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.
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.