Day 3: First Night in Chengdu (May 19, 2008)
It’s the End of the World as We Know it…
Monday night started by Jake and I getting invited to dinner at a Turkish restaurant by a bunch of our brand new friends who were volunteering at the Bookworm. The restaurant was just around the corner from our hotel and after a long day stacking boxes in the sun we were ready to relax a bit and talk about something besides the earthquake.
We were all enjoying our dinner when we started to notice and unusual amount of people milling about in the back parking lot. As it was 10:00pm we thought it was a little odd but overall didn’t think too much about it. Then our waitress rushed into our room.
“I’m sorry we have to close. We just heard on the news that a 7-8 point earthquake is going to hit us sometime tonight. I think you all should go home and sleep outside tonight”.
A few things here seemed odd. First of all, I didn’t realize it was possible to predict earthquakes. Secondly, I didn’t know that the immediate reaction to this impending earthquake would be to sleep outside.
As we walked outside onto the street the sidewalks were lined elbow to elbow with tents, tarps, tables and card games. All of Chengdu was pouring out onto the street to avoid injury during the quake and it began to resemble a Greatful Dead concert or a Green Bay Packers game. Everybody was staying safe but nobody seemed too panicked about the entire situation.
Jake and I followed suit as we grabbed a bunch of beers and followed our new friends back to the quad outside their dorm room at Chengdu University. Some people went to get some blankets, others took off for pillows, while Jake and I kicked back a couple of freshly corked Tsingdao tall boys and waited for the action.
“HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE IMPENDING EARTHQUAKE”, said a voice from behind a 50 watt light bulb piercing through the dark of night.
“Sorry, who are you?” I said while raising my hand to block the light.
“We are with The Guardian in the UK and we would like to ask you a few questions about your experience here”.
“Ok, just let me put my beer away…”
As any good journalist would do, the interviewer began probing for an angle to our story. I immediately began talking about the fact that we had come from Suzhou as I was sure this would get me in England’s most trusted tabloid. Unfortunately this went by without a second thought, and we realized that she had just jumped off the plane and had no idea that Suzhou was 1,000 miles away. For all she knew we were living down the street in the Suzhou district of Chengdu.
After running through a series of sensationalist questions that we didn’t have sensational answers to, The Guardian moved on to another group of foreigners in search of a story that would pull at the heart strings.
Half a beer later I fell asleep in a park full of people not willing to take another chance with an earthquake. Six hours after that I woke up with my contacts still in and not much of an idea how to get back to my hotel.
Day 4: Second Day in Chengdu (May 20, 2008)
First of all I should probably clear up any questions regarding the state of the donated supplies we were bringing from Suzhou. Most of the donations that were brought to the Mister Softee head office or one of our stores were taken to Bookworm last Saturday morning to go along with the huge shipment they were sending out through DHL. In fact, when we were sorting clothes at Bookworm in Chengdu on Monday Jake found a bunch of his girlfriend’s clothes from Suzhou. The rest of the supplies that were in our car are currently sitting in the Wuhan airport parking lot, but we will be sending those out as soon as we get back to our car.
Takin’ What They’re Givin’ Cause I’m Workin’ for a Livin’
On Monday afternoon I had been given an address and a vague description of a hospital loading dock where our services could be put to use. After a night of waiting for a phantom earthquake and sleeping in the park, I headed back to the hotel to get Jake and we booked it down to the mysterious loading dock.
When we arrived we realized we were indeed at a hospital although its parking lot was being used as a drop/pick-up point for large amounts of donated supplies. The operation was being run by Red Cross volunteers who ended up being almost exclusively local college students. Although the students’ organizational skills weren’t perfect, the spirit, effort and camaraderie was contagious as Jake and I jumped right in.
The actual work of loading/unloading trucks was pretty simple although physically tiring. The amount of donated goods as well as sheer number of able and willing volunteers was overwhelming. Above all, the individual stories of the lengths people went to in order to volunteer were awesome.
Jake and I were working alongside an old Chinese man who had driven three days from Henan Province in order to donate his time and energy. The job of loading trucks wasn’t something he could physically do so the college students gave him a job working at the registration table.
After talking to him for fifteen minutes he asked if he could take a picture with us. I got out my camera and snapped away and then half jokingly asked him if he had an email address I could send the pictures to. He thought for a minute, ran off to find some paper. The college students were intently watching the whole exchange and immediately began debating whether or not grandpa had an email address or not.
“Maybe he has grandchildren and they gave him one.”
“Do they have internet where he is from?”
Grandpa returned five minutes later with a page long physical address in Henan Province scribbled in characters that were difficult for any of the students to read. The crowd erupted in laughter as a new truck full of supplies came through the gate.
“Back to work”, shouted my new boss.