Earthquake hits Kathmandu a day after Dutch teacher and her group land in Nepal
I met Fleur Wipperfürth and her friend Erik Buck while standing in line waiting to use a computer at the internet centre in Manang high in the Himalayan mountains in the Annapurna region of Nepal.
I was with my friends Bob Johnston and Ned Ellis sending messages home as they were. That was in October 2006.
We established a lasting bond the next day when Fleur bounced up to our table outside the little hotel at our next stop in Yak Kharka and said, “Hello, Canadian people.” We began playing a card game (name and rules long forgotten) and we became inseparable for the next two weeks or so.
Bob, Ned and I returned to Nepal to do the trek to Everest Base camp in 2011 while Fleur, a teacher of history, geography and social studies at Citaverde College, a high school in Heerlen, the Netherlands, has made Nepal her second home.
She returned for the fourth time in April with her husband Rudy Van de Burgt, her parents, Wim Steins (Rudy’s friend) and three others, a colleague, a neighbor and friend of Wim’s. They were eight in all from the Netherlands and planned to do a trek through the Langtang region north of Kathmandu. Meeting them in the capital of Nepal was Chudamani (Mani) Barakoti who has guided Fleur on all her trips. We met Mani, who owns Nepal Tours (http://nepaltour.freeservers.com/#service) on our first trip. He was guiding Fleur. He arranged a guide and porters for our trip to Everest.
I spoke to Fleur, 33, on the day she had returned from a funeral for a 52-year-old woman from her hometown of Kerkrade who died in the aftermath of the earthquake of April 25 while trekking in the Langtang region.
This is Fleur Wipperfürth’s story (as told to me) of her return to Nepal in April and how plans don’t always work out.
Arrival in Kathmandu
My husband Rudy Van de Burgt and I left Frankfurt on Thursday, April 23, and arrived in Kathmandu the next day. My mom and dad (Rita, 69, and Joseph, 69) picked us up at the airport with Mani Barakoti, owner of Nepal Tours, which offers mountain tours with guides and porters.
I have known Mani since 2006 when he guided me and my friend around the Annapurna Circuit on my first trip to Nepal. I have also trekked the Annapurna Sanctuary and the Langtang region so this was my fourth trip to Nepal.
My parents had arrived the previous Tuesday from Goa, India. It was their first time in Nepal and we planned to trek in the Langtang area.
From the airport, we went to the Kathmandu Guest House (a large hotel with a big courtyard) where we relaxed and had a beer before going out for dinner at a nice restaurant in Thamel (which has many hotels, restaurants, shops with camping gear and trekking companies catering to tourists). We went back early to the hotel because we had a bit of jet lag.
On Saturday morning (April 25) we had a great breakfast – bacon and a big omelet with veggies, toast, potatoes, cappuccino and lemon soda. Ha! Ha! I enjoyed it like it was my last meal ever. You know in the mountains it’s only rice, rice and rice.
Then we went to the North Face shop for some very good sleeping bags because it gets cold in the mountains of the Langtang area. Our plan was to leave the next day. Then we were going to return to Kathmandu for a few days to visit some stupas and temples.
Langtang is an untouched part of Nepal, which is getting to be like a western country because everyone wants their luxuries and their beers.
The Langtang trek is like going back in history. Nothing has changed there. It’s still not developed. It’s like living with nature. It’s back to basics.
It’s also very close to Tibet. At the far end of the trek there is a town called Kyanjin Gompa which has a cheese factory and a monastery. It’s only 15 kilometres from Tibet. There are many Tibetan people there and it is quite amazing. We planned to make the trip in 10 to 12 days.
After getting the sleeping bags I was planning to pick up a mountain bike because of my bad knees. But the guy wasn’t at the shop so we decided to go for a coffee at the Himalayan Coffee House in Thamel. We went to the second floor and had a great cappuccino. Then my dad decided to go with Rudy for a cigarette outside. I took some pictures out of the window of them. They were waving at me and they took a picture of me while I was leaning out of the window.
I went back to my table and the earthquake came. And it was terrible.
You could hear something strange like a big machine on the road. But they don’t have big machines. It was like a big bass guitar. Then the earth started shaking. One of my friends shouted, “It’s an earthquake.”
Three of my friends ran outside. They ran like Usain Bolt from Jamaica. I wanted to follow them, but then I thought, my mom is still inside.
So I panicked and I shouted “Momma, Momma, where are you?” She shouted, “Please keep calm. I am lying under the table.”
Building was moving
Everything was falling down, there were some books and the big coffee machine and the cups. There were some nice lights on the ceiling but they were coming down. The glass in the windows shattered and it was flying around my ears. People were shouting and the building was moving.
You couldn’t walk any more and I thought, Oh my God, I’m going to die here because the building is going to collapse. I was ready to die, I was really ready to die. And then I thought, What do I need to do to die. And my friend shouted, “Fleur, you have to dive under the table.”
Did you see the World Cup last summer? Did you see the goal by Robin van Persie (a diving header by the Netherlands player)? I made the same jump and landed under the table. I hurt my knees. Everything was coming down. The walls were collapsing. I was so afraid. A chunk from the ceiling landed right where I had been standing.
The earthquake took only one minute and it was the worst period of my life. And then it stopped.
Oh my God, we’re still alive. I shouted to my momma, Where are you? Where are you? She was crying and said Daddy and Rudy are dead.
I took her outside and we were in shock. We went back to the Kathmandu Guest House and the old part of the building was totally collapsed. Happily, nobody in our group was injured.
The new building- about two years old – was still standing.
We had many after shocks. The earth was always moving. Thankfully, my dad and Rudy didn’t die. We found each other outside the restaurant but we can’t remember anything. We were in shock. My body was moving like I was having a heart attack.
We thought of going to the airport but found out it was very difficult there. We heard that there were 10,000 people there. It is really small and there are few toilets and everybody was standing and sleeping outside.
So we decided to stay at the Kathmandu Guest House.
The owner Rajan Sakya was taking care of us like we were gods. He is a sweetheart. He took care of us all the time. People were staying outside after the earthquake and he stayed with us during the night. He never left us alone.
Running out of food
People were sleeping everywhere in the courtyard. My dad slept outside and my mother and I slept on the first floor so we could run outside with the next shock.
But Kathmandu was running out of water and food – all the shops were closed. We tried to get some food by walking toward Pashupatinath (a sprawling Hindu religious complex on the banks of the Bagmati River about five kilometres from the KGH) where we were able to buy some vegetables and crackers in the nearby shops. We scored a bottle of whiskey – a big one because we needed it. We also had some juice. The food lasted us three days.
Then we went to the German embassy (the Netherlands has a consulate only in Kathmandu). It was closed but they let us use a satellite phone. The regular phone service was down in Kathmandu and there was no WiFi so my iPhone wouldn’t function. I called my sister in India and my travel agency. They were able to put us on an SOS list. I called my sister again on Tuesday and she told me to go to the airport at six at night and there would be a big plane available to take us home. We went to the airport in a mini van. We saw the big troubles in the city because millions were sleeping in tents. Nobody was sleeping inside any more because they were afraid. People were standing in line for food and we were taking pills against diseases.
It was a quiet city with everything collapsed. But the people are so nice. There was no panic or stress. They just believe in Buddha or Shiva and let’s do it with the stuff we have.
At the airport there were so many tents and so many people. I searched for an hour and finally found a man from the Dutch consulate. My name was on the list and I was so happy you cannot imagine.
I was told the flight would take off at midnight and then at 9 p.m. I was told that the plane couldn’t land. The airport is very small and can handle only a small number of planes. We were told we would have to wait two to three days for the plane.
Then we were told there was space on a Belgian air force plane, but there was room for only four people and we were eight. So we decided not to go because when you are travelling together you stay together all the time.
They were crazy
I started crying and I said that we would not split the group and I told the Dutch consular officials that they were crazy.
Then the Belgians said to go through the gate to the departure lounge because they had found four more seats.
What happened is that four people who had been in Pokhara (200 kilometres west of Kathmandu) during the earthquake decided to give up their seats for us. The earthquake was not severe in Pokhara. There was only a little bit of movement of the earth and they were not as upset as we were.
We boarded the plane and it went first to Delhi in India to refuel. The Belgian air crew was really tired because they had been flying for four days. They had been trying to land in Kathmandu but had been told four times it wasn’t possible. So we stayed overnight at a hotel in Delhi. We went to Dubai where we refuelled again. Then it was on to Greece.
The pilot was so nice. He invited me into the cockpit and I was there for the landing in Greece for refuelling. That’s a nice part of the story and it was really cool.
After that we flew to a military airport near Brussels in Belgium. The airplane was the one used to fly the king of Belgium. That was really cool.
We took a taxi home. It was about 140 kilometres.
I am thinking of going back to Nepal this summer although it may be a bit soon. I feel so guilty because I just left the country. I just left those people who have nothing any more. Their houses have collapsed. Many in their families have died and we just left.
When I returned to my school at the end of vacation, everybody was so happy to see me. They had seen me on the news channel. I had to cry while many people were giving me hugs. Mentally, it was too heavy to start teaching right away so they took me with two classes to the museum. That was an easier start!
In the afternoon I did my first lesson. It was so hard to talk about the story of Nepal, I had to cry. The children listened very quietly and they were so sweet to me as I told my story.
They were fascinated
All the students in my classes wanted to hear my story and I told them. They were fascinated.
Some of them started fund raising. They work in a flower shop and that is where they are collecting money for us. They also collected money in the street and from their families. We put on a dinner and two friends of ours did all the cooking.
Two branches of Citaverde colleges organised a big benefit concert where we collected 8,000 Euros. The teachers made the posters.
Wim is a member of the Lions Club in our village and we asked them to help us because we don’t have a bank account for fundraising. Wim did that. He knows many people because he is an artist.
The total we have raised is 26,000 Euros ($35,400). We are sending 1,000 Euros a month to Mani and he buys blankets, food and materials to help people rebuild their houses.
We have also set up a web site for our Nepal fundraising helpmaninepal.nl