A long-awaited trip to India with a four-day extension to Nepal became more than an exploration of another culture for Karen and Stuart Blickstein. The Sun City Hilton Head residents came face to face with an historic tragedy that became very personal.
As they stood in the Kathmandu airport April 25, waiting to board their plane for the long journey home, an earthquake measuring 7.8 struck 113 miles away from more than nine miles beneath the earth’s surface.
“I was logged onto my laptop trying to download some photos when suddenly the massive 7.8 earthquake occurred,” Karen later wrote in her journal. “It was so severe, and the shaking so strong, that I thought we were goners for sure.”
Grabbing their carry-on luggage, the Blicksteins dashed out of the airport with the hundreds of other prospective passengers and gathered away from the building, fearing a collapse.
In the distance, they could see the tragedy unfolding.
“Standing on the tarmac, we felt a number of aftershocks, each one scarier than the last. All around the airport, in the foothills of the Himalayas, we could see dust clouds and smoke rising, indicating that there was a lot of damage,” she wrote.
Just 48 hours earlier, the Blicksteins had visited the village of Lalitpur, very close to the epicenter, where many Nepalese enjoyed the Rato Machindranath Chariot Festival.
As they shared photos taken during their trip, Karen spoke about the friends they had made and their experiences in villages that no longer exist.
“Here are some of the beautiful people of Nepal,” said Karen pointing to two smiling women. “This was taken in a bakery where we stopped two days before the quake. These ladies loved having their pictures taken.”
Within hours of the quake, on a borrowed phone, Karen was able to make contact with a family member, saying they were safe enough.
Everyone, said the Blicksteins, spent the first night in a nervous state because aftershocks continued long past the quake. “I was so terrified that I let my son-in-law know the name of our attorney who has our will. It was that scary,” said Karen. “We were safe, but it was a feeling we were only safe for now.”
The couple spent the night of the quake outdoors with others attempting sleep on makeshift beds made from collected chairs and a borrowed quilt.
The next day they joined throngs of people trying to get out of Nepal, as global rescue efforts began to fly into Kathmandu. As welcome as they were, the heavy incoming aircraft further complicated out-going flight schedules.
“As difficult as it was for us to wait,” said Stuart, “it was impressive to see all of these planes coming in and unloading supplies.”
After two days of cancelled flights, shuffling between the airport and any open hotel rooms, the Blicksteins returned to their original hotel, the Gokarna Forest Resort in Kathmandu, hopeful that on the next day they would finally leave. It took four days after the quake for the couple to make connections to leave Nepal.
On the flight from Delhi to Dubai, Karen struck up a conversation with a very worried young man from Spain sitting across the aisle. His sister and her fiancé had been trekking through the foothills of the Himalayas near Mount Everest in the area hardest hit by landslides.
When the second quake hit closer to Mount Everest, all search and rescue efforts ceased. Despite the searches and social media posts for information on the hikers there was no trace of them or the hundreds of others who disappeared.
The Blicksteins have photographs and memories from their trip, and count themselves richer for the experience. Their thoughts, though, are with their Nepalese tour guides, their families and the people they met and how they can help.
“Maybe that is why we were lucky to be where we were when the earthquake hit,” said Karen, “and not visiting those villages.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.