Generous spirit still very much alive

FRIDAY was a happy day for farmer Li Benqiong, 47. Her daughter-in-law had just given birth to her first grandchild, a boy named Shengsheng.

But the happiness was shortlived. Just a day later, her home was torn to pieces by the 7.0 earthquake that rippled through Lushan and Baoxing counties.

Her daughter-in-law Wang Yan, 22, already weak after giving birth, suffered internal bleeding during the rush to safety.

Now the new mother could barely speak, managing only to look wanly at Shengsheng as she lay on her bed at an outdoor medical station in Taiping Town.

"Our lives are now so miserable," Madam Li said as she peeled a hard-boiled egg for Ms Wang.

Theirs were just some of the worried faces I saw on my journey into the quake-hit areas in Lushan County in south-western Sichuan.

I left before daybreak from Ya'an City in a cab with a fellow reporter for Lushan Town, where most houses have been wrecked.

There, I looked into one where the walls had crumbled, the window panes shattered and a beam had fallen on one of the two pigs reared by farmer Huo Zhongqing, 56. The roosters were fine, though, crowing as usual on this misty morning.

Later, I hitched a ride, alone, on a pick-up going to Taiping, where soldiers have moved in to sweep up the debris. Some residents have reopened their shops and elderly women were hawking vegetables by the roadside.

At a temporary medical station, men and women lined up at two tables to tell doctors their ailments and get medicine.

At Taiping, I met clothes-seller Wang Xuerun, 20, whose great-grandmother remains stuck in a village further up the mountains. She and some relatives had made the one-hour trek to check on the 95-year-old on Sunday, but are hesitant to move her as she may not survive the journey.

"I think the situation there is more dangerous than ours," she said, referring to the possibility of landslides. "We are quite worried."

On the winding road from Lushan Town to Taiping, I saw many quake victims camping by the side with nothing but makeshift tarpaulin shelters to protect them from falling rocks loosened from the hillsides by aftershocks. Landslides have damaged some of the roads in the quake areas, making villages harder to reach.

Tents are badly needed, but they have not been delivered to many places yet, in part because the roads are barely wide enough for two-way traffic.

Even in Lushan Town, one of the most accessible areas, not all evacuees sleep securely.

"We've put up our own tent, we couldn't get hold of the tents given out. It leaks when it rains," said Ms Li Junrong, 28.

She was eating glutinous rice balls when I dropped in, like most of those camped near the town's secondary school. These were given by donors, she said, but her only child didn't like to eat them.

I ate them, though, when a kindly woman offered and wouldn't take no for an answer.

Indeed, many people were quick to offer me food or water, though they didn't have much for themselves.

"The water we can get from the river is not clean but we have no choice," farmer Liao Quanmin, 51, told me minutes before she offered me - not one, but two - bottles of her limited mineral water.

I took one reluctantly.

As I gulped down the water gratefully, I thought about these folks' ability to rise above disaster, driven by their generosity.