Stranded in Earthquake Territory

Field shoots at Felis are characterized by excitement, spontaneity and often really wild adventures in the outdoors. With a country as captivating as Nepal, I knew from the word go, that we were in for an adventure, in our pursuit of the best footage and stories.

The Felis team, consisting of Nitye, Sumanth and I, were off to Nepal on a project commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund. The location was the lush forests of the Royal Chitwan National Park, and the task was documenting the population of the One-Horned Rhinoceros as part of the WWF’s Rhino census.

Unlike the monotonous rigmarole at the airports, field shoots always carry an element of adventurous uncertainty. The first half of 25th April was no different a day than any other, to be honest. Wrapping up our shoot at the WWF Head office at Kathmandu, we reached the airport after a meteoric drive to make it in time for our flight.

Just as I was saying my goodbyes to Ed, Head of Content at WWF UK, I felt a minor jolt that ran through the ground, running up my spine, giving me the shivers! Having experienced this before while standing on elevated ground, or when watching large vehicles zooming by,I did not pay much attention to it.  The second time, however, was more pronounced – I felt the earth twist beneath me, but even then I chose to blame it on my mind, assuming that it was a daytime hallucination. The third jolt, intensely ferocious this time, woke me up from my stupor.

IMG_5157As my brain turned another cog, I quickly realized that we were in the midst of an earthquake (7.9 on the Richter scale, as we later found out). All those safety guidelines and our situational awareness were thrown out of the window. All I could bring myself to say was “EDDD RUNNN!” to get us both out of immediate danger. By now, the ground surrounding us had started moving, creating a bizarrely mind-numbing sensation. Each step I took made me feel unsure, as the entire ground was wobbling, taking away the simple privilege of a steady foothold on the ground.  

The sense of confusion was real, with even the police officers and security guards not knowing what to do in the moment. This was  the first earthquake that Nepal has experienced in the last 80 years, and without proper emergency preparedness or even natural disaster awareness, everyone was understandably clueless. And we were undoubtedly no exception.

After we  received  information that all flight  had been grounded, Puru (our local Nepali fixer), Nitye, Sumanth, Ed and I began to reassess the situation. We decided to head over to the Radisson hotel, where we would have access to warmth, food, security and Internet, which would enable us to reach out to worried loved ones back home. Social media finally came into good use, as we were able to inform the Felis office about our next steps as well. Comfortably rested, we decided to part ways with Ed and Puru, in order to figure out a way to get back home, as soon as possible.

We landed at the airport again, trying to get more information on the evacuation plan launched by the Indian Air Force. Unsure of the status of our Air India flight leaving the following day, and excited by the prospect of getting on an evacuation plane, we decided to give the evacuation plan a shot. Murphy’s Law decided to swing into full action at this point. 

After seemingly endless hours of waiting in the airport, we were not able to even see the inside of the elusive evacuation flights, let alone board one! Retreating to our trusty (we thought!) Air India plan of action, we waited for a total of 18 long hours in the queue (Air India’s carrier’s system had crashed). And just as I jubilantly arrived at the counter with my documents ready, the second bout of the earthquake hit. Murphy, oh, Murphy!  This time it was a 6.4 on the Richter scale. Before the line could reform, I grabbed my boarding pass, passport and ran towards my teammates Sumanth and Nitye waiting at immigration.

Yet, even after this, we were too late. The immigration section had already been cleared, as there was fear of an aftershock. Physically and mentally drained, we got through immigrations and headed out to the departure holding area, that was terribly reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic Hollywood film, with people lying all around tired, food kiosks being raided and the water supply exhausted. The three of us decided to sit outdoors and watch the setting sun and the silhouettes of the incoming planes. The night we spent there was restless, owing in part to the stress of the situation and a random unwelcome stranger who had decided to share my backpack-turned-pillow without any consent.

IMG_5196We soon found out that our boarding passes had been cancelled this time, and that we had to stand in a line again to have them reissued. Determined to leave the country, I stormed off to the Air India office. The Air India room had many, many enervated and antsy travellers like me, but not a single staff member. Hours later when the staff arrived, following a lot of arguing and a few choice curse words, I triumphantly emerged from the room with our 3 new boarding passes.

With our boarding passes in hand, we happily checked in our luggage. However, a closer look showed us that the Air India official had checked us into an evening flight that was not even confirmed to take off. When we brought up the issue the Station Chief, asked us not to worry and reassured us saying that we just had to show up at the right gate to board our flight. (I presume he was just trying his hardest to wash his hands off us pesky travellers). We were momentarily placated.

However, this moment of happiness was quickly ruined when a presumptuous airport official insisted that we were lining up for the wrong flight, making me want to punch him. Note to self: Never, ever, ever accuse a government official of making an error! Soon, with a little name-dropping and assistance of the Station Chief, we managed to get the hullabaloo sorted out. And we began the wait for our flight, hoping that we were on the better side of the airport fracas.

Few things in life have made me as content as I was watching the A340 gracefully touch down on the landing strip. The three of us collectively breathed a sign of relief, watching the airbus taxi in towards us.

Soon, the plane was filled up and ready for departure. On board were 220 people – tired, frustrated and smelly, after 3 days of no showering and wearing the same clothes.  With my recommendation, the cabin attendants proceeded to disinfect the area with aerosol cans of deodorant and disinfectant. I did feel a little uncomfortable deserting a nation recoiling from its largest natural disaster in decades, without offering any assistance. We had spent hours there waiting to leave, to go back home, far away from the earthquake. What about those who couldn’t leave? What about those who called Nepal home?

A nation shattered. And not just physically by seismic waves, and tectonic plates.

In retrospect, I think perhaps we did well in leaving. The last need of a country under natural siege is a horde of travellers, ill-equipped and running off to help a nation that is not asking for outsourced manpower. Nations need international solidarity, money and time to heal and rebuild themselves after an earthquake. Nepal taught our team at Felis the power of disaster preparedness, and the terrible consequences of overburdening a nation with banal feel-good protectionism in a time of dire distress and systemic collapse. Maybe we genuinely did well in leaving when we did.

Now, however is the time for action. International attention has waned, the journalists, and volunteers have left and the funding tap is thoroughly parched (and mildly adulterated). But Nepali schools, colleges, hospitals and public infrastructure are in need of rebuilding. The most important time that defines the vitality and vulnerability of a nation struck by natural disaster are not the days directly after the earthquake, but the crucial months and the years that follow after it.

IMG_5168 (1) – Robin Darius Conz.

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