Last weekend, I went to Concepción. For those who don’t know, that is where I studied for a semester my junior year of college in 2006. Our program set us up with Chilean host families and although the program largely failed to teach many of the besides the exact quantity pisco they could consume on an average night, it did immerse us in Chilean culture via the host families. I did several study abroad programs while I was doing my undergrad and I think Chile was my best host family experience. I was never an outsider to them. It’s like I arrived one day and the next I was the cousin who just didn’t understand as much Spanish.
Later, my host sister G. was my roommate again when she went to the US to work on her graduate degree. I don’t have biological sisters, but she is definitely a sister in all other aspects. People have even told us we look alike which is odd because I’m a head taller than her and my hair is quite a few shades lighter.
That’s probably why when I was sitting in my New York City hotel room and heard about the earthquake that struck Chile with the epicenter close to the city of Concepción, I felt cold all over. I tried to call, but obviously nothing, including the phone lines, was working.
When I finally heard a few days later from another family member that they were all fine, I felt immensely relieved. Last weekend, I took a few quick pictures of the earthquake damage which is still evident in many parts of the city. The way G. and her mom described it to me, I was expecting a wasteland, but was surprised to see instead an odd combination of buildings that were destroyed, flatted, or burned, next to buildings that looked entirely sound. G. told me it was deceiving because many of them have internal structural damage that makes occupying them dangerous.
This building was the Johnson’s department store in downtown Conce where I was forced to buy a coat after someone convinced me that it would be warm in August and I arrived with beach attire. I was so naive.
A large crack can be seen trailing through much of downtown. In the worse parts, like in this photo, they tried to patch it with boards with varying levels of success. The town actually shifted 10 feet. Puts a while new meaning to that children’s rhyme “Step on a crack…Break your mother’s back.”
This was the biochemistry department on the University of Concepción where I studied. No not biochemistry. Jeez. I can barely pronounce biochemistry. Anyway, G. told me that they could hear the chemicals popping and exploding well into the night from their house until they finally fizzled out.
I snapped this picture hurriedly because of the throng of people coming my way. Downtown Concepción is usually crowded and chaotic on a good day but with over half the pedestrian zone boarded off for repairs, it was insane. And like any rational gringa, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself with my camera.
In the colectivo (that taxi-bus love child thing) back to her house, we passed a tall apartment complex that I didn’t see on the news. Half the building had collapses and was dangling precariously off the other half that looked (if you were blind in one eye perhaps) like a nice place to live.
It was great to see them, even though the popular topic of conversation was the earthquake. I feel like that will be the case for months to come. Now when people meet me instead of “Wow! Gringa! Do you understand Spanish?” it’s “Wow. Gringa! Were you here for the earthquake?”
My answer is usually “No. And I hope to never be”