Somehow natural disasters have a way of following me around the world.
From floods to fires to monsoons to magnitude 8.8 earthquakes, Mother Nature has proven herself a force to be reckoned with in any corner of the globe.
After surviving all these disasters unscathed you’d think I’d have had enough encounters to last a lifetime.
Until last February when we added landslide to the list.
J and I were snug in bed 3 days after having moved into a flatshare in the beautiful Lisbonian neighborhood Graça.
We’d booked the room on a Portuguese website much like AirBnb called Uniplaces. We were wary of the owners, an erratic middle aged couple with missing teeth. Our first day in the apartment the landlord had a black eye and told a suspicious story of getting robbed in an Ikea parking lot. Despite being dubious of the owners, the apartment was nice and the location was unbeatable having Alfama at our feet.
We’d planned on staying in the apartment for two months while getting a feel for the city and seeing if we wanted to stay longer. We paid the first month’s rent on the website and a security deposit directly to the owner. I remember actually feeling relieved when the landlady had told us she’d use the deposit towards the 2nd month’s rent. “Good,” I told J later, “That means they won’t steal our deposit.”
On the morning of February 27th around 5:30 AM I heard a very loud crunching noise and glass breaking. My first thoughts were EARTHQUAKE! I reached for J’s arm and put him in a death grip. But the crunch was only one..maybe two seconds. Quickly I realized it wasn’t an earthquake…but what was it?
We both ran to the window to see shattered glass littering the street. A bomb? An explosion? What happened?
I heard the landlady moan and knew something had happened in the apartment. J was quick to get dressed and wanted to run outside to see what happened. As he was leaving I heard our flatmate tell him to go see the kitchen. J brushed him aside and said he wanted to get to the street to see for himself. It was then I realized that something had happened inside the house. “Why the kitchen?” I asked already knowing what was next to come.
We all hurried to the kitchen where the air was thick with dirt and dust. I peeked for two seconds and all I could see was a huge hole in the back part of the kitchen. J of course stayed to film and in his words “test the ground”. Do we really have to wonder why women live longer than men?
Soon the firefighters arrived and it was time to evacuate the building. At this point we still didn’t know what happened. Gas explosion? I wanted to get out of the building and FAST. Still wearing my nightgown and robe I threw on some leggings, a coat and green sneakers. Points to J for getting dressed like a normal person.
Soon we were out in the cold watching the firefighters and police rope off our building without a clue as to what the heck happened.
With no idea what was happening or when we’d be allowed back into the apartment we headed to a nearby cafe for a typical coffee and pastry. We sat debating what happened. Something told me it wasn’t a gas explosion. I figured gas meant fire and there wasn’t any fire and what we felt and heard didn’t seem like an explosion.
Suddenly a news story came across the cafe’s TV! It was our street! It was our building! It was a landslide!
Now that we knew what had happened we headed back to see if we’d get any more information. When we returned to our street we saw news companies and reporters with their cameras aimed directly at our building.
We were cold and unshowered. I was dressed like a maniac. In that moment we realized we weren’t going to be living in Graça again.
We made our way down to a marketplace where civil protection had assembled a makeshift “shelter” for us displaced people. Most our neighbors were old and even wearing those emergency tin foil blankets. Don’t tell J I told you, but he considered asking for one.
The marketplace was drafty and all concrete, so J suggested to a civil protector to find an electric kettle or serve something hot. Her eyes lit up and she muttered something about that being a good idea. As if it hadn’t occurred to her to do anything but stand there doing nothing. It was in this moment we realized we were in for a long, long day.
Not wanting to sit in the cold marketplace twiddling our thumbs all day we headed out for a hot meal and to visit the Uruguayan consulate because only the day before poor J had washed his passport in his jeans.
We even took these touristy photos looking happy as can be.
After pho we made our way back to the marketplace to get an update on the building and where, if at all, they were going to take us.
Our landlords were there with their four barking dogs. How these pups survived the landslide I don’t know because most of the damage was in the patio area where they live. Bickering loudly and stealing extra cookies they were the outcasts of the entire block. We didn’t know if we should associate ourselves with them, but since they did own the apartment we figured we had to stick by their sides.
We sat in that marketplace for hours not knowing what was to come next. I decided to prepare for the worst and imagined them taking us to some big gymnasium where we would have cots on the floor.
Finally word started to spread that we were going to be permitted to go back into the apartment with hardhats and a firefighter to grab a few things. I made up my mind that I would take everything I owned assuming we may never have been allowed again in that apartment. I told J to do the same and he agreed.
When it was finally our turn to gather our things it was already night and it’d begun to rain a bit. I formed a mental map in my mind where all my things were so that the firefighters wouldn’t try to hurry us out before we had everything packed.
Once in our room I realized that a huge load of laundry was sitting in the dryer just at the entrance of the kitchen. I asked a firefighter if I could go gather the clothes and he looked at me and said, “No way!”
J and I looked at each other wide-eyed and in the way that only a Latino can do he was able to persuade and convince the firefighters to let only me gather our clothes. Thanks, J, you little hdp!
We got to the dryer and I started throwing all the clothes into the landlady’s laundry bag (this is important in Part II lol). I complained to the firefighter that I’d left a few things in the bathroom just off the kitchen too. “You’re not going in there,” he shined his flashlight in the direction of the bathroom and I could only see an even huger hole and mounds of dirt. More floor had fallen and I could care less about my electric toothbrush at that point!
Once packed, we waited around a few more hours in the marketplace. We started to hear murmurs that we were going to a hotel or guesthouse. Still with our scamp landlords a civil protector approached our group and said that she was having a hard time organizing accommodation for everyone (literally all the neighbors) because of our landlord’s four dogs.
Our landlady started to cry and moan as if she couldn’t live without the dogs although only moments before she was screaming at them and hitting them on their snouts. I still have no idea why she wanted to stay with them so badly.
At this point I was VERY tired and VERY frustrated. I couldn’t sit back and play nice anymore. If there’s one thing all this traveling has helped me with, it’s being more assertive. I turned to my landlady, said sorry and then turned to the civil protector and asked why she couldn’t put them in a hotel that accepts animals and ALL THE OTHER PEOPLE in another hotel. Or if that doesn’t work, why not put the dogs in a kennel and the humans in a hotel.
Yes, yes I know. I’m a visionary. Chock full of revolutionary ideas.
She agreed and skedaddled over to where she had been sitting supposedly planning our accommodation for the past FIFTEEN MOTHER EFFIN HOURS!
Two hours after that we were in a minivan with all the neighbors on our way to an Ibis hotel.
“An Ibis?! I moaned to J, “I could’ve booked that for everyone on my iPhone.”
I know at this point I’m sounding really entitled; we were, after all, extremely grateful to be receiving free hotel accommodation, but it was 12AM. The landslide occurred at 5 AM the previous day. I was still unshowered and still wearing my nightgown. These
buffoons government employees were all sat there trying to figure out where to place us for hours upon hours as if there weren’t a single hotel in all the capital city.
Our foul landlord leaned over the seat and happily told us that we’ll go wherever he’ll go. “My mom’s rich. Don’t worry!” this 50-something year old man reassured us. I nodded unwillingly and said we’ll have to see and J stared straight ahead at the seat in front of him.
It’d been an excruciatingly long day and now it was time to rest. We didn’t know how long we’d stay or what was to come next, but there was a big, comfy hotel bed waiting for us and that was all that mattered.
More aftermath to come in Part II…