Honeymoon in Japan: Hakone

We were excited to head to the Mt. Fuji area after spending some time in Tokyo. We had decided early on that we probably weren’t interested in climbing Mt. Fuji during this trip, but Della was pretty adamant that she wanted to at least view it. We decided to head to the Hakone area which has several small towns that are known for their hot springs resorts (onsens) as well as views of the iconic Fuji.

Getting There

We used our Japan rail passes, which were incredibly easy and useful, to catch a train from the Okachimachi station near our Airbnb in Ueno to Tokyo Station. From there, we were able to take shinkansen (or bullet train) to Odawara which was only about a 30 minute ride. We had originally planned to just grab lunch in Odawara before switching to a bus to bring us to Hakone, but we realized that we were running considerably earlier than we had planned. We couldn’t check in to our accommodation until later in the afternoon, so we did a quick search of the lonely planet and realized the Odawara castle was in walking distance of the train station.

As we noticed in many train stations (and bus stations, and almost any transit stop), lockers were readily available to store bags. They weren’t necessarily cheap (about $5) and it took us a little while before we found a locker that was big enough for us to stuff both our large backpacks into, but we figured it was worth it!

We headed out and followed our phones (and a few signs) to Odawara Castle. The castle itself was lovely, very typical of castles throughout Japan. It was originally constructed in the mid-15th century but, like most castles in Japan, was destroyed by an earthquake. It was reconstructed in 1960, so it was in really great shape. We paid to enter the castle and climb to the observation deck on the top. Each floor had some museum displays, but much of it was only Japanese. The view from the top was quite beautiful though!

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After returning from the castle to the train station, we had a quick udon meal and headed outside to catch the H-Line train all the way to the town of Ashinoyu where we were staying for the night. We were quite pleased we had managed to successfully add a couple hours of sightseeing to our day!

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What We Did

Stay in a Ryokan

One of the things that we were quite excited about when planning our trip to Japan was to stay in a traditional ryokan. A ryokan is a Japanese style inn. We were intrigued by the possibility of diving a little deeper into Japanese culture. Ryokan are known for incorporating tatami floors, futon beds, and Japanese style baths. They are especially popular in hot springs regions like Hakone. They range in price, but we planned to live it up a little on our honeymoon and picked one that was on the fancier side: Kinokuniya Ryokan. We were especially excited because we knew that it would provide Japanese style private hot springs (onsen) baths.

We enjoyed the traditional and large room full of tatami mats and Japanese art. The ryokan provides special robes called yukata which you wear pretty much throughout your entire stay. We enjoyed putting them on and learning how to tie the obi belt.

One of the first things we did was to take advantage of our free 30 min private bath experience. We were lead outside to a separate small structure where we enjoyed the option of two lovely, warm hotsprings baths.

After heading back to our rooms, we got ourselves prepared for the provided dinner at the ryokan. Luckily, we didn’t have to do much as we were going to go in our yukata robes! Somehow we forgot to take our cameras or phones, but the meal was amazing. It was about 15 courses which included everything from soup to noodles to sushi. We did save the menu:

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While guests are at dinner, workers from the ryokan enter the rooms and set up the traditional Japanese futons for sleeping. We spent the evening reading, researching, and generally enjoying our accommodation.

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We took a trip to the public onsen as well. Japanese public baths are quite fascinating. You enter a large bathing room (one per gender) which includes one large (in this case hot spring water) pool. Around the outside of the room are individual shower stations. Traditionally, you wet yourself with water from the pool, cleaning your body, before you take a short soak in the pool. You then use the small stools in each shower station to wash. Shampoo, conditioner, and soap were provided. After you are clean, you can take another soak in the hot pool. We were a little nervous about trying this as it was traditional to be naked. But, we were fortunate in our first public bath experience that were both alone in our baths.

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There was one scare for us that evening though: at about 11:30 PM, right as we were getting ready for bed, we were both shocked to feel the ground shake. We were both terrified for a moment as we realized we were experiencing another earthquake. There seemed to be no commotion inside the hotel, no emergency actions of any sort, and everything seemed to be fine. We did a quick bit of research and found that there had been a 5.3 magnitude quite a ways north of us. We did find out that there had been very slight damage in Tokyo, but no one said a word about it at any point. It was clear that these are normal occurrences in Japan.

We enjoyed the included buffet breakfast at the ryokan before heading out the next morning.

Travel the Hakone Loop

There seemed to be a typical tourist loop of sights to see in the Hakone region. We had purchased the Hakone Free Pass the day before which allowed to ride all of the buses, cable cars, and boats in this loop for no additional charge. We had stayed in the very small town of Ashinoyu which was on the east side of the loop. We headed back north to the town of Gora where we dropped our bags off at Ryokan Oyado Hakone Hachirinoyu. This was another, considerably less fancy, more western, ryokan. We walked to our first stop, a short but humid trip.

Hakone Open Air Museum

This is a large park like area which houses hundreds of statues and other kinds of outdoor art. We were intrigued by many of the sculptures as well as the Picasso building which is home to many of Picasso’s works. We spent several hours wandering around and still felt like we could have seen more.

In one area, there were hundreds of spiders weaving webs in the foliage. Della, in particular, was fascinated with watching them work building absolutely perfect webs.

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Near the end of our time at the Open Air Museum, we were excited to find a free hot springs foot bath. It was a great pick me up for our “museum legs.”

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Ropeway and Owakudani

After leaving the Open Air Museum, we got on a short cable car railway which took us back to the main station of Gora. From here we transferred to the Ropeway. We enjoyed the scenic ride up to Owakudani volcano. We were quite excited because up to about 2 days before we arrived Owakudani was closed. Owakudani is the area around the crater from the last eruption of Mount Hakone. It had been spewing a lot of sulfuric gas, so much that it had been closed to the public. While it was now safe enough to visit, there was still a lot of gas in the air so they gave everyone a wet towel to breathe through if needed.

We enjoyed viewing the crater, though it was difficult through the clouds and gas.

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The most exciting part however was eating black eggs. Owakudani is known for hard boiling eggs in the naturally hot water of the crater. The shells are blackened by the sulfur. Eating one is supposed to prolong your life by seven years. We purchased and ate 5!

 

On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji from Owakudani, but this was not a clear day.

We got back on the ropeway and proceeded to the next stop.

Lake Ashinoku

The ropeway deposits tourists at a small town called Togendai where you transfer to a sightseeing boat across the lake. We actually just missed a boat so spent some time reading in the station while waiting for the next one. The sightseeing boat is decked out like a pirate ship which seemed a little odd to us.

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We enjoyed the ride across the lake, though it was too cloudy to see the iconic view of Fuji across the lake which we had been hoping for.

We got off the boat at Hakone-Machi hoping to visit the Hakone Checkpoint, but it seemed to be closed for the day so we headed on.

Old Tokaido

We walked along the ancient highway to Edo (Tokyo). There is a short section of beautiful cedar lined path. It was lovely to walk along and imagine the shoguns passing along this same highway.

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After walking along for awhile, we were able to get back to the main road and take a bus along the final part of the loop back to our ryokan.

Final Thoughts

We quite enjoyed our time in Hakone. Primarily, we enjoyed the honeymoon experience of staying in the ryokan. We wish the weather would have cooperated a little bit more during the rest of our sightseeing experience!

 

 

 

 

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One Year Ago Today

Since we have returned home from our round-the-world trip, on quiet evenings we like to play a game where we try to remember what we were doing on the same day one year ago. For example, on March 25, we remembered that one year ago we had left Ko Lanta in Thailand and flown to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. On October 25, we remembered that one year ago we had been exploring ancient Olympia in Greece.

One year ago today is a milestone that we are not soon to forget.


 

One year ago today, we were in Nepal.

One year ago today, we left the town of Syabru Bensi and started hiking up the Langtang River valley on the first day of our Langtang trek, which we had been looking forward to the entire trip. We chose to take the “low road” path that stayed down in the valley with a more gradual ascent.

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One year ago today, on the trail we leapfrogged a few different groups and individuals, making small talk about the scenic canyon and the arduous nature of the elevation gain.

One year ago today, we debated continuing to hike for another hour to our intended first night’s stop of Rimche, but then decided to take a break for tea and chapati in the village of Bamboo.

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The view from our table at the teahouse

One year ago today, at 11:56 Nepal time, at 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal about 100 km west of the Langtang valley.


 

One year ago today, as we were drinking our tea, we felt the ground shaking beneath our chairs. We turned to each other and asked, almost incredulously, “Is this an earthquake?”

One year ago today, we weren’t quite sure what to do in an earthquake. We thought about running into the teahouse, but changed our mind when the workers ran out of it.

One year ago today, we followed everyone up onto the raised terrace that belonged to the teahouse, and sheltered ourselves under wooden tables while boulders as big as cars crashed down from either side of the canyon.

One year ago today, we saw the teahouse we had considered running into flattened by a falling boulder.

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Looking south at the teahouses immediately after the quake. Compare to the above picture

One year ago today, we followed the other tourists, guides and villagers up just above the village to an area with two huge boulders that had not moved, with a small depression in between.

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This photo was taken by fellow trekker Corey: http://www.gofundme.com/tjssd5h9

One year ago today, we huddled against these boulders as further aftershocks and landslides occurred, praying for moments of calm and pleading with the Earth to stay still.

One year ago today, we stretched out for a night of fitful sleep under an orange tarp thoughtfully put up by others in the group.

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One year ago today, our families and friends back in the USA heard the news of an earthquake in Nepal, but did not know exactly where we were or how badly our area had been hit.

One year ago today, we began to make connections with this group that would help us survive until we were rescued five days later.


 

One year ago today, the village of Langtang, two days walk further up the trek (and where we were planning on spending our second or third night), was wiped off the map when a glacier broke off on the mountain above, triggering a massive landslide.

One year ago today, in Kathmandu, the royal palace and many of the historic temples surrounding Durbar Square (which we had visited three days prior) were destroyed.

One year ago today, the building adjoining the hotel that we had stayed in while in Kathmandu collapsed, killing multiple people inside.

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The same view after the quake, with the hotel just beyond in rubble

One year ago today, a villager on the trail just below where we sat was struck in the head and killed by a falling rock.

One year ago today, Or Assaraf, an Israeli trekker who had ridden on the same bus to Syabru Bensi that we did but had started his trek in the direction of the Gosakind Lakes, was killed in a landslide triggered by the earthquakes.

One year ago today, over 8000 people in Nepal lost their lives.


 

One year ago today, we were truly fortunate.

For more information about our experience, you can read our series on the Nepal earthquake. Many of the organizations that we highlighted in our how to help post have continued to do great work in Nepal as the country continues to rebuild, so please consider donating.

We’re Home After the Earthquake: How Do We Feel?

If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

We’ve just passed the one month anniversary of the original Nepal Earthquake. We’ve been home for about 3 weeks now. One of the questions that people keep asking us is how we feel. It has taken us a bit of time to come up with an answer to that question. We feel a lot of things and some of them are a bit hard to explain. But, we’ll try to describe them the best we can.

The order that we write them does not really signify the extent to which we feel them because as time has gone on, the emotions change. They grow and shrink, but they’re still there. The order is mostly a reflection of the order in which things occurred…

For our own ease of writing, we’ve each written in the first person. Della writes in italics while Eric writes in normal type.

We feel…

Disappointment

I’m a bit disappointed in my own abilities to cope with a disaster. I remember being more confused than anything when the earthquake first happened. I don’t think I had logical thought quickly enough to save my life. If I hadn’t been in a place where I was somewhat safe, then I’m not sure I would have survived. For example, a few minutes before the earthquake happened, I had decided I needed to go to the bathroom. I remember seeing a sign that was near where the donkey was in this picture.

The view from our table at the teahouse

For some reason, I told Eric that I needed to go but I was going to wait until our tea arrived. If I had followed my usual pattern and gone right away, I don’t think I would have thought fast enough to get out of the area when the ground started shaking. I would have been under the rocks in this picture.

Another look at the destroyed teahouses after some of the dust has settled

As camp life continued, I don’t feel like I was drain on the group, but I wasn’t a leader either. Of course, not everyone can be leaders, but I’m still disappointed in myself. I’m not sure if I would have been as effective in surviving without the help of the rest of the trekkers who were there. The best way I can think of to explain it: If it had been a film… I wouldn’t have been the hero. Far from it, I would have been the equivalent of an extra, maybe “Trekker #28,” and might have been cut from the movie during editing. 

I think I’m generally OK with how I acted during the earthquake. I am disappointed in my lack of contributions in the survival situation afterwards. Watching TV shows like “Survivor,” I always imagined that I would be one of the ones that would step up and help organize the activities around camp. But as it turned out, I was too reluctant to suggest much of anything and relied on others to lead the way. I’m very glad that they had the knowledge and foresight to do things like string up a tarp, because I don’t know if I would have had that idea. I’m not sure that any of my contributions around camp were essential.

Lucky

Somehow, despite the bad luck of being in Nepal during the time of the quake, we had the best luck we could have had. We were seated outdoors, as close to the middle of the canyon as we could be. Even among the terraces, ours was the best because very few rocks flew that way which prevented injury. We came out of the earthquake and the landslides literally unscathed. We were in the low part of the valley which meant that survival was relatively easy – we weren’t cold or worried about altitude sickness. We experienced the earthquake while in a village which meant we could stay there and use resources from the village to meet our basic needs (food, water, shelter). There was an amazing group of people who, by accident, were stranded with us and through their support and camaraderie we survived. 

I keep thinking about how many different little things led up to the luck of us being where we were when the earthquake hit. As Della said, we were very lucky that we ended up where we were. What if we hadn’t made the last-minute decision to stop at Bamboo for tea? What if we hadn’t spent an extra day in Kathmandu before setting out on the trek? What if we had gone straight to Nepal from Vietnam instead of going to Hong Kong first? We were very lucky to end up in the situation that we did.

Guilt

I know that survivor’s guilt is a thing. It’s hard to explain exactly because there is nothing that I did or didn’t do that allowed me to survive while so many others didn’t. But, I feel a huge weight of guilt all the same and maybe that is exactly why I do feel it. I think we as people look for explanations or reasons for things. It’s in our nature to understand why something happened. But, that’s just it. There is no reason why. I was lucky, but I feel such guilt. There were a lot of wonderful people, people who probably deserve to be alive a lot more than me who aren’t. I know a lot of people didn’t even have a chance… Those who were in Langtang village had no time to do anything. Moments after the initial quake, essentially a glacier coming at huge speeds just bowled over them. But, why was I lucky enough to be where I was? What twist of fate allowed that to be? What have I done to be more deserving? I know the answers of course. Nothing. The tension under the earth became too much and the great plates that have been forming the Himalayas for generations moved. The earthquake happened and some places were hit worse than others. It is a random occurrence and I was one of the lucky ones. But, that doesn’t really stop how I feel. 

I also have a hard time coming to terms with our survival when so many others didn’t make it. I also feel guilty about the resources that were expended to rescue us when so many other people in Nepal were in situations which were just as bad as ours or maybe even worse. We had plenty of food and a decent shelter, and we could have definitely stayed out there longer if need be. Or, we could have tried to walk out, like some others did (although I think it would have been a gamble given that there was at least one landslide on the trail every day). Should I feel bad that my status as a tourist meant that maybe our rescue was given higher priority than sending supplies to a local village? A few people have asked a version of that question since we’ve returned and we don’t really know how to answer it.

In addition, I wonder if there is something more that I could be doing to help. I got to come home which is safe and comfortable and far away from the tremors of the earth. But, should I have stayed in Nepal to try to help? (More likely I would have just been in the way.) Should I be doing more here to raise money? (Not sure what else I should be doing…) Should I be giving more of my own money? (Already given probably more than I can afford easily…) Overall, I think we made the right choices, but it doesn’t stop the uncertainty and guilt. 

I also feel guilty that we maybe we haven’t done as much as we could to help. We made the conscious decision to come home for what we believe were the right reasons, but other people who stayed seem to be doing great things. The same can be said about our decision to go back to our old jobs as opposed to dedicating our lives to help. We will try to keep raising awareness, but is that doing enough?

Frustration

I have been looking forward to my visit to Nepal for soooo long. My parents have these fantastic memories and pictures from their Langtang trek 35 years ago. I so wanted to have my own memories. The top of that valley just looked like the most glorious place. I am so frustrated that we didn’t get to finish our trek and continue what we had planned for Nepal. I’m also frustrated that our fantastic RTW journey had to end on such a sour note. Now all of the wonderful memories are overshadowed by how the trip ended. On top of that, we ended our trip early, cutting out a month of this journey of a lifetime. Again, I think we made the right choice to come home, but it is still so frustrating to have it all end like this.

I didn’t have the same personal connection to Langtang as Della did, but I still was quite frustrated to not be able to complete our trek. I had expected it to be an activity like our self-drive safari, a huge adventure that would test us in ways that we didn’t expect but would be something we would look back on as one of the highlights of the whole year. We kind of got that, but not in the way that we wanted or expected. And losing a month of our year-long trip hurts. Once the trip of a lifetime is over, what do you do with the rest of your life?

Sadness

A beautiful trek is damaged – perhaps beyond repair. More than 8000 people are dead. A country that was struggling with poverty before is now wrecked with terror and destruction. So many people, beautiful people, have lost their homes and all their possessions. They will struggle to just survive in the years ahead. Hundreds of children from the Langtang Valley are now orphans, their parents buried under rock-slides. They will have to grow up without so many of their family members and removed from their homes. I tear up randomly throughout the days just thinking about it. Terror and heartbreak are now familiar to the people of Nepal. 

And then, while fearing and mourning for all the people in Nepal who lost their livelihoods due to an act of nature, I hear news stories of people in other areas of the world who are facing some of the same pain… And even more terribly, it is due to war; People creating the terror and pain and inflicting it upon others. And that, in a lot of ways, is even worse. There is so much darkness, cruelty, and pain in the world, and it is hard to see beyond it at times.

It hit me at some point while we were in Bamboo that we had just watched the life’s work of many people be destroyed right in front of us. And after we were back in Kathmandu, the stories that the cab drivers and business owners would tell would just break my heart. Every day now I hear about aftershocks that just have to be terrorizing the people living there.

Helplessness

I mentioned above about the pain and loss of the Nepali people (and so many others around the world); it’s hard to know how to help. I live in a beautiful place that is solid, orderly, and mostly safe. I want to help, but sometimes it seems hopeless. 

Anxiety

While sheltering at Bamboo, our senses were always on alert, feeling for aftershocks, listening for landslide, and looking to spot helicopters coming towards us. Even after we got back to the US, I’ve found it hard to turn that sense of awareness off. I have to remind myself that a thunderclap is not an earthquake. And every time I hear a helicopter I reflexively look up to the sky to see where it’s heading.

Hope

Even with all of the negative emotions discussed here, I do have some positive feelings associated with the event. The spirit of the group that stayed at Bamboo inspires me and reminds me of all of the good people in the world. Seeing all of the messages on social media that helped to get us rescued shows me just how great of a network of people there is out there that care for us. Finally, looking at all of the great work that is being done for relief in Nepal gives me a hope that the country will be able to persevere and rebuild.

Denver Area: Dancing Fundraiser to Support Bamboo! Friday, June 12 6 pm

Eric and I have been looking for ways that we can support Nepal. One of the ideas I came up with was to use Zumba as an avenue to raise some money to help support the villagers of Bamboo. Click here to read our Earthquake story and learn how this village saved our life.

Margie Krest of Dancing the Soul has graciously agreed to host and support this event. I taught Zumba at Dancing the Soul for several years before I headed out on our RTW journey. It is a wonderful studio in Denver that offers many modalities of movement and stillness. I’m so pleased that this wonderful community has agreed to help support Nepal!

On Friday, June 12 from 6-8 pm, we will have an event called Move for Nepal. It will feature several types of movement including Qigong, Belly Dancing, and Zumba. Two other instructors will be joining me to lead this class. We will Move for approximately 1 to 1.5 hours and then enjoy some wine and chocolate and ask any questions people may have about Nepal.

We’re asking for $15 donation with all proceeds going directly to the people of Nepal.

You may sign up in advance by going to http://dancingthesoul.com/ and clicking on “Workshop Schedule” on the top right hand side or clicking this link. You can also chose to donate directly online at that time.

Dancing the Soul is located in the Mayfair Neighborhood of Denver at 950-C Jersey Street | Denver, CO 80220. Click here for more info on location.

Please come to help support Nepal. (It will also be my Zumba debut after my RTW trip and I would love the support of familiar faces!)

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After the Earthquake Part 5: Returns and Reunions

If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

We woke in the US Embassy one week after we had set out on our bus ride to begin our trek of the Langtang valley. It had been the most comfortable secure night we had since then. The US Embassy was extremely solid and we didn’t even feel any aftershocks while we were in the building.

The Embassy was still serving hot food to all those still sheltering there, so we had a nice warm breakfast with our companions, Corey and Kathleen. After some discussion, we all decided that we wanted to head back into Thamel, the backpacker center of Kathmandu. Kathleen wanted to continue to support the businesses there by buying some more souvenirs and we (and Corey) wanted to see if it was possible to pick up our things that we left when we went on the trek.

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We had spent our previous nights in Kathmandu at the Hotel Bright Star, which we really enjoyed. The owner was an unbelievably kind man who had gone out of his way to help us. We still had his business card and were able to reach him on his cellphone. We were thankful to hear that his family were all safe and that he would meet us down the street from the hotel that morning.

We wrote a bit more about the hotel before and after the quake in our post Kathmandu: Before the Quake. But, it still breaks our hearts. Hotel Bright Star was still standing after the quake, but the hotel right next door was completely destroyed. Unfortunately, there was also quite a bit of damage to Hotel Bright Star and we do not know when/if it will operate again. The owner had sent his family to Pokhara, but was waiting near his hotel for us (and several other trekkers) who had left stuff with  him. His kind spirit in the face of his own personal tragedy is something we will never forget.

We also visited Corey’s hotel and he was able to pick up his things as well. On our way back, Eric spotted someone he recognized on a scooter zipping past. It was Valerie (the French girl who had just celebrated her birthday with chocolate pancakes in Bamboo with us the day before) and her guide Srijan!! We called her name and they stopped to share their stories. We were so glad that they had both safely made it back to Kathmandu. We weren’t overly surprised though, as we knew the French had been waiting on helicopters when we left Dhunche the day before. We had a brief but welcome reunion with them before we had to head on our way.

We carried our bags back to where we had been planning to meet Kathleen. While we were waiting for her, Eric spotted a group of our Bamboo friends in the back of a taxi flying past us! (Yes, Eric is really observant and has good eyes!) We tried to follow them, but couldn’t catch up. Corey and Della grilled Eric to see if he could tell exactly who was in the taxi. He was pretty sure that it had been the South African couple and the Australian sisters. We were disappointed not to have spoken with them, but so thrilled that they had also arrived in Kathmandu from Dhunche. It had been quite hard for us to leave our Bamboo family there the day before.

Corey had an idea for a place for us to eat lunch, so after we met back up with Kathleen, we headed that way. We had sat down (happy to see that the place was relatively undamaged and was serving food) and began to order. Suddenly, as we were looking out the glass doors of the restaurant we saw more people we knew: Aviv, Yonaton, and another Israeli friend from Bamboo! We ran out the doors (probably to the confusion of the wait staff) and called them back. After several hugs and brief summaries of rescue, they invited us to a reunion at the Chabad House in Kathmandu where the Israelis had already been planning to meet. We agreed we would see them there.

We returned to our lunch but had to jump up again a few minutes later. We saw the Australian sisters walking by! Again, we ran to the street and experienced more hugs and short tales of helicopters before also inviting them to the Chabad house for the reunion. It turned out that the rest of our Bamboo team had all been taken from Dhunche to Kathmandu only that day via large Nepali military helicopters (aside from a few individuals who had made it on transports the day before). They told us that there was no one from the Bamboo team left in Dhunche when they left!

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At 1 pm on May 1, 6 days after the earthquake that stranded us all together, we met with our Bamboo team at the Chabad house. Unfortunately, not everyone was there, but through discussion, we now knew that everyone we had been with on the mountain had made it safely away. We had even been in touch with the Lithuanian brothers (who had walked out of Bamboo) via Facebook and knew they were on their way home. It was extremely emotional and we were all feeling thrilled to see each other in a safe place!

We left each other that afternoon, only after agreeing to meet again for dinner to share each other’s company once more before people started leaving Nepal.

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By this point, the support operations at the embassy were clearly winding down. There were only a few others still sheltering there, and the staff were starting to take some deserved days of rest, so it felt quite empty at times. The Marines who guarded the embassy seemed to be ready to not have to worry about our security as well. We decided we should either leave the embassy or head home, and opted for the latter, booking a ticket back to the States for Sunday.

We spent one more day in Kathmandu and went into Thamel once more. We made an effort to spend all of the cash we had brought with us on the trek buying souvenirs and donating to people who were working for relief. We said goodbye to Kathleen tearfully as she left for home. We shared a lovely meal at another one of Corey’s favorite restaurants before we too had to say goodbye to this beautiful but devastated country.

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On our way to the airport on Monday, May 3, we had a sobering discussion with our taxi driver. “Nepal is finished,” he said, “finished! Homes are destroyed, all tourists are leaving. There is no work. Nepal is finished!” We hope with all our being that he is far from correct. While we know there is a lot of effort needed to rebuild, we also know that there are a lot of dedicated people our there working very hard to do so. See this link for just some of the stories of people working to support Nepal. We hope that you’ll join them. In addition, Nepal is a beautiful country and will continue to be beautiful. Don’t take it out of your travel plans – they need tourism now more than ever. Let’s all help prove that taxi driver wrong!

We will continue to tell the story of our earthquake experience in Nepal. We were extremely fortunate to survive and to be able to come home to the USA. Our stories are now over, but those in Nepal are not that fortunate. Huge numbers of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. Please take some time to donate (any amount, large or small, can help) to help this beautiful country recover. We’ve collected list of organizations that you might consider here.

Use these links to read the rest of our Nepal Earthquake story:

After the Earthquake Part 4: Rescue

If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

On April 30, we were quick to rise from bed at dawn (5 AM). We had slept well, since there were extra blankets now that there were just 22 people left. The night’s chill was still in the air, but we didn’t dawdle getting going for the day because the Dutch man who was keeping control of the satellite messaging device announced to everyone that rescue was coming “soon.” It was a beautiful morning in the valley, so we figured weather concerns would not stop the helicopters.

In addition to making sure our personal bags were packed and ready to go, we also all worked on getting the camp cleaned up and things put away as if we weren’t spending another night. We folded all of the blankets and stuffed them into the small cave, put all the remaining bottled water in one big box near the rock, did all of the dishes, and got all the food in one location under the tarp.

We did have time for a special breakfast that morning. It was the woman from France’s birthday, and one of the Australian sisters figured out a way to make pancakes as a special treat. They even made a special pancake cake with chocolate sauce on it, and we all sang “Happy Birthday.” It was another of those moments where it felt for a little while like a fun camping trip with friends as opposed to a survival situation.

Two of the Dutch people decided that it would be a good idea to post people constantly at the beach helipad to wave down any helicopters, especially if it was a large helicopter that couldn’t land at the small helipads that the other helicopters had used. They volunteered for the first shift out there.

The big worry for the morning (besides whether the helicopter would come) was the battery for the satellite message device. It originally had been draining slowly, and we had plenty of personal power banks to charge it, but with the increased message traffic as we all contacted loved ones, the battery had gotten critically low. Luckily, one of the side projects people had worked on over the past few days was getting the solar power systems from the teahouses set back up. Some of the inverter technology was broken, but they finally found a device that would charge the phone. One of the Dutch sat by the charging phone and made sure no one bumped it and broke our connection to the outside world.

As the morning went on, we got more and more antsy. No one wanted to do too much work since we thought rescue was coming soon. The skies were crystal clear, but not a single helicopter had come down the valley. (As it turned out, the delay was due to bad weather in Kathmandu). We all just sat, staring at the skies and straining our ears for the sound of rotors.

Around 8:30, there was a fairly significant tremor that caused a small landslide down the trail. By this point we were much less tense about the sound of falling rocks (once we knew it was in the distance), but it still didn’t help with the anxiety.

Finally, around 9, we heard the sound of a helicopter (one we had all become very familiar with, along with landslides). It took a moment to spot it – and then we saw it was coming in low! Not as low as the others though and it passed by Bamboo. But then it circled in the air near the beach helipad where those waiting had been waving flags, and then landed.

There was then a huge flurry of activity. The group that was drawn to go first grabbed their things, and so did the two of us, in case it was a helicopter for just the Americans.

Under normal conditions, to get to the beach from our camp took about a 5 minute walk over rocky ground. We guessed that the helicopter wouldn’t wait that long for its load, so we all ran as fast as we could praying that we wouldn’t trip. The more fit members of the group did an excellent job of pushing us all to go faster.

When we got to the beach we could see that it was another small, private Nepali helicopter, so we scanned the landing area to see if there had been a coordinator on board who could explain what the situation was.

We spotted two tall men, both wearing baseball caps (one for the University of Alaska), so we figured it was a helicopter sent by the Americans! They quickly found us and their accents confirmed it. They were two members of the Special Forces who were helping with the rescue operations. They confirmed that we were the Americans on our list and told us to get in.

The mix of emotions at this point was very powerful. On one hand, we were extremely excited to be rescued, and were not going to pass up the helicopter that had been sent for us. On the other hand, the thought of being whisked away while the rest of what now felt like a family to us sat back on the beach was heartbreaking.

But then as we headed to the helicopter, one of the Special Forces guys assured us, “Don’t worry, everyone is getting out!” With huge relief in our hearts we got on board. It was a very small helicopter, with three seats up front (one for the pilot – a Nepali) and only a small cargo area behind. We crammed into the small cargo area (with our bags). Soon after, three members of the first group crammed in the back with us, and one up front along with one of the guides. The Special Forces guys stayed back at camp to coordinate the rest of the rescue (and to take pictures of the camp and surrounding area as documentation to the higher-ups as to why our rescue was worth paying for).

The mood on the helicopter was jubilant. We all couldn’t believe we were getting rescued. The helicopter took us down the Valley we had hiked up five days before, and we tried to look out and see its current conditions.

We were taken to the army base at Dunche, the same town that we had passed through on our bus ride to get to the start of the trek. When we landed there was a flurry of activity as we had to be registered on the lists of a bunch of different uniformed men (probably from the same groups that were the checkpoints on the bus ride).

One stood out though – Tom, a US consular officer. He was the one coordinating the efforts of the Special Forces guys for the embassy. Della somehow heard him say he was the ambassador, which was later proved incorrect but made us feel pretty special at the time! He explained that the US had rented the Nepali helicopter for a block of time, which they would use to get all of the people from Bamboo out plus anyone else they could find in the valley.

The rest of his news wasn’t as great. They really only had authorization to get us out of the dangerous situation in the valley and to this town of Dhunche, which had been affected by the quake but was not still threatened by landslides since it was on top of a mountain. He said there was shelter in town, plus restaurants were open. Getting to Kathmandu was up in the air though; the road was (not surprisingly) broken, so we could try to walk for six hours down the road to Kalikasthan where there were buses. Or, there was a rumor that the Nepali Army would use big helicopters at some point to get the tourists out, so we could wait around in Dhunche for that. He did tell us to stay close though – the helicopter did have to go back to Kathmandu, and there might be some extra spots that we could squeeze into.

We left the army area to go see what the situation was. Up a small hill was a collection of big blue tents with bricks as the floor. There were some other trekkers there who we bombarded with questions to try and figure out what was going on. What we heard wasn’t great – it was pretty cold at night, and there wasn’t a clear way to get blankets. You basically just had to grab a tent and hope for the best. It was safer on paper than Bamboo, but actually seemed like it would be less comfortable.

As we evaluated the situation, we could see the other Bamboo people landing on their rescue helicopters. As they emerged from the army area and we saw that everyone was there, there were big hugs all around.

We had cell phone service, so we texted and eventually called our families. (A special thanks to T-Mobile, our cell provider, who after the earthquake established free calls and text to and from Nepal, so we and others in our group could get in touch). At first they didn’t even believe it was us, because their latest message had been that no rescue was possible due to the bad weather.

Someone suggested going into town for some food. We were torn, because we wanted to stick with our “family,” but Tom from the embassy had told us to stick close. We thought we might have time, so we headed towards the village with the rest of the group.

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On the way though, the group started talking to two other people who had been in Dhunche the previous night. Their accents sounded familiar – they were other Americans (from Alaska). Della told them that the US ambassador was on the helipad (again, not actually true but what we thought at the time) and they were very interested to hear what he had to say, since they had been having trouble getting in touch with the embassy.

We reluctantly split from the Bamboo group and headed back up to the gate of the army area with the other Americans. We tried to peer inside and see Tom, and we also asked the guard at the gate, but he wasn’t there. We couldn’t figure out where he had gone but stayed waiting outside the gate. Finally we saw him inside and called him over. Unfortunately, his news hadn’t changed, and our best bet was to wait until the next day or walk.

Some of the other Bamboo people were also waiting near the gate. There was a large group of French people who had been told by their embassy that they would be helicoptered out, and the Dutch (who still had the satellite device) had heard the same thing. It was interesting how quickly we shifted from “Team Bamboo” to allying ourselves by country. It was a little sad, but seemed to be the reality of how the next steps were being handled.

We were sitting in the gate area but with not much hope of anything happening. Then, Tom appeared again! He said they would have three spots on the helicopter taking them back to Kathmandu. At this point there were five Americans: us two, Corey from Bamboo, and the other American couple. The couples weren’t going to split, so it would be Corey and one of the couples. We offered to let the other couple go first, since they had been in Dhunche a night already, but they said they didn’t think that was necessary. They proposed a coin toss, with an American quarter. Eric called it in the air – “heads.” It was heads.

We gave hugs to the others, and headed back inside the army area with Corey, Tom and the Special Forces guys to wait for the helicopter, which was out doing something else. We ended up waiting for quite a while and having a nice conversation. Tom and the Special Forces guys were just the nicest people and so calm – it really helped in the situation.

We got word that the helicopter was delayed, so Eric and Corey went down to use the restroom behind an army truck. Just as they were finishing, one of the Special Forces guys came to find them – the helicopter was landing! They raced back up to the helipad and jumped on board with the rest.

We think they must have had to do some special convincing, because they crammed a huge number of people on board the aircraft. The two of us lucked out and got to sit up front with the pilot. In the back, they fit Corey, the two Special Forces guys (not small guys and with big bags), Tom, a Nepali woman with a broken arm, and a ground coordinator.

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The ride back to Kathmandu, which had taken over eight hours by bus, took about 20 minutes. We felt very lucky to be sitting up front and getting great views. (We also remarked on the irony of us getting a helicopter ride – we had only a couple of weeks earlier discussed that taking a helicopter ride would be fun some day). We looked out at the countryside as the ride went along. There were plenty of flattened buildings along the terraced hillsides.

We held our breath a bit as we crested the final hill and got our first look at the Kathmandu valley. At first glance, it seemed like the devastation was less than we had feared, as most buildings were still standing. Upon closer inspection though, we could see many distinctive patches of orange, which were the tarps that the residents were sleeping under, too afraid to move back into their cracked homes.

We landed at the Kathmandu airport, which was abuzz with activity. There were many planes from other countries, including big ones from the Chinese and Thai Air Forces. We rode on a pickup to the parking lot of the airport, where the commander of the Special Forces unit met us in a different pickup (which turned out to be armored) to give us a ride to the embassy.

Our eyes were wide open on the ride to the embassy, taking in the sights of Kathmandu and trying to ascertain its status. There was actually less damage than we expected, but we did still see many people living outside. The embassy itself was quite a sight to see – it looks like your average American office building, which stands out quite a bit among the traditional Kathmandu atmosphere.

After going through a security check and a registration with the front desk, we were taken into the consular area for a debriefing with those who had been working to get us rescued. We were asked for any information we could give about the large number of unaccounted for trekkers, but we had to say that unfortunately we hadn’t seen them, since we were just on our first day and had just trekked a short distance.

Someone went to go find Kathleen, the American woman who had gotten out on the Israeli helicopter. She had been staying in the embassy since her rescue and had been feverishly working to get the rest of us out as well. It was a very emotional reunion for all of us.

But we didn’t have too long to sit and reminisce, because the PR woman at the embassy asked if we would be willing to immediately do an interview with Good Morning America. We were a little shocked that our story would be of that much interest to anybody, but she explained that we were one of the first feel-good stories that the embassy could promote. Before we even had a chance to shower, we were whisked away to a filming location outside of a fancy hotel for our interview, so if you watched it, you saw us as we looked on the mountain. We also discovered how the media can misinterpret things – for example, we were not living in an “ice cave” like the ABC news report said, and we had to correct a few people that we were not caught in an avalanche on Everest.

After the interviews, we returned to the embassy where Kathleen showed us around. The embassy had been doing a remarkable job of sheltering people in Kathmandu, both tourists and those who lived locally who were afraid to move back into their homes when aftershocks were still going on. Kathleen told us that maybe 200 people had been spending the night; this isn’t a normal thing, so people were having to sleep in hallways and share the one shower per gender. By the time we arrived though, many people had either left the country or moved back outside the embassy, so the PR woman found a nice conference room with air mattresses that we could stay in for as long as we needed to.

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One great thing the embassy had was a library with computers that had Internet that we could use. We opened up our email and Facebook for the first time since before the earthquake, and we were just blown away by the amount of activity we saw. One thing to understand is that we were living in a bubble out at Bamboo, with the only contact being Della’s father. We naively assumed that he was making a few phone calls and perhaps had let a few people know on Facebook that we were safe. We had NO IDEA how many people had mobilized to help, or were even just posting messages of support. If you were one of these people, and you are reading this, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We can’t say it enough.

Our glimpse at Facebook was overwhelming, but was interrupted by an in-person visit with a reporter from Time Magazine. He wanted to write an in-depth story, so he let the two of us and Corey tell the story of our time at Bamboo as we wanted to. This was the first time we had really gotten a chance to tell the whole story to an outsider, and we overloaded him with overlapping narratives, diagrams, and so on. We even had to finish the interview over the hot dinner being served by the embassy. The resulting piece was a really good representation of our story. (The dinner itself was also really good, even if it was just served out of cafeteria trays – we skipped the rice and went straight for the mashed potatoes and meat dishes).

While we were finishing up our interviews, one of the Special Forces guys came by and asked to talk with us when we got the chance. We were worried this meant we had done or said something wrong, so we were nervous as the conversation began. But as it turned out, we had nothing to worry about. He just wanted to make sure we were doing ok, since he was worried that he had rushed away after the rescue. He told us that after they got everyone out, they had taken the helicopter further up the valley to Langtang village and seen the devastation there. He seemed to be a bit shaken by this, and reiterated to us how happy he was to have been able to help us. He did ask us for one thing… a big hug.

Then, we finally, blissfully, got to take our first hot shower in days. The amount of dirt that came off was pretty gross. Luckily the two of us had saved an extra clean change of clothes that we could get into.

As night fell, the embassy got pretty quiet as most people headed home. It was hard for us to believe, as we sat in nice padded chairs, that just earlier that morning we had been sitting under a rock in Bamboo Village. After such a long day, we figured that we would crash, but we all felt still too full of energy. Eric and Corey worked on catching up the journals that they had been keeping throughout their respective trips, comparing notes and trying to remember the details. The PR lady hosted us in her office for a debriefing session with a secret stash of beer and wine. We did another brief check of email and Facebook, then went to sleep, not on top of rocky dirt under a tarp, but rather on top of an air mattress with the solid roof of the US Embassy overhead.

We will continue to tell the story of our earthquake experience in Nepal. We were extremely fortunate to survive and to be able to come home to the USA. Our stories are now over, but those in Nepal are not that fortunate. Huge numbers of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. Please take some time to donate (any amount, large or small, can help) to help this beautiful country recover. We’ve collected list of organizations that you might consider here.

Use these links to read the rest of our Nepal Earthquake story:

After the Earthquake Part 2: Decisions and Projects

If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

We woke up in our makeshift camp above Bamboo Village on the morning of April 27, two days after the large earthquake that rattled Nepal, with mixed emotions. On one hand, we had a solid night of sleep and were feeling refreshed. On the other, the messages coming through the satellite messaging device were still pessimistic about a rescue being sent for us any time soon.

One thing we saw firsthand during our experience was how easy it is for fear and even panic to spread through a group in a survival situation. It was clear on this morning that the locals were still not feeling safe in our shelter area. They would motion up towards rocks higher up both sides of the canyon walls, and indicate that they thought that a landslide could reach what we considered to be our safe space. This sense of dread spread through the rest of us and we all began to wonder if it made sense to stay or whether we should go somewhere else.

We talked it out and try to think about it scientifically, and it seemed like logically we were in a good situation. It looked like landslides would be funneled away from our shelter. Also, we had plenty of food and shelter from the elements, and we didn’t know what it would be like elsewhere. So our initial reaction was to stay.

But then it came out that the villagers thought it was safest to head to higher ground, improvising a path up the canyon wall to head to the village of Thulo Syabru. Again we questioned whether we should follow our instinct to stay or follow theirs to go up (especially since they had been almost right about the aftershock the previous day). A few of the guides thought that the locals were right, and headed up with them along with their clients. The two of us though decided to stay with the larger group. We felt our decision was somewhat vindicated when after an hour or so the guides and trekkers returned; the scramble over the rocks to get up the canyon seemed too tough. (We did later hear that those who continued on made it safely).

Around the same time a smaller contingent – one guide and two brothers from Lithuania – decided to head down the trail back to Syabrubesi. This was a bit more appealing, because we knew that Syabrubesi was a sizable town with a road link back to Kathmandu (although we didn’t know the condition of the road). We might have been more tempted by this option, but many of the landslides that we had seen during our time sheltering had hit sections of the trail that we would have had to hike through. It seemed like an unnecessary gamble given that we had our necessities taken care of at Bamboo.

Still, it was quite tough to make the decision to stand still when we had no clue how long we would have to wait for helicopter rescue. The main group stayed, including the Israelis with the satellite messaging device, so we stayed too. (We did later learn that those who walked down made it safely, but ended up having to walk two more days until being able to catch a bus to Kathmandu).

A guide and the Lithuanian brothers heading down the trail

A guide and the Lithuanian brothers heading down the trail

After all of the departures, we had a full group meeting to discuss our updated situation. During this meeting we discussed what projects needed to be done around camp, and made sure everyone was updated on what messages from the outside world had been received. We briefly brought up whether we should establish a priority order for evacuation, but it seemed the consensus was the wounded and older first and we didn’t go much beyond that. We also went around the group and introduced ourselves – even though we all felt like a team already, we had missed some introductions in the heat of the moment and it was nice to get a chance to hear everyone’s names again. We also counted off – we were 47 people.

Again, it felt like we had been through a full day and it was still the middle of the morning. We still had a big chunk of the day to get through, so many of us started to work on projects that had been identified in the group meeting.

One of the biggest projects was water. Among the group we had a sizable amount of purification supplies, but we had made the decision that we should conserve those for later and boil water while we could. We had realized that with as many people as we had, we needed a large volume, and it was hard to boil that much water when having to share the fire with meal preparation. Therefore, the first task was to construct a second fire that would be constantly boiling water. They ended up making two small fires just big enough to accommodate the large kettles we were using.

The boiled water was safe to drink, but it still looked pretty murky. The clear mountain rivers had turned a muddy brown after the landslides, and it resulted in a pretty gritty drink. A few people came up with a way to filter the water by using gauze stuffed into the tops of water bottles with the bottoms cut off. Running water through these filters would remove many of the particulates. They even came up with a great system where four filters could run at once.

The next issue with the water was that the boiled water was too hot to put into the plastic water bottles for storage, as they would just melt. Someone had the idea to cool the water by running it inside a hose that was in cold water – we think we heard this was based on a beer cooling system! A rubber hose was found, and then a system to run it downhill through a bucket of cold water was set up.

This was a cool system, but then another limitation became apparent: it could only fill one bottle at a time. With 47 of us, that seemed pretty tedious. Then, one of the Israelis, Yonathan, began to construct a “bottling” station. At first we were confused, but the end result was quite impressive. He set up a platform that the hose would run over horizontally, and then poked small holes in the hose for water to drain out into bottles. He even fashioned small straws out of bamboo to direct the drips.

With this water system up and running, there was a need to go get water to boil more frequently. The whole group was pretty good about jumping up and helping, and we took a few turns ourselves. It was actually easier to get the water from a side river just up the trail rather than from the big Langtang River.

Marta and Eric getting some water from the side river

Marta and Eric getting some water from the side river

We were still concerned with making contact with the outside world. The holders of the satellite messaging device had figured out how we could send an email to any address, so some of us started sending messages to our loved ones to see if they could work a rescue from a different angle than the Israelis. The two of us were able to get a message out to our families with insurance information in case that helped. The messages had to be 160 characters or less so we worked hard to squeeze as much as we could in.

Della working on our message with Kathleen's encouragement

Della working on our message with Kathleen’s encouragement

A few of the guides also decided that our helipad on the beach might not be enough, so they cleared some of the nearby eating terraces and created two new helipads – giving us three in all! They marked the “H” on these with flour – which seemed like a good idea until the cows that also lived in the village started to eat it.

Another group formed and moved the location of the latrine. The original latrine had been nice but was in a location beneath the area of one of the original rockslides, so it was always a bit scary to use it. They moved it to a location in the flat area above our rock that had so far been untouched.

You can see the sheets that made up the latrine privacy walls hidden among the trees

You can see the sheets that made up the latrine privacy walls hidden among the trees

Even with all of these projects, there is so much time in the day that we had to find ways to fill. There were a few diversions like playing cards, singing songs, and reading, although we personally found it a little hard to focus on things for too long. Most of the time was filled just sitting around and chatting with one another about the situation we had found ourselves in.

We were graced with another sunny late afternoon, and again it helped to lift our spirits. The group of Israelis volunteered to cook dinner, and they made an excellent shakshuka.

As the sun set, we were able to get our old sleeping spaces back and snuggled back in with our same “roommates” from the previous night. It had been a good day with a lot accomplished, but we were still anxious about just how long our camp improvements would have to last us. Was rescue coming soon, or would we have to walk out like the others had?

Sun sets over Bamboo

Sun sets over Bamboo

We will continue to tell the story of our earthquake experience in Nepal. We were extremely fortunate to survive and to be able to come home to the USA. Our stories are now over, but those in Nepal are not that fortunate. Huge numbers of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. Please take some time to donate (any amount, large or small, can help) to help this beautiful country recover. We’ve collected list of organizations that you might consider here.

Use these links to read the rest of our Nepal Earthquake story: