In Santiago, we feel both lucky and guilty to have been stricken with an earthquake registering 8.0 instead of an 8.8, as it was in Maule and Bío-Bío to the south. Still, most people now keep a glass of water close by as a makeshift seismometer, to see if the rumbles they keep feeling are real or imagined.
We are as shattered as the windows and mirrors that tumbled when that 300-mile fault tore open in the middle of a late-summer night. People are shaking, living in a daze of anxiety, sadness, exhilaration, gossip and a tremendous need to connect with one another and feel that the quake is over.
It is not.
Not all the country is down. Friends got together in cracked buildings with no power for Sunday lunch with not-so-cold chardonnay, to swap stories from the front. People lined up at the local hot dog franchise, reading sold-out editions of all the local papers.
I was scheduled to fly to Nashville Sunday night, but I’m still here, hooked to the news that’s breaking every minute. Near where I went to change my ticket, office workers with no offices shared espressos and anecdotes. The sight of our main airport “not open until further notice” has added a feeling of isolation to this tragedy.
For two decades, since we have been “modern” in this faraway country, we have felt like part of the world. Now, especially in places like tsumani-swiped Constitución, all our supposed advances seem in jeopardy.
The quake hit Chile in the middle of a presidential transition and right smack at the start of our bicentennial celebration. It’s a testament to our infrastructure and social institutions that the whole country didn’t fall down. But we did stumble. And now, live on HDTV, we hear things that make us remember the dark days of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, words like “the missing,” “curfew” and “state of emergency.”
Rumors come and go: The phones are down; that’s true at the moment. Running water will stop for a day; who knows? Supermarkets are full of people and empty shelves. You worry that no one is in charge or, if they are, the situation is too big to handle without force. The real tremor rumbling beneath the rubble is the threat of social upheaval, especially in Concepción and Talcahuano, where ships lie in the streets.
We are in a state of suspension. People are tired and perhaps spent, feeling they can’t make it through another one. A friend told me that, from his window, he watched a church steeple crumble. We have the sensation of having met, face to face and in pitch dark, the big one.
The worst part of the memory, many people say, is not the quake itself but the anxiety that came immediately afterward, when our cellphones were out and we couldn’t reach our loved ones. For two or three hours Saturday morning, all Chileans were very alone. We felt as if we were at the end of the world. Which in a way is true.
Alberto Fuguet, the author of the novels The Movies of My Life and Missing.