The Balcony On BarrosoMarch 6, 2010
By the time I’d Greyhounded, hiked and chicken-bussed my way to Santiago, my backpack was down to about half-full. The few belongings I’d started the two-month journey with had since dwindled to a couple of T-shirts, a pair of jeans, some horribly ugly basketball shoes and a handful of books.
The upside was easy mobility: first from a hostel to a friend’s flat, and then, about a week later, to the place on Almirante Barroso, in Santiago’s Barrio Brasil. It wasn’t much, just a room, albeit a large one, in one of the neighborhood’s few remaining fin-de-siecle mansions. Elegant beyond imagination in the Santiago of yesteryear, most of the spacious, century-old residences with their impossibly high ceilings are now half-decayed rooming houses.
My neighbors were mostly immigrants – Colombians and Peruvians sleeping several to a room. The rent was affordable: about 140 dollars a month. Most of all I liked the balcony: a small, half-crescent protrusion with just enough room for me to sit cross-legged with a liter of Escudo and spy on the passersby who more often than not crossed themselves when they encountered the large statue of Jesus directly in front.
I imagined for a moment that like the four or five Colombian girls staying in the adjacent room, taking shifts in the three beds I spied once though their open door, I too was an immigrant. It hurt my feelings when the cheap mirror I’d bought the first week and decided to “donate” to the communal bathroom disappeared after 24 hours. Hadn’t I too voyaged long and far toward an uncertain fate?
Americans, though, tend to be “ex-pats,” not immigrants – a distinction I’d temporarily overlooked. While I enjoyed those nights on the balcony, with its delicate ironwork, listening to the radio and feasting on avocado and tomato sandwiches, I knew I wouldn’t stay there long.
I soon found a job, bought a few button-down shirts and a used sports jacket, and moved uptown – to the gentrified Bellas Artes sector. The nearby cafes bubble with the babble of as much English and French as Spanish. My friends and neighbors are mostly ex-pats, like myself. Last year I met a lovely Parisian woman. Two weeks ago we moved to my nicest flat yet, a two-bedroom 60s-vintage apartment with parquet floors and lots of windows. We’re happy here.
On Saturday night I felt the bed shaking and woke with a start. I waited for the tremor to subside. It didn’t. The vibrations turned violent. “Emmanuelle,” I said, still calm, “wake up, we’re having an earthquake.” It wouldn’t stop. The vicious surges lurched back and forth, hitting a crescendo accompanied by the jarring cacophony of breaking glass and ceramic. A neighbor screamed. There was a “pop” and what little electric light had been filtering into the room was now gone. I dug my fingers into Emmanuelle’s arms, tried to smother her with my body. The ship was sinking.
And then it stopped.
A powerful aftershock woke us again sometime after 7. We’d slept about an hour. This time we remembered our earthquake lessons and hid under the doorframe. A second later the phone rang – a newspaper from London wanting “color,” “quotes,” maybe a quick piece on relief efforts.
It wasn’t until Sunday evening that I finally took a break. We made a homemade pizza, opened a bottle of wine, and, for the first time, talked about what happened. “Most of the dead people they’re finding were in their beds,” said Emmanuelle.
All those years in California. Hadn’t they told me a million times about the doorframe? Instead I’d just held on and waited.
One of the newspapers needed photos, so on Monday I took the metro to Barrio Brasil, to the Basilica del Salvador, which I’d heard hadn’t fared well. Piles of dust and brick lined the side of the old church, blocking the street off entirely. “It was like rain,” said a neighbor, still in shock.
Debris had also fallen from the buildings just opposite. Across from the Basilica’s still intact Jesus statute was a massive pile of brick and broken cement. I looked up to see a man tossing chunks of plaster out of a gaping hole in the second story wall. “You should see that room,” a young volunteer involved in the cleanup told me. “Se cayó el techo completamente – the whole ceiling fell in.”
Gone too was my balcony on Barroso.