Thursday, March 26, 2009

A wake up call

This is actually a total timing coincidence, because I was going to write relating to something Kyle posted a couple weeks ago, yet meanwhile Kyle herself posted a followup with a recount of the entire story at TONIC.

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neighbors go in and out of the building rescuing things that few would risk to do in the US- hairdryers, old radios, outdated box television sets.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.)


Sara said...

That's a crazy story. When you said that about the hair dryer I wanted to cry. Things are not the same. I've seen ambulances stuck in rush hour traffic because nobody moves for them. However, if you have money they would just put you in a helicopter and fly you over the traffic.

Mamacita Chilena said...

Wow. I had no idea you had something like this happen to you. That's absolute insanity. And I can only imagine how devastating the fire must have been for all those families.

I think that any kind of disaster seems to affect poor people disproportionately. Hurricane Katrina is a good example of that.

Thanks for the link, I really appreciate. Fingers crossed I don't get fired from that blog too!

Emily said...

Those pictures are insane - I can hardly believe they're real. And ditto to what others have said about poverty and disaster. It's so sad that people would risk their lives for what I see as minor possessions, but it's even sadder that they basically have to because they know that afterward they won't have much (if any) help.

lydia said...

Sara-exactly, the ambulance thing is one of the best examples. I think last week I was at an intersection where cars have to yield to people when an ambulance came rushing up with its lights. All the people kept crossing in one stream people without anybody stopping to finally give it chance to go. I was like... wow guys, you're making a speeding ambulance stop so you don't have to deter your walk by 4 seconds?

Kyle- No problem. (I giggled, as if my blog were soooo high traffic) It actually kinda weirder me out cuz as I was typing it said you posted 11 minutes ago and I clicked and it was about the same.

I don't know if it really happened "to me", I mean, I was just there, not actually my place. Luckily, it wasn't my boyfriend's family home either, rather a place rented in the city, so they didn't have absolutely everything there, though the majority of neighbors seemed to be more nuclear families that would've had a lifetime of possessions inside.

I think you're right, because people better off $ wise would have an easier time getting back on their feet, they would probably have insurance, a bank account with some savings, friends with resources and extra of things they could pass over, etc..

Emily- I know! I didnt mention it but I felt like such an insensitive jerk for taking photos, I mean, without the cover of being part of the media at least. Inside I went nuts though. It was one of the weirdest things I've ever seen to have everything black (haha... actually ironically my only real possessions that I had stored at my boyfriends were my pure white clothes for capoeira)

Even for example their place that wasn't considered "damaged" ...can you imagine how much that cost for all the supplies and what a time consuming thing it was to clean EVERYTHING in all the rooms?!?! Not to mention uncovered cloth things like bedding had to be tossed, I remember his female cousin had intricate things like earrings sitting on that shelf in the picture... what a pain!
Luckily, I believe the owner was responsible for some help, and paid someone to clean the walls. She might've had some insurance to work with.

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