Continuing with my Chile Diary, here’s the account of the big one that brought so many experiences into my life. I learned a lot about myself as I was learning about the Chileans and their resilience; the way they take things in their stride… and get on with life.
Monday, 15th March 2010
I didn’t get to write over the weekend. My back and knees weren’t doing so well, so I was not up to it. On Saturday, we went out for lunch at the food court in Marina Arauca. After sampling a few Chilean preparations, I decided I’d had enough. The roast pork was fine, teamed with the browned onions. Nothing else was so amazing as to get a mention; average, fair, and that goes for the desserts too.
I’ve been rambling on or meandering I should say. I still have to tell you about the big earthquake and the different places I’ve stayed at till now. Well, this isn’t an official record so I’ll proceed according to the thoughts and fancy that capture me. Let’s start with the abodes that have provided me shelter till date. But to get the importance of the roles these places have played, I will have to recount the big terremoto.
The Big One In Feb.
It was a Friday, and a week since I had arrived in Chile. Ranjit and Manu had dinner with me and left for a party at their friend’s place. I was uneasy and couldn’t sleep, so I sat like a zombie in front of the TV, staring at the screen but registering nothing!
One thought kept running through my head – what if there is an earthquake?
Whenever there is something I’m nervous about or can’t handle, I “cast my cares” on the Lord. I told him I was scared to be alone during an earthquake and if one should happen then the kids should be back.
At 3.00 a.m, both returned. At about 3.34 a.m, the big quake rumbled in rattling the house like a giant shaking a matchbox. We had only made it out of our beds and to the front door by then.
Ranjit opened the door and held on to the doorknob with his right hand so we wouldn’t be locked in should the door get stuck while he steadied himself under a beam in the doorway leading to the living cum dining room.
I held on to him and the wall, and Manu clung onto both of us. The quake increased in intensity, and I looked around terrified at the way the walls and the floor were jumping and shaking like a person in an epileptic fit. It went on for 90 seconds; a short period in terms of measurable time but for me, it seemed to go on interminably.
As soon as we felt a slack, Manu and I ran for our passports while Tintin continued to hold the door open. It was a wise thing to do as many doors got jammed and the residents were locked-in as the tremors picked up and continued coming in at intervals of 1-2 minutes. These unfortunate ones walked out only when the concierge and his help broke open the locks. I believe one resident suffered a mild heart attack because of the scary locked-in situation.
I say we were frightened and, certainly, we were, but I speak for myself when I say that on hindsight, I cannot say that the predominant feeling was one of fear. I was so focused on reaching God with my plea for help, I was not consciously afraid. I also recall praising God when I heard Ranjit calling out to Him by name; he doesn’t acknowledge Him openly.
I also know I was quite in my senses because I made a note about where I had kept my passport when I rearranged my closet the day before. This made it easy for me to grab it from where I had hidden it, wasting no time, the moment the quake calmed down for a couple of minutes. Usually, when I keep something in a safe place, it’s so “safe,” I forget where it is! So I realized, though I was terrified, my mind was calm and clear.
Before the next tremor rolled in, we made a dash down the staircase. That’s when I felt the fear. My osteoarthritic knees were trembling. But fear acted like adrenaline and lent wings to my feet. My back and my knees held up.
Although Manu and I were not properly clad for the cold outside, we were better off than Ranjit who hadn’t even put on his slippers; he was barefoot, and he was in his boxers and a T-shirt. It was dark outside, and people were running helter-skelter. Ranjit shepherded us to Manchester, a pub, close to our place.
Here we met Reggie and his pals who made us as comfortable as was possible under the circumstances. The pub was in shambles, but they could give us water to drink and even a cup of tea for me. We huddled in chairs in the garden. They kept reassuring us that the worst was over even as the ground beneath our feet heaved in sort of rolling waves that made me feel dizzy.
I was shivering with the cold and fear and smiled wanly without a mite of conviction. But, I was doubly grateful for a relatively clean bathroom though; I had to be careful walking over shattered glass to get in.
Realizing we needed a few essentials as well as clothes, to protect us against the cold, Ranjit braved it up to the apartment. He got dressed in warm clothes and also brought a few essentials like his laptop, money, wallet, my handbag, and some pillows and jackets, shawls for us. He also drove the car down and parked it outside the pub. We moved into the relatively warmer car. That’s when the pillows came in handy!
I lay down on the back seat. The pillows; under my head and behind my back, provided comfort and helped ease the pain. I said a prayer of gratitude.
The next thing on our minds was our families. With no phone connection or means to contact them and let them know we’re safe, they’d panic as soon as they heard the news. And panicked they were! Anyway, we managed to inform them a little later.
Reggie left to see to his parents and a few of his pals kept vigil while he was away. One of them came to the car and assured us of protection and that we should not be worried or scared about that. That’s when I got to know about the dark side of the situation. Vandalism and looting were real threats. I was relieved to be under their wing until daybreak. It was very kind and thoughtful of them. So we spent the rest of the night in the car parked at the entrance to the pub while the men kept watch.
The morning found us searching for something to eat. No place was open except a small bakery nearby. However, by the time we reached there, there wasn’t much to buy. The next challenge was getting drinking water. The only kind available was ‘agua con gas’ (water with soda), and we were looking for ‘agua sin gas’ (water without soda). Finally, we found a place that had a few bottles of plain drinking water.
Late in the afternoon, when hunger pangs hit, we bought empanadas from Mama Rosa’s Takeaway. She had opened shop and was doing brisk business doling out fresh empanadas; wrapped in newspaper and piping hot straight out of the frying pan.
All this while we were ‘living’ in the car.
By evening, I had to go to the bathroom. The pub was closed and I was loath to climb up and down six flights of stairs to go to the bathroom in our apartment. Besides, the doorway leading into my bedroom was damaged and slanted at one end. If the door had been shut, it would have jammed.
Fortunately, neither was I in the room nor was the door closed when it happened. But, I wasn’t inclined to get in there. That’s when Ranjit rang up an Indian colleague, and we found our way to Sumeet’s house.
This was a small one-bedroom apartment, but it was in a stronger building. While all construction in Chile has to comply with quake-resistant building rules, some buildings are perceived as stronger and better than others. For me, however, it was good as the apartment was on the second level and I wouldn’t have many flights of stairs to run down if another quake hit us.
It was already packed with other Indian employees. This was another lesson in gratefulness. The crowd and the non-functioning WC was no longer a put off for me. I was grateful for the bathroom, running water in the taps and a bed to rest my aching back. We spent the night there and left Sunday morning.
We returned to our building, but I didn’t go up to the apartment. I knew I couldn’t climb up the stairs to the 6th level and down again whenever the tremors rolled in. So, I commandeered one of the sofas in the lounge and lay down. To be honest, I shocked myself. I would never do such a thing in a public place of my own free will! But I was beyond such things as decorum and etiquette. No one objected, and the concierge even supported my action. In times like these, people understand and are compassionate.
Lounging on a sofa was okay. The problem was that I wasn’t prepared to go up to the apartment at all. While I could sleep on the couch, I needed to bathe and change my clothes and do all the routine stuff which I couldn’t do ‘living’ on a couch in the lounge!
Ranjit couldn’t convince me because the tremors kept rattling us at short intervals, and not such small ones either. They were in the range of 5+ and 6+ and quite intense. This became a dilemma for me and for my son. Both of us were tired, exasperated and frustrated.
“Why can’t we get a house on the ground floor?” I lay on the couch praying fervently!
At the back of my mind was the story my mother had told me of how her father, a medical doctor, had died in an earthquake in Quetta. It was a long time ago but she had said that he had fallen into a crack as the earth opened up beneath his feet. There was so much going on in my mind and too much for me to deal with physically and emotionally.
Later, when things had settled, I walked out to get some fresh air. I saw cracks in some sidewalks. And some were pushed to form little mounds… uneven sidewalks. A few roads had shallow cracks running across. A few highrise buildings were damaged severely but not so bad as to cause the loss of life. I saw some old casas which fared worse. But, in Viña there was no loss of life.