The Ground Shook in Nepal, and Everything Changed
The morning began with the most unassuming of questions.
“Do you know what day it is?” I asked my roommate Michael, still lying half-asleep in his bed.
“No, what day is it?” Michael responded, playing along.
“It’s beer-buying day!” I proclaimed with a cheeky grin, ready to take advantage of our Saturday off amid our busy work-filled weeks. Michael laughed, and nodded in agreement.
We did not know what day it was.
I did not know I was in an earthquake until after it happened. These are the moments I’ve been able to recall:
I am headed to Thamel, the commercial hub of Katmandu, where on any given corner one can find at least 10 Israeli trekkers in elephant-printed sharwal pants, haggling with cab drivers over a price of 250 rupees ($2.50) to bring it down to an even 200. (To them, the difference of 50 cents is always a worthwhile bargain.) I’m planning to spend the morning at Himalayan Java, the cafe with the best Wi-Fi in Nepal, to finish the last 20 pages of “Tuesdays With Morrie.”
The rest of the week I work in Kalimati, a slum neighborhood by the Bagmati River, where mountains of garbage line the uneven alleyways and children spend half of their day in school and the other half as domestic workers. I arrived in Nepal two months ago, on a break from my studies at Brandeis University, wide-eyed with my newfound freedom. From Sunday to Friday, I work with women’s groups through the organization Tevel b’Tzedek (an Israeli nongovernmental organization focused on sustainable change within Nepali communities), developing income-generating projects, educating about sexual health and doing everything we can for this thing we call “empowerment.” On Saturdays, I head to Thamel to drink a cappuccino and revel in a small sliver of my former life.
I hop on a local bus, crowded with sweating teenage boys listening to Michael Jackson and women headed to Tarkari Bazaar to buy groceries for the night’s staple dish of dal bhat — a combination of rice, lentils and whatever vegetables are being sold that day. I step off at Ratna Park, the central bus station where city workers come to catch a ride back to their villages and bus drivers sit parked in a queue while smoking cigarettes. It is a 20-minute walk to my destination, so I press in my earbuds and set my playlist to shuffle. The intersection is especially busy today, with motorcycles whizzing between cars and rickshaws, so I climb the bridge that stretches from one side of the road to the other, intending to cross as safely as possible.
Halfway across the bridge, I begin to feel dizzy, and everything appears to be moving. Three men are running toward me and a group of girls are huddling together. It takes a moment before I realize that something is indeed very wrong. My first thought is that the bridge is collapsing and at any moment will fall onto the motorbikes and rickshaws in the street below. I turn to run down the stairs, but just 100 yards from the bridge, I see people running from a pillar of dust and smoke. I am now convinced there has been an explosion, which would explain all the shaking and frantic faces. I stand frozen. Do I stay on the shuddering bridge or do I run down toward what I am sure is a bomb?
My instincts force me down the stairs. I trip over myself because the steps refuse to stay in one place, swaying from one side to the other in a matter of seconds. Men crouch near the railings unmoving, in what seems to me now as the animal reflex to “play dead,” a human instinct to crisis. I make my way around their folded bodies and slowly inch myself to the sidewalk, where I grab the nearest railing and hold on for dear life. As the shaking begins to subside, I slowly look around. Motorcycles are scattered throughout the street, unclaimed and lying like cadavers. A third scenario enters my head: All of the motorcycles in Katmandu conspired to crash into the very bridge I was standing on, causing the foundations to shake and an explosion, of course all at the same time. The fact that we might have had an earthquake does not even cross my mind.
It is clear to me now that the ability to think logically was simply not available to me.
Here are some things I found out after the shaking stopped:
The pillar of dust and smoke that I saw 100 yards from me was not an explosion. In reality, it was the debris of several damaged buildings and a collapsed post office near Ratna Park, where I later found out that 200 people had died.
The motorcycles scattered in the street were not a conspiracy to topple the bridge I was standing on. During the shaking, every person simply abandoned their vehicle and ran.
I realized that what had just occurred was, in fact, an earthquake only as I walked away from Ratna Park along streets lined with houses that now had no walls. Peering into these skeletal homes, I saw cracked television sets frozen on static and laundry blowing out into the open city. On the road, a fallen telephone pole had sliced a taxicab in half. Mothers sat in the street holding children with broken feet as policemen talked on their mobiles and took selfies with the wreckage.
I began to understand.
In her book on grief and death, Joan Didion writes that she finds earthquakes satisfying, knowing that the plates comprising the earth will always move in their own rhythms, regardless of human convenience, regardless of whether we are ready for those rhythms or not. When I read this passage a few months ago, I found her thinking very strange — I had never experienced an earthquake, but I was certain that the unpredictability of such an event would surely leave me traumatized.
Yet in the days after our earthquake, I began to think of the aftershocks as the earth giving me little massages. I, too, felt strangely comforted by the tectonic vibrations. To know that these things will always happen, regardless of time or place. It forced me to re-evaluate who truly owns the earth.
The night of the earthquake, taxis were already working the streets, shuttling tourists from their guesthouses to restaurants that dared to open. By Tuesday, shopkeepers had begun to sell again, pushing yak wool pashminas onto passers-by and hawking Buddhist prayer candles. In a lot of ways, things here seemed not to have changed at all.
But last night in a field hospital, I watched a husband tell his wounded wife that their child had died just minutes before. When her husband left, I held the mother for an hour so she wouldn’t be alone.
Three days ago, we returned to one of the schools we work in, but we could not enter most of the classrooms because the once-upright walls were now shattered on the floor. One of the few rooms with walls still standing has a crack as wide as my arm stretching from the door to the windows, where just a week before I conducted a sexual-hygiene lesson with one of our local women’s groups.
In a small yard nearby, a fire burned next to a stupa (a type of Buddhist shrine common in Nepal). I assumed that they were burning garbage, the usual system of disposal in Nepal, until a teenage boy explained to me that, in fact, they were burning bodies.
Such are the moments that I still cannot get used to, the ones most unexpected that kick me in the teeth and leave me gasping. In these moments, I realize that everything here has fundamentally changed.
Arielle Gordon is currently a volunteer at Tevel b’Tzedek, an Israeli nongovernmental organization in Nepal, and will be a senior at Brandeis University, studying history and Islamic & Middle East Studies. She is currently working in relief operations in Nepal in communities most damaged by the earthquake.