The Siegels, after Hurricane Gilbert, Puerto Morelos, Q. Roo, 1988 -- with the 14-ft launch that landed in our yard.
How did it go with Gilberto?
The story of an American family that survived the fierce attack of the hurricane of the century
Originally written in Spanish and published in the Diario de Quintana Roo, November 4 and 5, 1988
By Jules Siegel
It was good and it was bad. We had more than three feet of seawater in the house, but I learned a lot. In the United States we say Friday the Thirteenth. Here, they say Tuesday the Thirteenth. I got this information thanks to Gilbert. It took a hurricane to teach me a little colloquial Spanish.
I'm American. I live with my family in Puerto Morelos. I speak Spanish like a Japanese dog. My daughter, Faera, 17 years old, corrects me in her classic Mexican accent, "Dogs don't speak, Daddy, they bark." She's got that right. I don't speak. I bark.
When someone asks me why I haven't learned to speak better Spanish after seven years here, I answer, "I'm lazy. It's also easier to live dumb than smart." I have no problems stating that I speak and write English better than the Queen of England. In the United States, I was a well-known writer. Everyone hated me for my supposedly superior attitude. Here, I'm a member of what are politely called the popular classes -- that is, poor and uneducated.
I have solidarity with the Maya, many of who don't speak Spanish very well either. We communicate through a strange idiom that is more telepathy than language, and we are humble and content, because we have no anxieties about grammar or style. With fast-talking people from Mexico City, I say, "Yes, yes" and smile a lot. I don't get half of what they say -- if that much. They speak Italian, don't they?
I often feel very isolated and a little sad. I am not part of the common experience. When everyone in Cancun was glued to the television sets waiting for the names of their relatives and friends on the day of the great earthquake of 1985, I was alone and silent, like a visitor from another planet, without understanding or communication.
Gilbert hit me the same as everyone else, but with one difference: what others accepted as an ordinary consequence of the disaster appeared to me as a kind of miracle. I found that we were not solitary aliens in a strange land, but part of a community, with friends and profound resources.
On March 13, 1988 we were very afraid. Our house is less than a hundred meters from the sea, and it's not much of a house. We are renovating the house, one of the oldest in Puerto Morelos, and we have neither glass windows nor concrete roof. It's mostly open to any wind or rain. The better folk were fleeing for Valladolid, way back on the mainland.
While the sky darkened rapidly, I tried to protect the files of my works in process with a plastic sheets and heavy boards. Fifteen years of work were in those fragile cardboard cartons: unpublished manuscripts, notebooks, diaries, hundreds of negatives, prints and slides of my visions of eternity.
Where could we go? There were tour of us - my wife Anita Brown, Faera, our two little boys, Eli, 7, and Jesse, 4. We did not have a car nor did we have enough money to get to Valladolid. We didn't want to spend our pitiful cash on a hotel in Cancun Mexico resorts unless it were absolutely necessary. Neither did we wish to die. What a dilemma!
Our neighbor, Mercedes Sanchez Sandoval, suddenly arrived from Cancun, where she was caretaking a condominium in the Hotel Zone. "Use my house," she said, giving us the keys. It's a two-story house, made of concrete and masonry, with thick wooden shutters on many of the windows. Her husband, Joaquín, is a sailor. He constructed the house with full knowledge of the sea. What a refuge! I began to board up the windows that did not have shutters.
At three in the afternoon, we were told that the entire town would be evacuated. Each family could bring one suitcase, water, food and candles. At six, the truck of the fishermen's cooperative came to our door and took us to the town square, where the busses awaited. Light rain was falling. The night was dark. There hadn't been time to move all my files to our neighbor's house. On the way to Cancun, I thought about how much work they represented. We are ants. Something much greater than us discards dishwater. Our castles in the sand are flooded and we are naked and weeping. Where are we going, Lord? When shall we return to our familiar things?
We found the last room in Cancún at the Hotel Hacienda on Avenida Sunyaxchen. Hurricane Gilbert arrived with a shattering scream before dawn. Is that name stupid? Gilbert is a computer nerd, not the hurricane of the century. That's another reason I hate feminism. I remember when hurricanes had female names. If I have to be punished, I'd prefer the hands of some cute girl, please.
We heard a man's frustrated screams. A window upstairs had broken. Water was coming in like a carwash. The door was stuck closed by the force of the wind and the guests couldn't get out. I don't know if I believed in God then, but I can assure you that I prayed better than any priest. Our window held. The manager rescued the people upstairs.
After the first few hours everything was better than television for the kids - watching strange things and eating cookies. I don't think I'll ever want another cookie. At midday, we were called to a meeting in the lobby. The manager, a very noble human being, asked those who had food to share it with those who didn't. I'm a good liberal. Did I share our food? I had to recognize that I am a hypocrite just like everyone else.
But do you think the hotel gave us a discount for lack of electricity water and cleaning service? Twenty-five dollars a night, people, but much better than the hard benches of the hurricane refuge in the elementary school, with everyone smoking cigarettes.
When this lesson in practical politics was over, the hurricane lifted. The following day we returned to Puerto Morelos. It was a long trip. The destruction was very impressive - streets covered with sand and rubble, all foliage stripped to the bare branches, many a house without windows or roof, an occasional refrigerator or stove sitting out in the road among fallen palm trees. There were armed soldiers everywhere, and the fishermen and construction workers cleaning up with great gusto.
There was more than a foot of seaweed and sand in our house and signs of more than a meter of sea. A fourteen-foot launch landed in our yard. Some of my books got wet and all our clothing was soaked, but as it turned out my files were well-protected. I did not lose a single important sheet of paper. We slept in the house of Mercedes and Joaquín. Just before dawn a light shined so brightly over the sea that Anita and I awakened in surprise and a little fear, but it was only a splendid planet. We went out on the balcony arm-in-arm, naked as Adam and Eve. The sky was the opalescent blue of my beloved's eyes, and the stars were as brilliant as diamonds. It was if we had never seen the stars before. Sand as white as snow covered all the streets. There was no human light or sound.
To the north, we could see the reflection of the lights of Cancun. There was light in Cancun. The machinery of civilization began again. During the following days no family in Puerto Morelos was without house, or food or clothing. But when Adalia Zetina Iturralde, sister of Wilmo Zetina Iturralde, mayor of Puerto Moreles, arrived at our house with a package of food for us -- foreigners, gringos -- my heart lifted with the peace that has no name.
I would never wish to
suggest that this lesson was worth the loss of thirty lives and the
destruction of so much property, but possibly it is a grain of sand
toward a monument in their memory.
Copyright Jules Siegel, 1988, 2005. All rights reserved
Fruits & Vegetables
Hotels Ice Cream
Zona de Tolerancia
Words to live by.