Adsense Top Bar

Friday, March 25, 2011

An Accident Waiting to Happen, in Cairns (Part 1)

Isn't it strange how many of the great discoveries were made by accident? Penicillin was first isolated by scientist Alexander Fleming who, returning from holiday, noticed that fungus growing feral on petri dishes in his lab killed any bacteria they came into contact with. Naddoðr, legendary Viking king, was sailing home to the Faroe Islands when he lost his bearings and got barreled on to the eastern coast of Iceland, which was then uninhabited, and unexplored. Christopher Columbus found America on the way to China and in doing so, confounded the prevailing wisdom of his age. It was totally an accident that I discovered Cairns last week, fleeing as I was the triple tragedy in Japan, or more precisely my persistent panic attacks, which have pestered me like a plague for more than two years now, plagued me like a pestilence, and promise me plenty of fresh pain in the foreseeable future. Cairns is not the kind of place I would have chosen to travel to otherwise, but destiny drove me there... destiny and the deadly Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami, which dislodged me from my Japanese home of a decade, shook me from my sloth and my slumber, and sent me packing with nothing save my suitcase and the shoes on my feet. Like all Australians I knew Cairns, I understood it was a resort on the Barrier Reef, realized that it was touristy in nature, and during my many years in Japan I had also learnt that it was popular with Japanese visitors. Not surprisingly, then, the place had never really appealed to me. It didn't feel edgy enough, or so I thought, it didn't seem exotic. It sounded, basically, the kind of place bogans went for their holidays, and I would much rather embark for Bangkok, or Berlin, or even Bali, ffs!) A few days after the great quake of March 11, with relentless aftershocks rattling my apartment in eastern Tokyo, and radiation bleeding from the breached reactors up on the beach at Fukushima (福島), I saluted Japan with a sad sayonara, and then scrambled out the door. Changed the departure date on my Jetstar Airlines ticket, informed my boss it was over, and scurried out the fucking door. Of all three actions, giving notice to my boss was actually the most awkward, which speaks sagas of the sway he had hitherto held over me. For a long time, it seemed that I would be his bitch forever, a servant in the outhouse, the kouhai to his Koresh. It just shows that when the chips are down, when your life is actually at stake, self-preservation will always victor over subservience, and submissiveness (and don't fall for their piety, even the most devout religious types secretly fear their deaths!) Stockholm Syndrome be damned... I wasn't going to die from caesium contamination! Like the earthquake itself, the break with my boss was an inevitability that was long overdue, but something which neither of us had had the heart to hasten. Fittingly, it had to be forced upon us, by fate. According to my new Jetstar booking, I was supposed to stay in Cairns for a few hours on Sunday morning, just long enough to change planes, and possibly crunch on a croissant. But then destiny intervened, once again, this time more benignly. I missed my connecting flight, and was thus free to enjoy a full day strolling the streets and shores of this captivating tropical city, the capital of the cane fields, gateway to Cape York. This is the story of how that happened, and what I discovered there. In the meantime, let's wind the clock back a few days, to that crazy and chaotic aftermath of 3/11, when I honestly feared that my life was about to end, crushed by collapsing masonry, or felled by fallout. This is the story of how I became a nuclear refugee, and how the Moving House project met its indignant demise, dumped out on the pavement with the rest of the trash. Quite a few narratives met their demise on the same day, in fact, all of them indignantly. Let's give thanks to them, now, while we can, all of them one by one! They all deserve to be honored such, after what they have given me.

Soil liquefaction brings a pond of water to the surface, on the bank of the Edo River, where the baseball teams play (Japan, 2011)
On Wednesday morning last week (March 16) my boss rang me and told me not to bother reporting to work for the next week or so, as the school would be closed on account of the radiation. When I pressed him further on exactly how long this recess would last, he conceded it could indeed be more than a week... possibly two weeks, a month, who knew? Until the crisis was over, in other words (not there was a crisis of course, and not that he used so many words (typical Japanese doublespeak in action!)) Parents were too scared to send their kids to class (he didn't say that, but that's what I inferred.) Everyone was hunkering down, as if under siege (that was his unspoken gist.) "Don't go outside, ne," he added (meaning: deadly particles might be wafting down from the reactors.) "By all means, chant to the gohonzon on your own. But we don't do gongyou today." Hanging up the phone, I reclined on my futon, imagining a whole free week ahead of me... no, not a week, possibly even a month, a whole month free of work, a month cleared of chanting,  and possibly even purged of panic too! I thought to myself: Is this not yet more proof that the Third Free Month has arrived at last, in these dying days of my life in Japan? With every day, my life is becoming more free... freedom is breaking out all over the map! Maybe I could celebrate this change in fortune, I figured, by taking a nap? Because God knows, I needed one! So I sprawled out on the mattress, inserted my earplugs, and attempted to sleep. Try as I might to suppress them, however, thoughts kept arising in my mind, unsettling thoughts: what exactly was going on up there at Fukushima, and why were people so concerned? ... what if there was a powerful aftershock while I was asleep? would I have time to save myself? ... how am I going to survive without a job, especially now that I have retired from Telephone English, and am already living off my credit card? They were, in fact, much the same thoughts which had thwarted my efforts to sleep and eat a decent meal since the great quake struck, five days previously. Unlike my panic phobias, the fears that motivated these thoughts were real, and demanded respect: from time to time an actual aftershock did arrive, a seismic jolt shifting my bookcase on its foundations, and jiggling my windchime judiciously. One of the reactors up at Fukushima had indeed blown up, and I had watched it happen on CNN, and NHK (and all the other networks). I would now be completely unemployed, with no income save Google Adsense, and Chitika. That was reality, not hyperbole. My life seemed to be crumbling around me. On top of that, I couldn't even go out for a walk!

Sleep was out of the question, so I sat up, and dug out the letter I had started writing to N. earlier in the week. Sleep deprivation had rendered me emotional, and I rapidly scribbled out a page or two about how much I missed her, how this entanglement had inspired me to appreciate her love, and how much I was looking forward to living with her in Việt Nam if I ever got out of this mess, blah blah blah. Soppy, sycophantic shit it was, and I had a feeling that it might embarrass her to read it, as she is way less sentimental about these matters than myself. But what was I going to do: this could be my last transmission before the caesium cloud descended, my last will and testament if you might! Since she never replies to my emails these days, or even answers the fucking phone, launching a letter at her was the only way I could get her attention. And this made me ponder: Why does she make herself so hard to reach? It's strange behavior considering that I am giving up my life in Japan to be with her...

The windchime was jiggling before I felt the jolt. My bookcase shifted immediately after that, and began buckling on its legs, jumping like a catfish on a pole. I bolted up from the futon, and made for the back door, and my escape pod. While I was standing there on the back step, preparing to abandon ship, I noticed an announcement flash up on the TV: a magnitude 6.0 aftershock had hit off the coast of Chiba Prefecture, beneath the Pacific floor. While it rated only a 3 (out of 7) on the subjective Shindo scale here in Edogawa Ward, over at Choushi, on the headland I walked on New Years Day, the shaking measured an alarming 6. Across the Edo River, in places like Funabashi (船橋市), vibrations were recorded at Shindo 4. I know a guy who lives over that way (Jim from Telephone English (TE)), and I wondered how he was going. Shindo 4 is pretty serious, I have only suffered it a few times in my life, all of them in Japan of course, and most of them in the past week! According to Wikipedia, at Shindo 4 "hanging objects swing considerably and dishes in a cupboard rattle. Unstable ornaments fall occasionally. Very loud noises." This aftershock, prominent as it was, triggered its own family of afteraftershocks which erupted all around the east coast, each one answering the previous one, as if they were subterranean deities communicating, stocky dwarfs ringing their hammers of iron on the bedrock beneath my feet. I stood in the doorway until the commotion died down, and then some. This game was getting old. I was over it. I had to get out.

Official advice be damned, I decided to go outside for a walk. Just to be on the safe side, I switched over to the weather channel briefly, to see which way the wind was blowing. To my delight, Tokyo seemed to be enjoying a westerly breeze. What a relief, I thought, all that Fukushima fallout is being blown out to sea! I picked up N.'s letter, put on my coat, and bundled out the door. Happy to be outside, rather than cooped up inside, watching my death on TV. It was sunny out, and the wind felt kind of strong. There weren't many people around, giving the streets an eerily apocalyptic feel.

I mailed off N.'s letter at a post office nearby, and then shopped for some groceries at the Yamaichi supermarket on the old salt route (Shinozaki Highway), in Minami-Shinozaki (南篠崎). It was a place I discovered by chance, walking home from work one magic afternoon in the summer of 2007, when life seemed fresh and full of promise. The magic was all gone today, however, and the aisles of the supermarket were deserted. None of their sushi trays, or curated cuttlefish, looked particularly enticing to me. Perhaps all the good stuff had been snapped up already. I picked up some items nonetheless, and shuffled out. Out on the street, the wind blew, menacingly. It was rather a strong breeze, stronger than the weather channel had prepared me for. Possibly it was my imagination, but there seemed to be something caustic riding on that breeze too, something biting, something even luminous. It was only until I returned home, and switched on the TV, that I realized that the wind had changed direction during my walk, and was now blowing down from the north... down from the reactors... down from the fields of death in Tohoku...

I remembered that I had Jim's phone number in my address book, so I gave him a call. I hadn't spoken to him since my abrupt disappearance from Telephone English, and I figured I owed him an explanation. As it turned out, he was flat on his back, literally, across the river in Chiba Prefecture. He told me he was working at TE on Friday afternoon when the great quake struck. The temblor was so terrifying that all the edutainers rushed downstairs to take cover on the street (which, it seems, is a typical gaijin thing to do in this situation!) The phone lines went down, so they couldn't work. But the train lines were down too, so they couldn't get home either. They ended up camping out in the office, and Jim said he did his back in trying to sleep on the hard floor. Surprisingly, he didn't seem as rattled as I was by all the aftershocks. "The earthquake is over, it's finished, we had it on Friday... what you have to worry about is the meltdown," he said. "My folks have been on the phone, telling me to get out, saying you'd have to be crazy to remain here. That is, indeed, what I am planning to do... get out."

"You're going to leave?" I asked him, feeling a little jealous.

"I will only be gone for a week or so," he replied. "Long enough for things to cool down."

"I can imagine there would be a mass exodus, if things got really dire," I said. "You probably wouldn't even be able to leave... the flights would be booked out, the highways gridlocked with traffic."

"Most Japanese would stay, because they have nowhere else to go," Jim said. "We, on the other hand... we have options."

I remembered Ken-san asking me yesterday if I planned to leave Japan. Until that point, I hadn't even considered it. I mean, I was leaving on account of my panic attacks, I had a ticket booked and all, but I hadn't considered hastening my departure due to the disaster. Now, listening to Jim talk, I felt myself brimming with resentment, and envy. How come he could leave, and I had to stay behind? Why was it that I felt so burdened by commitments, and restraints (including financial restraints), that I had to quell my natural instincts to flee? If I was a true Vagabond, I thought to myself, I could leave at any time, I would just pack up my suitcase and leave. Stockholm Syndrome be damned: I never wanted to be a resident! A true Vagabond would just get a train out to the airport, and leave. And in one blinding epiphany, talking to Jim in the radioactive breeze, that is what I decided to do! I decided to pack my suitcase, and leave.

But first, I needed to call my Mum.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...