I still have to write the update from Isla Chiloe to the Las Campanas Observatory but wanted to post my earthquake experience ASAP. See all the photos here…
It had been a wild couple of weeks while I raced to La Serena, in order to catch Stella Kafka, the most lovely observational astronomer that I know, on her last night of observation at the Las Campanas observatory. I blazed through Santiago and only spent about 8 hours in Valparaiso – the most colorful and expressive town I’d ever visited. I was sad to have to rush, but the invitation was too fantastic and in the end it was absolutely worth the race – the observatory felt more like a moon base and the stars were unparalleled in their clarity. I was Stella’s assistant for her final night and kept her awake while she searched for distant suns with orbiting planets that might, or might not, be appropriately stable enough to allow for a ‘habitable zone’. (I will write this story next – very cool stuff – thanks Stella!)
I was at the bus station and in a sudden impulsive move, bought an overnight bus ticket back to Valparaiso – I told Stella that I didn’t know what it was, but something was calling me south again.
“I’m looking forward to reading what happens!” She said as we parted ways.
The next morning I arrived at the crack of dawn, and after a nap on the charming Pata Pata Hostel’s couch on Cerro Allegre (one of Valparaiso’s 44 hills), I finally found a peaceful place to finish my Chiloe story. As is customary after finishing a big piece I decided it was time for celebration and decided to hit the bars with a fun Italian fellow named Allessandro who I’d met at the hostel. He’d just arrived and I coaxed him out of his jet lag to join me.
Some hours later we had a first hand experience of the 7th largest earthquake in recorded history! I was rocking out to some minimal house (I’m having to adjust my musical tastes down here) in an underground club called La Sala when the columns of the room began to fluidly jiggle like jello. It was like the feeling when you realize you’ve had one drink too many – but I had only had a couple of beers so was a little confused. Before it clicked it, a very pretty girl grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the entrance while yelling ‘terramoto’!
The crowd heaved for the the only exit and as we finally emerged we noticed that fallen pieces of the building had crushed some cars that were parked outside. That was when I realized it was more serious than I’d originally thought – but we still had no idea of the extent of the damage. A minute later all of the town’s lights went out. Cars, trying to make a quick getaway, narrowly avoided stumbling pedestrians. The club emptied out and the bouncer told everyone to consider their items in the coat check as ‘lost’. As the club barricaded it’s doors, two fights broke out in the madness and a group of four of us headed away from the seaside street, fearing a tsunami. Street dogs ran around wildly, barking at nothing. We were four, two chilean girls (including the one who’d pulled me out of the subterranean confusion) and Allessandro who was babbling a creative tirade of Italian curses: “Porca puttana, que casino!” or “Pig prostitute, what a mess!”. At a dark bus stop we offered to wait with the two girls for their ride home. Finally, a packed collectivo. a psuedo taxi that picks people until they’re full, stopped and they managed to cram in for the ride. We walked home in the darkness amid broken glass, rubble and more than a couple of crazies that were shouting at the almost full moon. At one point a couple of kids said to me:
“Da me tu plata.” or give me your money.
“No, da me tu plata.” I replied and walked past. It may have helped that I was openly carrying a blade. It always seems that would-be muggers are less likely to go for someone openly carrying an unfolded knife.
Two days later the electricity was still out in some parts of the town (my hostel included) and it was impossible to find a way out of town as all the bus systems were down. While there’s a bunch to clean up in Valparaiso, it’s mostly superficial. The town, while still mostly standing other than some facades, roofs and balconies, felt post-apocalyptic. Many windows were smashed from their frames and few people came out in the following evenings – most probably staying home with their families. The cell phone credit systems were also broken, but in a generous move they opened up their networks for free use. The south was hit far worse, many roads and bridges collapsed and airports are closed. As the following days unfolded, news from the south hit the airwaves and it really looked like a warzone. Looters hit the stores, fully clad riot police threw tear gas and blasted the crowds with water cannons. A prison break led to 270 prisoners escaping. As is the typical human response in catastrophe, things get primal.
The earthquake hit 8.8 on the Richter scale and lasted for a couple of minutes. Significant aftershocks were felt for the next 36 hours. Wine trembled in glasses like the classic scene from Jurassic Park. People reached for something solid to hold.
I’d felt compelled to return to Valparaiso after already heading north last week, determined to find something that I’d missed. And besides a town that I could really consider living in one day, it’s so full of art and creativity – so much that even an old prison has been turned into an art gallery, I also found an intense story of personal threat and happy survival.
Eventually the bus station reopened it’s systems and I planned my next move. This time, I was going to head significantly north. Allessandro’s vacation plans had taken an unexpected turn as his friend, who he was going to drive into Bolivia with, happened to live near the epicenter in Concepcion. The last we heard he was trying to steal enough gas from the broken pumps to drive north but it was unsure. So Allessandro decided to join me on the bus and we bought the last two bus tickets to San Pedro de Atacama, home of the driest desert in the world and a healthy 25 hours drive north. For now we plan to travel together for a while, hitting salt flats and some of the more severe roads in the world.
What could possibly go wrong?