Friday, January 25, 2008

Back to summer camp

Last night, I had a dream I went mountain climbing with two guides who left me stranded on a ledge. They had told me that they were coming back for me, but started having a picnic and forgot about me. I was terrified, because the ledge was really skinny and I had no rope attached to me (think Tom Cruise at the beginning of Mission Impossible 2--or was it 3?). I wanted to shout for help but couldn't because, according to the logic of my dream, shouting would make me fall. If I inhaled too deeply, I would plummet.

Fortunately, in the real world, the sun was coming up. The light woke me up just long enough for me to realize that I wasn't really clinging to the edge of a cliff. Instead of remaining peacefully awake, though, I somehow convinced myself that I had to go back to sleep and make it down the mountain. That it would help me grow as a person or some other ridiculous thing that would make sense to a half-asleep person. So, I rolled back over and embarked on my imaginary quest for self-improvement.

The quest was pretty stop-and-go due to the fact that a lot of light comes through my bedroom window in the morning. However, I remained steadfast, convinced that I would make it down the mountain if I just tried hard enough. The guides eventually remembered me and climbed up barehanded to hand me a rope. It was at that moment, alas, when the rising sun won out and I woke up for good. In some alternate dream universe, I'm still balanced precariously on the edge of an abyss.

Wading through the real world today, I've tried to come up with an explanation for my nightmare and, more importantly, the fact that I felt compelled to go back to it after finding an escape. The whole situation was reminiscent of my 2004 trip to the southern Chilean city of Pucón, where my friends and I climbed a volcano during a wind storm and our guides periodically disappeared. When I think about it, though, I suspect the dream had more to do with a future event than a past one.

On Sunday, I'm traveling a few hours north of Santiago to the tiny town of Canela, where I'll be volunteering for two weeks with a group from the University of Chile. This year's projects include everything from a free dental clinic to a kids' soccer camp to something involving solar panels. My friend Marisa and I plan to put together and broadcast a community radio program on which we'll discuss health issues, news, musical artists and local events. This has much more to do with barehanded rock climbing than it may seem. Ask any cheesy dream interpreter.

The truth is that I'm nervous about Trabajos Voluntarios for a number of reasons. Aside from people I've met briefly at organizational meetings, I know a grand total of ONE of the 150 other participants. It'll be like summer camp all over again, only hotter.

I'm also nervous about putting on the radio show, which I've never done before. Whenever my friends at Santiago Radio have asked me to pop in and say a few words (once I had to pretend to be a heat wave), I've been really nervous--and their programs are in English! In Canela, I'll be speaking in Spanish to a community I'm unfamiliar with. Talk about stage fright...

I don't think it's going too far (although maybe getting a little corny) to say that going on this trip is like throwing myself out on a cliff ledge with no climbing gear. As nervous as I am, though, I know it will be a great opportunity to help out in one of the poorest communities in the country. Additionally, I'll have the chance to meet new people, practice Spanish, and see another part of Chile. Therefore, I'm going to try to overcome my anxiety and find my way down the mountain.

That means, of course, that this blog will be taking a short vacation. Take care, and check back in two weeks to read about Canela!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Potty mouth

A tale that proves the classic adage that things are not always what they seem:

A while back, my duties as a scrappy journalism intern took me to the headquarters of a major Chilean political party. The people there were surprisingly accommodating to me and the other journalists who showed up, so I'll express my gratitude by leaving the party nameless.

One of the party's leaders, an extremely well-known public figure here in Chile, was to give a presentation, and I had been sent to cover it. Having attended very few press events before, I was almost laughably nervous, especially when I saw the party headquarters itself. It was one of those buildings that had been pruned to impress: stately facade, slick paint job, and really spiky plants. The building achieved its intended effect on me--at least initially.

My anxiety began to mount when I entered the building and realized that I was the only person there who had no idea what she was doing. A number of journalists conversed casually with the receptionist, whom they already knew, and disappeared into back hallways with the familiarity of people visiting their parents' house. At one point, I heard someone mention a "press room," but I felt too self-conscious to venture into the hidden realm reserved for "real" journalists.

Eventually, I meekly followed these real journalists into the party's auditorium. Once inside, I recorded the politician's presentation and snapped photos, all the while feeling intrusive, out-of-place and hopelessly amateur. The one thing that weakened the spell of inadequacy was the fact that the politician, a household name who probably doesn't go a day without being mentioned in some capacity by the Chilean media, gave his talk using a Power Point presentation similar to the one my groupmates and I put together for our final project in Sociology 101.

The spell was broken completely when the presentation ended and I had to go to the bathroom. The bathroom--or at least the one they let visitors use--was a dingy little room with no toilet paper, ventilated by a fan with rusty exposed blades. In order to flush the toilet, I had to remove the lid of the tank, plunge my hand in and remove the stopper. In the absence of a drier or towel, I wiped my hands on my pants to dry them off after washing them.

Don't get me wrong. Compared to the gnarlier bathrooms I've come across, the one at the political party was luxurious. When I went to French camp when I was nine, the communal bathroom was crawling with daddy longlegs that clung to the toilet paper and would settle in on your toothbrush if you left it unattended. A few summers ago in Italy, I paid one Euro to enter the public bathroom and was dismayed when all I found was a hole in the ground. At a bus station in a coastal town in Ecuador, my friend Charlotte and I had to grit our teeth and use a bathroom where you had to dump a bunch of water in the toilets to make them flush because there was no running water. The bathroom attendant, who was in a wheelchair, hadn't been able to flush the toilets in some time and asked Charlotte to do it for him.

Despite the fact that the restroom at the political party was far from the bottom rung of the grand scheme of bathroom things, it was gross enough to snap me out of my inferiority complex. Why on earth was I so nervous about going to see someone's Power Point presentation in a building whose bathroom resembled those at cheap dance clubs?

I walked out of the party headquarters propelled by a new surge in confidence. I even had the guts to strike up a conversation with a pair of "real" journalists, who turned out to be students. While I don't consider the article I wrote about the presentation to be anything too exciting, the experience had lasting effects. I don't freak out anymore when I have to interview public figures on the phone or attend events by myself. I figure that if a bathroom at such a supposedly stately place can be so nasty, I'm a "real" enough journalist to cover whatever I damn well please.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Literary quest

It was Easter weekend, 2006. The majority of the students at my Catholic university--including my three roommates--had packed their bags and left campus to spend the holiday with family or friends. I, on the other hand, was sitting alone in the living room of my university apartment, staring fixedly at the staircase that led up into the shadows of the empty second floor.

I was scared out of my mind, but not of any of the slew of pitfalls (rapists, murderers, carbon monoxide poisoning) that traditionally await college girls spending the weekend alone. I was terrified that dragging footsteps would begin to advance slowly through the upstairs hallway and that a mute, rag-clothed janitor would materialize on the stairs, pulling a rickety cart behind him as he descended toward me.

I´d been working a bit too hard on my thesis. The project, which I had given up my Easter vacation to finish on time, partially centered on El obsceno pájaro de la noche (The Obscene Bird of the Night), a novel which many consider to be the master work of Chilean author José Donoso. The book´s narrator--ironically, as my advisor pointed out--is a mute, rag-clothed janitor that pulls a rickety cart behind him as he winds through the labyrinthine hallways of the crumbling building where he works. In the novel, the building is an old spiritual retreat center that has become a dumping ground for society´s least wanted: orphans and elderly domestic servants that have become useless to their employers but have nowhere else to go. The house´s forgotten residents live amidst garbage as the narrator gradually seals them off from the outside world by boarding up rooms and windows.

Marginalized from the city that surrounds them--a 1950s/1960s Santiago that throbs with radio transmissions and car engines--the orphans, old women and janitor populate their days with imaginary realities and power struggles that make their plight even more grotesque. The characters begin to resemble the dismembered statues of saints that litter one of the house´s many internal patios; they´ve been buried alive inside the house and are decaying along with it.

I had loved the book since I had first read it a year before, but it only when I found myself alone in the dark with it did I gain the appreciation that I have for it now. If a book can disturb you that much without ghosts or gore, it´s good. That may be why I was thrilled to read in an appendix written by Donoso himself that the house in El obsceno pájaro was based on one that the author had visited in Santiago. While writing my thesis, I resolved to set out in search of the building if I ever returned to Chile.

I arrived in Santiago in October, having not forgotten my promise. Donoso had provided a clue regarding the location of the building that had inspired him: It was on Calle Cruz, a street which the good people at Mapcity informed me was in the Independencia neighborhood. Independencia sits north of the Mapocho, the pink-tinted, suspicious-smelling river that slices through Santiago from east to west. The area north of the river has traditionally been referred to as "La Chimba," which means something similar to "the other side" in Quechua. As another Chilean author, Carlos Franz, wrote in his book La muralla enterrada, La Chimba has frequently been associated with death, transgression and chaos in Chilean literature. The zone is home to hospitals, mental institutions, and two sprawling cemeteries. In other words, La Chimba is spooky.


One of the first things I did when I got my bike was head off in search of Calle Cruz and the sprawling, decrepit house I would presumably find there. I had, of course, selectively forgotten the part of the appendix in which Donoso informs his readers that the house has been demolished. Obviously, I pedaled up and down Cruz without seeing anything that resembled what Donoso had described. When the time came for me to head to work, I told myself that I just hadn´t looked hard enough and would go back another day.

That day was yesterday. A few minutes of internet research revealed that a spiritual retreat center had once existed on Calle Cruz. Called La Casa de Ejercicios de San Juan Bautista, it was built by the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century and operated by an order of nuns until it was demolished in the mid 1960s. Coincidentally (or maybe not), El obsceno pájaro ends circa 1960 with the impending destruction of the house. Currently, the patch of Calle Cruz once occupied by La Casa de Ejercicios is home to a series of apartment blocks. Just like in the novel, Santiago won.

Refusing to be defeated, I returned to Calle Cruz with the hope of finding a saint´s severed head or some other remnant of La Casa de Ejercicios. Unfortunately, all I found were gates, parking lots and three stories of concrete. When I asked the owner of a nearby minimarket whether or not a religious building had ever existed on the street, she said that she didn´t know of one but pointed me in the direction of another that ended up being decidedly modern. I bought some chocolate cupcakes from her to help me deal with my disappointment.

Discouraged as I was, there were some aspects of my trip to Independencia that lifted my spirits. First of all, the wooden shutters that many of the apartment blocks´ residents had pulled over their windows reminded me of the boards Donoso´s mute janitor uses to shut out the city. Additionally, the surrounding streets remained true to Donoso´s description of them: To this day, they are lined with one-story adobe houses "with one door and one window each," distinguishable from each other only by the color of their paint. I guess part of the world of El obsceno pájaro still does exist.

Despite the frustrating results of my quixotic quest, I haven´t given up on the prospect of one day returning to Calle Cruz and stumbling across the Virgin Mary´s nose.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

My anonymous belly button hero

First of all, happy new year! I hope 2008 has started off wonderfully for all of you. I´ll post about my New Year´s Eve adventures in Valparaíso (think eleven people, one bathroom) soon.

My new year in Santiago began with bottles and pyrotechnics. No, not champagne and no, not fireworks. These trappings were of a purely projectile variety. But I´m getting ahead of myself.

When I arrived at the okupa for my first photography class of 2008, I was told that we were going to take photos at a protest and needed to hurry in order to make it on time. Figuring that balancing myself on the back of my teacher´s bike was not the safest way to go--especially since I had an inkling that there would be fleeing involved--I took the Metro with another student, M.

We resurfaced in Plaza Italia, known as "el ombligo de Chile" (Chile´s belly button). If I had to make an uninformed speculation about the origin of this monicker, I would guess that it has to do both with the fact that the central area of the plaza is circular (and does indeed look like a belly button from above) and the fact that Plaza Italia has been a nerve center for citizen mobililzation over the decades. Traditionally, this is where people have congregated to demonstrate, protest and celebrate. In 1988, this was one of the places where people celebrated victory in the plebiscite that dictated the eventual removal of Pinochet from power.

Last week, it was one of the places across the country where protestors gathered to demonstrate against the killing of a young Mapuche (a Chilean indigenous group) man in southern Chile. The man, 22-year-old student Matías Catrileo, had been fatally shot by police while taking part in what an indigenous rights group called a "symbolic act of land recovery" on a private farm.

When M. and I arrived in Chile´s belly button, large numbers of people were gathered around a group of Mapuches performing a ceremony. We weren´t allowed to take pictures of the ceremony itself, which partially consisted of clearing tracks of space in different directions and performing a rite involving branches.

It was after the ceremony ended when things started sailing through the air. Police officers in riot gear had arranged themselves in a line blocking the entire Alameda, Santiago´s principal thoroughfare. They were greeted with chants from the crowd: "¡Los pacos fascistas son los terroristas!" ("The fascist cops are the terrorists!"). M. and I--and a Santiago Times writer whom we happened to bump into--bopped around snapping photos of a scene that was about to explode.

I must have been too focused on getting my shutter speed right to notice that the first spark had gone off. I have no idea how the confrontation started, but before I knew it, the phalanx of police officers was advancing and M. was throwing out an arm to keep me from crossing the street. It turned out that he had rescued me from being sliced by the shards of a shattering Molotov cocktail, which would have done more than bounce benignly off my jeans if I had continued advancing.

We had reached the street demonstration point of no return. Before I knew it, a giant police van with its underside caught on fire (how´s that for under-car lighting?) was lumbering up to the plaza while a water-spewing guanaco was approaching from another angle. Many of the protestors began dispersing hurriedly, but M. and I tried to linger as long as we could in order to get some good shots.

Next, inevitably, came the tear gas. The first whiff felt like a frustrated sneeze intensified: the burning eyes, tingling nose and face-wide sting. Then, it started to feel quite a bit worse. It was hard to keep my eyes open, which made it hard to see what was happening in my increasingly frenzied surroundings. The gas was spreading and the guanaco was heading straight for us, which meant that we found ourselves caught in a stream of running people. Having narrowly escaped flying glass and having so far been spared the wrath of the riot hose, I had the feeling that it was time for my luck to run out.

It did. I tripped, fell and smacked my head against the back wheel of a passing bicycle. The cyclist looked back said something it was impossible for me to hear. Then, whisked off by the rapid human current, he was gone. Disoriented and splayed out on the sidewalk as I was, I was not nearly as mobile.

My subsequent efforts to get back on my feet were thwarted by people running to safety. I had resigned myself to waiting it out in the fetal position when a stranger grabbed me by the arm and hauled me to my feet. He then dragged me out of the crowd, where my friends found me and we ran.

We stayed awhile longer, dodging through the plaza with our cameras like covert agents. I even took a picture of myself--which I am most decidedly NOT posting on the internet--in order to immortalize my puffy eyes and the swelling bump on my forehead.

Luckily, M. has a lot more protest smarts than I do. On numerous occasions, a shout from him saved me from getting blasted by a hose or beamed by flying objects. For me, it was much too easy to become oblivious to my surroundings while staring into the LCD screen of my camera.

I was able to thank M. in person, but I never saw my other savior again. So, let this serve as a public thank you to the anonymous hero who plucked me out of Chile´s belly button and set be back on my staggering feet. More of a symbolic thank you, I suppose, because I´m guessing he doesn´t read my blog.