during the earthquake. I was at an Israeli restaurant where I had taken my shoes off and was sitting on the floor. Because there were not many places to duck under, I hit my head. In hindsight, it was nothing serious but because I didn’t know what hit me, I was worried about a head injury. I found some people to wait outside with while we rode out the big aftershocks. This 20 year-old Swiss woman – a true angel – was worried about my head. She insisted that she come with me back to the UN House (my assembly point in a disaster). The UN House is about a 15 minute taxi ride from where I was. I didn’t want to walk because I was worried about power lines. I told the woman not to come with me, to stay in the open space and stay safe. But she insisted. We found a taxi who agreed to take us to the UN House.
I asked him how much it would be. He said, “in these situations, it doesn’t even matter.” Anyone who has been to Nepal will understand that there’s constant negotiating and foreigners are always asked for much higher prices when it comes to taxis. His kindness made me want to cry.
As we were driving back, there were thousands of people on the street. Nobody knew what to do. I didn’t see any responders. The Swiss woman came all the way back to the UN with me and we sat together for hours. I have so much gratitude and admiration for her. She is so brave.
There was another woman, a Nepali. On Tuesday some little family restaurants were opening and we were able to find a restaurant serving rice and lentils. There were four of us. She gave us HUGE portions, but we were so hungry we kept eating. She kept bringing us out more food with a huge smile on her face. Eventually we asked her to stop because we felt bad taking food away from others. The bill came to 400 rupees for the four of us – roughly $1 each.
There was my colleague, a Nepali man. He saw me sitting on the curb of the UN House, distressed. He told me that some restaurants were starting to open so we could get hot food. I told him that I had no money and the ATM wasn’t working. He went into his pocket and gave me all the money in it. I said no, please don’t. But he insisted.
Then there was my landlord, who is also one of my good friends. When I was worried about a fuel shortage and getting to the airport he offered to drive me. He offered on Monday, but my flight was on Thursday. To him, there was no question that he would help me get to the airport. I thanked him countless times, but I don’t think he will ever know how grateful I actually am.
And there was everybody at the UN. The UNICEF staff who let me camp out in their office because I was scared to go home. One employee always made sure we had food and continuously checked in on us – by us I mean me, three other Canadians and one Chinese. I tried to help with the effort as much as possible and did odd jobs around the office like photocopying and printing, and then started to help with the UN coordination of the relief teams. We set up a little tent and joked that it was the Canadian Embassy because there is no embassy in Kathmandu, merely one Consular who was turning Canadians away. But seeing all the relief teams made me realize how selfless and giving the human heart can be. These people, who flew in as soon as they heard, are part of teams that respond to disasters for a living. It is so brave.
I also cannot end this blog post without mentioning my family and friends who reached out to me immediately after the earthquake. I had family in BC and Alberta on the phone constantly with the Canadian Government trying to get information – a task that is much harder than it actually sounds. I had internet at the UN House so I was able to email and iMessage my family and friends. To those who stayed up with me during the night (both my night and Canadian night) – you know who you are – I am speechless. In those dark moments, that communication helped me more than you know. Thank you.
If you would like to make a donation, the Red Cross, Oxfam and UNDP Nepal are all great organizations. The UNDP donation page can be found here: https://app.mobilecause.com/public/campaigns_keywords/21329/donations/new
So please remember those who stayed. Those who are still there. As the news moves onto stories of royal babies and celebrities, please don’t forget about Nepal. Its people and its mountains make it one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The Himalayas serve as a vibrant reminder of the beauty and power that mother nature holds. But the people – the pure kindness and love of people – show me that they will band together when that power tries to overcome us.