Friday, May 30, 2008

Stay put

Near Estación Central, Santiago.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The convergence of the twain

The other afternoon, I did something I'd never done before: I went to the movies by myself. Instead of being depressed by the idea, I actually felt excited as I approached the ticket counter alone and purchased a single, solitary ticket. What better way to immerse myself in a story than by approaching it with no human distractions sharing my armrest? It also was gratifying to know that, at least in my own view, I was agreeable enough to spend two hours alone with.

My date with myself started off with a pleasant surprise. I had arrived a few minutes late to the theater, an arthouse cinema in Santiago's bohemian-chic Lastarria neighborhood. The theater is old school: numbered seats, no concessions, an attendant who escorts you to your seat. When I asked the attendant if I had time to run to the corner store to buy myself a bottle of water, he told me I didn't but that he would go buy one for me.

Sure enough, he came to find me in the theater 15 minutes later, bottle of water in hand. I guess a magazine article I read a few months back was completely accurate in labeling this theater and others like it islands of old-world charm in a sprawling twenty-first-century metropolis.

After the movie, I said goodbye to the attendant and stepped out into the chill of the now-dark street. I had about an hour to kill before I was scheduled to meet my Bulgarian friend nearby for pizza. As I wandered up and down the sidewalks peering into shop windows à la Little Match Girl, I started reflecting on the fact that the nomadic lifestyle I've been leading for the past few years, as rewarding as it is, can be lonely sometimes.

It wasn't because I'd just seen a movie sola. I'd enjoyed that a lot and plan to do it again soon. My sudden attack of melancholy had more to do with the fact that I assumed that every cloud-breathing bundle of down that approached and passed me on the sidewalk was on his or her way to spend time with people who really, truly knew him or her. Needless to say, it's a bit difficult to accumulate a list of people like that when you've had addresses in four cities (and three countries) in the past three years.

As I was pondering this, a journalist from an international news service walked past. I recognized her because we've covered a few of the same events, and--as someone who looks even more gringa than I do--she's hard to miss. Almost immediately afterward passed a young woman whom I recognized without being completely sure why.

I didn't have the chance to greet the journalist, who walked by without seeing me. Nor did I say hi to the strangely familiar woman, whose awkward I-think-I-might-know-you-from-somewhere look probably mirrored my own. However, seeing both of them cheered me up. Obviously, they weren't friends who knew me through and through; I didn't even know who one of them was! Regardless, I realized that I was now enough of a santiaguina to recognize people on the street. And that's something, right?

Moments later, I walked past one of Lastarria's many sidewalk cafes and spotted two friends from my summer volunteer trip to northern Chile sitting outside enjoying the company of an empty bottle of beer. They treated me to a cup of hot chocolate and some good conversation, which I savored until the time came to head to the Metro stop where I'd planned to meet my Bulgarian friend.

Sometimes I think of this city as something alive and conscious. Ridiculous as it may sound, I like to entertain the delusion that Santiago conspired to make me feel better that night. Even though you look mildly shell-shocked most of the time, it seemed to be saying, you're not that much of a stranger, in the end.

After smothering our appetites at Pizza Hut, my Bulgarian friend and I strolled through the streets of downtown Santiago, which were lined with vendors hawking pirated DVDs. Since one tends to get pseudo-philosophical after downing ungodly amounts of pizza and Coke, I asked my friend if he ever marveled at the fact that coincidences, given the precarious, complex chains of events that precede them, ever occur at all.

"You won't believe it," he said, "but I was thinking about the exact same thing while I was waiting for you in the Metro."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Rain, rain, go away...

...OK, I don't really mean that. I love rain, clouds, fog and dreary weather in general. What I don't love is what said weather does to my feet (wet) and commute (disastrous).

Wait...Don't stop reading. This isn't just a Transantiago rant. OK, it kind of is, but it's an exciting one, I promise. Think shattering glass and indecent bodily contact.

That comes in just a minute. First comes the part where I leave my (broken) umbrella outside overnight to dry and one of the building's posse of psychotic cats pees on it. I rinsed it off in the rain yesterday morning, but the smell of cat urine is resilient, to say the least.

At about 7 A.M., I set out for my English class with my raincoat and my mangled, stinking umbrella. The Metro ride was uneventful; the real fun started later, when it came time for me to switch to the bus.

The bus stop outside of Metro Dorsal, as one would expect on a rainy day, was packed with commuters just as soggy as I was. The buses, as one would fear on a rainy day, were absent. As the crowd on the platform expanded like cancer under a microscope and the horizon remained exasperatingly empty of buses, I began to worry. I was already running late, and there was no way all of us were going to fit into one vehicle.

When the vehicle in question finally did arrive, it wasn't the enormous articulated bus I'd been expecting. Instead, a small bus pulled up as we waiting passengers furrowed our brows, struggling to fathom how the laws of physics were going to permit this to happen.

They obviously weren't, so I resigned myself to not even trying. Arriving a few minutes late to my English class was far preferable to losing a limb in the struggle.

Some other passengers, however, did not arrive at the same conclusion. They packed themselves onto the bus and, when there was no more room inside, leaned out the doors while clinging to handrails. They were leaning so far out, in fact, that I knew there was no possible way the doors were going to close.

The attendants who had been charging fares at the bus stop were not as fatalistic. Determined to send as many people as possible on their way, they made a valiant effort to shut the doors behind the passengers--even those that were hanging two feet off the bus. They were so intent on accomplishing their mission that they pushed one of the doors until all of its glass shattered onto the street.

Nobody seemed too upset by this. The attendants simply urged the passengers to distribute themselves more evenly throughout the bus--as if there were room for them to move.

The wounded bus went on its merry way, and some time passed before another one came. This time, I was already late for class and determined to get on. Luckily, I didn't have to work too hard to do so. Getting on a bus is pretty easy if you've been swept up by a giant tidal wave of humanity. The tough part comes when you realize it's becoming difficult to breathe and can summon no cry for help more articulate than "ow, ow, OW!"

I wasn't exaggerating when I said it was difficult to breathe. Saying we were like sardines in a can would be an understatement--at least canned sardines have a little water to float around in. We, on the other hand, could barely inflate our lungs. I was smashed behind one man and up against another; every time the bus lurched, I came dangerously close to kissing the latter's neck. The fact that my umbrella made everything smell like cat pee took all the romance out of the situation.

By the time the bus coughed up its final passengers at Ciudad Empresarial, I was 20 minutes late for my class. An hour later, I boarded another bus to leave.

The bus was empty, but its windows were still fogged with the labored perspiration of passengers past. After settling into my seat, I drew a smiley face on the glass, hoping it would serve as some consolation to the next batch of dripping urban travelers.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Wet socks, dry faucets

When I lived in Ecuador, my roommate and I used to haul enormous six-liter bottles of purified water home from the corner store several times per month. Although we had some gringo friends who drank the tap water and suffered no intestinal consequences whatsoever, we also had Ecuadorian friends who wouldn't go near any H2O that hadn't been duly boiled. My roommate and I brushed our teeth with the tap water and used it to cook but, terrified of the legendary wrath of microscopic equatorial swimmers, played it safe and rarely ever guzzled it down.

After spending 14 months worrying about the sufficiency of my stock of clean drinking water, I was tremendously relieved to arrive in Santiago, where the water that comes out of the tap--at least in my experience--is as harmless as that of the Lethe (although I don't think it makes you forget past misdeeds, unfortunately).

That all changed yesterday, when it rained and my faucets went dry.

What? you may wonder. Isn't there supposed to be more water when it rains? Yes--and that's exactly the problem.

It seems illogical, right? Just weeks ago, officials were worried that the drought afflicting vast expanses of Chilean territory might jeopardize some people's access to potable water. Then, it rains, and thousands of Santiago residents--my roommates and me included--are left without the liquid of life. What gives?

I think the best way to explain is to flash back to Washington, DC, where I went to college. During each of the three winters I spent there, it snowed several times. Sometimes it snowed a lot. Snowfall, therefore, was far from anomalous. Regardless, every time white flakes began to sprinkle from the sky, the city spiraled into four-alarm panic. Nobody plowed. Nobody shoveled. Schools closed. We rejoiced.

Santiago appears to have a similar relationship with rain. This coming winter will be my third in this city. Each year, it has rained cats, dogs, buckets and everything in between. Each year, walking to the bus stop has become an obstacle course that has pitted me against puddles, water sprinkling from gutters and waves sprayed by passing vehicles. It's only May, and I've already started to hear the Mario Brothers theme music in my head as I walk.

Santiago, like Washington, is a city that is hopelessly inept when it comes to dealing with winter precipitation. This became obvious yesterday, when it rained and chaos ensued. I'm not exactly sure what happened to cause the water outage, but all the theories I've heard have had to do with rain somehow stirring up/causing the contamination of a large portion of the city's water supply. Whole districts of Santiago have been left as dry as the Atacama desert--except, of course, for the massive pools of water flooding their streets. But you can't exactly drink out of those.

Here in Santiago Centro, the outages appear to have been more selective. And, wouldn't you know it: They selected my building. So it was that I found myself lugging an enormous bottle of purified water home from the corner store this afternoon, just as in days gone by.

Deep down, I know I should stop my whining. The outage provided me with an excellent excuse not to wash my dishes. The water came back on--with very low pressure, granted--this afternoon. When one considers that a study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean shows that 37 percent of children in 15 of the region's countries have substandard access to potable water, my few waterless hours constituted an incredibly minor inconvenience.

And, of course, there is a positive side to all of this. The rain cleansed the air of the smog that had been suffocating the city for several weeks, and I now have a spectacular view of the snow-capped Andes from my bedroom window.

I will climb into bed tonight hoping that my tennis shoes, which sit in soggy vigil by the front door, will be dry by morning. Not that it really matters. This weekend's forecast: rain.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A visual cheese stick

When I was little, I used to eat cheese sticks between meals. Actually, I'm pretty sure the phrase "cheese stick," like "cat roller" (adhesive lint remover), was part of the specialized lexicon of my family. I think normal people call it "string cheese." Tomatoes and tomahtoes aside, the great thing about cheese sticks was that they were frequently enough to tide me over until the closest meal.

Like this post. I'm working on stuff for this blog, I swear. I also promise I'll publish it soon. Until then, I'm posting a photo to tide you over. You know, like a cheese stick.

I took this photo a few months ago in Pudahuel, a district on the far western edge of Santiago. It does not have the most savory of reputations. I think the last thing I saw about Pudahuel on TV was a COPS-style manhunt that resulted in a pair of stolen tennis shoes being returned to their rightful owner. Nevertheless, most foreign tourists who have visited Santiago have been to Pudahuel.

It's where the airport is.

When my friend Leo and I spent a few hours hanging out in the much-maligned Pudahuel, we discovered it was home to busy street markets and to the most delicious fresh fruit juice we'd tasted in Santiago. We also learned that the cliché about Santiago being a place where tradition and modernity meet definitely has something to it:

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Minnesota presente

Despite being thousands of miles away, my beloved home state never fails to make appearances in Chile. Over the past two weeks, the Land of Lakes has made a significant number of cameos on sweatshirts that have crossed my path. It even showed up at this morning's Labor Day march, which culminated not far from where I live. I was so excited that I snapped this hasty, severely overexposed photo.

Demanding better working conditions or rooting for the Vikings? You decide.

According to the CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores), the union federation that organized the march, 80,000 Chileans participated in events this morning to advocate for workers' rights. There were dancers, bands (including Chile's famous Inti Illimani), clowns and a whole lot of cumbia. Numerous unions, political parties and cultural groups participated. I was even able to talk to a Santa Isabel employee about allegedly abusive labor practices within the chain that owns my local supermarket arch-nemesis.

Do similar May 1 demonstrations occur in the U.S.? If so, I've never seen one. Granted, I wasn't around for last year's May 1 pro-immigrant marches, although I wish I had been.

It seems to me that Chilean workers are much more vocal when it comes to denouncing workplace injustice than their North American counterparts. Some would argue that this is because they have more injustice to deal with. Whether or not that's the case, I still think many U.S. workers have a lot to be unsatisfied with. Have we in the States just resigned ourselves to believing that, as unfortunate as it is, there will always be someone getting trampled? Maybe our decades of so-called stability have convinced us that things are what they are and not what we make them. Thoughts?

Here are some more photos from the march: