Story 23

I stared death in the face during one of my trips

Hi, I’m Cynthia, the human being behind this issue of Upstairs. I traded my freelance Multilingual Translator hat for the one of full-time Content Manager. Apart from that, I love and am interested in everything that stimulates my senses and my mind, as long as quality prevails over quantity.


Story of my roots and my love for traveling

Let’s get to know each other a little before digging deeper into the most traumatizing and rewarding experience of my life.

I’m a woman, born and raised in France, with Italian and Malagasy roots. You probably guessed what I’m going to say next (if not, wait for it): I’m a lifelong traveler, and I’ve been to quite a few places around the world.

Since I was a few months old, my parents, brother, and I frequently traveled to Italy to visit my (huge) family there. At least once a year, if not twice or three times. Later, as a teenager, I went to summer camps every year. At the age of 20, I moved to Malta, and that’s when I started my life as (an adult) frequent flyer.

After four years of living on this tiny beautiful Rock in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, I got itchy feet, so I grabbed my backpack and a one-way ticket. And just like that, in 2012, I was off to see the world!  

Fast forward to 2015, when I took the plunge by traveling alone, starting with India. I had booked a one-way ticket (yes, again), and I explored India, Nepal, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Viet Nam, on an unplanned 5-months trip, on my own.

Traveling alone when you’re a woman

“Wait, what? Cyn, you’re traveling alone? Plus, you’re going to India, but it’s dangerous there!”

That’s pretty much what people told me before I left for one of the most beautiful and life-changing experiences I had the chance to live.

I know, stepping out of our comfort zone can be, and actually is, intimidating. I’m not going to share everything I’ve experienced and learned thanks to my travels, but I can tell you that they convinced me that the magic really happens out there!

Feeling comfortable is a nice feeling, and I enjoy that too! However, you don’t learn much when you stay within that safe zone.

In fact, I’ve never been reckless, quite the opposite, even though you could think the contrary.

I’m often called a free spirit or rebellious. Truth is, I am. Or at least, I was because I’ve become wiser now, haha!

Joking apart, as a woman, whether you travel alone or not, is of little importance. In my experience, what does make a difference is how you travel. And I don’t mean here by which means of transport but for what purpose, with what kind of mindset, that sort of thing. 

Personally, I’ve traveled for various reasons. For a start, I love challenges, and I love challenging myself, not necessarily in that particular order. Also, as I said earlier, I love everything that stimulates my senses and my mind. Above everything else, as a people person, traveling has given me countless amazing opportunities to meet up new people from various countries, diverse backgrounds, and cultures, and so on. I mean, you get my point here.

I get so much out of traveling, and I love everything I’m experiencing on my journeys.

A dream come true

I always said that one day I would travel around the world. There are still many places I haven’t been to yet. But I’m grateful for the many ones I have had the privilege to discover, appreciate and learn from.

That 5-month journey I took alone was a dream come true. And I mean every word.

My flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai was an emotional roller coaster hard to explain. First, when the realization hit me, I felt a mix of panic and disbelief like, “WTF am I doing?” Then tears also made an entrance, and I started crying because I still didn’t know what the f*** I was doing. But once I took my seat on the plane by the window, the feeling of excitement and pride washed over me. I felt happy. 

Two flights later, I landed in New Delhi, India, where my life-changing journey started. After one month exploring what its cultural richness has to offer and learning so much along the way, I said goodbye to India, and I headed to Nepal.

As I hadn’t exactly planned in advance where nor when I was going to next, I booked my flight a few days before leaving India once I had finished visa formalities. 

The peaks of Nepal

I’ve always dreamt of traveling to Nepal. Unlike other places in the world, Nepal has always had a special appeal to me. Maybe because I’m a mountain lover, even though I love nature in all its forms.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was in Pokhara with a friend. We rented a room together. I was seated on my bed, writing my travel diary, when she screamed: “Cyn, look at that, OMG!”

She was pointing at the window in complete awe.

The grey sky had made room for the giant peaks of the Annapurna. And we were there in the front row, enjoying the full view of this gigantic peak, the Machapuchare, in all its glory.

Oh. My. God.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I dropped my diary and ran outside to reach the roof of the guesthouse. I stared at this absolutely stunning beauty of nature and found myself filled with intense and hardly describable emotion. I cried.

I was there, on the land of the highest mountain chain in the world, me, from my 1.60m height against the Machapuchare’s 6,993m. I will never forget that moment and how I felt. It was beautiful, impressive, and also scary. The best reminder of humility.

And then the earthquake happened

April 22nd, 2015. On my way back from Bandipur, a tiny Nepalese village nestled in the heights of the country, I stopped in Kathmandu, the Capital City.

My goals were simple: take my clothes to the laundry and head towards Mount Everest (not to climb it, though, but to do a trek in the area). I took care of extending my visa for another month, so I could stay in Nepal for two more months in total.

But life had other plans for me.

April 25th, 2015. “Alright, today is the day I’m off to Mount Everest!” I thought.

At around 11.00 AM, it started shaking.

I was seated on my bed, chatting with some friends, when I got surprised by this strange event.

“What the hell is happening?” I shouted. My friend said surprisingly calm: “It’s an earthquake.”

It became more intense. So intense I had to grab the bars of my bunk bed as I was swinging from right to left with an exaggerated strength.

“That’s it, I’m going to die…” is precisely what I thought at that moment.

I was hearing stones falling, people screaming, walls cracking. And I still have this image of the wall in front of me, which was cracking open as the Earth shook… It was terrifying.

It felt like it lasted hours, even though it barely was a couple of minutes. I thought it was not going to stop anytime soon.

I was terrified and, today, I still feel grateful to be alive and to have been surrounded by my friends during that series of earthquakes.

Because, yes, on April 25th, the biggest one of a 7.8 magnitude traumatized me, but many aftershocks followed it. Too many.

Forty minutes later, the first aftershock (6.6 magnitude) hit us. I was outside with my friends as we were told to evacuate our building to reach a safer area in the open air. If you’ve ever been to Nepal, especially Thamel, in Kathmandu, you know how hard it is to find a safe area in such circumstances.

Anyway, we did our best.

This time, I was in direct contact with the ground. The Earth that has always been a reference to balance and security was shaking. Trust me when I say that when you feel it that way, it definitely erases any sense of inner stability.

Aftershocks kept us frightened and terrified. I was thinking that I had no idea how or if I was going to survive.

A life-changing experience

Despite the traumatizing effect of experiencing such a massive earthquake for the first time and not being prepared for it, it has been a life-changing experience.

It reminded me how precious life is and how little power I have to control it, especially when nature comes in.

It also made me realize how important it is to enjoy and treasure every moment and not take anything or anyone for granted. I’m very serious here.

This earthquake shook me in many ways and not only physically. It brought new fears, like the fear I feel when I hear noises that remind me of the Earth’s rumble. Or the noise when someone slams a car trunk shut. Or the subway passing under my feet on a Parisian cafe’s terrace.

Back then, I used to stay in hostels which meant sleeping on bunk beds. I spent many nights sweating whenever the person on top was moving and shaking the whole structure. (Because, yes, there was no way I would sleep in the top bed, for fear I had to run outside if there was an earthquake).

Before I booked a night somewhere, I asked about the earthquake history and safety conditions.

Also, I couldn’t cross a bridge without a drop of sweat and a high heart rate.

I had the heaviest feeling of guilt when I left Nepal. Even though I refused to be repatriated to France and preferred to keep traveling, I couldn’t help but think of all those who didn’t survive or lost their loved ones.

Imagine when you ask the Red Cross how you can help, and they tell you that it’s not safe and that you’re not of any help because you must be qualified if you come across a dead body buried under the debris.

I thought I was going to die. I was alive. I wasn’t injured. I wanted to help. I wasn’t allowed. It felt so unfair, and I felt so useless.

What now?

Today, six years later, I’m feeling better. Yet, I still struggle on various levels for obvious reasons.

I’ve traveled again, alone. And I’ve experienced other earthquakes (in Bali, Indonesia). It was terrifying, again, but that didn’t stop me from traveling.

Fear does not prevent danger, and I would love to go back there because Nepal definitely is one of the most beautiful and incredible countries I’ve ever been to. Plus, there’s more I’d like to discover from this stunning corner of the world.

If you ever went through something similar, whether an earthquake or anything impactful, don’t give up! Don’t give up on who you are and what truly fills you with joy and happiness.

I’ve always been a travel lover, and when I was given a choice to go back to my safe place or keep traveling, I chose the unknown and stepped out of my comfort zone.

That was the best decision ever as I could heal and learn and use this experience as a lesson to (try to) be a better person.

Thanks for reading, and remember: never take anything nor anyone for granted!


Treasure life,
Cynthia

Contributors of this story: Cynthia Castelletti wrote this story, Oana Filip provided feedback and edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development. Thank you!

Cynthia Castelletti
A question by Cynthia, the author of this story:
What moment or event changed your life or the way you see it now, and why?

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Thank you, Cynthia, for laying bare your love for traveling and your near-death experience in Nepal. I can hardly imagine what that must have felt like, though I am glad it didn’t break you beyond repair. Life happens to all of us, whether we like it or not.

Regarding your question, I have given it some thought and I find it quite difficult to pinpoint exact, life-changing moments, at least not as clear-cut as your earthquake episode. For me, it’s more in terms of life segments that, in hindsight, shifted the path I walked so far. Nevertheless, there were small happenings that put things into focus. I am going to tell you of one that ties beautifully with that behemoth of a mountain you gazed upon in Nepal.

I am a lover of nature too, big and small. Mountains, forests, mountain forests, lakes, creeks, meadows, rivers, skies, bugs, grass, flowers, trees, flowering trees, snow, snowy trees. I try to let that permeate all of me, whenever I get a chance, big or small.

When I was about 11 or 12 – can’t quite pin it exactly, I was trekking together with my classmates and my math teacher the highest mountain in our region, Ceahlău (a dwarf compared with the Himalayas, but impressive nonetheless). It’s a decent climb of about 2 hours. We were near the top enjoying the views, basking in the sun, just chilling. I felt good.

My math teacher, who was a veritable mountain man, born and raised at the foothills of this mountain, wanted to give me a special treat, to show me something interesting. I trusted him and I was already high on all those vistas, so why not? Left of the plateau (looking downhill) there is an area called Ocolașul Mare, a gentle slope that finishes with a cliff, riddled with small pine bushes. I didn’t know the area, except from afar. He took the lead and I followed along, mostly looking down, watching my steps.

After about 20 minutes of gentle walking, my teacher, standing about a meter away, told me to turn around. And I did. What a spectacular view! A place few people venture to. Moments later I realized why. We were standing on a very narrow path, about two-thirds up from the base of the cliff. I froze. It must have been at least a hundred meters of near-vertical cliff below me. The worst place to discover I had a fear of heights (or the place I developed it?)

I must have turned white, because, suddenly, my teacher lost his nature-gazing blissful composure and realized I was having a panic attack. Luckily, he was not one to panic easily (fuck it, he was a rock, with a big heart). In hindsight, I realize how impossible the situation must have been for him: he couldn’t reach out and grab me for fear of a wrong step, from both of us; he couldn’t pass me by because there was no room and the only way out was behind me. We were stuck, for what felt like ages.

I can recollect only flashes from then on. He talked to me, calmly but clearly, and told me to grab with my left hand a couple of roots exposed in the cliff wall. After that, to slowly turn towards the valley (?!?!) and lean against the wall – look straight forward! not a peak downwards! Now, he slowly caught my left hand still clinging to the roots, stood by my side, and let me breathe for a few long seconds. He encouraged me to side-step the few meters back to safety, rubbing my back against the wall. I did, all shaking, robotic, slow-motion moves and all.

On our way back to the group none of us had any words to spare. We were both in shock by now, each for different reasons. We both had to let those minutes sink in.

I realize now that it could all have gone very differently, very badly. It didn’t and I am thankful for that. I didn’t hold a grudge against my teacher. In fact, we trekked mountains and forests many times after, but not high places. We learned our lessons.

I am struggling with a fear of heights to this day. But I don’t let it rule me; I challenge it in gentle steps whenever I ride a plane, go snowboarding or visit a friend that has a flat higher up. I dance with it.

Reply

Oh. My. God.
Vlad, your story is… I mean… You gave me goosebumps!
I can totally feel you but hardly find the words to express what I feel after reading your story. First of all, I enjoyed it and I thank you for sharing it. Second of all, I could (almost) perfectly picture you, your teacher and the scene. No doubt it has been traumatising for both of you! Wow!
I love your conclusion though and the fact that you defy your fear of heights. Well done!

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Vlad Olarusays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:Dreamer, optimist, and lover of stories

Thank you, Cynthia. I haven’t told this story to many people and it feels good to know others can relate to it.

Here’s to shared experiences!

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