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.