Frenchwoman Celine Suiter was in Nepal during the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked the country last Saturday. Suiter, an avid photographer, traveled to Nepal for a 5-day photography tour with a group of 13 other tourists, while her husband Jeffrey, and children Chloe (age 15), and Jeremy (11) who both attend WAB, remained in Beijing. You can read her blog about her life as a Beijing tai tai here.
Suiter told beijingkids of her experience in Nepal:
The earthquake occurred on the last day of our photography tour. We had been capturing pictures of Kathmandu, scenic views of mountain ranges in Nagarkot, and vibrant street life while visiting World Heritage sites.
On the morning of the quake, I arrived back at our hotel from a walk around Thamel market with a friend. [Thamel is the main tourist district of Kathmandu famous for its markets.]
When the first tremor started I had just finished checking out and was talking to friends at the hotel restaurant. We weren’t quite sure what it was at first (I remember thinking it felt like the metro in our Paris apartment) then it started to shake a lot more. I could see two of my friends walking in a zigzag, blundering into tables as if they were on a moving boat.
Somebody shouted “Earthquake!” and we found shelter under tables. Small objects began crashing around us; we could do nothing except watch and listen to the chaos. The floor moved violently from side to side, like it was happening in slow motion. The quake lasted a good two minutes. When the rocking floor started to slow down and finally stopped, somebody shouted "Run to open land!" We dashed out of the hotel restaurant and joined the flow of people heading to an open expanse of land 500m from the hotel.
Standing in the common area, there was a collective feeling of terror; people gathered and looked at each other not knowing what to say. Then the aftershock came, people dropped to the ground, the earth moved again; more screams, more cries, power lines swayed, buildings shook. The tremors continued, with decreasing magnitude, but with the same terrifying effect. I received a call from my husband who asked me if I was OK as he had already seen newsflash of the events in Nepal. Everyone tried desperately to contact family and friends to assure them of their safety.
Over the next few hours the focus shifted to how we could get out of Nepal. Our group was extremely luckily to have two dedicated local guides Thukar and Guru, who at this point had already completed their services and had every reason to turn their full attention to their own families’ safety. What they did is beyond explanation. They appeared from nowhere and finding the majority of our group together, they then went off in search of the others, whilst the tremors and uncertainty continued. They managed to locate each member and bring us back together. Comforting each other was high on the agenda, as emotions flowed. News came through that the airport was not operating, and communication was limited and inconsistent. Nobody wanted to remain in Thamel; we wanted to move to open space. A decision was made to try and organize getting the group to the airport. The guides arranged transport with unbelievable efficiency in a time of disaster. We made it to the airport car park, the guides continued to support us with information, food, and water. Never at any point did they leave us even though they had family issues way beyond any of our needs.
Night was closing in, the weather started to cool, and morale was starting to fade. Without complaint we prepared to sleep on the car park floor, but the guides would not accept this. The country was in a state of shock, nothing was working, confusion continued, but again Thukar and Guru never left our sides and with astonishing effort arranged a coach with support from Etihad airline, to be our accommodation. Water and snacks were plentiful and we had extreme comfort considering the seriousness of the situation.
Although I was supposed to be the last one of the group to take off that day I ended up being the first one out of Nepal. I was the only one traveling to China, my fellow photographer friends all came from Dubai and Abu Dhabi (and one from Qatar). My flight was one of the only three flights that landed and took off from the Kathmandu airport that night. After resting for an hour or so in the bus, our guides told me that my flight was scheduled to arrive and that I would most likely be leaving so I needed to get to the terminal. They were only allowing in passengers. I was in an almost empty airport that the military had taken over, (airport personal had been sent home), surrounded by Chinese people (the only inbound flights were China Eastern, China Southern, and Airarabia).
Another tremor struck and the waiting passengers ran out of the airport onto the tarmac. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to stay there or go back to the “safety” of the bus, surrounded by my friends. I talked to a Canadian-Chinese man, who helped me to calm down. Then a little Chinese girl started a conversation, practicing her English. By 1am I was onboard the plane ready to take off for Guangzhou. Relieved to arrive safely in Guangzhou, I headed to my next flight to Beijing and landed in Beijing airport at 12:40pm.
Other friends left Sunday evening and Sunday night. Between my departure and theirs there was another 6.7-magnitude earthquake. Back safely in Beijing with my family, I started to read the news and it really hit me. I had left in the midst of the crisis; I didn’t have to think too much about it while I was there. It was a lot scarier from the outside. We had been in a little part of town and no buildings collapsed within our sight. We saw a few walls down and a few houses tilting dangerously, but it was difficult for me seeing the photos of the devastation of all the places and the people we photographed mere days or hours before from the safety of my apartment in Beijing. I really want to remember the beauty of Nepal, the kindness of the Nepali people. I visited and photographed places that are lost forever now. It’s a beautiful country that needs to be visited and most importantly needs urgent help right now.
I was happy I got out on time but felt horrible leaving my friends behind. I couldn’t reach them and I felt helpless. I tried to monitor their flights but the information was inconsistent. I eventually heard they had all left. My friends from Dubai took the last airplane leaving Kathmandu. It was a great group of photographers, we shared a common passion, we got along well, and we laughed a lot. We had a great time together and it seemed we already had a bond. And going through an earthquake together does tighten that bond!
There is nothing our group could ever do to repay the guides for keeping our group safe and getting us through this situation back to our loved ones. They stayed until the very last one of our group was on a plane. We hugged and left them, we left a devastating situation; the guides would need to stay and try to rebuild their lives. Guru called us to make sure we were all home safely. We told him that we were working on fundraising to help out. He said that he and his family was OK, but that a village near them was completely destroyed and they needed much more help. His dedication in helping others is amazing. His wife is due to give birth in less than two weeks. As a mother I cannot even imagine giving birth in this chaos. Meanwhile last I heard, Thukar’s family in Kathmandu was ok but his village in Gorkha, the epicenter, was totally destroyed and aid has had a hard time reaching the region.
It’s the high of the season for Nepal. Tourists will not return for a long time, the people have lost not only their homes, their belongings, most likely friends and family members, but also their future incomes.
We are arranging a number of exhibitions of the photos from our trip and intend to sell prints with all funds heading back to the people of Nepal. Currently the exhibition is planned for Dubai and Abu Dhabi; I am open to suggestions from the Beijing community about holding the exhibition here.
Photos: Courtesy of Celine Suiter