Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Smoke-free breath in a moonshine jug

One of my more shame-inducing memories of my study abroad experience in Chile involves closing my host family's front door ever so gingerly behind me and shuffling quietly down the hallway toward my bedroom. Just when I was almost in the clear, my slipper-clad host mother appeared in front of me and, eyebrows cocked, asked if I knew what time it was.

I said I didn't, which was a lie. With as much certainty as I know that alfajor pastries are God's gift to gringas, I knew that it was past 8:30 a.m. and that I hadn't called the night before to let my host mother know that I would be staying out really, really late.

Although you wouldn't guess it about me now, I used to party a lot in Chile. By a lot, I mean pounding dance club floors until dawn with the soles of my Converse and -- on one occasion -- running through Estación Central to catch the last train bound for the rural area where some acquaintances and I had heard there was a bitchin' carrete underway.

(Disclaimer: Just as Lonely Planet does not encourage hitchhiking, I do not encourage replicating this behavior.)

Now, just a few years later, my ideal weekend involves watching cartoons, reading a book, riding my bike and catching a movie. I suspect there comes a point in every expat's life when the bass-pounding novelty of the foreign club scene ceases to compensate for the next morning's splitting headache.

Another reason why I now tend to prefer the comforts of home to the strobe lights of subterranean dance pits is that, at least in my own room, I can breathe. This is frequently not the case at Santiago bars or clubs, where my burning eyes and I oftentimes have to step outside more than once during the night to guzzle down a few gulps of air uncontaminated with the cigarrette smoke choking the venue. This -- along with taking halting, shallow breaths the entire night -- is tiring, and knowing that I'll have to do it is often enough to make me turn down an invitation to paint the town red on a Friday night.

Anyone familiar with Santiago nightlife knows two fundamental truths: The party starts late, and it's smoky. I had to put up with even thicker clouds of tobacco fumes during my dance floor glory days than I do now -- statistics show that tobacco use is down among Chileans -- but I seem to have a lower tolerance for it today. Maybe my waning enthusiasm for the bacchanal has made me less forgiving.

In case you haven't guessed, I hate cigarette smoke. I hate knowing that I'm breathing in chemical toxins and hate the fact that I usually have to resign myself to doing so if I want to spend a night on the town in Santiago. Smoking is gross. Period.

Despite my aversion to tobacco, I was struck earlier this week with the desire to find an obscure, seedy bar with a dartboard and cheap beer. So three friends and I hit up the 331 Club, where a family bluegrass band entertained the crowd with instruments that included a saw, a washboard and a giant empty bottle, and Psycho Suzi's Motor Lounge, where we ordered tiki drinks and delicious pizza at midnight. As it turns out, neither of these Northeast Minneapolis bars is a dive.

Still, the night was a success. Sure, I was wiped out by the time I cautiously climbed the ice-glazed stairs to my front door, but I'd made it through the night with significantly more energy than I'm usually able to muster when I go out in Santiago. It didn't take me long to realize why: I could breathe. I was able to catch up with my friends, who now live scattered across the country and the globe, without coughing and sputtering under a cloud of someone else's smoke. I had forgotten that the good city of Minneapolis, in its wisdom, prohibits smoking indoors in public spaces.

To Chile's credit, tobacco laws in my adoptive country are much stricter now than they were when I lived there the first time around. Some establishments have set aside designated smoking sections, while others have banned tobacco altogether. The government has cracked down on tobacco advertising and mandated that graphic health warnings occupy prominent positions on cigarette packs.

While these regulations certainly make eating out more enjoyable, they have done little to clear the air in bars and clubs, which generally remain free reign for smokers. And while a number of my Chilean friends have quit smoking over the past few years, it seems the campaign still has a long way to go. I occasionally encounter situations in Chile that make my jaw drop, like when a young woman at a party I went to a few months ago plopped down next to a pregnant woman and asked if she minded if she lit up. And when the pregnant woman said, "Go ahead; the window's open." Or when I've seen pregnant women themselves start puffing away. I'm sure this happens in the States, too, but luckily, I haven't seen it.

For the record, if you're a smoker, I don't hate you. What I do hate, though, is having my health threatened and my social life smothered by the fumes of a few. This tends to happen much more frequently in Chile than it does here in lovely Minneapolis -- which I'm adding to the list of reasons why my beloved City of Lakes is quite possibly the best place on earth.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Hi everyone! As I'm sure you've noticed, it's been a while since my last entry. It's not for lack of ideas; I actually have an entire cast of future blog entries waiting in the wings. It's not for lack of down time, either; despite all the family gatherings, I've watched each of the Office episodes my mom taped for me -- multiple times.

The truth is that even though this blog claims to chronicle my "adventures in multiple hemispheres," it's pretty much about Chile, a place where I currently am not. It's tough to write about summery Chile from frigid Minnesota, not just because it feels so out of context but also because it prevents me from fully luxuriating in being here. I'm at home in Minneapolis so rarely that it seems like a waste of precious time to write about Chile while I am. Writing about what it's like to visit home while living in Chile is a different story, but I just didn't feel like it today. Hopefully I'll start feeling more creative soon, so keep checking back.

So, there's the explanation. And here's a holiday greeting: Happy holidays to everyone who reads this blog! I hope the last days of 2008 are the best of the year and that 2009 starts out with a bang.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Minnesota Christmas Down Under

I'm sitting in bed gazing out at Christmas lights and listening to the Christmas music marathon on the Twin Cities' own Kool 108. And I'm still below the Equator.

Yes, thanks to the glories of the internet and the cheapest lights we could find at the so-called Chinese Mall on San Diego, V. and I have transformed his little corner of the pension into a slice of Minnesota holiday paradise. With Kool 108 blasting tunes "Let it Snow," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and reports of traffic jams thousands of miles away, we strung the lights up on the patio as the sun set on yet another mild summer afternoon.

Then we got artsy.

Then V. read a book while I pumped up the bass on the Christmas carols and danced around the patio singing for a while. It was the first time I'd truly felt in the Christmas spirit this year.

I'm sure this is nothing compared to how I'll feel on Saturday when my plane lands in a city covered in snow and fragrant with the scent of real Christmas trees. I'm. So. Excited.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Group post: Holidays abroad

I once read or heard somewhere that smell is the sense most strongly tied to memory. I don't know if this is true, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me if it were. I couldn't begin to count the number of times a slight wiff has instantaneously catapulted me back to times gone by. Whenever the scent of wet fallen leaves signals the beginning of fall, I'm back panting on a floodlit soccer field with my childhood team, the formidable Pink Sleeveless Magic Thunderweasels (we were a well-coordinated scoring machine on the field, but we couldn't agree on a team name). Sniffing my once-beloved Victoria's Secret Love Spell perfume now makes me nauseous because I used to spritz it on before stuffing myself on to the brimming, lurching bus that hauled me to class every morning when I was an exchange student here in Chile. Unscrubbed rodent cage is third grade, and something resembling chemical cherry has struck perfect and maddening resonance for years with a childhood memory I still can’t identify.

And then there’s Christmas. For me, Christmas is firewood smoke, simmering turkey and ham, church incense and the empty scent of cold, cold air. And, of course, pine. Of the 24 Christmases I have experienced on this planet, not one has been celebrated in the absence of a real Christmas tree. Last year, when my mom said she could picture herself going the artificial route in the future, I almost cried.

That is one of the reasons why, despite having lived more than three years of my life abroad, I have never once spent Christmas away from home: It just doesn’t smell right anywhere else. Chileans decorate plastic trees. And have Christmas barbeques. And spend Christmas Day under the scorching summer sun.

Since it doesn’t smell like Christmas, it doesn’t feel like Christmas. This week, I bought holiday lights and listened to Christmas music, but I have no more yuletide cheer than I did on the 4th of July. And it’s depressing, because the lack of appropriate scents has robbed me of the anticipation and warm fuzzies I usually feel during the holiday season.

Of course, with a minimal amount of effort, I could scrounge up a pine branch and cook a ham in Chile. But in a way, that might be even worse, because those smells are intimately connected to the people who – much more than the smells themselves – truly make Christmas special for me. And those people are thousands of miles away.

So, you see, a gringa just can’t win. That’s why, in a few days, I’ll be speeding away from summer on a plane pointed north. My nose simply won’t have it any other way.

One could argue that I could retrain my nostrils to associate Christmas with barbequed sausage, sunblock and cut grass. Still, I think the results of such an effort would be superficial at best. Many autumns have come and gone since the disbanding of the legendary Pink Sleeveless Magic Thunderweasels, but the smell of wet leaves reminds me of them – not midterms or Homecoming – to this day. When it comes to scent memories, I’m pretty sure it’s the early ones that stick.

Thanks to Clare for organizing this group post! It made it feel just a bit more like Christmas. Here are a list of other people who have blogged on this topic:



Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Tuesday, December 9 marked a watershed day in the history of my life in Chile. For today, with hundreds of rush hour commuters as witnesses, I was officially inducted into that most exclusive and coveted of Chilean societies: the Bibliometro.

For those unversed in the glories of this hallowed institution, it is a library system located inside Santiago's subway. Actually, it's not exclusive at all: For what currently amounts to less that 5 U.S. dollars per year, anyone can sign up and check out books to his or her heart's content -- and all without having to see daylight.

Well, not everyone. Having always been intrigued by the tome-filled Bibliometro huts clinging to the walls of major Metro stations -- and more than a little envious of the people who clustered around the counters and retreated examining their yellow-paged selections -- I decided a number of months ago that it was time to join the club. With a bounce in my step and a list of titles in my head, I approached one of the counters and asked to sign up.

Was I a legal resident?, the attendent asked.

Well, no, but I wanted to be one. And I had a valid tourist visa. And a pure heart.

Not good enough, apparently. Not only did I need a carnet de identidad -- a Chilean identity card -- but I had to provide proof of address.

I put up a fight for awhile, trying to charm -- and then beg -- the attendant into accepting me as one of her own. Eventually, though, I came to terms with the fact that I would have to fight this battle elsewhere.

With my elbows propped on the Bibliometro counter, I racked my brain for ways to trick the system. Not to lie exactly, but to somehow skip over the necessity to be truthful. After all, I just wanted to read. Wasn't it unjust for such a basic right to be limited to the documented?

It occurred to me that all hope might not be lost. Four days before I left Chile the first time around, a teenage girl stole my wallet at a bus terminal in Puerto Montt. She got about 20 dollars out of it, and I got a copy of the police report I filed -- with my identity card number on it.

The day after my Bibliometro defeat, I headed to the police station to get a replacement copy of the report I'd long since misplaced. I clung to the hope that maybe, just maybe, the powers that be at Bibliometro wouldn't notice that the carnet mentioned in the report had been lost more than three years before. Or that if they did, the fact that I had once been a legal resident would be enough.

As I walked away from the police station with the report in my hands, it occurred to me that if I was going to go to all this trouble anyway, I might as well get off my ass and apply for a visa. Hence, it is thanks to Bibliometro that I am now a card-carrying legal resident of the Republic of Chile.

With my shiny new carnet and stamped address certificate in hand, I strode proudly up to the Bibliometro counter this afternoon and took my place in the computer database. I am now officially authorized to borrow books underground -- and I have another shiny new card to prove it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Notes on aging and forlorn Latin lovers

Sometimes I think I'm getting old. There are a number of things that suggest this, the most visible being the gray hairs that doggedly sprout like an ever-growing army of undead from a single point on the top of my head. There are other signs as well, such as the fact that I have traded in the all-night club sprees of my exchange student days for quiet evenings that generally involve some combination of movies, sweatpants and pop.

Then there's the music I listen to. The other day at work, I noticed that the radio station I'd set to play in the background was spewing contemporary soft rock the way overhead speakers at dentists' offices tend to.

Before you judge, let me establish that I'm not a fan of this genre -- when it's in English. However, there's something about Spanish love ballads that gets me. It's gone beyond the point of tolerance. I actually like them.

I used to dismiss these songs as the saccharine indulgences of a culture that, to my single-and-proud self, seemed clinically obsessed with coupledom. My view began to change a few years ago, when I went through a sentimental spell brought on by an unrequited crush and an impending departure date from Chile. During the afternoons I spent curled up in bed listening to Alex Ubago and reading my host sister's copy of The Little Prince, I came to the realization that the syrupy lyrics dripping from my headphones weren't doing such a bad job of describing how I felt. Yes, Alex, I too would like a ray of light to make me shine.

From there, everything went downhill. I began humming along as singers wailed about burning passion and begged their lovers to stay. And it hasn't stopped. Today I downloaded a song whose chorus begins, "I won't give up. I want a world with you."

I find myself wondering if this descent into musical sentimentality is part of the gray hair/movie night value pack or if the nomadic lifestyle -- instead of hardening me up -- has made me go soft. When you country-hop, every experience is tinged with novelty and therefore magnified. You meet a lot of people who teach you a lot of things. And you say a lot of goodbyes. And maybe you can relate just a little better to ballads.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


If you're reading this, you're probably more technologically savvy than I am. Which is why I would be eternally grateful if you could teach me how to make a photo banner for the header of this blog. Muchas gracias!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tales from the house of burning snow

One of the Chilean novels I wrote my undergraduate thesis about was Soñé que la nieve ardía by Antonio Skármeta. The title means "I dreamed the snow was burning" and refers to a line in a traditional Chilean song.

A number of the book's principle characters are young people who live in a boarding house in a neighborhood not far from mine. In the evening, they gather in the living room and engage in heated conversations about Allende, proletarian solidarity and the state of affairs at the textile factory where some of them work.

The book left me with a a romantic idea of what living in a Santiago boarding house would be like. Little did I know that I would one day have the chance to do so.

As I mentioned before, I'm currently quasi-homeless and crashing at V.'s student pension. The pension concept was a relatively foreign one to me when I first arrived in Chile, but it's not an uncommon living situation among Chilean students.

For those who haven't been to Chile, living away from home as a college student -- or even as a recent graduate -- is not nearly as widespread a practice here as it is in the States. Students generally study in or close to their hometowns and commute to class every day from their parents' homes. Many stay on after graduation and beyond, sometimes until they get married. Here, living with Mom past the age of 25 is not enough to make a guy the butt of jokes. In fact, it's pretty typical.

Still, some young people are forced to bid their childhood bunk beds goodbye and strike out on their own -- at least when it comes to lodging. These are usually kids who make the trek to Santiago or other big cities to study or work. Obviously, they need somewhere to live. And not all of them are ready to start washing their own dishes.

Hence, pensions. These are houses where laundry and cleaning services and three hot meals a day come with the price of the room. In truth, the only real difference between a pension and home is that the person slaving for you isn't your real mom.

When I first started hanging out at V.'s pension, which is significantly more permissive than most when it comes to visitors, I used to kid him about how easy he had it. I would roll my eyes whenever he tried to stop me from washing my own cups, refusing to believe that eight adult renters could be so pampered and maintain their pride intact.

Now that I've been living here for two weeks, I'm starting to get used to it. Every morning, there's a sandwich with my name taped to it waiting for me in the dining room. Once a week, I leave my laundry bag next to the washing machine in the bathroom and my clothes magically wash themselves. And the home-cooked meals aren't doing much to help me tone up for the summer.

Yes, I'm a little ashamed. As someone who takes pride in the independence she's been able to achieve in foreign countries, it's difficult for me to admit that I'm basically being waited on -- and kinda like it. I want to believe that this is an unsustainable situation that will most likely begin driving me insane by the end of the month. That when I finally do find an apartment, I will cook my own pasta and scrub my own bathroom with relieved contentment. This is why I'm forced to suppress the inkling that pension life is something I could get used to.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


They say men are the ones who refuse to ask for directions. Call me a man, but I do, too. For me, it comes down to good old-fashioned pride: I want to think I know where I'm going and want everyone else to think so, too. I don't want to be the typical gringa who zig-zags around with a map in her hand and poorly disguised befuddlement creasing her forehead. I want to feel local, which is why I beam all day long if a Chilean asks me for directions and I know what to say.

Sometimes, though, I have to crack. Every time I venture to one of downtown Santiago's two large commercial movie theaters, for example, I wind up wandering in confused circles and inevitably am forced to ask someone to restore my bearings to me. On one such occasion, I ducked into a pharmacy to plead for help. I was sure I was within a block of the theater but didn't know which direction to turn. The directions would be simple enough, right?

Wrong. After describing in elaborate detail how I should go about walking half a block, the woman behind the counter repeated her dissertation just to make sure it was clear. Apparently, it wasn’t – at least not for her coworker, who proceeded to give me his own version. I walked out of the pharmacy more clueless than when I’d entered and took a wild guess as to which way to go.

The distances were a bit greater when V. and I went camping recently in Valle del Elqui, a clear-skied pisco-producing area several hours north of Santiago. With its winding, unpaved hillside roads, Valle del Elqui is not a good place to get lost. Luckily, V. enjoys talking to strangers and was more than happy to request directions from drivers, motorcyclists, and pedestrians – and a guy who had just peed on a wall and hadn’t yet managed to zip up his fly. As diverse as these good Samaritans were, most of them had one thing in common: They gave unnecessarily long explanations, which they then repeated.

I can understand why someone would do this for me, obvious gringa that I am. V., however, doesn’t have a particularly foreign look and has lived in Chile for so long that his accent is virtually imperceptible to those who don’t hold extended conversations with him. Could it be that Chileans just love giving directions?

I’m inclined to think so. Although I don’t agree with everything that appears in Chile travel guides, I’ve found one thing to be true, at least in my experience: Chileans like helping foreigners. They like telling you where to visit and which traditional foods to try. They like telling you where you can find a good deal. And they like telling you how to get there.

From what I’ve seen, they like supplying each other with useful information, too. Some disgruntled Santiago residents might object to this last statement, claiming the people who elbow past them on the street or don’t give up their seat on the Metro are anything but helpful. I’m talking about a different type of helpful, though: the type that involves sharing knowledge. Do they get an ego boost from it like I do when someone asks me for directions? Do they believe in some kind of information karma? Or is this pure, good-natured kindness?

Whatever the reason for Chileans’ informative effusiveness, I find their directions completely impossible to follow. I appreciate the effort, though.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Speaking of racism...

Here's an epilogue to yesterday's entry about racism in Chile. It's a transcript of a phone conversation I just had with a woman who's renting out a room.

LEIGH: Hi, I'm calling because I saw an ad for a room.
WOMAN: Are you Peruvian?
WOMAN: Why did you answer so fast?
LEIGH: Because I'm not Peruvian. You asked me if I was Peruvian, right?
WOMAN: Yes. Sometimes people try to pretend they're not Peruvian and you have to make sure. Are you Chilean?
LEIGH: I'm from the United States.
WOMAN: OK, there's no problem, then. It's Peruvians I don't want.
LEIGH: Actually, I'd prefer a place where all nationalities are welcome. Thanks anyway.

I'd say Line #4 is by far the most ridiculous part of this completely ridiculous conversation. I guess I should have put her on hold while I went to check my records.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Group post: Racism and classism in Chile

Anyone who's been to Chile knows that one could write tomes on this topic. In the interest of avoiding carpal tunnel syndrome and keeping your interest, however, I'll limit this post to racism in the context of my current housing search.

Right now, I am living in a student pension with eight boys. Believe it or not, I did not orchestrate this scenario. About a month ago, the owner of my apartment -- a man-behind-the-curtain character I've never met in person -- informed my roommates and I that our lease was up and we had to leave. Thus began the search for a place to live, a process I've learned is much more fun if you're not picky, which I am -- especially about location.

Over the past year, I've become fiercely loyal to my neighborhood. I've gotten pleasantly accustomed to knowing the shopkeepers, being close to and yet removed from downtown, and seeing cobblestones and brightly painted houses when I step outside every morning. Sure, Santiago's full of areas well suited to those with a taste for the picturesque. Only one of them is MINE, though.

Another thing I love about my barrio is that, by Santiago standards, it's quite diverse: Many immigrants from Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Asia call the area home. Apparently, not all of my neighbors feel the same way I do. A few weeks ago, I saw a sign advertising a room for rent and decided to call. The place didn't sound bad -- until the owner told me he didn't allow Peruvians or Bolivians inside. The conversation ended there. As it did when another landlord assured me that none of the renters in her building were Peruvian.

The worst of all, however, was when V. and I roamed the neighborhood in search of "for rent" signs and found ourselves knocking on the door of an old house in a tucked-away passage -- in other words, a place I would pretty much kill to live in. A middle-aged woman answered and told us that yes, she had a room available and would show it to us in a moment. As we waited, two young men approached the house, obviously interested in seeing the room as well. They were darker-skinned than V. and I -- but then again, that's not hard. When the woman returned to the doorway, they told her they were Cuban and looking for a place to live.

"Sorry, I don't have anything right now," the woman told them. "You should try next door."

Once the Cubans had moved on, the woman turned back to us. "Looks like you don't have anything," I said and turned to walk away.

"No, you just have to say that to the Cubans," she said casually. "They're big drinkers."

But V. and I were already on our way out. "We're foreigners, too," V. -- who's from Eastern Europe and knows what it's like to be an immigrant -- said over his shoulder.

Apparently, it's not all foreign renters who are the problem. Only ones who aren't of the pale variety.

I can't say I was surprised. A Chilean once warned me to date only her light-haired compatriots -- not "negros." A few months after that, a friend's birthday dinner turned more than a little uncomfortable when the birthday boy's mother (half) joked that if I married her son, it would help "cleanse the race."

Oh, and let's not forget two of the major candidates in last month's Santiago mayoral elections, both of whom considered the Peruvians who gather in downtown's Plaza de Armas to be a problem that could partially be solved by giving them a building where they could get together out of sight. Hate to break it to you two, but the Plaza de Armas is overrun by another pack of foreigners, too: ones with guidebooks and cameras. I hear these marauding invaders prowl the streets of Bellavista in posses at night and flock en masse to artisan fairs, where they terrorize the native-born. Honestly, something has to be done.

In other words, being foreign in Chile isn't tough -- if you're the right kind of foreigner.

Actually, I've written a little about this topic before. So have a lot of other people. Check it out.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Flor y calavera

I've decided to follow Jessica's lead and explain how this blog got its strange URL. It has to do with the sweatshirt pictured below, a gift from my sister (who, believe it or not, used to steal MY clothes). I have to admit that I felt cool when I saw it on an episode of Gossip Girl a year later.

In case you can't tell, the print is a mix of flowers and skulls -- flores y calaveras. While I was living in Quito, a friend given to sweeping metaphorical generalizations observed, "That sweatshirt is like you. You're a flower and a skull."

This was a friend who very rarely spoke to be understood. Still, I kinda get it. I love Saturday-morning cartoons, colorful socks, pick-up sports games and anything else reminiscent of the era of carefree innocence I don't remember deciding to leave. At the same time, I'm magnetically drawn to abandoned buildings, have a penchant for unnecessary suffering and write stories whose characters are much more likely to die than to fall in love.

I'd say my friend had me pegged.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Creepy crawlies

One of the great things about living in Quito is that very few bugs can survive at such a high altitude. Coming from Minnesota, where we affectionately refer to mosquitoes as our state bird, I was shocked to find that none of the buildings in the mountain metropolis had screens. Of course, what Quito lacked in insects it made up for in fluorescent yellow slugs, as my roommate, Chelsea, discovered when she accidentally squashed one of them between her bare toes.

Fortunately for the short of breath but unfortunately for the squeamish, Santiago hugs sea level quite a bit closer than its Ecuadorian counterpart. This means that, come spring, the city becomes a romp ground for the creepy, the crawly and the winged.

It started with the gradually swelling posses of flies that began to lurk overhead in my apartment about two weeks ago. Shortly thereafter, I fished out a voyeuristic bug that had somehow managed to make its way under my (recently washed) shirt. Today, two prehistoric-looking winged creatures spent the day perched (or dead?) on the floor of our office bathroom. And, last night, I dodged that noblest of bugs -- a cockroach -- as it scuttled across the sidewalk.

When compared to Minneapolis (or Washington D.C., where I went to college), Santiago is by no means a buggy city. It could be that this recent invasion of the six-legged has only called my attention because I recently spent 14 months several hundred meters above the majority of the world's insects. And, perhaps, because it means that spring has officially sprung.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Feliz Chileaños to me!

A year ago today, I arrived in the Santiago airport with two bulging duffel bags, a violin, and an address scrawled on a sheet of paper. That night, I slept on the floor of the empty apartment above my soon-to-be-office with my belongings strewn around me in a chaos of cotton and Ziploc.

The next several days were a haze of words, sore feet and hunger. At my new internship at the newspaper, my eyes ached from reading, and my fingers agonized over which keys to type. In my mouth, on the other hand, a battle raged between my recently acquired quiteño accent and my latent Chilean one. I spent hours scouring the streets for an apartment, a cell phone and old friends. And I hardly ate because I was simply too exhausted to.

A year later, some things have changed. This morning, I woke up in a warm bed instead of on an icy floor. Chile, with its homecourt advantage, has won the battle for my tongue, with "po" having long since vanquished "fff" and my "s"s having steadily retreated toward aspirated defeat. (That's not to say, however, that an occasional "achachay!" doesn't slip out.)

Some things, though, remain the same. When someone asks me how long I'm planning to stay in Chile, my response is identical to what it was a year ago: "I don't know. I'll see how things go." The same goes for that most loathesome of questions, "What are you going to do with your life?"

No clue. I want to write, but not the news. I want to go back to school, but I don't know what to study. I recognize that better educational and career opportunities may be open to me in the States, but I strongly suspect that if I were to return to the U.S., I would spend half my time pining for Chile.

So, if you have an extra future lying around, why not give it to me? It's my Chileaños, after all.

Actually, I did receive a present today: a temporary residency visa that refers to me as "Doña Leigh" and grants me permission to stick around these parts for another year. Chile's Internal Revenue Service, bless it, also chipped in and gave me some tax forms. It's the thought that counts.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A good cause

If you want to buy some gorgeous photographs and make a difference at the same time, check out what Kyle is doing.

Navy Jesus One

...is the name of a store I saw today. I'm still unable to fathom what they sell there.

This dark-blue Christ shop is far from the first specimen of strange English I've come across in a total of three years spent living in South America. As wacky as it is, the moniker is far from topping the reigning champ, which I saw on a menu in Quito last year.

One night after work, some fellow English teachers and I went out to eat in La Mariscal -- colloquially known as Gringolandia -- a touristy realm of overpriced restaurants, clubs and internet cafes. Since most of the establishments in this area are visited by dozens of pairs of Gringo hiking boots each day, it came as no surprise that our restaurant's menu was printed in both Spanish and English.

Apparently, the restaurant had spent so much money printing the colorful, thick-paged menu that it had been unable to pay a decent translator. This became side-splittingly apparent when we came to the so-called Ensalada Moby Dick, which had been translated as -- you guessed it -- Moby's Dick Salad. By the time I finished laughing, I think I was in more pain than Moby.

As bad as I felt for the good folks at the restaurant, who had spent a fortune printing a beautiful menu that had unknowingly crossed into the pornographic, they may be pleased to know that they provided my intermediate students with a great lesson in correct usage of noun modifiers.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's come across comically mangled English. Do tell. And, if you're hungry for more funny menu translations, check out Margaret's delectable list!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dirty little secrets

So this city and I have been seeing each other for a while now. In fact, we're coming up on our two-year anniversary of living together. Like any couple, we've been through rough patches, mostly involving dog poop and damp, unrelenting cold. Still, we've managed to work through our difficulties -- and learn quite a bit about each other in the process. Indeed, there a number of things about me that only this city knows. Here are a few:

-I talk to stray dogs. In Spanish, of course.
-I lean back whenever the subway train pulls into the station because I'm afraid a psychopath is going to come and push me onto the tracks.
-Whenever I see a "for rent" sign in a window, I peer inside and imagine how I would decorate the place.
-I secretly wish I had gone to high school in Chile so I could have worn leg warmers over my uniform tights.
-I will go out of my way to walk down any street that is narrow, has cobblestones and is lined with slightly decrepit buildings.
-I would love to be a pokemona for a week. Or longer.
-I feel a burst of self-satisfaction every time I make a purchase in a neighborhood corner store instead of at the supermarket.
-I eat a lot of candy and chips. A lot.
-I'm jealous of the people who work in the Metro because I suspect there's a secret subterranean world that they know about and I don't.
-I'm a sucker for anything sold on a blanket on the sidewalk.
-Sometimes I entertain myself by seeing how many Metro stations I can recite in order.
-I resent brand-new apartment high rises but envy the view from their balconies.
-When walking on the street, I love when a car pulls up blasting reggaeton so I can stomp along to the beat.

Now it's your turn, reader. Fess up.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Remembering victims of Chile's September 11. Estadio Nacional, Santiago

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Belated group blog post: Chilean women

Here's my belated contribution to last week's collective blog-a-thon on Chilean women. As before, you can find links to other participants' posts on Kyle's blog.

A few months back, I met a guy from the southern United States who had recently come to Chile to teach English. While describing his first impressions of the country, he mentioned that he hadn't found himself particularly attracted to Chilean women. I told him that I thought many Chilean women were beautiful and that I admired the fact that most of them--at least the ones I saw on the streets of Santiago every day--usually didn't seem to wear much makeup.

"That's the thing!" he exclaimed. "It's not that they're not pretty. I just wish they would make more of an effort to, you know, look cute." (Mental slap.)

Interestingly, I'm confident that many of the Chilean men I know would say just the opposite. Why? Because they have. "Why are you wearing makeup?" a male friend once asked me. "You look better without it."

I would dismiss these compliments as fumbling attempts at chivalry if I didn't know that Chileans tend to be (sometimes painfully) honest when it comes to appearance. Now, maybe I've just been lucky enough to meet guys who go for natural, low-maintenance women. Regardless of how Chilean males feel, however, I doubt that most of the Chilean women I see every day spend nearly as much time in front of the mirror as my college classmates did.

The fact that the "au natural" phenomenon was so striking to me when I first arrived in Chile as an exchange student was due in no small part to where I was coming from. I did not go to a college where everyone went to class in pajamas. I arrived at school expecting sweats and sneakers and instead found heels, hair straighteners and designer bags. And that was just in class. You can imagine what a big night out entailed.

Even though neither I nor the majority of my friends at college devoted extensive portions of our mornings to getting gussied up, the atmosphere must have rubbed off on me somehow: Sitting in my classes in Chile, I became uncomfortably aware of the fact that I was wearing more makeup than most of my female classmates.

Isabel Allende writes about barefaced chilenas in her book My Invented Country. I don't have the book on hand and can't remember what her explanation was...Can anyone enlighten me? One argument that seems to surface whenever someone starts analyzing Chileans is that the residents of this inhospitable, fault-line-straddling land of extremes are simple and austere by nature. I can't remember if Allende mentioned this or not and don't know what Chilean women would have to say on the matter.

In any case, I did what gringas do: I adapted. I started wearing less makeup and occasionally didn't wear any at all. It was incredibly liberating...and allowed me an extra 15 minutes of sleep in the morning.

Just when I thought I had it all figured out, a young Chilean woman asked me why gringas didn't wear very much makeup. She posed the question as she was sitting on her bed applying what must have been her tenth coat of mascara.

I didn't know what to reply, having always thought it had been the other way around. But here she was, straightening her hair and carefully outlining her eyes in black, and there I was, wearing facial moisturizer and very little else.

There are, of course, groups of young Chileans for which makeup -- even for guys -- is a central element of style. I'm talking about the pokemones, emos and goth kids who have become just as ubiquitous a presence on Chilean talk shows as on the streets of Santiago. As far as I knew, though, this woman did not belong to any of these groups.

More importantly, neither was she part of the university set I was used to being around. It occurred to me that I had been making generalizations based on the apparent preferences of a limited -- and frequently (comparatively) privileged -- demographic.

So, in the end, the question remains unanswered: What's the deal with Chilean women and makeup?

Remember to check out other people's posts on this topic! Oh, and if you're Minnesotan (and even if you're not), check out my last post and let me know what you think.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A proposition

It's recently come to my attention that there are a surprising number of Minnesotans living in and blogging about Chile. Who wouldda thunk that so many of us would venture from the north woods to the shadow of the Andes?

I don't know about the rest of you Minnesotan Chile bloggers out there, but I enjoy 1) Minnesota, 2) Chile and 3) hanging out. Hence, a proposition: What if we all got together sometime? We could gripe about Chilean winters without having people tell us that we can't complain because we're from Minnesota. We'd pasarlo la raja, dontcha know.

Of course, this is by no means meant to exclude non-Minnesotan gringa bloggers, all of whom would obviously be welcome too.

So, my questions are these: Is anyone interested? If so, when are you available? We would also have to decide on a location and whether or not our little reunión would include significant others and friends.

By the way, if you're a Minnesotan and haven't yet introduced yourself, drop me a line!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Stuck in a rut...literally

If you had happened to be soaking up the midday sun in Santiago's Parque O'Higgins on Friday, you would have seen a Bulgarian and a gringa pushing a ramshackle car through puddles and mud. Contrary to what passersby may have assumed, car pushing is not a traditional Eastern European pastime. How did two pale foreigners find themselves in this situation on a beautiful spring afternoon? Let me explain.

Recently, I've been suffering from postgraduate malaise. I miss learning. Of course, my job and everyday life teach me new things every day; that's one of the reasons why I'm living in Chile, where even the most insignificant routine tasks become challenges by virtue of having to be carried out in another language and another latitude. Still, I can't help but feel that in the absence of classes and research projects, my mind is not-so-slowly rotting away. I took two years of calculus in high school, but now I couldn't even give a coherent explanation of what an integral does.

Possessed by the need to learn something, I asked my Bulgarian friend, V., if he would teach me to drive a stick shift. I knew that in addition to renewing my faith in my mental capacities, this would have practical benefits. Practically all cars in Chile have manual transmission, which I'd never dared to tackle before. Not that I plan on doing a lot of driving; actually, the only time I've driven in Chile was when my mom and sister came to visit and we rented a car. Still, you never know.

So it was that we coasted into Parque O'Higgins in V.'s car, affectionately known as the Hippopotamus for its lurching, lumbering gait and overall lack of grace. With me in the passenger's seat, we wound toward the Ellipse, a vast concrete lot that hosts a military parade on Chile's national holiday in September. I had never been quite clear on what it's used for the rest of the time, but I now know that it has a very important unofficial yearlong function: suffering the jolting stops and squealing tires of novice drivers. Unfortunately, the Ellipse was out of commission on Friday: A phalanx of police musicians marched back and forth across the slab, dutifully preparing for next month's festivities.

It looked as though we would have to take our lesson out onto the park's road, which caused me more than a little trepidation. Like so many other South Minneapolis teenagers, I learned to drive in a cemetery, where it was very unlikely that I would kill anyone. In the park, however, the living were present in abundance. Runners, bikers and lovestruck high schoolers traversed the side of the road in significant numbers. I took a deep breath.

After switching seats with V., I was introduced to the complex world of clutches and gears. A few lurching starts later, I was starting to feel OK. I switched from first to second to third and back to second again -- granted, always with my foot hovering at the ready over the break. I knew things couldn't go this well forever.

And they didn't. One of the Hippopotamus' many charms is that when it stalls, it does so permanently. No amount of key-turning can remedy the situation; the only way to get rolling again is to get out and push. This was exactly what we had to do after a clutchless maneuver left the car dormant in the middle of the road. V. pushed, I pushed, and a random runner pushed -- all while keeping his pace.

Once the motor sputtered to a start, I thought we were in the clear. Wrong. The Hippopotamus croaked a total of four times within an hour. Once, it was even thoughtful enough to do so in a dip in a dirt road full of holes and puddles. All in all, I spent almost as much time pushing the car as driving it.

Needless to say, the experience didn't leave me with a good impression of my driving skills. It did, however, leave me with a glowing impression of santiaguinos. During our multiple travails, we enlisted the help of around eight good Samaritans -- from athletes to groundskeepers to school kids -- who joined us behind the car with smiles and muscle power.

What's funny is that if you were to ask any Chilean -- capitalinos included -- to choose adjectives to describe the 6 million people who live in this city, I would be shocked if one of the words chosen were "helpful." Santiaguinos have the reputation of being pushy, rude and self-centered. And while I've come across my fair share of brusque types -- as, I think, I would in a big city anywhere in the world -- I've also experienced enough anonymous acts of kindness to jump to my neighbors' defense whenever I hear someone bash them as a group.

I just hope they'll be as kind-hearted when I accidentally stall a car in the middle of a busy street.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dog lying down = things looking up

Santiago has far exceeded my expectations since I returned yesterday morning. After spending a sun-soaked two weeks with family and friends in Minneapolis, I dreaded going back to the dismal puddle of damp that is Santiago's winter. My dour attitude received a frigid punch of validation when I stepped off the plane and into the jetway...and shivered.

Jetways, I soon learned, can be deceiving. By the time my loaded-down luggage cart and I had made it to the airport parking lot, the day had completely redeemed itself in my eyes. It was sunny and surprisingly warm. Shedding my jacket, I silently apologized to my dear adoptive city for having underestimated it.

Of course, Eden Santiago is not. When I rolled down the car window to more fully luxuriate in the beautiful day, I was greeted with a blast of black exhaust from a passing bus. Still, I was left with the solid impression that spring will soon come to the rescue of this winter-oppressed metropolis. As I was walking to work this morning, I saw a stray dog snoozing in the shadow of a statue. And when stray dogs seek shadow instead of sunlight, you know things are looking up.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Group blog post: Chilean men

With so many gringa-in-Chile bloggers out there, it was only a matter of time before someone suggested we all share our thoughts on the same subject. The first topic: the alluring, sometimes befuddling, and all-too-frequently mullet-sporting Chilean man.

Some may doubt my ability to make a meaningful contribution to this discussion due to the fact that I appear to be one of the few gringa-in-Chile bloggers who does not have a Chilean man of her own. This never fails to come as a surprise to my former host family, who ask me if I've snagged a pololo (Chilean for boyfriend) whenever I stop by for a visit.

Despite the fact that the only Chilean pololo I have is the imaginary one I tell sleazy guys at bars about, I'm confident that I do have something of value to say about Chilean men. After all, I've lived with them, gone on dates with them, and -- most importantly -- been their friend.

In fact, most of my Chilean friends are men. This is not uncommon among gringas; a frequent gripe among female expatriates and exchange students is that it is very hard to make friends with Chilean women. Obviously, this is not universally the case. When I first came to Chile, however, it was true for me. My female classmates were friendly to me, with some going out of their way to bring me up to speed and keep my deer-in-the-headlights look under control. In general, though, things didn't go much beyond that. We didn't meet up for lunch or hang out on weekends.

Among gringas, a few conjectures circulate as to why many Chilean women seem, well, cold. The most common is that Chilean women are wary of gringas because Chilean men are intrigued by them and because gringas are (falsely, in my experience) reputed to be more sexually liberal than chilenas. Another possibility is that Chilean women just don't launch into the insta-friendships that many gringas -- especially those coming from a university setting -- may be used to. They take their time when it comes to building intimacy and trust. Still, I prefer not to speculate without the input of a Chilean woman, so we'll just say that things are what they are.

As someone who has always had close girlfriends, I felt (and still feel) a void where all the female bonding used to be. Good thing Chilean men stepped up to the plate when I most needed them.

During my exchange student days, I frequently would be the only woman at a table or a gathering. I was more than a little surprised to discover that this did not make me uncomfortable at all. The truth is that I spent way too much time laughing hysterically with these guys to analyze the situation. Chilean men are pros when it comes to finding humor everywhere, which can make being surrounded by them an incredibly energizing experience. Additionally, they tend (at least in my experience) to abridge the pleasantries and get down to gritty, engaging conversation more quickly than their female counterparts. After a long day of
struggling to navigate a foreign cultural landscape with "please"s and smiles, it comes as a great relief not to have to be polite.

Of course, I'm not naive. As Heather points out, not all Chilean men who hang out with gringas are platonically motivated. There certainly has been a guy or two who has dropped off the map after learning that I was only interested in friendship. However, there have also been those who have never given me reason to believe they're after anything other than sharing good times.

That's my take. If you want to read what other gringas have to say about Chilean guys (or foreign guys in general), check out Kyle's blog, where people are posting their links (check the comments, too). I, for one, am excited to learn what others think about this topic!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Random thing I love about Santiago: the Centropuerto bus

Before launching into this, the third installment of the "Random Things I Love/Random Things that Irk Me about Santiago" feature, I feel I must apologize for the dearth of updates that has characterized this blog of late. The explanation lies in the fact that up until a few days ago, I was computerless due to an incident involving me tripping and breaking my fall with my laptop. Call me shallow, but the blogging experience loses some of its sparkle when it requires putting in extra hours on one of the paleolithic desktop computers at my office.

Also, I'm on vacation! For the past few days, I've been at home soaking up the gorgeous Minnesota August. Right now I'm sitting in my backyard luxuriating in the fact that I've traded in my nylon long-underwear bodysuit for shorts and a T-shirt -- at least temporarily. Needless to say, family, Olympics and laziness have knocked blogging down a few notches on my priority list.

Santiago may seem far away right about now, but it certainly is not forgotten. In fact, my current trip brought me into contact with a beloved and oh-so-useful fixture of the Santiago streets: the Centropuerto bus.

As their name implies, these vehicles are devoted exclusively to transporting passengers from the Centro (downtown) to the airport. For under US$3, this brigade of blue buses will shuttle you and your luggage all the way out to the departures terminal, a trip that could easily set you back over US$20 by cab (nope, they didn't pay me to write this).

The low price isn't the only thing that gives Centropuerto a special place in my heart. As the chivalrous young man who accompanied me to the airport last week observed, the Centropuerto bus is linked to travel, adventure and -- for us foreigners -- visits to our homes, family and friends. Boarding the blue bus, in other words, is the first step of whatever exciting journey you have planned.

As it carries you out of the city, the Centropuerto bus gives you ample time to say goodbye. Whereas most taxis spirit you away on the highway, Centropuerto takes the city streets, picking up passengers along the way. Many of these are airport employees who make me ponder what it would be like to make the long trek out of the city every day and spend the night working in a glowing, sprawling mass of terminals and runways.

Sometimes I think life would be more convenient for everyone if Santiago's Metro were extended out to the airport. Then I remember my favorite blue buses and recant.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Minnesota bound!

It's official: I'm going to Minnesota in less than two weeks! I'll spend around a fortnight (what a tragically neglected word) there spending time with family, catching up with friends and enjoying the legendary Minnesota State Fair.

This last activity is not nearly as trivial as it sounds. Any event involving fattest pig contests, a potato-sack slide, sculptures of beauty queens carved in butter, and virtually every edible thing in existence on a stick is worthy of my utmost respect. When I was little, I got lost in the Fair's haunted house, and it didn't even come close to souring the experience for me. No summer is truly complete without a healthy pound or two of cheese curds, mini donuts and Sweet Martha's cookies, not to mention a photo atop the burliest John Deere tractor you can find.

Hence, most of my recent summers have been, well, incomplete. College, Chile and Ecuador have kept me from making the pilgrimage to this deep-fried extravaganza, which means that this year's visit is shaping up to be especially greasy.

The Fair is only one of the many reasons why when Chileans ask me if I miss the States, I respond that I miss one.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Yeah, so...

...I posted a new entry about poop. Since I started writing it a while ago, though, it appears before my previous entry about pepper spray and how I'm not actually on drugs.

So, if you want to read about excrement, you know what to do.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ciudad bárbara

Fear is something I think about a lot in Santiago. It's impossible not to: This is a city where people bar up their windows, clutch their bags in front of them on them on the bus, and walk briskly at night. In fact, I recently read an article in a Chilean newspaper about a study that had shown that Santiago, despite statistically being one of the safest cities in South America, is among the cities whose residents are most convinced of the presence of a high incidence of crime--and are most afraid of becoming victims of it.

Compounding the intensity of this constant current of controlled terror is the fact that Santiago is also a city where the collective imagination associates danger of almost legendary proportions with certain parts of town. Just mentioning certain neighborhoods provokes winces; the idea of actually going there is absolutely unthinkable for many.

This is nothing new. In the nineteenth century, historian and Santiago governor Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna--who gave the order to transform downtown's Cerro Santa Lucía into the lush park it is today--wrote of the existence of two Santiagos: the "ciudad culta" ("cultured city") and the "ciudad bárbara" ("barbaric city"). The ciudad culta comprised the historical center of the city--then home to the aristocracy--and gave way to the realm of the masses several blocks further south.

The years have passed, and Santiago has changed. New divisions have supplanted old ones, but the concept of a standoff between two diametrically opposed urban worlds is as present as it ever was. Today, santiaguinos speak of "Plaza Italia pa'rriba" and "Plaza Italia pa'bajo"--uphill (east) and downhill (west) from Plaza Italia, respectively, with "uphill" referring to both topography and socioeconomic status. Coincidentally, Plaza Italia straddles the intersection of the Alameda thoroughfare and a major street named nothing other than Vicuña Mackenna.

This is, of course, a major simplification of a complex geographic and social reality. There's plenty of poverty--and wealth, for that matter--to be found both east and west of this imaginary but extremely symbolic boundary. Nevertheless, the Plaza Italia dichotomy demonstrates that street names aren't the only survivors of centuries past.

Earlier tonight, I found myself walking briskly through border territory. I was heading home (alone) from Ñuñoa, an eastern district of the city, where I'd met some friends for a beer. I'd disembarked from my first bus--which had just crossed Vicuña Mackenna and continued westbound--and was squinting down the street in search of my second. I wasn't near Plaza Italia, but further south--precisely in the area where Governor Vicuña Mackenna had laid his invisible border.

More specifically, I was on Avenida Matta, a street I usually find charming. Sure, it's a little downtrodden, but it's lined with colorful old buildings that house a host of small businesses, including many furniture workshops. Still, the street has a reputation for being sketchy at night. I hadn't anticipated any problems, though, having thought that I would only have to wait briefly at a relatively major intersection before my next bus pulled up.

Wrong. Turns out that Avenida Matta is undergoing some major repaving, rendering a number of bus stops inaccessible. I was going to have to walk.

As I hurried down the sidewalk, I definitely picked up on a dodgy vibe that made me hurry even more. At one point, I noticed that there was a man walking a half-block behind me. Although I did glance over my shoulder a few times, I didn't think much of it; after all, men have to walk down the street sometimes, too. Still, I pulled out my pepper spray keychain and gripped it at the ready--just in case.

At some point, the man passed me and I forgot about him. Shortly thereafter, though, I passed him, which is when it all went down. He grabbed my arm and started pulling me across the sidewalk toward a row of buildings--and away from the streetlights. He was muttering something I didn't understand and brandishing an object I couldn't identify. Little did he know, however, that I was brandishing an object of my own: my pepper spray.

I aimed in his general direction--the best I was able to do while being dragged around in a state of shock--and let him have it. The cloud I sprayed in his direction was not as dramatic as the toxic blast I was expecting, but it was enough to make him release me, double over and drop whatever he'd been holding.

I have no idea whether he was incapacitated or merely stunned; I was already well on my way to a lit-up storefront I spotted down the block. I was too shaken up to scream--or even to run. By the time I reached the shop--a hot dog diner--I was short of breath and becoming aware that my fingers were covered in something that stung. Luckily, the pepper spray hadn't had any other effects on me.

I'm pretty sure the two women working the diner thought I was on drugs. I don't blame them; I would probably jump to the same conclusion if some wide-eyed, panting girl stumbled into my hot dog shack late at night, asked where the closest bus stop was and then asked for "something wet" to wash the chemicals off her hand. When they glanced at each other nervously, I figured I'd better explain.

Once I did, they were extremely accommodating. They gave me paper towels and a glass of water to soak my fingers in. We talked about the weather and my would-be assailant. They asked me where I'd bought my pepper spray. When I felt that my hand had been sufficiently cleansed, I tried to show my gratitude by buying a can of orange pop I didn't particularly want.

After scanning the street for possible perils, I stepped back out onto the sidewalk and flagged down the first bus I saw.

As I rolled homeward, I marveled at how strangely good I felt. I'm well aware that one is not supposed to feel good after nearly falling victim to robbery--or something worse. Over the course of the bus ride, I came to the conclusion that I felt the way I did because I hadn't been a victim; on the contrary, I'd acted quickly and confidently in a genuinely frightening situation. Whether or not I'd been smart is a different story: What would have happened if the guy's mystery object had been a gun? Regardless, I felt empowered.

But should I have? Should I really congratulate myself on responding to violence with violence--self defense, but violence all the same? I don't think there was anything wrong with what I did: I believe personal self defense is perfectly valid when appropriately applied. The problem was that I considered the experience a battle and was getting some kind of perverse satisfaction out of having won.

This, I realized, is what the ciudad bárbara really is. Not a place on a map, but a nebulous other we create for ourselves and decide to fear--and fight. Of course, this particular other grabbed me on the street and--I think--threatened me with some kind of weapon. I don't think it was too terribly irrational of me to have been afraid. The problem begins when this fear becomes generalized and grows into something an individual--or, even worse, an entire society--thrives on. When what fuels us as we stomp down the pavement every day is the frighteningly delicious assumption that every anonymous face that passes belongs to a potential adversary to whom we could have fallen victim but didn't.

That, in the end, is truly barbaric.

For the record, this is the first time someone has ever tried to attack me in Santiago. I feel quite safe here most of the time. But thanks for the pepper spray, Mom.

Oh, and check out what Vicki has to say about fear. And, if you speak Spanish, read Néstor García Canclini's Imaginarios urbanos. I'm pretty sure I borrow some ideas from it here.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Random things that irk me about Santiago: dog poop

Here it is: the second installment of the "Random things I love/that irk me about Santiago" series. Since my first entry was an ode to my neighborhood butcher shop, I figured I would take a more critical angle this time.

A short stroll through Santiago is enough to make one realize that this city desperately needs Bob Barker. No, most santiaguinos I know are not yearning for tacky dining room sets or Tang-colored tans. What this place needs is someone to preach the gospel of spaying and neutering pets.

To illustrate, I have a friend whose family, instead of fixing their dogs (who are brother and sister), let nature take its course. Lo and behold, this incestuous duo became a trio before long. My friend's three beloved pets now live together in Oedipal bliss on the back patio.

At least they have a home. Many of the tail-wagging products of Chile's resistance to pet sterilization end up on the mean streets of Santiago, where they scavenge, scuffle...and poop.

Of course, nobody picks up after strays. This means that the sidewalks of this city are mine fields...and the mines stink. It's difficult to enjoy the urban scenery while maintaining constant vigilance for perils underfoot.

The other afternoon, a moment of distraction left me with something decidedly organic smeared over the bottom of my shoe. When I tried to clean the contaminated sole off on the grass, I planted my foot in yet another fresh pile of canine excrement.


Hey, I love the street dogs just as much as the next person. The particularly gentlemanly ones sometimes escort me home when I'm walking alone at night. Recently, 11 (yes, 11) of them kept me company during an extended wait at a bus stop.

But the poop is gross. Sorry. Even if some have found a way to turn it into art: In beautiful Valparaíso, someone has planted pictures of Pinochet, Hitler and other notorious dictators in the piles of, um, feces that litter the streets. Gotta give them props for creativity.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Spanish smackdown

The other day, I got a craving for tomatoes. So, after I finished up at work, I headed to a nearby street lined with fruit and vegetable stands. After surveying my options, I settled on a stand whose crates were brimming with colorful produce of every kind and whose vendor was humming pleasantly to herself while shivering in the evening cold.

I greeted her and grabbed a plastic bag, ready to pluck up some plump red orbs of dinner. This is usually what you do at Chilean open-air markets: choose your own food while the vendor supervises.

Not at this stand, apparently. Just as I was reaching for a particularly enticing tomato, the vendor snapped, "No, I choose them for you."

Taken aback by both her incensed tone and how ridiculous the idea of not being able to choose my own tomatoes seemed, I asked why.

"Because those are the rules of the game," she snarled. "If you want to choose your own tomatoes, go across the street to the supermarket."

I put the plastic bag down and told her I preferred to choose my food myself. I was just about to skulk onward to the next stand when I decided that my surrender at least needed to be a defiant one. "You didn't have to treat me like that," I told her. "I wanted to do business with you."

As I stood fuming and tomatoless in the Metro a few minutes later, it occurred to me that my response to the situation would probably have been quite different if I'd encountered similar rudeness in the United States. I probably just would have raised a disaffected eyebrow and moved on.

The experience confirmed something I'd been suspecting for quite some time: I'm more confrontational in Spanish. While living in Chile and Ecuador, I've stood up for myself after numerous affronts that I probably would have let slide in an English-speaking environment.

Some might argue that this has nothing to do with language. They would say that the reason I verbally come to my own defense so often while abroad is due to the fact that I encounter many more situations in which I have to. Let's face it: Some people try to take advantage of foreigners. In Ecuador, I had extended arguments--some of which crossed into the realm of the philosophical--with multiple taxi drivers who had tried to charge me more than the legal fare. Even if no mischief is afoot, it's impossible to navigate unfamiliar territory, practices and cultural codes without being assertive.

Still, I don't think that's the entire story. I think what really makes me bold in these situations is the fact that I'm speaking a language that's not my native one and therefore am more psychologically detached from my words and their implications. When I'm speaking in English, I'm fully aware of the meaning my words have for me and relatively aware of the ways in which listeners could interpret them. Being conscious of the multiple ways in which someone could misinterpret me oftentimes makes me hesitate, especially in tense situations involving people I don't know.

Additionally, the English language is so inextricably tangled into my ideas and the way I express them that I choose my words carefully, knowing that listeners will consider them the most accurate representation possible of my thoughts. In this sense, speaking my native language can be risky business.

This is not always the case with Spanish. Even though I'm fluent in Spanish and sometimes dream or blurt involuntary exclamations in it, it will never be as organically a part of me as my first language is. This means that everything I say in Spanish feels a few steps removed from the thought or emotion I wish to express; no matter how much vocabulary I've memorized or how many grammatical structures I've agonized over, Spanish will always feel like an approximation. It also means that I feel less invested in and accountable for what I'm saying. Since my status as a non-native speaker frequently renders me unable to weigh all the subtle shades of meaning my words could carry for a listener, I simply don't weigh them. This is extremely liberating when it comes time to speak my mind.

I think that in general, the effects of this have been positive. Have I overreacted and subjected a hapless victim to a verbal battering a bit more intense than he or she deserved? Unfortunately, yes. More frequently, however, I've prevented myself from being trampled by making my voice heard. Almost every time I argued with a cab driver in Ecuador, I won.

Maybe I should work on being more assertive in my native language, too.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Midnight in my neighborhood

Santiago Centro

Psychedelic onion gringa

When I was about 10, I went through a phase in which I would lock myself in my room and act out scenes from the musical Les Miserables. Never mind that all the prostitution, political rebellion and religious subtext went way over my beret-topped head.

I wasn't the only musical theater buff in my family. My talent was never worthy of a venue outside my bedroom, but my sister is a damn good singer and actress, so good that she's currently considering a career on the stage. My mom has always been eager to belt along to Broadway hits, too.

So, as you might imagine, we got a little giddy whenever major touring musicals came through Minneapolis. We enjoyed them all but were a little weirded out by Cats; I suspect it may have had to do with the furry unitards.

Perhaps I would have been more sympathetic to the pirouetting felines had I known that I would one day be wearing something disturbingly similar.

That's right. I'm currently wearing a polyester dancer's top tucked into polyester leggings. Neither garment is furry, but still.

Fortunately, nobody would know this from looking at me. On top of my synthetic body suit, I'm wearing jeans, two long-sleeved shirts, a sweater, a sweatshirt and a fleece jacket. Nope, I'm not going ice fishing. I'm sitting in my room.

I've been cold for about two months straight now. Contrary to popular North American belief, not every Spanish-speaking country is sweltering year-round. In reality, winter temperatures in Santiago can dip below freezing. It even snowed here last year.

"But wait, aren't you from Minnesota?" someone demands every time I utter a "brrrr." I am indeed. And it gets A LOT colder in my beloved Land of Lakes than it does here in Santiago. The thing about Minnesota cold, though, is that it's usually temporary. Unless you're engaging in some kind of extended outdoor activity, you can generally expect yourself to be freezing only as long as it takes you to get to the nearest car or building. Because they're heated.

Here in Santiago, on the other hand, most buildings--at least most of those I've been to--lack central heating. When I went to the bank a few weeks ago, for example, all the tellers were wearing winter parkas over their uniforms to keep warm.

My office and my apartment are similarly heatless. My roommates and I don't even have a portable gas heater like the ones many Chileans use to heat indoor spaces during the winter. This last situation, obviously, is no one's fault but our own.

The result: Santiago's winter chill is virtually inescapable until you climb into bed at night. Since I was brilliant and forgot all my warmest sweaters in my closet in Minneapolis, this means that every morning, I pile on layer after layer of whatever I can find. Needless to say, this has led to some very questionable color combinations. Today, for example, I'm sporting maroon, sky blue, purple, and floral print. HOT.

Fashion faux paus are not the only peril presented by Santiago winters. The fact that most houses aren't heated means that it's frequently colder inside than outside, which, in turn, means that one runs the risk of overdressing.

To illustrate, I biked to Parque Quinta Normal this afternoon to watch a friend play tennis. Before I left, I piled on six layers and a scarf for good measure. Once I'd set off, though, it quickly became apparent that it was a much nicer day than the frigid temperatures inside my apartment had led me to believe. By the time I arrived at the park--not a particularly long ride--I was sweating.

In other words, I'm pretty sure the Chilean winter has it out for me. Only three more months to go...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ode to Minnesota

I don't know many state flowers, but I think the lady slipper is probably about as bitchin' as they come.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Shimmying the blues away

Every once in awhile, life in Chile gets tough. I wake up cold and--no matter how many clashing layers of clothing I pile on my shivering body--stay that way for the rest of the day. While walking to the Metro in the morning, I step in a puddle or get splashed by a passing bus and don't manage to shake the bone-numbing dampness for--you guessed it--the rest of the day. While walking home in the evening, I pass groups of laughing friends and am reminded of how much I miss my friends back home--and of how none of my friends here, as I much as I cherish them, will ever know what I was like in kindergarten.

This past week was overpopulated with days like these. I arrived home every day feeling defeated and exhausted, a spiritual malaise that never fully managed to dissipate while I slept and therefore accompanied me into the next day. By the time Friday hit, I was so beat that I wasn't even excited about the night of outings I had planned.

Luckily, Saturday was a new day. I headed to the okupa to help prepare my photography class's first exhibition, which we were putting on as part of the house's third anniversary celebrations. As we sat in the basement of the cavernous house framing our photographs with tag board and plates of glass, I got to know my classmates a little better--and learned that my fine motor skills aren't quite as abysmal as I've always assumed. I felt a strong sense of accomplishment when we were finally able to stand back and behold our work hanging in neat rows on the wall.

I had a great time watching the performances--which ranged from flamenco to physical theater--that the other workshops put on for the anniversary. For the first time ever, I even found a clown routine entertaining instead of petrifying.

Next, I made the trek to a goodbye party for a German friend, the only other foreigner who participated in my volunteer trip to Canela this past summer. I caught up with friends, chowed down on several delicious varieties of cake and boogied the night away with people I'd just met. The party and the day that had preceded it were exactly what I needed to snap out of my Chile-is-conspiring-to-destroy-me mode.

In other words, it was a good day.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Undies for my baby

In my view, there are few parts of Santiago that can claim to be spicier than the area flanking both sides of the Mapocho River near the Cal y Canto Metro stop. Markets, chicha dens, piracy, oh my! This is not the easiest place to blend in as a gringa, but feeling glaringly out of place is worth it when you consider that virtually every visit to this zone comes with a bonus gift: a moment that makes you stop, knot your eyebrows and ask yourself, "What the f***?"

Case in point: The other day, I was trekking through the area during my three-hour via crucis to renew my visa. I clomped down each block scowling and chastising myself for having chosen that particular day to zip on my oh-so-sexy high-heeled boots.

As I approached one particular corner, I noticed a man holding up a pair of (used?) men's tighty-whities and trying to convince each passerby to purchase them. My two X-chromosomes were not enough to exempt me from hearing his sales pitch. I continued walking, just as the rest of his potential customers had; still, he apparently was not going to take "no" as an answer from me.

"For your baby!" he shouted. "Do you have a baby?"

Even if I had, I doubt he would have been able to fill out a pair of men's briefs. However, I was too grouchy to tell the man as much and spent the next several seconds silently begging the traffic light to change quickly.

"Miss!" The man came up behind me and held up the underwear in all their elastic-waisted glory.

"They're not my size," I told him.

His tenacity was enough to make me wonder if he'd had luck in the past convincing gringas to buy sketchy men's underwear.

When I look back on the experience, I realize that he and I were in the same boat: Renewing my visa was proving to be equally as difficult as selling that underwear was for him.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Random thing I love about Santiago: my neighborhood butcher's shop

As you already know, I haven't been updating this blog nearly as much as I should/want to. That kind of defeats the purpose of using it as a way to keep everyone updated on my life here in the southern reaches in the world.

I think one of the reasons for the long lapses between entries is the fact that blogging sometimes just takes me so damn long. I love writing, but I'm not fast at it. This becomes problematic when I sit down to blog about issues or experiences that I feel require a good deal of elaboration. The result: I don't write anything.

It occurred to me that one solution could be to occasionally write short entries about specific aspects of my life in this city. If you're sick of reading epic entries in small type, this will make your life easier, too!

So, without further ado, I hereby inaugurate a new feature of my blog: Random Things I Love About Santiago (or Random Things that Irk Me About Santiago, depending on my mood).

My first topic: my neighborhood butcher's shop.

Every so often, the idea of becoming a vegetarian crosses my mind. Recently, one of the factors that's deterred me from taking the leap--aside from the fact that I like meat and behave like a five-year-old when it comes to eating certain vegetables (squash, anyone?)--is the fact that were I to opt for the herbivorous life, I wouldn't be able to go to my neighborhood butcher's shop anymore.

Located just a few blocks from my apartment, the shop is a bastion of neighborhood micro-commerce in an increasingly supermarket-dominated business. My mom has told me stories about when she and her siblings used to run errands to the local butcher's in Minneapolis, and it strikes me that this may have been what it was like.

Not only is the meat cheaper than that sold at the nearby supermarket, but the guys behind the counter serve up hefty portions of old-school personalized service. They call their regular customers "vecino/a" ("neighbor"). They call me "mi amor" ("my love"), but not in a sleazy way. They recommend the best cuts for what you tell them you're making and try to help you keep costs down.

In other words, it's enough to keep me carnivorous for a while yet.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Adventure on wheels

I'm rushing to finish up an assignment for my photography class (we're publishing a magazine soon!), so I don't have time to write anything new and original. Here's a feature-like article I wrote for the paper last week, though:


I find myself defending Santiago a lot. Rarely a weekend goes by in which I do not end up arguing with someone—whether a fellow foreigner or a native-born santiaguino—who is convinced that this city qualifies as the tenth circle of Dante’s hell. In the eyes of these individuals, pollution, crowded buses and urban crime are pitchforks jabbing the sides of the six million sinners condemned to this smog-choked cesspool.

Equally pervasive—especially among the foreign set—is a more tempered form of anti-Santiago sentiment. Sure, Santiago has its problems, just like any big city. The real problem with Chile’s capital, however, is that there’s simply not much to do. Santiago is merely a convenient place to recharge one’s batteries before setting off for the real Chile, a place bursting with glaciers, volcanoes and desert geysers.

I understand that city life is not for everyone, especially those who have traveled to these southern latitudes in search of a temporary respite from the stress of the daily grind. Nevertheless, I staunchly believe that Santiago does not deserve nearly the amount of insults hurled its way. On the contrary, I consider this city a fascinating, dynamic place with plenty to offer to those who take the time to look.

A few months back, I set out to prove it. The mission: traverse Santiago from one end to the other in search of adventure. The method: none other than that notorious accordion on wheels, a Transantiago bus. I resolved to travel along a single bus route, getting off to explore at various points along the way.

I spent quite some time poring over my colossal Transantiago map before identifying the perfect candidate: the 407. After setting off from Pudahuel, on the far western edge of the city, this bus makes its way eastward through seven urban boroughs before finally turning around in the shadow of the Andes in Las Condes.

My Chilean friend Leo, scandalized that a gringa would dare to undertake such an odyssey on her own, offered to accompany me. On the Saturday afternoon we’d designated for the expedition, we rendezvoused at the San Pablo Metro station—the western fingertip of Line 1—and continued seaward to the intersection where the 407 sets sail for destinations east.

The appointed spot was a traffic rotunda in the middle of—well, not quite nowhere, but almost. Vacant, desert-like lots baked under the summer sun, periodically traversed by the shadows of planes fleeing the nearby airport.

There were no houses nearby, at least not that we could see. We apparently had arrived at a point of transit, a kind of no-man’s land where travelers fresh off one bus stood and waited for another.

When I pulled out my camera to immortalize this first stop on my journey, a passing teenage girl asked sardonically, “What are you taking pictures of? The scenery?”

When the 407 pulled up, I put my camera away and boarded. The bus driver told us it would be a full four hours before he completed his route and returned to the rotunda to start over again.

Soon afterward, the empty lots outside the bus window had given way to streets lined with apartment blocks and small businesses. Leo and I figured that this was as good a place as any to get off and wander around.

As we ambled past a dusty park in this densely populated sector of Pudahuel, I was reminded of something Leo—who lives in the neighboring borough of Lo Prado—had said earlier: “The thing about these boroughs is that there are very few green spaces.”

In fact, a recent University of Chile study revealed that Pudahuel and other low-income Santiago boroughs are experiencing a kind of urban desertification in which concrete replaces vegetation, driving surface temperatures up.

Braving the afternoon heat were numerous street vendors, some of whom were selling used articles of clothing for as little as CP$100 (US$0.21) apiece. A pair of these vendors pointed us to a nearby open-air food market, where we savored roast chicken and the best fresh fruit juice either of us had ever tasted in Santiago.

Full-stomached—and short Leo, whom I had lost to band practice—I flagged down another 407 and continued my journey. Shortly thereafter, a guitar-toting musician boarded and began crooning a folk song whose lyrics included, “Women don’t love me because my poncho’s ripped. That can be fixed, girls.”

I got off the bus near Parque Quinta Normal, whose paddle boats and rental bicycle carts were in full Saturday swing. Also hopping was the grotto outside the Basílica de Lourdes, a church whose minaret-like belfry towers over the northern edge of the park. Dozens of vendors lined the sidewalk outside the entrance to the sanctuary, offering passersby everything from rosaries to popcorn.

Although the foundation of the current Lourdes basilica was laid in the late 1920s, the sanctuary itself dates from the end of the nineteenth century. The plaques that cover the stone walls are a testament to the shrine’s long history: some of these expressions of thanks to the Virgin Mary were engraved before the First World War.

Steady streams of water course from spouts embedded in the stone. That Saturday afternoon, modern-day pilgrims carried the liquid off in that most ceremonious of vessels, the empty soda bottle.

My next stop was central Santiago’s Paseo Ahumada, where street performers ranging from clowns to child martial artists were entertaining the crowds who had flocked downtown for an afternoon stroll.

Back on the 407 again, I watched the bustling commercial center of Providencia scroll past outside. As the bus continued into Las Condes, it became obvious that we were moving uphill—and up the income scale. The streets I got off to wander were lined not with housing blocks and open-air restaurants but rather with high-fenced homes and storefronts advertizing pilates classes and home-delivery sushi. As I meandered through a verdant park near the Los Domínicos church and artisan fair, I thought back to the parched playground I’d seen in Pudahuel.

I ended my day as exhausted—and as fulfilled—as if I’d spent it trekking through the pristine Chilean wilderness. I had seen varied landscapes, eaten delicious food, gotten a history lesson and enjoyed live entertainment, all without setting foot outside of Santiago—or opening a guidebook.

The next time I hear someone gripe about how boring this city is, I’ll offer to lend him or her my Transantiago map for the weekend.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008