This is part 3 of my 3 part series sharing my experiences during the Nepal earthquake. Click here for part 1.
April 27-28, 2012: Two days after the Nepal earthquake
I woke again in my room at Mum’s Home hotel. It was the final day before my flight to Istanbul. But every day aftershocks kept flights out of Kathmandu grounded. Thousands of stranded people camped at the airport. What if my flight gets cancelled? I felt torn between my options. I’d previously organized a sailing trip along the Mediterranean coast with my girlfriend, whom I see only once or twice a year. I bought the plane ticket a month prior. Yet the people of Nepal desperately needed help.
Electricity and Internet were down again. I’d only gotten a brief signal three times since the quake. Messages came in, but before I could reply the signal dropped. I needed information. I needed to communicate with family and friends. CNN wondered about an interview. I needed an update on the status of my fight. I was hungry and exhausted. I decided to go to the U.S. consulate to take care of everything at once.
Along the three-hour walk I saw Cynthia and the French couple again. They gave me some snacks from their consulate survival packs. Even French survival packs are delicious. After munching a bit, we hugged and parted ways. A mile further, I passed the French consulate guy that shooed me away. We each did a double take. I peered into his face. He wore a look that seemed to say, “I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. I feel like an ass.” Or maybe that’s just what I wanted him to feel.
After another hour and asking a three times, I finally found the U.S. consulate. The building was a modern fortress against the backdrop of the Himalayan foothills. I made my way through the main gate and through the first set of blast doors. I passed security, metal detectors and scanners. Finally, another set of thick glass doors opened into a beautiful courtyard. Around this serene oasis was a tall, thick wall. The sun shone on winding sidewalks and lush green lawn. Colorful hiking tents pitched about the grounds reminded me of camping at home.
At the other end of the courtyard was the main building. The receptionist directed me to the library where they had computers and Internet available. There was a line of people clicking away at the computers. I took a number and went to the cafeteria for a military GRE ration (freeze dried food – just add hot water). It was awful compared to the French survival pack snacks. After I ate, I returned to the library and looked up my flight. It was still scheduled. Whew! I checked in online.
Another friend asked about Renee, the missing girl from my old high school. In another message, the woman from CNN with whom I’d been corresponding requested a live interview at 7:45 that evening. I’d be on CNN International speaking directly with the anchor, Robyn Curnow. I decided I’d go back to Mum’s Home Hotel, get my bags and return to the consulate for the final night. I’d decided to leave Nepal and be with my girlfriend.
On my way out I overheard a tourist talking to a consulate official, “There’s a van taking some folks to the airport at 3:30 in the morning,” the man said.
I butted in, “Is there room for one more?”
“ Yeah,” he replied, “but the van is leaving at 3:30 sharp. We won’t wait around.”
I rushed out to the road and hailed a taxi back to Mum’s Home. The place was empty. Alex stood at the counter, ready to greet anyone who might arrive. “Dada, how are you?” he asked.
“I’m good. I’m checking out and going to the consulate tonight. I will fly to Istanbul tomorrow. Can I get a warm beer?” I joked.
“Of course, dada. The refrigerator is down, all beer is warm.” We sat and talked while I sipped my beer.
“How is your family?” I asked.
“My family is safe, but our village is not. Our home fell down. The food we make all year is ruined. We can fix it, but it will take a long time. We don’t have money.”
I felt bad. “I hope the best for your family and everyone else.”
He smiled. “We will be okay,” he said. “Can I call you a taxi, dada?”
When I checked out he held up a white silk scarf with two hands and gestured to me. “This is a gift for you, dada.” I walked to him and bowed. He placed it around my neck. “In our culture we call this khata. We give them at ceremonies like birth, wedding, funeral and graduation. But also when guests come and go.”
“Thank you, dada,” I said and took hold of his shoulders, “We will stay in touch, dada. You have made this the best earthquake I ever had. Thank you.”
He grinned. “May we never have another.” The taxi beeped and I walked out. Ike every time I leave a place I’ve grown attached to, I felt a subtle sadness.
The driver didn’t know it, but he took me down memory lane. We went down the first alley I’d run through after the earthquake. It was empty, like a ghost town. The construction workers from days before were gone. Their tools and still lay in the alley, a wheelbarrow of spilled concrete lay on its side. The concrete was hard. A frozen moment in time. No shop had an open door. Everyone had moved out. Now I was moving out too, with much ambivalence. With Thamel and Kanti Path now behind us, I saw fewer piles of bricks and more open space. The traffic, still much less than normal, moved through uncontrolled intersections in disarray. This was normal, somehow more comforting than empty streets. As we moved down the road, I felt like I was riding out of Kathmandu and into another city. It was like going from war-torn downtown to the king’s fortress on the edge of town.
When we arrived, I tipped the driver well. With three bags of gear as heavy as me, I re-entered the consulate walls. I sat on the grass in the courtyard and tried to relax. The sun shone, birds chirped, I heard laughter and all seemed well. I leaned back and closed my eyes while the sun dropped, leaving a warm glow in the air. It was as if nothing had happened.
After sunset I went to the library, got online and read recent news. Through the chatter of people and clicking keystrokes I heard the name “…Renee Nof…Nahf…kee.” My antenna rose to attention. Renee Noffke. That was the Renee from my high school in Wisconsin, the one people had been asking me about for two days. I interrupted the man. “I’m sorry, did you just say ‘Renee Noffke.’”
The stranger eyed me, “Oh, is that how you pronounce it?” He showed me the photo of a handwritten list, “N-O-F-F-K-E?” he read.
“Yeah, Yeah,” I said, excited.
“Tall energetic girl, really positive?” he added.
“Well, I’ve never met her,” I said. “She’s from my hometown and some friends have asked me if she is okay… Hold on a sec, I’ll show a picture of her from Facebook you and you tell me if it’s her.” I showed him the photo. “Is that her?” He studied the picture.
“Yes, that looks like her. Wait a minute, I think I have a photo of her.” This was a serious lead.
“Is she okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, she’s fine. Maybe a little cold and hungry, but she’s fine,” he said. He talked on, “I’m Rory. I just got in from Langtang. Yeah, a helicopter came in yesterday and the pilot said he was coming back, but never came. Today another guy doing rescue in his own helicopter came. But with all the fuel tanks in the cockpit, he only had room for one person. A bunch of us, trekkers and locals, joined together in a village called Ghotatabella. We agreed whoever got back first would take the list of survivors and give it to authorities. I have a health problem, so they sent me.”
I was only able to talk with him for a couple minutes until he walked away with the volunteer to report the names. “Wait” I said, before he went in. “Could I take a photo of the list of names?”
“Sure,” he said. I took a photo of his photo.
It was 7:00 PM. Only forty-five minutes until the live phone interview with CNN anchor Robyn Curnow. I’d never done an interview on live TV. I felt excited, but had no idea what she would ask or how any of it would go down. All I had was a phone number to call at 7:45. All I wanted to do was tell the story I’d captured with my camera: survivors becoming rescuers, the positive spirit of the Nepali people.
The public phone was in the lobby and, to my dismay, it was noisy and the phone was occupied. I asked the receptionist, “Could I use a quiet room for a live news interview in about forty minutes?”
She looked at me a bit confused, “I’m just a volunteer, I’m not sure if there even is a room. I can put a note on the phone to keep it open for you.”
In the cafeteria, I watched CNN News with the others. The coverage focused on the earthquake, but the anchor wasn’t Robyn Curnow, my interviewer. More nervous by the minute, I questioned details my contact provided. Was I supposed to call that phone number at 7:45 Kathmandu time, or some other time? Minutes passed. Finally at 7:40 I approached the phone as nervous as a mouse in a cat house. The woman occupying it saw me standing there. She pointed to the note and gave me the “sorry, just one minute” gesture.
When my turn came, I sat and took a deep breath. I held the phone number with a sweaty hand. I recalled the shaking room, the fear, dead bodies and camps of desperation. I had to emphasize the industrious, collective ways Nepali people responded to the devastation.
I dialed the number slowly. After a few rings, a woman picked up and said something I couldn’t understand. “Um, hi. I got this number to call for an interview with Robyn Curnow.”
She was silent for a second before asking, “Who is this?”
“Jesse Anderson,” I replied. I could barely hear her.
“Okay. I am going to put you through. At first you’ll only be able to hear the live broadcast. Listen and when Robyn says your name you’ll be live.” My hands were sweating and the phone was slippery in my grasp. I‘d just lived through a horrendous earthquake, yet the prospect of being live on the air scared me more.
The sound of the live broadcast came on the line. A woman talked to another woman about Durbar Square, but it was so hard to hear over the noisy lobby. One must be the anchor. Suddenly I heard: “We have Jesse Anderson on the phone in Kathmandu. Jesse, thanks for being with us. What have you seen so far?”
I described the earthquake, the camps, the relief. I emphasized that even in the aftermath, even with crippled relief efforts, there was a spirit of resilience. She thanked me and went on to the next topic. I listened for a moment, wondered if I should to do anything more, but only heard broadcast voices. I hung up. It was over. Whew!
I looked around for Rory, but couldn’t find him. I had the partial list of lost Langtang trekkers’ names. I needed to get that picture out on social media and to Renee’s family and friends. To spread it faster I posted the photo to Instagram, twitter and Facebook.
Within a minute I had a message from yet another classmate that knew Renee and her circle of friends. She shared the photo to Renee’s Facebook wall. A comment on the photo mentioned a Facebook group: “Find Renee Safe in Nepal.” I joined the group. There was a lot of dialog between members of the group all searching for information from their respective locations. With our powers combined we were able to get information flowing.
I went back and forth between messages with her friends, my friends and the group while trying to find out more about the status of the Langtang area. Still waiting for Rory to come out, I hoped he could give more concrete details of Renee’s situation. After about an hour online I got a message from another old friend who’d been following the situation.
It was a strange coincidence, Renee and I, having never met, being from the same small town in Wisconsin and being in Nepal that dreadful day. Even stranger was how this all played out over social media and to make it even more rare, the coincidence of Rory and I crossing paths. The chain of events of all of our stories connecting was almost mindboggling. The way communication can travel and make a difference never ceases to amaze me.
Around midnight I decided to rest. The only place to sleep was on the cold concrete floor. I tossed and turned under the white fluorescent light. I laid clothes over myself to keep warm, but didn’t sleep. Three hours passed and the guy in charge of the van talked with the volunteers in the lobby. Also waiting were two Americans who travel to U.S. embassies to maintain fire safety systems. We went out, sat in the bus and waited. Soon it was 3:45. “What the hell?” one of the guys muttered in a southern accent. “That dude told us the van was leaving at 3:30 sharp. Our other flight got cancelled and if I miss this one, I’ma be pissed!”
Another ten minutes passed. The van guy came out with a few others. A security guard opened the gate. Finally. Our driver pulled out into the dark empty street. The closer we came to the airport the more people we saw walking and sitting on the side of the road. As we pulled in the airport entrance I knew the rumors of stranded people camping at the airport were true. There were people, luggage and trash everywhere. People slept in the grass, on the sidewalk, anywhere they could. The van crept around a long line of people with tired, despondent faces. The line looked like it would take a day. The two fire safety guys and I got out. After walking to the front of the line and poking around near the main entrance, we got a stern reminder from an unhappy woman in line. “Hey, the end of the line is way back there. You can’t come up here.”
She looked like she was ready to box, so we went to the back of the line. “Shit man, we might not make it in time for the flight with all this mess,” said the southerner. He went to another door. Airport security stopped him, but he pulled the guard to the side and said something in his ear. He casually slipped the guard a couple thousand Nepali rupees—about twenty U.S. dollars. He turned to us and waved us into the empty terminal. We ended up at the front counter before anyone else. I completely waived all guilt and saw it as luck.
The three of us were on the same flight to Istanbul so we stuck together. After racing through all the security checkpoints, we made it to the gate. It looked like people had been living there since the earthquake. Trash was scattered everywhere. Passengers scooped it up with cardboard, piling it up. An airport worker brought boxes to collect it. In one last act of community, everyone, including us, pitched in. They called our flight over the intercom.
There was only a hundred feet between the nose of a Boeing-777 and us. We marched out, approached the stairs and climbed into the plane. I quickly took my window seat, hoping the plane might get off the ground before another aftershock hit and left us to join the airport campers. My legs shook like I had to pee, but I didn’t. Once everyone was seated, the engines revved and the plane backed up. ‘Come on, come on, let’s get off the ground,’ I thought.We taxied. The plane stopped on the runway. The engines revved full force. Faster and faster. Just like every flight, but with much more intensity. Then after what seemed like forever, liftoff.
I felt relief. But as I looked down at the city below I thought about the damage and the people with nowhere to go. I saw orange squares everywhere. The tarp tents that were now home to so many. Higher in the sky the tops of the Himalayas poked through the white blanket of clouds like icebergs in an ocean of cotton. Those beautiful peaks had grown so high because of the same tectonic plates that caused the earthquake. Ironically, those mountains are the main draw for tourism in Nepal.
I thought of the trek, of watching the sun rise behind a towering Mt. Everest. I remembered the smiles of the Sherpa people. I relived the stories and laughter I shared with travelers from all over the world. I thought of the charm and cultural significance of Kathmandu. I remembered hauling metal scraps to the camp and seeing the joy in the faces of those I’d worked with. I remembered “Dada” and the kindness of Nepali people.
This is why I came to Nepal, why I travel anywhere. The world is beautiful, each place in its own way. Travel gives me the ultimate version of the human condition, from looking inside myself to seeing myself in everyone I meet. This experience made me remember what LIVING is. That’s why I’d come back.