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.