The Thamel Fire, or “You’re Good at Not Dying”

Jessica O’Neill is a writer living in Kathmandu, Nepal. This piece first appeared on her blog Madness & Beauty.

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Last night I was less than 100 metres from a massive explosion in Thamel, the main tourist district in Kathmandu. It triggered a fire that raged all night, and I (barely) slept to the sounds of sirens singing in the streets.

Danger, like, real life actual danger, is a strange thing. It’s a slow, confusing state during which your brain has to process all of the new information it is receiving, and then it has to figure out which of the appropriate steps it has to take to make you not die.

pilgrims+bookstore
I had a conversation with my friend Loren yesterday. He is about to embark on a long traveling journey (and we are going to meet in Bangkok), and the advice I gave him was basically, “if you’re not scared, you are doing something wrong. You need to be scared. It’s how your lizard brain will make sure you won’t die.”

And when you boil it all down, that is all ANY of us are any good at: not dying. If you are here and reading this blog in your pajamas, eatin’ Cheetos (or whatever snack you enjoy) thinking about rent and TV shows and the price of oil, well: good for you. You are EXCELLENT at the one thing you need to be good at doing: not dying. That can change at any minute, but right now you are doing a great job. Kudos.

Sometimes we pass our time not dying in a way that feels really calm and mundane. We live our lives and pay our bills and ride the bus and tuck our children into their beds and we think that we are safe. But really, we don’t even realize that we are walking through a minefield of constant terror and chances for death.

Thamel-Fire-in-Kathmandu
Your heart can literally explode in your chest. Your house can catch fire and you can be burnt to death in the time that it takes for you to wake up and realize what is going on. A driver can have one too many Tom Collins and drive straight into you as you cross the street. You are never “safe,” my friends. Never. Safe is not a thing.

I don’t mean to sound all Fox News and make you worry about scary foreign men bursting into your apartment and raping your pets (“A New Terrier Terror Strikes the Nation!!!”), but come on. We lull ourselves into complacency that every single moment we are alive is not scary as shit. IT IS. And guess what — you are good at navigating the fear. You have to be.

People say, “Jess, aren’t you scared to travel the world alone?” The answer is YES. Of course I fucking am. I’m not an idiot — bad stuff happens here in Nepal, but it can also happen to you while you are sitting on your couch in Edmonton or Topeka. Your ceiling could cave in or a swarm of bees could attack you or you have stroke — and we all know that but we just pretend otherwise. Like my mum always says, “You are going to die somewhere, so it might as well be somewhere fucking interesting.”

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Last night I was sitting in a pub in Thamel with Matthew Rose and Dan Pritchard, participating in a quiz (like I do every week) when a huge explosion rocked the bar. At first we thought it was a bomb, and then someone said it was just a single tank of cooking propane bursting and so we nearly continued the quiz. It wasn’t until the screams and shouts from the street alerted us that something a lot bigger had happened.

Twelve gas tanks (like these ones) exploded at Faces nightclub and the entire center of Thamel was on fire, and the bar in which I was sitting was less than 100 metres away from where it started. But it was strange — it was like we didn’t know exactly how to gauge the danger, like we didn’t realize it was a huge problem. I continued texting the boy, even. Time slowed down, and it was only when we stepped outside to see a wall of flames approaching did we realize that it was indeed time to leave, and that is when our lizard brains kicked in and made us not die. We went the other direction.

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That’s all you have to do. Don’t die. And when you do – because you will — and it is in an exotic locale, it’s no more shocking than if you were in your bed, surrounded by fat grandchildren. It’s death. It is always a possibility. Pretending that it isn’t is unhealthy and dishonest. Pretending that it isn’t means that you sleepwalk through life and never appreciate how wonderful and treacherous it really is. Pretending that it isn’t means that when death does come — and it will — you’ll be so unprepared that you’ll try to ignore even the very experience of dying. It’s one of the most important things that will ever happen to you, so what a spectacular waste.

Today Thamel is in ruins. There are only 7 firetrucks in the entire Kathmandu valley and they all responded, but the fire blazed through the night. One of the most iconic bookstores in Asia, Pilgrims, is gone. Countless people lost their livelihoods; thankfully it seems that no one lost their lives. But life is fleeting, and life is fragile.

I’m going to finish this up with a direct quote from something I wrote to Loren yesterday:
“You made this choice to travel, this amazing choice that like, an eeeenth of the population makes and you know why they don’t make it? BECAUSE IT IS TERRIFYING. And that is so, so fucking beautiful.”

Take care. Don’t die. You’re already good at that.

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  • Joe

    Beautiful write-up.

  • Its scary to live but we are going to die at one point

  • ET

    Well written. But you don’t have to travel to Katmandu to be somewhere fucking interesting or to do interesting things. Travel may add to your life but staying put and exploring depth can be just as interesting.

  • Kevin Organ

    This article reminds me of the lisa Hannigan song ‘safe travels (don’t die)’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4-GIkuWT9g