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.