Mother Nature played a very cruel April Fool’s joke on us down here in Puerto Ayora yesterday.
The day started off great. I woke up early, went on a relaxing yacht ride to Bartolome (my new favorite place in the world by the way), took some fantastic photos, and met quite a few travelers to hang with. Once we were on dry land I planned to grab a quick drink alongside the ocean with Lucas, a Canadian who’d been traveling around South America on his own as well. But first I had to set up my dive for the next day which ended up making me about 45 minutes late for drinks. I finally got down to the waterfront bar at about 645PM, right after sunset and only 15 minutes before happy hour ended.
I wasn’t really feeling up for drinking so I figured one Pilsener, a quick bite to eat, then back to the room I’d go to refresh on some scuba stuff. But before I knew it there was an icy cold, perfectly mixed caiprihania in front of me. I was looking at the food menu when Lucas casually mentioned “my friend messaged me something about a tsunami but I don’t know.” Immediately I looked up at him, “what do you mean, tsunami?” He just kind of shrugged his shoulders and changed the conversation.
Five minutes later I looked up at the TV and saw a news channel with “ALERTO” in big bold letters across a red banner on the screen. It was hard to make out anything that was going on, but one by one I noticed the locals pausing mid-chew, entranced by the television.
“Is there a car chase or something going on, what the fuck is on TV?” I asked, still not putting two and two together, while Lucas kept yammering away about something that had completely lost my interest by now.
Within ten seconds the sirens started wailing throughout the streets. I still had no clue what the hell was going on, so I looked around for some sort of information. There were only a handful of tourists and they all looked just as confused as me, but everyone had gotten out of their seats by now. A few locals had begun racing down the street while others just walked quickly. Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker entirely in Spanish and I couldn’t make out a single word. Just as quickly as he began talking the locals kicked it into high gear and started sprinting in every direction except for towards the sea. Waiters and waitresses were dropping their menus and running out the door, while others were yelling and pushing people out in order to close their shop.
At this point my heart was racing and I kept yelling out “What is going on? Tsunami? Where do we go?” It was terrifying, not knowing anything that was happening because I wasn’t able to put the situation into context or gauge the urgency of the situation. Was this a tsunami warning? What IS a tsunami warning? Is it like a tornado warning, meaning they’ve spotted a giant wave headed for shore and we’ve got thirty seconds to get to higher ground? Where is higher ground? On an island as small as Santa Cruz is there even such a thing as higher ground? WHAT THE FUCK WAS GOING ON?
Me and this older English-speaking guy from Zimbabwe ran back and forth looking for information, but we knew we had to get moving because the street was emptying out quickly. All we could make out in English were people shouting “run! up!” so we quickly tried to decipher which way was up.
Lucas seemed more concerned about the drinks than his surroundings, as he grabbed them both and started strolling.
“Fuck the drinks dude, leave them!” I shouted back at him while formulating a solo mission to get out of dodge because he was definitely not the kind of person I wanted to be holed up with in a survivor-type situation. Plus I did NOT want to be drunk in case some serious shit went down, and those drinks were definitely strong. I was only a few sips in and I already had a buzz going.
“I know of a hotel, we’ll be safe there just climb to the roof.” he yelled, trying to get me to follow him against the flow of locals fleeing. I started to follow when the older man also ran in the same direction saying he knew of a place too. Stupid me thought maybe they knew of some magical tsunami shelters. We made it about a block, still along the water, and Lucas turned into a half-built shack with shoddy construction work going on.
“Are you fucking crazy? I’m not going in there, you’re on your own!” I told him. At this point I realized he was too slow-moving for my taste and I was concerned his island-time ways were going to get me killed, so I kept running with the older guy. We made it a few blocks and ran into another hotel to the third floor. I still felt uneasy but luckily we ran into the staff who were gathering up their laptops and printers and shouting “no” at us. We had no idea what else they were saying beyond that, but they kept pointing out so we knew it wasn’t safe to stay there.
I still had no idea what was going on. My brain kept imagining scenes from a movie where you hear a warning and ten seconds later a gigantic, disastrous, city-consuming wave hits. But here we were probably about ten minutes after the warning and we were still standing 20 feet from the ocean. I finally semi-realized how incredibly stupid I’d been in my panicked mindset and figured we just need to run uphill as fast as possible.
I was fully fucking terrified at this point and I grabbed my phone out to start texting my mom while running as quickly as possible in a strapless dress and flip flops. The older guy and I ran together for several blocks before someone finally told us “go two blocks, turn right and keep running uphill.” Thank God we were on the right track now, not franticly scattered at sea level. We passed a puppy going absolutely insane while tied up to a storefront. Someone yelled to get the puppy, but we kept running as my heart broke a little. After a few more blocks uphill he began to run out of steam, but he knew I was terrified and he told me to continue on without him. Again it was exactly like those movies and all I could think was “no man left behind.” But then again I was in the Galapagos Islands, and if there’s any place where survival of the fittest should hold true, it’s here.
So I ran. And ran. And ran. Everyone was running with babies and loved ones in tow. Every restaurant was gated up with half-eaten food and drinks still at the tables. Motor bikes and taxi pick-up trucks were all crowding the only street out of town now, heading for higher ground. I looked to hop onto one but so did everyone else. Every truck cab was full of locals and people hanging off the sides. I kept running and looking downhill behind me, waiting to see if a wave was coming. At this point it seemed to be just me and the locals, I didn’t see any more tourists in sight. Finally I got exhausted and started fast-walking, while still wondering what the hell was going on. I figured in the urgency that all of the locals had gotten the hell out of dodge, it must be serious.
A few minutes later I heard someone shouting in English so I turned around to see the older guy I was running with earlier crammed into the back of a pickup with a mix of tourists and locals.
“Hey! HEY! Do you want to get in?” he screamed at me.
“HELL YES, THANK YOU!” I screamed back in utter relief as I ran over to the truck.
There wasn’t much room to climb in but I wiggled my way in, probably flashing everyone within eyesight of my dress. Even though there were about nine of us and a bicycle crammed in there, I finally felt at ease for the first time that night. I was in a vehicle, and we were headed up. Plus there were two kids who were about 4 and 8 in the cab with us, so I felt like I had to keep my shit together and not frighten them.
We drove up the main street in bumper-to-bumper traffic moving at a steady pace for about 15-20 minutes. We passed a gas station along the way that had cars and motor bikes lined up for blocks.
Finally we got to Bellavista where it seemed like the entire island of Santa Cruz was crowding the streets. The shops were open, locals were holding bags and pillows, chatting amongst themselves. Vans, tour buses, construction vehicles, and motor bikes were dropping people off in hoards. The woman in the cab happened to be a tour guide so she spoke English fairly well. When we got out she directed us into a soccer/football complex to stay put. She assured us that we were definitely high enough up and we would be okay to wait it out here. I thanked her profusely and went into the stadium with the others.
Locals were camping out on the steps, but most of the tourists met up in the corner trying to piece together what the hell was going on. It was almost 8PM now and we finally heard about “an 8.2 earthquake in Chile” and the “last time this tsunami evacuation happened was in 2010.” It was then I realized it wasn’t an ordinary occurrence like a tornado siren is in the Midwest.
I finally felt at ease knowing there were other tourists here who didn’t speak Spanish and had left all of their belongings back at their hotels. I definitely felt a strength in numbers and have never bonded so quickly with fellow travelers.
We sat in the shelter and watched children chase bugs and each other around the concrete field. About an hour later we got an update that they were expecting a set of three waves to hit in ten-minute-intervals around ten o’clock, so we were to stay put until then. I ventured out to the nearest corner store and picked up a few bottles of water and a family size bag of animal crackers in case we were going to be up there for a while. I was fully expecting some serious American style price-gouging, but I only paid $3.50 for my whole purchase.
Some time passed, stories were told and information was shared as people came and went. Once it hit about 11:30 we were told the first waves were only about a meter high and not a big deal, but there was another earthquake and a second set of waves set to come through around 1AM, and they had no idea how big they could be but they feared much bigger. Luckily fear and compassion are language-independent, and it was at this point that a nice Ecuadorian family invited the Dutch family with children whom I’d been with into their home to spend the evening as the kids were clearly exhausted. Another nice neighbor came and brought everybody tea he’d made in his home, but I politely declined for fear that the water could be contaminated (wouldn’t that be great, a tsunami and diarrhea?)
We kept waiting and waiting, but I was back to my normal self. I was entertaining people and bringing groups of people together. I started going back and forth between the shelter and the local store, looking for new bits of information and trying to catch a glimpse of the news to relay to all of the other tourists. A policeman and an armed military guy came in and made announcements that we of course couldn’t understand over a loudspeaker. Loads of buses began trying to head back down only to be turned away by the police and told to come back to high grounds.
All in all this went on for about five and a half hours before the police drove through with their lights on, making announcements over the loudspeakers. Of course we couldn’t understand a damn word being said, and in such a remote town there were no English speaking translators. But we heard the crowd cheer and the shops began to close up so we could only assume it was good news.
A few minutes later buses and pickup trucks began to arrive and people piled in. We managed to fit eleven people into the back of a tiny pickup bed and head back downhill.
Apparently we were one of the first trucks to make it back down because the oceanfront was empty. All of the shops were closed up, lights off, and no one was on the streets. Coming from New York, this was actually very eerie. Especially since I had been dropped off quite a few blocks from my hotel and still needed to walk a good 10-15 minutes on my own.
I still felt uneasy since no one was on the streets, but I saw several police cars patrolling the area so I assumed the threat was over. Just to make sure, I popped into the police station to double check. They didn’t speak any English but I was able to convey a simple “thumbs up/thumbs down” gesture hopefully without offending anyone, and got a thumbs up in response.
There had been another tourist speaking with the policemen as well, but as soon as I approached I asked him if he spoke English to which he said “yes.” Then I asked if he knew if it was okay to leave and he didn’t answer, he just looked at me. So I said thanks and turned around to walk to the hotel.
Only problem was, this weird guy who was built like he could kill somebody with his bare hands was now following me on a deserted street. I knew I had to go down a couple of poorly lit side streets to get to the hotel, and even then there was no guarantee it’d be unlocked and I’d be able to get in. So I tried to ditch him by crossing the street—twice. He followed me across both times. He then caught up with me and I stopped and looked at him and asked him where he was going and if he needed help. Again he didn’t respond, he just looked at the ground and started walking with me. Completely freaked out, I started looking for a shop or something to go into but nothing was open. So I walked faster. He let out a huge sigh and then threw his backpack on the ground, and I was convinced he was pulling out something to kill me with. Just then I spotted three caucasian girls wandering around the docks so I quickly walked towards them. I could hear the guy pick up his pack again and continue following me. When I approached the girls I said “please, do you speak English?” to which they all cheerfully said yes.
“Can I please walk with you for a minute because this guy has been following me for blocks and it’s freaking me out.”
They all looked at him as he approached me and stopped about a foot away from me. We all turned to him and I said “do you need help, are you lost?” and he said something none of us understood, though it may have been Italian. We all kind of huddled together and told him we were leaving and waved goodbye, so he finally let out a huge sigh and walked onward. I don’t know if he was just a scared solo traveler or what, but the fact that he was following me and not responding to anything was definitely not cool.
The girls walked me to my hotel and I thanked them profusely. I’d arrived just before 2AM and completely wired yet exhausted from the night’s events. I came in my room and sat down on the bed and started texting my mom now that I was on WiFi. My body finally went through a series of emotions, and I began shaking for a good twenty seconds while trying to text. I started Googling things on my painfully slow internet connection, piecing together the story and seeing if there were any risks of aftershocks, but it seemed unlikely.
Needless to say I couldn’t sleep for a few hours. I packed a “get the fuck out” bag in case the sirens blared again in the night I would at least have my passport and some cash. I Googled what to do in a tsunami and earthquake situation, and I finally started to relax.
This has made me realize that I haven’t been in too many scary situations in my life. I’m so grateful that nothing serious happened and everything turned out to be okay though, obviously. It was really just the ignorant naivety and the initial phase of not knowing what the hell was going on and where to go that was utterly terrifying. I think the next time I travel somewhere I’ll just make sure I know the threat of natural disasters and what to do should one happen. But fingers crossed I never have to deal with that again.
And by the way, after only sleeping two hours last night I didn’t go diving today. The Galapagos Islands are known for strong currents anyway and I’d heard they’d be even stronger today so I just wasn’t comfortable swimming with sharks for the first time on a day like today. Lame.