I never imagined that my travelling life would include a Nepal earthquake. Nepal was on my travel bucket list for ten years. My dream was to hike to Everest base camp. But life always seemed to get too busy. Until one day a work colleague sent me a travel subscription email. It advertised a 3 week spiritual pilgrimage tour in Nepal.
I pondered about this tour for three months. It was something different. I liked the fact that I simply wasn’t going to be a ‘tourist’ but it would involve about growing and expanding my mind. As I couldn’t get the tour out of my head, I went ahead and booked for April 2015. And wow, I certainly did receive spiritual and personal growth in ways I never thought!
Start of tour
The tour started with a ten day program at Kopan Monastery. By this time, I had been meditating for about five years but didn’t really know anything about Buddhism. Ani Karen, our guiding nun, was absolutely brilliant in running the course. I so enjoyed the three Buddhism teachings and three meditations a day. It felt like we were sitting in a psychology class. It was fantastic to learn what the mind does and how we can work with it to reach the ultimate goal of ‘no suffering’. For people who want an introduction to Buddhism or a better way of thinking, I highly recommend Kopan’s introductory course.
The tour continued to Chitwan National Park and Pokara. Here we had the opportunity to bond with nature, animals and people. Then when the tour finished, I had six days to spare. It was not enough time to climb to Mount Everest and back. So after much deliberation I decided to book into a yoga retreat to learn more about yoga. Little did I know that it was going to be the safest place for a Nepal earthquake!
Start of Earthquake shaking
The Yoga retreat is 4km from downtown Kathmandu. We were half way up a mountain overlooking the city. The district (suburb) was sitting below us. And the retreat had wide open spaces with no tall buildings around us.
April 25th, 11.56am. I was standing in the middle of the garden area when the quake began. It started with a gentle rumble. My body recognised the tremor shake and immediately thought it was a blast going off! This is because I work on a mine site. So it felt exactly the same as when our buildings and ground shake when a blast goes off in the mining area. But then I realised that I didn’t hear an explosion.
So I thought what else would make the ground rumble like that and my focus turned to a landslide. I looked at the mountain behind me but I couldn’t see any trees or dirt moving. Then I turned towards the retreat buildings and saw the staff running out from the kitchen. They were swaying as they were running. It was then I realised it was an earthquake. ‘Hello Lisa, you are on a fault line’, I said to myself.
Initially I thought it would be similar to the tremors that I’ve experienced in Perth, Chile and Japan. It usually would be over in 10-15 seconds. Big lesson 1 – never assume! The ground below my feet kept shaking and continued getting stronger and stronger. It got to the point that we could no longer stand and we dropped to the ground. It lasted about 2 minutes but it felt like eternity. I remember thinking is this ever going to stop. Later we found out it was 7.8 magnitude.
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The short reprieves
Eventually the shaking did stop. But we didn’t dare move. Because for 20 minutes afterwards, we received a series of short, sharp jolts that felt like the whole planet moved left and then right. I can only describe the shaking in one word – violent.
When we finally got some reprieve we all moved to the upper garden area. A Dutch guest and I quickly ran into the yoga room to grab some mats and blankets before the next aftershock. I walked to the centre of the garden and drew an imaginary circle in the ground. I told everyone that this is our safe zone. And that’s where we sat for the next three days of aftershocks, feeling safe in our self-created safe zone. Even when we got the second earthquake the following day, we all naturally ran to our imaginary safe zone to ride it out.
We had no internet access. No phone access, not even the landlines. I was unable to let anyone know that I was safe. Then it dawned on me that the outside world probably knows more about the severity of the disaster than we did and we were inside the country.
But then we found that there is one technology that’s always reliable in this high-tech modern world. It was the trusty wireless radio. Lesson 2 – don’t forget old technology is still useful. It kept us informed of developments 24/7. That’s how we learnt about the enormity of this natural disaster.
At 9pm we decided to go to bed and everyone started to head to their tents. But something inside me told everyone to wait up and started giving out instructions. I told them to collect our mats and blankets and place them under the gazebo in case it rained overnight. Then I asked the chef to bring out the lantern and he added spare batteries and a five litre bottle of water. I told everyone that should there be another earthquake during the night, to all get out of our tents and meet here at the gazebo where our supplies are. They all agreed.
Three months after the event it dawned on me what I created here. I naturally organised a Muster point, as we do in mining during emergencies. With a little giggle to myself, I realised that I have mining rules and procedures permanently implanted in my brain!
The following days
It didn’t stop with just one earthquake. For the first day we had an aftershock about every hour. On the second day we had an aftershock approximately every 2 hours. Plus the second major earthquake. By the third day the aftershocks spaced out to about every 5 hours. With each aftershock your body froze, wondering if this is going to be another earthquake.
We did manage the courage to leave our 'safe zone' and go out in the community to help in any way we could.
I eventually flew out three days later thankfully. However, that did not stop the guilt I felt for leaving behind the Nepalese who had a huge road to recovery.
I got in touch with my seven tour friends after the quake. We had all gone our separate ways after finishing the three week tour. Therefore we each experienced the earthquake differently across the country. One girl was hiking in Langtang Valley, the valley alongside Mt Everest. Three others were cliff climbing at the time, 10km from the epi-centre. And one guy had just finished walking around Durbar Square (the old square) in Kathmandu. He was taking photos of the centuries old buildings and temples. The earthquake struck as he was walking out of the square. He turned around and watched all the buildings become rubble within seconds. Happy to report that we all survived and injury free.
We asked ourselves was there a lesson to learn from this experience. We all came up with the same word – Impermanence. At Kopan Monastery, Ani Karen talked a lot about impermanence. So we felt the Nepal earthquake simply cemented this concept into our minds. Lesson 3 - nothing stays permanent. People, places, objects, buildings, lives – none of it is permanent. Everything continually changes, as much as we don’t want them to. For me personally, it reinforced that my life can cease at any time, so I should live life to the fullest always.
Final reflection on Nepal earthquake lessons
During the earthquake I did not think about family, friends, work, my house, my businesses, my smartphone, my passport, my clothes etc. They were just 'things' that I was no longer attached to. Made me realise that I don't really need 'stuff'.
And then there was the noise that was coming out from the ground. There is no word to describe that noise but it felt like anger. I remember my thoughts changed suddenly. I started thinking that the earth was going to open up and swallow us all. So all I was thinking was survival.
So what can you take from this story? My only hope is for people to start to value the time they’ve been given to spend on this planet and make the best of it. That’s been my plan ever since.