Close call in Chile


I am the luckiest traveler
in the world.

Everywhere I go, I
narrowly miss catastrophe. Foreign governments would do well to study my future
travel plans and prepare for disaster accordingly.

In 2006, I spent three
weeks in Israel and left in the wee hours of the morning of June 25. Shortly
after I left, Hamas operatives stormed into Israel and captured
then-19-year-old Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and dragged him into Gaza,
sparking a vicious (and unsuccessful) Israeli rescue attempt. Two weeks later,
Hezbollah militants launched rockets into Israeli towns on the Lebanon-Israel
border and attacked two patrolling Humvees, killing three soldiers, injuring
two and capturing two more. Israel responded by moving aggressively into
Hezbollah-controlled lands, ravaging southern Lebanon and displacing hundreds
of thousands of Lebanese citizens. The fighting didn’t officially end until
Sept. 6 of that year.

But throughout all of
this, I was safe at home, dumbstruck at how I had narrowly missed being in the
middle of a war zone. I’d slept within eyesight of the Israel-Lebanon border
just weeks earlier. We’d drunk wine in a Kibbutz, not fully comprehending the
danger the unseen soldiers patrolling the nearby border were facing. It was
harrowing and saddening to come back and read the news about the war.

My most recent journey
was no different. I spent mid-December to mid-February backpacking around South
America, spending about two weeks in Peru, four in Chile, and two in Argentina.
Disaster followed me wherever I went. In Peru, I visited the most incredible
place I have ever seen, Machu Picchu. Less than a month later, torrential rains
flooded the valley around it, forcing the helicopter evacuation of more than
3,000 people. I spent a month traveling through Chile, and almost a month to
the dot after I visited Santiago, the fifth-largest earthquake ever recorded
rocked a city southwest of the capital and left parts of the country in ruins.
And of course, I was thousands of miles away from Santiago at that point,
safely watching the chaos unfold from a distance.

It’s tragic and
heartbreaking to read about the Chile quake, especially coming so soon after
the Haiti quake. The thought of two earthquakes of such devastating magnitude
happening so close to one another is hard to grasp. And yet more than 200,000
people are dead in Haiti, and the death toll in Chile, though many times
smaller, is growing. The Chile quake was more powerful, but the epicenter of
the Chile quake was 21 miles underground and located in a relatively unpopulated
area. The Haiti quake, though 501 times weaker, centered just 8 miles
underneath the surface of Port-au-Prince, according to news reports. Chileans
were lucky in many ways.

Chile’s supposedly
stringent building codes have no doubt saved countless lives, but nevertheless
there are reports of brand-new, supposedly earthquake-proof apartment buildings
collapsing in Santiago. I rented an apartment on the third floor of a brand-new
building in Santiago for four nights during my travels. I wonder if it is still
standing. It was in a district called Bellas Artes, a colorful, upscale yet
artsy neighborhood home to some of the city’s best museums. I was just blocks
away from the Bellas Artes Museum, actually, and in the surrounding park, I’d
watched a political concert-rally for underdog presidential candidate Eduardo
Frei. Frei campaigners had constructed a stage right next to the elegant
staircase leading to the museum’s entrance, and there were enough young people
listening to the live bands play that I jokingly dubbed Frei “the Chilean
Obama.” Now, broken chunks of concrete and stone litter those same stairs,
having fallen with enough force to shatter the stone staircase below.

The chances of an
earthquake of this size happening have to be miniscule, and the chances of
being caught in the danger zone, even smaller. I don’t consider myself lucky
for missing the quake any more than I consider myself lucky for not being hit
by lightning. It’s just a statistical inevitability — only the extremely
unlucky ever get hit by lightning or caught in an 8.8-magnitude earthquake.

Yet I can’t help but
shudder at the close call and wonder what would’ve happened if I were in Chile
right now, gazing over a ruined city, instead of safe in America, gazing at my
computer screen.