This story about the start of my boutique French tour company starts in a very unpredictable place: Japan.
Friday March 11, 2011: 2:47 pm. I remember it like it was yesterday. The elevator doors flew open unexpectedly on a floor no one had requested. Two Japanese office workers, a Chinese expat and I managed to stumble out into the hall like carnival-goers working our way through the moving floor segment of the fun house ride –except there was nothing fun about this. I used my son’s stroller like a grandmother’s walker to steady myself.
The city hall was heaving and rocking like an Irish ferryboat headed across the channel to France on a particularly rough sea. The waves were huge and we just kept rolling down one to go over another. And, I wanted off the boat. Now.
It is funny how terror silences you and stills your mind. Life is suddenly in slow motion: you live in each second, alert like never before.
I knew exactly what was happening and threw my body over my 3 year old son in hopes of shielding him from falling debris.
I looked down the hall into the nearest office to see office workers calmly huddled under their desks. Grim faces displaying the classic Japanese stoicism. Every ounce of their being was being channeled to demonstrate an unbelievable, venerable endurance called “gambaru”.
Gambaru is not a western concept and it isn’t part of western culture. Wikipedia defines gambaru, as “a ubiquitous Japanese word which roughly means to slog on tenaciously through tough times. The word Gambaru is often translated to mean “doing one’s best”, but in practice, it means doing more than one’s best.” I’m a westerner, gambaru isn’t in my DNA. It is especially not in my DNA during earthquakes that registered a magnitude of 9.1 on a 10 point scale.
I was having a major freak out.
Right up until that moment, I had been in the rapturous bliss of living my dream: I had a grant to do research on Japanese traditional architecture so that I could finally finish my PhD and realize my ambition of become a professor of anthropology after years as an accidental housewife. But smack in the middle of realizing my dream, Japan’s worst nightmare occurred: the Big One. The fourth strongest earthquake ever measured anywhere on earth –to be precise.
A great earthquake was inevitable. The last one had leveled much of Tokyo in 1923. Everyone knew another one would come.
The country was prepared. Recent buildings were built to endure the inescapable. The city hall building was apparently built on underground stilts, or pilotis, that enabled it to sway supplely, thus creating the effect of a boat on waves. Japanese people were trained from childhood how to react to an earthquake… In fact, earthquake training was one of the first lessons that my other son, a five year old, had had at school when we arrived. (At least I knew he was safe at school: they have special foam helmets and an elaborate earthquake plan.) In polls, “earthquake” tends to rank number one in the fear category in Japan. In short, Japanese people were mentally prepared for this. I was not.
Nothing prepared me for that moment.
Not the dozens of small earthquakes that I’d experienced when I taught English in Japan ten years before. Not the Tokai-mura nuclear incident that I’d lived through. Not the midnight lightening fire that burned down the cabin where I was sleeping at 12 years old.
The Chinese woman wasn’t prepared either.
With the Chinese woman screaming like a rabbit caught in a barbed wire fence and my son looking at me in silent horror, I began frantically interrogating the office workers trapped in the hall with us. Pithy one-word Japanese questions sprayed out of my mouth like machine gun bullets. No one answered my most pressing question, “is everything ok” or “daijobu?”. Probably no one answered because we all knew that only time would tell if we would be “ok” or not. My shower of “daijobus” probably tore straight at their hearts.
Records say the earthquake lasted six minutes. If you’d asked me, I would have looked you dead in the eyes and told you it lasted six days. It was the longest six minutes of my life.
And then, strangely, everything seemed to be alright. It was business as usual.
Except that the elevators were no longer working.
An office worker helped me carry my stroller to the floor where I was headed. I got my paperwork done. Someone else helped me carry my stroller back down to the ground floor.
Outside, everything was fine. All the buildings looked just as they had when we’d arrived. The trains and subway cars had been instantaneously shut down so the rails could be inspected for damage: no train would derail.
The efficacy of the disaster prevention measures was very impressive.
Then I learned about the Tsunami.