When the Walls Danced: Living Through an Earthquake in Mexico

I remember earthquakes from when I lived in San Francisco. Fortunately, they were relatively infrequent and insignificant. Yesterday, I experienced a real one.

Our neighborhood here in Oaxaca is usually full of noises. Horns, sirens, beeps, megaphones. The gardeners chopping, the tamale guy chanting, the gas truck tooting, the water guy whistling, dogs howling. It’s the city’s soundtrack of life.

Tuesday, around noon, we heard a different sound. Audrey and I had just come off giving a 90-minute online webinar. We were grateful to execute our presentation in unusual and relative silence.

Then minutes later, it happened.

It sounded as if a siren blared from a truck just outside our front window.

Are the elections coming? Maybe it’s an overzealous tamale guy on a bicycle with a megaphone.

A few seconds later, the siren went off again. Ominous.

Audrey laughed, “Imagine if this happened ten minutes ago in the webinar?”

Seconds later, a rumble began that felt as if a tractor trailing were driving past our front window.

Then, another siren.

The truck didn’t go away, the house shook further.

This was something bigger. Maybe the truck was about to come through the front window.

The rumble grew further still; it twisted.

Trucks do not do this. And, they do not make trucks this big.

The Space Shuttle, maybe?

Our front window grates wobbled, glass inside. The back door, heavy and wrought iron, swung back and forth, slamming into the jamb. Our huge dining room table began to vibrate, the hutch began to sway.

“My, how stunningly flexible these walls are,” I thought, mesmerized by how they seemed to wave around me.

At the same time, the ground began to shift, moving back and forth under our feet. The back door continued to slam.

After a few seconds it dawned on us: this was an earthquake! And those sirens, they were the citywide seismic alarm that gave us a few seconds before the shaking began.

Although we would eventually understand that the motion came from the earth, it was as if someone had grabbed the house from above and shook it from side to side in an attempt to pry it loose from its foundation.

Audrey and I turned to one another: “What’s that thing about standing in a doorway?”

You know those horror film characters who wait too long, who just don’t have the sense to get out before it’s too late? That was us. But nothing made sense because the earth was moving.

The earth is not supposed to move.

I’m certain I’d received earthquake training somewhere along the way, but I found it easy to dispense with the rational as I stood there transfixed by the walls dancing around me.

“Audrey, grab the keys. Let’s go!”

The whole thing transpired in 30 seconds, maybe just 15. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. When the shit comes down, time perception bends.

“Let’s get the hell out of here! Forget the keys. Let’s get out of here! NOW!”

Run for Your Lives

We ran out the front doorway, spent a split second in questionable safety under the arch, then hopped further across the courtyard to another doorway and out into the street.

In the middle of the street, clear of anything that could fall on our heads save a telephone pole, we just felt safer. We spun around just like we might if we were in a film about an earthquake. It’s silly, but that’s what you do. You look around and you try to figure out what is going on.

Meanwhile, the ground continued to shimmy. It felt like it was bubbling. The road felt like rubber.

Is this thing ever going to stop?

On the Street

When you fear for your life, you leave everything behind. Your shoes, your laptops, even the keys. Everything. All that matters is that which is living.

We were outside. We were safe, unless of course the ground decided to open up. You don’t really don’t know what’s coming. The uncertainty is the most terrifying bit of all.

The street filled with people; everyone staggered out from their homes, mobile phones in hand.

A group of women down the street crossed themselves.

Our landlord’s maid, probably in her 60s, stood fully composed in the doorway as the ground continued its boogie.

Audrey turned around, “Es tipico?” (Is this typical?)

“Si,” she gave a nod. Her hands came up even to the ground, then down. “Calm,” she suggested with the motion. We obviously looked shaken.

“Pero, muy fuerte,” she continued. But, very strong.

Another woman stuck her head out from next door, “Muy fuerte.”

A hound dog pup rounded the corner at full speed, freaked out.

Capturing the humor in the moment, Audrey remarked about our landlord, a dentist with an office in town: “Let’s hope he wasn’t drilling in someone’s mouth.”

Settling Back

The good thing is, everyone appeared to be OK. News reports seem to suggest that the damage, at least in Oaxaca, is surprisingly limited. We could hear a few things crash and fall here and there, likely dislodged during the quake. Amazing, really: it was a 7.4 magnitude earthquake, centered 100 miles away and very shallow at 12 miles deep.

Now I understand why all the buildings here are squat, one and two stories.

As I write this, the tamale vendor chants his “ta-ma-le, ta-ma-le!” like clockwork through his megaphone as he rides his bicycle down the street.

Things have returned to normal, at least for the moment. We value these sounds.

It’s not an earthquake alarm, and that’s all that matters.

For those of you wondering, we haven’t seen Malia Obama (President and Michele Obama’s daughter) during her spring break trip to Oaxaca. If it weren’t for the fact that the earthquake coincided with her visit, we probably would have never even known.

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  1. Julie says

    Glad you guys are ok! We had a few strong ones like that in Alaska. When the house is bouncing up and down while swaying from side to side, why does it take a while to figure out it is an Earthquake???!!!! haha

  2. says

    @Julie: Thanks for your note! As for why it takes a long time to figure out? Houses are not supposed to bounce up and down!! :) And to think, people here in Oaxaca live with these on a regular basis.

  3. says

    Glad you are ok. After having been in Tokyo for last year’s earthquake it is something I never want to go through again. Not a good feeling.

  4. says

    Reading this was like reliving our 7.1 earthquake experience in Christchurch, New Zealand, except ours was a wake up call in the early hours of the morning. It really sounded and felt like a train was coming through the house and it took a few seconds to realize that it was no train but an earthquake. And yes, all the training went out the door. It’s an experience your never likely to forget.

    Happy to hear that there was little damage to people or property.

  5. says

    Glad you made it through unscathed. Have you had a chance to check out any of our posts from our Oaxaca trip from last December? I think there are three or four. We really love Oaxaca. saludos.

  6. says

    Everyone, thank you for the concern and well wishes. Individual responses are below.

    @Matt: I cannot even imagine, particularly when you are surrounded by tall buildings.

    @Liz: Christchurch, such a sad story. We appreciate your train analogy completely. It’s almost difficult to believe those few seconds it takes to figure out what’s going on.

    That said, Am glad you are OK.

    @Michael: Thanks for the Oaxaca tips. We’ll be doing our own rundown of food in Oaxaca, so we can compare notes.

    @Sutapa: Glad you found it humorous. That again was the intent. So long as everyone was OK, about all you can do is laugh, particularly at yourself.

    @John: Thanks, John. Your compliments mean a lot, particular since that’s what we were aiming for.

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