In my parents’ generation, it was where you were the days that President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Junior were shot. For those of us born later, it is where we were September 11, 2001. Oddly, Evan and I were in Spanish class that morning in Santiago, Chile. At the morning break around 10:15 am, several people checked their email and the latest news in the computer center of the language school.
I was chatting with a student from California, when across the room man at a computer wailed, “Oh my God!” cupping his hand over his mouth and pointing at the computer screen. I continued talking, thinking he was overreacting to celebrity news.
The woman at the console next to him said, “A plane hit the Twin Towers!” Although the photo on her monitor would confirm what she said, it felt like the radio “War of the Worlds” and seemed impossibly false, absurd. The truth of it hit me. My sister lived in New York… Deep rumbling grief threatened to boil.
All twenty-three of us; the nineteen from the United States, one from Russia, two from Germany, and one from Australia, crowded around the screens trying to get a view of the footage and stories. Santiago and New York City are on the same time zone that time of year. We watched video of the plane that hit the second tower. Shortly after, the World Trade Center towers imploded. I began crying and holding onto Evan. Sobbing and hugging spread throughout the school like a flood. Classes were cancelled for the rest of the day.
Evan and I walked home. At a pay phone on the way, I phoned my mother with a calling card. I learned to my relief that my sister who lived in Brooklyn and commuted to Manhattan weekdays was out of town with her boyfriend who worked in the financial district. What a relief! Evan and I sat in the apartment we shared with Señora P, glued to CNN coverage of the event for the rest of the day. As US citizens we felt so isolated, away from our country during this period of mourning. We talked about whether to return stateside immediately, or stay in South America. The next week conversing over dinners, and we decided to remain for a year in Santiago as we planned.
For the next three months, every Chilean we met asked about our family and friends back home, checking in, mindful about the personal nature of the tragedy. I was extremely touched by that. September 11th was already a day of mourning for Chileans. For that is the date in 1973 when Pinochet led the forces to oust and kill their democratically-elected President Allende. Pinochet was dictator for 17 years. Although it is clear to South Americans that a strong hand from the north aided the coup, in 2001 no one held that against us. To Chileans, our humanity was more important than international politics. We were treated with compassion, as citizens of a country that was grieving a great loss.
For me, the most extraordinary gift of traveling is to see others as people, rather than as a nationality or subgroup. Talking to one another, getting to know one another, understanding one another’s humanity. Many times it begins with a simple question, “¿Cómo te llamas?” (What’s your name?)
My condolences to all those who suffered the loss of someone they loved on this day, in the US, in Chile and around the world. May they and we know peace. -Rebecca
Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic en el 11 Septiembre, Fuera de los EEUU.