Life is a fragile gift. We are given it and free to do with it as we will, but it is never really ours, is it? We can lose sight of that sometimes.
But then the earth shakes.
It shakes and it shakes and with every violent tremor we are reminded that this amazing gift that we have been given can so quickly be taken away. And if something can be so quickly ripped away from us how can we possibly claim ultimate ownership and control over it?
The taxi ambled down the empty street just as the sun started to recede behind the tall, downtown buildings. It passed by a few bars and night clubs facing each other from opposite ends of the street, just starting to open up as they began preparations for the busy Saturday night that wasn’t to be. But who could have known then what was to come?
A few seconds later it started. A slow rocking, back and forth, as if someone was pushing the car. But there was no one around. Then it got harder, more violent. Earthquake.
Then the power went. The sun had already set and as we shook harder and harder everything was suddenly bathed in darkness. We could see people start running out of all the buildings around us. Within seconds it was chaos. Then things started to fall.
Chunks of cement and large window panes came crashing to the street in front of us. Screams, running, confusion, crying.
To the left a mother was holding her little girl covered in blood, something wrapped around her head to protect an open wound from something that had fallen from above. Everyone looking up, trying to predict from where the debris would fall next, scrambling to find somewhere safe. Run to an open area? Run under something for protection? Some couldn’t seem to decide and just stood there, frozen, unable to move, unable to grasp what was going on.
And then it was over. The shaking stopped but that seemed to mean little, the damage was done. Just a few minutes away we learned that an overpass had collapsed and crushed a car that was underneath it. There was no way the driver had survived. News of the collapse and of the certain death spread quickly through the area. Little did we know that this would only be the first in a long night of gruesome damage reports from around the country, with a death toll that to this moment is at around 300 and still rising.
I don’t want this to seem like a sensationalised report of a near-death experience I went through, because that’s not what happened. Was I in danger? Sure. But as news came flooding in from around the country we all began to realise that our experience was mild compared to what happened in some places. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake, much bigger than the 6.2 quake that hit Japan just a few days earlier, caused horrific damage in some of Ecuador’s coastal cities who were closer to the epicentre. People lost everything. Their tears are still wetting the rubble that used to be their homes, piles of cement and wood that now only house the bodies of those trapped inside. That is the unsensationalised reality of what happened.
Life is a fragile gift that does not really belong to us. But then who does it belong to, if not us? Well, I think the answer is that it belongs to those around us, because without them our lives lack meaning.
This became abundantly clear as soon as the shaking stopped and everyone’s first reaction was to call their loved ones to check up on them. To run home and make sure everyone was alright. People were more worried about not being able to get a hold of a family member or a friend than they were about the very real possibility of dangerous after-shocks. Their own lives took a back seat to the worries about the lives of the ones they loved.
It is absolutely amazing how a disaster that literally tears the earth apart has brought people together in solidarity for one another. Regional rivalries and provincial divides have no power in a population that realises their strength and resilience when they come together.
Is there fear? Of course. Is there sadness and sorrow? Absolutely. But above all there is a feeling of what it means to be Ecuadorian, of what it means to be from the land of the Condor, the land of Mount Chimborazo, king of the Andes, the land that joins the Amazon, the Andes and the Pacific coast under one beautiful tri-coloured flag, under one strong name: Ecuador.
And so we mourn, but as we mourn we give thanks, we reach out and take the hand of the one to our left and the hand of the one to our right and we march forward doing what we can to rebuild the physical world around us as we come to realise that the invisible world of our collective has never been stronger.
Our lives are fragile gifts that we have the immense honour and joy to share with and give to each other, ensuring we are never left empty handed, even when the world shakes and our walls come crumbling down around us.