Kimberley native Robyn Duncan is safely home after experiencing firsthand the devastating earthquake and subsequent aftermath in Nepal last weekend.
Duncan, along with her friend, Kara Brissette, were there to experience the unique landscape and culture of the Himalayas when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit in what is turning out to be one of the nation’s worst natural disasters in over 80 years.
Duncan had been in the country for just over a month, beginning their trip in Shivalaya, and hiked into the Khumbu region, where they began the Three Passes Trek. However, after a bout of high-altitude sickness, she headed to the Annapurna region.
On Saturday, April 25, Duncan was riding a bus from Pokhara to Kathmandu, the national capital, when the earthquake hit.
“We were passing through a small village when the quake struck,” Duncan said. “At first, you don’t realize what is happening. I thought we had hit something. But when the bus didn’t stop moving and we looked outside the window to see the ground moving and everything shaking and swaying, it clicked.
“It was absolute chaos. People were streaming out of their homes, and a long line of people were using a long piece of bamboo to try to prop up the electrical wires that were swinging dangerously.”
The bus stopped and Duncan though the wires were going to collapse on the vehicle.
“People were screaming,” she said. “No one knew what to do. It was utter chaos. In hindsight, the bus was probably the safest place I could’ve been, given where we were at the time.”
Duncan was able to contact her family almost immediately after to tell them she was safe. At that time, she was the only passenger on the bus with a connection to the outside world with her cell phone, and was able to learn through her family that a massive earthquake had struck which had affected the entire country.
Remarkably, the bus wasn’t damaged and it was able to continue the journey to Kathmandu almost right away.
“We were stopped a lot along the road – there was significant rock fall and accidents along the way, but we made it through to Kathmandu by the evening and I was able to rendezvous with Kara that night,” Duncan said.
While a picture tells a thousand words, Duncan says it’s hard to adequately describe the chaos, tragedy and destruction facing the Nepali people.
“Whole buildings were flattened, many with people trapped inside,” she said. “So many of the heritage sites were just gone. Roads had huge cracks in them. People were terrified of the aftershocks that we knew were to come and everyone poured into the open spaces and set up tent camps. Thousands upon thousands of people were outside.”
Though the earthquake itself caused massive damage, the aftershocks added to the destruction by bringing structures down and pushing over unstable ones that were on the verge of collapse.
“After the first night was over, the panic subsided and reality hit,” Duncan said. “The scale of devastation and the amount of work to do to dig people out and re-build the country sank in.”
While on the bus to Kathmandu, Duncan befriended a woman who owned a hotel in the city. A day after the earthquake, Duncan went to visit her at the hotel and learned of the existence of an American compound at Phora Club that was taking in Americans and providing food and water.
Duncan and Brissette made their way over and were let in even though they aren’t American citizens. Once inside, they found many other Canadians, Brits, Australians and hundreds of U.S. citizens.
“I cannot give enough thanks to the American consular staff there – they were truly amazing,” Duncan said. “They worked in shifts of two and were supporting hundreds of us. We slept under huge tents and they provided military cots for us. Clean water was provided and we had an endless supply of military food rations.”
The compound was a wide-open space, which mitigated the danger from collapsing structures due to aftershocks. Once the airport reopened, the Americans provided free shuttles as taxis service had been widely disrupted.
If they didn’t get into the compound, Duncan said they would’ve had no idea where to go.
“We are so grateful to the Americans for opening their doors to us,” Duncan said. “I don’t know what we would’ve done without them – our hotel kicked us out – the building beside it had fallen down and they had pulled bodies out of it – we had nowhere to go, no food and no water.”
At the time of the earthquake, there was no Canadian embassy or consulate in Nepal, but officials from the Canadian High Commission in Delhi arrived at the Phora Club compound three days afterwards and set up a camp.
Having witnessed the destruction firsthand, Duncan said the country is going to be recovering for years and needs support both in the short- and long-term. The most immediate need would be financial donations to any of the charities that already have boots on the ground, such as the Canadian Red Cross Nepal Region Earthquake Fund.
“So much infrastructure has been damaged, from houses to water lines, roads and more. And their tourism industry, which they depend on so heavily, has been decimated,” she said.