The scariest danger of all

The Backpacker March 28, 2012

Firefighters inspect a building in downtown Santiago after the earthquake on Sunday.

Firefighters inspect a building in downtown Santiago after the earthquake on Sunday. Photo: AP

It started off as a gentle rumble, the kind you might feel if you were sitting at a roadside café and a semi-trailer drove past. Brrr-rrrr-rrrr.

A few seconds later, however, the building was still rumbling, only that gentle sway had turned into a serious shake, the kind that makes hanging lights swing and walls creak and groan. The power went out. The shaking increased.

It took another couple of moments for me to process what was going on: earthquake. The realisation was obviously setting in around me, too, as people started leaving their seats and doing whatever it is you do when an earthquake hits.

Me? I wasn't sure. I tried to call on all the earthquake safety knowledge in my possession as glass started smashing and people started panicking, but it turns out I have none.

Sprint for the exits? Dive under a chair? Stop, drop and roll? Run around in circles and scream?

All the experienced Chileans around me had starting making for the door arches, so I did the same, cowering in fear as Santiago airport rumbled and swayed around me.

There was an earthquake in Chile on Sunday. I was in it. You probably didn't hear about it, since no one died, and no buildings crashing spectacularly to the ground. That doesn't garner much coverage.

Still, it notched up 7.1 on the Richter scale, which is pretty darn severe by my standards. I've never been in an earthquake before, so I wasn't sure if those wobbles were going to suddenly get extremely serious, or if we were just going to get our shake on for a while.

Five hundred and twenty people died in Chile only two years ago after a massive earthquake, and don't think that didn't occur to me while the building shook and swayed around me. Bottles started falling off the duty free shop shelves, crashing to the ground. People had real fear in their eyes.

I was convinced I was staring death in the face. (Fortunately, it turned out death was off playing golf with the jihadists, or whatever it is he does on his days off.)

Years and years of travelling, and that's the first potential natural disaster I've ever been in. I've managed to avoid all sorts of landslides and tsunamis and hurricanes and floods. Sometimes by mere days. Finally, in Chile, I got a little taste of potential catastrophe. A glimpse at the abyss.

And I didn't enjoy it. I've secretly often wondered what it would be like to be in an earthquake, or to experience some sort of disaster – I've even speculated that it wouldn't be so bad to be stranded in the danger zone – but the reality is far less exhilarating, particularly in a foreign land.

The whole situation is completely out of your control. It's not a measured risk you've taken, or a predictable problem – it's sheer bad luck. Smart Traveller can issue all the warnings it wants about terrorists and bandits and gangsters overseas, but it can't protect you from the scariest villain of them all: Mother Nature.

Natural disaster can strike anywhere – from New Orleans to New Zealand – and you can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Are your chances of being affected by natural disaster increased by travelling? I wouldn't have thought so. Bad things happen in Australia, too. But dealing with the situation becomes a lot more fraught when you're far from home, when you don't speak the language and don't understand what's going on.

My natural disaster wasn't so disastrous after all – in fact the only loss being counted today would probably be the bottles of pisco that smashed on the tiled airport floor. But you don't know that when the earth starts shaking and everyone runs for the doors.

I spent that minute of earthquake cowering in an archway with one thought in my head: just get me home.

Have you been caught up in a natural disaster overseas? Or had a close shave of your own?

twitter Follow Ben Groundwater on Twitter @bengroundwater

Email: bengroundwater@gmail.com

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