I was in Bhaktapur, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is one of the popular tourist attractions in Nepal. I had brought guests of mine from China to show them around. I have been traveling a lot recently, so I hear the roar of jet engines frequently. That’s exactly what it sounded like in the first few seconds of the earthquake: a roar, and all of the birds flew into the air at once. I thought, “Oh, there must be something flying next to us.” And then everything started to shake, and I knew it wasn’t that.
I didn’t have time to react or panic, because I was focused on making sure that my guests, who were completely dependent on me, were safe. They were awestruck, like “What in the world just happened?”—simply awestruck by the sheer power of nature. All around us, small parts of buildings were falling off, walls were collapsing, roofs were crumbling. There was dust everywhere afterward, like smog. We couldn’t see much.
We waited for a couple of hours, through the aftershocks, and then I drove back to the city and dropped my guests at the hotel. Then I immediately went home, grabbed my bike, a backpack with radios and other essential stuff, and went to Sundhara where a tower had fallen; I have first responder training, so I wanted to help in search and rescue. By the time I got there, they had already brought in big machines, dozers and everything. I looked around and thought that because there were already so many people there—hundreds—I couldn’t make much of a difference. I went to the other side of the tower, and it was the same there: a lot of people had already come. I wanted to find a place where I could be truly useful.
Then I thought of the hospital. I met friends there, and together we formed a help desk where we could assist families, move patients from one section to another, and organize more volunteers. The whole country was in a state of emergency, so not all of the hospital staff, the administrative staff as well as the doctors and nurses, were there. So with the resources we had, we started mobilizing volunteers, helping to fill up the gaps.
By the fourth day after the quake, my friends and I had realized that we needed to send help outside Kathmandu. Before the quake, I had worked with a project called Nyano Sansar, which provides reusable clothes and blankets to thousands of families in southeast Nepal, where people freeze to death every winter. So I had a fair bit of experience working in aid management. I invited all my friends, told them that we were going to send trucks to districts with emergency supplies, and that’s how the relief efforts started. We collected whatever we could, wherever we could find it. Most of the shops and businesses were closed. But we had contacts, networks, and we used all of our resources to find medicine and food, put them in trucks, and send those trucks in all different directions. Every day, it was five, ten, fifteen, twenty dispatches, from morning till night. It was crazy—most of the time we didn’t even know what we were doing.
Now that things have settled down some, we’re about to launch a new project, which is called “Roofs of Hope.” We’re trying to provide shelters, hundreds of tons of steel sheets, to the northern villages, which are not connected by roads and will face the monsoon onslaught soon.
You know, most Nepalis, even before the earthquake, would talk about it quite often. It’s not like we were expecting it to happen, but it was always in the back of our minds. Nothing really seems to change in our country, especially in terms of the political situation. So somehow the thinking was that a disaster like an earthquake—something has to come out of it.
The government is just a projection of its citizens. If the citizens change, the government changes. For a long time the Nepali people have been really habituated to criticize and blame, to get stuck and prevent change. But the younger people who experienced this earthquake—the 15- to 28-year-olds—are ready now to look forward to a life that could be completely changed or enhanced. In the weeks after the earthquake a lot of young people immediately went out to serve the people; it was a flood of acts of compassion. That gives me hope that maybe this earthquake, in the long run, will bring more balance and equanimity to our community. That we will come out of it not only stronger but also wiser. That it will be a wake-up call for us, to learn to coexist, and to value not just the mundane but the important things that are intangible.
–Max Dipesh Khatri, Entrepreneur
I’ve been living in Nepal for 17 years, working for “Where There Be Dragons,” a semester study abroad program for American students. The day the earthquake struck, I was in a trekking office in Thamel trying to get a permit. In Nepal, when the power goes out, there’s a clicking sound when the inverters come on. Right before the quake, there was a clicking sound just like that. A click, and the lights flicked. The guy I was talking to froze, and then he grabbed my hand and we ran outside. I haven’t been back to ask him, so I don’t know what it was that tipped him off. But he sensed it. He knew.
We ran outside together to a small courtyard, where there were eight other people who had fled from neighboring offices. We stood in the middle of the courtyard, watching the four- or five-story buildings all around us, trying to judge which were most likely to collapse. Really, though, the only thing we could do was hope that they all stayed up, because if they came down, we were all probably going to get buried.
When the quake finally stopped, I had an intense surge of emotion. Obviously, it was a terrifying experience. But I had a certain feeling after it that didn’t have to do with fear. As soon as everything settled and I came back to my senses, I just wept. All around us there was such a powerful feeling of loss already. I surprised myself, actually, with such a strong reaction like that.
In the days after the quake, I could not stop thinking about Chaukati, the village about a six-hour drive from Kathmandu that I have visited throughout the years with my program students—I bring them there for service projects and to get a feel for what life is like in rural Nepal. Any time I stopped moving, I felt like crying, imagining the villagers I know with no shelter, out in the rain and sitting in the mud, with no access to provisions or food. Six days after the quake, I managed to drive out there with a truck of supplies. Everybody had heard that we were coming, so the entire village was waiting in the road for us. The village elder, whose house I always stay in when I visit, was the first person I walked up to. I asked him how he was. He responded, “Aramai.” It’s an expression that means to be relaxed—almost like lying down. So he says, “I’m relaxed. Everyone’s relaxed.” And then he says, with a big laugh, “Even all the houses are relaxed.” Look, there was literally not a house that was safe to live in. Most of them were in rubble on the ground. I realized at that moment that they were going to be OK. That he even had a sense of humor during a tragedy like that . . . the Nepalis are such an incredible, resilient people.
I’ll also add that I learned recently [about a month after the first earthquake] that there have been problems with a lot of the food aid that has come in from relief agencies. For a lot of these rural communities, rice isn’t really a food staple; it’s a luxury item. Now that people have been able to get into their homes and find a lot of their food stock, the aid rice is an additional item. So they’re using it to make alcohol. [Laughs.] They are actually taking the food supplies that are coming in and making alcohol out of them! [Laughs.] Which is, I guess, another sign of recovery, a sign that they’re doing OK. People in these rural areas, they’re used to coping with hardship in the past, and they’re continuing to cope now.
–Adrian Smith, Programming Director, Himalayan Crossroads
I flew into Nepal on my birthday, April 23. The earthquake hit two days later. After the shaking stopped, I went to find my teacher, Phakchok Rinpoche. I was sitting nearby with a friend, and Rinpoche saw us and said, “Oh, yeah, you sit down. Just an earthquake. Just relax.” And I looked at my friend and asked him, “Is Rinpoche telling us we’re lazy?” So we both jumped on a jeep heading to the rural area of Yolmo, where Rinpoche was really concerned about the situation.
We never got to Yolmo. All of the roads were blocked by landslides and collapsed houses. The farther we got from Kathmandu, the fewer houses there were still standing, and at a certain point there just weren’t any standing at all. It smelled like death, because so many bodies were stuck in those houses.
Eventually we got up to the camp in Melamchi that the army had set up to fly in severely injured people from the remote areas. There were injured people everywhere: women, children, with open wounds, open skulls, completely swollen faces turned black and blue. There were no doctors, no medicine. There were about 50 people from the army there, but they didn’t have first aid training; they didn’t know what to do. I used to be a flight attendant, so I do have first aid training. With the little I had, I did what I could: I gave painkillers, cleaned wounds, made splints. I treated people by myself that first day. The next day a larger group of volunteers came, and some stayed in the camp with me while others went to surrounding villages, giving the people there medical aid or helping them come down to Melamchi. We worked together, driving back and forth from Kathmandu to get supplies, for eight days, until international care came in. I was so happy when they arrived. I was smiling, hugging them, saying, “You’re here! You’re here!”
My problem now is that I can’t get all of the faces out of my head. There was one elderly father with a leg injury who carried his child miles to get help. There was a lady whose entire chin had been smashed, like it had been almost cut off from her face. And there was another very injured person I’ll never forget, who was out in a village called Chagam, close to the Tibetan border. It was a two-day trek to get there, and when we arrived, we found an 82-year-old woman named Phurba Lama, who was living in a very low shack made out of tarps and bamboo. Both of her arms and one leg were broken, and her entire body was bruised. She was completely immobilized. At this point it was two weeks—two weeks!—after the earthquake, and she hadn’t received any medical aid whatsoever. That’s ages, you know, to be under so much pain. She looked horribly miserable, extremely skinny and weak. The surgeons I was with gave her injections, treated her wounds, realigned her broken bones and put them in casts. She was so happy because she didn’t have to feel the pain anymore.
You know, no one was up there. Two weeks, and no one had come. If we hadn’t come, she would have been immobilized until the end of her life, in pain, never having seen a doctor. But we did come—and we saved her life. To me, this was meaningful.
–Lana O’Flaherty, HR Coordinator
In May, I was buying some foam padding for a friend and her family, whose foam is all worn from nearly a month of sleeping outside, when an old man wandered up and down in front me. He was looking over the tents displayed outside the shop. I finally asked my friend Purna, who was with me, to ask the man if he needed anything. It wasn’t easy to understand his needs, as the man was speaking in his local dialect, but eventually his story came out thus: He had just arrived from Sindupalchowk, where he had lost his home and his whole family. He had nothing, but was staying in a camp in Jorpati (he pointed that way). He needed some plastic and something to sleep on. The shop owner packed up a plastic tarp and two meters of foam, and we carefully tucked $20 in his pocket, having to remind him over and over again that there was 2,000 rupees there for him to buy food. He appeared disoriented and confused, lost in this world so far from his hilly region north of Kathmandu, where nearly 2,000 people lost their lives in the initial and secondary quake. Like most people in those areas, in a flash, he had lost everything.
My cousin was supposed to get married in a week, so my mother and I were at a beauty parlor in Kathmandu to get ready for the wedding. Everything started to shake, but we didn’t realize it was an earthquake at first—we thought one of the ladies in the beauty parlor was moving around one of the beds or something. But then everyone started panicking and everything in the room started falling down, and we realized it was an earthquake. My mother was in one corner and I was in another. I was really nervous about my husband, who was in a shopping center that I felt had a good chance of collapsing. I called him up while the shaking was still going on, and he was OK, so after that I relaxed a little bit.
Once the shaking slowed down we started to evacuate, but my mother was refusing to come out. She was wearing one of those beauty parlor gowns, and she was too shy to be seen wearing it in public. I was shouting at her, “Please come out!” But she was saying, “No, I’m safe. I’m standing under a pillar.” I was furious with her, but she wouldn’t come out until she had changed. After a time my husband came to pick us up, and I was telling my mother, “Let’s go,” but again, she didn’t want to go. First, she said, she needed to find the owner of the beauty parlor and give her the money we owed for that day. We reminded her that we came here all the time, that we could pay the owner the next time we saw her, but my mother refused to leave until we had paid.
I work at Mercy Corps, who started work immediately on the Sunday after the earthquake. I was back in the office already by Monday. We were distributing NFI (nonfood item) kits, which had kitchen supplies, hygiene items like toothpaste, sanitary pads, and soap, and shelter materials like tarpaulins and ropes. We distributed the NFI kits we had on hand and placed orders for more, but in the meantime we would go to the market, buy the things we needed, pack them, and distribute them. It was a really busy few weeks for us.
In a way, we Nepalese can be superstitious. The first earthquake happened on a Saturday, so for awhile, people would think, “Saturday is the day when earthquakes come,” and they would be afraid about Saturdays. And then when the second one happened on a Tuesday, it was like Saturday and Tuesday were the earthquake days. Logically we know that these things cannot be predicted, but somewhere down in our hearts, we don’t want to take the risk. For a few weeks after the earthquakes hit, whenever it was a Saturday or a Tuesday, I made sure to tell my husband, “Be careful.”
–Aishwarya Rana, Mercy Corps Deputy Manager
Khenpo Ugyen Tenphel. Photograph courtesy Joe Faria.
When the first earthquake hit on April 25th, I was at Shechen Monastery receiving an empowerment from Yangthang Rinpoche. There seemed to be a little more than a thousand people gathered there at the time. I was inside the monastery when it happened, but I did not realize that it was an earthquake right away. Then I saw that everything on the ceiling and walls, and the pillars themselves, had started to shake violently. At that moment, it seemed like there was nothing that we could do—we did not know whether we should stay inside or flee outside. When the earthquake happened, I did not really feel any particular way about it, but I did feel concerned about all of the people crying and screaming. Everyone was so scared and upset.
At about four or five o’clock, all of the monks from my monastery, Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, got together to discuss the situation: How was the prayer hall inside of our monastery? How were all of the people now staying there? What did they need? How could we help? On that first day, so many people had arrived, setting up camp in three different areas around our monastery. We did not have tents at that time, so we had to use whatever we had there to supply them with makeshift shelters. On the second day, we were able to begin really helping the people there. Everyone staying with us was given tents and food, and we were also preparing trucks to head out to places like India for supplies. It was a labor of love, though.
Things eventually settled down after the first earthquake and we all started to feel better. Then, on May 12th, when we all had finished our monastic classes and were going to have lunch, I decided to relax in my room for a bit. That’s when we were struck by another large earthquake. Keep in mind that up until that time we had been experiencing quite a bit of minor aftershocks, but this one was much bigger than any of those. It was especially frightening inside of the monastery, which was shaking violently. I had heard that when an earthquake like that comes, it is best to escape if you’re near an exit, and if you aren’t, you should hide under something like a table. There were no tables in my room, though, so I felt that the best thing for me to do was to just hold onto the handle of my door until it was all over. Then I ran outside. All of the monks were shouting “Come quick! Come quick!” Thinking that the buildings were too dangerous to stay inside, we decided to stay in tents again for a few days.
I have been listening and watching the news a lot lately, hearing about the sad state of Nepal, how many people have died, how many buildings have collapsed, and so forth. I’ve been so shocked to hear about this; it is all so awful. However, I am also hearing about all of the foreign aid, the rescue missions, and the hardships people are enduring to help, and I am rejoicing about their efforts. That is all truly wonderful.
During the initial earthquake, our abbot, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, was staying in Hong Kong. After hearing about what had happened, he came to Nepal as soon as he could. He spoke to all of the monks at our monastery in order to console us and to discuss the terrible situation. Rinpoche was really heartbroken, but he told us that we cannot just remain upset about everything. As much as we can, he said, we need to have self-confidence. He told us that if we are able to, we must offer physical help according to our own capacity. And if we cannot offer physical help, the most important thing we can do is to pray for others, to dedicate our merit to them, and to practice the dharma. He said that whatever we do, we should do as much as we can and as best as we can. Hearing such a wonderful speech from Rinpoche, our grief immediately cleared up. Since then, many monks have been praying, but many have also actually went off to these devastated places to offer help directly and have been doing that ever since.
Since I myself am a Buddhist monk, the main thing for me, which is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, is the altruistic heart of bodhicitta [awakened mind]. Realizing this, if you hear about this horrible situation in Nepal through the media, the key point is to help as much as possible with an altruistic motivation to benefit others. This my personal request to you. At this time especially, the need to help others is quite urgent, and so it is particularly important to act with an altruistic heart as much as you can.
–Khenpo Ugyen Tenphel, Monk (trans. Joe Faria)
Tanya Piven. Photograph courtesy Tanya Piven.
I was two weeks into a retreat I was doing in Yolmo, a rural area in northern Nepal. I was sick that day, so I didn’t go to the gompa [temple]. I stayed at my guest house, which was like a home stay. I was doing Vajrasattva chanting with the door open. Five minutes before the earthquake hit, I remember looking at my watch and thinking, “OK, one more mala, or should I go for lunch?” I had just started chanting again when I felt the first movements and heard this terrible sound—like roaring earth.
Through the open door I saw the niece of the family I was staying with. She was washing her clothes, and when everything began to move she started to rush toward my door. I rushed toward her, too, and right after I got through the door, the wall behind me, made up of big, huge stones, totally collapsed. I have flashbacks now, thinking about what could have happened, and I see my room: half-buried under these huge stones.
The niece and I rushed together to the small open space in front of the guest house. I hugged her, and put my shawl over our mouths to prevent the clouds of dust that were rising up everywhere from getting in. The scene around us . . . it was like a movie. The sound was terrible; there were landslides in the surrounding mountains. Never in my life had I watched houses just collapse in front of my eyes—they looked like children’s play houses to me, like something artificial and very fragile. As we stood there, it started to rain.
I started shouting for the mother of my home stay: “Amala! Amala! [mother]” but she didn’t answer. She was supposed to be serving lunch at the time that the house collapsed. “Oh my god,” I thought, “she might be in the house.” But I couldn’t go in to look for her, because the house was just a pile of stone. Eventually we did find her—she had survived. Right at the moment when the shaking started, she had gone out to the garden to get some onion. I hugged her when I saw her and I remember the first thing she said to me was “I’m sorry.” I said, “You’re sorry? Why? I’m sorry!” She had just lost everything. But she was apologizing to me for the discomfort. [Laughs.] Can you believe it?
Fortunately there was a bunch of cut wood nearby covered by plastic. So we sat on the wood, under the plastic, and waited until the earth stopped moving. I had run out of the house with nothing—only with my mala—so I was becoming very uncomfortable in my wet socks. After an hour and a half I started to consider whether I should risk trying to retrieve my sleeping bag and shoes, because if I had to stay outside overnight at 2,500 meters altitude with nothing, I’d definitely get sick the next day. I went into my room maybe four or five times, darting in and out, my heart beating out of my chest because I was terrified an aftershock would happen at any moment and the house would collapse completely. I did save most of my things and my phone. But the loud sounds of the landslides were really frightening, and even though we had survived the first hit, we were all worried that we might be covered by a wave of stones. I actually made a video with my phone, saying goodbye to my parents, in case I died and people found my phone with my dead body.
Tanya Piven’s home stay (top) and gompa (bottom) in Yolmo after the earthquake. Photographs courtesy Tanya Piven.
That first night, which was a Saturday, the villagers and the few injis [foreigners] that were there built tents and all stayed together. There was this very strong feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world, of not knowing what had happened elsewhere in the country. We didn’t have a working radio until the next night, Sunday, and that’s when we got our first news about all of the villages that had been destroyed. I also got some bad information then, because the BBC predicted on air that the earthquake was a stronger magnitude than it actually ended up being, like 10 on the Richter scale, which would have completely demolished Kathmandu. My host family was translating the news for me, but they forgot the word “maybe,” so what I heard from them was “Kathmandu is all flat.” It was heartbreaking. But I told myself I wouldn’t believe it until I saw it; I was just telling myself, “Don’t think about it, don’t think about it.”
On Monday a woman arrived from Kathmandu and told us that it was OK there. So the next day a group of us inji [foreigners] began the walk to Kathmandu. It was raining, and we were frequently lost because many of the roads had been destroyed. We were also constantly walking at the edge of where a landslide had stopped, so these huge stones could have fallen on our heads at any moment and smashed us. That first day we walked for twelve hours in those conditions.
We slept for one night in Thimpu, where I met a friend who had come from Kathmandu to save me. Many of my friends from Boudha, where I live in Kathmandu, as well as monks from the monastery where I study, knew that I was in the mountains, and they were all worrying about me. So they all came to find me. My friend and our inji group walked to Melamchi Bazaar the next day, where we met up with the rescue team. They took me on a jeep back to Kathmandu. By that point, it had been over a week since the earthquake, and I had been traveling for four days. I remember entering the city and being pleasantly amazed at the state that it was actually in. I was thinking like, “C’mon guys—did you even have an earthquake here?”
I had hundreds of emails and Facebook messages waiting for me when I got home. I’m a well-known yoga teacher in my country, Ukraine—I was actually the 2003 World Yoga Champion—and everyone I know was worried about me. A lot of people invited me to leave Nepal, especially after the second earthquake: “Come stay with us, you need some rest.” But I have been here for seven years. Nepal is my home, and the Boudhanath stupa is the center of my universe. Plus I am the retreat assistant for my husband, who has been in closed retreat for six-and-a-half years. I am his only source of support. So I simply cannot leave Nepal, and I don’t want to.
My priorities changed radically after the earthquake. Trivial things have become less meaningful. And although I feel like it’s big words to say that I’d like to dedicate my life to the dharma, I really do feel that way. There is one text that says there are three types of practitioners: practitioners of small capacity, who die without fear; practitioners of middle capacity, who die without regrets; and practitioners of the utmost capacity, who die happily. I was examining my mind throughout this whole experience, and I have to admit that I didn’t have much fear, because I was praying to Guru Rinpoche and had no doubt that my root guru’s mind and my mind were inseparable. But I did have disappointment, like “Is it really going to happen like this? Have I done everything that I wanted to do?” And I certainly was not happy to die. So now I know what I need to work on while I’m still alive.
In some ways, though, I consider myself to be already dead—I already died in Yolmo, and now whatever I’m getting in life is like a bonus. [Begins to cry.] I thought that I had lost everybody, everything. And now everything in my life is a gift.
–Tanya Piven, International Yoga Teacher
Lopon Shedrub Gyamtso (middle). Photograph courtesy Joe Faria.
When the second major quake came on May 12, I had decided to take some of our monks to lunch at a nearby restaurant who had been going around the rural areas and helping people out. The metal roof above where we sat was shaking loudly, so I ran out to the restaurant lawn and toward our monastery, which is right down the street. Immediately I saw another monk. He was so scared he was almost crying, shouting with concern for our monastery. When we finally made it to the courtyard, I was so relieved to see the monastery’s golden peak, which meant that it was still standing.
In total, around 250 monks stay at our monastery. The old monks’ rooms were intact, but we are not able to go inside the main prayer hall since its pillars are so damaged—if they had fallen, then for sure three or four hundred people would have been killed. So now, whether we have to pray, perform rituals, or if Rinpoche needs to give a talk, we all gather in the big building out back that is not actually fully constructed yet. The buildings that house our young monks and our general classrooms are all completely useless now as well. We have been doing our best to watch the young monks who live here, but it is quite difficult, especially since they are all staying outside in tents or under tarps. And I worry about building a new monastery—it will require so many supplies and so much money.
I am a monk, and my homeland is far away. I do not have any parents or relatives; my only relatives are other monks. I feel that they are my own family and I have an unbearable concern for their welfare. Nor do I have any wealth of my own. All we monks have is here at our monastery. Whatever we do, whether it is performing pujas [ceremonies], studying, sleeping, or eating, it is all here at the monastery. The monastery is the foundation for accomplishing the buddhadharma—especially for the monks—and therefore it is the foundation for benefiting others and for bettering society as well. If the monastery were destroyed, there would be no other hope for our happiness, and no means for serving the happiness of others.
The kind of suffering that we have endured is simply how the world is. Things like this happen, of course. And why wouldn’t this kind of suffering happen to me? But now we monks are talking and thinking about how we can all overcome this kind of pain and hardship. All I have is the monastery, so I am very worried. Not only me, but all the other monks here as well.
Even if this only reaches one person, I have one message. It does not matter what religion you belong to: whatever someone can do with their body, speech, or mind to help, they should do it. I request this from the bottom of my heart.
–Lopon Shedrub Gyamtso, Monk (trans. Joe Faria)
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