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From the epicenter

February 15, 2019

“Yes, I was there for the earthquake … Yes, I felt it … crazy, humbling.” These words always seem to shake my listeners more than the earthquake shook me. Words have that effect.

I was in the mountains of Mardi Himal on April 25, 2015 when a 7.8-magniude earthquake shook Nepal. In the three months leading up to this day, I had been traveling all around the country, staying with different homestay families, studying Buddhism and learning how to wood-carve—a quintessential gap year experience. Three days prior to the quake, my group had decided to leave Kathmandu to go hiking. At 11:59 a.m. we felt the first quake. Three hours later, we arrived at the campsite as we had planned and proceeded through the day according to our normal schedule: we set up the tents, played chess, listened to our daily lesson, ate dinner and cleaned the dishes. Aftershocks intermittently interrupted our daily business. When our trip guides finally received news via their radios about the earthquake, they held a formal meeting and relayed the information with equanimity so as not to startle us. Aside from sporadic tremors, the day felt numbingly routine.

Seven thousand miles to the west, my father’s phone vibrated at 1:14 a.m.: “Earthquake in Nepal—Is Jon Luke okay?” Adrenaline jolted through his body as he seized his laptop and pounded away at the keys frantically looking up where exactly I was hiking, where the epicenter was, how far from the epicenter I was, how big the earthquake was, whether or not I was OK. Constant news headlines about the destruction, updates about my group’s whereabouts from my trip leaders and endless phone calls from concerned friends and relatives disrupted his day.

Despite my proximity to the epicenter, that day scared my father more than it startled me. It wasn’t until two days and seven aftershocks later when I saw the destruction on TV in a small restaurant at another campsite that the earthquake really hit me. I saw parts of the city I had been calling home destroyed. Video footage of Kathmandu showed the faces of locals that I had become so accustomed to seeing. They looked broken. That night, dinner came late and few words were spoken. I worried about the families that had cared so much for me; not only could I not help them, but I couldn’t even contact them to check if they were alive.

Later that night, I thought about a village named Baruwa that I had stayed in weeks before. I remembered my hosts’ kitchen where I had spent most of my time while I was there. I had to hunch over every time I walked in through the door of the kitchen, and my legs would go numb from sitting on the ground during meals. My body was not fit for this kitchen. Yet, I spent hours in that kitchen—reading, admiring the view of the valley through the window and helping my homestay mother cook. There was a contagious sense of ease and serenity with which my homestay mother could operate the kitchen, and despite my physical discomfort, I too felt relaxed and calm there.

Her pans had holes in them; often times, we would lose power, and she would have to cook with just the aid of moonlight. The fire over which she cooked would often go out because we would run out of dry wood. Not once did I ever see her complain. Moreover, she treated me with a genuine kindness. I associate this place with peace. This place for me was the heart of what Nepal had been for me: a place of physical discomfort with small doorways and hard floors, with crowded bus rides and dusty streets, but nonetheless a place where I had never felt more at peace and at home.

Baruwa was much closer to the epicenter. Days later, we were told that the earthquake was responsible for killing half of Baruwa’s population. No one had any details on who survived and who did not, but the kitchen where I had spent so much time was almost certainly gone. Baruwa is located about a six-hour drive through the mountains from Kathmandu, which, because of the road conditions as well as the lack of resources, meant that no one from the cities would be there to help for months. People who watched the news coverage of the earthquake from the United States would never know about Baruwa. My family and friends would watch the destruction and worry about me without knowing that I was safer than they themselves were when they drove to work in the morning during rush hour. But, at the same time, they would know more about the earthquake than me. They would know the severity of the earthquake and for days I would not—despite the fact that I was there, that I felt it. This is the power of news reporting and journalism: the ability to make information immediately accessible, but also the potential disconnect that it creates between its representation of reality and the reality which it attempts to represent.

Whenever someone asks me about the earthquake, I have the power to shape their reaction. Strangely, I feel obligated to tell a more dramatic story than the story that I have. The traumatic part of the earthquake for me was realizing how close I was to people who needed help and then further realizing how safe I was and how powerless I was to help anyone. But this experience is the story I rarely get a chance to tell. In conversation, my listeners want to hear how I watched an entire valley tremble in one of the aftershocks, how it took five days to evacuate, how I would probably be severely injured or worse if the earthquake had hit six weeks earlier when I was in Baruwa. Perhaps it is for this reason that I have resisted writing about it for so long.

Jon Luke Tittman is a member of the Class of 2019.


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