Friday, May 29, 2015

Post earthquake (x2!) update

Hi again! It’s been so long! I was on such a roll and then that second May 12 earthquake interfered with my motivation and I got totally sidetracked. But I’ve developed a nice little plantar fasciitis issue and don’t feel much like getting off my ass to do anything, so I think I have time for a wordy update.

I think where we left off, things had been getting back to normal. In the couple weeks after the April 25 EQ, I had gone back to both working at the english school and volunteering with Chhori. We had been out to the restaurants and hung out having drinks. Things were still a little scattered, but people were ready to get back to ordinary life and rebuilding what was destroyed. We had started cracking jokes at all the fear-mongerers and alarmists. Like, get over it guys. Yes, there were several earthquakes daily, but nothing bigger than a 5.0. You can only feel something below a 5.0 if you are sitting down and not moving. If you’re walking, in a car, or ever showering you won’t feel anything smaller. It was unnecessary panic. We were laughing at work on Monday because the EQ alarm had gone off and we hadn’t felt ANYTHING.

Then May 12, Tuesday, rolled around. I was in another organization’s office, sending emails. I was alone in a big meeting room on the second floor. Mid-email, the shaking started, but slowly at first, so nobody panicked. Then we realized that it wasn’t stopping, but was instead getting worse. I ducked under the table I was working at and held on, hoping that a French NGO with the presence of mind to install an EQ alarm had also made sure the building could survive one too. I could see mayhem in the stairwell out of the doorway to the room, saw my colleagues running down the stairs, saw the French director of the NGO trying to grab small children as they ran by her towards the stairs. I think her and I were the only one that got down and stayed down. One of my colleagues ducked under the table with me for a few seconds, but when the shaking let up for a second she was also gone down the stairs.

When the shaking did finally stop, I made eye contact with the director and was like “Wow, that wasn’t supposed to happen.” What I meant was, earlier that week I’d read that there was a 0.5% chance of an EQ bigger than 7.0 striking Kathmandu. 1/200. I packed up my stuff as quickly as I could and went outside. The sent a few messages to make sure everyone was ok. And, wonder of the internet, before I had any information myself, my friends living in Korea were already sending messages. They might have even sent it before the earthquake was over haha!! Everybody I knew was okay again, but my Nepali colleagues were super spooked. Crying, freaking out, and like, this weird paralysis of not being able to act. I wasn’t sure what to do…I probably would have been fine with going back inside the house to be honest with you. But my colleagues had gone off down the street (a tiny street lined with HUGE houses I might add!)

And, this time again, I KNOW that the ground was shaking, and that there were several large aftershocks in the first hour, but I barely felt any of them. I think I only felt one. So I walked down the scary street to where my friends were standing in a place that was slightly safer, but still not really. This was because within minutes of the EQ, everyone who had one got in their car or jumped on their motorbikes and was flying around trying to get home or to their family. My biggest fear from earthquakes has become the panic that ensues afterwards. I said “guys, is there an open field over there? Can we go there for like 30 minutes?” Success! So we chilled, my boss trying to decide what to do with the 2 women and their children who were looking to her for direction. 

She ended up deciding to take everyone to her neighbourhood with her, and they would all sleep outside under what they call a futsal, a sheet-metal-roofed shack/shed thing. She tried to get me to come, but I definitely didn’t feel like that was the right idea after witnessing the levels of panic amongst the local population. I was feeling okay right then, but I knew an anxiety attack was building in my chest, and what I needed to do was find my foreign, non-superstitious, sarcastic, prone to drinking when stressed, cheese-eating friends to regain my sense of security as soon as possible. Luckily, one of my EQ buddies from the first round lived nearby, and is in an EQ safe house, so I walked over there. My house wasn’t walking distance, and the busses and taxis were CRAZY.

When I walked over to her neighbourhood, I found my friend and her roommate sipping tea at the local tea shop, just chilling on stools like nothing had happened. I knew instantly I had made the right decision. Possibly my 3rd thought after the earthquake had finished was “maaaaaan do we have to sleep outside again? That really sucked. UGHHHHHHHH”. And apparently they had been thinking the same. We decided to wait it out inside. We got ahold of another EQ buddy, and she brought a brick of cheese, cookies, other snacks, and a bottle of lovely tequila. Exactly what we needed. I did some quick anxiety relief yoga that’s been helping, we ate cheese, drank tequila, skyped with our other EQ buddy who had left (my former roomate), and set up our beds in the living room and tried to sleep.

We managed to sleep most of the night, but all of us woke up at about 3AM to a HUGE tremor. We parted ways the next day, I headed back to my house. It was so different from the first one, even though it wasn’t that much smaller. I didn’t work on Wednesday, but I was back in on Thursday. So I was back sleeping in my room the night after it. I think the big difference was that the uncertainty was gone. After the first one, nobody knew what was going to happen. Nobody knew how the city was going to react, whether supplies would keep coming in, whether the lights would keep working or if the busses would keep running. This time we knew, things were just going to go back to normal.

Another big difference was that the destruction was so much less terrifying, mostly because everything had already fallen, and everybody who had been in an unsafe building was sleeping outside. So it wasn’t quite so overwhelming in that sense, but the emotional toll was HEAVY. It’s now May 29, and people are still sleeping outside because they are scared. Astrologers here keep predicting big earthquakes, and enough people believe or even half believe that it has a real impact on daily life. It was the worst trick the earth could have played, letting everyone sink back into a sense of security and then striking again. This time it’s taking much longer for people to move one. Everyone is on edge, jumping at the slightest sounds or movement. A lot of us try to laugh it off, but that doesn’t make it less real.

The ground continues to shake. Just today there's been 3 tremors over 4.0 and one over 5. And our experience tells us that, most likely, it will stop in a second, so there’s no need to panic. But, our experience also tells us that YOU NEVER KNOW, so better be prepared for it to NOT stop or to get worse too. To make it worse, there have been several severe thunderstorms here this past week. My roomates and I aren’t particularly afraid of thunderstorms, but the locals definitely are. And a few days ago, while the high winds of the thunderstorm were causing the sheet-metal shelters on the top of roofs to rattle and blow around, a nice little tremor shook us up from underneath. There’s been something like 270 earthquakes 4.0+ since April 25.

Mental health has jumped up the list of priorities, and now when my organization delivers material goods they also deliver mental health services. It’s going to take a long time for this country to heal, especially when our trauma is revisited every time we feel the earth shake, which happens every day. But people are taking amazing steps and actions to rebuild the countryside, and the tourism industry here is ready and able to welcome visitors to most areas. I like to think the worst is probably over, but the truth is I’ll never make that assumption again, because I’ll never forget that ANYTHING above 0% is still completely possible.

Thanks for tuning in and maybe for the next one I’ll have something lighthearted, whimsical or even zany to report on! And by the way, estimated Canada return is early August 2015. See some of you then.

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