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Earthquakes, Dictators and The Pacific Rim!

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

My youngest daughter, Helen, informs me that I am in the earthquake capital of the world. Chile, she tells me, recorded the biggest ever earthquake in history, a 9.5 on the Richter Scale which only goes up to 10. She says it with the swagger of someone who is studying a BSc in Geography. I look it up on the internet and find it was just down the road in 1960.

I remember one in Chile in 2010 and, thinking back, pictures on BBC World News of the devastation featured housing just like that of Valparaíso.

One evening, I pop in to the the kitchen to make a coffee. When I return, Heathero tells me I’ve missed an earthquake. I give her a sceptical look and tell her it was probably next door moving their furniture. ‘No’, she says emphatically, ‘my chair shook, the pot plant shook and look at the pictures, they’ve moved.’ I do look at the pictures but I also notice the large glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc in her hand and wonder if that shook.

Mind you, I have to eat my words because I look it up on the internet and there it is, a 3.2 on the Richter Scale. It’s one of the smaller ones of the day in Chile! I debate whether to come clean and let Heather know I’ve looked it up, having insinuated she has had too much to drink and imagined it but I send it to her. She’s delighted. I think it’s the first time the earth has move for her! I feel rather jealous. Mind you, I have experienced an earthquake. Where? Japan? New Zealand? California? No, Market Rasen in Lincolnshire. I kid you not! A 5.2 on the Richter Scale; once in a decade event for the U.K. It even brought down a few chimneys! I was staying in a hotel and was on my own. It was the early hours of the morning and I was woken by a loud rattling of the door. I thought someone was trying to get in to my room and being on my own, it was pretty scary. I checked I’d locked my door and eventually fell back to sleep. It wasn’t until the next day that I woke up to find it wasn’t a mad axe man but an earthquake as it was all over the news. Don’t tell Chile because I think that they’d have a right laugh that a 5.2 on the Richter Scale makes it on to our news but it was the biggest for 25 years. Not 25 minutes as in Chile.

I have always had a nagging feeling that experiencing an earthquake in the U.K. is not the real deal but I don’t have to worry now because two days after Heather’s earthquake, I experience my own. And it is bigger! Not that I’m competitive, of course! Heather has popped to the kitchen so doesn’t feel it but Ximena sends me a message to ask if we felt the earthquake.

Unbelievably, this earthquake is also 5.2 on the Richter Scale, the same as the Market Rasen earthquake! Come on Chile, you’re supposed to be a world leader in earthquake drama and you can’t even beat Market Rasen in Lincolnshire!

Ximena grew up in Chile and although she left Chile and went in to exile in 1976, she has lots of earthquake stories. Her grandmother used to tell her about an earthquake in 1916 during which her mother had to put her between her legs to shield her from falling debris. As a child Ximena remembers being in the garden during an earthquake and watching the ground open and close. Most dramatic was when she had a baby and there was an earthquake. Her neighbour had to smash a window to get her and the baby out and a wall collapsed where they had been sitting shortly before.

I check the doorways at our apartment which are supposed to be the best place to shelter during an earthquake. Unfortunately, like everything else in the place, they look as if they are about to collapse even without the help of an earthquake.

We watch the excellent film “The Impossible’ about the 2004 tsunami. Not a good idea in an area where there are tsunami warning signs all over the place. Helen warns to ‘run like hell’ if the sea goes out a long way. She hasn’t seen how steep the hills are around here!

I have new security arrangements. I now have two money belts, one that I keep under my t-shirt and inside my trousers and one with some money in it to give to the next bastard who holds me up at gunpoint that is visible. It is hard because I still have to take my phone out to take photos but I try to be very mindful of who is around.

We have been walking along the Pacific Coast which is a cornucopia of beautiful views and interesting wildlife. Going north we walk along a sand spit with a backdrop all the way to the high Andes. A dog barks urgently at us so we buy it dog food and it joins us for our stroll along the beach. Once it has filled its belly it becomes playful and wants us to toss pebbles for it to catch. The trouble is, it refuses to drop the first pebble so it just runs after any subsequent ones thrown for it. Obviously, a dog with special needs!

Further north is much more like posh Pucón than gritty Valparaíso but it lacks character and could be the Costa del Sol or the Gold Coast. Mind you, one jewel in the crown that developers haven’t got their hands on is the Concon Sand Dunes Reserve which is a stunning area of natural beauty. Heather and I get the bus up there and go for a wander in the dunes. It’s like being in the Sahara Desert and the views from the top of the dunes over the coastal mountains and Bay of Valparaíso are breath taking.

The South American sea lions rules around here. You can see them fishing near the coast and on the rocks where family groups are ruled by a gang master who you mess with at your peril. They share the rocks with Peruvian boobys, terns and gulls. Peruvian pelicans fly along the coast like large cargo planes. The bird life around here is on speed and has me reaching for binoculars on a regular basis.

Out in the bay there are various oil tankers parked up and we often see cargo ships making their way out to sea. Most notable is the super yacht that is owned by a Russian billionaire. According to Ximena and Otto, the oligarch was travelling further south in Patagonia when the virus hit. He is long gone but his yacht, a crew of 30 and his helicopter still sit in the bay.

One day, Heather and I are in town when we hear loud bangs coming from the port. The explosions create lots of smoke and the boats start to sound their horns. In the dystopian world of Covid 19 we assume it must be the start of Armageddon but research on the internet later tells us that it is Navy Day and a commemoration of the War of the Pacific.

The 1970s plumbing under the sink falls apart. The apartments were built in the 1980s but I think ours must have been fitted out with 1970s fixtures and fittings. David next door has a look at it for us and we don’t need to speak the same language to know he’s thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding! They rent a property in this condition?”. He and Ximena get on the local WhatsApp Group and it is not long before a guy, who seems to know what he is doing, turns up. He takes one look and again, you don’t need to know the Spanish for “It’s fucked!” to know the verdict. It takes a day before it is patched up with a new part and a cable tie. They need Roy who refurbished my kitchen a few years ago to pop over. In fact the kitchen we chucked out would be a big improvement! Come to think of it, the kitchen my Mum and Dad chucked out in the 1980s would be a big improvement.

Mind you, I can’t complain too much. I’m paying £125 in rent for a month and that includes satellite t.v.! You can barely get a double room at the Holiday Inn, Basildon for a night for that! Yes, I know, you wouldn’t really put the word ‘Holiday’ and ‘Basildon’ together. It’s mainly business people who stay there.

Teri, a friend from my road at home, puts me in touch with her friend who lives in Renaca, just around the bay. She is a fellow teacher. Unfortunately, Lesley has coronavirus symptoms so we can’t meet but she is very helpful and puts me in touch with the local consulate. When she hears about the robbery at gun point she tells me I was lucky and right to hand over valuables. In November, a Canadian man who was a photographer for National Geographic was held up at gunpoint. He refused to hand over his camera and was shot dead.

I am now giving to the many buskers and people who find creative ways to make a bob or two on a very regular basis. I appreciate the fact that they are making an effort to make an honest living rather than hold me up at gunpoint. There are jugglers, acrobats and musicians at every junction to entertain people in cars and on buses. Some direct traffic or mend pot holes for tips. I am on a bus and a man gets on in full protective gear and disinfects the bus. I assume this is a measure put in place by the bus company but then realise he is collecting tips from the passengers. Finally, there are the ubiquitous street sellers who sell snacks, drinks, sewing equipment, plasters, you name it, from boxes on the street and on the buses. One man who monitors buses for tips helps me find the right bus and proudly tells me he is from the Mapuche tribe, Chile’s largest and most prominent Native American Tribe.

I’ve branched out from the wonderful local fish. I buy three live crabs for a quid which move around in a bag on the way up the hill. Heather advises me to put them in the freezer to “finish them off.” I do worry about her sometimes because she seems to know how best to bump someone off and dispose of a dead body. Any kind of violence on television elicits an animated response! If my next blog is never published, please contact the authorities! I hardly know the woman!

A few days later, I am walking along the coastal route and pause to watch a man with a long bamboo pole catching crabs in rock pools. I now know where my next meal comes from.

I also buy squid which is delicious and sea squirts which are a local delicacy but not something I wish to repeat! Mind you, anything tastes good when washed down with a glass of Chilean wine which is far too good, far too cheap and comes in bottles that are far too big to allow me to conform to those bloody government guideline on units.

Ximena tells us about a very poignant memorial on Avenida Brazil which is a wide boulevard with statues and monuments right down the length of it. It was the focus for the October 2019 riots when Chileans rioted over rising transport costs, pensions and a the general state of the economy. This means they are all covered in paint and graffiti. Heather and I decide to walk the length of Avenida Brazil to look at the monuments in more detail. It is towards the end that we find not only down and outs living rough but also the memorial we’d particularly come to see, ‘The Memorial to the detained, disappeared and executed political dissidents of the military dictatorship, 11th September 1973 to 10th March 1990, from the Valparaíso Region’. What is particularly moving is that Ximena’s uncle is one of the many names on the memorial. Fernando Alfredo Navarro Allendes was a member of the Communist Party who spoke out against the Military Dictatorship of Pinochet which led to him being murdered on the 13th December, 1976. For many years the family did not know what had happened to him but in the mid eighties, a mass grave was uncovered on the old road to Santiago. Many bodies were exhumed and a hand of Ximena’s uncle was found. Ximena cries as she tells us the story. As someone who takes democracy and liberty for granted, I feel as if I can learn much from this brave woman who was forced to flee a country that she loves and hates at the same time at the tender age of 26 years old, after qualifying as a lawyer. It is clear that in Brussels where she now lives, she is a champion for refugees and the dispossessed where she volunteers in a soup kitchen, having retired but she is a great loss to Chile which to this day struggles to call itself a democracy.

Heather and I are managing to rub along together very well under the circumstances. We have much in common and both like walking. She has a great sense of humour and is kind and caring. Mind you, I fear she wouldn’t say the same about me. When Lesley, who lives nearby, kindly puts me in touch with the British Consulate in Valparaiso I tell her I’m going to ring Iain who has offered advice on renewing our visa. She tells me to be nice to him. I’m at a lost as to why she would think I would be anything but nice to someone who is kindly offering to do us a favour. Mind you, her philosophy is be nice to everyone and you will get what you want. I think we must live in a parallel universe because in my world being ‘nice’ is normally an excuse to fob you off.

As she is early to bed and early to rise and I am totally opposite she has some private space on the early shift and me on the late shift. I often hear Heather cleaning in the morning as I wake up. She has given the apartment a deep clean. I do think about getting up to help but end up turning over and going back to sleep! Far too early for me. I do, however, give the apartment a sweep just before going to bed every night to show willing!

Heather has been tending to the apartment garden. I say garden. It looked like a patch of dirt with weeds when we arrived but now she has cleared out the weeds and buys plants on a regular basis. She also goes round nicking plants from other gardens! I have to give her credit as she’s done a grand job but I am a bit worried about how long she thinks we are going to be stuck here!

I find out that nearby Viña del Mar has its very own Easter Island Statue and it is standing outside the Fonck Museum so can be seen even when the museum is closed. Easter Island is part of Chile so it is a gift. I read that it is one of only five not on Easter Island. One is, of course, in The British Museum. I love the British Museum and feel as if it is my spiritual home but I do find the fact that many of its artefacts were acquired under dubious circumstances unsettling and its Easter Island Statue is no exception. It was taken from Orongo, Easter Island in November 1868 by the crew of the British ship HMS Topaze, and arrived in England in August 1869, where it was given as a gift to Queen Victoria. They just tossed it on the back of the boat and off they went. As you do!

When I mentioned Christine says she is moving out because of OCD in my last blog, a friend gets in touch to tell me the harrowing story of her son who suffers from OCD. I agree with her that I will relay her story as so many of my friends work in education so would value the opportunity to learn more about the condition. I guess we come across it but it is easy for it to get lost in the plethora of other conditions we have to support young people with:

I hope you don't me messaging you, but I have a need now to try and educate people about OCD. So many people refer to OCD as if it is a cleaning thing and an order thing. It isn't - it’s a horrible, horrible illness which manifests itself in so many ways. My son has OCD. In his case, until he was given Sertraline at the age of 14, he had to do things until they felt "just right". So he had to turn, for example, a light switch on and off 128 times, pump the soap bottle 64 times, take 32 individual bits of toilet paper, look under the bed 32 times before he could lie flat in his bed, turn his phone on and off 64 times every time he turned it off. I am not exaggerating. Going in and out of a room could sometimes take 20 minutes because he had to tap with his feet a certain number of times and in a certain pattern. His night time rituals started about 7pm and would finish at 1 am. The sertraline is helping but it still flairs up. Sometimes at school, if he brushed against a surface he couldn't concentrate until he had been back and brushed against the surface again with the other side of his body - so if it was a coat, for example, he had to follow the person even if it was in the wrong direction to where he wanted to go. He would be in tears at night because he said he couldn't bear this for the rest of his life. And he could eat and drink and still go to school - some people can't even get dressed in the morning. One 15 year old boy would take all day to eat a croissant and a glass of orange juice- he wasn't anorexic , he just had so many rituals to perform. At something like 38 kilos he was hospitalized......I had no idea how horrible OCD was until my son’s was triggered. It was like watching a robot when, for example, he had to look at all four corners of a mirror, up, down, left, right, 16 times each. The number thing is another aspect for him - it has morphed a bit - used to be 2,4,8,16,32,64,108. Now its not being able to do things if it is combinations of 9 and 11. You would not believe how many times that can happen. 8.45pm in 24 hour clock is..... 20.45 which if you add up the numbers make 11, plus the 4 and the 5 make 9. So he can't bear that time. It is so debilitating. Hope you don't mind, I just feel more people I can educate about it the better for people with OCD it will be- and the more chance that people with it will be spotted sooner and helped.

I spend a few weeks eyeing everyone who looks vaguely like the robber suspiciously but as always, time is a great healer and I don’t want this incident to taint my growing love of Chile and its people, 99.9% of whom are lovely.

Louise, a friend who lives in Senegal gets in touch to let me know that she was mugged there last year. She said she it was her instinct to resist but they still took everything.

The reaction of friends to me coming close to being shot dead on the streets of Valparaíso is “Come home now!” Friends Gemma and Jemma who have, provocatively, set up the ‘Jayne’s Holiday’ WhatsApp Group and refuse to change the title to ‘Jayne’s Adventure Travel’ send a message saying, “You’ve made your point now, Jayne! Time to come home. Spain is opening up to tourists so you can book you and Rich in to a nice all inclusive!”

I take all that I said about the British Embassy back. They have organised a repatriation flight. Heather says the Australian Embassy have packed up and gone home. They are probably enjoying a few stubbies on Bondi Beach as we speak but the good old British Embassy have come good and are prepared to whisk me home via Quito in Ecuador for the princely sum of £800, double pre-Covid prices. Did I decide to go? Well you’ll have to read the next blog for the answer to that one!

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