A Guest Post by Leif

Over the course of my travels I have been witness to some pretty intense events, both natural and manmade. I have been held captive by furious forest fires in the city of Santa Barbara, California. My body and senses have been overcome by fear in the midst of a terrorist attack on the Taba Hilton in Egypt. And I have even been shot at as I evaded the Bulgarian border patrol. However, nothing I have experienced in my life, thus far, has been as terrifying as the recent Tohoku earthquake in Japan.

But nothing has also been as enlightening.

One of the reasons why earthquakes provoke such an enormous degree of fear is due to the speed and intensity with which they strike. The afternoon of March 11th was like every afternoon before a disaster, calm, quiet and unsuspecting. The sky was partly cloudy, the air was brisk and I had just woken from a dreamless sleep. Out of habit, I flipped open my laptop and began checking my e-mail. My girlfriend was online and we started chatting. Everything was tranquil and ordinary. Nothing about the day could have warned me of the calamity to come.

And then suddenly, like a scene from The Exorcist, the room and everything in it sprang to life. Instinctively I jumped out of bed assuming a sumo wrestler like stance, while desperately trying to reassert a sense of stability. The quake quickly backed off and it appeared as though my efforts had not been merely fanciful. But just when I thought I had won, the quake returned with unimaginable intensity and fury. Now, not only was my room alive, but it was on a rage-filled binge of red bull and crack cocaine.

Books came pouring off the shelves, wine bottles came crashing down, sewage erupted from the bathtub and sink, the balcony door slid open then closed with shattering speed, and the entire building pitched and yawed like an enormous sailboat helmed by an inexperienced captain. In my panic I ran under the doorframe of my closet, while simultaneously thinking to myself, “What good is a door frame if the building collapses? Being on the 11th floor, I knew there was no possibility of escape. I was at the complete mercy of Mother Nature and there was nothing I could do to save myself. My only option was to resign myself to my approaching fate, get down on my knees and pray.

In those moments, I became acquainted with the frightened animal innate to my being. It became clear to me how primitive I actually was. I was forced to confront the reality of my own mortality. And it frightened me beyond any reasonable description. Never before had I felt so close to death. Never before had I even seriously contemplated death. As a 23 year old, death seems a freakish and far-removed anomaly, a complete and total impossibility. I was unprepared and unwilling to die.

When the shaking subsided enough for me to stand, I leapt towards the door, slipped on my Dockers and sprinted for the stairwell faster than you can say Tohoku earthquake. Seemingly gliding down the stairwell without touching a single step, I descended like a mountain goat bounding towards safety, an entire floor at a time. When at last I reached the ground, I sprinted into an adjacent parking lot. Dropping to the concrete in exhaustion, I looked towards the sky and tried to comprehend what had just happened.

In my panicked pondering I realized that everything we as humans do is done to avert or obscure our inevitable demise. We surround ourselves with concrete cities and time saving technologies in an attempt to conceal and further our distance from the natural world; which only serves to remind us of our mortality. We naively believe that we can dominate and subjugate nature and in doing so overcome fate. However, as natural disasters, such as the recent deluge of earthquakes, floods, fires and tsunamis across the world make it frighteningly clear, as long as we inhabit this earth we will always be vulnerable to nature’s power and subject to death.

I examined my surroundings: a fire raged in a neighboring building, helicopters and ambulances cried out around me. The world had become eerie and unfamiliar but also strangely beautiful and vivid. I could see with a clarity reminiscent of my childhood; a time when the world appeared always new and constantly full of mystery. I was, in a sense, reborn.

I laughed out loud, partially out of fear, partially in defiance and somewhat out of delight. “I am still alive,” I thought.

It was a fantastic realization.

As I write this now, the aftershocks continue to rock my apartment; each a reminder of the supremacy of nature, and our inescapable and interconnected fates.


“He not busy being born is busy dying.” — Bob Dylan


Leif is The Runaway Guide. When he was 16, he ran away from home and explored the far reaches of Europe and the Middle East without a dime. It was a  journey that opened his eyes to the world and changed his life. He learned some great techniques to travel on the cheap, which he shares on his site The Runaway Guide. Follow him on Twitter.

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2 Response Comments

  • Beware of Falling Coconuts  June 8, 2011 at 5:44 am

    Awesome account from the scene!

  • Debbie Beardsley  June 8, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Living in California my entire life I have experienced many earthquakes including the Loma Prieta in San Francisco but none of them were anywhere near as bad as the Japan earthquake. I can not imagine going through that one. Glad you are safe.


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