Notes From A Shaken City

The first one hit around 3 a.m., and it jarred me awake, though not quite. It took me a moment, or maybe it was a minute, or maybe it took me no time at all, I’m not sure, to realize that the room was shaking and that I should get up.

Hastily dressed, I sat in the living room of my friend’s third floor apartment as he and his girlfriend scanned Twitter, looking for news. Another earthquake had hit the Ecuadorian coast, just over a month after one devastated the country by killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands, destroying homes and stores and bridges and sending people to live in makeshift shelters for undetermined lengths of time. Sirens went off, but the streets around the apartment, in the neighborhood of La Floresta, were mostly calm. I saw lights on in various apartment buildings, but perhaps people were too tired — both at that moment because it was pre-dawn, and in general — to run for their lives. The danger seemed to have passed, but we went back to bed with our clothes on and the doors open, ready to flee.

Before last month, I wasn’t familiar with earthquakes outside of movies or stories from other people. Then I had my first, which came at a rather inopportune time to get acquainted with the concept of the earth shaking: I was standing in a parking lot in Riobamba, drinking heavily from a cup of Jack Daniels, and by the time I realized that the wobbly feeling in my legs wasn’t the alcohol, it was over. I laughed the experience off until I became aware of the extent of the destruction.

My earthquake experience was too tame to comment on, I felt at the time. I witnessed no first-hand terror, just confusion. I was personally affected in exactly zero ways — in fact, the next day I took a bus to the touristy city of Cuenca and went for a hike in a national park, hardly allowing the shadow of disaster to alter my plans. And even if I had witnessed anything, or been affected at all, a macabre review of events would have felt impolite at best, disrespectful and ignorant at worst. I collected my thoughts on the aftermath — the crowds of people working in unison to pack and ship relief supplies, the news reports, the rallying cries on social media, the tension between the government’s efforts and the opposition’s insistence that president Rafael Correa is little more than a corrupt socialist — and kept them to myself.

But on Wednesday (I’m writing this on Wednesday night and will likely publish it on Thursday), Ecuador was rocked once again by two earthquakes — neither as powerful or as deadly as last time, yet strong enough to kill and knock out power and send people rushing out into the streets.

Yes, there were two.

After finally falling back to sleep in a state of preparedness, I woke up and made my way to my favorite cafe, which is a nook with a couple of small tables and decent coffee, to get some work done. Though I’d had plans to travel a few hours south to begin a solo hiking trip, I decided to err on the side of “I’d prefer not to deal with aftershocks while riding a rickety bus through the Andes,” and my decision turned out to be prescient when another earthquake hit as I took a sip of my coffee.

From what I can tell, these sorts of earthquakes aren’t the kind you see in movies. Yes, things like bookshelves and tables and power lines shake, but the movement seems to come from within. It’s more like a series of pulses. It doesn’t feel real, because it shouldn’t be — the world spins, it doesn’t shake.

For some reason, I stayed stock still and watched the bars of the windows above me vibrate rather than look to evacuate the space — which is small enough that I could have done so in about two steps. After a few minutes, I stepped outside and saw the school across the street had been evacuated, with a crowd of people out in the street, huddled together.

The scene on Calle Guipuzcoa after the midday tremor.

According to other people I spoke to, this was a similar scene around the city. One friend described the rush to exit his office building as a “stampede,” which struck me as more dangerous than anything that had actually occurred in Quito. The coast, where both earthquakes (or perhaps aftershocks of the original) had their epicenters, was once again devastated, as dozens were injured and one person was killed.

Imagine being that person. You survive one of the greatest national disasters in the country’s history, and a month later, after struggling to not only survive but move forward, you’re killed by yet another earthquake. We all know that the world is unfair and the universe is uncaring, but sometimes things go so far in the wrong direction that I think there must be a God, and he is brutal and vicious for no other reason than because he can be.

Life continues as normal for Quito, because it’s a city and there’s no time to take a break. But there’s a sense of tension in the air. Death is possible for anyone at any moment, but that reality became a little more obvious yesterday. The people here live thousands of feet above sea level, in the embrace of the Andes, and yet the streets still shook. Who knows what will happen next, and when? That kind of uncertainty is hard to live with, but since we have no choice, it’s what we’ll do.

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