Cowichan woman ‘stupefied’ when earthquake struck Nepal

They told us to watch the birds. It might be animal sense or pure superstition, but somehow the birds could sense the earthquake. A swarm of birds would darken the already ominous sky a moment before the shaking started.

I watched the birds. In unison, they flew up from the trees and formed a big black cloud. The aftershock hit.

April 25, Saturday, 11:56 a.m. I remember when the earth started shaking. At first, it was a low rumble, like there was a very large plane flying low and close to the ground. But as I looked out the window I saw the buildings outside swaying like grass in the wind. Then, the earth erupted. Think of how it feels to be on a boat, rolling in the waves. I was on a boat about to capsize. That’s what it felt like.

All my earthquake training – drop! cover! and hold! – was erased from my mind as I watched people stampede from the restaurant. I was stupefied and I certainly did not drop, cover and hold, but merely went to the wall away from people, pots and chandeliers. You never know how you’ll react in a situation like this. You can prepare, you can know exactly what to do; yet, when you’re thrust headfirst into the moment of truth you have no idea how you’ll react.

The funny thing is, my office had an earthquake drill five days before the real one. Of course, everybody treats it as a fire drill and never thinks it will happen any time soon. I was aware that Nepal was expecting the "big one", and it was always at the back of my mind, but I never thought it would happen while I was there for my six-month placement. But that’s the scary thing; you never know when it’s going to happen. Even now when I am no longer in Nepal, it still feels like the earth is shaking. I know it’s not shaking; however, after having experiencing aftershocks for days on end it’s difficult to adjust to solid, unmoving ground.

It has taken me a while to write down my experiences following the earthquake, mostly because I am at a loss for words and I know that people are still living this nightmare. I am fortunate because I was safe with food, water and shelter. My friends are all safe and my colleagues are all accounted for. For five nights following the earthquake I slept on the ground, being replenished (on the first three days at least) by chips and cookies. But I feel incredibly fortunate because I saw how kind the human heart is. I saw how people come together in a time of crisis and show untainted and unselfish altruistic kindness for another human. I met countless new friends, and there’s no doubt that the people I camped with in the UNICEF building will be my best friends for life. There’s an unspoken bond that is unbreakable when you go through something like this.

I want people to know about Nepal before the earthquake. It seems as though it was a country often overlooked, wedged between China and India, and only talked about in terms of Everest. The international response after the earthquake has been overwhelming, and I talked to one Nepali friend who was humbled and touched by the world coming to help his small, landlocked country.

Everything about Nepal is colourful. The temples. The stupas. The people. Bordered by red cloth, you would see the temples pointed to the sky in the cultural hubs of Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur Durbar squares. They were places of worship, places where tourists would spend the day milling around and eating on rooftop terraces. They were places where you would see holy men beside young artists sketching the beauty of urban life. I’m using past tense, but these things can be rebuilt and restored.

It is the human loss that is truly devastating.

The people of Nepal are the most amazing and compassionate people I have ever met. After the earthquake, my Nepali friends and colleagues were genuinely concerned about my wellbeing while they were also going through the same tragedy.

I had one of my colleagues give me the money in his pocket because I was running out and the ATMs weren’t working. Another friend of mine promised to drive me to the airport when I was worried about a fuel shortage. I have so many stories like this.

Five days after the earthquake, I took a walk with a couple of my friends. We saw how life was beginning to return to normal as shops were opening and people were riding their motorcycles down recently empty roads. I was only in Nepal for four short months, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to see such a tragedy occur to your own country, the place where you grew up. Still, there were smiles -smiles that lit up my bleak world on the dark days following the earthquake. It made everything colourful again.

When I talk about my experiences following the earthquake, I don’t want to remember the fear I felt, or that constant lump in my throat. I want to remember the beauty of Nepal and its people. I know that one day I’ll be back.

On May 12 I heard of another 7.3 earthquake that hit Nepal. This news is absolutely devastating. Keep all the brave people in Nepal in your thoughts and prayers. I will never forget my brave friends who stayed to help with the relief effort, and the millions of Nepalis who are rebuilding their lives while helping others. They are the special ones – their stories are the ones you should hear.

So as the media moves on, please hold a special spot in your heart for Nepal. It is truly a spectacular place.

Anna Kosa lives in the Cowichan Valley. She returned from Nepal recently where she was working at the United Nations Development Programme in Kathmandu. She had been there since January, and was there when the first devastating earthquake hit on April 25.