4pm, 11 March 2011

As we pulled over at the car park, we were hungry, sweaty and tired. For the past hour, we were trying to scale two trees – one at 62 metres and the other at 72. The sense of accomplishment – understandably so since both of us were no longer teenagers and have developed the fear of heights – was to be overshadowed by something else.

We walked to the restaurant, which was on the outskirts of a picturesque towne called Pemberton, found it to be largely empty (except for a group of tourists, like ourselves), got ourselves a nice table by the pond and settled down to peruse the menu. Everything seemed normal. At the back of our minds, we might have been aware of the political upheavals that engulfed most of the North African countries. Like the media coverage on the developments, we felt distanced from it all. Perhaps it was also because we were half a world away at that moment, being two sunburned tourists in Australia.

I asked my partner for her order. “Rainbow trout,” she muttered without looking up at me. She was pre-occupied with all the photos she took from our travels for the day.

I found the counter empty. The wait staff might have been working on something in the kitchen. But before I could pick up the little brass bell that sat on the counter and give it a bit of a tinkle to get some attention, the waitress appeared. She was decked in a black polo T-shirt and protecting it was a white apron (with the restaurant’s logo emblazoned on it).

Before I could place my order, I observed how there was a strange expression on her face. It seemed like a mix of fear and concern. Could have been a situation in the kitchen, I reasoned and was ready to say “We would like two of the rainbow trouts set lunch please.”

Well, I didn’t get to utter those words. Not immediately anyway because I was interrupted.

“Have you heard about the earthquake in Japan?” the waitress asked.

“No,” I felt like some idiot who had been living under a rock for the better part of the century.

“My husband called to tell me about it just now. They are saying it’s 8.9 on the Richter scale.”

“Oh really? Where in Japan?”

“Not sure,” she replied as she left the counter, clutching a remote control device. Standing in front of the wide screen television in the restaurant now, she began flipping the channels.

Far from being upset because I wasn’t given the opportunity to place my order, I was trying to figure out if this was higher on the Scale compared to the 2004 Indian Ocean or the 2009 Sichuan earthquakes. A few seconds later, the familiar NHK logo came on the television screen.

By now, the waitress husband walked out of the kitchen and came to join us. The three of us were looking at the screen in rapt attention for a minute. A raging fire was tearing through an oil refinery, the footage showed.

“That’s horrible,” I commented.

“Yeah,” the husband replied. “They say it’s 8.6 on the Richter scale on the radio. I didn’t know they’ve revised it upwards. Look at that!”

The footage had switched from the fire at the refinery to the landscape. At first, I wondered why they were showing us the sea until the words “tsunami” appeared on the screen. I instantly made the connection and continued watching in horror.

“What’s your order?”

I was interrupted briefly by the waitress.

“Two rainbow trouts,” It was my turn to speak without looking at the person whom I was addressing.

“Coming right up,” she disappeared into the kitchen again.

Then, I remembered my travelling partner, who was sitting at the table by the pond.

“There was an earthquake in Japan,” I related the news to her.

Half an hour later, our eyes were glued to the screen while we filled our tummies with a lunch of grilled trout, salad and French fries. We were treated to footage after footage of entire towns being submerged in seawater. We saw devastation then, but the realisation of the intensity of devastation only dawned on us much later.

As the car pulled out of the restaurant’s car park, I hadn’t come to grips with the enormity of the situation. Many thoughts crossed my mind. On one hand, I had been fed with many reports down the years about how prepared Japan is in dealing with such situations. On the other, the degree of which Nature inflicted her wrath on the affected areas, not many would have been prepared for it.

By the time we got on the highway, it was nearly dusk. Our car was in no way equipped to deal with animals that might wander onto the middle of the road at this time of the day. The task now at hand was to get us safely to our next destination – a grueling three-hour drive. So, interspersed with the thoughts of the catastrophe were the anxieties that we might have to drive in the dark of the night.

At the back of my mind, I knew my anxieties could never compare to those who suffered one of Nature’s greatest wraths. As I drove on, I whispered the faintest of prayers for the victims.

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