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 Old trends, as always, have been replaced by new.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!