Monday, March 1, 2010

Surfing the Land

I'm not sure how I managed to luck out, once again, but I feel so lucky to be alive and to have gone through the 8.8 earthquake unscathed. Here's my account of what happened to me. It in no way resembles what happened to those in Concepcion, Talca y the coastal towns closer to the epicenter.

It was early in the morning. I had gone to bed but I woke up at 3am, restless. I was wide awake. I felt anxious but I couldn't place why I felt such stress. My Aunt Myra and Uncle Rick and I'd had a lovely meal at the Sheraton Santiago restaurant a few hours earlier. They were in Santiago for two nights and then planned to head to Vina del Mar to catch their cruise ship. I'd also had a cell phone conversation with Pollo, my boyfriend, before I'd fallen asleep. He had been anxious. He kept saying, "I feel really strange." Perhaps it was merely the stress of life that kept Pollo and I both lightly sleeping. Perhaps we sensed something coming. Whatever it was, when the earthquake hit, I was already half-awake.

The rumble came first. It is a low sound, like the rumble of an 18-wheeler or a helicopter in the distance. It is the growl of the earth, a million dogs below threatening to attack. As a Californian, I know that sound well, too well. I had been in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I was 11, earthquake phobic and skittish as a cat. I'd cried then.

This time, I was probably too calm.

Being earthquake-wisened, when the low rumble began, I reached over to turn on my light. Had I been dreaming, or was there really an earthquak? The electricity was already dead. The rumbling kept going. I reached around in the darkness for my pijama pants but couldn't find them in the pile of blankets at the foot of my bed.

As the rumbling picked up speed and volume, the sound of concrete slamming against concrete nullified my inhibitions. I swung open my door in a short tank and undies and ran to the doorframe at the front of our house. It had been the agreed upon place to be--Chileans are also earthquake savvy, and we'd already discussed the safest place: doorframe, inside away from falling tiles and electrical wires, but nowhere near glass.

The door was locked. It is one of my secret horrors--the worse scenes in horror films--when someone is being chased and all they have to do is unlock the door and they'll be saved. But they just can't get the door open...I had a moment of panic then. If only I could get the door open. But I took a deep breath and twisted the deadbolt and then opened the door wide. Javiera, my yogini roommate, was right behind me.

We stood in the doorframe bracing ourselves with our backs against the frame, facing each other. I don't know who reached out to the other first but we had a hand on each other's shoulders, as if we could keep the world from shaking if we braced ourselves well enough. I said, "It's going to be okay. It'll be okay..." to reassure us both. I thought about the Loma Prieta. I survived one, I thought. I could survive two. The sky flashed like an electrical storm, the transforms sparking. The car parked on our patio rocked as if someone were trying to tip it over, the branches on the tree bowed and swayed like invisible monkeys had come for a party. We heard several crashes in the house--glasses, vases, books, who knew--but you don't care what gets broken when the earth is moving like a see-saw. There is nothing more frightening than feeling the one thing you think you can count on--the earth you stand on--moving beneath you.

We surfed the land, Javiera and I.

Our neighbors had been having a party. They're drunken "woa's" turned from lighthearted to serious as the earthquake went on and on. I thought I heard someone begin to cry. I don't remember hearing any of the dogs in our community--they normally bark at everything. Instead, every car alarm in the city began to whine, as did the familiar sirens of ambulances and firetrucks.

Finally, what felt like a minute later, the shaking stopped. The moon was out, providing us with silver light, illuminating what had become a very dark night. However calm I had been in the doorframe, I was as equally afraid going into the depths of the house. My room is at the back of the house, where the moonlight had not reached.

First order of business was to find my cell phone and my flashlight in a room so dark I couldn't see my hand in front of me. This was when I thanked god I am so neurotic and organized. My things have "their place." The cell is always at the edge of my desk. The flashlight either on top of nightstand (because I always feel reassured having a flashlight handy) or in the nightstand. I found both quickly.

Our house smelled like rotten flowers; a vase had fallen from a bookshelf and spilled old water and moldy leaves on the dining room floor. It did not break.

A wooden statue of Don Quixote fell. It had not broken either. A thermos fell in my room. Again. In tact. A bottle of wine I had as a gift for Kanke was still upright. My lamp was upright. Nothing fell out of the bathroom vanity. Nothing happened in our house. The refrigerator contents were fine. Our wine glasses toppled in the cupboard but none of them broke or even cracked.

We turned off the gas and started using our cell phones and our land line to call friends and family.

I called Pollo immediately. His house was built in the 1800's. We had both taken a look at the back wall a week ago and had been dismayed. It was brick. Solid, but old. Pollo picked up instantly and in his panicked, fast spanish, he said he was fine. He saw the street undulate like waves in an ocean. He said that a lot of tiles had fallen in his patio but that he'd run out into the street before they fell anywhere near him. He was safe and biking to get his grandma (85 years old I think) and his mom from their sixth floor apartment five blocks away.

I managed to get through to the Sheraton and find out that Rick and Myra were safe and sitting out around the pool area. I left a message with the front desk and prayed they'd get it. I had no way of calling Rick's cell since it was an international number and I had a wimpy prepaid local cell. My land line as well wasn't equipped to call international numbers. I had been using skype this whole time but with the electricity out, our wifi was also out.

Next I tried to connect directly to the land line and use a dial up connection to get on the internet and leave a message for my parents. But try as I might, I couldn't figure out how to use a dial-up connection from Chile.

Both Javiera and I had heard from as many people as we could and then the network got jammed. The house was fine. We were fine. Our neighborhood was fine. Javiera wondered whether she still had to teach Yoga the next day. Then she looked at me, looked at the house, and said, "You know what, I'm going to try to go to sleep." We laughed and joked that "we'd see each other at the doorframe." The earthquake for us wasn't even close to what it was down south.

We had no battery-powered radio. We had no TV. My internet was down. But from our small community, we thought the whole world had remained unscathed.

I was amped with adrenaline, but I took the candles we had lit into my room, and began to read. I was speed reading, I was so jumpy. I couldn't figure out whether the writer had a stilted way of writing or whether I was incapable of reading at this point. It was me.

We felt aftershocks, silent, rolling ones that make your head swim. The silent ones make you feel like you're dreaming.

At 4:45am, Rick and Myra managed to get through to my cell. We confirmed that we were all safe. Their preferred-guest room--also on the sixth floor--ended up being the one right next to the gigantic structural crack you could see from the outside. Myra said that it felt that the building was not only swaying but twisting as if it would just rip apart. They said they'd send an email to my parents saying I was okay--they both had high-tech international palm pilots--and that they'd call again at 9am.

At 5am, Pollo called out my name from outside my window (as I was still jumpily reading my book). I ran out and we hugged each other for a long time. He couldn't stay and though I really, really wanted to have my man with me, I knew he needed to take care of his mom and grandma. They were staying in their car in the plaza near their house. They were safe. Pollo wanted to take me with him but I didn't want to leave Javiera at home alone (especially since she had managed to fall asleep). Plus, I wanted to be around for the next phone call from Rick and Myra in case they needed to dial my land line instead of the cell.

By 6am I'd managed to fall asleep, which is incredible turnaround from when I was 11 and jumping at aftershocks all night.

By 9am Rick and Myra called again. I wasn't sure what we were going to do. In my head somewhere, I thought maybe we'd still go sightseeing if things got cleared up. It still hadn't hit me what was going on, and without much information, I thought things were fine. I told them I'd bike over. I took a hot shower, ate some fruit and rode over to the Sheraton on my bike. Javiera said she was going to her parent's house.

The extent of the damage got through the fog of my brain when I saw the entire guest list of the Sheraton hotel curled up on couches and lounge chairs, sleeping and talking or watching the news. They had blankets and some were sitting on their luggage.

A security guard tried to stop me as I rolled my bike through the marble lobby littered with suitcases and strung-out guests. There was no way anyone was going to stop me from being with my aunt and uncle.

Now, my aunt and uncle are really well off. They've traveled the world and had their share of hard knocks. So I was not all that surprised that they both looked fresh despite not sleeping and ready to go play a round of golf. They were sitting out, catching some sun, both wearing stylish shorts and expensive sunglasses. I gotta say, they know how to do "earthquake survival" very well.

We sat near the pool, watching the aftershocks make ripples in the cool, blue water. Rick had managed after six trips up and down the stairs to gather all their luggage. They had packed for a 30-day cruises--tuxes, fancy dresses, the whole deal.

Both of them were coughing up black gunk from the dust they inhaled in their lungs during their tramatic experience.

Everyone was fine. Shaken up, but fine.

And so, my cush Sheraton earthquake-survival experience began. We chatted, had diet cokes and beer, free lunch and dinner buffet (and good food too!). I laid down in the grass for an hour and a half till an aftershock that lasted too long woke me up.

Wifi began working, and we Skyped my parents who had already heard about the earthquake from my younger brother who had heard about it from my older brother. They were very relieved to hear that we were all okay and together. Apparently, later, my friend Tiffany called my parents and posted a "Cathy's okay" message on Facebook (thanks Tiff).

Rick, who enjoys the title of Mr. Fix It, hatched several plans. After talking on Skype with Princess cruises, he knew the cruise was still a go. We decided that to stay at the Sheraton when I had room available at my solid "not a single crack showing after an 8.8 earthquake" house would be ridiculous. So, we waited until after the dinner buffet, gathered up all six incredibly packed and heavy suitcases of theirs, my bike and backpack, and took a van over to my house.

The lights around the city cheered us up. Some streets already had electricity back up. Some traffic lights were already working. We prayed that my house would have electricity. There was electricity up until my street. Then, we just stared at what looked like a black hole in comparison to the happy brightness of the street lamps and houses lit up on the streets we had just passed.

No matter. We lit candles, found the flashlights again, showered and went to bed. Pollo stopped by and met my aunt for the first time--what strange circumstances to meet the first of my family.

I tried to convince Pollo to bring his mom and grandma over, too. They were going to spend a second night in the plaza. I didn't have much but I had beds. Javiera was staying with her family. Lua had moved out. Kanke wasn't home. And we had an extra bed we were using as a sofa in the living room.

But the women didn't want to be far from their stuff, which was understandable.

The next day, Rick and Myra took their chances and left for the Vina del Mar Sheraton. I thought about sleeping more after they left. But as I lay in bed, I thought about friends and family who might not have heard from me. My need to communicate with the outside world overpowered my sleepiness. Pollo had power at his house, which meant he had internet too.

I biked over. I thanked my lucky stars I had purchased a bike. In this emergency, having a bike was the best mode of transportation. The metro had been shut down. Buses were infrequent. Walking was too far. I didn't have a car.

An old brick wall on the street Antonio Varas had been knocked over. Tiles littered some of the streets and sidewalks. A electric pole was leaning over. The damage to my neighborhood was minimal.

I hugged Pollo, his grandma and his mom. They looked tired and hadn't slept well in the car. I emailed my friends and watched a little of TV. A tsunami had created a lot of destruction that the original earthquake had not in the coastal towns near Concepcion. Looting had begun in those areas where the destruction was heaviest.

We went to see Pollo's best friend Edu. He, his ex-girlfriend and their son came with us to the viejas' sixth floor apartment for lunch. Spaghetti with aglio sauce, beans and cilantro, wine and soft drinks, celery, and bread. We had bought a tres leches cake for desert at one of the pastelerias that happened to be open that day. We thanked God for our good fortune. We watched Gaspar, their son, frolick, oblivious to the bleary eyed adults and the news they were hearing. We all laughed at his antics, happy for a distraction.

Despite my sleeping the night before, I was so tired. Being on edge for so long had taken it's toll on my body. After two days of not sleeping, Pollo was finally starting to feel it too. We left for my house--the best place for sleeping it seemed.

Pollo just crashed. He finally didn't have to worry about his grandma and mom for at least a little while. I rubbed his back and he fell into a deep sleep. I tried to sleep but couldn't. Someone outside was calling for Kanke but I didn't realize it until they left. Then Javiera came back, this time much more disturbed than she had been the night of the earthquake.

I got up and spoke with her. It turns out her family was in Constitution, a coastal town, 50 km from the epicenter. After the earthquake, they'd gone in two cars to their father's office building, on top of the main hill there. Everyone ran for the hill. They had all been trained that after an earthquake in Consistution, they needed to get immediately to high ground. Her family stayed in the office without electricity and no news until the morning. Then her dad drove down to try and see how their house had fared.

Their neighbor's house was just didn't exist. There house was still standing, but all of their furniture had been swept to sea--and possibly looted too--and what remained were possessions from other people. A wallet. A dress. Both their other cars were lost. When they saw how much robbing and looting was happening, they took their two remaining cars and headed back to Santiago. Javiera says they never want to return there.

Javiera said her parents in Consistution could hear the screams of campers stuck out on an island nearby as the water rose. You've probably seen the images, too--they're all from the south. A boat displaced a block into town. Whole sections nothing but mud. A new apartment building split in two as easily as splitting a piece of cake. I heard that several sections of Santiago--poorer, older sections--were more badly damaged, but I had not gone to see it.

After our nap, I suggested once again to Pollo that he bring his mom and grandma to my house, but it looked like his grandma still didn't want to be far away from her stuff. So I suggested we all stay at the six floor apartment.

We went back over there, set to stay the night. But during our dinner, an aftershock hit. We all froze and watched the lamp hanging from the ceiling swing. What would have been a small tremor on the first floor was a huge swaying on the sixth floor.

It was decided right then and there. We were heading to my house -- my solid, ground floor house with a bed in the living room, five feet away from the safest doorframe in the house.

His mom stayed in my room, Sari, his grandma stayed in the living room, Pollo and I took Kanke's room upstairs.

It was the first time Pollo and I slept in a double bed together. And we were so used to the cramped twin--and so grateful to be alive--that we slept all night holding each other close.

The next day, the electricity came back on. Pollo went to work. And I did too. I opened my laptop, like on every other day here, poured myself some tea, and sat down to write.

My mom's friend Carolyn wondered why I hadn't been speaking with CNN--this was my chance to be a journalist. But I never saw a single camera van in Santiago--after all, they go where the damage was, and my corner of Santiago was impeccable--and when it came time to go towards the damage, I only wanted to gather every one of my family and friends here and fly far away from danger.

In the end, instead of chasing a career, I only wanted to be with my people. I wanted to tell stories, sit down for a good meal, and when it came time to sleep, offer them the safe haven that my house came to be. It wasn't much, and it certainly wasn't close to what all those rescue workers have done in the south, but I did manage to give a few of my friends and family a good night's sleep when they needed it the most.


Randy said...

Wow.......... I am glad you are among the lucky people.

Kiersten L said...

Great article. I'm glad your OK. :)

clanier said...

omg cathy! i cried as i was reading this. i am so glad you're okay, that kanke and javiera are okay, that lua wasn't there and is okay. is auyum okay? lol. your writing is so exquisite- i could picture our house throughout the whole thing. ah i miss you. let's have a phone date when you get back stateside. much love! xoxo

LED Signs said...
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Aly said...

I got Tiff's "Cathy is ok" message, but glad to hear the story for myself. I have been thinking about you and hope that everything is getting back to normal slowly but surely. I will keep everyone there in my prayers. Especially Javiera and family. I am glad you are all safe though.

Love you!