'I found my mum after 30 years, then almost lost her again in Nepal earthquake'
The sensational real-life journey of a Bangor man who travelled across the world in search of a ghost
A local musician who grew up without his mother has just returned from an emotional journey to Nepal where he discovered her living almost destitute in a remote village.
And, incredibly, after the joy of finding and being reunited with his mum after almost 30 years, John Hodge faced another agonising wait for news when the country was struck by a shattering earthquake just three days after his return to Northern Ireland.
It was only this week that the 35-year-old father-of-two finally found out for sure that his mum and newfound family in Nepal had survived the devastation that has claimed more than 7,000 lives so far.
In what is a heartrending story of love lost and refound, John, from Bangor, recalled the emotional moment he set eyes on his mother for the first time as an adult, and also how her desperate living conditions have compelled him to launch an appeal to raise money to build her a home.
His mum Maile (57) has been living with no real home, no money and no hope of ever finding her son - which had impacted on her mental health. John was told how, heartbreakingly, she often stood on the roadside waiting for him to come home to her.
The miracle of seeing her only child again after almost three decades lifted her spirits so much that her family in Nepal marvelled at the improvement in her health after just a few days spent with John.
The 35-year-old, who plays bass guitar with well-known local band The Big Kahuna, travelled to Nepal with wife Emma (34), who works as a beauty therapist. The couple have two children, Regine (3) and Danny, who will be two next month.
John spent his childhood and adult years haunted by memories and questions about his mum who left when he was just six years old to return to her homeland after her marriage broke down in Northern Ireland. Vague memories of her walking him to school, and a photo album showing snapshots of an early happy family life with his young mum lovingly cradling him on her knee and pushing him on a swing, were all he had to cling to as he grew up and became a father himself.
With the support of Emma, John realised last year that he would only find peace when he knew what had happened to his mother.
He and Emma travelled to Nepal on April 17 with no idea if she was dead or alive, or even if they had any chance of finding her.
All they knew was that they had to try.
With just the name of the village she had grown up in - which was so remote they couldn't even find it on a map - the couple faced a huge challenge in tracking her down.
However, unbeknown to them, a contact they had made in Nepal before they left home had done the groundwork.
In a bizarre coincidence, the man who ran the hotel they had booked told their story to a local headmaster, who turned out to be related to John's mother.
It meant that instead of spending the few precious days they had in Nepal trying to find his mum, John was reunited with her straightaway and was able to take her to his hotel, where they spent the entire week together getting to know each other again.
Said John: "It was completely bizarre.
"We knew she came from a village in east Nepal called Phalametar but we couldn't even find it on a map.
"A former Gurkha called Kul Limbu was running the Hotel Himalaya we had booked and he had arranged for a driver to pick us up from the airport.
"I emailed him and asked if we could hire the driver for the day and also if he could arrange an interpreter.
"He asked why and I explained our story.
"Mum's surname is Limbuni, which is a variation of Limbu, which is our caste or ethnicity and very common in the region. Kul had warned that it would be hard to find her because the name was so common.
"He then approached the local school to see if he could get us an interpreter, and when he told the story to the headmaster it turned out that he knew my mum, and in fact is related to us.
"Kul hadn't told us any of this and when we arrived at the hotel he sat us down and just said: 'Your mum is waiting for you'.
"It was absolutely wonderful and such a relief to know she was definitely alive and that she knew we were there and I was coming.
"For me then it was a case of just trying to prepare myself for seeing her again. I was trying to second guess how I would react, I didn't know what to expect."
The journey to her village was organised straightaway - again with the help of the former Gurkha who also runs a charity in the area called the Pahar Trust, which raises funds for local schools.
Even with Kul's help it was a tough trek as the area where she lived was so very remote. Said John: "We had to go over this long suspension bridge across a big river and then along the river bank, jumping from rock to rock, it was a bit treacherous underfoot.
"During the whole walk there lots of things were going through my mind - that she wasn't going to be there or it wasn't going to be her. I was worried as well in case the story had got out that this guy from the West was looking for his mum and all sorts of people would claim to be her.
"I didn't know if she had got married again and if I had any half brothers or sisters. I really had no idea what to expect and I knew it would be a shock to her and I was worried how she would take it."
John knew instantly on seeing his mum that it was her. The years fell away as he recognised the woman who he bears a remarkable resemblance to.
The unlikely visit of a long-lost Western son drew crowds to the tiny hovel that was her home, and without any walls it meant they did not have the most private of reunions.
John, though, soon arranged to take his mother with him back to their hotel where they spent a joyous week together.
While happy at seeing his mum and getting to know her again, John also had to deal with the horror of how she was living.
Her home was a makeshift hovel on the river bank with a mud floor, no walls and an unstable corrugated roof.
He learnt that her sister had been looking after her because her mental health had not been good.
And he revealed how he witnessed a remarkable transformation in her as their week together went by.
He said: "When I saw her I knew immediately it was her. I look like her; she has the same face as me.
"She didn't seem so sure it was me, she didn't recognise me. Emma had brought a photo album of pictures taken of me after she left and growing up and she stared at them and then realised it really was me.
"I was definitely in shock and as well as that there were quite a lot of people in the village and surrounding areas who had gathered. More and more kept coming from the paddy fields and beyond as word spread I was there, and it was hard to talk with so many people watching.
"I couldn't really quite believe it was happening. She didn't speak much English and I hadn't learnt much Nepalese. I could see she had bad skin on her arms and we gave her cream for it. We had brought clothes and medical supplies with us. Mum had been quite withdrawn to start with but by the end of the week she was making jokes with us and we could see the change in her and so could her family.
"The family told me that she was really not well and had been going up to the road to wait for me. Things just weren't great for her and her sister had been looking after her.
"It was great to see her improving and by the end of the week her English had started to come back to her. The last night was difficult and it was very emotional saying goodbye."
John was hit quite hard by how his mum was living. While he arranged for her to stay in his hotel during his visit he was worried that she had to return to such an unstable home, and as soon as he got back to Northern Ireland he launched an appeal to raise £7,500 to build her a simple but safe house.
If any extra money is raised he plans to donate it to help victims of the earthquake.
He hopes to stage a charity concert in Belfast in August and has set up a Facebook page to keep people updated on how the fund it going.
He has already booked his ticket to go back to see his mum in November and has been able to get messages to her reassuring her of his return through a relative via Facebook.
He said: "At first I didn't really pay much attention to the state of her home and it was only after that first meeting that the poor conditions and the dangers of how she was living sunk in.
"She has no clean water; she gets her water from the river. She has no blankets and no shelter and no electricity.
"She has no walls and a corrugated roof which is held up with bamboo sticks. It's very impoverished and when the conditions started to sink in it made me feel really bad.
"I want to build her a new house and Ku has been a great support; we hope to channel everything through his charity."
Leaving his mum behind and coming home was tough enough for John, but hearing three days later that the country had been devastated by a huge earthquake left him in a terrible state of limbo for days as he tried to get news of his family.
He said: "I knew they were 150 miles from where the earthquake happened in Kathmandu, but of course a massive thing like that was very worrying.
"I emailed a couple of people, but no one who had been directly with my mum, so I still wasn't sure she was all right.
"I found out there had been a landslide near her and it was only on Monday that a relation managed to get back to us and let us know for sure that mum is OK."
As John looks forward to going back to see her in November he hopes to be able to have plans in place by then to build her a safer, more conformable home.
With a whole new family in Nepal, he is also learning to speak Nepalese and is determined not to lose contact with his mum again.
He adds: "I've come back with a whole new family, a whole new culture and a new language to learn.
"I'm just eager to get back out there and I'm counting down the days until November."
You can find out more about John's fundraising efforts to help provide a safer home for his mum at https://m.facebook.com/ahouseformaile and support his efforts at gofundme.com/tn5hh7q