The Emblem of Solidity

I wrote this a year ago about the tsunami that struck Chile in 2015. I’m happy to report that many of the businesses and houses that were destroyed by the tsunami have been rebuilt, most of them better than before.


A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; – one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. Charles Darwin, writing about the 1835 Concepción earthquake

On the night of Wednesday, September 16, 2015, the parties for the Fiesta de la Patria had already begun in Chile, the thin country that stretches like a spine on the west coast of South America from Peru to Antarctica, bordered on the east by the Andes mountains. Chile celebrates its independence from Spain on September 18th. My wife and I were preparing for the party. The whole country gathers in different fondas, any place that hosts a party, to fly kites, wave Chilean flags, and eat grilled meat and sausage at asados, Chilean BBQs. My Chilean wife, Fernanda, had come home from her last day of work before the long vacation, and we were sharing a beer to celebrate and relax. The next day, early in the morning, we expected our first guests from Santiago. Our own fonda would start then and continue until Saturday. There was a fridge full of food ready to be consumed in concert with beer, wine, and pisco, a Chilean liquor made from distilled grapes. We had practiced the cueca, the Chilean folk dance that accompanies the 18th like ketchup on fries—or, to be more Chilean about it, avocado on hot dogs. There was a bag full of napkins, tablecloths, and banners, all a variation on the theme of the Chilean flag. The party would last several days. Chileans don’t mess around when it comes to their Día de la Patria.

In fact, we already had leftovers—a red plastic bowl full of grilled chicken, steak, and chorizos. Fernanda’s first asado of the fiesta season had been where she worked, in Coquimbo, the port sister city of La Serena, where we lived, on Avenida del Mar, just thirty meters (100 feet) or so from the beach and the expansive Pacific. She worked in the parte alta perched on the rocky heights of Coquimbo, overlooking the lapis lazuli of the Pacific. The sight of the Pacific breaking over the rocks from the top of Coquimbo’s rocky peninsula was breathtaking. The ocean stretched endlessly to the horizon and swallowed any gazing eye whole. She had come home loaded with food. Time to figure out how to cook the leftovers.

There is a whole portion of Chilean cuisine that seems to have been born from the necessity of dealing with leftovers of an asado. I imagine some careworn and tired woman in the Chilean countryside, racking her brain, thinking how to prepare the same dozen ingredients in new and interesting ways. Chilean cuisine owes a lot to her. With the leftovers from Fernanda’s last day at work, I decided to make ajíaco, a Chilean meat stew prepared with peppers and potatoes. Like most of Chilean food, it is simple and filling. My wife peeled the potatoes while I sliced onions, garlic, and ají verde, banana peppers. While I sautéed the mixture, Fernanda and I talked about our upcoming fonda. I added the meat and potatoes, a handful of chopped parsley, some water, and then sealed the pressure cooker.

While we waited for it to come to pressure, Fernanda and I made plans for the next day. We still had things to buy: beer, wine, and pisco, as well as all of the meat, especially the chorizo for choripanes, a sausage sandwich made with the exquisite Chilean bread, the marraqueta. We were looking forward to it. Fernanda had just finished her dissertation and we needed the party. We had been stuck for the last two months in our office, or as we called it, la cueva, the cave. Four days of middle-aged debauchery, while not nearly as energetic as its younger counterpart, would still push the reset button in our minds. We could finally stop thinking about the dissertation.

While we waited for the pressure in the cooker to build, we walked together into the living room and found, through the sliding glass doors of our living room that overlooked the ocean, an unexpectedly gorgeous sunset. For the past few days, it had been cloudy, but in the last few minutes before sunset, the sun had found a gap in the clouds and it blazed out and transformed the dull clouds into fire. The reds and orange reflected on the calm ocean and turned its waters into a deep, velvet azure. It was breathtaking, one of the many benefits of living by the ocean. The Mediterranean climate and the palm tree-lined beaches didn’t hurt either.

I had moved to Chile in 2013 to marry Fernanda. We had met in college, and when her scholarship required her to work for two years back home in Chile, I followed her. After a first night in the peninsular town of Tongoy, we moved together into our apartment in Coquimbo. Coquimbo is a port city, famous for its concrete cross, the Cruz del Tercero Milenio, that sits atop the rocky peaks of the peninsula, gazing down at the bay full of ships and steel fishing vessels. The city is also famous for its British architecture. The barrio inglés is a popular place for drinking, night clubs, and live music. In Chile, Coquimbo is also famous for the annual Pampilla, a huge outdoor festival that runs in tandem with the Fiesta de la Patria. As we watched the sunset from La Serena, somewhere, on the other side of Coquimbo’s rocky hill, they were setting up the Pampilla. There would be kite flying, markets of all kinds, vendors selling food, wine, and beer, and, at night, the concerts and shows would begin. Some Chileans came to the Pampilla and camped for a week with their families.

La Serena is a much different place. It is one of the oldest cities in Chile, founded right after Santiago, in 1544. It is more aristocratic, proud of its Spanish colonial center. Its plaza is surrounded by an ancient stone church and government offices and its streets are lined with red and white buildings with terrazas decorated with violet bougainvillea. The city is richer, gaining the lion’s share of the tourism money that flows in every summer when vacationers descend on the kilometers of beaches, restaurants, and shops that line Avenida del Mar. Many people from La Serena feel the Pampilla is beneath them, a festival for lower class Chileans. La Serena hosts malls, not Pampillas.

Most twin cities have a playful sense of competition between them, but it is difficult to think of two cities so close and so different than these two reluctant neighbors. Coquimbo, which began as the port of La Serena, has always been a tough city, full of proud fishermen and adventurers (pirates). In comparison, La Serena has a staid conservative quality. For me, nothing illustrates the difference between these two cities more than their different reactions to the arrival of the pirate Bartholomew Sharp in 1680. The inhabitants of La Serena fled with as much of their wealth as they could carry, letting Sharp inside the city. Pirates being pirates, the city was eventually burned to the ground. Coquimbo, however, stood their ground and fought, and Sharp went off in search of more docile prey. Today, people from Coquimbo call their neighbors papayeros, after the preponderance of the papaya in the La Serena economy and reputation. People from Coquimbo, however, are called piratas. I don’t need to tell you which is cooler. In our spacious apartment on Avenida del Mar, at least in the off season when we could afford it, there was no arguing that we were papayeros. When we joked about this to a friend of ours, a pirata, of course, he smiled and said the best thing about La Serena was the view of Coquimbo.

Looking out at the unexpected brilliance of the sunset over Coquimbo, it was hard not to agree with him. Fernanda and I drank our beer and watched the spectacular colors in the sky over the Cruz del Tercero Milenio until I heard the hissing pressure cooker reach temperature. I went to the kitchen to lower the flame under the ajíaco. When I came back to the living room, the red sun was all but gone. Fernanda was walking toward me.

“Está temblando,” she said to me. It’s shaking.

I stopped. Now I noticed it. There was definitely a rocking motion, a small earthquake, common in Chile. As we usually did during temblores, we waited patiently for it to stop, hearts racing a little. Instead there was a sharp jerk. I bent my knees for balance, and waited for this to pass too, but the room began to snap back and forth and then undulate dizzily like the surface of the ocean. This was no small temblor.

“Out!” my wife cried. “We’re out of here!” Now, I am from Maine. I know how to handle blizzards and drive on black ice. I can chop wood. But all things earthquake, I defer to my Chilean wife. I began to fumble with the keys to the door to leave the apartment. With the room moving under me, it was difficult to do anything. “Shut off the stove!” Fernanda cried. I stopped messing with the door and went into the kitchen, turning off the gas under the ajíaco with a twist of my wrist. Then I was back at the door, grappling with the keys. The apartment rocked under me. It hadn’t calmed at all. I thought, this is it, this is the terremoto I figured would happen to me at some point when I decided to move to one of the most seismically active places in the world.

Then somehow I was outside. The trees were dancing as if in a raucous storm. A strange sound filled my awareness, a rumbling so low, it was mostly a feeling in my chest. It was not easy to keep my balance. My head brimmed with confusion.

“Do you have the keys?” my wife called out from the door.

“What?” I had heard her perfectly but hadn’t understood a word.

“The keys!” Fernanda yelled. If the door shut behind us, we would be locked out. I couldn’t figure out if I cared about that.

“No!” The rocking of the world around had me so confused, I genuinely had no idea what I possibly did with the keys after I opened the door.

Fernanda vanished back into the apartment. The world continued to toss around me. I expected things to begin crumbling at any moment. I was about to go help Fernanda, as she seemed to have been gone for a long time, but she appeared again, shutting the door behind her. We stood where we hoped nothing could fall on us and held each other.

The world made no sense. Trees tossed without wind, trucks and cars bounced in their places like basketballs, a cement wall collapsed with a thunderous cracking noise, and still that mysterious sound or feeling, impossible to distinguish, grinding in our chests. I hoped for it to end, but it went on and on until irrationally, I believed it would never end and this uncertain, unsteady world was the new reality.

During an earthquake, there’s a terrifying feeling that everything is wrong. If there’s anything real in the world, the world itself must remain steady, it must be the “very emblem of solidity” as Darwin wrote. With the world behaving like a drunk, lurching from one place to another, it was nearly impossible to believe anything. It was a deeply disturbing feeling. The natural place for the human mind is solidity. Without this, reality melts to some viscous, ever-changing miasma. Each moment has its own rules and logic. The normally inanimate gain a nonsensical will. Cars and trucks jump in place like children playing jump rope. Glasses march across the table like soldiers. Trees become ballet dancers in the still air. Later I would learn that the earthquake began at 7:54 PM and lasted about three minutes. When you’ve lost the emblem of solidity, three minutes seem eternal.

Finally the earthquake stopped. It left us with adrenaline pumping through our veins and even more coming down the pipeline. One of the less attractive aspects of living by the ocean in La Serena was the danger of what naturally follows an earthquake: a tsunami. We had no idea how big the earthquake was, but we knew it was big enough to produce a tsunami. We had to get the hell away from the ocean and to high ground as quick as we could.

When we ran into the house, it was already dark. We had lost power during the earthquake, so in the darkness we talked back and forth rapidly about evacuating. The adrenalin made it excruciatingly difficult to listen or to hold a thought in your head for more than a fraction of a second. In the past we had spoken of vague emergency plans, but the backpack of emergency supplies, including the battery-powered radio, water, and First-Aid Kit, carefully put in a bag ready to be stuffed inside a backpack, none of that had materialized. We started to throw some things into our backpacks, trying our best to communicate with each other, but mostly failing. Fernanda was having a confusing conversation with her mother who had already called from Santiago. I only partially listened as I grabbed our flashlight—how I found it, I’m still not sure—and found myself in the kitchen, looking for water. My mind was drunk on adrenaline. I hadn’t yet realized how seriously it impaired my judgment.

When I walked in the kitchen, I saw broken glass and eggs all over the floor. (Did I mention that before serving ajíaco, add two beaten eggs and stir until cooked?) Those eggs had been in a glass bowl on the counter. Somehow they were on the floor. How had that happened? And look! The pepper grinder! How did that get on the floor? Now, I thought, Fernanda does have a habit of breaking things, especially glass things. I called out: “Fernanda! Did you break this stuff?!”

“There was a terremoto!” she shouted back.

“Oh, right, of course!” I shouted back, shaking my head as if I could shed confusion like water. “Of course! I’m sorry!”

Then we were outside again. Fernanda wanted to check the ocean. If it had visibly retreated, we had to run immediately. Otherwise, we might be safe in the short term. That was the theory. I didn’t know if that was true, but that was what we did. (This is true, though we didn’t know that if the sea had visibly retreated, we would only have time to climb the nearest tallest building and hold on.) It was hard to see in the dark, but the ocean seemed to be where it should be. We headed back to the house, fairly confident that we had some time before the tsunami came, if there was a tsunami. On the way back, we saw our neighbors. The mother was in hysterics, crying out for her dog while her children wailed around her. The young girl, Martina, about five, who had taken enough of a liking to us to plaster our door with stickers of Minnie Mouse and Pluto, wanted to come with us and clutched Fernanda’s leg. We steered her back to her family and then returned to our apartment.

It was very dark inside. All of our preparations had to be done by flashlight. And as we rushed around the house, our need for information became intense and frustrating. How big was the earthquake? Was there an official tsunami alert? Where was the epicenter? Not knowing was making it very difficult to understand if the decisions we were making now were the right ones. Fernanda was trying to reach anyone on her phone to answer some of these questions while we called out plans to each other. We agreed that taking the car would just leave us stuck in traffic. We would leave on foot and make our way to high ground that way. The lack of information just made us more desperate to leave as soon as we could. We had to get to safe ground.

This meant walking to Cuatro Esquinas, which ran perpendicular to the ocean, across the lowlands to the inland hills. I knew the walk well enough, I walked it to work. It took about 30-40 minutes to do it, walking quickly. I had no idea at the time that 40 minutes was too long to avoid the tsunami.

But to go, we had to pack. Deciding what to throw into a backpack and save is surprisingly easy. Flooded with adrenalin, the mind is not too picky. Your most precious belongings suddenly morph into the category of “stuff I value much less than breathing.” There’s a lot of those kinds of things in a house. I stuffed underwear, socks, and random t-shirts in my bag and then ran into the office and shoved my backup hard drive on top of the clothes. I had always imagined leaving my desktop computer behind would be difficult, but when it came time, I didn’t even think twice about it. I held my flashlight for Fernanda while she stuffed some clothes in her bag and, I later learned, a bottle of expensive French perfume her mother had bought her.

It was a sudden transition to find ourselves on the street, in the dark, walking toward Cuatro Esquinas. We hadn’t gotten far when we had to stop because the earth shook again. It was the first of hundreds of aftershocks that I remember feeling. Fernanda’s phone had been going crazy since the earthquake, but we were only receiving news through WhatsApp. We couldn’t respond because our phone plan did not include 3G. Nonetheless, WhatsApp was an invaluable source of information. We finally got word that the epicenter had been in our region and that, yes, there was definitely a tsunami warning for the whole coast of Chile. The Pacific was just a dozen meters to our left, out there in the darkness. We couldn’t see it, but we could hear it, churning away at the shore.

It was dark now. The earthquake had begun just at sunset and it seemed now, irrationally, to have divided night from day. The streetlights were out, and it was strangely quiet, except for the foreboding crash of the ocean waves. I noticed the owner of a local store sitting calmly outside her beach store, smoking a cigarette. We waved at each other, but I was thinking, don’t be crazy, you have to evacuate. Maybe I should have suggested it to her, but when you’re flooded with adrenalin, the rest of the world hardly seems real. My wife later told me we also passed a teenager and his mother, the young one laughing and the older one crying, both hysterically. I have no memory of them.

We hadn’t walked too far when the biggest of the aftershocks hit. (I later learned it registered an incredible 7.6 on the Richter scale!) We were outside of one of our favorite restaurants, Huentelauquen, a wooden structure with one side built to resemble a pirate’s sailing ship. It sold pizza and empanadas. Now, while it shook, it made a strange, creaking, rattling sound like an old wooden vessel at sea, as if it had finally weighed anchor and set off on the seas. As we paused to balance ourselves, we noticed something very troubling. The ocean was right there, across the street. It was usually a good ten meters to the shore. Now it was right there, just visible, noisy as if we were in the midst of a storm. I thought to myself, does a tsunami happen this quickly? How long ago had the earthquake happened? It was impossible to gauge time. The sudden and disturbing appearance of the ocean deeply affected us, and we quickly agreed to get a ride.

With confusing speed, my wife flagged down an old, blue and white Volkswagen bus. Since the side door didn’t open, we crammed in the front seat, backpacks and all. I couldn’t see the driver well past Fernanda, but sometimes he leaned forward and gave an immediate impression of hair and beard. I barely had time to shut the door before the bus sped forward. My wife told him we were headed to Cuatro Esquinas.

Apparently so wasn’t everyone else. When we arrived there a few seconds later, the street was bumper to bumper traffic, completely stalled. Our driver cruised by without slowing. “Déjanos aqui, podemos caminar,” my wife told our new friend. You can leave us here, we can walk. He continued driving, saying not a word. My wife paused for a few seconds, considering. “Vamos donde sea que tú vayas,” she finished wisely. We’ll go wherever you go.

Our savior drove like hell down Avenida del Mar. At one point, when we had to slow down for one of the many speed bumps, he borrowed my flashlight and shined it out the driver side window toward the ocean. In the cone of light, we saw a surreal image. The ocean had risen to street level and was licking at the concrete sidewalk. To see the Pacific so visibly rising was disturbing. Just an hour ago, it had been meters away. Now impossibly it was tossing and rocking just at the edge of the street. When he handed me back the flashlight, I glimpsed the terror in his eyes.

There’s only one way to survive a tsunami: get to high ground. Along the 10km length of Avenida del Mar, there are a few streets that run perpendicular to it toward safety. Cuatro Esquinas is one, but it was impassable. At the end of Avenida del Mar, there was another, but our driver knew a different route. He barreled down Avenida del Mar, bouncing violently over the speed bumps. “Discúlpame,” he said, excuse me.

“No se preocupe, por favor,” my wife responded with a nervous laugh. Don’t worry about it, please.

Rational or not, it was impossible not to expect the ocean to come up over the street at any moment. Any sizeable wave would easily have crested the bank and swept us off the road. Relief washed over me when we turned off Avenida del Mar and headed away from the ocean on a bumpy, dirt street called Los Nísperos. But even with the ocean at our back, we had a ways to go to safety.

The dirt road jostled the VW bus while other trucks merged around us, kicking up a dust cloud. Our determined driver passed traffic recklessly. Dust rose around us as the Volkswagen hurtled down the road, rattling and shaking as it went. Finally he began giving Fernanda directions in such rapid Spanish, I couldn’t understand a word as he pulled over and let us out. We thanked him and then he sped away down the road, hunched anxiously over the steering wheel.

We were still in the lowlands. A big wave could inundate the entire area, so we walked rapidly down the dirt road toward the city. Others soon joined this strange pilgrimage, but there was no sense of commonality with each other. Everyone moved in discrete groups ignoring everyone else. At some point, as we walked down the powdery dust of the road, under dark palm trees, we passed a group of shadowy men outside a house. It was obvious they had no intention of evacuating. They stood quietly, watching us and drinking beer. We moved on over a rise—how good it was to move uphill!—over a railroad track, and then to a pasarela, a cement overpass for pedestrians that stretched over Route 5. Across the street was the parking lot of Jumbo, a Chilean supermarket, and then it was just a few blocks to Balmaceda, the street that marked the beginning of the zone of safety.

The scene in the parking lot of Jumbo was post apocalyptic. Fernanda compares it to a zombie movie. A woman crying hysterically ran by us followed by her confused family. A man at the edge of the parking lot was shouting out desperately, “Antonia! Antonia!” Around us men and women walked under the darkened streetlights of the parking lot. Then, finally, we began walking uphill. The feeling of elevation had never felt so welcome. The dancing waves of the Pacific lost some of its immediate threat.

Moving through the crowd, we turned off up a side street. I walked this way every day to work and knew a better way to reach Balmaceda. Near the café I passed everyday, there were two men on the street listening to a radio. It was the first live news we had received, except for WhatsApp, which was sporadic and uncertain. Fernanda asked them how big the earthquake had been. They said it was an 8.4 and that the epicenter was near Combarbalá, a beautiful town in the foothills of the Andes. This was sad news. Fernanda had worked there when she was younger and we had visited just a year ago. We didn’t want to think anything had happened to it. Of the tsunami, they had no news other than there was a general evacuation alert. We had no way of knowing it then, but at that time, the waves were not long from striking Coquimbo’s port. Fernanda and I looked at each other: 8.4! A major earthquake. We kept repeating it, not believing it.

We continued moving. We were headed for Jime’s house, a friend of ours. It was just on the other side of Balmaceda. When we reached the street, it was clogged with traffic. The drivers had wide, desperate eyes. We picked our way carefully between the cars when we had to, zigzagging down the street. At one point, I noticed spots of blood on the sidewalk, and not far, a woman on a bench, holding her side, surrounded by her family. There was a steady stream of people now, but it was not comforting. While for the most part, they were orderly, everyone was frightened and desperate. Some people were still in hysterics, either crying or shouting. Some stood in place, looking lost.

Finally we stopped to rest, stepping off the pavement to drink some of the water we had brought. The street was full of cars honking their horns against the traffic heading out of the city, though I didn’t see the point of it. We had to cross Balmaceda to get to Jime’s, but I dreaded it. Desperate and scared drivers are exceptionally dangerous, and people weren’t exactly obeying traffic laws, especially with all of the traffic lights out. Avoiding the crossing, we kept walking until we realized we had gone too far. It was difficult to gauge La Serena in the dark. I was used to streetlights and bright shopping centers. It added an unwelcome layer of confusion to the atmosphere of fear around us. We backtracked quickly and then, shining my light at the traffic to let them know we were there, we scampered across the street.

Once we turned off Balmaceda, the crowd thinned immediately, and with them went some of the anxiety and confusion of the crowd. Once we crossed the street, we were safe. But now that we had a moment to breathe, we began to think that whatever we carried now was most likely all that would be left of our lives. Our computers, soaked in salt water. Our clothes dragged away by the tide. All of our books turned to woody pulp. Everything. Gone. I was glad I had brought my back up hard drive. All of our photos were on it, our first date, our first morning together in Chile, our wedding. Photos of dark lagoons fed by glacial waters running from the volcano Llaima, pictures of us at the beach when the Pacific had seemed so peaceful.

When we arrived at Jime’s, we found several other friend’s had also gathered there, among candles and whatever food they had brought with them. We added our fruit and water to the table. A former nun, Jime was happy to find her house the center for the evacuation. We immediately named her house, Refugio de Jime, Jime’s Refuge. Another friend of ours, Gladys, was there with her daughter. When we got there, there were hugs and kisses all around. We had hardly set our stuff down when Gladys brought us glasses of good Cuban rum that we drank with medicinal rapidity. Gladys refilled them immediately.

Jime’s Refuge was also a good source for information. We were able to recharge our phone in an idling car, and then let everyone know we were safe from the tsunami. Knowing that news of the earthquake was likely to have reached the United States, I asked my wife’s brother to post on Facebook that we were okay, which was another relief. It was stressful thinking they were people worried about us. One of Jime’s tsunami guests had pulled up his car and was playing the local radio loud enough for us to hear. We heard that large waves were starting to hit Coquimbo and would continue for the next thirty minutes in a tren de olas, a train of waves. We were dismayed to hear that reports of the heights of the waves varied from 4 to 10 meters high. There were tsunami warnings being issued all up and down the coast. We also saw our first picture of the tsunami from someone’s WhatsApp: waves cresting over Avenida del Mar where we had been just twenty minutes before. Fernanda and I frowned at the picture, but there wasn’t much to say. We had chosen to live in a tsunami zone and this was the risk we took. Those material things we left behind didn’t seem as important as they once had, and what could be done anyway? Anxious and worrying, or drunk and laughing, the outcome would be the same. There was only one sane thing to do: drink more rum.

Jime’s Refuge transformed easily into something like a party. As the rum flowed, the laughter rose. If it hadn’t been for the intense silences created when the radio began to broadcast updates or when the frequent aftershocks came, it would have been hardly distinguishable from a regular party. Chileans are not a serious people. They value laughter over almost anything else—if someone can make a joke of something, it will be made. One of the running jokes of the evening was toasting a drink by saying “¡No es dieci-ocho sin terremoto!” It’s not the 18th without an earthquake! Normally this saying refers to an alcoholic drink called a terremoto, which is very popular on the Día de la Patria. It’s made with pineapple ice cream and wine. It has a surprisingly strong kick. (If you have another, it can be called a réplica, an aftershock.) This toast was always accompanied by gales of delighted laughter.

The discussion of the evening was, of course, terremotos. Every Chilean has their earthquake memories. The denizens of Jime’s Refuge talked about the 2010 earthquake that struck southern Chile near the town of Constitución with a strength of 8.8. It shook for 4 minutes. The tsunami swept through the area with waves as high as 8 meters, or nearly three stories. Hundreds were killed. Or they spoke of the 1985 earthquake that struck off the coast of Valparaíso with a force of 8.0 on the Richter Scale. Its proximity to Santiago, the most populous city of Chile, created an indelible memory in many Chileans, including my wife. The quake killed over a hundred people and destroyed thousands of homes. If there had been anyone old enough with us that night, doubtless they would have spoken solemnly of the infamous 1960 earthquake that hammered Valdivia in the south of Chile. This remains the largest earthquake ever recorded on the planet Earth. At a staggering 9.5 on the Richter Scale, this grotesquely massive quake rocked southern Chile for an unbelievable 10 minutes. The strength of the quake was so massive, it changed the geography of the south, creating bays where there were once fields. One of my friends from Validivia says there are places where you can still see the fences underwater. The quake set off the Puyehue volcano, which thundered to life two days later, depositing a thick layer of ash over an already devastated countryside. The 1960 earthquake destroyed many Chilean cities, including 80% of the city where my mother-in-law was born, Puerto Montt. She was evacuated by US Marines. For weeks afterward, the earth moved almost constantly with aftershocks. Some people even got seasick. To the people that survived the Valdivia quake of 1960, all these others are mere hiccups.

Now the younger people at the party had their own earthquake to add to the list. The new generation would have something to say when other adults talked knowingly about terremotos. For a Chilean, experiencing an earthquake is something like a rite of passage. If you haven’t felt the emblem of solidity melt beneath you, you might as well be from Argentina.

As we drank and joked, the best response to an earthquake and its aftershocks, the rumors began to settle into facts, like dust settling after the passing of a gust of wind. The earthquake’s epicenter was not at Combarbalá, but out in the ocean, west of the town of Illapel, almost 200 kilometers south of Coquimbo. However, Combarbalá had not escaped damage. I remembered the lazy five days we had stayed at the beautiful town, strolling in the plaza and going to the new observatory, the Cruz del Sur, the Southern Cross. From the top of a purplish hill, we had gazed through an eyepiece at the rings of Saturn. Rumor was that it was “en suelo”. It was the first of many times I would hear the word. It means leveled to the ground. (These reports turned out to be exaggerated. Combarbalá is doing wonderfully, and is still a beautiful village in the very lap of the Andes.)

News from Tongoy was also not comforting. This was the peninsula town Fernanda and I had stayed my first night in Chile. From our hotel, The Panorámico, we had stood at the window and watched the yellow and red fishing boats float nearly motionless on a glassy smooth ocean. There were reports of the tsunami hitting the town hard, and I wondered if that hotel even existed any longer. Word from Coquimbo was even worse. It was the first I heard of steel fishing vessels being lifted up and deposited in the streets.

Between these reports, Jime’s Refuge continued to be lubricated with rum. When you are faced with the massive power of Earth on a scale impossible to conceive, the only appropriate response is to drink and laugh. So that’s what we did. There was some dancing too amidst a holy-shit-we-survived-so-fuck-it ambience. Laughter was a bit louder than it might have been otherwise. The only thing that sobered the party completely, much more than the news, were the aftershocks. They were short, terrible miniatures of the original. When they hit, the party would go silent as death. Sitting by candlelight, we would wait for the shaking to pass, solemnly, as if in a vast church. For sometime afterward, the discussion too would sober. We were the lucky ones. We worried about all those who were not so lucky. Homes, businesses, and lives would be taken. The landscape itself would change.

Inevitably someone would rise with a toast. “No es dieci-ocho sin terremoto!”

*                      *                      *

A las orillas del Vilcanota

Grabé tu nombre sobre la arena

Vino la ola

Y lo borró todo

De tu nombre no quedó nada

–Peruvian Folk Song

(On the shores of Vilcanota

I carved your name in the sand

Then came the wave

And wiped it all away

Of your name nothing remained)

The day after the earthquake was bright, sunny, and beautiful. It gave the impression, no matter how illogically, that the earthquake had been a phenomenon of the weather. Now that the earth had relieved its pressure, it could relax and the air could clear. The air was cool, light, and fresh. Today was supposed to have begun the big Independence Day party. We should have had friends, pisco, and empanadas, the meat pie ubiquitous in Chile. There should have been dancing and red wine and music. Instead there was a fuzzy sense of disbelief, heightened by the mild hangover from the Refuge party of the night before.

In the brilliance of the day after, we would have to face what the tsunami had done. With power restored, the television played images of devastation that were not comforting. Steel fishing vessels were moored in the streets of Coquimbo, cars were piled high on debris, houses were erased. Thirteen people had lost their lives. In disbelief we saw helicopter footage of Tongoy. The peninsula had been turned into a temporary island. In Illapel, the streets were filled with debris. One million people had been evacuated. Thousands had been injured. The quake was now being consistently reported as measuring 8.4, though the United States Geological Survey rated it an 8.3. The waves that hit Coquimbo in the following tsunami were about 4 meters high. For reasons that I didn’t understand that morning, La Serena fared much better, receiving much smaller waves. But we were between Coquimbo and La Serena and right by the ocean. The waves did not have to be large to destroy everything we owned.

After Fernanda and I found some bread in a local alamacen, a little neighborhood store, we all sat to eat a light, Chilean breakfast of bread, butter, and cheese with tea. It was hard to sit still while the images played on the television. We heard that a state of emergency had been declared, which in Chile means that the military takes over control of the area. The President, Michele Batchelet, was arriving that afternoon to survey the damage. A woman on the television, standing in the midst of a ruined house, begged the President to come and help. Television cameras walked through one disaster after another, interviewing people who had lost everything and were pulling the remains of their lives out of the mud, piling it in the streets. I wondered if that would be us in a few hours. After breakfast, we would get a ride home and find out.

Luckily, a friend called us and relieved the tension. She had gone to our house and said it was completely untouched by the tsunami. Not even a drop of water, she said. Fernanda and I looked at each other in disbelief. Looking at the pictures on the television, we couldn’t understand how we had escaped extensive damage. When we were dropped off as close to our house as possible and began the walk home along Avenida del Mar, we began to see just how lucky we had been.

Moving south down the wide street toward Coquimbo, the damage became more extensive. The beach itself was piled high with debris. The wide pavement that usually allowed for strolling tourists was now part of the beach, covered with sand and trash. In some places, the road itself was covered in muddy sand. The damage increased with every step we took. It was obvious that the biggest waves had hit toward Coquimbo, and the closer you reached the port city, the bigger the wave had been.

I was surprised suddenly to see a familiar face ahead. It was the man who had given us a ride the night before in his blue and white VW bus. We introduced ourselves. His name was Marcelo. He owned a little wooden shop on the beach that rented roller blades and skates to tourists to use up and down Avenida del Mar. He and his family were all fine. His shop, Arriendo de Patines, was intact, but badly off its foundation of wooden piles. We thanked him again for his help, and wished him luck with his shop. (I’m happy to report that his shop has been fixed and is doing well.)

A little farther down the road was the store, Playa Jamaica, whose owner I’d seen the night before, sitting and smoking. The shop was still whole, but everything was slightly off to one side like a great hand had reached down and turned it. The back of the shop now sloped down, and it looked like it might fall down at any moment. The owner was nowhere to be seen. We hoped she was all right. (She is and her store is being repaired even as I write this.)

IMG_1479            But the restaurant Tololo Beach, directly across from our apartment, had not fared nearly as well. As its name implied, it sat on the beach overlooking the Pacific. Just a week before, Fernanda and I had gone there to celebrate the end of her graduate school. She had just uploaded her dissertation, and we wanted to treat ourselves. Tololo Beach was an excellent restaurant. The interior was warm, full of polished wood and paintings of the Chilean countryside. The windows faced Coquimbo across the bay, which glittered like fireworks as we toasted the end of her dissertation and the beginning of another phase in our lives. It had seemed so warm and comforting. And now it was completely destroyed. Dozens of workers were hauling out tables and chairs and whatever could be scavenged from the wreck. The entire back wall had been dragged away by the sea and strewn across the beach up and down Avenida del Mar. It was simply unsalvageable. (It was completely torn down, and is now being rebuilt, this time with a solid, concrete foundation.)

When we reached our own apartment, it was with trepidation. Even though we had been told it was fine, seeing all the damage nearby made us nervous. But it was true. The waves had streamed down the driveway, flooded the parking lot, knocked down part of a wall that the earthquake had weakened, and had come about three meters to the front of our apartment. A dark brown line of seaweed marked its nearest approach.

We still didn’t have power, but that seemed a very small thing. We sat in the silence of our apartment in the warm sun and marveled at our good fortune. When more aftershocks came, we rode through them with our heart in our throats. (These aftershocks would continue for weeks, making sleep difficult.) Then with nothing more to do, we went out for a walk toward Coquimbo to see what was left of our neighborhood.

The farther south we walked, the more damage we saw. The popular restaurant Bakulic was destroyed. It had been picked up and moved seven feet nearly into the street. The owners had opened up to sell the last of its perishable food. We bought some food to support them. Down the street, the bar named Tsunami was also completely destroyed, an act of irony just waiting to happen. Workers were wheeling out crates of beer and the owners were cracking some open while they surveyed the remnants of their business. Our local almacen where we had gone countless times for everything from carrots and cilantro to wine and matches was also a sad sight. They were hauling everything outside. Much of it looked completely ruined. Walking farther along, it got worse. When the road became clogged with debris, we turned to walk on the beach. There the real harvest of the tsunami lay in one even pile along the beach, as if it had been raked there. In this pile was the detritus of the tsunami: wooden beams, rubber gloves, heads of lettuce, broken wine bottles, chairs from Tololo Beach, canvas umbrellas from Bakulic, the red keel of a fishing boat, knots of seaweed, boots, lemons, the shell of a computer, a single onion in a wooden crate, and every other kind of flotsam and jetsam that you could imagine.

IMG_1483            We walked down to the caleta, which is a collective Spanish term in Chile for a place where the fishermen gather to sell fish and where restaurants grow around it. Usually there were dozens of small boats around the caleta, about fifteen feet across, painted red and blue and yellow. They had names like Pirata, Popeye, Mi Niña Bonita, and Congo painted on their sides in bold, black letters. Now they were missing from the shore. When we got closer, we saw where they had gone.

Across the street were some of the finest restaurants in the region, all lined up, more than twenty of them, getting their seafood fresh everyday from the fisherman just across the street. I had eaten some of the best seafood in my life there, delicious reineta,  steaming bowls of marisco, plates of machas con parmesana, all of it caught or gathered the day it was served. The tsunami had picked up the fisherman’s boats and drove them across the street into the restaurants like battering rams. Our favorite, El Mar Adentro, had a boat nearly sticking out of the same window we had once gazed through when Fernanda’s mother, Adriana, had come for Mother’s Day. The boat lay moored on a mat of seaweed and dune grass directly in front of the restaurant. Usually packed with cars and trucks, the dirt parking lot was now a muddy bog which the owners of the restaurant slogged through ankle deep to get inside their ruined businesses. Toward Coquimbo it got worse. The road had been completely washed away. In its place was a ten foot chasm of sand and water. A slab of asphalt hung over it like the tongue of a tired dog.

A crowd had gathered to take pictures. More than a few were posing for them. It was the first I saw of catastrophe tourism. Later, Fernanda would see a sign in Coquimbo that asked for people to stop looking and start helping and another that said selfies cost a thousand pesos. I don’t know why anyone would want to take a selfie with someone else’s suffering as a background, but there you have it. It started to feel a bit like a circus, so Fernanda and I decided to walk home and get out of the way. I was too disturbed by the selfies in front of ruined homes and businesses to take many pictures myself.

On the way home, we talked about the difference in the size of the waves as you moved south. Coquimbo’s port had been hit with 4.5 meter waves. The wave that nearly entered our apartment couldn’t have been much higher than a meter. Anything more than that and we would have been dragging our belongings out to dry in the sun like so many other people. Why was there such a difference in the wave size? I had a lot of questions about the event.

The answers require some knowledge of plate tectonics and tsunami propagation. Chile is one of the most seismically active places in the world, with hundreds of earthquakes every year and dozens of active volcanoes. The reason for this is location. The crust of the earth is made up of dozens of different plates, all floating on the bubbling, seething heat of the molten mantle. The mantle provides the energy that pushes the plates. In the middle of the Pacific, the molten rock bubbles up from its core, pushing the plates to the side, one west toward Asia and the other east toward America. The moving plates crash into each other, giving rise to the infamous Ring of Fire encircling the Pacific. In the case of Chile, the Nazca Plate dives under the South American plate, the less dense material diving beneath the more dense continental rock of South America. This is called a subduction zone. Where the edge of the Nazca plate, deep under the South America plate, melts, it creates a plume of heated rock that rises to the surface and becomes the chain of volcanoes in Chile.

As the Nazca plate moves under the South American plate, at a rate of about 65 to 74 millimeters every year or about double the growth rate of your average fingernail, the South American plate buckles and stores energy like the pulled string of a bow. When the strain becomes too much, the plate snaps forward, unleashing energy in the form of an earthquake. This is called a thrust fault because the buckled plate is thrust outward. Everyone has heard of the epicenter of an earthquake, but the term can mislead people to think that an earthquake happens in one spot. In reality, during this earthquake, the area of the thrust was around 230 by 100 kilometers, or about 23,000 square kilometers. That’s about the size of Lake Huron. The size of this movement is why an event like this is called a megathrust. All of the largest earthquakes recorded on Earth have been megathrust events. Because the thrust fault occurred under the ocean, the earthquake also displaced a huge amount of water. Imagine a tub of water where the bottom of the tub is made of rubber. If you thrust upward at the middle of the rubber, the water would rise and slosh over the side of tub in waves. This is basically a tsunami.

The energy of a tsunami propagates through water with the speed of a jet plane. Like seismic waves, the energy also flows through the ocean in the form of a wave of energy. In the particular case of the tsunami that hit Coquimbo, the tsunami was produced about 200 kilometers south of the city. The waves of the tsunami traveled in all directions away from the thrust. Theoretically, they should have hit La Serena with equal force than they did Coquimbo, and yet Coquimbo was devastated while most of La Serena was mostly untouched. As Fernanda and I walked the beach in La Serena, approaching Coquimbo, seeing more and more damage, the question bothered me.

To answer it, I wrote the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. In an email, Dr. Diego Arcas explained that different wave sizes are typical of tsunamis. “In general,” he wrote, “large variations in wave amplitude are observed even at locations that are relatively close.” He went on to explain that the variation depended on local offshore bathymetry. Bathymetry is basically the shape and depth of the ocean floor. Think of topographic maps sunk underwater. The shape of the underwater topography, or bathymetry, determines how the force of the tsunami is directed. Dr. Arcas continued by explaining, “the presence of submarine canyons can behave like wave guides, while large shallow coastal areas can reflect and disperse a significant amount of tsunami energy.”

In the case of Coquimbo, it is not difficult to imagine the bathymetry. As an important Chilean port, the Coquimbo harbor is deep while the shallow coastal areas in front of La Serena dispersed the force. The tsunami hit the port with such force because the energy of the tsunami was guided into this deep water harbor. What makes Coquimbo such an excellent port is exactly what makes it vulnerable to tsunamis.

But even with the bathymetric shape of the harbor in our favor, a larger earthquake and subsequently larger tsunami would have destroyed our apartment and everything in it. We were lucky, but so had been a lot of other people, which brings us to another question. The Nepal tragedy in April of 2015 had killed 9,000 people. Its earthquake had been 7.8 on the Richter scale or about 6 times less violent than the one that hit us in the Coquimbo region. How could there have been such a difference between the loss of life here in Chile and in Nepal? This is certainly a matter of development. Chile enjoys a long history of strict building codes, going back to 1935, revised in 1972 and again in 1985, 1996, and 2003. These codes have ensured that most Chilean homes do not collapse during an earthquake. The codes are built to withstand an earthquake up to 9.0 on the Richter scale, a cataclysmic event.

Another reason that Chileans fare so well during these catastrophes is that they are drilled for them. Chileans experience many earthquakes. They know what to do. In our case, we were evacuating before there was any formal evacuation alert. By the time we had learned that there was a tsunami evacuation alert, we were already on the way out and joined crowds of other Chileans who likewise had fled their homes before they were ever told a thing. There is a culture of earthquake awareness and preparation in Chile. Just as my wife and I had discussed what we would do if there was an earthquake before the actual event, so do all other Chileans. We were two of the one million Chileans evacuated for this event, and, for the most part, it went like clockwork. I don’t know where to find statistics for such a thing, but Chileans have got to be some of the best-trained earthquake victims in the world.

Yet no matter how good of a response there is, earthquakes and tsunamis kill. People did lose their lives during the earthquake and the following tsunami. Although it could have been much worse, it was still a tragedy for the people who did lose their lives that evening. Lissette Araya Silva was only 26 years old when the earthquake struck. She was in charge of a restaurant in Illapel. When the building was evacuated, she returned to lock the doors when the cornice of the building fell on her. People left candles on the street where she passed away. Félix Jésus Aguilera Tapia was only 19 years old when he was killed by falling rocks in Monte Patria. At 67, Luis Damaris died of a heart attack in Carlos Van Buren Hospital. Renato Salazar Díaz, 96, also died of a heart attack in Maipú. Victoria Flores Aguilar was only 20 when she died. She was also killed in Monte Patria when the earthquake caused a landslide. She was called “La Viky”. She danced hip hop with a group called Made in Chile and her friends said she was buena onda, easy-going and friendly. María Esmerelda Menai Carvallo of Catapilco passed away from a failed heart. At 81 years of age, a heart attack also claimed Humberto Fernández of Valparaíso. Isabel del Carmen Jopia Carmén was trying to get home to Coquimbo on her motorcycle. To get there as fast as possible, she took the route past the port. She was struck by the tsunami and killed. She was known to offer her home as refuge for women fleeing violent homes, running her private home like a battered women’s shelter. Where these women go now, I do not know. As I write these words, the community is working to find a way to honor her service and her memory. Eduardo Enrique Carrera Pullido, 51 years old, was found dead south of Tongoy after he was reported missing. Victor Hugo Torres Bugueño was a fisherman who died when he was trapped between the tsunami and the port. Juan Luis López Jorquera also died in the tsunami. Luis Olivares González was 59 years old when he died. Rosa del Tránsito Aguirre Ortiz was around 50 years old when she was killed by the tsunami. She was on crutches, and although she was warned of the tsunami by her niece Isabel, she returned to her house for candles and was not seen alive again. When Yolanda Carrasco returned home with her partner, Patricio Araya, after burying her father, they had no idea of the coming evening. When they heard the tsunami, it sounded like a landslide. Patricio Araya survived, but Yolanda did not. Her body was found days later. She was 52 years old. Gustavo Bustamente was the only man to die in Argentina of the earthquake. Because of the strength of the quake, many buildings in Buenos Aires were evacuated for safety. While descending the stairs, Bustamente had a heart attack and fell. He died soon afterward. He was 50 years old.

When we returned home from our walk along the destruction left by the tsunami, we sat down at our table. It was a gorgeous day. The sun shined brilliantly on the now calm ocean. We found some wine in the cupboard and opened it. Thinking of the destruction, the people who had lost their lives, it was difficult to understand the fact that if the earthquake had been stronger or closer, the tsunami larger, we would not be as lucky as we were then, drinking wine in our somehow untouched apartment.

I heated up the ajíaco I had been making the night before when the earthquake struck was still fine. I beat two new eggs to replace the ones that had the earthquake had spilled the night before. When it began to boil, I added the eggs and stirred until they were thoroughly cooked, cloud-like wisps of white in the stew. I served the soup in two clean white porcelain bowls. Fernanda opened a second bottle of wine. Outside we watched the military helicopters pass over the glittering ocean. We ate and drank and watched the sunset. Red, orange, yellow. Flaming. Beautiful.

There was an aftershock. We gripped the table and waited. The apartment rattled. The stew rocked in the bowl. When it passed, we toasted our wine.

The ajíaco was delicious.


One thought on “The Emblem of Solidity

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