This was written on Sunday Nepal time, in the first 24 hours after the primary quake, so it’s old news by now:
We are still without power or internet. I am unable to charge anything. We did not get to bed last night until midnight. No one could sleep. I tried sleeping on a couch downstairs…in my clothes and with the outside door open. That didn’t work. When I finally got to sleep on the second floor, I wasn’t sure how prepared I wanted to be for another serious aftershock. I started with my clothes on. Sharp aftershocks at 12:30, 2 and 5am. A couple of them got me moving toward the door before they subsided. Worked online for 15-20 min. Back to sleep.
Phone call from Aryan at 6am. Aryan was involved in recovery yesterday at Bhasantipur, pulling 18 people from the destruction. Another 50-some were found later. The signature structure, the nine-story stupa, is mere rubble covering the stepped-base. Rumor is that entire villages between here and the epicenter were leveled. Radio reports are coming in that hotels and guesthouses in the Langtang National Park are buried in snow. The initial reports from Everest Base Camp will certainly be revised upward.
The radio gives disaster updates but says nothing about the roads, about power, repairs, internet or cell services. It says nothing about where people can go, what government services are being organized. That’s because such things do not exist. Outdoor sheltering is completely improvised. Internet disappeared about 6am Sunady and has not returned. My cell network has been down since 7am. But it’s a private network. The government network still works.
Clearly I was living in an illusion of security yesterday when I reported that damage looked mild. It is mild in my area, but the older parts of the city and the neighborhoods surrounding the historic sites bore the most obvious brunt of this event. The pictures show entire streets devastated, 900 yr old temples reduced to dust as if they simply disintegrated. Tourists in Bhaktapur during the quake either fainted on the spot, were buried or got involved in recovery immediately. It was chaos. Some roads are cracked so badly as to be impassible and will remain so until complete reconstruction. Medians and retaining walls are separated, crumbled. The edges of roads in some areas have simply fallen away or are grotesquely buckled. (Update: I cannot provide pics because wifi has been down. My friends cannot email me anything. International media has no doubt been much more informative to the outside world than it has to us right here.)
The way the water systems work here is that city water is pumped to private tanks at the ground level. A private pump lifts the water to rooftop tanks and gravity provides the water pressure to the structure. Hence, without power, water cannot be pumped to the roof. So the only water we are accessing now is what was already in the rooftop tank when the earthquake hit.
This event has not only caused widespread suffering, fear, and displacement, it has ripped into the Nepali soul and taken some of its most valued cultural treasures. Last night—or was it this morning—I had a moment of cursing impermanence. Even this morning there have been moments of a profoundly distressing residual sensation of motion. Each of us has a similar experience, a bodily sense of seeking the security and familiar permanence of ground that doesn’t move unexpectedly.
I was saying fuck impermanence. There are simply those times when one needs to feel something solid, to have certainty of one’s own aliveness and embodiment, a sense of place. Lacking this, we drift. Without existential structure, it is difficult to form intention. We would normally suggest that action is the antidote, but lacking communication and power, we can’t know how, or where, to act effectively except in response to information of questionable reliability.
Today my host received a phone call from his sister claiming that another earthquake, more severe than the first, was imminent. Where did she learn this? From the radio. Whether it was astrologers or seismologists is anybody’s guess. But later, I heard from Aryan that his friends’ uncle is a geologist in Japan. Apparently there is a theory that the next quake in Nepal will be worse than this one. But they are not predicting when.
Later this afternoon, my host mentions that BBC is predicting a swarm tonight between 8-11pm. They have constructed one tent in the front yard big enough for four and another big enough for 2. That leaves me. Where shall I sleep? Do I dare sleep upstairs? Do I dare even sleep inside? We’ve had over 60 aftershocks. Shortly after I left my house this afternoon to meet Aryan (who inexplicably had power), I felt the road slipping and sliding like I was riding on sand. People were rushing onto the road from both sides and all traffic stopped. I learned later that one day after the original quake, we’d just had a 6.7 aftershock. That’s pretty serious. The depth of the original quake was calculated at 30 km with an epicenter 77 km from Kathmandu. The epicenter of this 6.7 was only 10 km away and at a depth of 15 km.
When Aryan and I finally connected, he took me to a vacant lot near his house where his family is camping with other neighbors. It is the most minimal set-up. They keep their eye on the water level in one of those 5-gallon blue bottled water containers. Whenever is wavers, they know there is an aftershock, unless it’s strong enough to feel. From there we took a ride toward Bhaktapur to the Bhattarai’s house, the family I stayed with the night before the trip to Nagarkot. They are now camping across the road from their house with all the residents of their 4-story house because the aftershock this afternoon caused their house to tilt. They think another one like that might cause it to fall. But they were in great spirits, grateful to be alive, taking this major difficulty in stride.
It is easy to miss the extent of damage merely by riding by. Closer inspection reveals numerous structural cracks, separations between contiguous structures, whole houses out of plumb. And in the neighborhoods, property walls have simply been destroyed, exposing in many cases delightful courtyards that had previously been private; commercial facades have disintegrated, leaving piles of debris partially blocking roads. Telephone poles lean at every angle.
Narrow streets are almost entirely deserted because caution precludes walking in areas where one is vulnerable to falling debris. Vehicles drive down these roads dead center unless they have to move to avoid someone. There is even less activity on the roads today than yesterday. More people are staying exclusively outdoors and that last aftershock convinced many more who were not already. Police presence at intersections is benign. Some gas stations have closed after exhausting their supplies. All stores remain closed except the smallest convenience vendors.
Every time I check to see if the internet is back up, I notice how dependent on it I am and try to recall what it was like without it. Were those the good old days? In some ways maybe. Today? No, those were not the good old days. I want to be in contact with family and friends. I want to report the experience of being here. I want to convey the grief, bewilderment, resilience and spontaneous community of this moment.
Many promises and pledges have been pouring in from the international community. International NGOs with expertise in disaster response are swinging into action. The task is vast and one can only wonder at how difficult it will be to grasp the whole picture and make judicious, fair and effective decisions with the resources at hand. But there is also the issue of restoring what money can’t buy, a sense of empowerment and confidence that tomorrow will be better, that the national vulnerability to unplanned events of this magnitude will be reduced, that there is still some iron in the national spirit that will be able to cope with anything that comes along. The money is the outside job. The latter is the inside job that only Nepalis can do.