Photo by Louisa Lim, NPR
Rumors of further seismic acivity sent Chengdu citizens to the streets to sleep..
Photo by Louisa Lim, NPR
When I set out to interview panicky people sleeping outside, little did I imagine that I myself would become one of them. In fact, I'd confidently predicted that I'd be back at the hotel within an hour. But that was not how things turned out. I'd taken a taxi to a place where many people were still sleeping outside in tents and cars, a week after the shock. When I first arrived, it seemed this constituted only a tiny minority of people, generally the elderly or the very nervous. But as I was interviewing, suddenly a massive influx of people came running to the square, quilts and tents under their arms, jostling to commandeer a space of their own. In the space of about five minutes, the roads were suddenly packed with cars, all heading in the same direction: out of the city.
Everybody was talking about the emergency broadcasts warning that there was a large possibility of an aftershock measuring six or seven. Radio and television stations were telling people to take preventative measures. Most people seemed to understand this to mean: Flee your houses, flee the city, just get out!
MOTHER OF ALL TRAFFIC JAMS
At that point, I decided to head back into the city to catch up with the rest of the team at our hotel. We knew it was built to withstand quakes of 8, and we'd seen US army personnel staying there, so we felt it was one of the safer places in the city. But within minutes, my taxi driver and I had run into the mother of all traffic jams. We sat at a major intersection for half an hour without moving.
Eventually it became clear we'd have to turn around and head out of the city again. That was when I saw cars screeching out of the city, flooding the highways, veering across the lanes, drivers' fists on horns, in their hurry to leave. There was a herd instinct at work, and the panic was catching. Just an hour earlier, my driver had been mocking those sleeping on the streets as wimps. Now he was on the phone to his wife and child, arranging where to pick them up. I was feeling pretty panicky too, and the fact that the mobile network was down didn't help. When I realized we couldn't get back into the city, my immediate reaction was relief that I'd be far from tall buildings, rather than worry about spending the night outside.
And so I found my way back to the place where I'd been interviewing the street sleepers — but this time I was one of them. Even finding a place to sleep proved difficult. The road was jam-packed full of cars crammed with people. The ground was a sea of families sardined onto plastic sheets. People were even draped over the exercise equipment. And I was easily the worst-prepared. An elderly couple whom I'd been interviewing earlier waved me over to share their park bench. They didn't seem at all surprised to see me back. Then the temperature plummeted. I was only wearing a short-sleeved cotton shirt, and I began to sneeze. The elderly woman tapped my shoulder, "Take my blanket," she said. "I have another." It was cold, and I accepted gratefully. Halfway through the night I woke up and saw that she and her husband were fast asleep, huddled together under their only remaining quilt.
As I lay outside I realized how much of a bubble we've been living in at our reinforced hotel. The reality for most Chengdu residents is that every time they leave home, they're still not entirely sure that they'll be able to return. Every night they weigh up the relative safety of their buildings and the speed of their legs. And everybody here is traumatized to a certain extent. But people are finding comfort in community. When the kind couple who'd lent me the blanket left, another elderly neighbor pressed his red plastic raincape on me. I said I'd be fine. He told me what a hard time we journalists were having and that I mustn't get sick. I told him I didn't need his cape. He shoved it at me. I shoved it back. Then we had a comic tussle as he attempted to tug the raincape over my head, while I tried to pull it off. Intense negotiations ensued over the ownership of the raincape. Raising the stakes, he threatened to throw it in the bin if I didn't take it away with me.
I tried to unsuccessfully to smuggle it into his wife's bag. Finally we managed to hammer out a compromise whereby I wore it until my taxi came back to pick me, while he sat by my side to make sure that I kept my word. Finally my taxi turned up, and my new friend and I swapped mobile numbers, as I passed back his raingear. "See you tonight!" He shouted cheerily as I left. "And this time don't forget your quilt and plastic sheeting!" I'm almost tempted to take him up on it.