Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lasting effects of a false alarm...

I thought I was OK, but as time goes on I realize it might have affected me more than I expected...

At the end of February, Chile experienced an 8.8 Earthquake. I spent the entire 3 or so minutes of the earthquake being bounced about in my bed, unable and unwanting to actually get out of bed. And while I spent the rest of the night in a trembling, uneasy state (partially because of lack of electricity/communication and expected chaos), overall I was not too freaked out and I still found all the aftershocks just as amusing as I always found the temblors. (My original earthquake post about my experience).

I had never really expected an earthquake to happen, and the reality of it wasn't as bad, in my situation, as it could've been. My old wooden house shook around but stayed up; the dishes rattled but only the glasses broke; my bookshelf disassembled itself but never collapsed.

But a week later, during the presidential inauguration, I was in registro Civil when I felt at least two pretty big aftershocks (7.0), big enough to be considered somewhat significant earthquakes themselves. The hanging signs which provide organization to the otherwise confusing building of government services were swaying back and forth, and people sitting in silence were moved to talk with the person sitting next to them. Soon after, as I was finally called to the front of the line, the police entered the building and rushed behind the counter. I was the first advised there could be a tsunami on its way and I should literally run to higher ground. I was the first in the building to get up, so it was easy to get to the door. I entered the chaotic mass of people in the business distrit and we tried to climb up a passage stairway from ground level near the ocean to a higher spot up the hill. "Climb" is a simplified way of describing what was actually a frantic scramble: People were pushing, shoving, crying, falling, and also helping one another. Its really impossible for me to even describe the emotions felt by myself or anyone around me, being at sea level when you suspect a wave might suddenly take out everything around you and kill the majority of people in its way. How soon would it come? Would those behind us trample us down? If I got up high enough, would I see those below me get washed away? Is there time to help others make it up? Is there even time enough to be civil? I handled it pretty calmly compared to many, but it was beyond a doubt the most stressful moment of my life to date. I realized out of all the news I'd read about tsunamis over the years, the geology class I sat through, the movies I'd watched... I've never actually imagined what being in that situation would be like. (Read my full recount I posted the afternoon of the evacuation, with pictures.)

Of course, as we all know by now, a tsunami never came that day.

In Chile for a while talked a lot about the recent catastrophic events, asking "Where were you when it happened?" to everyone until the commotion died down again. And since then, I haven't really thought or worried much about another catastrophe at all.

But unfortunately that doesn't mean that I don't dream about it. There have been multiple nights in the past few months where I have woken up, panting and trembling, barely aware that through all my efforts to get out of reach of another tsunami, my body was safe in bed. There have been dreams where I am desperate to climb up a mountain, where I leave meals uneaten at a beachside restaurant, when tropical vacations in Hawaii turn bad, and where kayak trips turn catastrophic. But there have also been numerous realistic nightmares, reliving and reinventing escapes through the hills of Valparaiso. Some are more realistic in which I frantically try to call my boyfriend on my cellphone despite tied up lines, rushing past known shops and acquaintances, and also less realistic escapes, for instance the recurring dream where I discover the Cerro Concepcion dragon pit amid my rush to safety. The most common type of tsunami dream is actually the one where I struggle to find the balance between my safety and my obsession with getting a good photograph, which usually culminates with a stressful fumble over getting the giant wave in focus as I realize I might not be as out-of-reach as I thought.

I sure don't get much sleep those nights, but when day comes, I don't keep water-wings in my purse nor my eyes glued to the sea as I pass by the oceanside many times a day. What I do wonder, however, is how much the stress and emotions of that day actually affected me. I'd be inclined to admit its more than I thought.

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