The Earth shakes, we move with the Earth. Our country trembles, our governments do too; political, social, moral, and spiritual governments.
Ruled by Physical Forces;
Blessing in Disguise?
On February 27th, Chile was hit by an 8,8 earthquake, followed by a tsunami. This event marked all Chileans radically; from our daily routines to the way we see each other and ourselves. In our modern societies, where humans have adapted their natural surroundings according to their needs for creating culture, we grow with the idea that the physical changes always follow those that are political, social or moral. Our history of building civilization, our urban life styles, and our daily activities, all revolve around the idea that we control the world; nature accommodates to our needs. However, this is not always the order of things.
This reverted dynamic has ruled Chilean life for the past month. We have seen how this geological phenomenon has become the precursor of the activities, relationships and decisions of and within our nation. This, of course, has determined life at all levels, and it is my intention to explore the way it has influenced the contact and interaction among regular citizens; those directly affected by the earthquake and those that did not lose as much, but whose ground moved just the same.
The first days
Regrettably, the Chilean government reacted slowly, and even though this lethargy cannot compare to the one shown in the handling of Katrina’s devastation, it certainly aggravated the chaos in the affected areas of the country. First of all, they discarded the possibility of a tsunami, leaving no room for a warning, which inevitably incremented the number of dead. Furthermore, many people had gone to the hills, and when they heard on their car’s radios that there was no danger of a tsunami, they went back down to the lowlands. Many of those did not make it.
A day after the shock, there was still no water or food supply. Men and women started gathering outside a supermarket in Concepción looking for food. The situation started to get sketchy, so finally the supermarket decided to open its doors and let everybody in to take food. However, this situation got out of control and, soon, there was looting all over the region. Yes, you could see women desperately filling their back packs with powdered milk and diapers, but soon you could also find people carrying plasma TV’s, refrigerators and liquor on their shoulders. This event caused the utmost repudiation not only among authorities, but also among citizens.
The two faces of disaster
The sentiment against looters and the outrage of watching the help being delayed was so strong, that soon the whole country was united by a common drive: help those in need. Not three days had passed and companies, schools, organizations, businessmen and regular citizens were directing campaigns to help. Classes were canceled on Monday, and if you drove past any school in Santiago, you could see the parking lots full of kids and parents and hills of clothes and food. In my house alone we gathered sufficient goods to fill up a small airplane. Even kids had their own way of participating; writing the labels on the boxes the grownups had prepared with the classified goods. Many boxes travelled to the south with hearts and drawings on them… “To the kids of Coliumo, with love”.
All over the country a unifying bond rose among Chileans that went beyond social, political, gender and age barriers. Everyone was willing to help and actively looked for ways to engage. We were all working for a common cause that emerged from our very own roots… for many, it was the first time they felt truly connected to all Chileans, linked physically by a ground that was still shaking. It was as if our hands could reach directly to the hands of those in the southern towns, as if there was no separation between the hands of the kids, the drivers, the pilots, the policemen, the firemen, the volunteers, and the lady who received a tent and a sleeping bag to set up where her house had once stood. We were all part of a continuum, and I wondered if maybe that’s what quantum physicians meant.
One morning, the streets were filled with the plasmas, washing machines and the looted goods, all piled up for the police and army to take back. Weather this initiative came from fear of being prosecuted or out of true regret, there were folks that publicly apologized, saying they were driven by mass hysteria and did not want to perpetrate a state of chaos since solidarity was the most valuable feeling right now. “I have learned from this mistake”.
From then on, the army was received cheerfully and perceived as genuine and effective help. They were the only ones that, at a time like this, could efficiently distribute the help, restore order, and assure security. With the exception of a couple cases of unnecessary violence, the Chilean army has proven to be humane and very close to the people, worrying about the water and food supply, but also about cooking a cake for a little girl’s birthday.
Reconciling with the sea
March 10th. Today, for the first time after the earthquake, the fishermen go out to sea. They hope that the sea will be generous and in this way return what it took. The few boats that the tsunami spared came back filled with fish, and the town is happy and can start thinking of the future again. March 20th. The surfers in Pichilemu confront the sea and offer a truce… life must go on.
As days passed by, it still amazed me how a physical force could permeate all the levels of the living. In politics, newly elected president, Sebastián Piñera (sworn in amid a 7,2° aftershock), accommodates his agenda and dives into the earthquake relief. He also plays a benefit soccer game with Bolivian president, Evo Morales, who, as he expressed, in spite of not having access to the sea (a historical border conflict between the two countries), donated the most significant amount of drinking water to the Chilean people; a former Marxist mayor, that worked with Allende, demands the military to be sent to his town to control looters and apply “a hard hand”, trespassing ideologies and old resentments. In economics, the country stirs; unemployment increases, people lose their source of income; important businessmen make significant contributions (in the form of money and services, such as sending their machinery to clear the streets from rubble); highway infrastructure is severely affected; the wine industry lost millions of liters, the fishing, as well the wood and pulp industry, are mostly paralyzed; total damages are estimated above 30 billion USD. Socially, communities organize themselves to protect their houses from looters and, others, to build canals around the tents, their new homes, so that the winter rains will not spoil the few mattresses they managed to rescue; organizations arise to, for example, file a lawsuit against the Chilean government for manslaughter and negligence when they did not warn about the tsunami, or against the construction company of the building that collapsed in Concepción; strangers unite efforts to save the remaining cats and dogs, vets volunteer and families adopt; there is communication across social classes: the town’s mayor cries and works side by side with the citizens, sharing a common pot of food; a strong nationalistic feeling arises, messages of “Fuerza Chile” written in car windows, and Chilean flags rise in every house of the territory… or where a house once stood. Culturally, our language changes, new adjectives are created, and the payadores sing to the earth, the sea and the moon. Spiritually, people come closer; friends contact forgotten friends, families come together: there is a need of sharing, of caring.
Drinking Bolivian water, eating Russian food and sleeping in Arab tents, the Chilean spirit remains strong. With better days than others, the general feeling is optimistic, and we believe that the rebuilding of the country, at all levels, will, for the most part, be an opportunity for improvement.