I was safely enclosed in the jungle a few months ago, absolutely unaware of what was happening around the world. After I got out and got back into civilization and connectivity, news trickled in about what happened back near the homeland, in Nepal. This is a recount of the events, as it unfolded for my friends who were present there. A big thank you to Handoo for letting me share this. Also, you’re a great guy.
None of the characters appearing in this story are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely intentional.
As a kid growing up, my mother used to tell me a phrase in Hindi, which meant, ‘You never know in what form you will meet God. So always be ready for Him.” I might not be religious, but I would call myself spiritual. I believe in a force of nature, universe, and alchemy, and not necessarily idols and thousands of Gods of Hinduism or any other religion. In the last decade, where I believe most of my individualistic approach to life has developed, I have tried to be kind to most of the people I meet. I believe in loving life, because if you love it, it loves you back. For me, the greatest religion is humanity and being nice and kind to everyone. I firmly believe that if we seek with the right energy, we all get what we want in life. Universe is a science; it always gives you signs and what you look for. Like Rumi said, “Everything in the universe is within you. Ask all from yourself.” This is a story that will make you believe in God.
The reason I say this is because I experienced all of this during just one holiday of my life. I married my soulmate, Arti, in December of 2014. Normally, couples would go for their honeymoon just after the wedding, but ours was a different affair. We wanted to wait for the right place and the right time to go. Arti and I met on the internet and were a riot together on our first date. We took off like an F-16. The first time I met her and her two sisters, I knew I had found my tribe. I knew she was the one from the first time I spoke with her. After only five months, I was already engaged to her! And after just 11 months, I was married to her on the most beautiful and happiest day of my life! Like they say, when you meet the right person, it just fits the bill in every way. Actually Arti said that, but I like to believe her.
— Interruption: Here’s the funny thing. I know these two an equally long time, but from different cities. How they met and got married is another story altogether. Here’s the sad thing – I couldn’t be at their wedding. Back to the story now —
We initially decided to travel to Bhutan, considered the happiest country in the world, whenever we could accumulate some leave at work. Like the tech-savvy and self-proclaimed internet freak that I am, I researched everything about travel and things to do in Bhutan for months. A day before I was to book the tickets for our flight, I realized that my passport was expiring in two weeks and could not be renewed in Pune due to some security reasons. This was a letdown, but I immediately felt there was a different plan in the works.
One of the very few countries in the world that does not require a visa, or even a passport for Indians, is Nepal. A few weeks before this day, Arti and I had subtly discussed that it would have been better if we were going to Nepal. We are both big fans of electronic music. Around the same dates as our travel plans, a big electronic music festival called Universal Religion was going to happen in Nepal. The moment my passport seemed in a bit of a turmoil, I called Arti and asked her if she as okay with traveling to Nepal. Within minutes, we were excited about the change in plans. The next week went by booking airline tickets, hotel stays, and festival tickets. Our happiness knew no bounds and I couldn’t just wait for April, 2015.
I made bookings and researched everything that we were to do during our 18 days in Nepal. I called and messaged all of my close friends asking them to join us at the music festival. Some of my favorite artists from across the world were coming together to play my favorite music genre and I just could not wait for it. Arti’s two sisters, Payal and Poorti, even booked tickets and we four were going to the festival together. The idea was to attend the festival together and after that, Arti and I would continue our holiday, while her sisters returned to India.
We arrived in Nepal in the early morning of April 23. While we were landing, we got a glimpse of the beautiful Himalayas. It was one of the most beautiful forms of nature I have ever seen. We felt a little low as well, however, because an hour before our flight, we found out that the festival had been canceled due to permissions issues in Nepal. We were nevertheless going to go, thinking that we would make the most of what lies ahead of us. We landed in Kathmandu, the capital city, and by the time our immigration checks were done, Poorti too had landed from Dubai.
We reached our hotel, Throrong Guest House, which belonged to a friend of my family. The hotel is located in the tourist area of Kathmandu called Thamel. It’s a cultural hub, and the whole area is full of shops, hotels, restaurants, and clubs. The excitement levels were so high that we did not even want to nap for a minute, even after being awake for almost 20 hours! We had a quick breakfast and headed to a placed called Funky Buddha. This is where all the festival attendees and artists were to meet. The festival organizers were working to find an alternate venue and that kept our hopes alive. We stayed there until evening and then late into the night. The moment that the organizers announced that a different venue for the festival had been found, the people who were there went mad! We went back to the hotel late at night. Almost 40 hours had passed without a wink of sleep, but none of us felt tired.
We woke up the morning of April 24 deciding to get our supplies ready for the festival the next day. By that time, there were six of us, with two more friends having joined us. We picked up tents and camping gear from an adventure shop that was owned by an acquaintance in India. We spent the remainder of the day picking up essentials for the festival and walking around Thamel. We met some of our local friends for dinner and a late evening party. By this time, Payal had arrived from India and I could not wait for the morning. Our local friends helped us with a car that would take us to the festival venue, which was about two hours away from Kathmandu. Nepalese people are some of the happiest and kindest people I have ever met.
The fateful day of April 25, 2015 was here. We had our backpacks ready by 11 and were at the breakfast table. We had loaded our bags into our waiting car. Payal and Poorti headed out of the hotel lane to exchange some currency. Arti had been pushing me to wear my jacket since morning. I felt a little chill in the air and decided to wear the jacket, after which Arti asked me to follow the wife’s advice in the future. I smiled and we shared a laugh. And the next second, BOOM!!
I had never been in an earthquake before this, but within three seconds I knew what I was caught in. Arti was shocked to the point that she completely froze! I held her hand and pulled her to run with me to the house next to the hotel. I thought that we should get away from the buildings around us and head to open land.
As we ran to the other side of the bungalow, I saw a massive ripple created in the road. Yes, the road! If you ever tried to clean a carpet, you know how the ripple is created. I saw that happen to the ground where I was standing. As we entered the premises of the bungalow, I saw a massive crack run through the ground and shatter the wall that was between the hotel and the bungalow. It was a scene from the Avengers movie where everything around you is falling and people are screaming. I still have these scenes in front of my eyes. All this and much more happened in less than 30 seconds. When the ground became still, I could see a water tank burst in the hotel. Part of the hotel next to ours come crashing to the ground, and people were screaming. And I hugged Arti. These were the longest and scariest 30 seconds of my life. This quake measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, which is huge!
I got out of the lane to check for Payal and Poorti. They were coming back to check on us. The hotel owner asked us to go to open land that was close by. We took two maids and an elderly Swedish couple along with us. There was chaos everywhere. The beautiful lanes of Thamel were devastated. I had never witnessed a scene like this other than in the movies.
We sought shelter under a heavy metal gazebo near the hotel. We saw hundreds of scared people walking around trying to find a safe spot. We saw several ambulances and choppers in the sky evacuating people in no time after the quake. At this point, we realized that the damage was more extensive than what we thought. Under this gazebo, we were joined by many people. People were praying, some were crying. It was a very horrific scene. After an hour at this place, there was another massive aftershock. This caused a lot of fear and a feeling that the worst might not be behind us.
I am generally a very positive guy. The quakes had left me shaken. Arti and her sisters were trying to make things easy and relaxed, but with two massive back-to-back quakes, it was not easy at all. We decided that we had to get out of Thamel now. It was not safe to be in an area with so many buildings close by.
We held each other’s hands and started walking back to the hotel. We decided to go to Funky Buddha again to get an idea of what our friends would be doing. The roads to the place were devastated. It was getting worse. People were offering water and food supplies, and a sense of panic and paranoia was everywhere. Just when we reached Funky Buddha, we met some of our friends. One of them started crying the moment she saw us. We learned that several buses had already left for the festival area in the morning, and they had not heard whether they were safe or not. While we were talking, another aftershock hit! Believe me, once you are in this situation, even a single inch of movement feels like turbulence. There were rumors that an earthquake measuring 13 on the scale was going to hit at 3:00 pm. It was 10 minutes to 3:00! It was a scene where everyone was so scared and waiting for another quake to happen. People were consoling and hugging each other, trying to make the situation easier.
Our friends, Sahil and Tara, also reached us. Tara had been getting a tattoo at the International Convention in Nepal when the first quake struck. They reached this place three hours later to check on us and get their luggage. We hugged each other as if we had never met before! They persuaded us to leave Thamel with them and head out of this area as there were several parks nearby that were safer. We four decided to walk back to the hotel. Things were getting worse with every aftershock. I saw a lane that had been cordoned off because all the houses had crumbled to the ground.
We picked up our luggage and camping supplies that had been packed for the festival and headed out. It was a lot more relaxed when we got out of Thamel. I could see open sky. There was devastation everywhere, but I could feel that this was safer with no buildings around.
The six of us got together and pitched tents on the lawn of the Social Welfare Council in Kathmandu. We had three tents ready for the night. We distributed some food and toilet paper we had to a few people we met at the park. We spent the night in the tents.
There were aftershocks all through the night. We received a call from the Indian Embassy at 4:00 am saying that our names had been registered for evacuation (Sahil’s parents had sent them an e-mail as instructed on TV). We woke up to another aftershock and decided to pack our belongings and head to the airport. Just as when we reached the airport, Poorti blacked out and fainted. There was a queue of approximately 10,000 people waiting to be evacuated.
When I saw the long line of people, I rested the hope of being evacuated on this day. We got into the queue as it was growing every second. Tara refused to be in this queue, and she went by herself to find an alternate. People were fighting and arguing with each other, and during this time, another quake struck! It was one of the most difficult times of my life. Tara came back and said we had to leave the queue and go somewhere else. She took us to another spot where people were being asked to form another line that would be airlifted. She had obtained the necessary immigration forms as well. There was massive chaos in this area of the airport. Somehow, fighting our way out, rubbing through a thousand people, we almost reached the gate.
The authorities were doing their best to maintain discipline and decorum. But the people wouldn’t listen. I was standing next to a wall and was continuously being pushed by the thousands of people who wanted to get in. The authorities let the women and children in, so the women from our group got in, leaving Sahil and I outside. We were pushed around by the mob. I kept thinking that the wall next to me would collapse at any minute and I would die right here.
Half an hour later, I could see Arti trying to get us in. It was a glass door and I saw Arti crying and begging the authorities to let us in. And then, God miraculously showed up. This time in the form of the Airport Authority who saw Arti fainting. She begged him to let me in. Minutes later, the gentleman came to the door and asked Arti to point at me. He asked me to come ahead to the gate and I was let in!
This was a miracle that I will never forget all my life. I saw Arti and hugged her. Security led us to the front of the queue and in a few minutes, we were inside the Indian Air Force C76 airplane ready to be evacuated.
Our friends were in the line for 40 hours. We luckily made it from the queue at the main gate to the airplane in four hours! This was a sign of God and we were definitely blessed. The flight got us to Delhi and we stayed there for the night.
I still think about the worst that could have happened. For one, I could have died. I met wonderful people, and saw a beautiful place. Nepal is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I feel sad for the over 8,000 people who died in this tragedy. UNESCO heritage sites were reduced to dust, and thousands of people were left homeless. During the past few months, I have realized that one gets a chance to live this life once. If you love it, it loves you back. I was blessed to have escaped such a tragedy unhurt. I try to be kind and gentle to everyone I meet. I love my family and try to be a better human being every day. My friends have jokingly issued travel advisory against traveling with both of us but I feel there was a super power blessing us all throughout. Arti and I have been a part of 2 natural disasters in the last 6 months. There are several ways to look at this coincidence. I like to think that no matter the kind of situation I am in, I will get through it. The only way I did it twice and might do it again is being a good human being. And lastly, I would not have survived these disasters with anyone else but with Arti. I wouldn’t have done any of this and that with anyone other than her.
I will visit Nepal again soon. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about Nepal and its beautiful people. I still think of the people who I did not even meet, the tribe at the festival, the brilliant artistes who I did not listen to. I am sure there will be a day when all of this will be fulfilled. I did not go to Nepal just to come back like this. There was a bigger purpose of all that happened. I pray to God everyday to help me be a person that I intend to be.
If you would like to help Nepal and its people, please visit Nepal soon. It is a beautiful place with amazing people! If you cannot travel, please donate to the Nepal Relief Fund. Get in touch with me – Prabhat.Handoo@sas.com and I will make sure that your donation reaches the right people.