I was typing on Skype to someone I’ve met in person twice when the screen started to sway. Then the ground dragged my feet back and forth and the whole apartment was lurching.
I lived in California for a while so I’m used to earthquakes. I remember once letting a tame one rock me back to sleep during a sunny mid-afternoon nap.
But this one just kept going. On and on it rolled. My nocturnal roommates woke up, screamed “earthquake!” and filmed the fan shuddering back and forth. I walked out to the balcony and tried to see how much the building bent back and forth. Other families crowded out on their balconies, pointing and exclaiming. Many shuffled down the stairs to stare up at us from outside.
Later that day, after the vibrations eventually stilled, I took the elevator down to grab some grub. Some neighbors piled in. They asked me if I’d run outside. “No, I figured if the building collapsed I would die in the stairwell anyway,” I said and they laughed, half out of nervousness at the thought of the building falling on top of them and half at the idea of this white guy talking rapidly at them. One of the ladies in the elevator had run out without sandals, and they told me about it, laughing again. I chuckled and snuck glances at the daughter’s pale thighs.
The earthquake which prompted the tsunami in 2004 was a 9.1-magnitude. This one was an 8.7, with aftershocks as powerful as 8.2. But apparently there’s a difference between vertical and horizontal impact, and there was no tsunami.
I refreshed a liveblog news site on my phone and eventually didn’t make a run for it. But I had planned it all out inside of my head. I’d shove my laptop, headphones, mp3 player, phone, voice recorder, my passport, my grandfather’s ring, a copy of Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son, and two pairs of boxers in my backpack. I would take off on my bike up Penang Hill. Past the temple, I’d park at Ayer Hitam (Black Water) Dam – from there you can see the entirety of Georgetown.
Later I did the math and realized my placement on the far side of the island from the ‘quake meant my condo would have been safe in the first place. Still, I was morbidly excited by the thought of watching an entire city destroyed, safe with my only valuable possessions strapped to my back.
Later that night I filtered off to bed. Lying on my side, I stared open-eyed out the window, where silent bolts of lightning illuminated the entire room, Nature coldly reminding me it could destroy me in a blink.