April 25th found us in Pokhara, Nepal on a much anticipated trekking + rafting expedition. We had planned this trip a year in advance to coordinate with the three weeks of vacation Justin had saved up during his final year of medical school. While most of his classmates had used their vacation time to go on residency interviews, Justin had woven his interviews, with some difficulty, in amongst his clinical rotations so that we would have the time to take this trip. And so far it had proved to be a truly extraordinary trip, especially since we'd been able to share it with two awesome friends, Sarah and Charlie. We completed the trekking and rafting portion on April 24th, and said goodbye to Charlie on the morning of the 25th as he boarded a bus back to Kathmandu to catch his flight home. Sarah, Justin, and I had a little more time and so we had decided to hang out in Pokhara for a couple more days before taking a flight back to Kathmandu and then on to India. After bidding farewell to Charlie we decided to go shopping. At 11:56 AM local time we were on the second floor of a shop when we heard that disquieting rattle of windows and objects that comes with the start of an earthquake tremor. I've lived in Papua New Guinea (a country that experiences regular earthquakes) and Justin was on a search and rescue team that responded to the 2010 Haiti quake, so this wasn't our first time around. But this was definitely our first time in an earthquake like this. After a cursory "do we wait it out or run" glance, the answer was clearly run. As we rushed down the stairs and out to the center of the street the tremor grew to a ground heaving, tree swaying intensity. People poured from the surrounding buildings onto the street and the air was punctuated by the sound of breaking glass as items fell from shelves. People were screaming and pointing to a tangle of power lines stretching over the street that appeared to be about to fall on us. When something frightening and beyond your control occurs it always seems to last for an excruciating length of time. I don't know what other people were thinking, but I was looking up at everything swaying wildly above us with the words "Even thought I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil," from the Lord's Prayer running through my head, while definitely feeling very afraid. When the earthquake finally stopped the air was filled with the screeching of birds and the screams of the terrified woman in front of us. Fear soon melted into uncertainty. How long should we wait for aftershocks before going back inside buildings? After about fifteen minutes we decided to head to our hotel room and gather all our important documents and money just incase a second quake or aftershock caused enough damage to prevent us from getting to it. When we entered the lobby an Australian fellow was sitting on a couch with his laptop, trying desperately with no success to connect to the internet to purchase an early ticket home. "I'm getting the hell out of here!" he told us emphatically. "Are you guys going to buy tickets out too?" We told him that we already had tickets out of the country and wished him luck. While we were in our room gathering our documents the first aftershock hit (which we later learned was 6.7 on the richter scale) and we fled back onto the street, Sarah and I barefoot since we'd taken our shoes off out of habit upon entering our room.
This was how the rest of the afternoon and night proceeded. People would finally decide to go back inside only to be startled by another aftershock and have to make a dash for the door. The unease was palpable and with most of the shops and restaurants closed, an eerie quiet fell over the town. Of course that is until another aftershock would send everyone back onto the street. We hung our jackets next to the door with our passports and papers in the pockets so that we could just grab them and run if need be. And then we sat glued to the TV watching the death toll rise as we saw images of the destruction in Kathmandu for the first time, and watched in horror as the first footage of the avalanches at Everest Base Camp was shown. And we talked about Charlie, hoping above hopes that he was safe since we had no idea where his bus was during the quake, and according to the news there had been a lot of landslides on the roads. We went to bed with still no word from him. The eeriest aftershock occurred around 5:00 AM the following morning. Strong enough to rouse us from our sleep, I vaulted over Justin, shouted "wake up" to Sarah and was out the door before I could even process what was happening. Sarah was out of bed in a flash and right behind me as we ran down the stairs. Poor Justin was so sleepy that he was just staggering out the door pulling on a shirt when the after shock stopped. He still reminds me occasionally of how I left him behind in a building that could have collapsed without, apparently, a second though. Anyways, there was no sleeping after that! Later that morning we were incredibly relieved to receive word from Charlie, who amazingly had managed to still leave on his scheduled flight, despite the fact that a strong aftershock occurred while they were taxing, forcing them to sit on the runway for three hours while safety inspections were completed.
According to the news, the first earthquake landed a 7.8 on the richter scale with an epicenter smack dab between us (Pokhara) and the capital city of Kathmandu, which sustained severe damage and loss of lives. Although different sources cite different numbers, it appears that around 9,000 people were killed in the earthquake, mainly from buildings collapsing. Being medical professionals (Sarah is also a nurse) with a passion for relief work we wanted to get to Kathmandu to offer our services. However, the airports in Pokhara and Kathmandu shut down and upon re-opening so many flights were delayed and canceled that it took us a couple days to get out. We already had tickets from Pokhara to Kathmandu for the day after the earthquake, but things were so backed up that when the airport finally re-opened those tickets didn't mean much. Each morning we just went to the airport and sat there all day with hundreds of other people waiting to see if it was going to be our day to catch a flight out.
When we finally arrived in Kathmandu we walked to a bus station and caught a ride to the hospital where Justin had worked for a month as an elective rotation prior to my arrival. It was a sobering ride full of images of collapsed buildings, rubble, and upheavals in the pavement big enough to require us to navigate off road around them. At the hospital we met with the director and one of the physicians to see if there was anything we could assist them with. However, they had enough help by that point, and though we considered waiting for an aid organization to arrive (we had established contact with several), the hospital had no room for us to stay. Every inch was already filled to capacity with locals who were too afraid to return to their homes as no assessment of structural integrity had yet been conducted. Since the hospital was build a fair bit sturdier than most of the homes in the vicinity, people felt much safer staying there. Unsure of another safe place to stay and concerned that we were becoming more of a hindrance than a help, we sadly bid Nepal farewell the next day from a plane bound for India. Having seen the destruction first hand our hearts were truly heavy and we still wish we could have done more than just make post trip donations from our comfy homes. We wish the absolute best for this lovely country and we know we'll be back.