Friday, March 9, 2012

I get away... yet again

I somehow seem to be treading very close to natural disasters and I'm convinced
it's not healthy. During February of this year I was in Cebu, Philippines, on
business when suddenly I felt the tables shaking so violently, it's was a
bizarre feeling, I have seen this on TV before, but when it happens for real
you really don't know what to do or how to react.
I was on the top floor of a two floor building in the city of Cebu, carrying
out interviews when suddenly the tables, the floor and everything on the tables
started shaking violently, the thought of an earthquake didn't strike me at
first, however after a few seconds I feared the worst and called out to the
guys downstairs, who came up and reassured me that Cebu does not experience
earthquakes and that there was nothing to worry about. I was still taken back and
I asked them if we should be evacuating, thinking of a potential after shock.
The staff assured me that if this made me feel secure then we shall walk out
for some time. It was embarrassing that when the shake happened I must have
shouted out," hey the building is shaking" and the girl whom I was
interviewing at the time went down and told the other candidates that I was
scared and was mimicking me. I could hear the others laughing out loudly at my
expense. Needless to say, she did not get a job!
As I walked out I was feeling a bit shy, I felt I may have over reacted,
however once I had got out of the building I realized I wasn't the only sensible
one! There were a large number of people who had evacuated their respective
buildings in the immediate vicinity of our building. After about five minutes
the staff comforted me that it was quiet safe to get back, so not being the one
to cause a scene I got back in and carried on. However I told the people in the
office to keep an eye out, the guy who was meant to be looking after me came
back and told me that he had spoken to the owner of the building who had
reassured him that his building is very safe!!!
I carried on with my interviewing; the next 30 minutes were a real fright as I
kept seeing the water bottle on my table shaking. The staff pointed out that it
was merely due to the vibration of the AC! I accepted their version of the
story and carried on. Two hours had elapsed, by this time I had had some lunch
and felt a lot safer when I suddenly heard the guy downstairs shouting out
" sir, big problem, big problem come down". I didn't know what it was
maybe someone had collapsed, what was it, there was no shakes, so it cannot be another
earthquake. I quickly got up and took two steps to rush downstairs and then my
presence of mind told me to pick up my passport and blackberry so I returned to
pick these up and rush downstairs, only to find downstairs empty and my guide
shouting out " sir there is a tsunami, let's get out". As I got out
of the building I saw the street was filled with people panicking as the sirens
were constantly instructing people to get away from the shoreline as there was
a tsunami warning being declared. I saw a sea of people heading in one way
only, now I don't know Cebu well, however I had guessed, where they were
heading was away from the shoreline.
Amongst the panic we had decided or to be precise the guide had decided that we
could no longer carry on with our interviews and we need to head back to my
hotel, which was further away from the seaside. Some of the candidates were
advising me this would not be a smart idea as the hotel was a taller building,
given this it was more likely to be impacted by an aftershock than the existing
building. In-between the conflicting thoughts I had decided in my mind that the
best thing to do was to get out of Cebu and head out to Manila, the capital of Philippines
and a totally separate island far from Cebu, hence far from the current turmoil
surrounding me. My thought process was accepted by all and I had my team in Dubai book me an early flight out of Cebu.
As I head to the airport I was able to see the real spirit of the Cebu people, as many were trying to flee. Many were
getting on with their lives as normal without a care in the world wondering
what all the fuss was about. As for me, I got to the airport in time and safely
boarded the flight to Manila.
This was not my first encounter with a natural disaster of some magnitude; in
fact this was my third in eight years. Having lived in the UK for the most of my life, I was
fortunate not to be encountering natural disasters on a regular basis. However
in the month of December 2004 I had taken my annual holiday to visit Sri Lanka, it
was a three weeks holiday and I was due to fly back on 27th of December. The
holiday was progressing well and having travelled around Sri Lanka I was back
in the capital Colombo ready to fly back on the 27th of Dec.
The morning of 26th of Dec 2004 was just like any other morning during my
holiday and with my entire family we had gone out to a restaurant to have
breakfast. As we were progressing with our breakfast our nearby guests, who
were from India,
seemed very concerned and animated on the phone but we just ignored them as
larger than life characters. We had hired a residence in Colombo for our stay and the street where the
residence is located directly leads to the seafront, hardly minutes away from
our residence. During our stay, my family and I had often taken many walks to
experience the natural breeze and take in the atmosphere of seafront, having
grown up in south London
this was something new and an experience I enjoyed very much.
As we finished our breakfast we walked down the street towards our residence
and heading up to the seafront. This time the scene on the street was one of confusion
with many people heading towards the sea and those coming back from the sea
with shocks etched on their face. During our entire stay the place was one of
calm and tranquil so it was very clear something was not right; we had no idea
what we were about to witness. My brother and I took our parents and sister
inside the house and then decided to wonder down to the seafront to see what
the fuss was all about.
At the end of the street overlooking the seafront was a railway track, this is
often busy with high speed trains heading to and from Colombo. The seafront is normally a fair
distance away from the track. To our amazement, once we reached the end of the
street we saw the water reach all the way onto the track and within minutes
recede back further into the sea. None of the eye witnesses could explain this
phenomenon or could recount ever seeing this before. We stood and watched in
amazement for sometime and returned home to tell our parents of what we had
The rest of the day was filled with people ringing me from London
to see if I was ok, and anecdotal coverage on the local TV of damages in other parts
of Sri Lanka.
24 hour news channels were in it's infancy in Sri Lanka, given this I was not
able to understand the magnitude of what had happened in Sri Lanka and around
the world for that matter. It was only when I had headed to the airport to
board the flight back to London
the next day; I realized something horrendous had happened the previous day. Many
tourists had come to the airport with the clothes they were in the previous
day, many had no luggage or passports and nearly all were traumatized severely
in some way or another. As I boarded the flight I was still not able to
comprehend the enormity of the event. As the plane landed in Heathrow we were
faced with a torrent of press each wanting to hear of our experience in Sri Lanka. I
had no story to share so I quickly moved on. It was only when I got home and
turned on the 24 hour news channels I was able to see the sheer magnitude of
what had happened and heard the name TSUNAMI for the first time in my life. The
Indian family on the phone at the breakfast table the previous day were indeed
talking to relatives and dealing with the impact of tsunami in India. Such
tragedy, such calamity and yet I was so close. I had visited many parts of Sri Lanka in
the previous days that had been completely wiped away by the Tsunami, yet I had
a lucky escape.
The Boxing Day tsunami had totally wiped out several parts of Sri Lanka. Seven years on, many of
the affected areas have still not been rebuilt. The total number of lives lost
will go into folklore, and with the learning and improved technology able to
forecast and warn people, similar to what I had witnessed in Cebu, we may never
see this level of losses of lives ever again. Many of the areas damaged
severely were visited by my family and me only days earlier, how I survived to
tell the tale can only be attributed to higher powers.
Although the boxing day tsunami was a new phenomenon, earthquakes were not and
often you would hear of some huge quakes in some parts of the world I had not
frequented, so it always remained a fascination, something we see in the news,
however I never thought it be something that I would ever have to deal with,
how wrong was I?
was a place I had visited often for business and it was a place I often look
forward to visit as I have many old university friends as well as the natural
beauty of the place. Sometime in late 2011 I had travelled down to Nepal for
another business trip. As I landed and was at the baggage belt getting stressed
with my missing luggage, I was bombarded with BBM messages from my wife
informing me that there had been a huge earthquake in Nepal and that I should get on the next plane
back to Dubai!
To be honest I was more worried about my missing luggage than what may lay
outside as when I step out into the streets of Kathmandu, however undeterred,
step out I did. My guide assured me that all was well and no aftershock was
expected. When I got to the hotel l was still quiet worried about the
aftershocks, so I went down to the reception of the Yak & Yetti hotel to
ask them if I should indeed sleep in the room or should I wait outside the
hotel overnight. The answer from the hotel was "go to bed in the room its
call of nature, so we can't really say anything" hardly reassuring! I did
go to bed however didn't get a wink of sleep, my mind was oscillating between what
I would do if there was an aftershock and for the first time in my life I began
to see the benefits of having life insurance!!
I woke up safe and well the next morning and drove past the British embassy
which had come tumbling down the previous day, I felt lucky that I was not
there when the wall collapsed.
Although over time we forget these incidents, at the time of these horrific
natural disasters and once you have escaped unscathed you really do value being
alive and start to put a lot of the existing elements of our lives into greater
perspective. If only we could hold onto those thoughts on a daily basis we
would definitely end up living much more meaningful lives.