Have you ever felt that your life may end on your birthday?
Has the ground ever shaken you like jelly on a plate?
Have you ever felt so scared that the thought jelly & plates made you hungry?
Now that’s two brains in need of examination (I get dibs on the first)
Until the 25th of April 2015, I was genuinely under the impression that I had experienced all of life’s ironies. But nearly dying on my birthday wins the contest. Hands down.
Now let me tell you, as an average city dwelling twenty something girl, my birthdays have, typically been – quirky, interesting and sometimes just weird.
I’ve done adventure sports, deeds of charity, some fairly irresponsible acts of that aren’t fit for public disclosure, and then there was the time a friend made me carry 21 bananas the entire evening (it was my 21st birthday gift). Mumbai still hasn’t forgotten that night.
But this year, I added a rather unusual & unforgettable adjective to my birthday : Scary
So here’s what was to happen – It was supposed to be a relaxing & lazy birthday weekend, brought in with the best friend, amazing food, tipples of unspeakable intoxication, some sightseeing and then spa to cure our city feet.
All amidst a healing (read hangover friendly) mountain setting called Kathmandu. (Well, technically a valley, but you get my literary drift)
Predictably the hero of that weekend should have been the chopper ride to the Everest Base camp with a champagne breakfast to ring in the big day. And the villain would have guised itself as the hangover(s) to remind me that I am actually aging.
Cause what’s a birthday without the soul crushing realization that while your mental age is the same as your shoe size, your body’s age is actually 2x the size of your pants.
One day before the fateful Earthquake, at Bodhnath Stupa, Kathmandu
But instead, there I was, in the middle of the most devastating earthquake of 2015. And it rocked my birthday, in a way I’ll never forget. Pun Intended.
Little did I know that what felt like one giant earthquake, would spawn wreckage and heartbreak to an entire nation. The stats are staggering – almost 5.6 million people affected, more than 300 aftershocks (as on Jun 7) and countless damage to life and property.
I lived three days of this and took ten to recover. I don’t know if those who live there will ever recover.
As a traveler, I’ve realized that the unexpected can happen anytime. And it can happen to you too. Trust me, it’s the scariest when you’re far from home.
What can you do in such situations? You can’t nature proof your travels, but there are a few things that can help you tide over. I am going to walk you through my experience and hopefully, you’ll be a little better equipped. Or in the least, you’ll know what NOT to do.
Find your Local Hero
Imagine absolute pandemonium. Panic stricken people, sounds of sirens, throngs of crowds running helter-skelter. Sights you’ve only ever seen in a 3D film. Complete confusion.
One of the many sights of damage after the earthquake
Just minutes after the first earthquake, thousands of panic stricken people take to the streets. Seen here, is the local police trying to make way for ambulance movement
The first earthquake strikes just shy of noon, lasting almost a minute. And just when you think the worst is over, the ground beneath you starts shaking again and again. And then it dawns on you : You’re stuck, in a foreign land. This is you living (a version of) Nat Geo’s series Banged Up Abroad.
And just when all seems lost, a caped crusader emerges from the rubble, in his gorgeous spandex suit, wash board abs and a just rescued puppy. He heads straight towards you, holds you tight and tells you – it’s going to be alright.
Seriously, that happened.
Only in my case, it was a god sent person with a calm persona, a kitchen full of hot food and a lovely family. He was our contact in Kathmandu. And to this day, I thank my stars that we had someone so magnanimous, at a time so fragile. Of course, it helped that we both love scotch.
He immediately arranged for us to be escorted to a safe location and helped contact our homes. Over the course of the next three days he spared no effort to ensure we were comfortable, well-fed and sufficiently entertained (hey, it was a holiday) This included dealing with my fairly distraught mother, taking us to his home, to save us from spending the night at a parking lot (a big tremor was rumoured to strike and all the hotel guests were asked to evacuate) and of course, ensuring there was always beer at hand (there was scope for only one disaster that trip, and sobriety couldn’t be it)
Birthday Breakfast of the only food available at a café, with our guide who was organized by our Kathmandu friend
So if I could give you one and only one piece of travel advise it is this: You must, must find yourself atleast one local contact at your destination. I know this goes against the grain of every impulsive traveler (such as the one writing this) but I cannot stress enough on how important this is. At the cost of sounding like Will Smith from an apocalyptic film, anything, literally anything can happen. You need to know someone to help you out of a pickle.
And if that someone drinks you’re brand of scotch, consider yourself god’s special person.
Run or Stay? The ground is shaking and the clock is ticking
The first instinct in an emergency is to run far away. But that’s not necessarily the smartest idea in an earthquake situation. Unless of course you’re Batman.
This was the toughest call I’ve made in my entire adult life (I think marriage will be a close second). Should I stay or should I run? (Also applicable to the last bracketed situation).
And you’ll have a split second to decide.
In my case, I was faced with this quandary several times. The first time, I was in a moving vehicle. The next few times was inside our 5th floor suite (disclaimer: No amount of Margaritas can mask tremors, I checked) and then there was a really scary one in the middle of a tiny gulley surrounded by buildings, where I saw the road crack.
So, what’s the right answer? Let’s refer back to high school geography that was supposed to ‘prepare us’. There is a good chance you were sleeping through this class or playing F.L.A.M.E.S on the back of your notebook. Or in my case, dreaming about lunch. So let’s go over this again.
The rules are simple: If you’re on the ground floor, run out to your nearest exit and get away from buildings. If you’re in a fancy-shmancy building say 20 floors up, you have a better chance of survival under a desk or heavy furniture. Cause let’s face it, Usain Bolt won’t be able to run downstairs that fast.
However, if you’re in a moving vehicle, I’d suggest pulling over and staying inside – you’re more likely to miss falling debris.
But no matter what you do, please don’t be tweeting #omgearthquake with a picture of yourself, before you’ve found a safe spot. I will find you and thwack you.
Are you running? Don’t forget the essentials
I still remember my first big earthquake experience. It was a cold Republic Day in the year 2001 when a massive quake destroyed the city of Bhuj in Gujarat. We were in Delhi at that time (I was in high school) when we felt the early morning tremors.
I vividly remember my mother throwing us out of bed and pulling out spare socks and jackets from the cupboard. She caught hold of my brother, dog, me and the car keys and then proceeded to pick up her handbag and all the extra clothes, making us run down the stairs like a drill Sergeant.
I never took heed to her actions until I found myself in a similar situation, 14 years later. Her logic was simple: In an earthquake, there is a high chance of damage to you & your home. In such a case you must have everything you need to survive till you’re rescued. This means being prepared for the weather (hence the extra socks & jackets) basic injuries, hunger, thirst and most importantly – identification. Her handbag, it seems was prepared for the worst.
I can proudly say that I remembered her advice and more importantly followed it to the boot (she’s going to make me cookies when she reads this. Score!)
After the first tremor I packed us a ready-to-run handbag that could have helped us survive atleast 2 days. Here’s what was in my giant tote bag:
– Cash and Cards
– Passports & other identification
– Jackets and shawls (incase we needed to sit on the floor/mud)
– Clean socks & underwear
– Phone Chargers
– Our most expensive/precious valuable (For me, it was my DSLR)
– Soap, cream and hand sanitizer
– Bandaids, a basic medicine kit & a utility knife
– A packet of chips, cookies, ORS and a small water
– Vodka & Coke masquerading as a coke bottle
Thankfully, we didn’t make use of anything. Not even the Vodka.
So I strongly recommend that if you’re running, take the essentials along. Even better, create an emergency bag and run out with it.
However, the smartest lesson am taking home is this: It’s not a bad idea to run out with your drink (assuming it’s with your other emergency things) Trust me, you’ll be needing it and so will the fellow earthquake survivors. Plus its a great conversation starter. Think of it as public service.
Running out in the middle of lunch, with the my drink, at a recent earthquake in Delhi
Now that we’ve covered the essentials, it’s time to talk about the important stuff – the mind stuff.
Click here to read about how earthquakes are often like cocktails, helping out in what seems like a post-apocalyptic world, and more importantly subverting the constant thought of death.
(All Images by Ishita Thakur)