Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Lines of thought

When I started this blog about a month ago I was going to India for my summer hols. Then my pal got scared off by the monsoons and we hit on Bali. A couple of weeks ago there was an earthquake in Jakarta and that idea got put on hold too. I never used to be scared.

Ten years ago as I prepared to leave England and I was finally allowed to let people know I was leaving I remember more clearly than anything that one of my students told me that he knew exactly when I was got my new job. “You left early one day and the next day you came back and you were happy.” After that there would be spontaneous Spanish lessons and geography lessons got more exciting than studying rivers. “Miss, look at this page.” Another kid waved an atlas under my nose. “What’s this?” I enquired. “It’s earthquake and volcanic zones.” Both fault lines and volcanoes converged on Mexico City. I don’t remember feeling anything about it other than resigned. I had decided I wanted to go to South America and the whole of South America seemed to be one gigantic fault and volcano. Anyway what were the chances of another earthquake like ’85?

On arrival in Mexico I discovered two things, firstly it was in North America and secondly no one was laid back about earthquakes. Not even a week after arrival we had our first earthquake drill. Ninety seconds; the epicentre starts in Acapulco and it would take ninety seconds to reach Mexico City, that’s how long you had to get out the building. If we did it Antonio the PE coach would praise us and tell us how we would be safe, if we were two seconds over he would get out pictures of a school in the north where the top floor had collapsed onto the ground floor killing hundreds. He wasn’t the only one who instilled in me the need to get out of the building quickly. For Los Reyes we went to Carlos’ house for Rosca de Reyes, like a giant sickly sweet doughnut where if you were lucky you would pull out the little plaster Jesus in his cradle. In the middle of his lounge was the hugest stone sphere you had ever seen in a home. Why he wanted it, we couldn’t fathom, neither could he. He had just driven past it one day and decided he wanted it. It had taken four men to carry it up to his apartment, but during the ’85 quake it had rolled from side to side of the apartment. Ignacio had found it quite amusing balancing his huge six foot plus frame against the earthquake watching his dog sliding across the kitchen floor desperately trying to get some purchase on the tiled floor; that was until he realised that the city was crumbling around him. Andres had seen the city fall around him, he had been on his way to school and when he got there it was a ruined mass of rubble. He was amongst the first to start helping the rescue effort. At fifteen he had pulled many of his classmates out of the wreckage. Eleven years later he was sensitive to the smallest tremor and would wake up in the middle of the night and scream at everyone to get out the building.

I learnt that it was not something to be nonchalant about, but it didn’t scare me, not yet. Perversely there was a part of me that wanted to feel what an earthquake was like, wanted to know what it would be like if the volcano Popocatepetl blew. It gave off a tremendous puff one evening and coated the city in grey ash. All around the base of the huge volcano emergency plans sprang into action. The small buses called peseros would ferry inhabitants to the nearest safe zone, while peseros from the north of the city would ferry out supplies.

It was History Day. The whole of the school, plus scores of parents had converged on the smaller secondary site of the school. There were re-enactments of the Spanish Conquest, and some hilarious word for word scenes of Star Wars when they thought no one was watching. There were quizzes and historical games. It was a perfect sunny day and I wandered aimlessly from room to room. At the end of all these festivities we were going to shave Elizabeth’s hair off for charity and the money would go to a children’s home in the north of the city. And then Ian turned up in my path. “There’s going to be an earthquake drill in ten minutes.”

“You have got to be joking.” I laughed a huge grin on my face.

“No, seriously round up as many kids as possible, there is going to be an earthquake drill in ten minutes.”

“Whose bloody stupid idea is it to have an earthquake drill today? There are well over a thousand people here and...” Ian grabbed my wrist and shook me.

“A volcanologist has his nephew here. He phoned up and said that there is 99.9% chance that Popocatepetl is going to blow. When it does it will cause an earthquake bigger than ’85. We don’t have 90 seconds we have to get all the kids out now.”

“You’re not joking are you?” The grin was frozen on my terrified face.

“No.” And he went on his way and I began to shake like a leaf. For about three of the ten minutes I quailed in a corner until Susie my co-teacher found me and asked me what was wrong. I almost burst into tears telling her. “I don’t even know where all the fucking kids are. There are just too many people about.”

A few minutes later Danny came and grabbed me. “We’re going to start on Elizabeth’s head shave now, get on the microphone and announce it, that’ll get everyone in the right place for when the drill goes off.”

Now that I had a purpose I managed to pull a relatively calm face and I pushed, cajoled and just physically pulled as many kids as possible along with me as I headed to the microphone. I don’t wear a watch, but I knew as I began the preamble for the head shave that the alarm should be going off any second now. As I looked out over the sea of heads I knew that we had somehow got everyone to safety and a real smile crossed my face. Whatever happened now we were all together and hopefully if we didn’t choke to death we’d be alright. Elizabeth’s ginger locks fell to the floor without incident and the 0.1% chance smiled on us. Popocatepetl didn’t blow, we weren’t covered in ash and there was no earthquake and I no longer wanted to know what it was like. We had prevented a panic and we had saved the day, and that was plenty enough experience for me.


skint writer said...

Life is full of dangers, real and imaginary; and full of things to be afraid of, most of which are in our heads.

Riveting piece.

Minx said...

I feel that I want know more about your time in South America, there is passion in your words.


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