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.