Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Carols

For the past five hours  a bird has been sitting in a tree outside our window, singing. Since he began he has not stopped, or barely even paused for breath. He is singing his little heart out - he chirps, he chirrups, he warbles, he hopsup and down his branch, working up the most fantastic runs, tweeting and whistling and chortling, harder and louder and louder and faster until he chokes on his own whistle, and with only the slightest of pauses to clear his windpipe, he starts again -
            It is three o'clock in the morning, We can't sleep. The sound of this one small bird echoes off of the building to our left, and echoes off of the building to our right, and bounces up and down the parking alley between the two buildings across the street, and on its way back to us, meets the bird's next terpsichorean assault, and it grows and it grows and it grows-

We are afflicted with a lover. You know the guy, the one crouched below the window of his beloved and strumming furiously on his guitar - the guitar strings are smoking, his fingers have turned to rubber and his shoulders are on fire and the stem of the rose between his teeth has been crushed to a bloody pulp, but he will show her -
            He'll show everyone - 
            Beneath his love the world will give way -
            Ooooh, you just watch and see how deep is his love.
            Right above him, his senorita's daddy is out on the balcony, ready to dump a bucket of ice water over the edge.
            Or if we're back to talking birdies, he's got a cat.
            It might have been amusing, but an hour ago the lover from hell was joined by a second bird. They are not friends. Feather to feather, they are trilling their little beaks off. There's no quarter being given - this is war. If one pauses for breath the other finds it in his tiny diaphragm to double his volume and show of just what sort of deathless devotion he is made -
            The father is still upstairs on the balcony, but this time, the he's got the full complement of family retainers lined up on either side. Sleepless and grim, they've all got buckets, ready to go.  He's traded in his bucket for a shotgun. And the se├▒orita is inside on a sofa, with an ice-pack on her head.

Merry chirping Christmas.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Summer in Santiago

Summer Summer has hit. For real. The air is light and balmy, the platano trees are a mass of green and a bird is chirping its little heart out just outside our window.
            This afternoon I went places. I took a taxi. We were stopped at a light; the windows were down and I lay in my seat with my head back and my eyes closed, enjoying the early summer warmth, overlaid with the smells of petrol and hot tarmac. There was music coming from another car nearby, happy boppy summer pop-
           "Look." The taxi driver said.
            I opened my eyes. The music was coming from the next car over - a red Volkswagen beetle; not fire-engine red, but ladybird red, which is brighter and more alive, and behind the wheel was a girl. Her lips were painted a bright barbie pink. Her long hair fell down a high ponytail, tied up with a blue twist, and she was dancing in her seat, shaking that long fall of hair, bouncing her fingers on the wheel, singing and shimmying her shoulders, sending her summer-blue shirt slithering and slithering from one bronze collarbone to another.
            It was a performance, but she wasn't playing to anyone. She was dancing her heart out for herself in her bright red summer car.
            "Look." The driver said again, and his voice was one long sigh. "She even has a flower."
            I looked. There was a flower, a peony tied with a bit of ribbon to the rear-view mirror.
            "Es ella una maravilla." (She is a marvel.) "Una maravilla." He folded his hands on the wheel and watched.
            She was Joy, and in a whole day full of summer, she was the most wonderful thing I saw.

Thursday, December 3, 2015


Way back in October, for a bit of family-rated Halloween fun, we had Kids # 1 #2 around to carve jack-o'lanterns. It was the first time carving for both of them. Halloween is a relatively new import to Chile. Children's costume parties and lots of candy are definitely a thing, but the less candy-conscious elements of the holiday haven't arrived yet. This year, however, for the two weeks before Halloween, the Jumbo Supermarket chain was selling big orange American pumpkins.

            Over in the candy section of the supermarket, hunting through Haribo mixed assortments for the ones with lots of licorice, I became aware of a sotto-voce conversation behind me.
            "You ask."
            "No, you ask."
            "Are you supposed to eat them?"
            "How would I know?"
            "Ask her, then."
            "You ask!"
            I turned around. Behind me, a family of four were bending over my cart prodding bemusedly at the pumpkins.
            "You want to know what the pumpkins are for?" (A dim reply, but one has to break into a conversation somehow.)
"They're all over the supermarket!"
            I explained.  With a google-image search even, and they thought it was pretty neat.  They thought it might be better done in autumn, the way the north-Americans did it, but the candle part sounded lovely. Last I saw of them, they were making a straight line for a big stack of pumpkins in the fruit-and-veg department.

            I hope they have as much fun as we did.  Kid #1 is 9 now, and taking life very seriously indeed.  All afternoon, she diligently scraped and drew and carved, but it was Kid #2 (age 6)  who really grasped the possibilities.
            He put the top of the pumpkin on his head and wore it as a hat, and offered it to his sister who thought it was disgusting- "There-is-nobody-as-gross as-you-anywhere! On the whole planet."
            So he dipped his hands into the big bowl of orange pumpkin guts, he came up dripping. "Raaarrrggghhhh!"
            His sister scooted back from the table and yelled.

            "Get away from me! You get away from me right now!  Mom - make him go away! He are so disgusting, take it away!"
            Looking thoughtful, Kid #2 wiped the worst of it on the seat of his trousers, and with an air of innocence that would do credit to a baby rabbit, he turned to his sister and held out a hand.
            This time, she made it halfway across the room. "Make him stop make him stop I can't bear it make him go away why is he even here I can't work like this take it away take it away take it away!
           "Kid #2 lifted his face up to mine.  He was suffused with happiness - there was so much of it that it was almost too much. He kicked a chair leg to relieve his feelings and crawled under the table and sat there for a while, sighing deeply.

Stickiness and screaming aside, both Kids #1 and #2 reckoned that carving pumpkins was pretty good fun, but it was when we added candles that the afternoon reached it apotheosis.

            In the bedroom, we closed the door and drew the blackout curtains. I lit two tea lights and lowered them into the pumpkins - 
            and magic happened.
           A slow, quiet magic that rose up with the candles and spread out until the room was filled from ceiling to floor - 
            The children were enchanted.  It was their magic; magic they'd made themselves with their own hands. It's something you only see in children: the unquestioned acceptance of wonder.  There's no looking for the wires behind the illusion, just a simple, absolute yes, an utter absorption in the moment.  In the darkness, they sat and they watched, and they sat and they watched -
            That was magic too.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thursday

The shower in our bath is leaking from the taps.  Mr Tabubil went to see how bad the leak was.  
He didn't stop to check which direction the shower head was pointing before he turned the taps on. 
Mr Tabubil is wet.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Popo de Elefante

At the end of October we invited a few friends around for a light spot of Halloween cheer.  We even had a theme - worst nightmares in food and dress.
            Unfortunately for us, my "agoraphobia" costume suffered a fatal structural failure half an hour before the party started (the damned pigeon fell off my head), and on a warm October night, Mr "Arachnophobia" Tabubil flatly refused to wear 6 inches of fiberfill around his chest. To show willing, he hot glued a few wads of stuffing and a couple of spiders to and old t-shirt.  He looked a nightmare all right - a nightmare of last-minute design, and he lost his temper along with his stuffing.
            That's sort of how the evening went. Our friend Sal - rather a man's man - had found the food something of a stretch.  He's not a natural cook, so I set him a simple quiche - eggs, cheese and icky food coloring in a pre-made bought pastry shell.  Half an hour before the party (right when I was wrestling pigeons) he  called from the supermarket in a panic - the recipe had been in imperial measurements and he'd converted everything to grams to eight decimal places, but he was having trouble figuring out what sort of eggs he should buy - vitamin fortified?  Omega 3?  Grade AA?  Grade A?  Did he need to buy a baking dish?
            He arrived at the party 45 minutes late, looking cross and flustered.  He handed me a bag of chips and a jar of salsa.
            "The whole afternoon's been a horror show." He said sourly.  "I hate supermarkets. Why didn't you tell me that a quiche has too cook for an hour? Believe me, the chips count."*

*Speaking of horror shows, you wouldn't believe what a little pulverized walnut does to the look of  guacamole.  It's unspeakable.  Five stars and two hearty thumbs up. I recommend it for all your holiday parties.

And then there was the dessert.  Mr Tabubil and I own a recipe for chocolate mousse.  I may have mentioned it once or twice before, in passing. To do it right, you soak raisins in rum for an entire week beforehand and you use rather a lot of heavy cream  - 

           A triple batch of it makes a rather nice bowl of popo de elephante (elephant poop.): a voluptuous tureen of turds, studded with oozing alcoholic raisins, the heavy smell of rum rising up like drunken heat in summer* from the swirl of well-set soup -

*I might have used two full cups of rum in the raisins, and I might have tipped what was left in the bottle into the bowl as I stirred. Waste is a terrible thing.

After a couple of hours staring at the guacamole, our guests ate lots of it. With a pleasantly buzzy fruit drink on the side.  The blood-red ice hand floating in the punch bowl was a nifty touch. They giggled. And drank some more.  And ate a second helpings of the mousse  -

            Not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of our guests got pished.
            One young lady had three glasses before we caught her.  She giggled, climbed carefully onto the sofa and closed her eyes -  right next to Sal - who is Bermudan and treats his relationship with rum like a religion, but who was lying with his head on the back of his chair and his feet up on hers, sort of snoring, and cradling his third bowl of elephant poop.

We really had radically overestimated how much mousse we'd need for a party of 12, and the next morning we still had a couple of liters of the stuff.  

            We gave it to our neighbors. They brought the bowl back the very next day - licked clean.
            Looking at us sort of anxiously, "That was the best dessert" they said "that we have ever had in our lives - would you like a plant?" 
            And they thrust a potted fern at our chests.

It must have been some seriously good mousse.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On Love

In the wake of the terrible events in Paris, many voices saying words that have become all too predictable. The responsibility - in varying degrees of more or less - is placed on Europe's refugees. The trouble comes with them. We must be vigilant, we must we must resist these threats against our way of life - 

            I am reminded of a question that was recently posed to Germany's Chancellor Merkel:

            “You’re doing a lot to help the refugees,” a woman asked. “What are you doing to protect our Christian values?” 
            Over the last few months I have found myself meditating upon an answer that was given to this question by a thoughtful and considering man: 

            "It is a strange notion that “doing a lot to help the refugees” is distinct from the business, the practice, or the essence of Christianity. Helping refugees, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, aiding widows and orphans in their distress -

            These corporal and spiritual works of mercy and justice are not a nice little additional thing that it’s generally commendable to dabble in a bit…Without them, our 'Christian values" are devoid of content and substance, an ornate treasure chest with nothing inside. 

We can imagine this same woman standing to ask this same question at the end of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s Gospel:
            When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
            Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
            Then the just will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
            And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
            Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from …”
            And they will interrupt, saying, “Lord, you’re doing a lot to help the refugees, but what are you doing to protect our Christian values?”
These "Christian values" are not unique. In many words and many turns of phrase, they are the foundation stones of every single culture and society on this earth. Look at the people of Paris right now - bringing strangers off the streets and into their homes to keep them safe. Restaurants are closing their shutters and turning off the lights with their patrons safe and silent inside.  For those who prefer particulars - I particularly recommend Mr. Bathily, who in January hid hostages in the freezer of his shop at a very real risk to his own life.

            Alongside him, I recommend the Greek fishermen whose economy might be in ruins, but instead of looking for scapegoats, go out every night to make sure strangers safely reach shore - 
            Split those hairs if you dare!

My grandparents were refugees: Poles who fought the Germans, then fled the Russians, and at the end of the second world war, made their way to Australia. 

            Australia let my grandparents in. In due course they had children, and later, grandchildren - doctors, microbiologists, painters, writers, teachers, architects, zoo-keepers, civil servants, network administrators, surveyors, businesswomen -
            Now there are great-grandchildren as well; boys and girls who act in plays and build model engines and help fold the laundry and carry groceries and laugh and speak kindly in the streets - 
            Is Australia sorry?  Are we regretted?  Regrettable?
            Can you imagine that we are not loved as we love in our turn?

It is not a good time for the vulnerable anywhere in the world right now.  For myself, I can only speak for the Christian culture of Western Europe, but I will say this:

           Over the next few weeks, much of Western Europe will celebrate a cultural origin story - a story of the greatest love the earliest Christians could conceive. How wonderful it would be if, instead of celebrating by rote and having the parties and singing the songs and paying postage on cards promising goodwill and fellowship and reflecting warmly on a season well done, we could think seriously about the values that we are celebrating?
            We are imperfect. We stumble. We fall. But always, and often at the same time, we rise up. Black balaclavas and guns are as much of a threat that we permit to be.  We are compassionate. We are kind. We possess mercy and charity and love - love for the citizens of Paris, and love for the thousands and thousands of people just like ourselves, who are right now fleeing horrors that black balaclavas have devised and placing themselves into the hands of strangers, hoping for charity in the names of our shared values and humanity. 
            These are frightening times. Reaching beyond our fears take strength and courage that are often difficult to find. To those voices anxious for their cultural values - I ask you to let your pride in those values raise you up. If you are afraid, let those who are not carry you until your strength returns.  In honor and love, out of culture and humanity, we cannot do less. Any day of our lives.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A measure of relativity.

We were woken by a temblor at 4:45 on Saturday morning.

            Mr Tabubil shook me awake - "big one, big one, Get UP!"
            BANG! The room shuddered. BAMMOBAMMOBAMMO - 
            And we were up, half-asleep, my feet tangling in the sheets and I fell, and then we were securely next to the core and Mr Tabubil opened the front door - 
            "Mr Tabubil!  I'm not wearing pants!"
            "Does it matter?!"
            BAMBANGBAMBANG  - the rattling was tremendous - walls and floors and windows and drawers and cupboard doors going bang bang bang and something in the stairwell slam slam slamming against the walls -
            And it eased and i saw the coats next to the door and thought "well that's all right, I can wrap one around my legs -" and
            And it stopped.

It was a 6.8, near Ovalle. A very very rattly 6.8.  It took us a long time to get back to sleep.  Mr Tabubil was woken up again at 7:00 by a nice solid shaking 6.0 and thought "it's smaller than the last one.  I don't care." And rolled over and went back to sleep.  I didn't wake up at all.
            And that was that.  We haven't heard a word about it.  From anyone.  This is the thing that i find most fascinating about living here in Chile, on the edge of the pacific rim.  In most of the rest of the world a 6.8 is a respectable quake.  Newsworthy.  Water-cooler excitement for weeks.
            Here, once people were back to sleep, no-one raised an eyebrow.  Not on facebook, not between friends or neighbors or colleagues - 
            Nothing fell over and it's business as usual.  Bothered?  Us

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Things that go Gulp in the night.

If you're going to spend October 31st sitting on the floor with a pile of books, and if your sci-fi pulp turns out to be horror fiction, don't keep on reading.
            It might be cheesy in the daylight, but at night you might just have to sleep with the bathroom light on, with mirrors carefully angled to point the light directly at your face. On account of tentacles.
            And your husband might get fed up and leave the bed and go sleep in the living room where it is dark. Without you. Which is even worse. On account of tentacles.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Today I saw...

I wish a phone could capture the light the way it really looks.  It was the most extraordinary evening - not the faintest hint of smog - you could see clear to the ends of the earth and the sky was filled with that golden liquid light that you get before a thunderstorm.
            At one point in the evening, as dusk fell, I looked out the window and gaped - it was falling like molten gold on the glass panels of the buildings and the sky was very dark and stormy and the shock of that bright gold against a dark sky was the most extraordinary thing.
           A few of us crowded onto the balcony and stood and watched while it faded.

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 restricci├│n 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.