Friday, December 28, 2007

Gringa moments

When I was studying in Chile three years ago, fellow exchange student Emily gave me some very sage advice. She said that, in her view, it was pointless to worry about looking stupid while living abroad because you would pretty much look stupid whatever you did. As much as I've tried to take Emily's wisdom to heart and banish all shame, there are times when I just feel like such. a. stupid. gringa.

One of the most recent of these unfortunate episodes occurred a few weeks ago when I went to my photography class. As I've explained before, my class is held in an okupa, an abandoned building taken over by people without legal claim to the property. On this particular day, the okupa had organized a series of events and performances to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Santa María massacre, when striking nitrate workers were gunned down by soldiers in the northern Chilean city of Iquique. Death toll estimates vary widely, but it has been speculated that the massacre could have claimed up to 3,600 victims. The massacre has since become emblematic in the struggle for workers' rights and social equality. So emblematic, in fact, that it has been chronicled in a series of songs called the Cantata Santa María.

After all the programmed acts--which had included local rappers and clowns, among other performers--had wrapped up at the okupa, the Cantata Santa María began playing over the speakers that had been set up for the occasion. The sound system had been put together in a large room that must have been a reception hall or ballroom in bygone decades, and a handful of people sat listening in somber and respectful silence.

After entering and listening for a few minutes, I remembered that I had to make a phone call. Figuring that doing so in the middle of the Cantata wouldn't be appropriate, I stood up and headed for a neighboring room.

As one might guess, not all the electrical outlets in the okupa are in working order. This meant that the sound equipment was being powered by an extension cord that snaked across the floor and into the next room before slipping out a window and climbing like a vine up to an outlet somewhere on the second floor. I'm guessing that they make extension cords orange so that clumsy people will see them before it's too late. Unfortunately, their foresight wasn't enough this time. Just as the general who commanded the troops responsible for the massacre was launching into a tirade about how the workers should shut up and content themselves with their lot--a particularly dramatic moment in the Cantata that leads into an account of the massacre itself--my toe hooked under the orange cord. The general fell silent, and heads turned.

I sputtered an apology and made a desperate effort to look like I knew how to fix the problem. But the damage had already been done. I, the camera-toting, sunburned daughter of the Empire, had ruined the Cantata Santa María.

No one seemed mad. Once the electricity was flowing again, the DJ spent ten minutes dutifully skipping through the Cantata--which was apparently stored as a single audio track--to pick up where I had cut everybody off. I even got a consoling pat on the head. However, my mortification at having marred the poignant commemoration of a national tragedy still hasn't dissipated.

The funny thing about this little debacle is that it had absolutely nothing to do with being foreign. Chileans are just as capable as being hopelessly clumsy as those of us who hail from other, wider countries. Regardless, I feel like my status as an out-of-place Other is never more glaring than when I've just called attention to myself by doing something stupid. Chalk it up to gringo paranoia, a condition that is still awaiting recognition by the American Psychiatric Association. Gringo paranoia, in unscientific terms, is the belief that everyone knows you're foreign and resents you for it. Although I'm well aware that this (at least the second part) is rarely the case, it can be a hard feeling to shake when you're clumsy and thousands of miles from home.

So, until I become brazen enough to follow Emily's advice, I'm working on treading more lightly.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Plate tectonics

I spent hours of my eighth grade life sticking multicolored dots to a placemat. This was, surprisingly, not my idea. Our science teacher was eager to impart her passion for all things geological, and it had occurred to her that making us plot the locations of recent seismic activity on laminated world maps was a good way to do it.

Over the course of the school year, our maps filled up with miniature circles that pinpointed the places where the earth was grumbling. Most of the dots were blue, green or yellow, indicating mainly benign tremors that never made it to great heights on the Richter scale. The less frequent orange and red dots represented quakes that broke into the higher ranges of the scale and usually achieved fleeting celebrity status on CNN. The sinister black dots, which I don´t think we ever used, denoted apocalyptic catastrophe.

The idea, of course, was that we would eventually come to the realization that the dots were not scattered with the randomness of multicolored acne. There was, alas, a system to it all, one that had to do with volcanoes, Pangea and underwater mountain ranges. When I was 13, pondering the grand movements of the earth gave me the same slightly terrifying chills that I think people see the Hostel movies for.

As my spotted placemat demonstrated, one of the places where the earth does a lot of moving is the western edge of South America. This is a region where continental plates bump shoulders, and it shows in the sixth sense many Chileans seem to have developed for twitches underfoot. I, on the other hand, rarely sense the tremors that everyone else claims to have felt.

This was not the case today, however. At about 6:30 this morning, I awoke to a shaking bed. Being as I was in a state of syrupy semi-consciousness, this did not strike me as particularly worrying. After going along with the bumpy ride for several moments, I fell back asleep and proceeded to dream that I had some shampoo that smelled really, really good. When I finally took a definitive leap into wakefulness a few hours later, my roommate confirmed that the ground had, in fact, shaken. Pretty much every Santiaguino I talked to today had also been woken up by the tremor.

The earth has been shivering a lot in Chile since a powerful earthquake devastated an already struggling northern region in November. As if the massive destruction caused by the first quake weren´t enough, the affected areas have been flagellated with a steady stream of aftershocks, some of which have been felt in Santiago. Here in the capital, their effects have been of a purely blue-dot variety.

The last time Santiago was crowned with a red dot was in 1985. One of my students remembers being in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso--close to the epicenter of the earthquake--at the time and seeing the pavement split in two and the glass facade of a hotel shatter. The amount of time that has passed since then is disconcerting for many Santiaguinos, who say that the next big quake is long overdue.

It was already long overdue about three years ago, when Santiago spent a week in the talons of one of the most contagious urban legends I´ve ever heard. The earthquake, it was said, was coming...on Saturday. The experts knew it. So did my host sister, who suggested we all wax our legs. When Saturday came and went disaster-free, a few pairs of smooth legs were all the imaginary earthquake had to show for itself.

So, Santiago continues to wait. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to visit this beautiful land of snow-capped mountains, pristine forests and massage beds that vibrate without you even having to pop a quarter into a slot.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Love in the Time of Concrete (or In Defense of PDA)

FYI: The Santiago Times, which you probably haven’t read if you’re not my mom, has a radio station that my mom can also tell you about. The station, just like the newspaper, is staffed by plucky interns from a handful of countries. A few weeks ago, one of them moderated a discussion program in which my fellow interns and I were asked to sound off on different aspects of life as a gringo in Chile. After griping about the Transantiago transportation system, we moved onto a juicier topic: Chileans’ notorious predilection for public displays of affection.

Anyone who’s spent more than thirty seconds in a Santiago park has seen them: young couples so crazy for each other that they want to shout it from a mountaintop. However, since reaching nearby mountaintops frequently involves putting chains on tires, they settle for shouting it from park benches, bus stops, and especially grass, where it’s not uncommon to see pairs of sweethearts lying on top of each other exchanging saliva.

Hearing foreigners react with disgust to this uninhibited PDA is almost as common as hearing them (us) marvel at how clean Santiago’s metro is. Sure, it’s not uncommon to stumble across a public make-out session every once in awhile in the United States. In fact, I doubt many people from the U.S. would be able to honestly deny having participated in some good old-fashioned PDA. Nevertheless, I see far more pairs of intertwined tongues on a typical day in Santiago than I do stateside.

As we sipped beer and passed the microphones around, we debated various explanations of both Chilean PDA and the reaction it tends to provoke in gringos. It was suggested that Chilean young adults, who oftentimes live with their parents until ages that would be considered socially unacceptable by many in the United States, find more privacy in parks and plazas than they do at home. Someone else said we from the U.S., true to our Puritan cultural heritage, are hopeless prudes. Or are we just jealous?

We didn’t reach any definitive conclusions; it appears that the issue will have to be resolved through future academic inquiry. The conversation, in any case, got me thinking about Chilean PDA in all its saliva-soaked glory.

Except for the time when I passed a couple going all the way in the front seat of their car (my eyes are still burning a little), most of the romantic action I’ve seen on the streets of Santiago—and under them, as the corners of Metro cars are hot real estate for public snoggers—has been strictly PG-13. The only thing remarkable about it, in my opinion, is how often it happens. Then again, some of my friends’ experiences haven’t been as family-friendly as mine (think hands under clothing).

All hands, fortunately, were visible when I recently came across a young couple at one of Santiago’s major transportation terminals. Rush hour tension was high as flustered commuters lined up to shove their way onto buses. The only people seemingly unaffected by the prevailing anxiety were the two lovebirds, who cuddled in peaceful oblivion while waiting for their bus.

An experience I had a few days later brought the couple to mind. As I was crossing the street, a polite driver stopped to let me pass. This was apparently outrageous for the driver behind him, who squealed to a stop and laid on the horn (next entry: How many clichéd driving phrases can Leigh fit into one sentence?). The contrast between the impatient driver’s road rage and the couple’s tranquility was a stark a one as I had seen in a long time.

The episode made me consider all the things that, unlike PDA, are considered publicly acceptable. We shout, insult and flick off. As I was biking home from my internship the other day, I saw four men lined up next to each other peeing on the same wall. When you consider all the other things we do out in the open, is French kissing really that bad?

I don’t think so. So, the next time you feel the urge to run someone off the road because he or she has stopped for a pedestrian, do everyone a favor and go find someone to make out with.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Confessions of an urban spy

One of the things I love about Santiago is how many windows it has. This city is home to six million people who need places to live and panes to look out of. The consequence: I get to live vicariously through all of them.

No, not stalk them. I´m not talking about prolonged, covert observation. I´m talking about fleeting, almost incidental moments of espionage. For a pedestrian, these glimpses last only as long as you can sustain a corner-of-the-eye gaze without noticeably turning your head. Buses and cars provide the urban spy with a bit more freedom to stare; as anyone who's ever had an inter-vehicle love affair that lasted the length of a red light knows, being aboard a form of transportation provides one with the same sense of anonymous invincibility as the internet. The knowledge that one is moments from rolling away down the street provokes audacity the way that the protection of a screen name incites people to make sordid confessions they would otherwise have taken to the grave.

Here's my sordid internet confession: I look through people's windows. Not with a telescope or my nose pressed up against the glass. Not with any sinister purpose. Just in passing. I imagine how my life would be if I took naps in that bedroom or opened Christmas presents every year on that living room sofa. In this way, Santiago provides me--and anyone else with a slightly voyeuristic spirit--with millions of imaginary identities.

This is much truer in some areas than in others. When I was in Chile as an exchange student, for example, I lived in a suburban neighborhood where single-family houses sat behind gardens that sat behind high fences. In my current neighborhood, in contrast, people live smashed next to and stacked on top of each other. Building fronts--and, therefore, windows--are lined up right next to the sidewalk, which provides great views for spies despite iron window bars. These streetfront windows also provide a live soundtrack: I love walking through my neighborhood and hearing people laughing hysterically or belting along with the radio.

Some of my most recent espionage activity took place this past weekend, when my roommates and I went to play a midnight round of Trivial Pursuit with a friend. The venue chosen for the showdown was an apartment in a new high rise downtown. I have something of a love-hate relationship with these buildings, which are sprouting like stuccoed mushrooms all over central Santiago. On the one hand, they oftentimes require the destruction of beautiful old buildings in historical areas. On the other hand, their balconies provide some of the best panoramic views in the city. They also, of course, have tremendous numbers of windows. When residents have their curtains pulled, these structures become giant rectangular multi-colored mosaics.

A friend recently told me that looking up at these buildings depressed him because he felt excluded from everything he imagined happening inside. I feel the opposite: Knowing that hundreds of lives are being lived right before my eyes makes me feel accompanied.

But back to Trivial Pursuit. During the course of the game, I learned that birds have three eyelashes on each eye. I also learned a little about the neighbors. When it wasn't my team's turn, I stepped out onto the balcony, which provided a beautiful view of an extensive area of the city--and of nearby apartments. In one, the TV was tuned to the Teletón, a fundraiser for children with disabilities that keeps Chileans teary-eyed for 27 hours every year. In another, a shadow cast on a wall was wailing on its air guitar. In an older, smaller apartment complex across the street, a guy was shuffling pillows around on his bed. At one point, he leaned out his window and looked up at me.

He was spying, too.

So we did what any two undercover agents who had just caught one another in the act would do: We waved. The greeting was somehow an implicit agreement to keep each other company: I would occasionally step out onto the balcony when my team's turn was finished, and he would hang around his window for awhile. To clarify, there was nothing romantic about it. It was just a temporary alliance between two people floating in giant window grids at 3 A.M. in the middle of an enormous city.

The great thing about huge cities is the frequency with which these fleeting friendships are formed. Someone who laughs along with you when you do the who-should-go-around-whom dance in the middle of the sidewalk or shoots you a knowing eye-roll when the bus is packed is guaranteed to brighten your day, if only for 30 seconds.

In other words, I love being an anonymous spy in Santiago. And I'm not a stalker, I swear.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A public service announcement

All young women should consider getting this vaccine:

Gardasil - English

Gardasil - español
La vacuna está disponible en Chile. A mí me la pusieron en la Clínica Santa María.

I just got the second of three required shots yesterday. My arm is a little sore, but I bet cervical cancer hurts more. I hope that all insurance plans--including ones here in Chile, where Gardasil costs even more than it does in the U.S.--will come to the same conclusion and start covering the vaccine.

My calculations bring the total cost of the vaccine series in Chile to about US$525, which is close to being more than what half of Chile's private sector workers earn each month.

Monday, November 26, 2007

On the Chilean runway

I’ll admit it: I’ve never been particularly fashionable. I’ve long since decided to give up and leave the trendsetting to my little sister Quinn, who I’m pretty sure was the one who taught me how to put on makeup. At least the family has one daughter who knows how to accessorize. I, on the other hand, was recently treated to a rude awakening while cleaning out my closet: Shame on you for letting me wear those awful things.

Anyone who saw the scarves and oversized fake pearl earrings that came out of my suitcase when I arrived home after my first stint in Chile knows that there’s one group of trends I do pay attention to, though: Chilean ones. These days in Chile, the scarves are still going strong, although the pearl earrings seem to have slipped in popularity. Old trends, as always, have been replaced by new. Here are some that have caught my attention:

  1. FANNY PACKS. Long dismissed in the U.S. as the preferred accessory of cyclists and tourists in colorful track suits, they march triumphantly down the streets of Santiago, lounging just below the navels of everyone from teeny boppers to girls with multicolored hair. Fanny packs, like the pearl earrings that went before them, are a ubiquitous sight at street fairs and boutiques, dangling like patterned possums from display rails. The most popular patterns involve polka dots, stars or hearts, usually in some combination of black, white and icy pastels. Before you insult these trendy little pouches, ask yourself: Is there any better way to bypass the I-need-to-bring-a-purse-but-don’t-want-to-have-my-hands-full dilemma? I’m thinking of getting one.
  2. MEDICAL SHOWS. Extreme plastic surgery! Conjoined twins! Chilean Rescue 911! I’ve watched relatively little TV since arriving in Chile, but I’ve stumbled across a noticeably wide offering of real-life scalpel drama. These shows, like the surgery channel that lurks somewhere in the high numbers of U.S. cable lineups, are best watched in short glimpses between fingers: Very few (if any) details are spared. Like doctors, fascination with blood and guts has no borders.
  3. HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. It’s on in the Metro…enough said. But I’ll say more: It’s refreshing to come across a North American cultural export that doesn’t lead people to believe that we all sleep with guns under our pillows. If they start believing that a day at a U.S. high school involves choreography and ballad duets, it’ll be OK with me.

I’m looking forward to seeing just how disconnected from U.S. pop culture I’ll be when I go home for Christmas in a few weeks. Maybe I’ll bring a fanny pack.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

…Y en Santiago con tus luces y su noviembre me quemé

Summer heat waves in Santiago, just like anywhere else, mean one thing: cute kids playing in fountains.
Or blasting the crap out of each other with hoses.

More photos of heat wave antics are posted in the Santiago Times photo gallery.

The title of this post, in case you were curious, is from Ismael Serrano's song "Vine del Norte." The song contains an almost excessive number of references to all things Chilean, but I think that anyone who's been lucky enough to spend a slightly drunken night wandering aimlessly around Santiago will be able to relate. Given the sunburn I've managed to develop despite the best efforts of my SPF 55, I thought the quote was appropriate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fear smells like box wine: the Reckoning

When we last saw our eager intern, she was walking buoyantly toward the closest Metro station, tape recorder cued up for action. She was, as it happened, also pondering fear.

It’s a hard thing not to ponder in Santiago, where broken glass tops garden walls and neglected dogs spend their lives guarding front gates. Santiaguinos are afraid of each other, and it shows. It shows in barbed wire, barred windows, 24-hour building security and the raised eyebrows one provokes upon mentioning going to certain parts of town at night. I admit to participating in the culture of collective fear: When I walk in my neighborhood after dark, I have my alarm keychain (thanks, Mom) at the ready.

As I passed padlock after padlock on my way to the Metro, it occurred to me that urban fear would be a good subject for the photo series I’m expected to produce in the coming month. The short version of the story, which will receive its deserved full entry in the future, is that I’m taking a photography class at an abandoned mansion two blocks from my apartment. Formerly abandoned would be a much more appropriate term, because the house is full of people. These people are, from a legal perspective, squatters: The house, despite being left empty for many years, still belongs to the state. The young people who have occupied it have turned it into an art center where they offer free classes in everything from acrobatic theater to silkscreening, including photography. My camera may not be as sexy as the ones brandished by the journalists at the senator’s San Pablo press talk, but it is definitely capable of much more than I know how to do with it. I think the class will be the perfect opportunity to figure out what all those buttons actually do.

I’ve shown up for class twice so far, only to be told that the teacher was outside of the city and not coming. On the most recent of these occasions, I met two future classmates who explained that every student had to take a series of photos that told a story, preferably about a social issue. I tossed a few ideas around in my head before arriving at the conclusion that fear, symptom of many social issues and creator of others, would be the perfect choice. Despite knowing that I would probably come up with another perfect choice the next day, I started snapping photos as I headed off to interview. I wouldn’t be surprised if onlookers, witnessing my apparent fascination with latches and deadbolts, had thought I was plotting a robbery.

I reached the Alameda only to find the entrance to the Metro blocked by metal bars. People were pacing back and forth with the apprehensive over-the-shoulder glances I’ve come to associate with one thing: street riots. Sure enough, militarized green-brown paddy wagons began to roll in as policemen in riot gear prepared themselves for action. I followed the onlookers’ stares and realized that the “riot” was actually anything but: All I could see were some kids milling around on a curb.

Apparently, the cops saw much more than that, because in no time nightsticks were flying and objects were being thrown in retaliation. One guy, after taking a series of energetic blows from a helmeted police officer, was dragged off into a police van. From where I stood a half block away, I couldn’t tell what, if anything, he and the other kids who proceeded to get clobbered had done to provoke the use of force besides wear dark clothes.

This was urban fear in action. Fear of disorder, fear of nightsticks, fear of black cotton and spiked hair. I pulled out my camera and started shooting. My dramatic moment of urban reporting didn’t last, however, as a new fear was soon added to the list: fear of guanacos.

A guanaco is a member of the llama family that spits. These adorable Andean creatures aren’t very good at inspiring terror, but their namesakes—giant tank-like vehicles with water cannons—are.

It was like a scene in a natural disaster movie: People start running, and then the protagonist looks up and, during three seconds of wide-eyed dread, realizes why. Except when I looked up, I beheld not a tsunami wave but a white column of water being fired into the street. Just like a wild guanaco, the police tank was spitting.

My first reaction was to lament the fact that I hadn’t gotten nearly enough good photos. My second was to run. Two police officers decided to tag along as well, shouting “chao!” as they chased after me and a number of other young havoc-wreaking hooligans. They chased us directly into the reach of one of their colleagues, whose nightstick was smacking the back of each fugitive like a bar on a Metro turnstile. I was spared; it appears that chivalry is not dead.

I was not, however, in the clear. Suddenly, my back was sopping wet. This was not the work of the guanaco: The droplets that clung to my hand and camera gave off the unmistakable smell of alcohol.

Nobody was popping champagne. From what I can gather, the kids who were now running down the sidewalk alongside me had gathered for some kind of concert or event. The sidewalk, therefore, was littered with the detritus of pre-partying: empty bottles and, most importantly, a giant box of wine. In the midst of his hot pursuit, one of the policemen had stomped down on it, and it had proceeded to explode all over me.

Had I not been certain it would have gotten me clubbed and hauled off to the paddy wagon, I would have retaliated with the classic Chilean curse against the police: PACO CULIAO! Instead, I did what any girl who doesn’t fancy hematomas and a few hours in jail would have done: I went to the nearby train station and bought some alfajores.

They were delicious. Suspecting that more than a few street vendors would be wary of spilling their guts to a foreign girl who reeked of booze, I abandoned my interview plan and headed home. On the way, I passed the site of the scuffle to see smoke rising from the median in the middle of the street. Police officers were pacing the median, methodically stomping on glass bottles so that no one could throw them.

As far as Chilean street disturbances go, this one was minor; I saw neither tear gas canisters nor Molotov cocktails. Nevertheless, the experience seemed to confirm that I had chosen the right topic for my photo set.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fear smells like box wine: Part 1

My hand, I’m quite certain, is now famous. Its celebrity trajectory began a few days ago, when The Santiago Times received a press release from the UDI, a right-wing Chilean political party. We were informed that the president of the party, a senator, along with a handful of other UDI legislators, planned to observe and evaluate the functioning of the Transantiago transportation system at rush hour and then make comments to the press. Having never attended a press event before (and being strangely fascinated by public transportation), I volunteered to go.

As the appointed time for the senator’s appearance approached, photographers, cameramen, a few TV reporters and a number of onlookers who figured something must be happening began to pace along the sidewalk outside the San Pablo Metro station. I sat on the edge of a bench, clutching a borrowed tape recorder and a very unprofessional camera. The longer I waited, the more nervous I became; what if I couldn’t form a coherent Spanish phrase when it was my turn to ask a question?

My problem, it turns out, was solved for me. As soon as the senator arrived, he was buried beneath an exoskeleton of television cameras and people with real microphones. I was quickly relieved of my naivety and realized that there were no turns here. Still, I nudged and permisoed, usually to be motioned back by a photographer whose shot I’d spoiled. I clung to the edge of the media clump, too far back to hear what the senator was saying but hoping that my tape recorder, which I’d shoved as deep into the microphone mass as my arm could reach, would salvage some of his words.

I don’t know if any of the networks present actually aired the footage, but if they did, Chile has seen my hand bobbing in a sea of TV logos. My hand would like to take this opportunity to say that it would never have gotten to where it is today without the tireless love and support of so many amazing people.

When I replayed the senator’s comments at work the next day, I decided not to write the article I had gone to San Pablo to research. The senator, clutching the hand of an elderly woman in a wheelchair, had said what I had expected him to say: Transantiago sucks, and it’s the other guys’ fault. This is certainly not the first time this sentiment has been expressed by the Chilean right, which—as fellow Santiago Times intern Trey has pointed out—has found in Santiago’s transportation woes a very visible reason to criticize the governing center-left coalition. It’s been said, it’s been written about, and it’s been read; had I really spent two hours at the last stop on the Metro line to report more of the same?

I decided that I hadn’t and that I had to change the focus of my article. Having interviewed a number of commuters at the station before the senator’s arrival, I had plenty of other material to draw from. What about a report based on the comments of people who actually use public transportation on a daily basis instead of those who show up for a photo op and a round of political criticism every once in awhile?

As much as I appreciated the comments that people on the street were willing to give to a strange girl with an accent and a tape recorder, I soon realized that they weren’t enough to base an original article on. The citizen outcry surrounding Transantiago has, of course, already been done as well. The people I interviewed—except for one who told me I’d better put my tape recorder away before someone stole it—all expressed the same general idea: Transantiago sucks, and we’re mad about it. It’s a sentiment that I—a frequent Transantiago user despite my newly acquired status as a bike owner—can empathize with but which, alas, has already been said, written about and read as well.

That left me with the comments offered by someone who had been at San Pablo at work, not on his way home from it: a street vendor who had set up shop outside the Metro station selling a variety of objects which I think included batteries and mirrors. As the tape recorder’s little wheels spun dutifully, he explained that Transantiago had been good for business in a way: Problems with buses have left large numbers of people with no other option than to travel underground. Upon reaching the end of the Metro line, these large numbers of people are spit back up into the sunlight and into his lap.

Here was something new, at least in comparison to the rest of what I’d heard. Commuters have complained and politicians have claimed to complain for them, but what of those whose contact with public transportation is of a different nature altogether?

I don’t claim to be the first person this idea has occurred to. In fact, I’m sure a few minutes of Google searching would turn up ample proof to the contrary. Still, I like to flatter myself and think that no one’s written an article in English about it yet, even though I might be giving myself way too much credit on that front as well.

So it was that I set out from my apartment on Saturday afternoon, once again toting a tape recorder and a camera. I was off to San Pablo to pester street vendors. My journey, however, would soon be interrupted by the event that gives this post its name and my clothes the unmistakable smell of debauchery. The story, which involves alfajores and riot hoses, is soon to come.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

My new wheels

That’s right, it’s my awesome new mountain bike! “New,” I suppose, is a relative term. I bought the bike used at a little repair shop just off Calle San Diego, a street in downtown Santiago that adopts a new commercial personality every few blocks. The stretch directly south of the Alameda, Santiago’s main east-west artery, is by far my favorite: If block after block of used book stores isn’t heaven, it’s pretty darn close. At first glance, each shop or kiosk is a barely contained chaos of paper and dust, but some incomprehensible order permits the vendors to unearth practically any title from sagging shelves or precarious towers.

As one continues south, San Diego lines itself with discount electronics and clothing stores and then—once the towering Santísimo Sacramento church has been left behind—bike shops. Last week, I rode out of one of these shops with 18 speeds and safety lights that flash enough to illuminate a rave. Since then, my bike has accompanied me on a number of urban escapades. It’s also allowed me to bypass Transantiago, the confounding new transportation system that has been experiencing some glitches, to put it euphemistically. I frequently wax nostalgic about the good old days when Santiago’s buses were yellow and I knew where they went; I feel like someone’s great aunt who gripes about the evils of those new-fangled picture boxes.

Today, my bike will roll into its new home. I took advantage of Thursday’s All Saints’ Day holiday to move into my new apartment, which is located in a historical neighborhood in downtown Santiago. More on that to come!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A spoonful of palta

There’s no better way to write about life in Chile than while savoring a chicken and palta sandwich. Chile officially suffers from a national obsession with palta, or avocado; “suffer” might not be the right word, however, because palta is so fantastically delicious. One thing I’ve learned by living here is that anything from hot dogs to toast can be made that much better by being smeared with smashed up avocado.

I’m enjoying my sandwich on a bare mattress in a nearly empty room. For the past week, I’ve been living the glamorous life in an apartment that can only be described as Limbo without Socrates. It used to be the Santiago Times office, but the paper moved downstairs an indeterminate number of weeks ago and left the space looking as though everyone had had to evacuate quickly. There are stacks of National Geographic, a substantial stock of laundry detergent and dismembered computers with no monitors. Some of the most intriguing items that have been abandoned here are posters from the NO campaign, which urged Chileans to vote against extending Pinochet’s term in the 1988 national plebiscite. The NO triumphed, elections were held, and Chile returned to civilian rule in 1990 after 17 years of military dictatorship.

Despite the fact that the former office is no palace, staying here has its perks. I’m getting to know a neighborhood I didn’t frequent much the first time I lived in Santiago, and my daily commute consists of descending a flight of stairs. I’ve also been able to spend some quality time with Mina, the office puppy, a former stray who bounces from intern to intern depending on who can accommodate her.

Given that I’ve never written newspaper articles before, work has been challenging. My first article, which those of you lucky enough to subscribe to The Santiago Times can find in the archives, was about a new Argentine airline that plans to fly to three cities in northern Chile. It wasn’t exactly a thrilling story, but it was a good one to start with because it was straightforward: no political analysis or expert opinions required. Since then, I’ve had the chance to write articles on a variety of subjects that has included Chilean politics, urban transportation problems and environmental issues. I feel more informed than ever, but I still have a long way to go!

Aside from searching for apartments, I’ve been spending my non-working hours catching up with friends I haven’t seen since I was last in Chile a year and a half ago. One of the highlights of my time in Santiago so far has been speeding through Santiago at 2:30 A.M. on the back of my friend Andrés’s motorcycle. A bit of background: Andrés and I met in a judo class at the University of Chile’s engineering school, and two years later, he bought himself a motorcycle. I was (more than) a little nervous as he tore out of his building’s parking lot, but by the time we pulled up in front of the Santiago Times office, I wanted to ask him if we could go back to his apartment and do the whole thing over again. Zipping between familiar buildings on empty streets reminded me how much I love this city. Another high point was a dinner party thrown by my friend Mary (Chilean, despite her deceptive name). After eating homemade lasagna (I can only take credit for the white sauce), we took in a panoramic view of Santiago from her balcony.

Stay tuned for news on my newest purchase. I’ll give you a clue: It’s big, orange, and unbelievably badass.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Greetings from 30,000 feet! I'm writing this official welcome to my blog while en route to Dallas, where I'll catch my connecting flight to Santiago. I would be dreading the nine-hour trip if it weren't for the fact that the digital maps they usually project on long flights are more than enough to keep me entertained for that long. There's nothing quite as fascinating as watching that little plane creep across the screen with a red trail marking its progress. When you throw in the ability to know speed and outside air temperature, the fun can last for days.

Once the plane on the screen has reached SCL with a 5000-mile red line behind it, I'll try to update this blog regularly to keep you posted on life in the other Down Under. For now, though, I'll try to provide answers to the most common questions I've been asked over the past few weeks.

1. What are you doing in Chile?

At any given moment, probably eating an alfajor or thinking about where I could get one. Aside from that, I'll be doing a part-time journalism internship with The Santiago Times, an English-language online newspaper. The opportunity to work at a newspaper is exciting because I've been thinking recently that writing might be something I'd like to pursue. I have hardly any journalism experience, so I'll learn a lot even if the haveme making coffee (which I actually don't know how to do either). I asked to intern part-time so I could use the rest of each day to work teaching English, waitressing or doing whatever a gringa needs to do to support an extravagant alfajor habit.

2. Why Chile?

Because it's awesome.

3. So does that mean that you like Chile better than Ecuador?

Although it may seem like an overly diplomatic answer, it's very difficult to compare the two. I think Chile will always have a privileged place in my heart because it was the first country in which I spent a significant of time on my own. Also, the fact that I was directly enrolled in university courses there allowed me to assimilate more than in Ecuador, where I spent the greater part of my waking hours surrounded by (awesome) English speakers in a language institute. However, Quito had its own unique brand of magic, and I was able to achieve much more independence there than living with an (also awesome) host family in Chile. I met amazing people and had transformative experiences in both plaes, so saying that I like one more than the other seems blasphemous to me.

4. Where are you living?

On a sofa bed until further notice.

5. What are your future plans?

See #4; it's a good analogy.

There you have it: a brief introduction to Chile: the Redux. Dramatic tales of adventure in the Southern Hemisphere to follow. Friends and family, please keep me posted on your dramatic adventures as well!

P.S. I also made a few posts while I was home in Minneapolis this past month...the ramblings of someone with way too much time on her hands.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

All dressed up and nowhere to ride to

One of the things I'll be frantically throwing into a suitcase during the next two days is my new bike helmet. Who cares if I don't have a bike yet? At least I'll be prepared if items start falling from the overhead bins in a patch of turbulence.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The ballerina and the candied peanuts

La bailarina y el maní confitado

La bailarina de ballet salió del teatro. Aunque esa noche la habían aplaudido muchísimo, en la calle nadie la conocía. Se paró en la esquina a esperar su micro, la Cerrillos-La Florida. Entonces, el aroma del maní confitado llegó a su nariz. “No debería”, pensó. “Pero esta noche dancé tan bien, que me merezco un premio, haré una excepción”, se dijo mientras caminaba. “¡Qué bueno verla de nuevo en el carrito, señorita!”, la saludó el manicero.

Paulina Leiva, Santiago en 100 palabras

This is one of a number of stories selected as winners in Santiago en 100 palabras, a short fiction contest organized by Santiago’s Metro, among other organizations. Here’s my best effort at an English translation:

The Ballerina and the Candied Peanuts

The ballerina left the theater. Although she'd been applauded for a lot that night, on the street no one knew her. She stopped on the corner to wait for her bus, the Cerrillos-La Florida. Then, the aroma of candied peanuts reached her nose. “I shouldn’t,” she thought. “But tonight I danced so well that I deserve a prize; I’ll make an exception,” she told herself as she walked.

“How good to see you at the cart again, miss!” the peanut vendor greeted her.

After my blurred vision and orb-like pupils—vestiges of a visit to the eye doctor—returned to normal today, I picked up my Santiago en 100 palabras book and reread a few of the stories. The sun-yellow, pocket-sized volume was obtained through an arduous trial of danger and perseverance: being part of a large, nearly riotous throng of 100 palabras fans in one of Santiago’s busiest Metro stations. Significantly behind schedule, Metro employees emerged to hand out the long-promised books to the angry chants of hundreds of readers. It was refreshing to see so many people as excited about words as many tend to be about sports showdowns or celebrity sightings.

Readers’ enthusiasm isn’t the only refreshing thing about 100 palabras. The stories, which are published in Metro stations across Santiago, don’t all reflect sparklingly positive views of the city; indeed, many refer to poverty, alienation and oppressive smog. However, the project promotes a kind of urban solidarity that, in my view, can be lacking Chile’s capital. Some santiaguinos routinely refer to their city as “Santiasco” (“asco,” for those who don’t speak Spanish, refers to something disgusting). As in any city, there are others who rarely leave the confines of their neighborhoods; stark socioeconomic segregation fragments the city into sectors of haves, have-nots, and have-somes.

Obviously, Santiago en 100 palabras doesn’t cure the pollution and social exclusion that plague the capital. What it does do is transform the city into a dynamic text that can be actively created and read by its inhabitants. The stories in my little yellow compilation aren’t just about Santiago, but about people living in Santiago; everyone becomes a protagonist. The writers range from teenagers to senior citizens, their settings from urban landmarks to public buses, and their characters from unemployed workers to statues to Pinochet himself. For the most part, the stories are snapshots of moments in urban life or details that passerby routinely overlook. The end result, just like Santiago, is fragmentary (check out Néstor García Canclini's Imaginarios urbanos for an interesting discussion of the fragmentary perception of modern cities). However, this fragmentation—unlike other brands of division that can be found in Santiago—seems to promote identification rather than alienation; the crowd shouting for 100 palabras books in the Metro station demonstrated that the stories resonated with more than a few santiaguinos. Despite the fact that a particular individual may view Santiago as a contaminated, unsafe sprawl, he or she might be pleasantly surprised to learn that someone else has noticed that a certain downtown dumspter is always empty (Gonzalo Andrade, "Basurero," honorable mention 2003).

Paulina Leiva's story called my attention for a few reasons. First of all (or "firstable," as a number of my well-meaning students in Quito wrote), I was thrilled to see the delicious perfection that is maní confitado exalted in writing. As many of you know, I'll be heading back to Santiago in a week to start an internship with The Santiago Times, and if anyone were to recognize me on the street there, it would be the peanut vendors. While I was living in Chile as an exchange student, nothing had the power to divert me from my path like the smell of peanuts roasting in caramel. When I return to Santiago, I won't consider searching for a cell phone or an apartment until I get my maní fix. Secondly, I believe that anyone who's ever lived in a city as big as Santiago can relate to the coexistence of anonymity and recognition described in the story. I love the feeling of being able to turn a corner and slip into a new world, tabula rasa. At the same time, one of my favorite days in Santiago was the one on which I saw the same girl on the bus in the morning and on the Metro in the afternoon, several hours later and in a completely different part of the city. I didn't know her, but I felt like, for the first time, I was truly a part of my adoptive city.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Digital vintage

Gas pumps in Warrens (the Cranberry Capital of Wisconsin).

Another foreign country

Northfield, Wisconsin was a sleepy, peaceful village...until people started disappearing. If a summer blockbuster were to be made about the town where I stopped for gas this weekend, that's how the preview would begin. Minneapolis radio stations had long since fizzled into static. At some nebulous point between Eau Claire and Wisconsin Dells, where I was headed to rock climb with a group that included my college friend Claire, a laconic sign promised food and gas (no further details provided) at the next exit. In need of both, I turned off the interstate and into the perfect setting for either a Hallmark commercial or a horror movie. I drove out of it just as quickly; unincorporated Northfield’s main street stretched little more than two blocks.

“Unincorporated” was a word I recognized from many family road trips through the Midwest. As a child, I developed a romantic notion about life in these tiny towns. Born and raised in the city, I could conceive of hardly anything more thrilling than scooping a stack of letters out of a classic aluminum mailbox while standing in the shadow of a grain elevator. However, I never took it upon myself to find out what “unincorporated” precisely meant until yesterday. The official definition, generously provided by the always obliging, doesn’t diverge much from what the size of these hamlets had led me to expect: An unincorporated town is one that hasn’t been granted formal existence as a self-governing settlement. In theory, this means that Northfield doesn’t have, among other things, its own police force. What it does have is a gas station, an American Legion, a towering church, and a diner which seems to deliberately cater to picturesque stereotypes by being named Dee Dee’s.

After unintentionally speeding out of town on a road lined with Folk Victorian houses and—yes—classic aluminum mailboxes, I made a U-turn and headed back toward the service station. As I approached the register to pay (no credit card pump here) for my gas, a very familiar tension tightened my chest. I immediately recognized the slight anxiety I’ve come to associate with carrying out everyday activities in a foreign country. In Ecuador, even the simplest undertaking required some measure of mental preparation: What strategy should I use to bargain down a taxi price? What exactly was the name of the product I was looking for? In Northfield, the only accent I had was Minnesotan, and the price of gas was (dismayingly) nonnegotiable. Still, I was sharply aware of being completely, irreparably foreign.

Don’t worry: This isn’t the part where the girl who has returned from abroad comes to the profound realization that she is from everywhere and nowhere. I am and will always be just about as Midwestern as they come. The time I’ve spent living in South America hasn’t done anything to shorten the occasional long “O” that elicits laughter from friends from other regions. I fiercely defend “pop”’s position as a legitimate word in the English language and maintain that nothing tastes better at 1 A.M. than French toast from Perkins. I’m convinced that I would have felt out of place in Northfield even if I’d never set foot outside Minnesota.

Minneapolis is a scant two-hour drive from Northfield, but I’ve felt closer to home after trips that have involved passports, customs forms and seat backs in upright and locked positions. Like Northfield, my home city is characterized by the chatty “Midwest nice” courtesy that I came to appreciate while studying in Washington, DC, where people always seemed to be walking briskly to somewhere very important. On any brief outing in Minneapolis, however, one is almost certain to cross paths with dozens of strangers. On the other hand, both the cashier at the gas station and the middle-aged women who prepared me a sandwich at Dee Dee’s—which smelled like potpourri and sold an impressive variety of Christmas decorations—recognized and were able to strike up conversations with every patron who entered. Minneapolis is by no means the most bustling metropolis on the planet, but some measure of anonymity is possible; not so in Northfield, where most of the people I saw were divided between the American Legion barbeque/horseshoe game on one end of town and the funeral occurring simultaneously on the other.

Another characteristic of Minneapolis is the velocity with which it changes; every time I return after having spent time away, parts of the scenery have invariably mutated; there are always buildings that have (dis)appeared, storefronts that have transformed or parks that have undergone facelifts. Only a long-term resident would be able to verify whether the opposite is true in Northfield; my suspicions stem from a book I flipped through at the counter at Dee Dee’s Diner. The book was compiled to commemorate the 150 years that have passed since the town was founded by Norwegian settlers; pages of photocopied black-and-white photographs depict turn-of-the-century residents and a series of one-room schoolhouses that successively burned down or were closed. Glancing backward out the window of the diner, I realized that the town’s main street didn’t look much different than it did in a photo from the beginning of the twentieth century.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that only one of these two places represents the “real America,” while the other—either by virtue of being globalized or antiquated—is somehow artificial. In Ecuador, I spent a significant amount of time arguing that the United States is much too large and diverse to be characterized by phrases like “North American culture.” If ever find myself doing so again, I’ll use my short stay in Northfield as an illustration of just how deceptive these umbrella terms can be. I’ll also use it to remind myself—hopelessly addicted to long distances—that it doesn’t take a plane ticket to go somewhere completely different.

Back on the freeway, I popped open the Styrofoam container in which the women at Dee Dee’s had packed my sandwich. As I sped away from Northfield, I savored a delicious—and familiar—grilled ham and cheese sandwich. If it had been a movie, saccharine music would have swelled as the voice-over mused that maybe Northfield wasn’t so foreign after all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Quito in flames

If the Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín has a trademark, it might be human figures with hauntingly large eyes and long fingers. These phantom-like images hang on walls and stare back with silkscreened pupils from T-shirts all over Quito, where I spent the past fourteen months living and working as an English teacher. I’ve always found these hollow-cheeked painted people to be a bit unsettling; their originality and visual impact are undeniable, but I would rather avoid seeing them stare back at me from my bedroom wall when I wake up in the middle of the night.

That may be the reason why I didn’t buy a Guayasamín painting until I came across Quito rojo while shopping for a birthday present for a friend. I had spent the past couple hours zigzagging through the cobblestone streets of Quito’s colonial downtown searching for historical photos of the city, which I thought my friend—a diehard quiteño able to produce an anecdote or legend about practically every building, statue and gargoyle in the Centro—would appreciate. Having accomplished nothing more than a nasty sunburn, I had resigned myself to settling for a pastry and a card when I came across this painting in a shop in the renovated Archbishop’s Palace in the Plaza Grande. I immediately knew that I had found both my gift and my newest apartment decoration. Minutes later, I plunged back into Quito’s particularly singeing variety of midday sun toting two prints in a cardboard roll.

During the three months it spent Scotch-taped to my wall, the painting became an increasingly central component of my perception of Quito. Despite the fact that Ecuador’s capital city is hours from the ocean and surrounded by towering volcanoes, I had always associated the city with water rather than fire. The astounding downpours, thunder and hailstorms that sweep down the hills nearly every afternoon during Quito’s wet season undoubtedly had something to do with this; nonetheless, I suspect that my vision of Quito as an essentially aquatic city owed more to its physical layout than its climate. Not only do the houses that stumble haphazardly up the hills evoke coastal cities like Valparaíso, but the city itself—stretched out between and over innumerable slopes and overwhelmingly white when seen from above—resembles foam on top of rolling waves.

Passing Quito rojo in my hallway multiple times each day, however, made me ponder the idea of Quito as a city on fire. I suppose the painting could be received as a simple sunset landscape, but I’ve always though of it as depicting actual flames, either a volcanic eruption or an out-of-control fire. This interpretation represents the way I came to view Quito during the time I spent there: as a city ablaze with conflict and passion. The past several hundred years have witnessed very little tranquility in Ecuador, and the current reality of the capital is a dynamic testament to this. Children in tattered T-shirts offer to shine the shoes of passerby in front of the city’s pristine malls and breathtaking colonial buildings. On nearly every street, graffiti expresses discontent and a variety of political sentiments; it’s not unusual to see a message crossed out and replaced with an opposing view. Shards of broken glass top the walls that surround homes like fortresses. Tension is burning everywhere, sometimes literally; it wasn’t uncommon for me to glance out my window and see smoke rising from the vicinity of the politically charged Universidad Central. Quito, however, is ignited with much more than strife: Much of the city’s graffiti is poetry.

On his rooftop in the Centro, a friend took this picture of Quito and me on one of my last nights in Ecuador. In this case, a technological mishap produced a strikingly appropriate result: Quito appears to be on fire. Coincidentally enough, shortly after the photo was taken, I glanced northward toward my neighborhood and saw flames erupt from what I knew to be a park. My stomach began to knot as we watched the fire descend the hill toward the neighbor’s house where nearly everything I own was spilling over the tops of bulging suitcases. Nevertheless, the fire—if that’s indeed what it was—disappeared quickly; we never learned what had started it.