Saturday, February 27, 2010

Shaken...and stirred.

What, another earthquake?

Like many people, my initial reaction to the magnitude 8.8 quake that hit Chile was one of utter disbelief. The global consciousness is still trying to grapple with the one that hit Haiti and the tragic consequences.

I saw some of the initial footage when I turned on the TV at seven this morning. I was catching a train to New York and wanted to check quickly, before heading out of the house, if the snow storm of the last two days had abated.

It was only when I was settled in the 'quiet car' (I always sit in the 'quiet car' because over the years I've grown tired of eavesdropping on others' cell phone conversations) of the Acela Express two hours later, and the train was pulling out of Union Station, that I was able to catch my breath...and react.

I spent the next half an hour trying to get in touch with a friend and classmate from Georgetown. ML had just completed the master's program and returned home to Chile. We were going to say goodbye over drinks before she left. But in the end, both of us, still dealing with the aftermath of Snowpocalypse II in the DC suburbs in MD, didn't make it to the event.

I sent her a DM on Twitter, but saw that her last tweet was posted on Feb 1. Under different circumstances I would be glad to know that I wasn't the only one getting a little tired of tweeting constantly. What had started as a novel 140-character exposition -- mostly of naval gazing thoughts, sometimes, of self-gratifying exhibitionism -- was quickly redefined when all the major news organizations jumped into the twitterverse. I began starting my day checking tweets from @cnnbrk, @bbcworld, @npr, @cbsnews, etc. I am more interested in following, than being followed.

So there I was sitting in a train on the northeastern corridor of the USA, trawling through tweets for updates in Chile.

Twitter had become the 'go-to' source whenever a major disaster hit. The first images out of Haiti were sent on Twitter. Last year, when the Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta were bombed, the news broke on Twitter, and I relied on Twitter for real time updates. Using both Twitter and Facebook, I was able to track down all my friends.

So to find ML, I then tried Facebook. As usual, the FB for Blackberry app was cranky. It took some extra long minutes (and breaths) before I could see her profile and status. She had updated her status to let all her friends know that she and her family were safe. What a relief. I then tried to send her a message. Fail. Fine, I will try to write on her wall. Fail. Finally, I gave up trying to resend repeatedly. I posted my message to her in my own status in the hope that she will see it.

She did. As my train was pulling out of Phily, I saw that she had written on my wall in response. She described sitting in her car at the traffic lights and wondering why it was shaking so much. At that moment, the feeling of horror came rushing back to me.

I had experienced this before. The shaking, that is. Twice. These were when I was living in Jakarta, Indonesia a couple of years ago. Both times, I was far from the epicenter of the quake. There were no major damage. No one got hurt. But I still felt the shaking.

The first time it happened, I was watching TV. It was just past midnight. I first noticed a rattling sound. It took a few seconds before I realized it was coming from the poster frames on the wall.

"It's an earthquake."

I barely said it before the room started spinning. I was on the 13th floor. I jumped up, intending to sprint to the sleeping kids. But for a few minutes, all I could do was sway along with the building. Then, it stopped. I grabbed the kids. Then, I did something stupid. I took the elevator down.

The second time it happened, I took the stairs down -- with one kid on each arm. This time I was better prepared. I even had an emergency backpack with water, torchlight, transistor radio, first aid kit, etc. It was the same rattling sound, only louder, and amplified with cracking sounds issuing from fissures deep in the walls. I couldn't see the cracks in my walls as some of my friends and neighbors did in theirs, but I could sure as hell visualize the walls tearing and ripping apart from those damn sounds.

And there was shaking too. A lot of shaking. One of my friends who lived at the same property but in a different apartment building told me, months later, that she still felt the shaking. She was in bed the first time it happened, and felt her whole bed shake. I wasn't surprised that she wasn't able to sleep well for some time after that. Another friend who lived in a house in a different part of the city said she couldn't really feel the ground shaking. But she felt nauseous and saw the water in her swimming pool shaking (rippling and sloshing) when she went outside.

As my train was pulling into Newark, it struck me that I had all but buried the shaky experiences. It took my friend's description of the shaking she felt to unearth my own memory of being shaken. Strangely, if not for Twitter and Facebook, I may well never recall those real time, personal moments.

Now that I've remembered, I don't feel so shaky anymore. My thoughts are with the people of Haiti and Chile. I feel thankful that the tsunami spared Hawaii, and hopeful that others will be spared too. I am also thankful that I could walk away from the shaking, a little stirred, but otherwise unscathed.

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