Friday, May 30, 2008


Words have begun to escape me in the midst of these waves of tragedy and is what happened two days ago.


Qili Village
- In the middle of a village that was in the mid-impact range of the earthquake (only some of the houses are destroyed, most still stand with huge cracks in the walls, the kindergarten fell down, but the rest of the school is still standing, etc.), we gave out our second round of microloans. These loans were supposed to be given the day after the earthquake.

Today the mood is emotional - excited, celebratory, and mournful all at once. The borrowers have prepared a beautiful ceremony honoring our presence and relief work in their village. A man sings while his 6 year old daughter dances. We give out 8 more microloans...(a mere drop in the bucket of a tragedy displacing 5 million people, a part of my brain chides. my heart quiets it as we listen to the community planning its own period of reconstruction and regrowth. we can help in some small way.)

One of the women who received a loan for rabbits during the first lending ceremony stands up to speak. She tells us that when the earthquake hit, it destroyed the rabbit raising area and much of her roof. She sold the rabbits and raised a new roof, while sleeping in a tent in her courtyard. She is also currently putting her daughter through university, she proudly mentions.

I meet a boy who is now known in town as being the fastest child in kindergarten. When the ground began to tremble, he made it out first, followed the rest of the children. Then the school crumbled.

There are moments of hope, too. Our lending ceremony had to be moved next to the courtyard where it was held last time because the courtyard no longer exists. No earthquake damage here, it is now filled with a rabbit raising compound built by our youngest loan recipient, an 18 year old who has decided to stay in town and be the cashier of the lending project rather than migrate to an urban area and leave his family. His new compound withstood the earthquake, and his rabbits are fine. He was the one who had called me just after the first initial earthquake to check up on my safety and invite us back to the village.

The thousands of aftershocks that have struck in the weeks following the earthquake have felt unnerving and annoying from our 6th story high rise in Chengdu. In Qili, they continue to threaten lives. People point at crumbling walls and cracked ceilings and explain that a few more aftershocks will probably take them all the way down. There is no point in rebuilding right now if the earth is just going to keep shaking.

Selflessness - The Rabbit King and Queen (our community partners through the Rabbit King Poverty Alleviation Research Center) have orchestrated most of the relief efforts in their area since the earthquake, and we have been impressed and thankful. Then we saw their factory. Now we are stunned.

The entire factory (which includes their offices, dorms for workers, school rooms, cafeteria, and personal home) has crumbled. Most of their rabbits were either crushed or ran away. Their staff is working in a tent in the middle of an alley. In the midst of this, they took the time to organize a relief effort for foreigners and a miniature village. My heart and brain cannot come to terms with the depth of their selflessness.

They understand at a very deep level, however, how their ability to function as a business and organization affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of rural villagers in the area. Rabbit raising in villages relies on the supply chain that the Rabbit King orchestrates. Without him, his factory, and staff, their mini businesses and our microfinance project would flounder. With tears in her eyes the Rabbit Queen explained that they have always been the ones to give donations, to bring aid, to organize efforts...they are not accustomed to being in a position of need (another stunning statement coming from the two people who are literally China's pinnacle story of rags to riches).

We commit to trying to help them in any way we can as they rebuild their factory, knowing that they would be the last to directly ask for help.

Friday, May 23, 2008


How do I begin to describe how much brighter life has gotten in the last few days?

Here is an example:
I am volunteering my evenings to work on a trauma debriefing team. We meet with relief workers as they return from disaster-stricken areas. Today I debriefed a team of young men who had flown in from all over China intending to hike into remote villages not yet reached by aid workers. When they discovered that landslides and aftershocks made the path too dangerous for anyone to get through, they set down their tent in a local refugee camp for the night.

There, they noticed no one was smiling, no children were playing. They spotted an empty space cleared for tent use and persuaded the local officials to let them rope it off as an official "play zone." Kids who had stared at them with shock and skepticism as they initially entered the camp came running when they saw part of their refugee area turning into an space for music and games and limbo contests. The men had brought with them 1 guitar, 1 kazoo, and a sack of balloons. Instead of musical chairs, they played musical water bottles. One piece of rope managed to make its way into multiple games for multiple purposes. A limbo stick was made from a tree branch. At lunchtime, the kids had to be forcefully told to go "home" (back to their individual family's blue tent, shared with another family), they then came running back to play through the afternoon. When we spoke, the young men were hoarse from yelling and organizing the children, but kept going until night settled onto the camp. Exhausted, they said: "ok! let's do this again tomorrow! 10am, on the play field!" The children reluctantly went home and the relief workers fell into their makeshift beds.

At 6:30am, their tent started rustling. The children had gathered outside, ready to play again. By 8am, everyone was on the field, and another day of intense play began. Today is Friday and these workers just returned. Without meaning to, they spent 5 days organizing an impromptu summer camp for refugee children in the middle of Sichuan's quaking mountains. There are more layers to this story. Parents started gathering to watch the odd sight of their children laughing and smiling for the first time since the earthquake, and became protective of the field. They made sure that it was permanently closed off to all other activities other than play. Inspired, the principal of the local school came out of the woodwork from his own period of grieving and, with the help of these young men, organized all the teachers around him to open a make-shift school in the blue refugee camp tents. By the time the relief workers left, children had resumed classes.

As the "debriefer" on the other side of this story, I met 4 sunburned, dirty, beaming young men. They still had enough energy to make sure I got down the details of every one of their stories, noted all of the current needs of the refugee camp, and even demonstrated their limbo skills. I am awed, inspired, and so glad to be in Sichuan. The days are getting so much brighter.

(abc news thinks so too. these are my guys!)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Moment of Silence, Night in the Field

Every day is full. The last 24 hours taught me lessons in uniquely Chinese aspects of mourning and panic.

One week anniversary of the earthquake. Just before 2:28pm another minor aftershock (one of thousands in the last week) rattled our building. We heard sirens blaring, car horns honking, and saw people in a stand-still on the street. Another "big one", we thought, grabbing our emergency bags (constantly packed, now, with passport, money, water, peanuts, clean underwear, camera, and a journal) and the puppy, and ran down our six flights of stairs to the ground level. For once, however, we were the only ones in a state of panic. The blaring sirens, horns, and people were observing a "moment of silence" for the earthquake victims. In a particularly Chinese manner, it was neither a single moment, nor silent, but it definitely got the point across.

Later we went to a vigil in the main square of town. Thousands gathered with candles lit. This "vigil" was unlike any I had been to. It was loud and raucous with shouts of "China! Fight On!", and "Sichuan! Fight!". The energy was incredible. People poured in from the streets to join marching lines and tightening circles, where they yelled and chanted in turn. Under the giant white statue of the late Chairman Mao, a Red Cross vest had been stuck onto the end of a pole and was being waved like a flag. Below it, a team had set up a tent collecting donations of water and clothing. I was interviewed by a Chinese reporter who said "I'll bet this isn't what you had expected a vigil would be like." He was right.

I saw a man wearing an "I Love China More Than Ever" t-shirt. I stopped him and asked if I could take his picture. He nodded solemnly (a change from the usual excitement at the opportunity for a photoshoot), and I looked over to see his wife standing nearby with tears in her eyes. They had lost someone. Many people. A house? A family? A community? In the midst of rally cries and panicked nights, it is easy to forget about the real loss of this catastrophe. Over 30,000 lives, and counting. Walking down the street, I see the eyes of those who have lost someone. They are wide, red, and glassy. They look naked.

Just an hour later, back home and making family calls, we received warnings from friends, colleagues, and the TV saying that another big one - really! - was coming. Emergency bags and puppy were tucked under our arms as we evacuated for the second time that day. We set up camp back in "The Field" (our field, we now say lovingly), and waited as friends from Sweden, Germany, Argentina, and China came to join us at our impromptu sleepover. We were also joined by hundreds of families fleeing their buildings in the surrounding area. Slept through the night. Only one major aftershock (5.1), but nothing note-worthy. Our hips and backs ache, but a few nights of that is a small price to pay for safety (we keep telling ourselves).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Next: Godzilla.

Here's what I wrote to my boss today:
Another 6.0 quake hit us, followed by pouring rain, a thunderstorm, crazy winds, fears of major flooding, rumors of potential epidemics from the dead bodies being near water sources, and potential damage to nuclear reactor sites nearby (built on/near a fault line!? come on, china).

We're starting to joke that we feel like the characters in the beginning of the new King Kong movie, who keep facing larger and more ridiculous scenarios all on one island (bad weather leads to crazy insects, which lead to massive gorilla attack, which leads to a dinosaur battle. of course.)

Spirits are up, though, and we've got enough food and water to last awhile in case we need it to. Registering at the U.S. Consulate tomorrow.
That's the news from the ground! Off to donate some supplies down the street.


I dreamed last night that I was a trapeze artist or (maybe) someone who had broken onto the set of Peter Pan and rigged themselves to the wires. While the real show went on in front of a curtain, I perched in the rafters backstage and practiced falling, then "flying" like the stage Peter Pan would, using silver wires hooked to my waist. I sang while my stomach dropped again and again from the falls. I remember thinking my voice was nicer than I thought it could be, but was also glad this was just practice and I still had time to improve.

I woke up to hear that another major aftershock had happened during the night, big enough to send Kasen running into Kate's room yelling "Did you feel that?? It was big!" I had slept right through it.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Processing, scared

It's 1am, and my bed is shaking as another aftershock rattles chengdu. It's day 5 after the earthquake and it's getting hard to calm down. We go about our daily lives now, knowing that strong aftershocks come and go, rattling us, but leaving Chengdu's buildings in tact so far.

My friend went into Bei Chuan to do relief work near the epicenter two days ago. He told me about seeing this picturesque adobe-colored town flattened in its valley between mountain peaks. He heard voices coming from inside the collapsed buildings, they became fewer as the day went on. He helped rescue two people, including a girl who was kept alive by her parents bodies pressed above her. He stepped on bodies. Not 24 hours after his return, another 5.6 magnitude earthquake hit the area, resulting in further landslides and death. Thank God he is back safely.

Similarly, I am dumbfounded by the luck that Kate and I had in not being in the epicenter area when the earthquake hit. Though it's a little-known part of a small mountainous region of China (not even a blip on most people's maps), Kate and I became intimately familiar with this area during the last three weeks as we hiked Qing Cheng Mountain (now majorly cut off from outside transport lines and buried), and went horseback riding in Song Pan (the road and rest stops we used to and from no longer exist.)

Honestly, I'm getting a little scared again. Aftershocks keep hitting, and one can't help but wonder how many 5.0 magnitude earthquakes these buildings can withstand...

The government is doing a great job keeping people informed through text messages on cell phones. The most recent text informed us that the road to our project sites in Dayi was closed except for government use. Another told us that the water contamination stories were scams. Good to know. I have a lot of gatorade to drink now.

The mood here is eery. The funeral outside my home continues. The bright crepe paper wheels are still leaning against the bushes outside, and the family has sat in vigil in their tent for over 24 hours now. Candles are lit. The smell of cooking oil in the air. No wailing, just quiet sitting.

It's hard not to stay glued to the news. I try to go about my day normally then cry and cry over a story telling how a parent dug through rubble with bare hands for days on end until their bloodied hands reached the cold body of their child.

How is Chengdu looking so normal in the face of this? Are we all pretending?

Relief efforts are gaining momentum, and give me glimmers of hope. The fact that my ngo's president is placing so much emphasis on sustainable relief efforts and long-term thriving communities helps me know that we won't be in-and-out handing out water bottles and leaving. We are in it to stay.

It's late, my heart hurts. My eyes are swollen. Sleep now.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


For family and friends, I'm OK.
(and you can help the healing process by clicking HERE)

On Monday afternoon, a 7.9 earthquake rocked Sichuan Province. The death toll is around 15,000 and climbing, and the estimated damage is at $20mil.

Kate and I were thankfully together when it struck and were able to escape the crumbling bank that we were inside. We dodged falling concrete, rolling cars. Walked three hours in the direction of home as the roads sat in a standstill. Felt continuing aftershocks and just held on to each other. Slept in a field.

Most of Chengdu fared well, even as aftershocks continue to rock the city. I cannot say that much for the project villages our microfinance unit operates within. Factories destroyed, villages crumbling. The Rabbit King, Queen, and family are alive. Their factory is badly damaged. I received a call from a 17-year-old rabbit farmer and loan recipient telling me to be careful, then later explaining that his village was falling apart. I felt powerless, anxious, and frustrated.

Our office is working quickly to partner with international donors while using our on-the-ground capacity to deliver post emergency relief aid to earthquake survivors. They need support for rebuilding and repairing damaged homes and village infrastructure. We've got the partners, the local knowledge, and - with help - the funds. In the midst of my own anxiety, fears, and frustrations, I'm deeply grateful for the compassion I feel emanating from around the globe, and am struck by your deep uniting urge to transform anxiety into action.

Please send cash and prayers.

We came to Sichuan to do community development, and that that's exactly what we plan to keep on doing, now from the ground up.

Earthquake stories and experiences:

We've felt dozens of strong aftershocks that make it hard to relax again. I slept in a field the first night with a bunch of other residents staying away from their tall apartment buildings (felt a little like Relay for Life...), then slept under a table the next night as a few more aftershocks rocked our 6th story apartment. All friends are ok. Last night I slept in my bed for the first time, though I woke up at 5am to feel our house shaking again. The aftershocks keep coming.

Yesterday there was a water scare. A rumor started that a chemical plant had exploded and contaminated the water supply. Our water was cut. We ran outside to buy water and found lines going down the street out of every store. There was no water to be found, so we bought bottled tea and watermelons. Water returned later that evening and the government sent out a press release that the water was fine. There is news that many dams to the north have developed major cracks...not sure what that means for us.

I find myself staring at the cracks in my walls and wondering whether they were there before the earthquake. We live in the 6th story of a building, so emergency bags still sit by the front entrance in case we need to make a quick exit.

While walking back home from the bank up north (where we were during the earthquake, having ironically just handed over our passports and bank cards to the teller...we found them a few hours afterwards), to our apartment at the south end of town, I was afforded a walking tour of the city post-earthquake. The streets were in a stand-still. Sirens were blaring everywhere. People, however, remained relatively calm. Based on the numbers of people filling the streets, sidewalks, riverbanks, fields and parks on patio chairs and blankets, one might have mistaken the scene for a public festival. I heard lots of laughing as people compared the clothes they had run out in. Pajamas, nightgowns, house slippers, and undershirts were the norm.

On one sidewalk I spotted my friends, two Scottish sisters who sing at the Shangri La Pub. They were sitting on the side of the road, shoeless, dirty, and one of them naked but for the luxury hotel robe wrapped around her. We swapped escape stories. Ours, of running down a swaying spiral staircase, watching pieces of the building fall off around us. Theirs, of scrambling down 14 flights of stairs together, only to end up in a boiler room, dodging pipes and tanks as they desperately searched for an exit.
"I was just screamin' Our Father! Our Father!, trying to get a prayer out as I was runnin' down the stairs!" said the little sister. The older sister laughed and said, "I was naked as could be you know, robe flappin' in the wind as I went runnin'!"

There is a running competition for who can be on the phone with me while I experience an aftershock. So far I believe Dan, Mom, Wink, and Caitlin have all scored 1 point each. Dad gets half a point for messaging me in the middle of one.

There is a funeral going on outside of my house. Two dozen crepe-paper flower wheels as big as car windshields have been placed around the entrance of my building, and a make-shift tent has been set up, under which families have been cooking, playing cards, and quietly talking all day. The crepe-paper wheels have the name of a school teacher who died in one of the collapsed schools on Monday.

We planned to go out to our project villages today now that aftershocks have died down, but the government has closed the freeways to cars not approved by authorities. We are not sure when we will be able to make it out there. Very frustrating.