How to Feel an Earthquake
During Santiago rush hour, the metro platforms become docks onto which the masses crowd, up to the deadly edge, desperate to be homebound and on the next rushing vessel. Humanity is so condensed that woman-flesh melds with boy-sweat, gardener blends with accountant, and entire grandmothers are lost in the enmeshment of limbs as everyone is carried in a great surge of coats and boots into the impatient cars, squeezing and contorting and straining necks above the humid zone of armpits and perspiring temples, searching for a draft of underground air to suck in.
If you are a young, bewildered foreigner to this subterranean chaos, do not panic. This is life 3,000 miles away from home. This is how Chileans get home. This is also how you too will get back home, but only if you allow yourself to be caught in the torrent and taken breathlessly away towards an apartment that is not yours, towards a morning and another evening of this sardine-packing, this city-sojourning, and onwards and onwards, back and back each night, until eventually the place you go back to really will be your home. You must accept that time is as long a distance to travel as the road from Santiago to Lima. You must forget your smallness. Remember that you, too, belong to the mosaic-chaos of the streets and subway.
Every simple thing will become a test—how you meet the eyes of sidewalk peddlers, how you say how are you and strawberry, traffic and American. How you greet and how you curse. Are you prepared for collapse at day’s end from the overwhelming ordeal of surviving mundanity? You cannot know this now, you with the ready boots and eager, clumsy tongue, but there will come the morning when you will be disappointed to wake once more to Shangri La. The world arguing in the kitchen, rushing through the streets below, lounging in the shaded parks—will not know you, nor ever really see you. But. You will remember other mountains you have climbed and left to shrink behind, as well as other successes, such as ordering in Spanish precisely what you meant to order, for once. And then you will remember that through it all you have yourself, at least.
Your first Chilean earthquake occurs during your second week in Santiago. That evening, the whole city swayed. People poured out of office buildings and from under desks and doorways to mill about in the sidewalks and swap survival stories. Only a few thousand of the 7 million Santiaguinos did not feel the ground rise and sink and shake: those in deep sleep, those in coma, and those on board the imperturbable—even by 8.3 magnitude earthquakes—metro.
To your great disappointment, you will emerge from the subway just as the tectonic plates halt their slow curve into each other. The next day you travel to the coast, where you will find yourself alone on a knoll overlooking the Pacific. You will turn towards the east and see an idyllic town of strangers. Then north, as far as your heart will stretch. Finally south. The coast is boulders, rough, infinitely curving beyond the horizon towards its termination in Tierra del Fuego. My heart, you will stand there and sense the immensity of time, of solitude, of unknown space. The prospect of withstanding such an infinite road of days almost drives you to your knees. It does not help that you are in love with a pixelated, static-voiced boy who walks alongside you five thousand miles away. You will feel utterly defeated by desire.
But falling to your knees is no way to get home. Earthquakes are best felt on foot.
You will rise to fill the empty apartment and teeming platforms with your singular body. You will spin slowly, as you have learned to do in the arms of graceful strangers on dance floors in the city. At the sound of your call, the street dogs will come wagging to hold you in, even as you hold them. You will lose your fear of getting lost in the mazes of streets, with their mazes of faces. You will fall deep into yourself, as those waterfalls in the south collapse into cold being. For that night, the day after the great, unfelt earthquake, back in your cold room in the unknown town, something will wake you. A tremor within. You will search for pencil, paper, light. By morning you will have a poem to keep you company in the metro, in the streets, on the road home.