Sunday, May 29, 2011

Live each day like it's your last

A shorter version of this appeared in the Frequent Flier column in the April-May issue of Travelife Magazine.


People who were in Japan on March 11, 2011 will forever remember where they were during the powerful earthquake that devastated northern Japan with catastrophic losses. Tokyo was badly shaken by this earthquake but not damaged as badly as other prefectures up north and by the sea. However, the crisis is not yet over as I write this, and the disaster management situation is now complicated by failing nuclear reactors.

I travel all around the world and spend at least half my life living out of a suitcase. But on this fateful day, I was unlucky enough to be caught in Japan in the worst possible place to be in an earthquake. I was on an a chartered bus bound for Narita Airport, and the bus was right in the middle of Tokyo’s long Rainbow Bridge, which is a suspension bridge with nothing but the wide expanse of Tokyo Bay’s freezing waters underneath.


It was just early afternoon of March 11, but already it had been a long day that saw me rushing around for most of the morning prior to my planned flight out of Japan to Manila that evening, and also prior to meeting some good friends for lunch at the Tokyo American Club. I'd arrived at TAC intent on ordering a steak; but then my friends at lunch had all ordered salads, prompting a wave of health consciousness and caloric guilt to come over me.

I'm not one of these people who can survive the day on a salad for lunch but I certainly didn't want to be the lone person wolfing down a steak either; so I scanned the menu and settled on a pork burrito. Of course, if I had known that lunch at TAC would be my last meal for at least 10 hours, I would probably have ordered two porterhouse steaks instead.

After lunch, I took the airport charter bus to Narita Airport from the ANA Intercontinental Hotel, which is just a few minutes away from TAC. Settled in my seat and with a row to myself, I set about getting to sleep as quickly as possible since the whole week so far had been about sleepless nights. I was finally deep into a nap when the first jolt came, shocking me out of sleep. Then the strong tremors just kept coming, and we thought these would never stop.


At the first sign of the earthquake, our driver stopped the bus right on this very dangerous spot midway on the bridge. He was just following emergency protocols, but it seemed to us a most insensible place to be in an earthquake. The tremors rocked the bus like a piggy bank being shaken enthusiastically by a child, and we were truly in danger of falling into Tokyo Bay at any minute. We all thought we were going to die.

Get off the bridge!” We all shouted to the bus driver. Some people were already preparing to flee the bus, since they believed they stood a better chance on the bridge on foot rather than in a bus swaying like a mad man with fire in his shoes, and about to fall into freezing Tokyo Bay. Fortunately, our many angry shouts finally pushed the driver to action and he slowly moved off the bridge once the tremors weakened.

We all sighed with relief as we made it back to land. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of our ordeal. We were stranded in this same bus for close to ten hours, with no food or water other than what we had initially brought when we boarded. I had a thermos of water for the ride to the airport but that was it – and that got me through the long day and night ahead.


Our bus driver actually drove us to a major train station at the outset, after the police had closed the highways, with the intention of leaving all his passengers and their luggages there. I guess he was eager to get rid of us as soon as possible so he could try and make his own way back home. But all modes of normal transportation were down, most roads were at a complete standstill and the station was open and completely exposed to the cold. I knew that if I stepped off that bus, I would most likely have to stay on the streets all night without any kind of protection.

Interestingly, the Japanese on the bus reluctantly followed orders and alighted. I’m sure they had a much worse time on ground because there was inadequate shelter and no way out of that station for the next 24 hours. However, the 10 foreigners on the bus refused to get off in spite of the bus driver’s angry shouts. We stayed on that bus and were alternately parked or driving around slowly for much of the time as our driver waited for further instructions from his office on what to do with these 10 stubborn foreigners.


In those ten hours of paralysis, a lot of things happened. For one thing, I saw a factory blow up right in front of me, about a kilometer or two away. "A factory just blew up in front of me," I BBM-ed my friend J. The phone lines were all completely down but strangely, BBM was working fine. Later on, still via BBM, he told me he'd seen this factory on the news on television. He messaged back a few hours later, after seeing it on the news: "Now I have an idea where you are."

Looking back at that day now, I don't know how I spent ten hours in that cold bus without food, water or much communication -- and still kept my sanity. I'm sure a lot of it had to do with J on BBM -- at that time, he was the one person on my BBM and nothing else was working -- who'd kept me company for eight out of those ten hours. A lot of times, when he wasn't BBM-ing me a joke, he was watching the news on television and updating me on what was happening since we had no news from outside otherwise

By a stroke of luck, too, I happened to have a small book with me which I read whenever I wasn't typing out a message on my phone. I can't remember the exact title right now, but it was about achieving greatness in all kinds of small and ordinary ways. It was certainly apt for that trial of patience I had to undergo in the aftermath of the earthquake.


Finally, by almost threatening the bus company, we succeeded in forcing the driver to take us to Narita Airport via the back roads. That began another tortuous process of movement, but at least we were going somewhere in the right direction. We arrived at Narita at 2 AM and we were probably the only bus to make it there after the earthquake.

This was where I finally appreciated Japan's efficiency. The moment I stepped off the bus, there was a team of airport emergency personnel waiting for us with sleeping bags and bottled water. So, yes, we may have been evacuees in an airport -- and never in my Travelife did I ever imagine that I would actually lay my head down on an airport floor -- but it wasn't too bad.


At the airport, we spread out sleeping bags on the floor and tried to rest amidst the constant jangling of the ceiling from aftershocks and the movement all around of people in crisis. My lifeline was my Blackberry and a spare electric plug near the public phones in the airport lobby. I camped out here and plugged my computer back on. Amazingly, Narita's WiFi outside of the business lounges is fee-based; but exactly where I was, I could surf for free that night -- and update my blog on what had just happened. After that, I popped a sleeping pill which I always carry for jet lag and caught a few hours of sleep. Anyway, there was nothing else we could do until daybreak.

It had been a long and tortuous ordeal since the first tremors began. And, frankly, it’s impossible to describe adequately the nightmare on the bridge, when death was at least a 51% reality. But by noon the following day, Saturday, I was on the first flight out of Tokyo, which was ever so luckily headed for Manila; and that evening, I was drowning my ordeal and celebrating the life I almost lost over a very good dinner and lots of wine with friends from the Commanderie de Bordeaux at Masseto in Salcedo Village. I think I drank enough for three lifetimes that night.

The next day, my temporarily disrupted Travelife began all over again - perhaps a testament of my commitment to travel. I was on the early morning flight to Singapore, editing articles all the way and making it in time for a 1230 pm lunch appointment for chicken rice along Orchard Road. And then I met up with friends for a drink and then had a very nice dinner with the general manager of the posh Hotel Fort Canning. Of course, we talked of nothing else that day but the Tokyo earthquake and the ordeal I'd just been through.

And on Monday, I was up bright and early for a 9 AM flight from Singapore to Bali, where I stayed a total of six hours and saw nothing but a couple of streets from the car window. From the airport, I was driven straight to Bali's port and here I boarded Silversea's Silver Spirit cruise ship and we slowly sailed out towards Malaysia at 6 pm. I spent that sailing hour on the top deck of the Silver Spirit with a glass of champagne in hand, watching the sunset as Balinese music played in the distance.

Let me tell you, my 72-hour journey from near-death on the Rainbow Bridge to camping out on the Narita airport floor, and then to a gourmet dinner at one of Manila's top restaurants, followed by a day in Singapore, six hours in Bali and then ultimately catching my breath and admiring the sunset from a beautiful suite in one of the world's most luxurious six-star ships, was completely surreal. But that's a Travelife for you.


I hate to use the phrase "moral of the story" here as it sounds so self-righteous; but there is something to this experience, and I try to remember it every single day now:

-- Live the life you want.

-- Don't put off plans and dreams for another day.

-- Disregard small annoyances.

-- Be happy every day.

-- Tell people you care about how much they mean to you.

-- Live each day as if it's your last.

-- And, yes, do order two porterhouse steaks when you wish to do so. Even if everyone else around you is having a salad for lunch.

When something like the Tokyo earthquake or the tsunami comes roaring at you, everything else will be completely unimportant. Just another week in our neverending – and neverendingly eventful – Travelife.

Join us in Italy this September 8.
Travelife Italy Night
with Margarita Fores

with Margarita Fores
and the Embassy of Italy & Bacchus Epicerie
September 8 at Whitespace

Please call TRAVELIFE at 8138400/ 8922620
to reserve a limited seat
For reservations and information, please contact:
Bernice or Rachel at TRAVELIFE
813-8400/ 892-2620


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