night of earthquake - and the following day

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South America » Chile » Santiago Region » Santiago
March 1st 2010
Published: March 3rd 2010
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old Santiago crumbleold Santiago crumbleold Santiago crumble

Took this as we were looking for gas and entered an old area of Santiago. Decided to take one pic and flee.
It's around 3:30am in Santiago. I'm in bed, struggling to fall asleep. For the past twenty minutes, a baby has been crying outside. I mean it's really wailing, echoing off the walls of my neighborhood. The only sound out there. For a long time I listen, loathe. It's close, maybe being cradled by a parent near an open window.
And that's when it began, a slight shaking I first think is nothing serious; it’s a part of everyday life to experience small tremors in Chile. Then there's this sound, like an odd kind of shimmer coming from the south, wind under a tarp, the rattle of glass and concrete and booming steps of a giant running at full speed, its head soon to appear just over the dark outline of rooftops beyond my open window.

Earthquakes do roll, and I'm already on my feet, poised and extremely alert in just my underwear. There's this moment when I realize what's coming before it arrives, a moment long enough for a little voice in my head to say, "oh sh-t. Here it comes, and it's gonna be big."

I leap to the safety of my doorway as my building bucks and
my roommy roommy room

I took this after I cleaned up a little, a few hours after the earthquake. Just wanted to show the dust.
jumps under my feet. The noise is unforgettable, but hard to describe. When I went skydiving once, there was that sudden deafening rush of wind when the instructor opened the hatch at ten thousand feet. The sound is like that. You’re overwhelmed by it, your stomach leaps into your throat, and you just want it to stop. The sound of eminent death.

For some reason I turn on the lights, only to watch them bounce and flicker out a second later. It's as though my building is angered, speaking to me, saying "oh no you don't. No safe glow for you. I'm gonna swallow you in a moment you little coward. YOU'RE DYING IN THE DARK!" Then it begins to toss my desk from the wall, a lamp to the floor, my surfboard tips, a plate I ate my dinner on smashes, tv and computer monitor flip, boxes and empty suitcases fall about my feet from the top of my closet. The world thunders and roars, approaches a crescendo. I can taste the dust spitting up into my face. This is it, I think. Any moment I'll feel the floor drop from beneath my feet. There will be a
Santiago night of quakeSantiago night of quakeSantiago night of quake

This is the only photo I took of santiago on the same night of the quake. Right as aI took it, I saw a group of delinquents trying to pry open a storefront and decided to put the camera away.
moment of freefall followed by a second of extreme pain. They're gonna find me in the rubble, a red smoosh in his underwear.

But the break does not come. The violent shaking and noise continue, and I realize this could be my chance. I CAN SAVE MYSELF. So many solutions arise. I think of leaping from my fourth story window. If I could land on the soft roof of a parked car, it would only be my legs. Better than being crushed. No - I can make a run for it. KEYS! Where are my damn keys? I can't see a damn thing. FLASHLIGHT! I keep it in a drawer by my bed. It’s there, thank God. I pick it up and turn it on. Dust shines and floats before its beam. But where are those keys? Everything that was on my desk is now simmering on the floor. There they are! GOT EM!

I make a move for my door. WAIT, I'm naked. A little voice on my shoulder speaks: "Are you kidding me? Just get the hell out, dummy!" A towel is good enough - it's right there on the back of my chair. I wrap myself up and take off; the stairs barely touch my feet.

One of my neighbors is already at the gate. She's all shaky and panicky with her keys. I assist her with my flashlight.

Seconds later I’m out in the street, realizing the shaking has stopped. I'M ALIVE! But now what?

Car alarms. Baseball-sized pieces of rubble litter the ground. A twisted rain gutter. A large cactus in spiky chunks. Shards of broken pottery and a smashed ashtray I realize fell from my own window sill: it was a gift from my ex. My neighbor is in a daze, standing over the cactus. She tells me it's her cactus.

A moment of silence. Fear turns to embarrassment. There are voices, yelling, crying, all coming closer. I feel very naked and decide to risk it. I reenter my building, delicately tiptoeing up the stairs like I'm walking on eggshells. I notice the strangely enticing smell of gas and pause to help an old lady open the barred entrance before her door. In my room, I hurriedly sift through the mess and find a bag, throw in my passport, wallet, camera, a pack of cookies, ipod, cellphone, book (John Updike's RUN, RABBIT, RUN), and an extra flashlight - all within 30 seconds. I throw on a dirty pair of jeans and t-shirt, sweatshirt and a pair of slippers (no time for shoe laces). My heart thrums. I glance over my shoulder out the window. Any moment the beast could come back.
Dark. No electricity anywhere. I'm walking down the street, feeling homeless, feeling like a refugee. There are neighbors, faceless figures in pajamas, gathering, grouping, consoling, hugging, recalling, hungrily sucking on cigarettes. Dust crunches between my teeth. My slippers crunch on rubble and glass a moment after they show in my headlight's beam.

Around the corner there's the splash of water hitting the sidewalk, streaming from a high dark space twelve stories up. I step over a mangled satellite dish, more rubble like fallen dinner plates. There are young teenagers and twenty-somethings, drunk, returning from parties, now excited and shouting and smiling. The bars and clubs weren't enough, destruction and anarchy is what they were really looking for. I feel a little guilty pleasure in this excitement as well.

I find my friends Ben and Manu, a recently married young couple. They are standing in front of their building, eyes plastered open, smoking. I ask them for a cigarette.

"I only have one left," Manu says.

"I understand. Don't worry about it.” I turn to Ben. “What do you think that was?"

He pauses and blows smoke. "At least a 7.0," he answers.

I nod and do a little calculation in my head. Like Ben, I'm also from California. "At least," I say. "That was way bigger than the 6.5 I felt in the nineties - I ran out into the street in my underwear."

They sort of laugh and continue smoking.

We walk to the corner to have a look. The only light is an orangy hue from Chile's Ministry of Tourism building, the former American embassy. There's a gas-powered generator within its thick concrete walls. We can hear it chug on diesel. The surrounding streetlights and signals are out as far as we can see. Headlights of speeding taxis and cars cut through the dark, passing and honking, alighting the lingering dust. A few people step far out into the road, trying to wave down a ride. They sit on the curb and stare down at their shoes
school damageschool damageschool damage

not good at taking photos from the back of a moving vespa, but just outside this photo is a collapsed floor.
with shocked, deadpan expressions.

I can feel it too, this feeling I almost take pleasure in. Some people pay big money to have this feeling. This perpetual flutter in my chest, this throb in my veins, this sensation of the ground still shaking beneath my feet, this lingering terror of looking straight into death's eye and turning away. It ripples through my body and sucks the smoothness from my movements. I notice a twitch in my fingers and think, there's no way any of us are going to sleep anytime soon. This feeling will stay with us for days.

I leave Ben and Manu and continue on alone. I want to see what's just around the corner - and then the next. The damage in Santiago's center is not too bad. I find more rubble, nothing larger than the size of a surfboard. Some broken windows. Lots of glittering glass on the pavement: large bulbs and fixtures that fell from streetlights. It’s like walking through a shaken movie set after work hours.

I walk past clubs and bars. Groups of young drunks linger before their entrances, chatting excitedly, sitting on the ground. I see this one gringo male not wearing any shoes. He's laughing. There are people sitting in the grass of Parque Forestal. They are hugging their pets, hugging each other. Seeing them, I begin to really feel alone. I look to my friend, Maren's, third floor apartment window, hoping to see her up there, waving me in. There's only darkness, although the windows of the floor below reveal the orange glow of candles.

I circle back towards my block, taking a different route, hoping to discover more. I pass the dark supermarket and wonder how much food I have in the fridge. I see the gringo without shoes again, now walking with some friends. He's still laughing and happily chatting. I silently wish he cuts his feet.

On my street, the neighbors are still all there, outside, grouped and talking and smoking. I recognize the neighbor who has a window across from mine. I think of all the times he's accidentally spied me naked or dancing, maybe both simultaneously, and I decide not to join. I go sit in the glow of the Ministry of Tourism, between two parked cars. I can hear the others talking. I put on my headphones and listen to a Bill Mahr podcast on my ipod, but I don't really listen. Bill is laughing and discussing health care and politics. I'm on the street in the dark, in the middle of the night, in a foreign country in post-devastation. I am a whole other world away.

A stray dog slinks by. I make the mistake of looking at it a second too long, and the dog takes this as an invitation to try and lick my face. It whines for attention, curls up beside me. I like this dog and give it a pet, feeling the gunk of street living in its fur. When I stand up, the dog stands too. It follows me to the corner of my street, and I feel a little betrayed when it approaches another group, bends to another stranger's rub on its head.

I sit alone on a curb below my window, until I can almost see the sun coming up. It's not quite there, but I can feel it. Once, there's a pretty strong, brief aftershock that makes the buildings sneeze. I feel foolish letting fear overtake me, and I decide to reenter my apartment.

Inside, I begin to wander and asses the damage. Nothing horrible. Fallen plates and glasses. Random planks of wood on the floor. A little grout from between the tiles. A collapsed stack of newspapers my Chilean roommate uses to line his guinea pig's cage (He's currently off visiting his mother at the beach). I call out for his two cats in the darkness and get no response. I won't find them until the following morning, cowering on the ledge of his window.

From outside I hear the thrum of an approaching vehicle. I know this sound; it’s my ex-girlfriend's vespa. We have a strange and muddled reunion on the street. After a three year relationship, we broke up only a week ago. But we are clearly happy to see each other. She is alone as well, her family currently vacationing down south in the town of Curanipe, where we'll learn the following morning is a just few steps from the quakes epicenter.

We talk, then enter my bed and hold each other with our shoes and clothes on, my keys ready by my head, ready to make a quick escape. She falls asleep first, and I stare at the top of her head, wondering if I still love her, if I ever loved her, if I could change my mind, become more serious and finally settle down.
The electricity and water comes on around eleven am. We eat oatmeal and watch the news. My ex becomes sad thinking about her family down south. She tries to call, but the phones still don't work. I decide to fill a couple empty bottles with water and join her on the ride to the town of Quilicura, to check on her family’s house and her six-month-old dog.

Riding through a post earthquake zone on the back of her buzzing vespa, I kind of get this mix of shame and Mad Max vibe. Quilicura is a poor neighborhood on the outskirts, near Santiago's airport. To get to it we have to pass through a gray industrial area of shattered storefronts, dusty factories, cracking bridges, more huddled families squinting into the sun, loving that sun. It’s worse off than my neighborhood. Schools and tiny one-story houses lie crumbling, leaning precariously to one side. There is no water or electricity or cell phone coverage. Locals pause and glare at our passing. Women wash their hair in a puddle from a dribbling fire hydrant.

My ex's neighbors are all outside, surrounded by many small children laughing and playing, oblivious. Only my ex's younger brother and girlfriend are home. Together we comfort the dog and sweep glass until late afternoon. My ex's brother takes pieces of a fallen television set, puts them on his mattress and says he'll fix it later. I tell my ex we should leave plenty of food and water for the dog and go back to my place. She can stay as long as she wants in my apartment, and we better leave before it gets too dark; I haven't seen many police around.

On the return trip I take pictures from the back of the moving vespa. My ex smiles and sticks out her tongue at the camera, and I am glad we can still laugh in spite of what happened. Even though we have not heard a peep from her family members down south, even though many parts of Chile are in ruins, and despite how the news will make the situation seem hopeless, I know these people will make it through. Chileans' eyes are dark and deep and hiding something timeless and special. They are another tough class of South Americans, as weathered as the Andes, resolute in their long and windy path upwards. If there is any real magic in this world, then it is down here in this stretched, forgotten country.

Returning my camera to my pocket, I smile and only think of an American phrase of boldness, and slogan I heard on the news. "Bring it on winter. Fuerza Chile."

Additional photos below
Photos: 17, Displayed: 17


3rd March 2010

Great post
I'm from Chile, and all I have to say is thank you for that story. I hope there are more to come
3rd March 2010

cool, thanks for the response. There's so much I have not discovered here. Hope to write some more soon
4th March 2010

Thank you
Thank you. I lived in Chile for nearly 2 years and was so scared when I heard about the quake. I have since heard from all my friends and all are fine. Thank you for your beautifully written account of that nite. You truly have a gift. The people of Chile are definetly strong and will only become stronger as a result of this trauma.
7th March 2010

Keep writing
You have a good way of describing things and should definitely keep posting. I am glad you are sticking around for a while.
7th March 2010

thanks commenters
i was really hesitant to start this blog. the earthquake on the same night i began it was a weird coincidence. got my mind pumping. finally finished my story of Chiloe. will now get back to santiago happenings, talk about teaching english; some kind of feeling about it as though pulling a scam. thank you thank for your comments!

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