Monday, December 17, 2007

Plate tectonics

I spent hours of my eighth grade life sticking multicolored dots to a placemat. This was, surprisingly, not my idea. Our science teacher was eager to impart her passion for all things geological, and it had occurred to her that making us plot the locations of recent seismic activity on laminated world maps was a good way to do it.

Over the course of the school year, our maps filled up with miniature circles that pinpointed the places where the earth was grumbling. Most of the dots were blue, green or yellow, indicating mainly benign tremors that never made it to great heights on the Richter scale. The less frequent orange and red dots represented quakes that broke into the higher ranges of the scale and usually achieved fleeting celebrity status on CNN. The sinister black dots, which I don´t think we ever used, denoted apocalyptic catastrophe.

The idea, of course, was that we would eventually come to the realization that the dots were not scattered with the randomness of multicolored acne. There was, alas, a system to it all, one that had to do with volcanoes, Pangea and underwater mountain ranges. When I was 13, pondering the grand movements of the earth gave me the same slightly terrifying chills that I think people see the Hostel movies for.

As my spotted placemat demonstrated, one of the places where the earth does a lot of moving is the western edge of South America. This is a region where continental plates bump shoulders, and it shows in the sixth sense many Chileans seem to have developed for twitches underfoot. I, on the other hand, rarely sense the tremors that everyone else claims to have felt.

This was not the case today, however. At about 6:30 this morning, I awoke to a shaking bed. Being as I was in a state of syrupy semi-consciousness, this did not strike me as particularly worrying. After going along with the bumpy ride for several moments, I fell back asleep and proceeded to dream that I had some shampoo that smelled really, really good. When I finally took a definitive leap into wakefulness a few hours later, my roommate confirmed that the ground had, in fact, shaken. Pretty much every Santiaguino I talked to today had also been woken up by the tremor.

The earth has been shivering a lot in Chile since a powerful earthquake devastated an already struggling northern region in November. As if the massive destruction caused by the first quake weren´t enough, the affected areas have been flagellated with a steady stream of aftershocks, some of which have been felt in Santiago. Here in the capital, their effects have been of a purely blue-dot variety.

The last time Santiago was crowned with a red dot was in 1985. One of my students remembers being in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso--close to the epicenter of the earthquake--at the time and seeing the pavement split in two and the glass facade of a hotel shatter. The amount of time that has passed since then is disconcerting for many Santiaguinos, who say that the next big quake is long overdue.

It was already long overdue about three years ago, when Santiago spent a week in the talons of one of the most contagious urban legends I´ve ever heard. The earthquake, it was said, was coming...on Saturday. The experts knew it. So did my host sister, who suggested we all wax our legs. When Saturday came and went disaster-free, a few pairs of smooth legs were all the imaginary earthquake had to show for itself.

So, Santiago continues to wait. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to visit this beautiful land of snow-capped mountains, pristine forests and massage beds that vibrate without you even having to pop a quarter into a slot.

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