Aayo (Part I)

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The Nepali word aayo translates to ‘it comes,’ ‘it’s coming,’ or ‘it came.’ It’s used constantly in every-day speech in many different contexts. One of my favorite usages is the happy shout of “batti aayo!” when the electricity comes back on after a scheduled outage.

But on April 25th, 2015, the 7.8 magnitude ‘Great Quake’ struck Nepal and aayo took on a whole new meaning.

In the days and weeks that followed the quake, a chorus of “aayo!” would erupt from the crowds with each new aftershock. I came to associate the word with the trembling of the earth so closely that the moment I heard it -whether it was being used in the context of an aftershock or not- I would instinctively prepare for the worst.

Aayo. It’s coming.

How to write about this? What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? What images can I show you that you haven’t already seen in the press or on social media? How can I relate my experience during the earthquake(s) to you and express my emotions without over-dramatizing and unintentionally belittling the true horrors that so many people around the country faced? Homes collapsed, loved ones lost, cultural heritage destroyed. Because the fact of the matter is: My home was not destroyed, I did not lose anybody whom I loved, and it wasn’t my cultural heritage sites that were reduced to piles of rubble.

And yet, I was here. I experienced intense fear and anxiety and sadness like so many others, Nepalis and foreigners alike. Simply put and without hyperbole, it was a traumatic experience (and in some ways, it continues to be). I have procrastinated writing this post for almost six months now for a reason – I simply wasn’t ready. Perhaps I’m still not really ready. Revisiting my photos and journal entries from those days now -writing this- brings that trauma back to the forefront. It brings tears to my eyes.

With that said, I don’t claim any ‘ownership’ of this event. The earthquake was a horrible natural disaster, the worst here since 1934, and its effects are felt uniquely by the Nepali people in ways that I can’t ever truly comprehend. I am a visitor here – the complex social, cultural, and political fall-out of this tragedy is well beyond my understanding. By writing this post, I am not attempting to give a comprehensive or representative account of ‘What Happened.’ This post represents my experience and my experience alone.

And I fully acknowledge that one of the main reasons I survived and fared so well is because of my own privilege as a (relatively wealthy) foreigner in a poor country. Because although I am decidedly ‘lower-middle class’ in the States, in Nepal I am ‘rich.’ I can afford to live in a safe building, I can afford to buy water, food, and other supplies when in need – even if the prices go up, I can make it happen. A natural disaster like an earthquake quickly becomes a humanitarian crisis precisely because of imbalance like this – some people have privilege and some people do not. That’s the sad state of our world, no? But to watch it play out so acutely -and to play my own part in it, whether I want to or not- is heartbreaking. It was something I thought a lot about before the earthquake, and now even more.

And so, acknowledging all of those issues in all their complexity, I will do my best to tell my own story now – what I experienced, witnessed, and felt along the way. That’s all I can do, really.

It starts on Saturday, April 25th…

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Having just moved into “Hotel Japan” about a week before, Drew and I planned a house-warming party for that afternoon at 3:00 p.m. Drew was out buying snacks for the party, and I was on the 5th floor of our building, feeling happy that I’d finally finished cleaning the kitchen. In a few short hours, I’d be enjoying delicious homemade margaritas on our lovely roof terrace with friends. But at 11:56 a.m., a low, rumbling, unfamiliar sound reached my ears, followed by an even more unfamiliar shaking sensation under my feet just a fraction of a second later. It took me a moment to realize what it was – “It’s happening,” I said out loud to myself, and then dove under the kitchen table.

Drew and I had talked about the possibility of this happening so many times. We stressed, we worried, we made inappropriate jokes to alleviate our stress and worry, and we sometimes dismissed it outright – “It won’t happen while we’re here. It just won’t.” And in something out of a movie script, I just so happened to have talked about the possibility of an earthquake in Nepal with my mother over Skype that very morning –

“Well, I’m just gonna try not to think about that,” she said worriedly.

“Yeah, me too,” I responded.

(When we sent her a text only a few hours later telling her about the quake, I worried that because of our conversation, she might think I was playing some sort of cruel joke on her. She didn’t).

I’d also been reading up on ‘what to do in an earthquake’ in the week before the quake, an impulse that came somewhat out of nowhere. Perhaps it was because the low-flying planes going over our new apartment often shook the building ever-so-slightly, and this got me thinking – who knows? I’m happy I did that research, though, because when the earthquake did actually strike, I didn’t hesitate in following the advice I’d read: “If you are inside, stay there, shelter under a strong piece of furniture if possible and hang on. Do not attempt to run down any stairs during the shaking.”

And so, that’s what I did. I cowered under the table, wrapped my hands around its leg and then time just sort of… slowed down. I don’t know how long the shaking lasted, although I’m fairly confident that it must have felt longer for me than for others who were lower to the ground – the building kept swaying after the earth stopped shaking; a distinctly different sensation, I remember. I just crouched there under the table, watching the crows and pigeons outside the window fly around wildly in every direction -panicked- and envied their ability to free themselves so easily from the shaking earth. Glasses were falling from the cabinets and shattering on the floor around me, and all I could think was, “Please let it stop. Please let him be okay” – a ‘mantra’ of sorts, on loop in my mind.

Once the building (more or less) stopped its eerie swaying, I knew I had to move – what if the building was weakened during the quake? But still, I was paralyzed with shock and fear. I had to get out of the building – even though it was clearly still standing, I had no way of knowing if it was about to come down at any moment. It was all a matter of summoning the courage to make my legs work. (Stand up, dammit!)

After a few short moments -which felt like forever- I made myself get up and ran down the stairs to our flat on the 4th floor. I grabbed my bag, my phone, and our passports as quickly as I could, and made my way down the rest of the stairs, heart pumping hard all the way. (All this without one single cut, by the way – despite all that broken glass! It’s a good thing that “Hotel Japan” came with kitchen sandals, indeed)…

(No, I did NOT take this photo in that moment - it was taken days later when we finally felt safe enough to venture back to the 5th floor).

(And no, I did NOT take this photo on the day of the quake – it was taken days later when we finally felt safe enough to venture back to the 5th floor).

Once I made it outside of the building and our courtyard, I found my landlady in the street with her family (2 young daughters, mother, and husband), her ‘didi’ (nanny/domestic helper), two Japanese teachers who also lived in the JLECC ‘compound’, and some neighbors that I had not yet met. We exchanged shocked looks and ‘are-you-okay?’s, and then I immediately tried calling Drew. The first call didn’t go through. I cursed myself for not trying to call him earlier, while running down the stairs perhaps – of course the networks were already jammed (or maybe they were down altogether?)

I tried a second time and -in what felt like a small miracle- he answered! (I can’t begin to describe how relieved I was to hear his voice, so I’ll spare you what would likely be an unbearably sappy attempt now). “I’m okay. I’m walking home, I’m almost there.”

Exhale.

Just a few moments after hanging up the phone, an aftershock hit and we knew we couldn’t stay in the small street just outside our gate – we needed to find more open space. After a quick discussion, we began moving down the alley into a semi-vacant lot, where a house was under construction. I hesitated because Drew had not yet arrived, but luckily just moments later, he came jogging down our small street to join us, stepping over the remnants of the brick wall that had collapsed there…

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After some time in the construction site lot and a few more strong aftershocks, we decided to move into an even more open space at the end of the alley in an over-grown vacant lot. (Why we didn’t do this in the first place, I can’t tell you. Fear, panic, group-think?)

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This was where we spent the next 4 or 5 hours, crouching low to the ground, riding out the aftershocks that came every 20 minutes or so, carefully eyeing the water tanks teetering precariously atop tiny platforms on the rooftops of nearby buildings…

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Drew told me his own story: He was walking in the street near Jawalakhel chowk, and didn’t actually realize that anything was happening until he heard a girl scream as she ran from a building into the open street. (It’s understandable. We noticed during the following weeks -and subsequent aftershocks- that you feel the shaking more prevalently when you are sitting or standing still; when you are moving yourself, it’s harder to detect at first). He saw part of a wall from a building under construction tumble down, but other than that, he witnessed no major damage. He chuckled bitterly as he told me about himself thinking, “Oh, boy. Now I have to convince Brenna to still have our party – she’s gonna be all freaked out and will want to cancel,” not yet realizing the severity of the quake. He started to wonder if things were worse than he thought, though, while on his way home he saw how part of Kumaripati Road had buckled, a new earthquake-made ‘speed-bump’ formed where the road used to be perfectly flat…

Hard to see here, but look closely at that white center line, and you can see how it curves with the undulation in the road...

Hard to see here, but look closely at that white center line, and you can see how it bends with the new undulation in the road…

We sent text messages to our mothers in the States, telling them that we were okay and to please spread the word to the rest of our families – an unhappy wake-up call for them in the middle of the night, no doubt. Text messages from our friends here in Nepal started to pour in, checking if we were okay and jokingly asking if the party was still on for that afternoon. (“It’s not sunny enough for margaritas today, anyway,” one friend wrote).

As time wore on in the field and the aftershocks grew further apart, our fear and shock started to dissipate just a bit, and we began to feel a little hungry and cold. A neighbor sweetly loaned me her extra scarf, and Drew looked fabulous in a piece of fabric that I had bought for my art studio the day before, which was still in my bag…

IMG_6448And in true Nepali fashion, our landlady’s husband, hair slathered in hair-dye, poor guy (I guess earthquakes don’t ever strike at a ‘convenient’ time, do they?) made a trip to the small store down the street to buy soda, water, chips, and Wai-Wai instant noodles for everyone. During my time in Nepal, I have learned that it is exceedingly rare to spend any sizable amount of time with a Nepali family and NOT be fed in one way or another. It just doesn’t happen. Whether it’s a full meal of dal bhat (rice and lentils) or a small snack, you will most certainly hear “khaanus! khaanus!” (eat! eat!) during your visit. And apparently, even in the midst of a natural disaster, that famous Nepali hospitality never fails.

Lunch was served…

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Between the snacks, the green field, and the addition of some of plastic chairs that were brought down from the Japanese school, it was almost like we were having a lovely Saturday afternoon picnic with our neighbors – that is, until another aftershock would hit and remind us all why we were there.

That’s the thing about earthquakes. Until you’ve experienced one, you don’t realize that it’s not an isolated event taking place over a single span of time – once finished, the threat of destruction gone. Oh, no. Once the initial shaking stops, it’s not really over – that first large quake is merely the beginning. The aftershocks will come, and there is no way of knowing when they will strike, how big they might be, or how much more destruction they will bring – going through it all becomes a strange blend of intense fear and anxiety, coupled with boredom, restlessness, and tedium.

The afternoon passed on and as the aftershocks grew slightly less strong and less frequent, people slowly started making their way back into their homes to inspect the damage. My instinct was to stay in that vacant lot forever – it had become my ‘safe place’ during those frightening hours and I didn’t want to leave. But like being under that kitchen table, I knew that I’d have to move eventually. So I nervously joined Drew in venturing back up to our apartment.

Looking back on it now, I’m surprised by how long we stayed inside our apartment that evening – especially considering that I wouldn’t spend more than a few minutes inside any building for the next several days. We must have been inside packing up ‘go-bags’ and writing emails and Facebook messages to family and friends for at least one, maybe two hours. I think we were still a bit shocked, and it didn’t help that we had no idea where to go. Where would we sleep? Should we stay in the apartment? The building seems fine, but we aren’t engineers – what if another big earthquake comes? What if the earthquake today was actually only a foreshock and the real ‘Big One’ is yet to come?

We’d heard from a friend that some people were headed to the United Nations complex not too far from our house, where there was open space – we decided that was our best bet. (Remember, Kathmandu is not full of green city parks and copious open spaces – it was not entirely obvious where to go). We grabbed our bags, some pillows and blankets, and headed out into the unknown – what would we encounter on the street? would there still be space for us at the U.N.? Luckily, one of the Japanese teachers who also lived in our building saw us on our way out and told us to head to the furniture workshop next door – all of our neighbors had gathered and were planning to spend the night there. Wouldn’t we join them?

The workshop from our window...

The workshop from our window…

The workshop entrance, our buildings in the background...

The workshop entrance, our buildings in the background…

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I was hesitant at first, as this wasn’t exactly OPEN space. It was a structure of some kind and there were a few tall buildings close by. BUT those tall buildings had fared well so far and the structure of the furniture workshop itself was minimal – we figured that if another big quake did come, there wasn’t much to actually fall on top of us. We might have to push off some corrugated tin, but that was relatively light-weight and the stacks of couches that surrounded us would keep the tin from falling directly on us, anyway, if we slept at ground level. And the tin roof would keep us dry in the event of rain. And our neighbors were there, a little ‘crisis family’ already forming – we could band together and support one another. And seeing as this was a furniture factory full of couches and foam padding, it would clearly be much more comfortable than sleeping in a field on the hard ground, surrounded by strangers… And so, we decided to stay.

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It was pretty clear that we’d made the right decision from the get-go, which was made even clearer by the hot meal of dal bhat we were served for dinner that night.

Wait.

There’s been a devastating earthquake and I am eating a HOT meal on the first night? I was surprised and thrilled and oh-so-grateful to our generous and kind neighbors (a sentiment that would continue for days to come)…

Khaanus! Khaanus!

Khaanus! Khaanus!

The night began to wind down and we grabbed a spot on the foam padding next to my landlady’s adolescent daughter. She talked my ear off about Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and her most favorite American pop-star, Selena Gomez. She explained to me that she herself was an avid ‘Selenator’ (aka – a Selena Gomez fan), and recited her Wikipedia page seemingly word for word…

Image courtesy of The Internets...

Image courtesy of The Internets…

The wifi in our building still worked and actually reached the furniture workshop, so she played me songs and showed me music videos on her phone. Admittedly, this isn’t my preferred music -or topic of conversation, for that matter- but it was nice to focus on something other than what we were going through at the moment. And I hope that it helped her cope with the stress and fear that she must have been feeling. Still, though… it certainly was surreal to be hunkered down in a factory workshop in Nepal, in the middle of a natural / humanitarian disaster, talking over the highlights of Selena Gomez’s career. I can’t say that I could have predicted something like that ever coming to pass, that’s for sure.

That first night passed slowly, almost entirely sleepless. I think I may have managed a total of 3 or 4 hours here and there. I laid awake, checking Facebook and email on Drew’s iPad. (I don’t think I’ve ever been on Facebook so much in my life! But I have to say that it’s great for getting news to a lot of people quickly – mighty useful in a situation like this). When Facebook wore thin, I wrote in my journal, or simply stared into space, trying desperately to sleep despite all the adrenaline pumping through my veins. I took comfort in the people sleeping (or trying to sleep) around me, in Drew’s arm sleepily draped across my waist, and in one of my neighbor’s dogs who spent the entire night balled up by my feet, just as scared as we all were, I think…

Here she is the next morning, sweet girl...

Here she is the next morning, sweet girl…

At long last, the sun finally came up and news from outside our little camp came pouring in – newspapers, internet articles, phone calls. We became more and more aware of the destruction and the mounting death toll…

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The morning passed slowly, as we were feeling unsure of what to do exactly. After breakfast (another hot meal of milk tea and Newari fried doughnut-like treats called ‘malpas’ – our neighbors are seriously THE BEST), our landlady started getting text messages from various friends telling of a ‘prediction by NASA’ of another large aftershock for noon that day. Discussion about relocating away from the furniture factory and into more open space for the afternoon started spreading through camp.

Now in retrospect, this all seems SO incredibly ridiculous. Of course you can’t predict earthquakes or aftershocks – the science for that just doesn’t exist. Yes, we can determine where the fault lines are and say that ‘someday there will be an earthquake here,’ but you can’t pin down a specific day (or year, even) and you certainly can’t pin down a specific time of day! Why we entertained the idea at all seems so silly now. But that is the power of halla (rumor) in the midst of a high-anxiety situation. Group-think takes over, your anxiety tells you it’s ‘better-to-be-safe-than-sorry,’ and then against your better judgement, you find yourself headed down the road to another neighbor’s house where there’s an open field – the tiniest of ‘urban farms’ now taken over by people seeking open sky…

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I must say, though, I was ultimately happy we went there. It was in the field that, for the first time since the quake struck 24 hours before, I finally felt just the tiniest bit relaxed . It was sunny and warm (but not hot), and it was a truly open space – I felt safely-positioned for another quake. As the afternoon wore on, Drew and I relaxed enough to became a bit bored, even, and began reading out loud to each other from a book of short stories – I could almost convince myself that I was merely enjoying a lovely day in the park…

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Noon came and went with no large aftershock as ‘predicted,’ and feeling hungry, our group decided to head back to the workshop to fix lunch. After lunch we were in high spirits, our bellies full, riding the wave of relaxation from our time in the field.

But that’s the thing about earthquakes – you can’t relax for long. At 1:00 p.m., another large 6.9 magnitude aftershock struck.

Everyone hit the floor (which was luckily laid with foam padding), and we covered our heads with couch cushions – Drew and I stared at each other from under our pillows with ‘oh-shit!’ expressions on our faces. Luckily, the aftershock passed with the workshop intact and the large buildings nearby still standing. But it rattled us – we’re not ‘out of the woods’ just yet.

(And it certainly added fuel to the fire of earthquake-prediction halla in the days to come – an aftershock did come only one hour after it was ‘predicted’ to, after all. Pure coincidence, of course, but it had many people around us convinced that all of the rumors they heard about new quakes in subsequent days were true – we were bombarded by these rumors and false predictions all the time in that first week, it seems).

Discussion spread through camp about the possibility of moving into our neighbor’s field for the night – some were for it and others against it as rain was forecast for that evening. I don’t know why exactly -and in retrospect it seems like a bit of an overreaction, maybe- but I found myself firmly in the pro-field position. The furniture workshop no longer felt safe to me, at least not for sleeping. I wanted open sky over my head, rain be damned. After some time trying to convince others to join us, Drew and I struck out on our own into the field for the night, promising to accept their invitation to return for breakfast in the morning.

It was a surprisingly difficult thing to do, separating from our little ‘crisis family’ like that, even if just for the night. We’d only known these folks for a little over a day, really, but it was such an intense time – a close bond had already formed (as often happens in situations like these, I guess). We felt guilty leaving them… like we were betraying them in some way. It seems silly to speak about it like this now, but during such a stressful period, I suppose just about everything can feel (overly) dramatic and emotional. (Lucky for us, no hard feelings ever seemed to come from all this).

And so we set ourselves up in our neighbor’s field on a blanket, thinking it might actually be nice to sleep in the grass under the stars…

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We were content with our plan until evening approached and ominous rain clouds started gathering…

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The people at this camp began building shelters with tarps and rope – Drew pitched in to help, and we managed to squeeze ourselves into a spot on the corner with decent coverage…

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The field from our rooftop, taken days later...

The field as seen from our rooftop, many days later…

That evening was our most uncomfortable night sleeping outdoors, by far – we had no padding to sleep on, the people at this camp were surprisingly stand-offish and unfriendly towards us (more on that later), and it poured rain. ALL. NIGHT. LONG. We took turns getting up every 45 minutes or so in order to push the growing puddles of water off the tarp above our heads. (A section of the tarp shelter opposite us had already collapsed under the weight of the water, and we were determined to avoid something like that happening to us). Not the most restful night, but I still managed to sleep – or perhaps I should say ‘pass out.’ Seeing as I’d only had about 4 hours of sleep the night before, I was utterly and completely exhausted by this point.

I woke up the next morning more or less dry, feeling grateful that the tarp held out through the storm. And I wondered how this neighbor of ours managed to get tarps from the Red Cross so quickly after the quake…

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The third day after the quake was another slow-moving one. Drew was ready to get out of the neighborhood to assess the damage, and see if he could be of some help. I, on the other hand, was not.

Between the field, the furniture workshop, and our little ‘crisis family,’ I’d found my safe space and wasn’t ready to leave it yet. There was a lot of discussion surrounding this conflict between us in those first few days – Drew felt the need to bear witness and get moving, I felt the need to hunker down and focus on survival. It’s difficult for me to admit now, as I have a lot of regret, guilt, and shame for not getting out there sooner, for not trying to help sooner. So many people -including many of our friends- were already out there doing what they could do to help. Why couldn’t I make myself do the same? Fear, anxiety, survival instinct? A combination of all these things? I’ve learned that in a crisis situation, people can have very different, very personal and unique reactions, and in a situation like that, it’s as if a switch is flipped inside you – you do what just feels right. With this in mind, I try not to judge the reactions of others, just as I hope they don’t judge me for mine.  Still, it’s not easy for me to accept that my instinct was to keep myself and my loved ones safe first and foremost, rather than getting out there immediately to help people who truly needed it…. but it is what it is. That was my way of coping, and I have to live with that. Fortunately, Drew is a kind, patient, and supportive person – he gave me the time I needed.

Later that morning, we got a call from a friend who was being asked to leave the place where she had been sheltering for the last two nights (for reasons too complicated to explain here) – she was wondering if she could join us. As we waited for her arrival, I passed the time by watching the kids play (my landlady’s daughter and the son of an employee of the furniture workshop). They were chasing each other around the piles of couches and cushions like it was a big, padded jungle gym. Turns out, a furniture workshop full of soft, cozy couches all piled together is a SUPER fun place to play.  Understandable – it is kind of the biggest couch fort of all time…

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When our friend arrived, we got her settled out in the field and spent the sunny afternoon there playing cards. (My dad would be happy to know that we taught her how to play ‘Hearts’). It felt so good to have a friend there with us – especially another foreigner who we could relate to more closely, all of us being in the strange position of experiencing a natural disaster in a country not our own. Sitting there, playing cards and talking about nothing of importance in that field was the first time I truly laughed or smiled since the quake struck. It is one of my fondest memories of those first few days.

Dinner that night in the furniture workshop felt almost festive, as we were finally reaching the 72 hour mark from the time of the initial quake. (All the news outlets were advising people to camp outdoors for at least 72 hours after the first big quake, as the risk of significant aftershocks is greatest during that time). We were almost ‘out of the woods’ it seemed, and we were hopeful that this would be our last night outdoors. Unfortunately though, just as we were settling down to bed in the field that evening, a fairly large aftershock hit -loud and fast in a quick burst, almost like an explosion- dampening our spirits. We decided that we’d have to sleep outside at least one more night after this one – pushing the count up to four nights spent outside.

The next day was tough as it unexpectedly evolved into a day of goodbyes. Our friend who had joined us in the field the day before left us for the American embassy because -in what has to be the worst luck of all time- her passport had been stolen just a few days before the earthquake struck. They instructed her to get to the embassy as soon as possible so she could obtain emergency travel documents to get back home. We had bonded with her so much over the past day – putting her in a cab to the embassy was surprisingly emotional.

The rest of the day wasn’t much better, as we got a text message from one friend who was catching a flight to join her parents in China, we said goodbye to a friend who was leaving for the States that evening (a trip he had planned before the earthquake, which he decided to keep), and then two more friends caught a French evacuation flight that evening as well. Over the past several days, Drew and I had gone back and forth, discussing the pros and cons of going home or sticking it out in Kathmandu – we didn’t want to make any rash decisions that we might regret later. Watching so many friends leave in one day had us second-guessing our tentative decision to stay.

(A quick note on evacuation flights: We were quite shocked to see that the U.S. government did not sponsor a single evacuation flight out of the country for its citizens. We are on an email list for the embassy here, and it seems that the most they did was send out announcements about extra seats they managed to eek out on other country’s sponsored evacuation flights – Australia, Canada, Norway. These flights would take citizens of these countries -and a few others- to places like India or Thailand where travelers would then have to book their own flights to their home countries. So it wasn’t a full ride, but it was a quick way out of the country, at least!  We weren’t planning on taking an evacuation flight, so it didn’t effect us directly, but we were still shocked to see the world’s ‘greatest super power’ not shelling out the dough for at least one full evacuation flight for its citizens out of Nepal).

And though it was our choice to stay, it was hard not to feel a little… well… left behind on that day of goodbyes. So many of our bideshi (foreigner) friends were jumping ship and understandably so – had we made the right decision to stay? Were we making a huge mistake? Needless to say, I had a big ‘boo-hoo’ in the field that night – a cathartic release that I’d been needing for days. I cried and cried, trying to keep as quiet as possible in that communal space, but apparently I couldn’t keep quiet enough, as I endured snide comments from our Nepali neighbors, saying -in English for my benefit, no doubt- that I was really “in high tension” and that I needed to calm down. Fortunately, that was our last night in the field.

(And a note about the group of folks in the field – in their defense, actually: We learned a day or two later that we had kind of ‘crashed their party,’ so to speak. We assumed that the wealthy man who owned the property had kindly opened up the space to the neighborhood -just being a good neighbor in a time of crisis- and so we came to set up camp, not thinking anything of it. We didn’t ask permission because we (stupidly) assumed we didn’t need it. We all know what people say about ‘ASSuming’ things, right? Turns out that the large group assembled there were ALL members of his extended family who normally live in the large apartment building next door, which he also owns. So here we were, two clueless foreigners barging in like we owned the place and then I break down crying while everyone else is trying to relax and enjoy their evening. In retrospect, I totally understand why they would be annoyed with us! And it certainly explains why they were all so stand-offish towards us on that first day. Whoops. Once we learned the truth about the situation, Drew tried explaining our misunderstanding to the property owner and apologized for our bravado, but I’m not sure how much of that message got through, to be honest. The whole thing was truly humiliating for us, and to this day, I can barely make eye contact with owner of that field).

The next day, we packed up our things and -along with our landlady and her family- moved back indoors. They took a meeting room on the ground-floor of one building in our Japanese language school ‘compound,’ and we took the lobby/reception area of the other. Needless to say, this new living situation was a vast improvement: it was indoors, of course, there was constant access to electricity/wifi (load-shedding virtually disappeared in the weeks after the quake), a clean bathroom was only steps away, and we had a small mattress on the floor to sleep on – what more do you need?! Although I was nervous to be back inside a building (open space = safety, after all), it was like a little piece of heaven being in that room…

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And we were happily surprised to see that our landlady managed to have water delivered to our building that first day back indoors. We were worried about possible water and food shortages in the wake of the earthquake, so seeing a water truck fill the tanks for our buildings a mere five days later was a welcome sight, indeed!

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We spent three nights in reception, our days more and more active as we ventured out of our immediate neighborhood, began meeting with friends again, and began volunteering for various relief efforts (more about all that in ‘Part II’).

The thing I remember most fondly about those days, though, is our time spent in the courtyard. Usually in the evening twilight before dinner, we’d find ourselves there enjoying the cool breeze with our landlady’s daughters, one of the Japanese teachers who also lived in the building, and our landlady’s nanny/domestic helper, Sushila. We would play UNO, badminton, or kick a soccer ball around together…

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We banged on drums and sang songs together, which warms my heart to think of to this day – those of you who know me well know that I always love a sing-a-long…

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(There’s nothing to actually SEE in the video below, but take a listen to Sushila and Drew singing part of a Nepali folk song together – it’s pretty darn cute)…

Eventually it would be time for dinner – our landlady, her mother, and Sushila would always cook up something delicious and share it with us. In fact, I don’t think we had to make a single meal for ourselves -breakfast, lunch, or dinner- for a solid week after the earthquake! I cannot express how grateful we were for this luxury – it was truly amazing of them to take such good care of us, just as if we were part of their family. Their kindness and generosity is something that I will never forget.

One evening, our landlady surprised us with this little treat – a trick she learned during her years in Japan…

Yup, that's an apple!

Yup, that’s an apple!

When I think back on those days now, both in the furniture workshop and within our little Japanese school ‘compound,’ the sense of community -the camraderie and caring for each other- stays with me and tugs on my heartstrings. In the midst of a truly terrible event, we became a family and took care of one another. I honestly don’t know what we would have done without them…

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And although life has more or less returned back to ‘normal’ for us in the neighborhood over the past six months, we still have an affection for each other – a latent closeness of sorts. It’s not as intense or immediate as it was in those days and weeks after the earthquake, but it’s still there. Warm, affectionate smiles and greetings are exchanged when we run into each other in the street now, whereas before the earthquake a polite nod or shy ‘Namaste’ was all that we could expect from one another.

And so… after 4 nights camping outside, 3 nights set-up in the reception area, and a brief pro-bono inspection of our buildings by a very kind Australian engineer who we met through a mutual friend, we decided it was finally time to move back into our apartment.

The first day doing laundry and unpacking all of the food and supplies we’d been hauling around between our various camps was a bit surreal. And I almost had a heart attack that evening when a fairly large aftershock hit while we were in the kitchen – an especially frightening moment, as that was the original ‘scene of the crime’ for me. (It took me several days to feel comfortable being in the kitchen, actually. And then a few more days after that to feel comfortable being in there alone. I suppose that’s how trauma works).

Sleeping in the apartment that first night was strange, but also a huge relief. It felt so good to be in our own place and in our own bed again. I made sure to wear pajamas that would double as ‘appropriate’ outdoor wear and our go-bag was placed directly by the door, just in case (two habits that continue to this very day, in fact)…

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Coming up next in ‘Part II’: experiences outside of the neighborhood in the weeks following the earthquake – assessing the damage, returning to my art studio, relief work, and more. Oh yes, of course… and earthquake number TWO.

Stay tuned…

One thought on “Aayo (Part I)

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