Friday, March 28, 2008

When llamas attack

I'd be willing to bet you a bottle of Escudo that virtually all non-Andean foreigners who travel to this part of the world experience some degree of fascination with llamas. And, honestly, how couldn't we? They grunt, spit and have enormous, Jersey-cow eyes. They and their stunted rabbit ears thrive at celestial altitudes. Perhaps most of all, it's thrilling for us gringos to finally behold in the flesh the "Ll" square from our elementary school Spanish alphabet charts.

This explains why I took my first llama encounter a bit too far. It was three and a half years ago. After stumbling through our first few days in the Southern Hemisphere, my fellow exchange students and I piled onto a bus bound for the beach in the middle of winter. After spending a few days bundled up beneath the slate-gray skies of La Serena, we ventured inland to a town called Vicuña. I was immediately enamored of the flowers sprouting everywhere and the snow-capped mountains that served as a backdrop. I soon found even more to be enamored of: There were llamas in Vicuña.

A word of caution: It is an extremely bad idea to set a gaggle of overstimulated gringo exchange students loose in a field with llamas. They will coo at the llamas, touch the llamas, and gather around the llamas for group photos. The llamas, in turn, will put up with only so much before they snap and sink their teeth into the closest living thing--in this case, me.

Looking back, the llama was perfectly justified in biting me. My companions and I had rudely invaded its space, and I was wearing an extremely unflattering sweater.

Fortunately for my safety, one doesn't come across many llamas in Santiago. In fact, the only llamas I've seen in this city have been sporting colorful pom-pom hats while being led around by people who offer to sell you a Polaroid of you and their exotic Andean specimen. At least the llamas are alive, which is more than can be said for the stuffed, costumed horse that some guy in the Plaza de Armas tries to convince you is a photo-worthy curiosity. He even proudly displays a poster in which the horse appears pictured in front of an handful of Chilean landmarks.

Hey, to each his or her own. A 2006 trip to an Ecuadorian zoo convinced me of the truth of this platitude. The zoo's cages housed a variety of animals that ranged from hyper monkeys to a (rightfully) dejected condor. About halfway through our visit, nearby commotion distracted my friends and me from our guilt-ridden voyeurism. A cluster of net-wielding zoo employees were gathered around a hose, blasting water into a tree. When we asked what the problem was, they gravely informed us one of the squirrels was trying to escape. My North American friends and I were awestruck, finding it difficult to fathom that anyone anywhere would ever consider a squirrel exotic enough to hose out of a tree. Especially when there were llamas at the petting zoo down the path.

Nevertheless, given that squirrels apparently are just as fascinating for some as llamas are for gringos, I'd like to issue an open invitation to all Ecuadorians: In the unfortunate event that all the squirrels at the Guayllabamba zoo escape, you're welcome to come to my backyard in Minnesota and watch handfuls of them frolic in their natural habitat.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I insult you because I love you

I have a big zit right now. Actually, I have two; I'm just that lucky. Big deal, right? I can just dab on concealer and go about my life. Well, not in Chile, I can't.

In the U.S., we tend to confront both temporary and permanent physical defects with cautious silence. From an extremely young age, we are taught not to stare, not to point, not to laugh at deformities or irregularities or excess pounds. The same goes when the problems in question are our own; we are assured that if we ignore our imperfections, everyone else will, too.

I've come to suspect that our Chilean counterparts are not told the same thing. My first clue came three years ago, while a new Chilean friend and I were shoveling down desert in a Santiago café. After half an hour of chatting, my friend looked at me and informed me, "You have a big nose. And big cheeks." He proceeded to puff out his cheeks like a chipmunk bob his head mockingly from side to side.

I was shocked, then hurt, then furious. I'm pretty sure my jaw dropped, cartoon style, stretching out my oversize cheeks. How dare he say that to me? How dare he notice?

As it happens, I do have a pretty big nose. I don't have delicate, defined cheekbones, either. In my mind, however, I was the only one who had the right to acknowledge it.

Apparently, this sentiment is not shared by Chileans. In a land of nicknames like "Gorda" and "Guatón," a person's physical peculiarities are public property. Foreigners are not spared this vocal scrutiny: A few weeks after pointing out the rarities of my face, my friend marveled at a pimple on my forehead. Another told me I looked anorexic. On a separate occasion, a friend contemplating a photo of me announced I looked much better in person. Another Chilean once shared with me this thoughtful insight: "I bet you'd be dumber if you were prettier."

At first, my response to this unwanted honesty was to take deep, personal offense. These people were obviously out to hurt my feelings, and they were succeeding. I was so upset by these comments that I finally asked a Chilean friend why on earth he and his compatriots were so intent on bludgeoning my self-confidence. He seemed surprised by my reaction and told me their intentions couldn't be more opposite: By making seemingly disparaging comments about my appearance, they were in fact showing me we were friends.

"Think about it," he said. "If someone you're close to has a really big nose, it would almost be an insult not to bring it up. You would be implying there was no trust between you."

So, there you have it: In Chile, they insult you because they love you.

At first, nothing seemed more absurd to me. As I mulled over what my friend had said, however, it occurred to me that something about his logic rang very true. If our friends supposedly know us through and through, it's ridiculous to pretend they haven't noticed we have freakish toes or protruding ears. If they haven't, maybe they haven't really been paying attention at all.

Last night, I realized my internalization of this philosophy was not as complete as I had once thought. When I arrived at the okupa to clean my English classroom, one of my students--a house regular--pointed to the bigger of my two zits and started laughing. He then illuminated the pimple with a cell phone screen and motioned for a five-year-old girl to check it out.

Needless to say, it was difficult for me to interpret this as an expression of friendship. As the hours passed and the zit jokes multiplied, though, I found I was actually able to laugh about my little pink misfortune. After walking me home, my student told me, "I like your zit because it makes you seem more natural."

For some reason, I know he was being honest. I also know that the next time he gets an unsightly blemish, I will not let him hear the end of it.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Washing my mouth out with soap

Here it is, finally: the first of a long-promised series of posts about my recent volunteer trip to northern Chile. The experience provided such a monumental amount of material for blogging that the only way to tackle it is anecdotally.

For those who may not know, I spent the last week in January and the first week in February in Canela, a rural municipality about four hours north of Santiago. Canela's population, which hovers around 10,000, is divided among numerous rural communities separated by cactus-covered hills and broad expanses of thirsty land. The devastating effects of Chile's current drought were all too visible in Canela, an agricultural zone struggling to stay afloat without water.

My friend Marisa and I arrived in Canela with two audio recorders and what seemed like miles of blank tape. Our mission: to broadcast a series of hour-long radio programs about health, news, cultural events and local issues. Our platform: Radio Horizonte Campesino, a community radio station with a small antenna and a limited number of listeners. Canela's airwaves are dominated by Radio Asunción, a Catholic station that charges more for air time than the Fech (the University of Chile's student federation) could afford. The kind folks at Horizonte Campesino, in contrast, charged nothing and gave us permission to talk about whatever we pleased, contraception included. There was only one condition: no foul language.

Having convinced the station's operators of our pure intentions (and mouths), Marisa and I began our career as radio hosts. Every afternoon, we made the ascent from Canela's main plaza to the small house Horizonte Campesino called home. With the indispensable help of two local DJs who went by the names Geminis and Lengua de Serpiente (Snake Tongue), we set up our microphones, cued up our music playlist and drank lots of generic cola.

Before our first broadcast, I was terrified. Before our last broadcast, I was still terrified, but a little less so. Working at the radio had proven a fun, informative, and confidence-building experience. One of the things I enjoyed most about the program--in addition to dancing reggaeton during song breaks--was interviewing our special guests. Most were University of Chile med students eager to share their knowledge of hypertension, healthy eating and the effects of alcoholism. However, we were also lucky enough to interview a local psychologist about domestic violence and talk to a female Canela resident about her women farmers' collective.

Alas, things couldn't go well forever. Everything was going according to plan the afternoon of the debacle. Marisa and I had completed an interview, and the DJs had put on a song. The chosen melody was "Down," a reggaeton hit that sticks in my head and drives me nuts. Coincidentally, I had recently attended a party whose host had blasted a spin-off of the song. This new, Chilean-made version had changed the original lyrics in order to engage in a bit of constructive criticism about Transantiago, Santiago's problem-plagued public transportation system. Some of the more memorable lyrics include "Transantiago reculiao (fucking Transantiago)" and "el ministro nos cagó (the minister [of transportation] fucked us over)."

As the original "Down" thumped over Canela's airwaves, I started singing along--with the Transantiago lyrics. Needless to say, the directors of Radio Horizonte Campesino would not have approved of the words I was crooning. Good thing my microphone was turned off.

The startled look Marisa shot me from across the table confirmed that, in fact, it wasn't. The DJs leaned out from their booth looking amused. Although I had no way of seeing myself, I'm certain my face became very, very red.

So it was that a gringa cursed out a small town in northern Chile. Luckily for me, the fallout I expected never came. Apparently, everyone had been listening to Radio Asunción.