1 hour after the earthquake that shook Nepal…
I’m sitting in a field in a country I’ve been in for two days surrounded by people whose language I don’t speak.
They offer me cookies and water and tell me to sit down because, if the ground starts shaking again, I could fall over and break my legs. People laugh and chatter and it’s like a party even though an earthquake just rocked their world an hour ago. The ground keeps rumbling beneath us every few minutes.
An old man with two teeth looks at me and says, “You didn’t know about this, huh? What do you think? Now you’ve experienced an earthquake! It’s terrible! Hahahahaha! It’s terrible! Hahahahahaha!”
His laughter in contrast with his words makes me laugh, too. It’s so absurd.
An hour before, on the third floor of a house, everything is shaking and vibrating like Mother Earth is having an epic orgasm. I look around wondering how bad it is because I have no point of reference. I grew up with ice storms and microbursts.
No earthquakes. Never earthquakes.
I wonder if the walls are going to collapse. If I’ll be buried in rubble. If other people are dying in places where structures aren’t so solid. When will it be over? It seems to last forever.
It’s weird and surreal to watch the earth move. The one thing in this world that seems so solid. It’s not, though. It’s changing and moving just like everything else. A silly thing to say because, well, duh. Science. Yet I realize now that in my mind, before today, I thought this should take lifetimes. Certianly not 120 seconds (or however long it lasted — I wasn’t checking the clock).
Everyone in the neighborhood gathers outside where it’s safest. The four foot tall concrete wall running through the middle of the field is collapsed. Apparently there is never just one quake — the aftershocks go all day long.
The birds are lucky. When the trees shake, they take flight into the safety of the wind.
Later I will learn I am lucky. I was planning to stay in the neighborhood of Bhaktipur where everything is destroyed and the body count is high.
For now I wait and I get bored and think about whether I should tell my family because it’s just going to scare them. Someone tells me there are already 21 people found dead down the street. This is obviously going to be international news.
The man with the easy smile and happy eyes who has been cooking meals for me the last two days tells me his brother’s house, in a village outside of Kathmandu, is destroyed. The family is okay so all is well. The house can be rebuilt. He makes sure everyone stays hydrated while smiling and joking and chatting.
I wonder if I will decide to post these words on my stupid, inconsequential blog. Is it taking advantage of others’ misfortune to write about something like this? I think it might be okay as long as my intentions are right.
Approximately 60 hours later…
It’s 4am on day 3 after what I now know was an earthquake of 7.9 magnitude. I’ve got a flight booked in two days to Bangkok via Abu Dhabi (which may mean absolutely nothing since the airport is a mess).
I woke up an hour ago in a tent in the same field I sat in a few days ago (the one in the photo above).
On my right is my best friend who just flew across the world from Portland to join me for Himalayan adventures. On my left, a local girl who works in the house I’m staying in and speaks no English.
The girl to my right will be, if all goes according to plan, sipping cocktails on a beach in a few days. The girl to my left will remain here in Kathmandu.
Is it that white privilege leads to white guilt? Or just my own stupid cowardice? I used a piece of plastic to throw money at a situation my family and friends want me out of.
I wonder if my best friend hadn’t just traveled for two days to join me (arriving 12 hours after the initial quake — one of the two flights that were not delayed that night), if I would have the cojones to stay and do what I can to help.
I like to think that I would, but I don’t know. I’m not a rescue worker. I don’t even have first aid training. The thought of a stack of dead bodies or, worse, undead ones on their way out, makes my stomach turn over.
And then the earth trembles again and it scares me and I want out of here now. The aftershocks are incessant. Mother Earth is pissed off.
Long ago I realized there is no way I have what it takes to be a photographer who goes to dangerous places. I prefer beauty. There is no beauty in war, famine, and suffering.
Yet here I am in a city that was just hit with the biggest earthquake it’s seen in 80 years and I am torn. It could be so easy. Grab my camera and take a taxi to the most affected area of the city. Point, snap, publish. But you’ve already seen those photos (though I haven’t). Of course there was an AP photographer at the scene immediately.
By the time I got a wifi connection again, you all already knew more than me about what I just went through. This makes me incredibly angry. The media are profiting over these people’s awful misfortune. Natural disasters make for great ratings. But I’m also mad at myself. It has crossed my mind more than once that perhaps I can sell a story or a photo and make a few dollars for my travels.
But fuck that.
And fuck you, Fox News. Fuck you, CNN and ABC and BBC and all the rest of you parasitic dickheads. Fuck all of you for pointing a camera on a dead body who is someone’s sister, mother, daughter, brother, cousin, friend.
For telling my family that these people who have shown nothing but kindness to me are going to rape and pillage me when the water runs out. Maybe they will, but fuck you for even thinking it.
Fuck you for not giving these people some credit. You don’t know them. All you care about is a body count. And the higher the number, the more people who will be watching your stupid sensationalist bullshit.
You are making the world a worse place by far. You instill fear to get ahead.
Over the last 48 hours, the local people stop to ask me how I’m doing, if I’m okay. Their kindness makes me cry because you all think the world is so scary and out to get me when all I see in these people is compassion.
The people who run this house (the man with the happy eyes and his niece, the girl on my left) have been working so hard the last few days. If I weren’t here, they’d have so much less to do.
Guests are god in this part of the world and they won’t let me help them with anything. They are taking care of me as if nothing has happened. They turn on Bollywood music and we dance around the kitchen. They bring me tea and ask if I’m hungry.
When I tell them I have a flight booked to Thailand, they are sad that we are leaving.
Their generosity kills me.
One of my new friends from Kathmandu came by the house on his way from volunteering at a hospital to give some advice on safe trekking at the moment.
He hadn’t eaten anything more than cookies all day. He took us to the Boudhanath stupa so we could get out and see something of the city. He sat and drank beer with us while he worked out how he could go help people in the smaller villages at the epicenter of the quake.
The natural humanitarianism of the people here is bewildering. So I sit here in this big, beautiful house and wonder why I don’t DO something.
Why don’t I go volunteer at a hospital? Why don’t I ask my new local friends how I can help? Why can’t I be more like them?
The best answer I can come up with is that I care about my family and I don’t want them to worry more than necessary. They believe what they see on the news. Why wouldn’t they? They aren’t here. They don’t see what I see.
So I will sit and wait.
For a goddamn plane to take me out of this beautiful country that I will hopefully revisit when things get better.
I’m running away even though I don’t really want to. I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for my family who is frantic with worry. Their concern is ultimately more important than my belief — possibly misguided — that there is something I can do.
About 6 hours later…
Daylight brings clarity. I’m not quite so angry like I was in the early hours of the morning.
My dear friend who is with me talked me off of the proverbial ledge.
I realize not every journalist on this planet is out to take advantage of people when they are going through the toughest of times. Some of them truly want to inform the world of what is happening.
Photographers like James Nachtwey are a brave and respectable breed of human. Perhaps I’ll have that kind of courage in another lifetime.
Yet I did receive a Facebook message from a reporter in my hometown this morning asking if I could give them a call to talk about my experience of the earthquake.
No offer to pay for the international call. But even more notable, no regard to the fact that phone lines are to be used for emergencies only.
I told her to send me an email.
A different reporter sent an email, first mentioning he had knocked on my father’s door interrupting his dinner to ask about me.
He then listed these questions:
“What’s it like in Nepal now that the quake is over?”
“What was it like when the earthquake hit? Did you immediately know what was happening or were you just shocked? How afraid were you?”
“Do you think you’ll be able to get on that flight to Thailand in a couple days?”
Also, if it would be okay for them to use my Facebook photos.
I’m actually shaking my head and chuckling to myself at this point.
Let’s see. I think I answered the first and second questions to the best of my ability.
As for getting on that flight to Thailand? Maybe you guys can give the airport a call for me and find out.
I’ve been scouring the web for info about flight stats all morning. All I find are headlines like “Nepal Earthquake Strands Americans at Airport, US Embassy” care of ABC news.
As for the photos posted here? They were all taken after the earthquake. The city is still beautiful, but it doesn’t do justice to the amazing people.
If you’d like to donate something to the relief fund, head on over to #WeHelpNepal.