I was aware this morning as I was tidying up the sleep detritus from another night downstairs just how close I walk to the open front door, and the bags of one kind or another leaning next to it, like charms warding off evil. In the Go bag (an inexpensive black backpack) are four liters of water, duct tape, a penknife and dry food, water purification tablets, copies of all crucial documents and a phone list for when the phones won’t be working. In my brown shoulder bag rests my plastic box with seven days of medication, a further back up of meds in a small machine embroidered bag from a rare business class flight, with an insulin pen that I move up the order when the current one runs out. My phone; all my small, thin cables for charging are, uncharacteristically for me, neatly wrapped up and stowed in an inner pocket. A blue power brick, Rennies, head torch, house keys, wallet, a pen, lighter and mask. The bag is with me, alongside me as I write at the dining table, near the door, E and Tikki across the room asleep on the sofa. Last night the ground kept quivering like the flank of a horse trying to dislodge a horse fly. Today is Saturday, Hash day. Tomorrow the Monaco GP during which I shall drink Pimms and dream that the movement beneath me is that of my yacht rising and falling moored in the harbour as 800 hundred horsepower screams by: no flies on those babies.
After yesterday’s emotional tremor Seth told me about something called signal to noise ratio, how the mind filters out background sounds, dismissing those that are not relevant, while listening to music for example. A sentry on alert will hear things differently from a solider in peace time. Not just being more aware of small sounds, but hearing them as potentially threatening. It’s as though the filters we apply are suddenly stripped of significance and everything comes in full bore. It makes sense. Have to unlearn this newly acquired habit and hear bird song as something other than the portent of an EQ.
Here are E and Seth (far end) in the UN tent at UN house. Certainly worth checking out Wide Open Vistas, the small NGO that Seth runs with Dorjee Sherpa and a small Board. http://wideopenvistas.org/
I wait for the internal quake to settle. Trigged by a sudden confluence of sound: dogs barking, washing machine dinging, the sound of voices ignite the jitters. It feels as though the sofa is moving. But then it all calms down, grows quiet, Tikki goes to sleep on the floor. I was outside yesterday when, simultaneously there was a boom captured in the buildings to the south of us, it felt a two stage jolt and very close by. Not much movement. Screams and shouts from all around, birds flying, dogs barking alarm dinging like mad as the P and S waves travelled through the ground together. Then the earth returned to a semblance of stillness. I found myself quite still and observant through it all. So many clues told me it was not a big one. After the initial shake the shaking didn’t strengthen but grew weaker. But somewhere along the line it got under my skin. 4.4 on the Richter Scale, under Kathmandu/Lalitpur/Makawanpur. Where most of the destruction could so easily have come from. But that is no way to think and I start the process of digging out from the rubble of my concentration, trying reconnect and still this sense of seasickness and fear of another big one. But climb out I do, at least part of the way, enough to write here and release through words how the mind responds to fear, the parent of self preservation.
For the CoP
We can’t go back. Pick up where we left off. The traces and rhythms, the instincts and connections are all shaken apart. What made sense, was relevant and compelling is now forgotten.
But there is new music, Girlfriend. Phoenix rising: vocals, guitars, percussion, keyboards in sync, tight, polished, driven. Imagination taken for an aural walk. Hand held on a predictable path. Rhythmic connections made between the paving stones, bridges and the bright earth beneath our feet.
There has to be a moment when we decide to let go, surrender to this desire for the re-establishment of confidence in the everyday. Letting go of fearful expectation doesn’t mean giving in. It is not a precursor to bad luck. Just a thirst for the joy of an interrupted present. It is time to set the song on repeat. Rediscover the pleasure of watching words harmonize on the screen as dancing, step by step, we begin again.
This morning we struck the remains of Kathmandu BaseCamp. A fragile, huddled place that kept us safe in times of fear, sheltered us through nights and hot days in the company of good neighbours. Who would have guessed that a vacant plot of land, home for grazing cows, passed out drunks, dumping ground for trash, an uncared for patch of compressed rubble should have become so precious. In the night when the earth shook we knew we were safe, that nothing could fall on us. In tents, in cars and under tarps we slept, took shelter from the elements, sat in the shade and talked, or after an EQ stood in an anxious, panicked knot, reassuring, talking the fear away.
And then the Hotel Grand Vitara. Sixteen years old, battered and pottering it was the safest place in the world when we settled in for the night surround by go bags and can’t survive without bags in a world in chaos and threat beneath our feet. A many starred hotel on a common patch of land. The ordinary is both extraordinary and wonderful.
I was working on this when the 7.3 hit last Tuesday. It is a short summary of my experience over the last three weeks. Some of the text has already appeared here on The Toenail but I wanted it out there as an entry in my diary. My thanks to the CoP, E and M in Virginia for their help with…
Thunder in the Ground
By James Oglethorpe
Every molecule of every structure, human being, dog, the entire city was moved as one in a sick, evil stirring. Time, light, even gravity jellied with surreal intensity. The structure of the glue of the universe was stressed and failing. The release of a massive explosive force from a titanic collision 10 kms below the surface and 50 miles west of us propelled a monstrous chunk of the earth’s surface, lifting it three feet up, and seven feet south. Dropped it. Boom. Kathmandu slap down. It even moved the highest mountain on Earth, making it an inch shorter. Every thought, every part of millions of human beings shaken nearly, and in some cases, completely, apart. Invisible beneath us a rupture opened. After, the earth continued to twitch and dance under our feet, never still, like a series of reflex actions, main energy spent.
There are moments when I feel that I have not lost my sea legs. The force was such, the shaking so severe that it has tricked my inner ear into believing there is movement when there is none. I still stagger sometimes as though I had recently disembarked from a ship. Even a later 4.7 caused us to lurch and hold on to objects that were themselves moving. A giant shaking the ground as it walked up and hammered on our door. Its booming voice striking the hills surrounding us, bouncing off the rock, returning in waves of havoc.
Before the EQ we feared death, crushed beneath the ruins of our rented house. We tried to prepare to survive in an apocalyptic landscape. Tens of thousands of dead, air filled with dust and fires from countless cremations. A struggle for water, for life, a simple injury turning life threatening. None of this came to pass for us. For others now dead, or homeless the worse happened. We had all thought a major EQ here would be an urban disaster and not the rural one and on such a scale in the inaccessible villages in the mountains and valleys.
I glimpsed at the EQ’s height, when the S waves boomed against the hills and returned to us with amplified vengeance, that we were tottering on the edge of a chasm far more dark and destructive. It seemed that any increase in length and intensity would bring everything crashing down. How fortunate we were. How narrow the escape was for millions of insignificant, fragile lives. On the surface of this shifting planetary building block we rebuild. While beneath our feet the plate continues to move towards the beauty of the sacred mountains it is creating.
Confidence in the physical world increases. The rock, for the moment, appears still. It is meeting illusory expectations once again of being solid, unmoving. Buildings remain stationary; the EQ alarm turned way down. Weak P waves pass under us without triggering it’s high pitched urgency.
Immediately I was attuned to the intensity of the EQ alarm and waited half out of my chair for the booming and shaking to taper off. It was OK and I would ride it out, nothing to worry about. The chimes began to taper off then leapt in intensity. I was under the desk: duck, cover, hold. My place of sanctuary, but also the place of nightmares where I imagine I will be when the ceiling and floor let go. Thunder in the earth. An EQ is deafening inside. The structure of the house amplifying everything: shake, sound, everything rattles, sways and booms. You think and hope it can’t get stronger. Yet the invisible, sickening force tugs and tugs at you with stronger and stronger intent. A sustained, vicious, brutal assault on your senses. Then it begins to die away, dies away, smaller and smaller the tremors. Laughing and swearing I triumphantly legged it downstairs and out into the open where we floated on on a sea of swelling rock.
I don’t know how much more energy there can be in this series of events. Yesterday’s 7.3 was “unprecedented” and caught scientists and others by surprise (I get that). But we are up and running this morning. Confidence is growing. After yesterday I felt I could take on the world rather than it taking me on. But we proceed with caution and a fair degree of healthy skepticism.
I have been in three EQs in the past too weeks: 7.8. 6.8 and 7.3. First was in the car in a narrow street up near Kopan, the second outside our house and the third inside the house. I think, I hope, that is enough to give me enough of a 360 degree experience of an EQ.
Safe in the car on the night after the 7.8. It was raining. A brilliant flash of lightning and a simultaneous clap of thunder and a moderate earthquake. I sat in the darkness sore afraid that the rock beneath us was going split open and swallow us.
The Earth is a work in progress. We are just featherlight, non impacting footsteps walking on the surface of a piece of a planetary jigsaw moving with its own power and will. The planet is oblivious of us, all our pleasures, pains and great achievements. As it seeks it’s own equilibrium humanity is as nothing.
We survived and faced our fears. For now that is enough.
This is a painting given us by the second youngest Member of Kathmandu BaseCamp. It now occupies pride of place on our fridge. She will be going, with her younger sister and mum and dad, to Germany, France and hopefully England, on tour with dad who is a drummer, raising money for EQ victims. Her joyful presence will be much missed.
Went into the studio on Friday to do three voice-overs. The windowless live room is beyond an outer room, through the mixing room and along a short, narrow corridor. In the past the door into the live room and into the corridor were always locked when recording and it crossed my mind what would happen if there was an EQ. This time I made sure they remained unlocked. The sound engineer was in the studio when the first EQ struck and he hadn’t been in since. Stools and monitors had fallen over, but there was little damage and we were soon up and running. Fear is not the best aid to concentration and imaging or a feeling a tremble was enough to throw me off my stride, had me checking my escape route, but I got through it and was relieved to be back outside once more.
We have transferred our sleeping arrangements from the Hotel Grand Vitara into the more spacious and horizontal confines of E’s tent – he is sleeping inside on the sofa next to the front door.
Tremors have abated with the exception of a nasty EQ on Saturday, a 5.7 which we barely felt being in the Hash circle in Keeled Over’s garden, on rock, to the south of the city. Just a gentle rocking which was experienced in a far more frightening way on the amplified sediments of the valley floor if the return to KTM Basecamp by neighbors when we got back was anything to go by.
E continues to work with OCHA at the UN House and gave a party on Friday night while we went to L’s for dinner. L, having lived and worked for three years in Palestine, Haiti and generally been connected with disasters of one kind or another came here to get away from further problems. That didn’t work and although she is not directly involved in search and rescue, etc. this time she nevertheless is feeling the effects. Organizations have a policy of having in-country personnel take a step back if they have been through a disaster because of the personal trauma and an wholly understandable inability to be objective. With us around the table were C and G who are leaving soon for (a pre EQ arranged) post in Maputo, the CoP’s old stomping ground (second time with me and da boyz). Much laughter and release of stress. Hard to quantify just how much we shall miss them and their dogs, G running the Hash in his hashers kilt and bald head and C’s quiet, effective presence and sense of humour. I expect her organization is going to rue her going. They will certainly leave a gap in our lives. But life is carrying on, C will be round for Pimms on Sunday and the Monaco Grand Prix.
Got back from L’s to find a large collection of welcome guests around our table, music playing. We soon wandered off into the night to the tent from which I have just emerged with a sore back (between my shoulder blades) but safe and surprisingly well rested, save for spaceships from another world roaring over our head coming into land, their bellies full of aid. Going to move my work area downstairs for the time being. My office chair rocks on the top of a column and my inner ear thinks it is the world moving and not me. Had quite enough of that kind of thing, thank you very much.
All is well and this leaves KTM BaseCamp with much love to you and yours.