Drunken Stick Man/ Chile 6

The feeling of my body buzzing didn’t go away.  I had what I guess were flashbacks, where the original quake would pop into my head and I’d star to sweat and my body would panic, I felt sick.  It was like psychological aftershocks.  Sometimes because of a real aftershock, sometimes just because.  I was alone in the hotel room when the phone rang.  It startled me so hard I felt like I was electrocuted.  I answered the phone, which wasn’t easy because my hands were shaking.

The owner of our hotel was a nice lady.  She knew Santiago and she spoke some English, some Spanish and lots of German (first language).  She was calling, “I am calling all of the guests, because we will have a mandatory meeting with all ze guests on the front patio in 5 minutes.  We will have zis meeting because zey say maybe will be anozzer earthquake tonight in ze night time, and we need to be prepare.”  My stomach lurched.  What?! Geologists can predict lots of stuff.  Can they now predict quakes although the first one was entirely without warning?

I went out to the patio immediately. There were 3 or 4 people milling, including a very elderly German Couple. The husband had his pants pulled quite literally up to his armpits, and the woman had a calico dress belted at the waist and tennis shoes.  I had noticed them before.  They were quiet, but they spoke to each other either in German or Spanish, and it didn’t seem to matter much to them which they used.  They spoke very little english.

There was another man wandering around the front patio of the hotel with a broomstick.  He was accompanied by the son of the hotel owner (he had his own, smaller stick).  They walked around banging their sticks very industriously against the eaves of the building, on the fascia boards, on the giant cuckoo clock on the patio.  They tapped all over with their sticks while people gathered.  If they found something that rattled, they pulled it off.

Annie and Diane were off together, so I made small-talk with some of the milling people.  The Old man and the Stick man were engaged in conversation.  The stick guy had sweat running down from his hairline in front of his ear.  He needed a shave.  He was standing too close to the old man and I froze and listened.  Stick man was acting weird.  He was very angry at Old Guy.  Old Guy kept his head lowered but didn’t back away.  Stick  man seemed to think he had been criticized in some way and was on a rant about his qualifications to lead this meeting.

Old guy asked (and I could tell it wasn’t the first time he had asked) in English, “Do you speak Espanish?”.  Yes I speak Espanish, I speak great ESpanish! “Please Speak Spanish.”  Sweaty Stick guy was insulted  Truth be told, we all understood his Spanish better.  But the important thing to BroomStick Man was that someone had questioned his authority. He listed off his qualifications (lived in the area all his life, been with the hotel for 20 years, knew Santiago, knew earthquakes). He had important things to talk about.

Another important thing was that Broomstick Man was drunk and distraught.  His family was in Concepcion which was the epicenter of the quake.  He had not been in contact with any of them since the night before, not his kids, not his wife, not his brothers…  His eyes started to get red and his nostrils flared.  He gripped his broomstick.  Now I was really buzzing.  I stepped forward (what was I thinking?).  Hotel Owner stepped forward.  Broomstick man backed off and got down to business.

His business was to tell us that if something (and it could, it really could… he didn’t want to scare us but…)happened in the night time, and if maybe (god forbid) the hotel collapsed or the society collapsed, or the electricity went out, if there were an explosion or fire…we needed to have a plan.

The plan involved moving cars to outside the gates of the hotel (some of them) and parking cars way inside the gates.  It involved a tree outside the gates of the hotel, a gigantic tree on the boulevard.  We were all instructed to avoid panic and screaming, to come quietly to the gate and leave, (switch over to english) One For One.  One For One.  He didn’t want to see a panicked scramble.  We would go one by one out the gate of the hotel and stand under the (powerlines, branches) tree.  Old people and Children would stand nearest to the trunk of the tree.

There was some very confusing talk about giving us each a number so that we could be counted.  They wanted to know that everyone was accounted for.  The hotel owner agreed to go in and make a number tag for everyone staying in the hotel (What?).  She never did, but she did rattle off number of the guests in each of the rooms in the hotel off the top of her head.  As we were standing under the tree I started to think “This is how mobs start, this is how society breaks down.  Every body gets scared and wants to do Something even if it’s Nothing.  People start carrying sticks. Hotel owners listen to lunatics because they speak with a strong voice and want to be in charge. This is how it starts.”

Was this happening everywhere around Chile?  Was it as weird and scary as I thought it was?  A drunken guy going toe to toe with an old guy during  disaster planning because Old Guy wasn’t being a good enough follower?  Shit.  We were in trouble.

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Chile Quake 4

I spent the next couple hours sitting or squatting under the doorframe of my room.  I stood up every time there was an aftershock but I didn’t whimper anymore.  Only once after a long silence did I gasp loudly when a large aftershock jolted the building.  As it got go be daylight I was able to finish packing.  I wanted nothing more than to get out of Valparaiso.  I still didn’t have a clear sense of what was happening farther away but I didn’t care.  I texted Andy that there had been an earthquake, I was ok but I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t expect him to get it until the morning. It would have been about 1am in Saint Paul.

Andy texted me back within minutes saying he checked the news and it was a big earthquake, lots of damage.  I think I probably texted that I was scared a hundred times.  Looking back, that wasn’t very nice.  If the situation were reversed, I would have cried with frustration.

I needed to get to Santiago.  My flight home was set for the next day.  I got a taxi and was dropped off at the bus terminal.  On the way I could see some of the worse damage in downtown Valparaiso.  I took pictures.  It was nearing 8am when I was dropped off.  The terminal was packed.  People were clustered together, but all the storefronts including the bus counters were still closed. In Chile, like many other places, storefronts are behind big garage door-type barriers.  None of them were open.  Before I got out of the taxi I asked the driver what time they usually open on Saturdays.  5am.  It wasn’t looking good.

I was starving and thirsty.  It was starting to get hot.  People were getting mad. I had all my bags with me and they were cutting into my shoulders, but I didn’t feel safe putting them down.  I settled on straddling the biggest bag and planting the smaller one in my lap.  Eventually a snack kiosk arrived and I bought water, juice and some cookies.  There were a few small aftershocks, and people took them without much alarm.

I started thinking about bridges and roads and tunnels between Valpo and Santiago.  People milled.  I texted Andy that I was at the bus station.  I was about to text him that none of the bus counters were open and that there weren’t any buses to be seen when a kid, maybe 16 walked too close to me and tried to slap the phone out of my hands and grab it.  I happened to have a particularly hard grip on it and it didn’t budge.  He slid between two parked cars and disappeared, walking into the crowd.

I put my phone away and kept it away except for a few short texts made from protected locations.  If he had taken my phone I would have been totally screwed.  I waited for 3 or  4 hours at the bus station.  The buses heading to my destination weren’t the right company (I had bought round trip tickets on Pullman) and the Pullman buses who did show up were all headed to somewhere else.

It seemed like every one there was waiting to get to Santiago.  When the first Pullman pulled around the corner with Santiago on the front window, there was a mad dash.  I was on the correct side of the street already, and I already had my ticket. So I shouldered my bags and waded in.  People had their jaws set and their elbows out.  I  handed my baggage to the uniformed guy throwing bags into the baggage compartment.  A young man motioned for me to get in in front of him.  I did.  The bus seats filled up and the aisles were packed with people.

I wasn’t in a seat and the driver said anyone without a seat had to get off the bus, it wasn’t safe.  One woman in front of me wouldn’t get off, she argued that she and her girls could all share one seat.  They went back and forth and in the meantime I was stuck in the bus being pushed from behind by people who had been ordered off.  It was chaos.  The woman in front of me was eventually removed from the bus, but in the meantime, I climbed over her bags and got back off the bus.  I retrieved my bags and waited for the next Pullman to Santiago.

There were rumors and angry accusations flying all over.  Customers complained about needing to be with their families and bus drivers spat back that they had families too.  Some drivers said there would be no further buses to Santiago, others said they didn’t know and still others said,  one would be coming soon.  Eventually I got onto a bus.  I was so happy to have unloaded my bags and be sitting out of the sun.  I texted Andy that I was on the bus.

I put my head against the window and took a breath.  The further we got from the hills of Valpo, the calmer I felt.  Then I remembered I would have to go through tunnels.  This was not a comforting thought.  I realized again that thinking about something bad happening isn’t actually enough to stop it from happening.  Eventually a watched pot does boil, and even though I was counting ( to 43), the tunnel might crumble on top of me and the other people trying to get out of Valpo.   It did not crumble.

My next herculean task was to figure out which side of the street, and which pick-up lane would get me a taxi that would take me back to the Hotle Lyon in Santiago. I don’t get taxis in my own country, much less Chile.  But there it was, and it had to be done  no matter how sweaty my pits were.

Chile Quake 3

I can’t remember if it was falling bits of plaster, or if it was sparking electrical wires or just a mental breakdown that made me run out into the street.  Whatever it was, it didn’t get better in the street.  I looked up at the wires swaying like there were heavy winds, and sending off sparks.  They criss-crossed the street, everywhere I looked there were wires above me and buildings shuddering around me.  The streets were narrower than the height of the buildings, which by my terrified calculations meant I was surely going to die, one way or another.  I hopped around in a circle  on my toes looking up as the world came to a rest.

I ran back to the doorway whining.  The joven asked me again if I understood what was happening.  I told him yes, it was an earthqu- and the shaking started again.  I grabbed his t-shirt sleeve and pulled on it. Why wouldn’t it stop?  Why was I here?  What about my kids? How could this be happening?

I tried to ask him if the authorities would cut the power to the lines.  My biggest fear at that moment was that the sparks would start a fire or an explosion.  Every day dozens of trucks filled with propane tanks careen along the narrow streets of Valparaiso.  By my calculus that meant that every house and building in town had at least one propane tank in an unknown state of stability.  I couldn’t make him understand that I didn’t mean “do we have power”, I meant  “did someone cut the power at the source”.

People started filtering out of the Hostel in their pajamas, dazed and scared.  Someone other than me was crying.  Dogs were barking and everything kept moving.  After about a half an hour of big aftershocks off and on, people wandered back into the hostel.  Employees showed up to check oh the hostel.  People who lived in Chile were clearly rattled.  They passed around cigarettes.  The street started to light up with people getting in their cars and leaving.

I stood in the doorway of the hostel for a long time, wishing it would be daylight.  It wouldn’t.  It was only 4:30am.  I made a foray into my room to get some leggings for under my skirt, throw on a bra, find some shoes and start packing.  I needed to leave.  I had been planning to leave eventually that day, but I felt a greater urgency.  Especially since I had no way of knowing what was going on in other parts of the country.  I thought about Diane and Annie again and hoped it wasn’t worse in Santiago.

People started pulling out flashlights in the buildings facing the street, Shining them out the windows and evaluating the situation.  Someone found a battery powered radio.  Someone else turned on their car radio.  Every 5 minutes or so the buildings would start creaking again and people would moan, dogs would bark.  A few times, a dog nearby would bark right before an aftershock.  This had the effect of making me prickle with goosebumps every time that dog barked.  It turned out to be a very random thing that dog barking, but my mind was grasping for sense.

I stood in my room with all doors and windows open.  I brushed my teeth in the dark, packed my things as best I could in the dark.  I realized that although I had charged my computer the night before, it wasn’t going to help me at all.  All electricity was  out.  And although it was my intention to charge my phone, I hadn’t plugged that in.  It took me a while to realize I could charge my phone with my computer, which is what I did.

As I was staring out into the street I saw a firetruck stop at the end of the street.  There were blue flashing lights a ways away, but nothing very close.  Firemen (bomberos) in their yellow suits, fireman hats and fireman boots started walking down the streets, fanning out from their parked truck.  They had big flashlights  and would stop and ask if everyone was OK.  When the bombero got to the Luna Sonrisa he shone his light at my window where I was standing.  “Esta Sola?” Are you by yourself?  I nodded. He suggested I come outside so he could talk to me.  I went.

“Como se llama?” Lisa.  “Lisa, Soy Cristian. Mucho gusto. Esta asustada?” His name was Cristian and he wanted to know if I was scared.  I was.  He told me to sit on the stoop while he made is way down the block, that when he got to the corner he was going to come back and check on me, which he did.  By the time he got back the joven was on the stoop with me.   We sat for a while shivering on the stoop.  A woman walked by and looked at us, “Estan asustaditos?” Aww, you’re scared?  We nodded.

Chile Quake 2

I didn’t have the most stellar trip to Chile from the get-go.  There were a few shall we say… personality clashes?  I was actually counting the days down starting from the second day.  So when I went to bed on Friday night, it was  with the comforting thought of spending only one more night in Chile before I got on a plane and headed home.

When I was awakened by the shuddering of …the world, the hostel, the bed, myself, I knew immediately what was happening.  I’m not sure how I knew what it was.  I had once before been in a teensy earthquake which startled me out of my hotel bed, but was over quickly.  That was in Sonoma and provided a nice bit of pop! to an incredibly suave wedding celebration for my Brother-in-law and his new bride.

You’ll forgive me here, if as an aside I defend my fear of traveling.  Did you notice that?  I’ve only been in two earthquakes.  In both cases I was awakened from my hotel bed by the earth convulsing.  Coincidence?  You may think so, but my inner cowering child isn’t at all convinced.  Think what you want.  But nobody better EVER give me shit about my fear of travel again. Jeezus, as if hurtling through the air in a metal tube to get where you’re going isn’t ridiculous enough.  Hanging out over the Ring of Freaking Fire? Seems like I was just asking for it.

I’m not sure what woke me up, if it was the noise -which is both louder and quieter than you might imagine if you haven’t been in a real earthquake- or if it was the jerky movements of the bed.

The sound of an earthquake , really, is quiet.  It’s more of a groaning,  or creaking like the sound effects from the incredible hulk TV show from the 70s.  Where I was staying the houses were mostly wood and concrete.  The wood groans in protest, as do the nails holding the pieces together.  The concrete for all its rock-solid reputation, starts right into crumbling and cracking.  Crumbling and cracking don’t make a lot of noise.  That part sounded like what it sounds like if you empty your shoes on the floor after playing in pea-gravel.  And like the noise it makes when I pick up a sandy rug to shake it out, but half the stuff falls on the floor on my way to the door.  Scattering, rattling, skittering, sprinkling… almost a hissing as plaster and concrete sift down inside the walls, and bits of plaster pop off and hit the floor.

It’s louder though too, there’s a sort of rumbling, like in the movies.  But it doesn’t seem to come from the earth.  As near as I could tell thinking about it later, the rumbling starts in your head.  Maybe it’s the combination of dogs barking and people stumbling down stairs or birds leaving their night time roosts.  Whatever it was, it was loud enough to remember, but quiet enough that I could hear plaster sifting in the walls through two stories above my head and landing on the ground.

Our rooms at Casa Luna Sonrisa were of the sort that in order to unlock them even from the inside, one has to leave the key in the lock.  For some reason, these locks make me nervous and I always leave the key in the lock.  I think I heard an expert in safety tell me this at some point and it made a lot of sense.  Wouldn’t I feel dumb if by locking my door to be safe, I was somehow killed because I couldn’t get out?  Yes I would.

So I left the key in the door when I went to bed.  But I have no recollection of how I got the door open (rattly old skeleton key).  I barely remember jumping out of bed.  What I remember clearly is that the tremors went on far longer than they were supposed to.  In my mind, an earthquake takes 3o seconds or less.  Why I think this, I have no idea.  But when that 30 seconds were up, the shuddering kept going. All of me thought it should stop, that it would stop any second. But when I thought it couldn’t go on anymore, it went on another 30 long seconds as I was getting out of bed, unlocking my door  and down the stairs to the street level.

There are two sets of doors between the inside of the hostel and the street, both were already open.  I noticed that someone had made it to the door before me, and he was standing in the doorway silhouetted by light on the street. It doesn’t make sense that there were lights on the street.  Maybe the moon was full or maybe only imagined it was lighter outside than in.  Inside it was very very dark.

I stood under the doorframe with a young man, 20 or younger.  He wasn’t much taller than me and he was barefoot, in shorts and a t-shirt.  I moved down the stairs and next to him.  Right next to him.  I must have been whining, because he put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “Usted habla espanol?”  I said Si.  “Y sabe lo que esta pasando?” I nodded.  “Es un terremoto, shh shh shh. Tranqila, shh.”  I continued to whine like a dog, without words.  He continued to shush me and say “Tranquila, tranquila.” And the buildings, all of them continued to move, they actually fully convulsed, at which point against all that I have been taught (which granted, living in the midwest, isn’t much”) I ran out of the doorway onto the cobblestone and dirt street.