Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Estufa

When you live in an earthquake zone, reliably solid stuff  like walls and roofs and windows are somewhat less reliable than they are in places where the earth doesn't rumble and realign itself every other week.
            Walls develop cracks.  Inspectors and building contractors smile and tell you that the cracks are superficial and happening exactly where they're meant to - along slab lines or down the side of a core - places where the building is designed to flex. Because Chileans build really really solid.
            Structural integrity is a very good thing, but in the day-to-day, non-crisis scheme of things -
            There are air gaps everywhere!
            Doors work their way off plumb, and spaces appear between door and frame.  (Our front door has been sticking pretty good since Wednesday last. Opening it takes a shoulder and a shove.)
            Windows rattle out of alignment and lean tipsily in their frames, and narrow wedges of empty space keep the air circulating in and out.
            Every couple of years you call in a man who spends a couple of days pushing on the glass, whispering to it, and tapping gently at pressure points with a rubber mallet, and you're right and tight again for a month or three  But mostly you shrug your shoulders and be glad that no room is sealed too tight for health or happiness. 
            In winter, it takes bit of remembering.  Winter storms whistle straight through your healthy, happy environment- running up and down the curtains, ruffling furniture, knocking over bottles over the kitchen -
            It makes you feel like a protagonist front and center in a really theatrical surround sound experience, but a winter storm that breaches the walls and comes right in the apartment and cozies up next to you on the sofa is cold.
            The first really cold day of autumn nuzzles its way into your bed in the night and burrows deep into the thermal mass of the cracked concrete walls and  the next thing you know you're sleeping under four feather quilts and wearing hot- water-bottles strapped to your waist under your winter coat. (This isn't an exaggeration. I've a friend on the top floor of a building in El Golf who wears a hot water bottle every year from May to September.)
            Freezing isn't actually mandatory. Most of the apartments built in Santiago in the last half century have radiant heating.* 
            Unfortunately, running radiant heat is extremely expensive. Chile has no natural fuel reserves. Hydro exists only in the south where the rivers are.** Coal, oil and natural gas are imported from overseas, and the prices reflect it.
           Most Santiaguinos spend winter wrapped around their estufa. An estufa is a small portable gas heater that sits on a little wire trolley. You trundle it around your apartment from room to room to work up a nice localized fug, and you are very happy that the local geology has blessed you with natural ventilation that lets the fumes out as fast as they build up.
            The average human being is not overly gifted with foresight. In Autumn we watch the leaves fall and we talk about the cold weather that's coming but hardly anybody remembers to fill their kerosene can in advance of the winter.  On the first really wet, windy morning of the year, the whole city rolls out of bed, winces as warm toe meets icy floor, and lets out a collective damn.  
           Because now you have to queue.
           The kerosene that fuels your estufa is purchased at your local service station. There's snow on the mountains, which would be cause for celebration, but you can't see it because of the low grey mist rolling between the trees and the buildings. A slow rain works steadily down your collar, drip by icy drop. The chill creeps up through the soles of your shoes into your feet. The gas station attendants have to fit filling kerosene cans in between serving the cars that are pouring in (because anyone with a car is torn between filling the kerosene and getting up into the mountains to see the snow in person) and it looks like this -

* Most of them under the floor as per general spec, but in our first apartment here in Santiago, some unsung architectural genius installed the radiant heating network in the ceiling. The only winter we didn't spend in three layers of sweaters and a woolly hat was the year the people downstairs had a sick baby and ran their own heat all day long. They burned whole gas-fields keeping the temperature up to 70, and we walked around in shirtsleeves and bare feet.

** There's a major political kerfuffle right now over a possible huge high-voltage power line that would run 2000 kilometers from Aysen up to Santiago.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


The best part of the 6.2 quake last night was the fellow outside yelling "YeeeHAAAA!"

If you've decided that you want to live in a city right above a major fault-line on the Ring of Fire, Chile is a good country to pick.

            There are a few things in our favor.
            First of all, the geology of Santiago is very different from places like Christchurch in New Zealand,  or Urayasu in Japan, where earthquake liquefy the ground and swallow buildings.
            Secondly, and very importantly, Chile possesses some of the most stringent earthquake building standards an anti-seismic regulations on the planet
            These stiff/rigid/inflexible (seriously, all of the options here are totally tasteless in this context) building standards permit us to rattle through earthquakes that would utterly level other cities.  Under normal circumstances, we laugh at anything below a 6.5. (It takes at least a 7.0 to catch our notice. Or a really shallow 6.4.  At least, that's what we pretend. In my experience, anything over a 6 has even hardened Chileans braced tightly into in their safe zones, waiting in silence for the awful shaking to stop, because is it going to stop at a 6-ish?  You just don’t know. And when it stops we walk around full of bravado saying "Pssshhhh.")
            The bravado has entirely and thoroughly worn through.  Last Wednesday's 8.3 earthquake left us strung like over-strained banjoes, and every good rattle since - 
            all of the many good rattles - 
            especially all the ones that happen in the middle of the night - 
            Have sounded to us like the soprano tones of  banjo-strings going "PLINK."
            On Monday, all of the last frayed strings went and let go for good. Monday was a rotten day.  We were woken up at 3 in the morning by a good, juicy 6.3.  A 5.0. hit around noonish, then a 6.5 at three in the afternoon, and then a 5.8 at four, and 5.7 at five in the evening - all of them on top of  the eight other sub-5s that gently rumbled us across the day - 
             A teacher friend and a young man coming home from school both reported classrooms full of panicked tears, and as for the grown-ups - 
            All of our philosophical shrugging and "good to get all the stress out in smaller ones, eh?  What else can you expect after a big earthquake?" gave way to a wide-eyed need for buttonhole everyone you vaguely know and ask "did you feel that one?  Did you feel that? Where were you?  When will it bloody-damn-all end?"
            And that question was solidly answered at four o'clock on Tuesday morning by a 6.1 that hit like an artillery blast.
            In our building, the person who has it worst in an earthquake is the concierge downstairs in the lobby.  The room is built with lots of big plate glass windows. After the 6.4 hit last year we waited it out next to the structural core, and then we remembered that we had guests coming in an hour and needed to nip out to the corner market to grab drinks.  (That's Chile for you.  A 6.4 earthquake hits and soon as it stops you snap your fingers and say "D'oh!  Soda!  You want coke or ginger ale?") 
           Down in the lobby, I  found the lady concierge sitting at her desk in a state of blank shock - when a quake hits, those windows go berserk - roaring and booming and billowing like waves - and the general effect is that of a freight train coming through the front door. 
            Last week's 8.3 was exponentially worse, and the poor man on duty was in a pretty bad way.  A resident sat with him and held his hands as the night rolled on and slowly drew him out of his shock,  but none of the night or day duty fellows have had a very nice time since.
            For all that, we're doing very well here, considering. I have a friend who lives on the 26th floor of a building in centro (the historical center of Santiago.)  She was in her apartment at the time of the 8.8 in 2010, so when last Wednesday happened, she figured that if the building had come through 2010 in one piece, she had nothing to worry about, so she dedicated herself to hanging on.
When the earthquake stopped, she and the other residents evacuated and down in the street she shared a few beers with the other 26th floor folks, and among them they found a brand new neighbor.  He had arrived in Chile from Egypt the day before.  

            Can you imagine? Your very first day in a brand new country, and an 8.3 earthquake hits while you're 26 storeys up. The poor man was certain he was going to die. 
            Every sway was one sway closer to the moment that the pendulum would stop and the building would fall and take him with it.  He didn't know how tightly Chileans build - he'd only just arrive! 
            Down on the street afterward, safe on solid ground (that wouldn't stay solid) the poor fellow was having a very bad time of it. They held his hands, and a big burly man from Ecuador wrapped him up in a bear hug and held him tight until he thought he might be alright to stand on his own once more.  
            As for my friend, the endless aftershocks at that height have entirely eroded her philosophical equanimity.  She's can't sleep at night because of 'when' and 'just in case', and her jolly memories of community solidarity down on the street have turned into phone calls at all sorts of hours about a dog. 
            "The damned dog. My neighbor's got a pug. You know how overweight those things can get, yeah? You know pugs have rotten hearts, right?  And buggered sinuses?  And basically anything, right, that makes an animal unfit for even walking?  We carried that damned dog back up 26 flights of stairs.  Do you have any idea how much an obese, under-exercised pug with a dicky heart can weight?! We traded off - every four floors we had to stop, and wait, and hand over a hairy heaving snorting snuffling ton of bricks.  And the damned building kept shaking and the damned dog kept wriggling and licking at my chin and I didn't need its bloody gratitude! I needed it to walk up those stairs on its bloody damned own!!"
            Her new next-door neighbor has decided to leave the country. 
            The concierges in our building are not only entirely out of strings, but the entire banjo has gone up in splinters.
            The rattling persists, and so do we, and I get another phone call: "Have I told you yet about the damned dog?"

Friday, September 25, 2015


A week ago Chile was hit by a very large earthquake. 
            An 8.3 on the Richter scale may be smaller than the 8.8 back in 2010 that smashed everything in sight, but it was plenty large enough - large enough to for chaos, certainly, and up in Coquimbo, destruction and afterwards a 5.5 meter wave that lifted ships right over harbor walls, flattening cars and buildings as it came.  
            Here in Santiago, with an entire mountain range from the ocean, the terror was the length of the earthquake. It built so swiftly and so steeply that we were in the middle of it before we quite knew what had happened, and for more than three minutes, the world changed - and solid and sure and certain more or less ceased to exist.
            I can't find words for it that aren't deeply purple prose  - 
            It was like being sandbagged by the worst existential crisis you could conceive -  a blow that would cripple the most iron-clad of egos and surpass the direst expectations of the terminally insecure - 
            Nothing was real, nothing was solid. Faith in the walls that had - until now - held up the world was a demonstrably iffy position - there was nothing to believe in, nothing to hold fast to, and it seemed to be going on forever.  There was no way of knowing when it would stop - or how it would stop -
            For three minutes the world shuddered and jolted and swayed as if it wanted to break our building's back. I braced myself up against our internal elevator shaft - the structural core of the apartment - and the building shook and shook and shook and the glass in the windows boomed as it billowed out like curtains in a wind, and the furniture and crockery juddered and clattered and crashed - 
            And I remembered the front door. It was closed. In an earthquake you want that door open, because structural displacement can jam a shut door so it stays shut. (this happened a lot in 2010 - with people trapped inside their apartments while aftershocks shook them silly.) Staggering the few steps from the elevator to the door, I wrenched it open, and found myself eye to eye with my neighbors. 
            They were wedged together into their own doorway, and I held on to mine and we stood there, staring at each other across the little lobby as the quake went on and on and all I could think to say was "It's okay! It's all okay! We've got the policy!" 
            They had no idea what i was talking about. They thought, I think, that the quake had knocked me silly, but it was very important, so I said it again. 
            On Tuesday, the day before the quake, I had discovered that for several amusing administrative reasons our 'fire, flood and quake' insurance for this year had not been properly processed, and I had spent Wednesday morning running around getting it sorted out - and eight hours later, here we were - 
            "We have the policy!  Everything is all right!" 
            Under that, though, was a more worrying thought - "They were here in 2010.  And they were on the coast when the tsunami hit.  And tonight they are worried.  How okay are things, really?" 
            And the shaking went on and on and we stood there with our eyes locked upon each other - and then it stopped, and we let go our eye contact and turned straight to our smart phones. 
            After a quake, the phone networks, if they haven't been knocked out, get jammed real fast. Etiquette - infrastructure permitting - is a post on facebook to say that you're standing and smiling, and after that, you start with the texting.
            Our neighbors have three children - all of whom were out of the house at the time.  Mr Tabubil wasn't at home either.  He was in the airport, getting ready for a flight. I didn't know how big it had been out there. I was filled up with visions of him trapped in the darkness in an enormous shaking building with the electricity out and ceiling tiles and walls and windows dropping all around him. The airport terminal had not come out of the 2010 quake very well - the inside wrecked and concrete car ramps collapsing - an utter mess. I knew that the building had been majorly reworked since, but still - !
            And then the replicas (aftershocks) began. I couldn't get through to him and a darling 6.4 hit like a ton of bricks and we all jumped again for the doorways -

It has been those damn aftershocks that have driven people to distraction. That first night, they went on all night long- an almost continuous rumble that peaked and dropped and peaked and dropped and peaked (the 7.0 was rather fun) - 

            An earthquake is frightening, but it eventually it ends; you're strung tight as a banjo but you're ready, even eager, to move on, and right when you're catching your breath, the earth starts to move again. And again. It won't let you go.
Because when a quake does stop, it takes a lot longer to stop for you. It's like when you've been on a boat and your legs keep feeling it after you return to solid shore; after an earthquake, the physical jangling is all mixed up with the adrenaline and nerves inside your head and every new little rumble becomes a mental dance of "is it real or is it just my nerves?" and it takes a handily located hanging lamp to make the call - 
            The windows of our apartment generally start to rattle at about 4.5-ish, and the crockery starts to clash and rattle in the cupboards at about 6.ish, and anything even around 5-ish is absolutely nothing to even think about worrying about, so I turned my back on the hanging lamp and left my nerves alone.  
            "If the windows don't rattle," I decided "I don't care." And promptly the crockery started crashing in the cupboards and everything went pear-shaped and 6-plus all over again. And again. And a-bloody-damn-gain.  All night. 
            Mr Tabubil was all right, at least. When the quake hit he'd been sliding his backpack onto the x-ray belt.  He spent the quake underneath the table, and he got the heck out of the building before the 6.4 even hit.
            The airport refit had done its job, but an earthquake as big as that, as experienced on the upper level of a very large, very tall building designed to dissipate stress thru lots and lots of lateral movement - it was an experience he would not care to repeat. 
            And yet, only four hours later, those four hours having contained a complete evacuation, a building-wide inspection, a general re-entry, the re-processing of all outgoing passengers through customs and security, and a serious inspection of all the air bridges - with aftershocks coming pretty much continuously throughout the whole process  - Mr Tabubil was in the air. It says a great deal for Chile's composure, experience and preparation that only four hours after a major earthquake, the airport was open and planes were flying.

While Mr Tabubil shivered outside an airport terminal in a frazzled crowd of hundreds, I spent the evening with our neighbors, watching the tsunami reports roll in on their TV - live video footage of water moving steadily up the streets in Coquimbo and Tongoy -
            And what a strange new world it is, that we can watch those waves in real time, with clocks counting down the minutes and the seconds to the moment that the waves will hit each city on the coast - the first wave, and then the big one. A million people evacuated, and we three of us thanking the dear sweet fuzzy lord that it was mostly only water spreading steadily up the streets in most places, not even as high as the kerbs, knee-deep at worst. How rattled our brains had become I do not know, but we didn't learn how bad it had really been until the following morning.  
            In point of fact, in a weird and superficial fashion, we were next thing to jolly. She was drinking champagne "to relax" (after the fifth glass, she was pretty damn relaxed all right) and he was "self-medicating" with a pot of espresso. In two days it would be Dieciocho (September 18th - Chile's National Day), and, high on adrenaline, half the city had started early with epic parties and extra-spicy enthusiasms, and the air (especially after the bigger replicas) was full of whoops and cheers.
            I stuck to tea. Between the three of us, I figured that one of us needed to be sober. I sipped chamomile and sucked on a bar of chocolate and wished ardently for a very large glass of what the rest of the city was having. Damn.
            And then I went to bed. Our bedroom is at the other end of the house from the core, so I curled up in a nest of blankets on the living room rug, and at about three in the morning, in a lull between big ones, I let the rumbling lull me to sleep.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Rains Bring Disaster in Northern Chile

The rains might have been welcome, and pleasurable, here in Santiago, but on the coast and in the north of Chile they've brought disaster.
            The Atacama desert is - normally - one of the driest places on earth, with an average annual rainfall of just 15 ml.  It is so dry that wet doesn't register as a potential state of being.  When we lived in Antofagasta, and we did get a few drops of rain, the interior walls of buildings would be peppered with rain-spots, because nobody noticed the cracks in the roof and the walls.  (Earthquake zones do that.)
            Up there in the north, even a few drops of rain can be a problem.  The dry earth forms a thick layer of dust, and without plants to break down the surface rock, water doesn't soak into the ground; it sits on the top of the ground and forms a muddy slurry, and when the drops turn into a rainfall, and when they fall on a slope, the slurry gives way under its own weight and you get landslides.
            In 1991, not too long before we moved there, a storm had caused a slide to come roaring through - unheralded, in the middle of the night - and taken out a whole group of houses, with the inhabitants inside.  
            This week the rain tracked unexpectedly north, and the heavy, southern-suitable rains are doing the same thing - gathering into a thick muddy slurry and pouring through towns. At least six people are dead across Chile, and clear skies down here in Santiago feel like a heck of a price to pay for all that.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Gustery, Blustery, Oooooooh....

This winter has been a rotten one for Santiago. With the exception of a storm on the 12th of July, we've had almost no rain at all. The occasional apologetic drizzle doesn't count for much, and day by day the air has gotten fouler and fouler and measured in how far the amber air-quality alert shades into emergency-red and by which license plates are allowed on the road in today's restricción vehicular.
            It's been absolutely awful.  Nobody in the city has dared to hope for more; we've been continually promised breaks in the weather, but the sheer act of hoping has caused the clouds to perversely shear off and go somewhere else. Anywhere else.
            But this week it happened.
            Mum called me on Monday.  "The satellite says you're getting rain this week." 
            "It's going to be enormous. The temperature is going to drop, and then it's going to pour-" 
            "I'll believe it when I'm walking through it. Seen any good films lately?" 
           "-and it's going to last for days.  Aren't you excited?" 
            "Of course I'm not excited!  We've been refusing to get excited about it for days now!  Stop talking! If you keep talking, you'll scare it away!" 
            Mum kept talking, but somehow, the rain still came. Not even the weight of seven million tentative, tremulous enthusiasms turned it from racing straight toward Santiago, and when it hit, it hit hard. 
            First the wind, howling and snarling, and then the rain, bursting through bedroom windows and flooding roads and overpasses
            That was Wednesday. Thursday was bigger than Wednesday, and Friday was bigger than Thursday, and I sat in in our living room with the whole apartment sealed tight and the curtains swelled and billowed while winds came whistling through through -
            The reality of life in an earthquake zone is that a sealed building envelope is more of a concept than an actual thing. Every quake shifts doors and windows subtly out of alignment with the walls, and the cumulative effect is - well, in big storms, it's actually rather fun. 
            Today, the fourth day of the storm, was a howling torment. The curtains on the (sealed) living room windows billowed and snapped. The venetian blind on the (sealed) bathroom window clattered so loudly we wound it all the way up and then we stuffed a sock between the (closed) bathroom door and the door frame to stop the slamming door driving us irretrievably demented. Outside it poured and blew, and we went back to bed with books.
            Sometime around four it stopped. Just stopped. The clouds blew away and the sky turned cerulean and a golden light illuminated a world that for once was fresh and clear and bright clean out to the mountains, which stood up stark and crisp and heavy with snow.
            It was magical.
            And half an hour ago the clouds came back in and the wind began to rise and the trees are bending and the evening is flat and grey - not evening dark but storm dark.  Heaven.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Please Join me in a Moment of Silence

 - In the memory of my dear, departed Elna 3003.
It passed away on Tuesday last at 7:54 in the evening, with three seams left to sew.

Sympathies have flooded in:

Rest in Peace, dear old machine!
You left an uncompleted seam.
Now go to your eternal rest
while I hand-sew the arms and chest

Tessa telephoned and sang Mandy -

Ohhh Elna...
How you gave and you gave without failing-
How I neeeed youoohoo 

Ohh Elna…

One tasteless wit even offered a pun - "say it ain't sew."  It was briefly considered, but then a firm decision was made: we can't encourage that sort of thing.

It was all very moving. 

And now, pray, bow your heads with me and give a muffled curse in the name of the sewing machine that after all the tender love, care, fresh bobbins, fresh spools, screwdrivers, damp q-tips, machine oil and delicately voiced entreaties in Santiago, could not graciously consent to last just one more damned half hour.

(Epithets will be acceptable in lieu of offerings.)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Today it Rained. Lots.

A large city surrounded by mountains is not necessarily a pleasant place.  Santiago's air has been foul this winter. The contaminación has been at its absolute peak - the worst it has been in sixteen years.  When the sun hits the air, clear vision extends for about twenty meters, and then there's haze. Across the street is fuzzy, the air tastes foul and scorches your throat and causes nasty gnawing headaches that linger for days.  Wheee.

            Since our one decent rain back in April, we've had nothing.  Bone-dry and static cling. Sweating through these last months before the winter rain has become an exercise in spiritual endurance - closing one's eyes and closing one's windows and steadfastly - for want of alternatives - not thinking about the air. We've had driving restrictions (40% of license plates ordered off the roads) for the first time in almost a decade, but as a solution it's cosmetic, and ignores the lumbering elephants of root causes and tacit acceptances of levels of industrial and auto output that could (and probably has) choke a horse.
            But last night the rains came. We were woken at 4:30 this morning - a tremendous gale had set off car alarms up and down the street.  The rain began, and the wind began to howl and whine and squeal through our (closed) bathroom windows and set the curtains on our (closed) living room windows flapping and billowing. (Living in an earthquake zone renders perimeter seals more of a theory than an actual thing. It doesn't help with the
contaminación either.)
            By ten this morning  the storm had blown itself out and settled down to a persistent, drenching rain. The streets and sidewalks were invisible - you could hardly tell where one started and the other stopped, because the platano orientale trees, which normally hang onto their brown leaves all through the winter, had had almost everything blown off at once!
            The poor concierges of all of the apartment buildings have had their work cut out for them.  Santiago possesses (in the spirit of possess insisting on too many esses) a mania for keeping one's pitch impossibly immaculate. A gentle autumn breeze is the concierge's bête noire- the most particularly dedicated sort will spend whole afternoons hovering just outside the front door, rake in hand, primed to pounce on each leaf as it drifts to earth.  It's personal.  

            Solid freezing rain wasn't going to put them off clearing their lawns.  No, Sir -
            But the rain fell and the leaves kept dropping, and wet sacks of sodden leaves in a sea of more leaves took on the most sad, futile aspect - 

            And by mid-day pretty much everyone had given up.
            Mr Tabubil and I splashed out through the rain and leaves up to our local supermarket, and came home and made the best brownies in the world and roasted a chicken and left the window open while we ate.  Fresh, clear air is worth dinner in down jackets, as often as we can get it!