The tag line for our blog is Travel Tales with a Twist, and two weeks ago while traveling in Puebla, Mexico, we experienced a truly unexpected twist … an earthquake. This surprise shake was our first, and even though the 7.2 magnitude quake’s epicenter was 175 miles away in coastal Oaxaca, there was enough shaking to convince us to grab a backpack, and bolt from the building.
The street scene that greeted us outside our town-center hotel was strangely quiet and absolutely eerie. The streets were crowded with small groups of people speaking in hushed voices. Drivers abandoned their cars, and school children sat cross-legged in the middle of the street surrounded by protective parents. The noisy Spanish chatter from a lone policeman’s radio was the only sound.
As rattled earthquake newbies, we didn’t need much encouragement to skedaddle from our 4th floor room with its trembling furniture and swaying floor lamps. Ring-of-Fire veterans may think we overreacted, but at that point, we were taking our cue from the locals, who seemed to be dead serious.
And later we learned why. On September 19, 2017 a magnitude 7.1 earthquake killed 220 people in nearby in Mexico City and 47 died in Puebla, which was only 35 miles north of the epicenter. Coincidentally, the 2017 quake occurred on the 32nd anniversary of the devastating 1985 Mexico City Earthquake that killed 10,000 people. In an even stranger coincidence, the 1985 quake was commemorated, and a national earthquake drill was held at 11 am, just two hours before the 2017 earthquake occurred.
Our adrenaline levels were red-lined, but we were happy to be outside the hotel and safe. Our hearts had stopped racing, and after a few moments we began to reflect on what had just happened. Standing there in my jogging shorts and T shirt, I wondered how the coming 45-degree night would go if I couldn’t return to our room. And you’ll notice the absence of photos that normally accompany our blog posts. Basically, everything we had with us, including our camera, was left in our hotel room. We worried about the next day’s bus and plane e-tickets that were loaded on our iPhones and iPad up in the room. It was not a comfortable feeling.
Our time on the street, facing the uncertainty of knowing what would happen next, made us realize how ill-prepared we had been and how scatterbrained we had reacted. As a geologist, I of all people should have thought about the fact that we were traveling in earthquake country, and we should have prepared – or at the very least talked about it.
After an hour of standing around, eavesdropping and trying unsuccessfully to understand a few words of the policeman’s Spanish radio conversations, we reluctantly returned to our room. That’s when we got our act together.
We were leaving Puebla the next day to return to the States, so our first priority was to totally pack up our backpacks, just in case we needed to make another hasty, unscheduled exit and weren’t able to return. And while we sat talking, an aftershock convinced us to take our packs and wait in the lobby as close to the exit doors as possible.
After an hour of watching seemingly unconcerned drinkers in the lobby bar, and tracking minor aftershocks online, we decided it was safe to return to our hopefully-stable-for-the-night hotel room.
The good news is that we made it through our first earthquake with nothing more than jangled nerves. But still, it was a frightening experience and a good reminder that as travelers in a foreign country, when it comes to dealing with emergency situations, whether natural disasters or civil unrest, you’re pretty much on your own.
The point is this: being prepared is never a bad thing. And while you shouldn’t travel in places that make you paranoid about safety and security, know the risks, and prepare as best you can. It’s easy to get complacent, thinking that it only happens to someone else, but now we know what it feels like to be fleas on a shaking dog.
Had an earthquake experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Happy Trails and Safe Travels,
James & Terri
P.S. The header photo from the disastrous 1906 San Francisco earthquake kinda says it all.