This weekend I presented a paper at the Royal Anthropological Institute's conference on Anthropology and Photography, titled #Instaterremoto: Tracing Crisis through Instagram Photography. As part of the conference I was given the opportunity to showcase my own photography, and exhibited twelve photos under the same title. Here I reproduce that exhibit, which can also be found at the RAI's Flickr feed here.
On the night of 1 April 2014, Alto Hospicio suffered an 8.2 earthquake. The city was without power and water for several days and many were left homeless. Because I am researching social media usage in the city, I have paid particular attention to the photos that (usually young) residents have uploaded to Facebook and Instagram. I began adding my own images to these websites with similar hashtags to contribute to the body of imagery by residents who were were many times calling for more attention and help from the Chilean national government. In many ways, the people of Alto Hospicio felt forgotten, and were using social media to speak to whoever would listen. I took these photographs, featured here, in solidarity with others who were using their smartphone cameras to claim visibility and call for attention to the disaster.
On April 3rd, I was awoken by the heat of direct sunlight in my tent. For the second night I had barely slept, with tremors reminding me that the earth was still moving it's plates every few hours. Though it certainly felt less scary to be close to the ground and with nothing but a thin layer of fabric capable of falling on me, the tremors were still startling enough to cause momentary heart racing.
I opened up the tent door, hoping to let in some cooler air, and was greeted by Nicole's father. A few others were already up and about, and Nicole's mother had just returned to the camp with all the bread she could find. She handed out pieces and started the camp stove to make coffee.
As I was sipping some black coffee for which I desperately wanted sugar, Alex stumbled out of his tent, also expelled by the heat. As he ate bread and drank coffee he spoke to his mother on the phone, who was urging him to come to her house in Arica, where less destruction had occurred. But radio reports the day before had declared the road between Arica and Alto Hospicio closed. Alex called his uncle to find out more. His uncle informed him that the roads had been reopened for non-commercial traffic. Alex was convinced.
However, there was still the question of getting enough gas to make the four hour drive. The Copec station along route 16 in Alto Hospicio was only dispensing gas by 1 liter increments to people on foot. So we drove further up the road to the edge of the city where another Copec station was closed to all but emergency vehicles. Alex decided he would try the station on the other side of town, but it was closed completely.
Another call to Alex's uncle, and his report was that the gas station in Pozo Almonte, 40 miles to the East, was open as normal. How the uncle was an expert on transportation, I didn't know, but when Alex decided he was at least going to drive to Pozo to see the situation, and invited me along, I realized there wasn't much reason to stay in a precarious apartment in a city with no electricity or water. So I packed a bag quickly, getting out of the apartment before another aftershock and we set off.
Indeed, gas was being sold normally in Pozo Almonte, and we filled up the tank, then took a 6 hour drive to Arica. It is normally much quicker, but there was indeed quite a bit of fallen rock along the road. For much of the drive, the road is bordered on the East with high hills. During the earthquake, much of the rock that makes up these hills had come loose and fallen, in both big bolder sized pieces and smaller, but equally as unnavigatable basketball sized pieces.
lights shone as we drove into Arica
As the sun was setting at 8pm, we finally arrived to Arica, a town flickering with light, and people living normally. We went to a pizza place and ordered a pie, then to a botilleria where we bought a 6 pack of beer. Alex paid for both using his debit card, which had been impossible in Alto Hospicio for the last two days. His mother's house did not have electricity restored yet, nor water, but it was nice enough just being able to buy takeout dinner as if things were normal. Indeed, the people of Arica didn't seem phased at all. The chaos of Alto Hospicio never ensued, and they were practically living life as if the earthquake had been a minor hiccup.
After 4 hours of sleep I awoke to people rustling around the house. Plenty of the family members were up and about, preparing a cold breakfast for the children, and Alex had left to take an uncle to visit on some older relatives. I felt in the way and groggy, so I made my way over to an armchair that sat in the kitchen corner. I drifted in and out of sleep there for 20 minutes before Alex returned with his Jeep.
When he did, his aunt collected everyone’s cellphones, including mine, and hooked them up to the car battery. I sat in the Jeep and typed out the first installment of this blog series, then posted it using the internet connection on my phone. I watched as families waited in line for the water truck then carried large jugs back to their homes. Alex played catch with his niece. Other children played baseball in the empty lot across the street. There were bits of completely normal activity amidst chaos.
After all the cell phones were charged, Alex and I drove off to go back to our respective apartments. Of course, as I entered mine, another 4.2 aftershock hit and I almost left again immediately, but instead I organized things as best I could, fed the fish, and cleaned up most of what had spilled on the kitchen floor. I took the stuffed foldable mattress and my sleeping bag. My friend Nicole offered to lend me a tent. I met Alex downstairs, and we dumped our important things in the Jeep. We then walked 2 blocks with our camping equipment to an empty lot where Nicole’s family and several neighbors from her apartment building had set up a camp the night before. We cooked chorizo and chicken on a grill one of Nicole’s neighbors had carried to the lot. As it became evening we drank warm rum and coke because there was no ice to be bought or borrowed. We played Uno, and then one of Nicole’s older neighbors started a conversation with me about Chicago, in which he played the part of expert.
Eventually I climbed into the tent that was mine for the night with my flippable mattress and thin blanket, and fell asleep to the sounds of more chatter and someone in a nearby tent snoring loudly.
After leaving our apartment complex, my friend Alex and I set out driving around a city that felt entirely foreign in the almost-complete dark. The only points of light were car headlights and occasional bonfires neighbors had built to stay warm in the windy night air while wearing the shorts and tshirts they had been wearing when they ran out of their homes.
We first slowly drove past an apartment building near ours’, where my friend Nicole lives with her family. Yelling “Nicole!” out the window proved useless, as the group of people that had gathered outside was in the hundreds, but we did manage to spot her father and a smile and wave from him assured us things were alright.
We left there to check on a different uncle and his family, arriving on a side street, I met the whole family, hanging out on an empty concrete futbol cancha. While Alex went across the street to the family’s house, his young cousin told me that an internal wall had fallen and her mother’s foot had been hurt. “But we’re alright. It was exciting!” She commented. I could tell she was anxious. She seemed happy, but just wouldn’t stop talking. Asking me all sorts of questions, telling me all sorts of details from her day before the earthquake happened. It was as if, if she could just keep talking she wouldn’t pay attention to the more recent events and her fears would subside.
I felt bad, I was only half paying attention. It was about this time, 45 minutes more or less after the quake had happened, that my friends in La Paz, Bolivia started sending facebook messages that popped up on my phone. They had felt tremors as well, even 750 kilometers away, and immediately turned on the television news. Hearing the earthquake’s epicenter was near me in Iquique, they wrote to see if I was ok. Most told me there were likely to be aftershocks and I should get on a bus to La Paz as soon as I could. And though I would have really loved to have done that immediately, I knew it would be impossible. With no power, and many highways likely blocked by falling rock, travel between cities wasn’t likely to happen any time soon.
Next we passed by Alex’s cousin’s house, where we parked the jeep, barely missing a fallen electric cable. After navigating the electric situation, we confirmed the family was ok, but without cigarettes. Alex too was craving one but everyone seemed to be out. By the time walked back to the jeep, I had received at least 10 facebook messages from my friend Andrea, who was vacationing in a region further south. She was worried about a mutual friend and when I told her I was with Alex she asked us to drive over and check on her. And from there we started making rounds checking on friends. First, we went to Alex’s old neighborhood, where he had lived for 10 years. Essentially going door to door, he made sure everyone was accounted for. It was fairly easy, because most people were sitting on their stoops or had gathered on the sidewalk just outside their homes. We stopped and talked, drinking coffee with our friend Samanta and her family, who also lived in the neighborhood. Like Alex and his cousin, everyone was craving a smoke, and after finishing our coffee we set out again to find tobacco. Along the way we stopped by our friend Martin’s house, where he lives with his parents. He had been at work in Iquique, his mother informed us, but had texted to say he was alright. Then off to check on Leo, who we found safe at home, though he had been on a bus the steep highway between Iquique and Alto Hospicio when the earthquake hit, cracking the pavement several feet deep. He had to walk the rest of the way home, which took about an hour. “My mother assaulted me with hugs when I walked it he door” he told us as he took a long drag from a cigarette he had offered to share with Alex. I even took a drag, feeling shaken because my mother still had not responded to my Whatsapp message.
picture of the highway damage taken the day after the earthquake
Leo also gave us a hint on a place that might be open selling cigarettes, it turned out to not be true, but as we drove down the one of the main streets of the city, about 2 hours after the quake had hit, there were occasional corner stores that were dimly lit with flashlights, and long lines waiting on the sidewalk. People were buying water, as the news had already spread that there would be no running water for at least two days. I was thankful for 5 liter bottle I had been told to buy. Though the first three shops had already sold out of cigarettes, the fourth was well stocked, and Alex pooled all the cash we had between the two of us and bought 6 packs.
He took long drags as we sat in the jeep outside the bodega. I even smoked half a cigarette. My mother still hadn’t responded to my Whatsapp message 3 hours later, and though I was sure she was fine, after feeling a bit traumatized, all I really wanted, was to hear that my mother loves me. The cigarette helped. I wasn’t sure if it was really the nicotine that had a calming effect, but it did somehow make me feel better. Maybe it was just a moment of stillness, deep breathing, and knowing that I was still alive after what felt like extreme airplane turbulence in my apartment.
an open shop, a few hours after the earthquake
On April 1, 2014 I went with a friend to Humberstone, an old Saltpeter mining community about 40 minutes from Iquique. Humberstone is located in the pure high desert of La Pampa and has been a ghost town since the 1930s when German scientists discovered a way to manufacture synthetic saltpeter.
I returned to my apartment in Alto Hospicio, Chile around 7:30pm, covered in a layer of dust and desperately wanting a shower. I was also quite hungry, but so tired I just sat on the couch for at least thirty minutes, staring at my 5 fish in the 20 gallon tank that was already in the apartment when I rented it. I looked in the fridge and contemplated whether I would enjoy a bottled beer or a Coca Cola. I also looked at my food options: a bowl of tuna left over from lunch the day before, peanut butter and jelly, a variety of vegetables that I could cook with some rice and the hoisin sauce I brought back with me from the US. I eyed the bottles of liquor on the counter and wanted a little rum, but thought without food it might be a little too strong. I was in one of those moods where I was so hungry and tired I just couldn’t decide on anything. I thought maybe a shower would wake me up a bit.
I had a wonderful hot shower and got all the fine dust off my skin and out of my hair. I stepped out, put lotion on my sunburn and started brushing my teeth. The sink made a strange clicking sound as the water was running. I turned off the water to listen, then everything started to shake. The window, the toilet, the shower door. I decided to go to the bedroom to get clothes, but I never made it there. I heard the top of the toilet bounce off the toilet seat and break on the floor. I heard everything fall out of the cabinet in the sink and spill across the tile. It was shaking so hard I had difficulty walking. I changed plan and headed for the kitchen doorway because it seemed the most sturdy. I sat down in the doorway, mostly because standing was impossible. As I sat, the refrigerator grazed my arm as it fell over. All its contents spilled out on the floor. The fridge falling scared me so I moved, now naked with the towel only in my hand, to the dining room table. But as soon as I got under it, the tv fell onto it, and I heard the clang of breaking glass, reminding me that the top is mirrored. Though it’s backed by plywood on the bottom, I decided this move had not been a good idea and crawled back to the kitchen doorway, through a large puddle of fish water, to the kitchen doorway where I sat in a puddle of beer from my now-broken six pack.
Holy fucking shit I muttered as I saw sparks and the shaking continued.
After three minutes that felt more like 10, the shaking stopped and I walked unsteadily, half crying, half laughing to the bedroom to look for clothes in the dark. I found a pair of jeans on the floor and shirt lying on the bed. I didn’t bother with underwear. I grabbed my cellphone, which had been plugged in and walked to the kitchen doorway where I felt for the 5 liter water bottle that had been on the table. A friend made me buy it the week before “in case.” I found my shoes in the middle of the floor, next to the sofa where I had kicked them off while watching the fish. The aquarium still was half full of water and I hoped it meant it was still structurally sound. I grabbed my backpack and joined the steady stream of neighbors walking down the stairs.
“Apurranse!” I kept hearing a mother yell to her children. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, a young boy, about 10 years old, grabbed my arm and called asked “Mamá?” “No soy yo” I had to tell him, but I walked with him until we found his mother in the parking lot. I sat down on the pavement and put my shoes on. I wrote to my mother on Whatsapp. “Mom I’m ok.” I wasn’t sure if the network would go out and I wanted to make sure something got out before a possible collapse.
I saw my neighbor and friend Alex who was leaving to go to his aunt’s house. He told me to come with him, and I, not having much of a plan, went along. I sat in his truck waiting for him to organize the backpack he had with him, and sent another message to my mom. “There was a big earthquake, but I’m out of the building and going to a friend’s. Don’t worry. I’ll write more later.” I answered a few more Whatsapp messages from friends in Iquique asking if I was ok, as we drove downhill towards the rest of the eerily dark city.
a usual night view for comparison
Some time last week the news broke that the expected high for today would be -11 F (-24 C). This seemed preposterous to me. Yet, in this little town of 2000 people, the staples quickly disappeared off the shelves of our small Independent Grocers’ Association store. The liquor section of the town’s one gas station looked more and more picked over every day.
Yesterday, I woke up to falling snow. It kept going all day. My uncle came over twice from across town with his snowblower to clear the driveway. It was 6 F (-14 C) then. He said the snow was a good thing. It would insulate the ground from the cold and hopefully pipes wouldn’t burst. My dad started clearing out the garage which he had been using as a work space to refinish some wood from our nearly-100 year old house. He got enough cleared out to put one of the two family cars inside.
At 5pm, when it was 3 F (-16 C), I went with my dad to fill up the gas tanks of both cars. My uncle had told him the gas station, which is usually open 24 hours would close at 6, so we had to get in just under the wire. As we slowly drove the ½ mile home, fishtailing all the way, we avoided any streets where there was even a glimmer of headlights. We passed a man walking home from the store and offered him a ride but we were too late. He was only a half block from his home. We got home and cracked open a bottle of wine, happy the power was still functioning and both cable tv and internet were fine. My uncle posted on facebook “Snow blower - check. Generator with extra gas - check. Food stashed - check. Fireplace on -check. Chili for dinner - check. Board games - check. Whiskey- check. Bring on the 10 inches of snow and -30!”
When I woke up this morning my smartphone told me it was -17 F (-27 C). I scrolled through facebook. A former professor in Chicago quoted a pedestrian interviewed by a news crew: “The 1st 10 minutes, you think, 'it's not so bad.' The next 10 minutes, your face starts to burn. Then, you start to ask, 'Why did I ever decide to live in Chicago?” A friend from high school warned that highway plow crews had given up. They would do one last round looking for stranded drivers then head home. Several people announced closings or asked about specific companies. The insurance company that has its corporate headquarters in “the big city” of 100,000 that is 10 miles away was closed for the day. The candy factory and car manufacturing plant were not. Another high school friend posted a video of himself throwing a bucket of water into the cold air and it instantly turning to snow. The local restaurant announced it would not be open for breakfast but hoped to open at 11 for lunch with vegetable soup and turkey sandwiches for the daily special.
I decided, mostly based on the pedestrian’s comments on the news, that this was probably my only chance in my life to experience temperatures so cold and I should probably go out. I pulled on long johns, 2 pairs of socks, my flannel pajamas, courduroy overalls, my Bolivian alpaca sweater, my coat that resembles a sleeping bag with a hood, a hat, a scarf, two pairs of gloves, snowboots, and sunglasses. I set the timer on my phone to see how long it would be enjoyable. I walked to the side yard and took a selfie. I went around the perimeter of the yard. My torso was still toasty, but my eyes were watering and my legs between the top of my boots and the bottom of my coat were chilly. I went inside and found it had been 3 ½ minutes. Not bad, I thought.
Later, the family discovered, via my uncle’s photos on Facebook, that the town water tower was leaking. The water tower is only two blocks from our house, so we all redressed in 100 layers and walked to see it. It did, indeed, have giant ice cycles hanging from it. The town volunteer firefighters had roped off the area around it, to avoid injury if the giant icecycles were to fall. I of course took some pictures, and upon returning home, posted them to facebook. It was there that I saw my friend David wrote “Anyone need anything from town [the nearby city of 100,000]? Shoot me a txt or call. Heading to town in a few minutes.” A few people had replied simply with requests that he be careful. One neighbor asked him to bring charcoal.
In essence, on this day that felt so unusual, people used Facebook, not only to strengthen the sense of community one experiences in a “crisis,” but also to record their experiences. In many ways, writing about your stockpile of resources, quoting commentary on the news, and even offering delivery of products from “town,” are a way of performing and remembering this somewhat exciting experience. It first a performance of collegiality, sharing the moment with those who are also experiencing it, but not physically present with you. With no one wanting to go outside, and the street unnavigatable for cars, most people were rather solitary at home. Yet Facebook provided a way to understand the extreme cold as something collectively lived. But at the same time, people were performing for themselves. They were capturing their memories of the day in small snippets, putting on public record in order to remember their first thoughts as -17F air hit their exposed face, what they felt was important to keep handy, and the way they helped their neighbors on a supply run to “town.” Facebook served as a repository of experience that was simultaneously personal and collective. And as such, is an important way of making memory.
They always warn you transportation is the most dangerous part. Its always in the movement from one place to another that the anthropologist is most vulnerable. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo was just walking down a footpath when she fell to her death.
Even more anthropologists have written on the perils of transportation in their fieldsite. Ellen Moodie writes about an bus crash in El Salvador and points out the ways global inequalities and institutions actually bore quite a bit of responsibility for a seemingly “accidental” incident. And certainly, anthropologists such as Lynn Stephen—who works with undocumented immigrants—can’t ignore the perils of transportation for such a population.
But you never think it will be you who is in that crash. I suppose because the academic anthropologist is among the first-world privileged and can choose to use “safer” forms of transportation than the public busses Moodie describes. And are privileged enough to be able to obtain visas rather than illegally crossing borders (aside from Bourgeois’s famous example).
And indeed, I was returning from getting my visa to remain in Bolivia. It was an annoying bureaucratic process that took far longer than it should have, but it was not impossible. And the kind (but paternalistic) Consulado kept assuring me they would give me the visa if only I could provide a little more documentation. Obtaining the visa was a vastly different experience than my middle class Bolivian friends have had when trying to get tourist visas for the U.S.
And as for transportation, I decided to avoid the 30 hour, somewhat comfortable tourist bus from Lima to La Paz and opted for what I assumed to be a more posh option. Flying to Juliaca would—yes—require me to take some local busses rather than a fancy full cama option. But would also be much faster and presumably safer. Of course, this was not exactly the case. As the taxi from Puno to Desaguadero went spinning off the road and those mortal thoughts when racing through my head, I never once thought “this isn’t supposed to happen.”
But I did think that later. As I reflected on the events, I couldn’t help but think of the endless stories you hear in the Andes of busses careening off the sides of cliffs. All the passengers and driver die. And they all remain nameless locals. This doesn’t happen to the tourist or anthropologist because they can afford the safer option. And that comforts us the night before we travel. We have paid our $70 rather than 120 Bs. (about $18) to travel, thus ensuring our safety. We will arrive in (relative) comfort and be happily on our way.
But the truth is, there is an element of luck. Sure, it seems the more you pay the better your chances are. But things like blockades, weather, and poorly maintained roads treat us all somewhat equally. Of course, some have the luxury to avoid travel when conditions are less than perfect. Some have the luxury of flying rather than taking any ground transportation at all. But even if I had flown directly to El Alto, I would have still had the blockades on the autopista to deal with. Money and status help, but they don’t take away risk completely.
And so, as I sat in the back seat of that recently-demolished taxi, and watched the Peruvian man next to me bow his head and cross himself, in a way I wished for something to thank other than luck for my survival. I had been given enough of a shake to be reminded that wealth and status can’t always protect you. I wanted something else to believe in to keep me safe. But I had nothing.
And the truth was, it wasn’t even myself that I was afraid for (except maybe in the moments when I was sure I was going to freeze to death). I have lived a good life. I have done amazing things and been loved by amazing people. And my attitude toward transportation is often: I would rather die in the process of going somewhere than sit idly at home, afraid to take a risk. And I stand by that still. But I was afraid for the people I love. Perhaps I’ve just read the introduction to Culture and Truth by Renato Rosaldo (Michelle’s widower) too many times, but I didn’t want my parents, sister, colleagues, professors, and friends to wish I had never come here. To wish they had stopped me or proposed I do local research. I had no regrets. I don’t want to be the cause of regret for anyone else either.
And so, having returned to La Paz, I sit in my cushy SoHocachi house, writing this on a day when all the choferes (taxi drivers, bus drivers, and voceodores) are striking and blockading the streets of La Paz. And I wonder if perhaps they don’t ask for enough. I argue with taxi drivers over the difference between 10 and 12 Bolivianos (about 30 cents) to take me home at 10pm. But that taxi driver could be keeping me out of harm. But that’s just the beginning. Perhaps better roads, more structured public transportation, more accountability. And this is starting to sound like I’m making a bigger government argument, but hell, this country has already nationalized about every industry it can get its hands on, and the Movimiento A Socialismo party is in power, so maybe that’s a moot point. A little more reliability for transportation would go a long way around here.
But at least the Cebras are a start.
2005 Microbus Crashes and Coca-Cola Cash: The Value of Death in “Free-Market” El Salvador. American Ethnologist 33(1):63-80.
1993 Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press.
2007 Transborder Lives: Indigenous Ozxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon. Durham: Duke University Press.
Junot Díaz, author of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (who incidentally I have taken to following in my constructions of "he was brian smith before brian smith was brian smith") has written an amazing piece on the social nature of "natural" disasters for the Boston Review, titled Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal. My intention with these fieldnotes is not to create a blog that simply links to good things I've found on the web, but I think Díaz does an excellent job of explaining what I briefly alluded to in my post that mentions the Bolivian landslides (but was really more about the global reach of Justin Bieber). So, I'm offering it up here, I suppose as a nod, not only to the theorists whose works I benefit from, but also to amazing writers who are brilliant with words, accessible, and poignant all at once.