A Day of Escape to the Real World

When living in the midst of a disaster, it takes time to realize that, somewhere in the world, life, as we knew it, continues to flourish. The struggle to survive and make it through another day keeps us contained to just our small spot on the globe. For myself, this awakening came the day that we drove to Chillan to buy supplies and spend time with friends. It was our first venture out of Concepcion since the day of the earthquake. With the exception of Bio Bio Radio, which did a fine job of reporting, we had been cut off from the outside world. So, it was with a dazed sense of perception that I first embraced the trip to Chillan.

In 1939, more than half of Chillan had been destroyed by an 8.3 earthquake, and more than 30,000 perished. This time around, with the exception of some structures, the city was spared the same fate. Life continued with almost the same pace as before the quake.

As had become my habit since camping at Lago Lleu Lleu, I would occasionally write my thoughts down, to capture our experiences. By the end of our day, my notepad revealed the following:

“Life in Chillan is normal. It is such a contrast to Concepcion that, being away, I can almost allow myself to believe that it never happened. Stores are open, vendors are selling on the streets, children play in the square, traffic flows without problems, and there are no military to have to keep the peace.

The only reminders are an occasional damaged house or church, lines at the gas stations with gas rationed at $10 mil pesos per visit, and the Santa Isabel was poorly stocked. Only a few customers were admitted at a time to shop. Sergio explained to the attendants at the door that we were from Concepcion and had to be back for the 6pm curfew. So, they kindly let us ahead of other local shoppers. Once inside, we dashed for items on our long list. We had no idea of when grocery stores would return to Concepcion.

Dear friends, Oliverto and Roberto, who had emigrated to Chile from Cuba and were professors in the Fisiopathogia department at the University, met us at the square to guide us around Chillan. Our first stop was at an ATM, as the ones in Concepcion were either closed or stolen. An ATM at one bank only discharged withdrawals in $2 mil pesos increments, at another, only in $1 mil. The thick wad of cash reminded me of a movie where one of the characters wrapped a large bill around a stack of $1 US bills to make people think he was rich.

We walked to a small café to eat lunch. There were two televisions tuned to CNN Chile, showing images of the aftermath of the quake. It was the first time that we had a glimpse of what had happened to the communities washed away by tsunamis.

I am feeling such fatigue. I can’t even begin to imagine what the people in Haiti must be feeling, given that they were more than a month ahead of us, and still without adequate basics. At least, we have a home and some comforts. In spite of our blessings, I long for life to return to normal.

After lunch and shopping, we followed Oliverto and Roberto to another friend’s home. In the peaceful and beautiful surroundings of Fidel’s home, I finally feel like I can breathe a little. A hot shower and a tall, cold glass of mojito made the challenges of the week just fade away. It felt good to just relax among friends.

The ride home brought the reality of our circumstances to light as we passed through multiple military stops. When we reached the outer limits of Concepcion, lights could be seen in the distance. It was a glorious sight to see the electrical lights twinkling the way home.

I joked that it would be awful if our neighborhood were the only one without power. As we passed block after block, hope was high, but as soon as we turned onto Victor Lamas and headed toward Bertram, we saw only darkness. It was to be another “romantic candlelit dinner.”

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