When the Himalayas shuddered


Tim had his feet stretched on the table in front of him when the legs of his plastic chair began to vibrate. It was the 25th April 2015, and Tim Payne was reclining on the balcony of his hostel. He had been in Nepal for two weeks before arriving in Pokhara, the lakeside town on every travelers list. It was a hot day, but the New Yorker hadn’t broken a sweat – he had been living out of a backpack in humid Asia for nearly a year now. Tim knew what to do in the midday heat: relax at the hostel, and leave exploring till later, when the dusty roads weren’t choking and the sun wasn’t blistering. Reading his tattered Walt Whitman poetry book, Tim suddenly felt an unfamiliar sensation of not being on solid ground. With a hazy confusion, he lowered his feet from the table and realized that the balcony was vibrating too. It was then that his primal instincts kicked in, and without thinking he ran to the courtyard below. Standing with the other bewildered travelers and Nepalis, Tim tried to keep his balance, and his calm, as the ground shook beneath him in the most violent earthquake Nepal has experienced since the 1930s. During that minute, which felt eternal, thousands of lives were changed, or taken away, forever.

The 7.8 magnitude that struck the Ghorka district in Kathmandu, Nepal on April 25th was unpredicted, unexpected and unplanned for. A perfect mixture of circumstances allowed it to wreak as much damage as possible, leaving the nation in a state of havoc. In a developing country already experiencing extreme poverty, political instability, and a deep-seated economic dependence on the tourism industry, a natural disaster of this magnitude was the last thing Nepal needed. Yet just before noon, the tectonic plates that created the Himalayas collided with each other, letting out about a century’s worth of built-up strain. The ancient city Kathmandu is home to many World Heritage sites dating back as far as the 15th century, such as Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square, the Boudhanath Stupa and the Swayumbhunath Stupa. Many of these sites were irreversibly damaged or destroyed, as their structures were too weak to withstand the force of the earthquake. While the loss of such sites is detrimental to the nation’s culture, as well as its tourism industry, the death of almost 9000 people was what shocked Nepal, and the world, into silence.

Vuban Dahal, who lives in Kathmandu, still experiences this silence every day. Not in the volume of the city, which after a year has returned to its chaotic bustle, but in the way people think and act. As in most cases, children exhibit the emotions adults often try to hide or deny. And Vuban can see the children of Kathmandu acting differently now; the carefree innocence that all children should enjoy has been replaced with a fearful hyperawareness. They are scared to walk to school, afraid to remain inside buildings, fearful that city they live in could fall down on top of them any day. Vuban is barely out of childhood himself, yet at 24 he has already seen more than many people will see in their entire lives.

The earthquake occurred at 11:56 a.m., with its epicentre about 34 kilometers east-southeast of Lamjung, or 53 km’s from Bharatapur, the nearest major city. It lasted about 50 seconds, and its depth was only 15km (which is considered shallow and therefore more damaging). According to the India Meterological Department, over thirty-eight aftershocks occurred during the remainder of that day, with one reaching magnitude 6.8. A sudden release of built-up stress between the Indian Plate and the Eurasian Plate caused the earthquake, moving Kathmandu three meters to the south in a matter of thirty seconds. Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, was specifically targeted because it lies on top of a block of crust that is part of the fault line that ruptured. In a city of around 1 million people, most of whom live in structurally unstable houses, apartment buildings, or slums, the earthquake hit Nepal’s most vulnerable region.

Had the earthquake occurred in a developed country, with buildings meeting the safety standards that ensure they can withstand an earthquake, many deaths could have been prevented. However, the extremely poor standard of building safety in Kathmandu and its surrounding areas resulted in many thousands of people being crushed to death inside buildings. The political instability and subsequent low standard of life in Nepal is common to many developing countries. These circumstances have a varying range of ramifications, some which affect the lives of citizens directly. In the case of the Kathmandu earthquake, unmonitored building conditions allowed for the rampant construction of unsafe buildings throughout the city. Over the years, stories have been added on top of existing structures, structural corners cut to lessen costs, and the materials that are used are often substandard. The consequence of the government’s failure to oversee the safety of buildings within Kathmandu was the death of many thousands of people. Yet, no government or person can be held accountable for a natural disaster; it is simply a tragedy that the country was not prepared for.

When the earthquake happened, Vuban was at work in Thamel, the tourist mecca of Nepal. The district is made up of winding cobbled alleyways lined with mismatched towering apartments stacked on top of each other. Clothes lines of saris swing from balcony to balcony. On the ground level, the streets crawl with lazy rickshaw drivers, insistent taxis, shop owners coaxing customers inside, the smell of pakoras sizzling from a wok in a doorway, mangy dogs skirting between human legs, tourists in baggy colourful clothing, Nepali women with baskets of vegetables at their hips, and mischievous street children. From inside his cool shop, Vuban could escape from the sun and dust, occasionally convince a traveler to buy some hemp clothing, or watch the streets of Thamel from the doorstep.

This is what he was doing when the world began to shake, and within fifty seconds the whole street had transformed from a busy Saturday morning into a scene of destruction and confusion. “Four or five buildings broke down in front of my eyes…one of those buildings was a guest house with about 24 guests inside, it just totally broke down,” Vuban said. Like Tim, his instinct was to run outside. On the street, women and old men prayed to God to stop the earthquake. People tried desperately to contact their relatives, but the phone connections were down. A few hours after the initial earthquake, Vuban discovered that his school friend had been killed in his home when it collapsed on him.

Over the next week, the country was transfigured into a state of shambolic emergency. There was no movement between cities as main roads had been swallowed, only leaving a gash of tar and dirt. “I wanted to get out of Pokhara and out of Nepal – the whole thing shook me pretty badly to be honest – but all the main roads were destroyed,” Tim remembered. There was a shortage of medical supplies, volunteers to search through the rubble to find bodies, fresh water, food, and shelter. Seas of tents were erected in the main square of every city to house the thousands of injured or now homeless people. Those living in the mountains surrounding Kathmandu had to wait three or four days before assistance came to help with their injured or dead.

And while all of this was happening, the aftershocks continued. In the villages, away from the noise of the city, a deep faint growl emanated from the distant mountains, giving the people a five or ten second warning before the ground started to shake again. But in the city, all the people could do was wait in tense anticipation for the next earthquake to happen. “The aftershocks happened every day, sometimes twice a day… but they couldn’t really predict when they were going to happen, so for a whole week we just had to try and act normal while we were anticipating another earthquake every day,” Tim said.

Those trekking in the Himalayas were in even worse conditions. Nepal is home to some of the most popular treks in the world, including the Annapurna Circuit trek and the Everest Base Camp trek, which leads trekkers to the base of the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. During these treks, which can last anywhere from a week to months, people abandon all but the necessary items to survive from a backpack. Some bring their own tents and food, but most opt to stay in the lodging huts along the length of the track, which provide a bed and a meal for a night. This way, people can navigate their way up the mountain with a map, backpack, a sturdy pair of boots, and little else. What draws people to such places is the isolation and the simplicity of life in the mountains. There are no cars up there; if you need to go somewhere, you walk. Food and supplies are delivered by lumbering trains of yaks with bells around their necks. Only an emergency case of altitude sickness can bring a helicopter to the area, and even then there are only a number of designated areas where a helicopter can land. In normal circumstances, this isolation is a welcome refuge. In an earthquake, it means death.

And it did mean death for 21 mountaineers who were located at Everest Base Camp when the earthquake triggered an avalanche. The base camp, which was made up of yellow tents that look like strange flowers in the white snow, were helpless against the rush of snow and ice that was shaken from the mountains in the earthquake. This disaster is now known as the deadliest day in the mountain’s history. All the way down the trail to Lukla, where trekkers arrive and depart by a rickety plane, tragedies proliferated as whole villages became stranded from any outside contact or help. Trekkers were unable to call their families at home, and the number of missing persons steadily increased.

For the first few hours after the earthquake, Tim didn’t realise the extent of the disaster. With all television, radio and mobile networks down, the town of Pokhara was trapped in isolation from any news or information. “At first we thought that it was just Pokhara that had the earthquake, and didn’t really take it too seriously. We had a drink afterwards and laughed nervously about it, but we didn’t actually realise how bad it was until about five in the afternoon. Then it really hit me,” he said. When the telephone networks began to work again, Tim and the rest of the town learnt about the destruction in Kathmandu, the avalanches on Mount Everest, and the death toll that kept on rising. “I eventually got onto my parents in New York and they were freaking out. The earthquake had been all over the news and they thought I was dead.”

Tim and Vuban were both lucky to be in the right place at the right time, although almost 9000 people weren’t so fortunate. While Tim was able to leave the country about two weeks after the earthquake and return home to America, Vuban had to adapt to this new reality he, his family, and his country were now faced with. Over a year later, Vuban still sees the destruction of the earthquake every day; in the destroyed and abandoned buildings throughout the city; in the tent he and his family now live in; but most of all in the shattering of the his people’s trust. But from fear arises bravery, and although Vuban doesn’t admit it, he and Tim and every person who survived the earthquake and continued on with their lives – their hope is as strong as the force that made the Himalayas shudder.