Mexico After the Quake
The first sign I noticed was the cutlery rattling on the table. I was in a shopping centre in the south of Mexico City, about to sit down for lunch, when the earthquake struck. Before I knew what was happening, shoppers were falling over each other as they raced frantically down the escalators, their terrified screams puncturing the calm I had felt until that moment. As I walked, and then ran, toward the exit door, an elderly woman was being escorted out by her two sons.
“Not again,” she wept. “Please God, not again.” She would have been a young mother when the last big earthquake hit the city on the very same day in 1985, killing 10,000 people and wiping out entire neighbourhoods.
Apart from a couple of broken windows, the mall was fine. As soon as I had contacted friends and family, I began the long walk back to my apartment. Gradually, the full extent of what had just happened became apparent. People sat on the pavement in shocked embraces as ambulances and fire trucks sped past. Debris littered the roads; one entire wall of an apartment block had collapsed, revealing dozens of shattered homes. The air was full of dust and smoke, and people were warned not to light any cigarettes — there were gas leaks all over.
I live on the second floor of a relatively new five story building. When I arrived, it looked unharmed from the outside. I wanted to change out of my suit and grab some food and water.
“Its OK, you can go in,” I was told by the neighbours gathered outside. “But don’t stay long. Its badly damaged and we don’t know how safe it is yet.”
They weren’t kidding. As I squeezed into the apartment — a bookcase had keeled over, blocking the door — I saw a huge crack across one of the walls. Massive chunks of plaster had crashed down all around; pictures lay scattered across the floor; a mirror had smashed into a million pieces. Treading lightly, I quickly threw on some clothes, shoved some biscuits into a ruksak, and headed out on foot — along with thousands of others — across the city to be with friends and family.
The reaction of the people blew me away. Minutes after the shaking had subsided, the electricity lines went out across the city and dozens of ununiformed volunteers took it upon themselves to act as traffic wardens, directing cars with shouts and hand gestures like seasoned professionals. Those vehicles with spare seats became impromptu taxis, calling their destination into the crowd of pedestrians, doing their bit to bring order to the chaos.
Later, thousands flocked to the sites of collapsed buildings, determined to help in whatever way they could in the desperate search for survivors. Most waited patiently for several hours before it was their turn to pick through the rubble, and many were turned away on arrival, told simply that there were too many helpers. The rescue teams and volunteers were kept fed and watered by nearby street vendors, offering free tacos and tortas. In a country that almost unanimously distrusts its government, people felt sure that if they did not help, no-one would.
A week has now passed, but many remain in shock. The slightest wobble caused by a strong gust of wind sends people sprinting to the exit doors. Thousands have been forced to move out of their home following safety checks; the lucky ones are staying in hotels, others in tents pitched on the side of the road. Many, including my suegra have packed their bags and left the city altogether.
This reaction is understandable. Those who lived through the 1985 quake naturally feel that their luck will surely run out the third time around, and anther quake is — sadly — highly possible in a city renowned for its vulnerability to such disasters. Not only does Mexico lie atop three fault lines, but its capital was built on a series of dried-out lakes, making for weak foundations and uneven surfaces. Italy’s tower of Pisa pales in comparison to Mexico City’s web of jenga-like colonial buildings in the centro historico.
Shocked and saddened though I am, I will not be leaving. I arrived in this city two years ago and I love it too much to abandon it now. My Saturday morning strolls through the leafy Escandon district will not be any less enjoyable because of what has happened. The family-run taco stand on the corner of my street, into its third generation, will continue to fill my belly with spicy goodness in my hour of need (which usually comes late on a Friday night). The masked luchadores (wrestlers) will still entertain me with their unique mix of fighting skills and comic timing amid the crumbling charm of the Arena Mexico.
When the Spanish conquistadores first arrived at what is now Mexico City, they were blown away by the beauty of a city built on lakes and surrounded by volcanoes. Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote in his diary, “It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.”
While much of that beauty is now often clouded by pollution, and most of the canals destroyed, there is still a unique appeal to this city that continues to draw me in. Its heartbeat is provided by the 20 million people that live here, whose spirit is exemplified by the solidarity and strength shown in the wake of this latest disaster. Riding in one of the makeshift taxis in the hours following quake last week, a fellow passenger commented: “Lets just cut our losses. From next year, we should remove 19th September from the calendar,” he said chuckling.
Whatever is happening in Mexico, there is always time for laughter.