Thursday, March 25, 2010

Remembering Chile

A few Saturdays ago (February 27th to be exact), I woke up to terrifying news of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Chile. I immediately thought of my host family, whom I had lived with for six months while studying abroad in 1996. Then I remembered the frequent small quakes I experienced during those six months, which I eventually learned to ignore, because that's what you do when you live smack on top of a major fault line. Then I remembered the great earthquake in Chillan back in the 1930's. It destroyed the town of Chillan Viejo, killing 30,000 people. They eventually rebuilt the entire town of Chillan a few miles away. There are monuments and statues dedicated to those who lost their lives during that quake in the plaza near my family's home. But that was almost ancient history, right? It couldn't happen again...

And then I looked up where the epicenter of the quake had occurred. Maule. No more than 40 miles from Chillan and my beloved host family. 40 miles! This is when my real panic began. I woke up Ed in my tears, which soon escalated to sobbing hysteria. I had grown close to my host family and absolutely adored my host brothers: Alonso (age 15), Roberto (13), and John (9). They were my constant companions as I learned to navigate a new town and university speaking only limited Spanish. Each left me with a farewell greeting and a kiss on the cheek (customary, but nonetheless charming). They let me hang out with their friends and attend their parties, and they taught me all of the Chilean slang and customs I needed to know to survive the next six months with minimal gaffs and embarrassment (but I just have to tell you that when someone in Chile asks if you like to ski a might have a completely different meaning than you expect).

Their parents, Maria and Alonso, were good, hard-working Chileans. They had limited means but much hope for the future. Maria cared for their small home with pride. Alonso worked long hours at odd jobs to provide, traveling back and forth on an old ten-speed bike. Both sacrificed for their children's education and most all of the money they earned housing me went to pay for the boys' school fees. I was always embarrassed that I had my own room and the rest of the family shared a single room with two beds. I constantly invited them to share my room....but rules were rules. The university said I must be provided my own bedroom and they refused to break the terms of their agreement.

A couple hours of Telemundo later, I had calmed down a bit. There were relatively few deaths in the quake, nothing like the disaster in Haiti. I knew they were alive, but feared their house was destroyed. I wasn't sure of their financial situation. Would they be left homeless and destitute? I desperately wanted to talk with them. I had not spoken with them since shortly after Noe's birth. I was embarrassed that I had let so much time pass. On a lark, I looked up my brothers on Facebook. I couldn't believe it! I had not seen a single computer my entire six months in Chile. I had to travel downtown just to find a fax machine. And here were all three of my host brothers on Libro de Face!

In less than three days, I heard from all three of them. They were fine, their family home had been damaged, but not destroyed. Chile has a strong foundation, a country on the verge of 1st world status, and the earthquake proved this to me and the rest of the world. The country was well-prepared for this could have been so much worse. My brothers, who started their accounting classes in grade school using accounting ledgers from the 1950's, were all three college graduates, tech-savvy, fun-loving and good-hearted men. Alonso, the oldest, has a great job in Santiago with a large accounting firm. The other two work in accounting in their hometown of Chillan. When I lived in Chile, the country was only a few years removed from the Pinochet dictatorship, still on unsettled ground politically and economically (not to mention geographically). The past decade has been good to them, and I have no doubt that Chile will continue to thrive, in spite of this recent crisis.

We have a coin jar in our home with a Chilean flag glued to the front. Every night our loose change and bills goes into that jar to help the recovery effort. It is a small gesture, yet symbolic. A way to contribute. A way to remember my host family until we can visit them again. A way to introduce my children to this country and this people that changed my life forever.

1 comment:

Sara said...

This was beautiful. I had some panic at the beginning of this post, not certain how it was going to play out. I'm so glad that your beloved host family was alright.