“When are you returning to Chile?” Joao asked Alfredo.
Alfredo was a linguist from Santiago, athletic but mild mannered, he tended to keep his eyes lowered but he was quick to smile.
I had spent a couple college summers alphabetizing 17th century South American Spanish. This was before computers could reliably do it without some project-ruining glitch, so we shuffled 3×5 cards. Usually everyone else on the project spoke English around me to be polite.
“I can’t. If I go back, I will be killed. Right away.”
This seemed so unreal to me, like they were talking about a movie. And the thought that this linguist who had trouble looking you in the eyes had been embroiled in a life and death political struggle that forced him into exile was beyond my sheltered comprehension.
This weekend we saw images of Concepcion burning, clusters of cars strewn on their hoods on cantered highways, streets buried under rows of shattered concrete facades, highrise apartment complexes gaping with remnants of curtains flapping in the wind, bridge pylons standing naked sprouting their huge ripped cables.
Over 700 known dead. It was so powerful it shortened all the rest of our days. (Literally, by 1 microsecond)
Modern technology gave us an odd connection with it – while ostensibly watching the Olympics I flipped among the cable news channels broadcasting live feeds – sometimes multi-screen – from the coasts of Hawaii as tsunami sirens klaxoned.
Watching a live shot of a beach I’ve walked on – Waikiki – waiting for the tide to suck out and then pound, a wall of water predicted up to 12 feet high. Like watching a Roland Emmerich movie come to life.
It was, as I tweeted at the time, just about the strangest television watching experience I’ve ever had.
Of course, it turned out there was only damaging waves earlier along the Chilean coast and later in Japan and the Philippines. But Saturday afternoon was an odd Pacific Rim convergence of the world’s, or at least my, attention – Chile, Hawaii, Vancouver – on my television, on my phone, on my computer.
When last year’s post-election uprising began in Iran, I started following some of the activists on Twitter. I was getting messages on my phone from college kids hunkering in alleys while troops pushed through the streets in downtown Tehran.
But even now, as in my face as the whole world is now, and how I’ve supposedly matured, I can barely comprehend what Alfredo was going through, and what he must be going through now.