Evacuation: Life on the ground and taking a relief flight from Kathmandu to London.
It’s been nearly a month since I was evacuated on a relief flight back to the UK by the British Foreign Office after the earthquake in Nepal. Flying home I was a little unsure whether I had made the right decision, thinking I was fine to continue on travelling. But it’s only now that I acknowledge that I was probably more stressed during that first week than I realised. I needed to see my family and friends – and they needed to see me – so ultimately I’m glad I came home. I’m now mentally and physically back on track and about to set off again, this time to Morocco and the surrounding area. Travelling of course is a privilege, and I am grateful that I am in a position to just board a plane and go where I want when so many people in developing countries can’t. Particularly those in Nepal who are trying to rebuild. I have gathered some money for the relief fund in Nepal, and want to say thank you to friends who have also donated cash for me to pass on. Being in the earthquake has changed my outlook on a few things in life and made me appreciate the smaller things which we sometimes take for granted.
It feels like a very cliched thing to say but an experience such as this really makes you realise just how quickly things can change in life. One moment people are going about their days happy and content, the next moment their world is shattered. This is life I guess. Thousands of people are born and die every day. Disasters happen – and I for one am guilty in the past of not fully realising the struggles people face after such adversity. 24 hours before the earthquake I was wandering about the back streets of Thamel and Durbar Square. 24 hours later, everything had changed.
Thank You to The Dwarika’s Hotel
The day before the earthquake I left the busy centre of Thamel and travelled a few miles up the road to review The Dwarika’s Hotel in the Battisputali area of Kathmandu. I have no doubt this change of location increased my chances considerably of not being seriously injured in the earthquake. The streets up this way are much wider, and I was able to crouch down on the open ground when the earthquake happened, not having to worry about escaping from tiny alleyways. As soon as the main tremor finished I ran back into the hotel to find the staff and other guests in a state of shock. The earthquake had actually caused a small tsunami in the swimming pool which completely obliterated one side of the building. However, unlike so many other buildings in Kathmkandu, this one was earthquake proof. Over the next few days the Dwarika’s would be my refuge.
Dwarika’s is a five-star hotel, and so when the earthquake hit the staff were on autopilot: maintaining their professionalism, making sure guests were comfortable and even apologising for the inconvenience. They put out bottled water and fruit and told everyone to gather in the courtyard in the back. After about thirty minutes news started filtering in about the severity of the situation and the increasing death toll, and some people started having panic attacks. The strong aftershocks that came at this time were probably the most scary part of the whole event, as no one really knew what was coming. As the hours passed the hotel staff outdid themselves. Sangita, the manager, allowed me to use her mobile phone to call my parents in Northern Ireland. She allowed everyone to use her phone. She kept calm and directed her staff who were completely and utterly spooked, worrying about their own families. For the next 48 hours Sangita and her mother would not sleep, watching over everyone. If there is some sort of award for humanitarian services, she deserves it.
I would be a guest at the Dwarika’s for the next four days, sleeping outside in the courtyard and sheltering from the thunderstorms. The aftershocks would jolt us all awake, and on the third day news circulated around the city that a magnitude 8 quake was about to hit. I have no idea where this rumour started, but because all the aftershocks had been accurately predicted, people were on edge. We had no electricity or wifi, but a generator was set up to give us some light, and twice a day the staff would cook rice and vegetable dahl. I grew close to the staff and other guests who were in the same situation as me.
Kathmandu is either your entry or exit point to Nepal, so many people had flights already booked to leave the country. As the days went by friends who I had met would leave the hotel, going to the airport six hours early to queue and hopefully make their flight. I had no flight booked, nor was there any wifi to buy one so I was in limbo unable to leave. Each night the sound of planes taking off and landing from the airport nearby made me happy because my friends were able to leave and I hoped they were safe. It also meant that planes were also landing with aid and supplies. For the rest of my life I think I will always equate the sound of airplanes overhead with safety and security.
The courtyard was an interesting experience despite the horrible circumstances. Living in such close surroundings with so many people for an extended period of time is interesting from a psychological point of view. A situation like this really does bring out the best in people. Everybody shares. Everybody is more finely attuned to the needs and emotional states of others. Saying that, there were often petty squabbles. “That’s the spot on the ground where I sleep.” That kind of thing. Everyone had their own story to tell. One guy was in Kathmandu on business and had decided to stay on in the city one extra day to sightsee while his coworkers went home. Then the earthquake hit. Another pair of Portuguese guys had left their passports with a travel agent in Thamel and had to go down and try and kick the door in to get them back. Others had just arrived in Nepal and were waiting for their baggage at the carousel in the airport when the tremors started. They had to run out leaving all their stuff behind. Like I said, everyone had a story to tell.
Getting on a relief flight
Communications and electric went down immediately after the earthquake and so it was a few days before I could get online, albeit briefly for five minutes. I messaged the British Foreign Office letting them know I was in Kathmandu and what I should do – trying to find out more about seriousness of the situation and if they had any plans to evacuate British citizens. At this point food and water was running low, and villages needed it. British Nationals were being told to leave the country, and the travel advisory for Nepal still reads as follows on the Foreign Office website:
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to Nepal. There is a continued risk of aftershocks and an increased risk of further landslides and avalanches in the mountains, including in all trekking areas. Follow any advice provided by the local authorities. If you can leave Nepal safely then you should do so.”
(Aid workers are needed, but if you go make sure you go with a registered agency who are bringing all their own supplies including food and water.) The aftershocks were continuing, as well as unfounded reports about the airport’s only runway being damaged. No one seemed to know anything. Over the next few days basically everyone who I had met at the Dwarika’s left on chartered flights and I was still hanging around. At that point I realised I had to try and get out. I went out for a walk in the area with my friends Lucy and Jesse and when I came back this email was waiting for me:
The email was sent three hours previous yet it was telling me to get to the airport within the hour. Sod it: at this point I had nothing to lose so I grabbed my stuff and jumped in a taxi anyway. The driver sped through the city and I arrived at Kathmandu airport only to find the British desk empty. They told me the flight had left. Not wanting to give up, I told the guy to get on his walkie-talkie and after a few moments his speech was speeding up and he was calling his assistant over. “It’s your lucky day,” he told me. An official arrived and together we ran through the airport down back corridors, bypassing everything. I could see fights breaking out between airport officials and passengers in the distance, obviously over flights that hadn’t taken off. I was given a departure stamp and a boarding pass and led across the runway on to the plane. I was the last one on and the doors closed behind me. The captain met me at the top of the stairs and said “Cutting it a bit fine, Justin?” The whole situation was surreal – the time from arriving at the airport to being on the plane was ten minutes. The rest of the people on the flight had been sitting there for hours: not waiting for me, just on permission to take off. Strangely (and sadly) the plane was only half full. Surely citizens of other countries should have been allowed to board? I guess red tape prevailed.
The plane took off and there was a strange moment when everybody clapped as the wheels left the ground. There were families on board the plane, some with very young children who had been sleeping outside. Despite their hardship, I felt guilty we were all leaving the country when so many Nepalese didn’t have the option. (I found out a few days later that the last British citizens in the country were almost forced on to military flights to India.) In all, I had been in Nepal only a week: the earthquake struck two days after I arrived. I saw the Himalayas for the first time from the aircraft. I would not see them up close on this trip anyway. We refuelled in Dubai and then continued onwards to Stansted in London.
The camera crews were waiting for us at the airport and we weren’t allowed to leave until the media had had their fill. I did a short interview for BBC Breakfast then tried to work out how I was getting back to Ireland. Most people were just living in London, but me and another guy – Matty from Scotland – still had to get home. A woman from the Red Cross pulled out her credit card and bought us flights. Legend. Before I knew it I was sitting on a Ryanair flight to Dublin and then on the bus to Belfast.
On the final leg of my trip – the train from Belfast to my hometown of Bangor – I was sitting there looking dishevelled and unwashed when a businessman looked at me and chuckled. “Rough night, mate?” he said to me thinking I had been out on the piss and was hungover.
“Aye, mate. Something like that.”
Here’s an interview I did with BBC Radio