When the Ground Shakes
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
| This is the 368th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born in the town of Kumanovo, the Republic of Macedonia, in 1987. As a kid, I was very quiet and shy, living in my dream world and imagining how it would be to live with the whales under the water or with the monkeys on the trees. Since an early age, I was fascinated by Disney’s Jungle Book and deeply identified myself with the Mowgli. My parents were always supportive of my imaginative nature, and as the years went by, I started getting interested in creative professions like acting. I remember I was 15 when I joined a youth acting group at the local theater where I first got on stage.
After finishing high school, I got into the Faculty of Drama Arts in Skopje, the capital of my country, where I studied acting for four years. During my studies, I started acting professionally and when I graduated I got employed as an actress in my hometown. I actively worked there as well as in other theaters in the country, going to international festivals and living a comfortable life.
It all changed one rainy afternoon when I was 26, watching a documentary about the beautiful South American country of Ecuador. Being a creative and curious spirit, I was always attracted to foreign destinations with rich biodiverse life. Ecuador was definitely one of the most incredible places that I’d ever seen, so one day, being tired of the life on the Balkans, I decided to move to this fabulous land of various ecosystems.
After doing short online research and learning a couple of Spanish words, my journey began. I ventured into a complete life change, without knowing where exactly I was going, what its culture was like, and what I would do there. However, I was convinced that I was making the right decision. Although I was putting my acting career on hold, I knew that one day I would return to it, but at that point, I wanted something more.
Being a beach lover and coming from a landlocked country, I decided to take the “Ruta del Spondylus” route that follows the Pacific Coast all the way up north, almost to Colombia. After visiting a couple of beachfront towns, one morning, I asked a taxi driver to take me to the next town, without having any idea what I would find there. The cab ride took five minutes, and I was dropped off at the beach of my dreams. A long, wide, sparkly stretch of sand shimmering between the palm trees and the warm Pacific Ocean waves. That was my first impression of one of the most spectacular beaches in the world, the one that I would proudly call home. Olón.
Starting a new life in Olón, Ecuador, was easier than I’d thought. My neighbors were all extremely kind and generous. Their culture and humbleness attracted me, and before I knew it, I was well-incorporated into their community, and my Spanish became surprisingly good. I was involved in different kinds of communal activities, gatherings, and celebrations that helped me get closer to the people that I called my new family. In general, my life was pretty much a mix of beach sunsets and shrimp cocktails.
The beautiful story of my life changed completely one warm evening—on April 16th, 2016, to be exact. I was sitting at the porch of my friend’s hotel where I was living and working, staring at the flowers that we just arranged and watching the neighbors’ kids playing on the street, while all of a sudden the new hanging flower pots started moving, and I felt a weird heartbeat, thinking to myself, “I need to quit smoking cigarettes.”
It was after 6 PM and all the guests of the hotel were already back to their rooms, so I was the only one sitting outside. The chair I was sitting in started moving like it was alive. What a horrifying feeling! At that moment, I started realizing that nothing was wrong with my heart. It was an earthquake!
I walked to the middle of the street from where you can could the ocean two blocks down. As impossible as this may seem, the street was moving like a snake, and I fell onto the ground. The houses, my friend’s hotel, the electric posts, stores, cars, people, dogs, little children—everything and everybody was moving and falling on the ground, while the quake was becoming stronger and stronger.
Babies crying, dogs howling, walls and trees cracking, cars ready to run over people, desperately trying to leave the village and go to the mountains. The lights went off, we had no internet, and had no idea what just happened. The first thought that came to our mind was: Is there going to be a tsunami?
Then, I ran back to the hotel, making sure everybody was fine. Besides screams and shakes, all people were alive—thank goodness—trying to get out of the broken door of the building. I managed to find a headlamp that my dad gave me when we were hiking back home in Macedonia, and I always kept it near the door. Being able to light my way, I started moving towards the babies’ voices and their panicking mothers, trying to evacuate them first and load them on the local trucks that were leaving the village.
I will never forget the crying face of my little four-year-old neighbor Alex who lost his puppy in the ruins of the house and was refusing to get rescued and put on the truck. In the end, I had to promise him that when he came back I would get him a new puppy, but now he needed to leave with his mom and his siblings. In those moments, one needed to improvise and invent stories in order to calm the public panic.
The good thing in all the mess was that the emergency speakers of the community survived, and we were told that there would be no tsunami. Luckily the hotel didn’t suffer any serious damage, and we were still able to live there. The next day, we got back electricity, and the life needed to start all over again.
The epicenter was close to our town, and the 7.9 magnitude earthquake lasted for 58 seconds. The scariest and deadliest 58 seconds in my life. Over 272 people lost their lives that evening, and at least 1500 were severely injured and left on the street. The streets of our town were cracked, full of debris, cables were hanging from some of the posts, and a lot of houses were left with only one wall. A lot of people I knew lost dear family members and friends, and the only thing I was thinking was that everyone I knew was still alive.
The pain I felt in my chest after that day lingered for a very long time. Nothing was the same, and I couldn’t care about the fabulous sunsets anymore. The town I chose to be my home was devastated, empty, and sad.
I couldn’t live there anymore. I was grateful I survived unlike many other people, but it was too difficult to keep on living in a ghost town wrapped in grief and hosting the rainy season. I waited until the end of June that year when I packed my backpack and moved to the Andes, Cuenca.
Cuenca is an extraordinary city, with colonial architecture and rich cultural life, where I thought I could go back to acting again. The first two months I was just walking around, meeting people, visiting the theaters and cultural centers, until one day I saw a post that a private acting studio needed a professor. I thought to myself that that was exactly what I needed. It fit my profile, it would bring me an income, and it would definitely help me heal after the horrifying trauma I lived on the coast. So, I called the number. An interview was scheduled for the next day, and I was hired right away.
For the first time since the earthquake, I was feeling slightly better. I got to teach acting and share my knowledge and experience with adult students who wanted to peek into this magical profession. While teaching them how to canalize their emotions and how to try to remember their traumas and transform them into their characters, I was actually helping myself to learn how to live with the unfortunate deaths of people that I knew and the sad experiences of others who had lost their homes and left Olón.
My acting professors always told us to nourish every type of memory, no matter how painful it was, because one day that could be the core of our roles. I was telling that to my students, and thinking that I needed to apply it to myself as well. Moving from the death spot does not mean that I didn’t take a part of it with me. Nevertheless, thanks to my acting classes, sharing experiences with fellow actors, and working on three different theater plays helped me to partly overcome the fear that lingered over my head.
After a year and a half working on myself and others, searching for the deepest shadows of the soul, and transforming them into light on stage, I was ready to move on with my life, without having to cry myself to sleep every night.
By the end of 2017, I was ready to face the past and went back to my town on the Pacific Coast. People just moved on, rebuilt some of the homes, and kept living their peaceful lives, yet with a sad look in their eyes. Some of the neighbors, who’d survived and left that night, never came back, including my little neighbor Alex to whom I promised a new puppy. I heard the entire family moved to a big city and started a new life there.
Now, more than three years after the earthquake, I still live on the coast of Ecuador, having occasional quakes, but nothing compared to what I survived. A friend once told me, “You live on the ring of fire, take care!” I guess he was right!
In the end, I still believe that moving here was the best decision I’ve ever made. Sometimes life can be rough, but that is how one learns and grows. I believe that what I survived was a wake up call from Mother Nature not to take things for granted and appreciate life even more. Since that moment, I look at life and everything it brings with entirely different eyes. I learned how to be more patient, how to deal with the pain and the most important – how to adapt to a new situation that I can’t control. Surviving this tremendous experience made a stronger, better, and more understanding person. And I am thankful to be alive!
This is the story of Stef Zisovska
Today, Stef lives in Olón where she has her own house and garden, and has dedicated much of her time to writing. Stef discovered the beauty of Ecuador when she was 26 and decided to take the journey to live there. But her perfect beach life was shaken when an earthquake occurred in 2016. The devastation caused her to move, but after years of healing she was able to return and live a happy life. She says that if she hadn’t survived a disaster, she would’ve never discovered her other potentials, like learning perfect Spanish and fulfilling her acting dream. Stef hopes to open an acting school here on the Olón beach one day and invite all the dear people that she worked with. After all, life is all about sharing!
This story first touched our hearts on July 1, 2019.
| Writer: Stef Zisovska | Editor: Kristen Petronio |
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