When I first came to Chile in 2007 as an exchange student, I was embarrassingly uninformed about most aspects of the country, especially given the fact that I was a Latin American Studies major. Until then, I had focused all my studies on Central America, and the only thing I knew about Chile was Pinochet and the dictatorship. I don’t even know if I could have told you the name of the current president (at the time, Michelle Bachelet).
Needless to say, I also didn’t realize that Chile was located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is comprised of countries that are prone to geological events such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, due to their location on or near the boundaries of the tectonic plates. Having grown up in Vermont, I think I had felt one tiny earthquake in my entire life. I always associated earthquakes with California, and had a strange fear of going there as a child.
However, I got a quick introduction to this on one of my first days in Chile. As we were sitting in a classroom on the third floor of a building, the windows started to rattle. Don’t worry, the professor told us, it’s only a temblor, and they happen all the time. He took that moment to inform us of what to do in case of an earthquake, and we continued on with the class.
I don’t remember feeling any more temblores during my time studying here. After I left, there was a pretty major quake in the north of Chile near Antofagasta, but I don’t remember hearing about it, although I do remember hearing about the eruption of the Chaitén volcano in the south of Chile.
When I moved here in 2009, I started to feel them more. I also started to hear people talk more and more about “the big one” that was supposedly coming. It was at this point that I thought I had truly realized that I was living in a country that had been built over an earthquake.
But I didn’t know. Not until February 27th of last year, when I was woken up by an 8.8 earthquake and I thought I was going to die.
Now, earthquakes are pretty constantly on my mind. Before February 27th, 2010, I obviously was saddened by earthquakes I heard about in the news, such as Haiti in January 2010 or the huge tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004.
When I heard about the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand a few weeks ago, I spent hours online watching videos, getting updates on the damage. My heart sank when I heard that some Japanese exchange students had probably died when a major building collapsed. I cried for the victims, and the people who lost loved ones.
Yesterday, when I turned on my computer, the first and only thing I saw on Facebook was 8.9. Earthquake. Japan. Tsunami. My stomach knotted up and my throat got tight as I started to look at The New York Times. I watched as the giant wave came through. I watched as women in a supermarket in Tokyo tried to keep the goods on the shelves as cans and jars flew through the air, while I screamed at my computer, “Get out of there!” And then I thought about one of my students, whose family lives in Japan. And I thought about how there was probably no cell phone service, no electricity, no water. Just like what happened in Chile a little more than a year ago.
Being in a major earthquake is life changing. Even though I was extremely lucky and nothing happened to me personally during the earthquake last year, the images of the devastation in the south of Chile, the people crying for their missing loved ones, buildings toppled to the ground, boats in the middle of the plaza of Talcahuano, the looting of the supermarkets, etc., all of these things will be imprinted on my memory forever. If I hadn’t experienced first hand the initial shaking, the horrible aftermath and the constant aftershocks which are no longer fun little temblores, but now panic-attack inducing events, I don’t think I would have felt the strong wave of emotions that I did when I heard about the earthquakes in New Zealand and especially Japan.
I have talked to a lot of people who were in the 2010 Chilean earthquake and feel the same way. On Twitter I have seen lots of Chileans posting about helping the Japanese the way they helped Chileans last year.
Japan and New Zealand, you are in my thoughts.