Sunday, February 28, 2010

There are three places you do not want to be during a massive earthquake:
1) On a unicycle
2) Inside Home Depot (seriously, imagine that!)
3) At the base of an active volcano

Reece and I had the misfortune of finding ourselves in position #3 during the magnitude 8.8 earthquake that hit Chile yesterday. To make matters more interesting, we were scheduled to climb to the peak of said volcano that same morning. Here is a detailed account of our experience. Not to be dramatic or anything, but it was fucking scary! I can't imagine what it must have been like closer to the epicenter... It felt comparable to the Northridge quake for us, a few hundred miles away.

Here goes.

Somewhere in the vicinity of 3:00am - Wake up having to pee, with no idea what time it is. Curse the fact that I have to disrupt my very few available hours of sleep by getting out of bed. Try to ignore it and go back to sleep.

3:10am - Give up. Go pee.

3:15am - Stress out that I am awake and wonder how close it is to our 5:30am alarm.

3:25am - Begin to drift back off to sleep.

3:34am - The walls/ceiling creak, and I think our volcano guide must be upstairs getting ready for our trek (he was partying with our hostel hosts the evening before and was rumored to be sleeping in the empty dorm). The moon shining through our window is so bright, I assume it's the sun rising.

3:34:05am - Creaking becomes a little extreme, and I wonder what the hell that guy is doing up th...

3:34:07am - OH SHIT IT'S AN EARTHQUAKE!!!!!! Frantically shake Reece to turn on a light (which he of course can't do, cause the power is already out). Flail about wildly while trying to find clothes in my backpack. Not sure where I think I am going to go once I find them. Shaking continues and gets more violent. Holy crap this is a really long earthquake. In a moment of absolute terror, I think that maybe it's not an earthquake, but a volcano eruption. I totally panic.

3:35am - Pretty sure by this time shaking still has not stopped. With every second that passes, the fear grips me that it's going to get bigger. It's surreal experiencing something like this so far away from home. I'm desperately willing it to stop.

3:36am - Shaking has finally ceased, and I hear the girls stirring in the room beside us. I trip over the fallen coat rack in the darkness as I reach to open our door. The girls come pouring into our room frantically asking "What WAS that?!” They are from Canada and have never felt an earthquake before.

One girl peaks out our window and sees two puffs of red smoke on the direction of the volcano. We rush out the front door, dreadfully expecting to see lava oozing from the peak above us. Luckily, we don’t. Yet we do see people are getting into their cars and we all wonder nervously where they are going and why. The next ten minutes are spent sitting on the front porch, running over the play by play of each of our respective experience. The girls have a barrage of questions for the “California folks”, as we are clearly the resident earthquake experts. We assure them that what they just felt was no minor tremor. Reece decides he wants to go back to bed, worried he won’t get enough sleep for the volcano ascent in a few hours. Are you fucking kidding me?? We are not going NEAR that thing! I think he is crazy to believe they would still take us up there at a time like this. He thinks I am overreacting.

Over the next hour or so, we ride out some pretty sizeable aftershocks. Wearing headlamps, we clean up all of the broken glass on the kitchen floor. The Canadian girls walk to and from the town center (about 2 blocks away) in attempts to collect information. The young American girl who works at our hostel tries to reach the owners with no luck. Rumors have it that it was based in either Santiago or Conception. That gives us a small amount of relief, knowing it was completely unrelated to the volcano. Of course, that does not guarantee it won’t have an effect on the volcano...

Around 5:00am, people start to go back to bed. I lay restless, unable to stop re-playing it in my head. I pray that the trekking company is not in fact still planning to take us up there, cause then I’d have to be the one to say we aren’t going. I tell Reece, “If we DIE cause that thing erupts while we're hiking it, people will forever say – Why the HELL were they climbing a VOLCANO three hours after a massive EARTHQUAKE?! I am not going to go down in eternity as an idiot.”

6:00am - We walk up the block to confirm with the tour operator that there will be no ascent today. The full moon has been swallowed by thick clouds, and the town is pitch black. As we wait outside the empty office, we can see a smoldering red glow and thick smoke along the rim of the volcano. It’s too far in the distance to photograph, but it’s unlike anything I have ever seen before.

6:15am - We deem it safe to assume we’re cleared from the day's scheduled activites. We head back and finally drift off to a few hours of sleep. My headlamp is tied around my wrist, just in case.

Around 10:30am I wake up, immediately doing the math on how long it will be before my family hears about it. Five hours ahead of California, I think we safely have until noon before I have to worry about them worrying. I have what I think is a smart idea, to plug my computer directly into the router upstairs (since wireless is down). Obviously, with no power, that is still a dumb idea.

I pull out the instructions that came with our global SIM card to try to call home. Clearly, none of the mobile providers are functioning. I ask around if there may be an international calling center closeby, but everyone speculates it likely won’t be working either.

I wake Reece up to venture into town. On our way out, one of the Canadian girls has just returned. She had tried to use a payphone and it ate her credit card. Good to know. We visit all three bus terminals, to see if we can still get a ticket out for the following day as planned. With no power, they are all closed. We learn that they will not be scheduling any more busses until the electricity is back. So, we’re stuck here indefinitely. Interesting.

We see there are some people successfully using pay phones. We wait in line for one of them, then insert all the change we can scrounge up. It dawns on me I have no idea how to get an outside line to the US. We try everything we can think of, including the operator for a collect call, with no luck.

Across the street, we see our hostel owners chatting with the volcano tour operators. We stop by and find out that (sorry Reece), treks up the volcano are canceled indefinitely. As are visits to the hot springs, and just about anything else we could have wanted to do in this town. Opinions on how long the power will be out range from a day to a few weeks. We learn that most of the country is without electricity.

It slowly hits me how many things are affected by the lack of power. We pass the grocery store and it’s an absolute madhouse. We decide we should probably stock up on a few essentials, with no idea how long we may be stuck here. Lacking refrigeration, we look forward to lots and lots of peanut butter sandwiches, spaghetti, and instant mac & cheese (which we were SO excited to find!). We are incredibly grateful that we just happened to make a large ATM withdrawal the previous day, so we have a nice little stash of cash.

We go to the tourist information office, and find out how to dial out on a payphone. One of the three local cell phone carriers has begun working, and the man offers to send a text for me. He types “Sabrina okay.” I don’t know if my family will have heard about the earthquake yet, so I ask him to add that there was an earthquake, we have no electricity, and I will email them as soon as I can. He writes, “Earthquake. No hydro. Will email.” I don't think they'll no what hydro means (I don't). I try to sneak a “Happy Birthday” in to my sister, but I don't get the chance. The text isn’t going through, so he assures me he will keep trying until it does. I leave, thinking the cryptic message will probably worry them more.

A visit to the international calling center confirms what we expected. Walking through town, we see just how strong the quake was, fallen shelves and broken glass littering storefronts. Back at the hostel, we unsuccessfully try to pick up the one working signal on our global SIM card again. With all else failed, we decide to go back to the beach. What was once crystal clear waters were now thick with debris from the lake floor. We can see, several yards from shore, just how far the waves had splashed up hours before. I was restless, wondering how long it would be until we’d have contact with our families. Reece was convinced his family wouldn’t have any idea about what happened.

And, that’s about it. To make a really long story not quite so long, we got power back later that evening and were able to call home. Reece was, to put it lightly, wrong about his family. We finally had some access to news coverage, and began to wrap our heads around how big of a deal it really was. We were overwhelmed and touched by all of the facebook traffic about our well being. And, we have enough peanut butter to last us indefinitely.


  1. Perfect! Just what I was interested in hearing! I can only imagine the chaos surrounded by lack of info, and inability to do just about anything without "Hydro" :)

    Glad you're OK, and that there was no lava-scalding ;-)

    Oh, and tell Reece "'Atta Boy!" for being so cool, calm and laissez-faire about the whole thing. There's no sense in panicking in a situation like that (unless of course you have lava running toward your face), and he did all us men proud! ;-P

  2. Girl... When I read this post, I am pretty sure I would have had the same reaction as you and David (as he put above) would have been just like Reece! Although, I might have cried too :) So glad you are okay! Hope we can meet up in 10 months or so :)

  3. amazing post-- thank you so much for explaining everything in such detail. i cant even imagine what that experience was like-- so glad you are safe....xo

  4. I think you guys had it SO much better than those riding unicycles. You have so many great stories and you're only 65 days in! Can't wait to read more! YAY!