It's my last night in Chengdu. Tomorrow, I head to Beijing, and then back home to Washington. As I was thinking about what to write in this final blog post, and what to say about the earthquake anniversary today, I realized how the day has captured almost all of the emotions I've felt over the past month that I've been here.
The day began with fear and unease, as we drove back up to Juyuan Middle School outside Dujiangyan, and found scores of uniformed police and military personnel surrounding its perimeter. There were people - presumably family members - buying paper money, candles and firecrackers at a stall just a block or so away from where the school once stood, but it did not appear that the guards were letting anyone cross the police tape.
Then there was the almost reassuring sense of normalcy, as we joined crowds of mostly tourists headed up the mountainside north of Dujiangyan. Many people had the day off, and the government had waived admission fees at all the tourist sites, so it felt like a holiday weekend. The road up the mountain was so clogged, not even motorcycles could weave their way through traffic. So we found ourselves hoofing it alongside hundreds of others who seemed to be having a pretty good time.
Then, after we left the crowds behind, there was profound sorrow as we reached the public cemetery where many of the children who died in Dujiangyan schools are buried. A couple we'd met earlier on this trip had told us about the cemetery, and had told us where to look for their 8-year old son's grave. The stone markers are laid out in tidy rows, sadly reminiscent of desks in a classroom. Each has a photo of a child next to the child's name and birthdate. All of the graves were adorned with colorful paper ornaments, fresh flowers, and remnants of red candles.
Small groups of family members mourned quietly over the graves, burning paper money and lighting the occasional firecracker. It was an intensely private moment, and I did not want to linger. We placed a bouquet of yellow flowers next to the grave we'd come to see, and turned and left.
And then, at 2:28 pm, there was hope. A year to the moment that the earthquake struck, we were standing on the second floor of the new wood-framed Xiang'e Elementary School, listening to the uninterrupted sounds of construction all around. We'd been invited to visit the site by Jerry Lee Dickison, a 63-year old general contractor and wood expert from Kentucky who's been living in Xiang'e for the past seven months as the site supervisor for this Canadian-government backed project (all the wood is from Canada).
As Dickison walked us around, I realized that I'd visited this very spot last year. The new school is going up right next to where the old Xiang'e Middle School once was. It collapsed in the quake, killing more than 300 students and teachers. I don't know what the middle school used to look like; it was just a terrible mass of debris when I saw it. But the new elementary school looks to be gorgeous. Not something that's easily replicable elsewhere, given the materials and expertise and money that's gone into it. But something that just may lift this community's spirits and make people feel safe again.