Well, the adventure never ends. We were somewhat dreading our trip from South America to Japan knowing it was going to be an excruciatingly long and tiring journey, but never in our wildest imaginations could we have dreamed up this scenario.
Our travel itinerary getting from one end of the earth to the other was as follows: 13 hour bus ride from Puerto Montt, Chile to Santiago. 18 hours in Santiago hanging out with friends we made when we passed through on our bike ride south. The party lasted until 3:30 AM and our taxi picked us up at 4:30 to take us to the airport. 3 hours in the Santiago airport. 5 ½ hour flight to Bogota, Columbia. 3 hour layover in Bogota. 2 hour flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. 1 hour layover in Costa Rica. 6 ½ hour flight to Los Angeles, California. 12 hour layover in LA where we were met by wonderful friends from home, Gina, Rich and Wendy and spent the evening drinking Pisco Sours and indulging in monstrous burritos and double stuffed vanilla Oreos. 2 hours of sleep. 3 hours in LA airport. 11 hour flight to Tokyo.
Gina, Rich, Wendy, Mike and Cari in LA.
On our final flight we talked about how surprisingly smooth our travels had been. All of our luggage had managed to arrive in LA despite the many flights and tight connections and all that remained was the simple task of getting ourselves to our friends' house in Tokyo. As we approached Japan our excitement ran wild despite the fact that we were delirious with sleep deprivation given that any little bit of shut-eye we got over the past 4 days was restless and intermittent while seated upright in bus and plane seats. We were walking zombies getting off the plane with bloodshot eyes, barely able to speak 2 consecutive coherent sentences, dying for the moment we arrived at John and Susie's house so we could collapse on a bed and sleep for days.
As we approached the immigrations desks at the airport, my ears perked up when I heard someone speaking in English. They've come to do that after being in non-English speaking areas for so long, causing a bit of excitement when I can actually understand what is being said without having to think. “What's an earthquake, Mommy?” was what I heard a small boy ask. I turned around to see an airport official pulling a family aside, telling them that there had just been an earthquake, to prepare for aftershocks and demonstrate the proper position to get into if it should happen again. Though I wanted to stop and eavesdrop a bit on their conversation, Mike and I were quickly shooed through immigrations and downstairs to the baggage claim area. As soon as we reached the ground level and extended our arms out to grab a luggage cart, the ground began to shake, only slightly for the first few moments but as we looked at each other with wide, excited eyes it rapidly magnified in force to the point where it was no longer a little thrill. The ground was shaking violently, there was a deep rumbling sound, huge marque boards were swinging side to side, everything was rattling and I was anything but at ease about being on the basement floor of a 5-story building. A couple of people let out frightened screams, parents chased after their young children, scooped them up in their arms and held tight, but most people simply dropped to the ground wherever they stood and huddled together with terrified expressions on their faces. We quickly ran a few steps, stood with our backs pressed against a vertical support column and for a long 2 minutes stood frozen in shock and disbelief as the earth let out its fury. I haven't lived in California long enough to have experienced any big quakes, so even the little ones are exciting for me. Mike, on the other hand, has lived there all his life and when he began comparing what was happening to the '89 earthquake in the Bay Area I knew we were in the midst of something big.
The strong shaking lasted for about 45-60 seconds and in the minutes that followed there were alternating bouts of short, intense aftershocks and slow, smooth sways that made it feel like we were on a ship out at sea. After roughly 5 minutes of shaking and swaying, airport officials and police came running into the baggage claim area flailing their arms and yelling. We didn't have a clue as to what they said but everyone quickly stood up and began filing past the customs booths to get outside. A young man walked beside us and clearly could tell that we didn't know what was announced, so translated that they were evacuating the building and we were all to go to the parking lot. As we made our way out into the chilly temperatures we looked back at the airport and saw thousands of people pouring out of every door, those on the upper floors parading down the elevated driving ramp to get to ground level. We waited outside for 2 hours while the ground continued to rumble, watching the window panes of the airport vibrate as the sun dropped behind buildings, rain clouds gathered overhead and people started to get really antsy and cold.
Evacuating the airport.
They eventually let everyone back into the airport, but only into the lobby areas just inside the doors of the ground level. It was crowded with thousands of people and their luggage carts covering virtually every inch of the floor. The flight information boards all read “indefinite” for departing flights and all incoming flights were re-routed. The road traffic information board showed that all roads leading into Tokyo were closed. The subway and trains were stopped. The big screen TVs in the lobby displayed frightening footage of the damage and tsunami. It was clear that things were very bad and we were going to be stuck there for a long time but what we witnessed in that room in the hours that followed the biggest earthquake recorded in Japan's history was something that blew me away and I will never forget. In the midst of screwed up travel plans, disaster, tragedy, destruction and death everyone was calm. I did not hear a single shriek or cry of worry or fear, not a single person furious or stressed out because their vacation plans were botched or they weren't going to make their all-important business meeting. Everyone was on their phones and laptops attempting to get in contact with their loved ones, but as I found out when I turned on our computer and borrowed someone's cell to call to my friends in Tokyo and let them know our status, the internet was down and all of the lines were tied. Despite the fact that very few people were able to get through and therefore had no idea whether or not their family and friends were okay, the room was filled with constant laughter, smiles and calmness. I couldn't help but think about what this situation would be like had it happened in the United States but I'm certain the room would have been filled with crying, stressed and worried people in various stages of hysteria rather than thousands of zen-like people.
We were the last flight to arrive. All other incoming flights read "indefinite."
Several hours passed, filled with frequent short, strong aftershocks, many with magnitudes of 6.0 or more which in and of itself is typically considered a significant quake. I eventually found someone from the US with an international cell phone and was able to call home and have my Mom log onto my email and send messages to our friends in Tokyo as well as both of our families to let everyone know we were okay. As much as I fought signing up for facebook a couple of years ago, being in this situation made me realize the value of this tool. My aunt Sheri posted a message on my wall when she received word from my Mom and it proved itself to be a wonderfully useful means by which we could let the majority of people in our lives know we were safe. As midnight approached, truckloads of supplies arrived at the airport, sending people running towards and bombarding the workers passing out sleeping bags, water, Ritz crackers, chocolate bars and canned bread. The cardboard boxes that contained the supplies were broken down and used as sleeping mats to make sleeping on hard, cold tile floors a little more comfortable.
Workers distributing Ritz crackers.
Mike with our dinner.
Dry, chaulky chocolate bars with a very long shelf life.
We established a little camp tucked against a railing and suddenly remembered exactly how exhausted we were. We snuggled into bed that night in complete disbelief of where we were and what was happening around us, yet unbelievably thankful of our location and the preparedness of this airport to handle such a situation. If we had to be in Japan at this time, there was no better place to be. We were safe, dry, warm, had food, water, facilities and contact with our families. Our situation was undoubtedly exponentially better than millions of people throughout Japan and I drifted off to sleep thinking about what our fates would have been had we arrived here a week earlier, the frailty of life and how the world can be turned upside down so easily within the blink of an eye.
Day 2, the severity of the disaster really began to set in. We were able to get on the internet first thing in the morning, read news reports and watch video footage in English of what was happening and respond to the hundreds of emails of concern and relief we had received throughout the night. It was clear at this point that there was no way we'd be able to bike tour in Japan anytime soon. The clean-up process was going to take months, there were new dangers posed from the nuclear power plant explosion and it seemed utterly wrong to go vacationing around a country immediately following a devastating natural disaster. I got in contact with my friend at the US Embassy hoping we could somehow help with the relief efforts but his advice to us was to keep ourselves safe, not jeopardize our own lives and get out of here as soon as possible. There were thousands of military and rescue workers on their way and there really wasn't a lot we could do to help. So, sad and disappointed, we got online and bought the first available outbound tickets to Portugal on the 15th and will re-route our bike trip to Europe instead.
By mid morning the aftershocks had mostly subsided and they opened the entire airport so we could disperse ourselves and buy food at the restaurants. The airport came to life again with several canceled flights from the day before arriving and departing, nearby hotel shuttles picking up guests and buses taking local residents back towards the city so they could make their way home. There were still no buses going into the center of Tokyo so we relocated our camp to a place where we had a little more space, made Skype phone calls home and spent the majority of the day sleeping. By the time we awoke in the late evening, we were groggy and hungry and as I pulled the sleeping bag off from over my head and removed my earplugs, we discovered we were camping in the arrival area of a now fully functioning International airport. Regular flights were arriving, passengers were filing past, staring and photographing us and the few camps besides ours that remained. We enjoyed a dinner of Ritz crackers which we accompanied with the 4 pounds of cheddar cheese our friends sent with us when we left Los Angeles (thanks Ruth and Gina!) and a can of citrus flavored bread.
We have a LOT of cheese!
Braving the canned bread.
Midnight rolled around and we were wide awake after sleeping all day so we decided to take a walk around the quiet airport. Much to our surprise we discovered that, despite our sense of solitude at camp, we were definitely not some of the last remaining refugees stranded here. Narita is a massive airport and thousands remained. Virtually every nook and cranny on all 4 floors of the building were occupied. Most people were sound asleep on their sleeping bag and cardboard box beds, clumped together in groups surrounded by luggage carts and suitcases. By the permanent looks of some of those camps it was clear we were not the only ones who would be staying at the airport for nearly a week before we could get out.
One of many camps throughout the airport.
Today is Day 3 in Japan. Buses are still not traveling to where we need to go so we've settled with the fact that we will not be seeing our friends at all and will be camping at the airport for 2 more days. We could desperately use showers as we've been wearing the same clothes since we departed Chile over a week ago, but a little splash bath in the restroom sinks tonight might be our only option.
Although we are having a much more first-hand experience with this ordeal than our friends and families back home, it still feels like we are worlds away from the actual disaster. Rescue teams have begun to arrive in full force from all over the world in their bright colored, reflective suits, carrying hard hats and leading search dogs which makes the devastation suddenly feel a million times closer. Tears well up in my eyes every time I look over at the increasingly large groups of rescue workers that are gathering here as I think about the magnitude of what has actually happened and how they have dropped their lives wherever their homes may be and fled to Japan to offer their help. I can't imagine the horrific sights they are going to see in the coming weeks and I'm positive I wouldn't be emotionally strong enough to deal with what they are about to do. Hats off to the overwhelming hearts of these rescuers who are risking their own lives to help others. Please keep your thoughts and prayers streaming to Japan, to the thousands who have lost their lives and the millions who have been personally touched by this tragedy.
Rescue Teams have begun to arrive.
Below are a few photos of what we've seen and experienced at the airport since the quake. An entire album can be viewed under the “more pictures” tab above.