Saturday, February 27, 2010

El terromoto de una vida

Last night I waited in the lobby of a restaurant bar in the Bellavista neighborhood of Santiago, where I was spending time with my language school classmates, including my two closest friends who were set to leave the country the next day. I wanted someone to share a taxi with me back to our Providencia neighborhood. Meanwhile my Brazilian friend Betaña started to tear up thinking about how we might never see each other again. I tried to comfort her, feeling shaky myself, from exhaustion and the recalcitrant illness I'd tried to kick all week, annoyed that I'd wasted my $2,000 pesos on that Red Bull I'd ordered earlier.

That's when the floor trembled. I noticed the vibrations that rattled the building right away, but my professors and host family had told me that minor temblores are common in Chile, one of the most active earthquake zones on the planet. However the trembling only intensified. With the passing seconds we could hear the building shaking, bottles breaking. The lights went out. I grabbed my Brazilian friend Evan in a death grip hug, and we didn't let go. They say the quake lasted less than two minutes, but that's a long time when the earth beneath your feet is bouncing, when your mind is racing to recall earthquake safety protocols, whether you should crouch under one of the empty tables or run outside in the street so not to be crushed alive in the building, when suddenly news reports about thousands dead, missing or trapped in Haiti seem all too real.

It was 3:30 a.m., and you might ask why I would be out and about at such an ungodly hour, but you must understand that for Chileans this a perfectly reasonable time to be out on a Friday night, as the proper dinner party at my host family's house yesterday didn't start until nearly 11 p.m. I can assure you that the neighborhood was packed with (mostly) respectable citizens.

Afterward I had the urge to cry but couldn't. Without any taxis or buses, we walked home with the full moon serving as our only light most of the way. We didn't encounter any panic or chaos, but it was a long two hours before I made it back to my house. We maneuvered the sidewalks littered with broken glass, fallen telephone poles, broken bricks and caved in walls. Even crossing the street without stoplights was tricky. It was chilly, I was desperate for a bathroom and a drink of water, and my bronze flats weren't made for distance walking. The ambulances wailing and car radios blaring news only added to the state of emergency atmosphere. Evan offered to walk me to my house, which is 20 minutes away from where everyone else lives.

(As I'm writing this I felt another mild temblor, or replica as they call them here.)

It was so dark that we couldn't read the street signs and ended up lost. Occasionally someone would pass us in the shadows, and my heart would race as I imagined a looter taking advantage of the situation. I finally arrived at my candle-lit doorstep to find my host family and seven children and two dogs huddled in the living room. "Te hemos llamado mil veces!" they explained. Although most cell phone communication had been interrupted, they'd entered my room and stepped over all my belongings and the broken glass strewn in the floor to find my mobile phone box with my number on it in a drawer.

We didn't go to bed until dawn. The Chileans I was with were in a deeper state of shock than I was, with reason. They had babies and small children and other family members to worry about. Some of them lived on the 13th floor of an apartment building, and they'd felt the tower sway, breaking their windows and knocking over their flat screen TV and lamps. They could only huddle under a doorway while they clutched their three daughters.

Our lights didn't come back on until the next morning. The electricity grid in Chile is programmed to automatically turn off in the event of earthquakes above 6.0 on the Richter Scale, and this one was an 8.8, 100 times greater than the 7.0 quake that devastated Haiti in January. In fact it was the fifth largest earthquake since 1900. But so far in Chile about 400 deaths have been reported in comparison to the 250,000 in Haiti. This has a lot to do with the advanced engineering and strict earthquake-proof construction codes here along with the organized relief infrastructure. Bordered by the Andes cordillera, Chile is one of the most seismically active places on earth (funny how I don't remember ever reading that before now). The strongest earthquake ever measured occurred here in 1960, a 9.5, and another disastrous quake hit in 1985. In fact three of the 10 most powerful earthquakes in recorded history have occurred in Chile, today's disaster included. Chile is a developed nation with its own disaster fund rather than an impoverished, overpopulated state, so the two recent earthquake situations aren't comparable.

Although the TV news shows images of fallen bridges and a church with a collapsed steeple here in Santiago, everyone I know is safe. Our house only suffered one crack in the wall. South of us in Chile's second largest city Concepcion, which is closer to the earthquake's 22-mile deep epicenter, the damage and suffering are on another level, especially in the poorest areas. This evening we sat around the table in the patio to say prayers for those in the south who have lost so much and to give thanks that we are all safe.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

And the excursions begin: El Cajón de Maipo

I laced up my hiking boots, stuffed my big camera into my bag and whipped my hair into a Lara Croft braid at 6:30 a.m. to power walk the 30 minutes to the metro station Saturday. At 8 a.m. I climbed into a rickety van with a spacey Canadian construction student, a Norwegian senior Hydroelectric engineer with some impressive eyebrows, and a teeny Brazilian woman who studies at my school for a one-day trekking excursion into El Cajón de Maipo. "We have to use an old vehicle because the road we're taking would ruin a new car," our guide Alejandro said.

After an hour and a half of driving away from the capital we stopped at the village of San José del Maipo, a world away from modern Santiago. A grocer in a hair net made us jamón y queso sandwiches that we packed for lunch. We continued into the wilderness for two hours, where the road soon dissolved into a dirt trail with the sort of bumps and curves I've only seen on SUV commercials. I felt my organs bouncing inside me and avoided looking down at the steep ledges and thinking about blown out tires and other vehicle malfunctions. The dust our van stirred up was so thick I could taste it. The path is impassable in the winter due to avalanches, so the few goat farmers that live in the area move away during the dangerous season. No one bothers to make a real road because it will inevitably be destroyed every winter.

We stopped at El Embalse del Yeso, a glass-like, deep-turquoise-colored lake with snow capped mountains in the background on our way to El Parque del Valle del Yeso. It's a giant private reserve beside Argentina (it's a three-kilometer, one-day trek over the mountains to the border) lacking any tourist infrastructure or marked trails. We acclimated to the altitude at Las Termas del Plomo, thermal glacial springs fed by a waterfall cascading over an orange rock wall. Our hike took us deep into the valley, so profound that it's name, cajón, is the Spanish word for box. Low green shrubs spotted the desert mountains, where Alejandro stopped to point out lizards, wildflowers, and the rock piles of fossilized oysters and snail shells (one monster mollusk was perfectly intact) from a prehistoric era when ocean covered the valley.

The wind blew and the sun beat on us as we climbed along a waterfall up a mountain. (Despite repeated applications of SPF 30 my nose is now so red that it glows.) I had to use my hands to crawl up at times, and we all stopped every five minutes to adjust to the altitude. Nick the Canadian guy, who periodically paused to chug his liter of Fanta, lagged behind and heaved with exhaustion.

After nearly two hours of climbing we came to a clear, turquoise lake at the summit. It's a secret that Alejandro said his father found as a mountain climber -- I believe him because I couldn't find anything about it (or the park) listed in my guidebooks. The water flows from the glaciers above and is pure enough to drink. "Es el agua de los dioses," Alejandro said. Still, I only had the nerve to take one sip over lunch. (How can it be so clean if it's floating over dirt?) Stein from Norway listened to Pink Floyd on his smart phone as he took in the view, and Nick the Canadian smoked a cigarette while I snapped away on my Nikon. The steep walk down was even trickier than our ascent with the loose dirt and rocks. I couldn't take my eyes off my dirt-encrusted boots.

On the drive home we stopped at a small goat farm. Inside the shanty-like house I bought a kilogram block (one-size-only) of goat cheese made the day before for $5 to share with my host family. And less than four hours later we were back to Santiago, civilization and the world of metros and public bathrooms.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Santiago: Week One

I head to class in the morning wearing sunblock and sunglasses. Bikes and strollers pass me on the 20-minute walk up the tree-lined streets of the Providencia neighborhood to my language school. The five of us in the advanced class, two from the United States and three from Brazil, practice conversation in a small classroom on the third floor. The breeze rustles the trees and blows through the open window during the four-hour lesson with our profesora Andrea. I'm learning new things about my South American classmates (while trying not to stare at the hyperactive Brazilian-supermodel-with-an-attitude across from me who's always bringing up the "Latin fire that burns within her"), like how their families beg them not to visit the United States because it's dangerous -- too many news reports about mass shootings and terrorist attacks.

I come home to my room in the Munoz family's house. It's a small rectangle with blue walls, high ceilings and wood floors. I sleep in a vintage twin bed and my door opens to the patio. Nine family members live in the house, including two kids and a Cocker spaniel named Coni who likes to doze in my room. My first night we ate completos, hot dogs with avocado, tomatoes, and mayonnaise. Last night we had pastel de choclo, a Chilean version of shepherd's pie baked in a clay bowl topped with creamed corn and and filled with olives (have to watch out for the pits), beef, boiled eggs and chicken.

In the evenings the school has activities -- My first night was cooking class. We made cancon, salmon fillets with tomato, cheese, oregano and sausage, and terremotos, white wine with pineapple ice cream. The next night we went to a futbol match, La Universidad Catolica de Santiago versus Colón de Argentina. When a student asked if it was safe, the director said that it wouldn't be dangerous like the games in Italy and England.

The giant stadium sits at the foot of the Andes mountains that loom over the city of Santiago making for a dramatic sunset. The fans sang and barked chants throughout the game, spewing giant confetti and waving flags. I really tried to pay attention to the field, but the men still in their work clothes who jumped up and down and embraced one minute and nearly shed tears the next before spitting out a string of obscenities rivaling that of a delinquent adolescent were more entertaining.

Last night we had salsa lessons in a Cuban club with a dynamic teacher dressed like an Abercrombie model. I was getting into the steps in the wedding reception-esque setting and thinking how this was the coolest dance class I'd been to and how I'd finally gotten the hang of Latin rhythms after all these years. That is, until during a dance circle in which we exchanged partners every minute when one of the pros (invited to compensate for our group's lack of men) told me to stop jumping and move "más suave."

Today when we twisted into a deep and delicious stretch in my yoga class I had the same dreamy sensation I had earlier that afternoon, when I was biting into my empanada Napolitana and looking at the water shooting from the fountain that sparkled in the sunlight as I sat in a grass with my new friends from school. I keep reminding myself to savor this -- because winter always comes and school always starts and reality always sets in.