Not an account of a football day unfortunately, nor a sports related story.
Well, it started at 3 am actually. Not by choice – mind you – but by the grace of an enthusiastic bird who crashed into my room’s window with such force in made me jump awake. Literally.
Normally I would not have been that light asleep – or tense – had it not been for the earthquake that hit Ecuador during the weekend. Let us get it straight, where I live the quake hit a couple of overpasses –some very old ones – more than anything else. The epicenter was north of this keyboard by about 400 kms, right on the coast. This area has some smaller towns and cities which I would come to thank – in some strange way – later.
I do have to thank that bird though. I don’t know what her fate was but at least I didn’t have to resort to the alarm clock, set at 4 am that morning (not by choice either). The thing is I was supposed to show up at 5:30 am at a nearby Civic Force Center where a convoy of around 35 trucks were fully packed and ready to go; from the previous night. The idea was to drive all these vehicles (filled with donations from multiple sources but mainly regular folks) and reach a beach resort which saw one of the heaviest damages on the earthquake. The size of the convoy meant the three hour drive would turn into a five hour one and we were eager to get there soonest: reports of slow reaching donations were mounting – this was Tuesday; earthquake hit Saturday. When I got there my uneasiness felt a little better: 35 trucks parked on the sideway with the biggest mother*cking 40 feet container I’ve ever seen gave me a bit of hope on the enterprise.
Both the Civic Force people and the firefighters were trying to discuss how to distribute the load, the drivers were trying to find a second breakfast, some VIPs were giving out interviews while I, totally inconsequential at this point, was looking for . . . coffee!
The long drive – exactly five hours as predicted – took us through some heavy hit highways. Amazingly enough no bridges, not even the ones close to the epicenter, were damaged. I was worried about the 40 feet container (whose owner – a very generous Colombian business woman – put on my watch) and the big’n’heavy water tanker making it through the broken roads. The earth underneath the asphalt looked so weak I feared the weight would make the last lanes open collapse. They made it through with no issues.
By the time we reached Bahía we drove through the bayside entrance and noticed little or no damage. This area is filled with single story houses and stores. We reached the first checkpoint of the area which by now was under military control. No people or regular traffic was allowed into the city’s center due to the collapsed buildings, cut power lines and such dangers.
The locals in charge greeted us at the main park: A firefighter chief, a congressman, a local political organizer and some visiting city mayor among other people started to discuss how to best distribute the convoy. We, and by that I mean I, a dude and the Civic Force First Lieutenant (close friend as well) were tasked to the city’s center main ‘centro de acopio’ (Spanish for materials gathering center). Bahia’s local stadium was already being service by other task forces and we sent ‘my’ 40 foot container to a nearby – albeit dangerous – town. I started biting my nails before concentrating on our task which was to cross the city center and reach our Centro de Acopio, an improvised warehouse set up at the City Center Church. Then it hit us. The damage was little or none on the small houses but on these two to four story high governmental, residential and office buildings which composed the heart of this town. The city was gone. None could live or work in this forty blocks area; it was largely evacuated and this literally was now a ghost town.
By now the local power company was trying to restore the heavily damaged power lines (power was cut) and cel phone signals funny enough were active but didn’t work – on any carrier. I regretted having drank so much coffee on the way over as I started to imagine that 40 foot container truck on a river, on the bottom of a mountain cliff, stolen or otherwise lost or disappeared.
We drove through around eight blocks of houses. I was taking shots of buildings between traffic stops, hoping these building facades didn’t fall on us in the process. By the time we reached the Church a small squad of volunteers were ready to start unloading our trucks. The church wasn’t big but had some rooms next to it where donations were being stored.
We set up, I started walking. The first thing I saw were the families of all these buildings camping on the adjacent park and the sheer amount of damage was overwhelming. At one point I was standing next to an apparently new, white single story building. It looked so much less damaged and so much was the contrast between this building and the rest of the damaged houses I thought ‘so what’s wrong with this one?’ Then it struck me: People don’t build balconies at street level. The building’s bottom floor had collapsed and I was standing next to what had been its first floor. Somewhere underneath lay the building’s lobby.
On my walk back I saw a handful of firefighters on the floor slowly removing pieces of rubble from underneath what must have been a five story building’s roof. I asked him if they were looking for people under the shattered concrete. He said: “Yes, but not alive.”
We unloaded our trucks. Medicines first, water, mattresses and canned food second, improvised surviving kits third. Then our last truck pulled up. The cargo? Coffins. Emergency coffins. The sort of assemble yourself type. Someone cracked a joke but I didn’t really see the funny part. I was also too tired to mount a forum like argument so I just paid no attention.
We kissed, hugged, took pictures and left. On my way over I started thinking about the people being buried in those plain emergency white coffins and the volunteers who stayed there for days distributing those donations.
By the time I got home I learned this government – who had wasted so much money in fancy projects like stadiums and airports in the middle of nowhere – had raised taxes heavily again this time to help pay for the damage.
It was around 8 pm. Not really late; but for some reason it just felt like one of the longest days ever. And I even had a roof under which to sleep.
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