All around me are the remnants of shattered and sunken buildings.
The smell - was I in Hell. There was even smoke. With a jolt I awoke from my reverie, remembering why I was there. This was a serious earthquake in Gujarat, North West India in February 2000. I had been working in the teeming city of Mumbai (Bombay) and among my friends were a group of missionaries drawn to help with this catastrophe.
The impending dread didn't stop my enjoyment of the long train ride north, rail being my favourite form of travel. Worldwide I have loved its communal nature and I would choose a train above all else. We click clacked along the highly populated coastal plains, over bridges across countless marshes where fishing was paramount and then into the solid heartland of rural India where the seemingly ceaseless toil and relative poverty of the farmers made me feel lucky, and selfish.
The last 100 km was covered at almost walking pace due to the earthquake and condition of the railway lines. We arrived in the town of Gandidam to an unbelievable sight. All the buildings were damaged but half were either levelled or had sunk several floors below ground. This happens I'm told when a certain type of substrata such as gravel liquefies and I believe Christchurch has this phenomenon.
Almost in a daze our group walked up the main street shocked at what we were seeing. But it was soon to work. Our first job was to build a temporary village out of poles which were really just branches, large rolls of scrim and rope. This was essentially just to give shade and shelter from wind. I was proud of my rural 'number eight wire' background. The village was built next to the railway line as the centre of operations was Medicins Sans Frontieres 'The Mercy Train'. This is ten carriages set up as a hospital which is used all over India in emergencies such as this, sporting a surgery, doctors, nurses and the works, manned all by volunteers. At night we would move through the carriages (wards) while witnessing terrible carnage. We would play instruments and sing to them. The gratitude on the faces of these broken people was a big reward to us.
We slept and ate in a big tent in the grounds of a large fertiliser work but showered etc inside the buildings. This was very scary with cracks everywhere, doors totally stuck and the ongoing grumbling tremors from the bowels of the earth which persisted for the duration of our stay.
Forever beautiful to us, was the spirit of the surviving people, as before we departed for Mumbai, we made time to move amongst them. Forgetting their pain, beaming faces showed such appreciation to us. Our group, coming from all corners of the globe made it all the more special to them, even to the extent of showing this eclectic bunch on National India television. Time to go and as the train jerked and stealthily glided forward, looking out the window at the totally flat slabs of concrete, once the walls of the station , our hearts went out to the brave people we were leaving behind who had briefly brushed against our lives.
I am lucky enough to have spent almost a year in India and it does touch its visitors with invisible fingers, this experience being the most touching and poignant of my many memories in that extraordinary country.
I am editing this in January 2013 and whilst I didn't expect it to happen in my lifetime, in fact we have had the same thing happen here in our lovely Christchurch.