One of the events that most heavily influenced me in Chile happened in early 2007. It not only affected me out of shock because I truly believe I might’ve died if it weren’t for the Chilean carrete, but it put a lot of cultural and social issues into perspective for me.
After partying late in Vina, my boyfriend and I got home to his place sometime nearing morning. Because of staying out so late were still awake far later than I usually like to stay up, trying to pick out a movie in his room with the door shut. At this point he asks “do you smell smoke?” And I stopped to sniff… but detected nothing at all.
He waited a short moment and said “No seriously, don’t you smell smoke?” So I sniffed again, and almost choked as I inhaled what felt like pure soot. Having no idea where it came from and startled at the sudden change in the air, we rushed to the door thinking we’d check the kitchen. But as we opened the bedroom door we were overtaken by all the smoke and soon barely able to see each other, and even trying to do so hurt the eyes.
As we got outside to take a look back we were completely shocked, obviously, as this was what we saw:
He ran back inside and upstairs because we had arrived home late so we weren’t sure if any of his cousins were in the house; anybody with their door shut like ours probably wouldn’t have noticed the smoke for quite a while because it entered the rooms so slowly.
During all of this I watched all of the neighbors go in and out of the building rescuing things that few would risk to do in the US- hairdryers, old radios, outdated box television sets. Families had piles of as many of their possessions as possible sitting out on the sidewalks, and had to require someone to watch the possessions, because they were worried someone else would come by and steal everything if they were unattended during a trip inside. The whole scene was shocking and nobody was much help.
We spent the rest of the night and early morning outside watching the whole deal, climbing the cerro (hill) to watch the fire advance and the firefighters attempts to stop it from above, all the while nervously trying to determine whether the flames and water damage would be reaching his section of the building yet or not. Eventually near morning we fell asleep on a bus bench next to an old lady crying with her cat in a box.
The newspaper said almost six dozen people were affected, many with health complications due to smoke, and one dozen families losing all their possessions.
In the end, my boyfriend's place was relatively OK, the fire didn’t directly reach it and it wasn’t flooded with water. It was, however, completely BLACK. The smoke had settled into the most disgusting mess, where the only color to be seen was when you lifted an item from its previous place.
At the community meeting after the fact, I learned about all the legal and economic problems people faced in putting their lives back together. Even the most simple things were an ordeal, as most had lost all papers, their Chilean ID cards, etc… which were needed for so many processes. Most people didn’t have health or renter’s insurance, money, stable jobs to recover their clothes and possessions, extended family with enough resources to help them out, etc… It was a whole aspect of challenges that, though I imagine is hard for everybody who ever is affected by such a horrible event, really brought out a lot of the economic (etc..) complications that are the reality for most people in Chile. Getting back on their feet seemed like twice the ordeal with a fraction of the support that I would have assumed based on my general knowledge of how these things work in the US. People explained to me that it was completely logical that a family would run back in after a hairdryer, because "how was a family going to get enough money to buy another hair dryer?"
Resources and procedures here are just not the same. Sometimes when I feel bitter or unhelpful about something here I try to remember that, and think of how many behind-the-scenes factors I’m not taking into account.
On a somewhat related side note, I also at times feel more bitter about these things here because of how lightly people take them, the lack of care of help people are willing to show sometimes, how people make things more difficult for rescue efforts and take less precaution to avoid bad situations (Case in point: they discovered how the fire started; some people were having bonfire indoors in the abandoned building next door and left it.)