Three minutes. Such a short time in the big scheme of things, but such a long time when the ground is shifting under one’s feet. Everything changed in Chile in those three minutes. Even for those of with mere superficial damages. Like me.
I live in Santiago, and I don’t remember if I was sleeping or not when it started. I just remember hearing a low rumble, almost like thunder. I knew what it was; as the whole world knows, Chile gets more than its fair share of earthquakes. I thought I would just wait it out. But then the rumble got louder, the headboard started slamming against wall; the windows rattling, and the closet doors inching open and thumping closed. Not so gracefully, I nudged my husband. He had been sleeping, but before I could ask what he thought we should do, he was sprinting down the hall.
I managed follow. Maybe as much out of fear of being alone as anything else. Every step was off-balance. The floor seemed to be rising and falling, the walls moving in and out. More windows—bigger windows—jangling louder. I thought the whole house was going to implode. The hallway seemed to stretch longer and longer. Somewhere sirens and alarms were wailing. My 7-year-old daughter was sitting up in bed watching all her closet doors banging, her ceiling lamp swinging back and forth. She asked what was going on. I picked her up and carried her to the top of the stairs. The stairwell is all windows. I was afraid of being halfway down the stairs, the windows shattering, and glass shards raining down on us, but my husband, behind me, carrying our 4-year-old son, said to go. Everything was swaying. These steps, which I know so well, seemed unfamiliar, steeper. I don’t know how I managed, but I did. I guess we usually do.
At the bottom, all lights went out.
We felt our way around the corner to the kitchen, where the silverware, the plates, the bottles, the entire kitchen clatters at a higher pitch. The door to the driveway was, naturally, locked. We felt around in the moving darkness for a set of keys. My husband found a set, but struggled with the door. It seemed an eternity. Finally we got out, and barefoot, in pajamas, we ran across the cold stone driveway away from the house.
Then it stopped.
Leila, my daughter, was clinging to me like a koala. My legs were trembling; my breath short. My husband, the kids, my stepson, our nanny… we all just looked at each other. It was so still. No more rumbling and rattling. Just sirens. We speculated on how long the whole quake lasted and where the center could be. Eventually we ended up in the kitchen drinking tea, eating chocolate and listening to the news from the car radio by the light of a half-dozen votive candles. It wasn’t long before one death was reported. One single death. We were optimistic—foolish—thinking that would be it; one fatality. An hour later, give or take, the electricity blinked back on.
But it wasn’t the same. Local TV channels were dark, but CNN had “Breaking News” about an 8.8 earthquake hitting Chile. They didn’t have any images yet, just the Chilean flag. It was bizarre to “be” the news. The kids were sandwiched in the bed between my husband and I. The boys fell asleep quickly, but Leila and I watched Michelle Bachelet calling on everyone to stay calm, Google world maps zeroing in on the epicenter, and an earnest seismologist rating this quake 800 times more powerful than the one that annihilated Haiti. I felt sick to my stomach. And the aftershocks…I—we, maybe every soul in Chile—was terrorized by all those aftershocks, each one starting, then fading, then coming back again.
But now, after that sleepless, aftershock-filled Saturday and an eerily quiet Sunday, I know that things are totally different. Everything that I was worried about before the quake doesn’t seem so important now. Yes, my little corner of Santiago—mi mundo—looks pretty much the same, but I know that just beyond, millions of people are living different realities, and this country is torn and cracked and littered with crumpled cars and upturned boats, shattered homes and grieving, hungry families. It is hard to make sense of it all. Chile, I know, will never be the same; I only hope we can work together to make it better.
Connie McCabe is Travel + Leisure's Latin America correspondent.