‘We re­alised we were the for­tu­nate ones’

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

Clare Short

re­calls the hos­pi­tal­ity shown to ho­tel guests af­ter a pow­er­ful earth­quake in Mex­ico

Icouldn’t sleep. Was it the spicy en­chi­ladas I ate? Or the tangy chelada I drank? Or re­liv­ing the ear-pop­ping 6,500ft des­cent down the moun­tain from San Cris­to­bal de Las Casas on a high­way where driv­ers use the hard shoul­der as a third lane, and shrines mark the tragic con­se­quences? Or was it sim­ply the TV from the next-door room?

We were leav­ing the kalei­do­scope that is Chi­a­pas in south­ern Mex­ico a day early, due to the reg­u­lar block­ing of high­ways by pro­test­ers de­nounc­ing the cur­rent griev­ance of the day – lat­terly pi­rate taxis. We had de­cided to stay the night be­fore trav­el­ling near the air­port at La Ceiba Ho­tel in the town of Chi­apa de Corzo, on the banks of the Rio Gri­jalva, which flows through the great canyon El Su­midero.

The ho­tel takes its name from the tree which con­nects the Mayan un­der­world Xibalba with mid­dle earth and the heav­ens. With its long, ser­pen­tine roots, its straight, tall, branch­less trunk for­ti­fied by cathe­dral-like but­tresses and of­ten topped by cru­ci­form branches, the sym­bol­ism is per­fect.

As I lay sleep­less in La Ceiba with mod­ern mid­dleearth in­som­nia (the TV next-

door still dron­ing at nearly mid­night), Xibalba sud­denly erupted. A vi­bra­tion rose up through the floor and the bed be­gan to quiver. The room shud­dered and creaked, and the shak­ing grew more vi­o­lent. I knew we had to get out. “Wake up! Earth­quake!”

We stag­gered to the door. Im­pris­oned by the ini­tially un­yield­ing lock, our panic rose un­til we burst out to join other flee­ing guests.

I was over­whelmed by a sense of ut­ter help­less­ness as I watched the three­storey build­ing rat­tle and sway. The noise was eerie, an other-worldly con­cert: loud rum­bling ac­com­pa­nied by the smash­ing of tiles and plas­ter. The quak­ing lasted an eter­nal 65 sec­onds, so they later told us.

The lights were out. Sirens were sound­ing, dogs barked and peo­ple were in the streets. Guests hud­dled on pool loungers. The ho­tel owner and fam­ily, with true Mex­i­can hos­pi­tal­ity, re­as­sured and in­formed us. “Quieres agua?” (Would you like wa­ter?) and as the af­ter­shocks con­tin­ued “Quieres tequila?” (Would you like tequila?). We sur­vived.

News is pretty in­stant with so­cial me­dia, even in an earth­quake. In our lit­tle oa­sis at La Ceiba we re­alised we were the for­tu­nate ones. Beyond, oth­ers were suf­fer­ing. We had just ex­pe­ri­enced Mex­ico’s worst earth­quake of the cen­tury.

At 7am the restau­rant opened as usual, the wait­ers serv­ing break­fast and sweep­ing up piles of plas­ter and smashed crock­ery.

“Good morn­ing,” I greeted the waiter. “How are you to­day?”

“Bien,” he smiled. “Un poco cansado – y ust­edes?” (Fine, a bit tired – and you?)

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