As I was trying to figure out what a good opening sentence to this blog would be, my mirror shook and the chandelier above my bed swayed for at least the 50th time after an 8.3 earthquake hit the country of Chile.
It was a few minutes before 8 PM when I was sitting in my room watching a video of how men’s swimsuit fashion has changed in the past 100 years when I felt my bed swing back and forth.
“La Meri! Sientes este temblor?” [Marie! Do you feel this tremor?]
“Sí! Siento!” [Yes! I feel it!]
This being my third tremor since my arrival two months ago, a quick shake of the building came to be such a casual, fun thing for me. I remember after the first time I experienced a tremor (a 5.5), I told my host mom that I really liked them. They were fun—like a dance. After I told her that, I got yelled at because “no queremos otro temblor más fuerte!” [We don’t want another stronger tremor!]
As my host family and I all stayed in our rooms as we waited for the typical 20 second tremor to pass, the tremor became a little stronger and the clock seemed to tick a little faster. I texted my dad: “HUGE EARTHQUAKE RIGHT NOW. Longest ever?” It was 7:58 PM.
About 30 seconds later my host mom yelled for her daughter and me to get to the living room and remain calm.
The ignorant, idiotic smile that was usually on my face during tremors was wiped clean as I walked 20 feet to the living room to see my host parents taking down all of the lamps from the tables. As soon as that was done, we stood in the middle of the room holding each other, riding out the tremor that turned into a full earthquake.
“Tranquilla, tranquilla, tranquilla,” she repeated over and over again as if to calm herself down instead of me.
After 60 seconds, I looked up from staring at my host mom’s terrified face to see the paintings on the wall pound back and forth against the wall. Slam, slam, slam. My host mom grabbed my hand harder as the four of us tried to keep our bodies and minds steady in our swinging building.
Ninety seconds had passed as I texted my dad for the second time. “It’s still happening. We’re all in the same room.” 8:00 PM.
Two full minutes went by as we all walked into the parents’ room to watch the news as the earthquake still shook the house. The TV said an 8.3 earthquake had struck a town 4 hours north of us.
Almost three minutes went by as the earth came to a slow stop. We looked at each other and sighed a communal relief. “Ay! Que fuerte, no?” [How strong, no?] we said to each other as we walked back to our rooms.
8:01 PM Texted my dad again letting him know it was over and all was okay.
I spoke too soon because as soon as I entered the doorway of my bedroom, my host sister’s phone was buzzing and setting off a sound I had never heard, but from that point forward, that sound would be forever engrained in my brain.
I turned to look at her as her face dropped while reading her phone. She turned to our mom and said “tsunami.”
The next thing I remember is my host mom yelled at us as she is running into her room. “Botas! Chaqueta! Vamos!” [Boots! Jacket! Let’s go!]
I laced up my hiking boots, grabbed my jacket, and we left our second story apartment building right by the ocean to literally “run for the hills.”
Seconds before we left the house, I sent that last text to my dad. “Tsunami warning. Evacuating house. Talk soon.” 8:03 PM.
As we got outside, the streets were bursting with people. Families were running hand in hand, dads were carrying babies thrown in blankets, and we were briskly walking to the nearest hill as my 70 year-old host parents struggled to keep up behind us. We finally made it to the closest hill after enduring another slightly smaller earthquake with thousands of our neighbors.
We found a place to sit and made a few friends who would sit with us for the next three hours in that same spot waiting for an “all clear” to be given from the Chilean government. It was cold, raining, and late for all of us to be sitting on that cement staircase. We were offered tea and donuts from ladies who lived in the house next to our campsite. Young men would come running up to us every once in a while with blaring walkie-talkies making sure we were okay and updating us on situations in the towns to the north and south of us. My host sister was constantly on the other side of the street answering phone calls from her brothers and sisters as everyone asked “estás bien? Dónde están sus niños?” [Are you okay? Where are your kids?]
Three hours passed as my sister’s phone still buzzed with evacuation warnings when we decided it had been long enough. Every newcomer that passed our refugee said there had been no signs of tsunami waves in our town. We marched home in streets that would have been unrecognizable if I didn’t know where I was. They were black and empty—the opposite of three hours previous that had frantic, honking cars and hundreds of families rustling through.
We walked into our deserted apartment building where we went back to our rooms just as if nothing had happened. My host mom brought me a piece of cake as I texted my dad at 10:53 PM, “I’m home.”