There’s a video online purportedly of the moment last night’s earthquake struck northern Chile. We’re in a small flat, maybe in Iquique. Women scream, a man keeps saying ‘It’ll pass, it’ll pass,’ as the mobile phone, presumably held by a heartless teenager, sways through rooms where everything is bouncing and falling off the walls. The noise is deafening. That’s what scared me most during my first quake, the huge one (magnitude 9.5) in Chile in 1960. I was too small to understand till much later how deadly it was. Apart from the racket – imagine every single object in the house coming to life, banging, sliding, rattling, creaking, and often crashing down – it was rather fun: tiles flying off the roof, the swimming pool slopping from side to side, the cook on her knees, imploring the Virgin at the top of her voice.
As children we learned to find regular tremors reassuring; it meant release, so the angry energy wouldn’t build inside the earth. I knew what pent-up felt like. We’d lie in bed enjoying the cosy shiver, the remote rumble. During the day you hardly noticed, unless a ceiling lamp rotated.
I moved to Mexico a year after the great quake of 1985. The streets were full of empty spaces turned into car parks; some buildings were still partly upright, their compacted floors sheering off diagonally like rock strata. It was a watershed for Mexico: the beginning of the end of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s decades-long stranglehold, as government corruption, callousness and incompetence were exposed and popular solidarity changed people’s perception of their own power. Reading the reports and hearing so many stories, shading into legends, I imagined waking up half crushed under rubble like thousands of others, perhaps hearing the diggers and calling out but never being found. I made sure to live in old buildings that had settled down, askew but robust for centuries, or low ones. Another tip was to avoid lifts, especially in jerry-built government offices that hadn’t fallen down already.
Secretly and with shame, I went on finding the tremors exhilarating, especially when alone and safe at home. The vibration begins; you check the window for swaying skyscrapers. The pictures rattle, the floor heaves and you keep your balance, feet apart, moving with it as if dancing on the back of a massive animal that’s trying to buck the whole city off. There’s a thrilling sense of the instant, not knowing whether the motion is going to subside or to intensify.
But it got to me in the end. Mexico City is built on mud near a fault line, and twelve years on, another major quake was overdue. It was no good remembering that Lisbon’s been stable since 1755: the longer nothing happened, the more fearful I became. Now I miss the sensation, and dread news like this morning’s. On the bright side, 300 Chilean women prisoners escaped.