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.


Leonardo said...

Hey leigh!! do u like alfajores? lol

Leonardo said...

ahh the squatters guy's are called "OKUPAS" ;)

Juan K Peña said...

Hi Leigh!

In Ecuador, guanacos are called 'Trucutús'. I really don't know why. (I will find out why is that...).

After reading this entry... I'm glad you decided to buy alfajores.

Take care.


Noel said...


erinolson23 said...

Leigh you're, like, so brave. You should do a story on this. It could be your big break!

Mamacita Chilena said...

I am so conflicted about the protests. On one hand I know that the pacos do use excessive force. On the other hand, I know that the kids protesting are asking for it a lot of time...they go out there with their homemade molotov bombs and their backpacks loaded with rocks to throw at the policeman. They're just looking for a fight. My Chilean husband admits, that he, as a young student, like most other young protesters, never had any clue what he was protesting against, he was just out to make trouble (or entertain himself, from his point of view).