Chile after the earthquake

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Our guest blogger, Eileen Smith, provides us with this update from Chile.

The word for dustpan and shovel are the same in Chile. Which means when I tell people that I was pulling stuff out of my apartment with a pala after the February 27th earthquake, they can see either one.

But despite the pictures of crumbling buildings you may have seen from Chile, in the words of some recent guests, 'In Santiago you have to look for the earthquake damage.' Near where I live, the Basilica’s brick-speckled courtyard and fallen facade are the perfect damage photo-op. But Santiago is physically mostly fine, and cyclists are out and about, kids are laying down tricks at the skatepark, people are out walking dogs.

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I wasn’t here for the earthquake, and found out about it on Facebook. What I couldn’t know, despite assurances from an ocean away, was how people were actually coping. My first indication was in the transfer on the way home from the airport. There I listened to two women, one who had been in the south, and one who lived in a downtown Santiago neighborhood, talk about their experiences. Where they were, what they saw, whether the dog had started barking, what they felt. There were tears among strangers, and gentle hand clasping among people who’d never met, but who'd shared something horrible.

The earthquake is the topic of the day. You can't have a conversation with anyone without talking about it. With every person you meet, everyone you see after a long time away, the earthquake is present. I ask Patricia, the woman from whom I buy fresh fruit and vegetables; Mingo, who came to change my locks the other day; Juan, the concierge; and José, who parks the cars on my street. I ask people at my friend’s harvest dinner, at the gym. I have nothing to contribute, but I want to know.

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And they want to tell me. The house swayed so much that they couldn’t get a foothold. Things shook and moved and crunched and groaned. Water splashed out of aquariums, doors needed to be hatcheted open. Days of worry, isolation, and disbelief that the government failed to adequately warn people living in coastal towns of the danger of a tsunami, which later erased those towns, people and all.

We all ask. Friends tell the same story over and over, and we listen with rapt attention every time. Telling the story is part of getting back to normal. Every mention of the earthquake is like another small aftershock. It’s the Earth’s way of settling back into calm, and my friends’ and neighbors’ way of settling down. Like the aftershocks, the stories are unsettling. But they release the energy; they let our minds quiet down.

Eileen is a former Brooklynite who now lives in Santiago, Chile. She writes, photographs, translates, hikes, bikes and will cover great distances for a good cup of coffee. She blogs at bearshapedsphere and tweets as @bearshapedspher, dispensing travel advice on Chile.