LOS ANGELES – Lisa Takahashi, a student from the University of Southern California studying in Hong Kong, was on a tour bus headed to the Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area in China’s Sichuan Province when the 7.9-magnitude quake hit in May.
The chaos and ensuing destruction made its impact, but it was the hospitality of the people she encountered that left a lasting impression.
A week after returning to the United States, Takahashi, 21, talked of her experience. A holder of dual citizenship from both the United States and Japan, Takahashi remembers the moment the powerful temblor made her no longer a mere tourist, but a survivor.
As she was chatting with friends who accompanied her on the trip, the driver suddenly slammed on the brakes and the windows facing the mountainside shattered as falling rocks struck the bus.
Confused about what had just transpired, Takahashi got off the bus and saw that the road the bus had been traveling on just a second ago was gone, covered in a massive pile of rock and rubble. She had narrowly escaped being buried alive.
“We thought it was a landslide and thought that help would be on its way in a matter of hours,” she said. “The next hour though, we felt more aftershocks and realized that it was an earthquake.”
After meeting more busloads of tourist survivors nearby, the shaken party of about 200 made their way to a small village of about five households in the rural mountain area.
The villagers, who lived in “handmade houses that looked like cement blocks” and which were damaged, could have easily turned them away. Instead, they lent the tourists blankets to stay warm and gave them what little food they had.
“I couldn’t believe how they gave up their food and supplies, considering how much they had for themselves,” Takahashi said. The villagers fed the survivors porridge of rice and water twice a day. This would basically be their only source of water and food for the next two days.
When the cold started taking its toll on the underdressed Takahashi, an elderly villager lent her a jacket that looked and felt precious.
“I later found out that the handmade garment was a special jacket that women of that region wear after they get married,” she said.
Since she was sleeping in a field sprayed with fertilizer, Takahashi wanted to return the jacket in fear of ruining it. The woman refused.
“She wouldn’t let me give it back to her,” Takahashi remembered. “She wanted me to stay warm.”
Forty-eight hours later, however, Takahashi and her party realized they could not burden the poor village any longer.
“We knew how much water and food the villagers had. We quickly ran out of the snacks and water we had, and our stay was straining the villagers.”
As Takahashi and her friends cautiously trekked down to the nearby town of Mao Xian, they had to deal with the constant fear of falling rocks and aftershocks. She passed a couple of cars with drapes over the drivers seat, covering what she was told were corpses.
When the party finally arrived at Mao Xian, the residents and volunteers welcomed them with smiles, cups of tea and steamed buns. “The moment we got on the main street and saw a smile on the faces of people who were walking along, that was when I took my first sigh of relief,” she recalled.
In times of extreme adversity, Takahashi saw tourists, residents and volunteers helping each other, despite differences in nationality and language.
“It was just a matter of what we could offer them and what they could offer us,” she said. “It was kind of hard because we didn’t have much (material offerings), but they still looked out for us.
“I want to go back to China one day to thank those who helped me when they had nothing to gain by doing what they did. I want to thank them in person, especially the villagers who had so little and yet did so much for us.”