Eleanor's Travel Diary: Chile

5 part series aired April 4 - May 2, 2010

Terremoto in Santiago: the first 24 hours

It starts with sounds. I awake to an unfamiliar creaking, a strange rattling that grows increasingly violent as the room starts to sway. The surprising loudness of the scraping and tearing, wood being ripped, plaster shaken loose. It's not clear what exactly I'm standing on - or to be more precise, crouching on, under the doorframe to the bathroom, which I vaguely remember is where I'm supposed to be. My feet are on the floor, the floor is still there, but somehow it's not attached to the ground. Like a palm tree swaying in the wind, like a ship buffeted by the waves - but it isn't anything like that because everything that is moving shouldn't be. I ride it out, not even allowing myself to think about anything other than this must soon be over. But it isn't. It's a cliché to talk about a minute seeming like an hour but two minutes feels like forever. I didn't even hear the lamps fall. Luckily, I suppose, the power was out.

On the street there is an eerie quiet. A woman walks by, saying to her partner, "Ocho"- eight. How do I know immediately that she's referring to the magnitude of the quake? Turns out to be 8.8, one of the biggest.

I'd arrived in Santiago just a few hours earlier to interview writers and filmmakers for this special series. But I'd been reading a lot about earthquakes because the latest novel (in English) by the first author I'd arranged to speak to, Alberto Fuguet, is about a seismologist whose grandfather is a seismologist who dies during an earthquake. I know that the biggest earthquake ever recorded was in Valdivia, Chile in 1960 - 9.5 on the Richter scale. It triggered tsunamis that raced across the Pacific and devastated parts of Hawaii and spread as far as Japan and the Philippines. I know about the one in 1985. I remember Fuguet's lines: "Earthquakes are watersheds... In countries where the earth moves, every generation has its own quake."

Another first for me: aftershocks or replicas, as they're appropriately called. I start to note the times and then give up because there are so many - just in the first few hours, between 4 and 7 a.m., while hotel guests alternately camp out in the lobby or go into the street, aftershocks of 6.8 and 5. (When the new President is inaugurated nearly two weeks later, on March 11th, an aftershock of 6.9 knocks out the phones, alarms the visiting dignitaries who scan the ceiling for falling debris, triggers a tsunami warning and results in the evacuation of parliament.)

During my conversation with Alberto Fuguet later that morning - he was very surprised to hear from me, but agreed to keep our appointment- there are three. He notices the first before I do: the water in the glass starts to tremble. That night - after a day of aftershocks - I keep a glass of water beside my bed so I can check whether every odd noise is my imagination or real. It's about 50-50. With that kind of anxiety, I imagine the whole city on sleeping pills, or half sleeping pills because while everyone is desperate to get some rest, no one wants to be too knocked out, too unconscious.

It's all much worse south of the city, in Concepcion, close to the epicentre, and the extent of destruction and death is only gradually revealed that first day. After talking to Alberto Fuguet, I walk around the older parts of Santiago, past the Divina Providencia, a church whose belltower collapsed. The city is remarkably quiet, in part because this is still the end of summer holidays. It's like Labour Day week-end; tomorrow is when most people are scheduled to come back. Also, everything is closed because of the earthquake - no subways, no retail, in many parts of the city, no electricity or phones. Remarkably, bits of rubble around affected buildings are already swept into neat piles and yellow emergency tape stretches around the circumference. The few people around look up to see where the damage is and to take photographs.

I end up at the Museum, the hundred-year-old neoclassical Palacio de Bellas Artes that was built to celebrate Chile's centenary in 1910. Part of the decorative façade and staircases tumbled. Tragedy marks the beginning of the country's bicentenary, but thanks to the relative absence of corruption and the observance of building codes, virtually everyone in this city of about six and a half million has a story to tell of living through the earthquake.


In early January of this year, an impressive new Museum of Memory and Human Rights was inaugurated in Santiago to honour the victims of the country's 17-year military regime. As the museum brochure states, it's "an invitation for sober reflection on the attempts against life and dignity of persons that occurred between the 11th of September 1973 and the 10th of March 1990." It's located quite far from the centre of town, in a neighbourhood of schools, colleges, theatres and churches. When I arrive, I'm struck by its vast scale - including an extensive plaza and reflecting pool. As I walk around, I also notice the telltale yellow emergency tape around the perimeter. Although there was no structural damage as a result of the earthquake, glass and ceiling tiles crashed onto displays, requiring $1 million U.S. to repair. After speaking to a friendly woman from the Comunications office, I'm able to walk around the lobby and get a sense of some of the exhibits. On my way out, I notice that the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are inscribed in copper on one of the walls of the plaza. Ironically, in 2006, Augusto Pinochet died on Human Rights Day, December 10th, without ever standing trial for his crimes.

I head back towards the downtown and the Cementerio General, where there's a Memorial to the Detained, Disappeared and Executed: four large stone heads, with expressive faces, lie on their sides around a plaza. A wall of names rises up behind them, filling the horizon. Talk about sober reflection... With the sun beating down, I walk to the very far end of the cemetery in search of the new grave of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. He was tortured and killed in the stadium just days after Pinochet's coup in September 1973. The words of his last poem inspired young artists to create a mural that's in the new Museum of Memory. Last year, Jara's corpse was exhumed as part of an investigation into his death, and his widow accepted the opportunity to re-bury him in December 2009. It was an occasion for thousands of Chileans to pay tribute to a hero of the opposition. His grave site is filled with flowers, photographs, a guitar.

There are other memorials in the country, but perhaps the most haunting is the Park for Peace - Villa Grimaldi. On the eastern edge of Santiago, almost touching the Andes, the Villa was "a clandestine centre of detention, torture and extermination between 1973 and 1979." This is where outgoing Chilean president Michelle Bachelet and her mother were taken after the coup. I go there not knowing quite what to expect: the actual villa was destroyed, but a few small buildings remain - a watchtower, an interrogation room, a swimming pool used to instill fear (as a sign in mosaics indicates). There are large photographs of prisoners and memorials to different leftist political organizations. Near the entrance is a rose garden - apparently true to the original - with the addition of small oval labels on sticks beside the blooms. At first, I think they're the names of the different varieties of flowers, but on closer look, I see that each sign is the name of a woman, in memory of a victim.

These memorials, especially the extensive new Museum of Memory and Human Rights, are a dramatic acknowledgment of the brutality of the country's recent past, but also a demonstration of its willingness to confront that history and incorporate it into a better future. A week after the earthquake, there was a two-day countrywide telethon to raise money and collect goods to send to those affected by the quake and the tsunami. The goal was exceeded after the first day. The slogan that appeared on signs and lapel pins and that was scrawled on cars and buses was "Chile Ayuda a Chile" - Chile helps Chile. I found that reassuring, even inspiring.


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