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

Human seagull

Viña del Mar, Chile

Letter from the infirmary

It appears that winter in Santiago means two things for me: patterned knee-high socks and tonsillitis.

That's right: I'm writing this from bed while sucking on a cough drop. I probably should be sleeping, but the striking students from the high school down the street are in full swing. Recently, they've been demonstrating several times a week, almost always starting at 9 A.M.; I don't even need an alarm clock anymore. Today, they have music speakers and a megaphone.

So, while the kids demand quality public education, I'll update my blog.

This isn't the first throat-related episode I've suffered here in Chile. Shortly after I arrived in Santiago as an exchange student a few years ago, my throat was overtaken by white blotches and wince-worthy pain. Convinced that I'd picked up my sister's mononucleosis before leaving home, I plodded across town to the student clinic, prepared to be diagnosed with two months of misery.

Having never had to conduct a medical visit in Spanish before, I grew increasingly nervous as I did my time in the waiting room. What if I were unable to describe my symptoms correctly and they ended up doing something involving scalpels?

My anxiety must have been apparent by the time I was called into my "box"--a cubicle with an examining table and a curtain--because before I knew it, a doctor was holding my hand and asking what I was so nervous about. A second doctor and a nurse also were leaning intently over the examining table. I don't think I've ever gotten so much attention in a medical facility in my life.

As it turned out, I didn't have mono. According to the team assembled in my box, I had "amigdalitis"; unfortunately, I wasn't quite sure what that was. Nor was I exactly sure why the doctors had started talking about shots.

Figuring it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to know what was about to be coursing through my veins, I asked what they were planning to inject me with.

"Penicillin," one of them replied.

"I'm allergic!" I exclaimed.

Apparently, a shot of penicillin is a common treatment for minor illnesses here in Chile. The problem was that nobody had bothered to ask me if it would, you know, make me die.

Since there's a pretty good chance it would have, the friendly doctors were left with no other option than to write me a prescription for antibiotic tablets.

After picking up the medication at a nearby pharmacy, I went online and confirmed my suspicions: "amigdalitis" is tonsillitis. I spent my convalescence thinking about how nice the student clinic staff were--even if they had tried to kill me.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Santiago gourmet

After first arriving in Santiago four years ago, I quickly learned what it felt like to be useless. I was useless when it came to taking the correct bus, toppling opponents in judo class and saying the word "disponibilidad."

I was also useless in the kitchen. This was nothing new, but it had never mattered before. As a member of a proud family of bad cooks, I considered my culinary incompetence a badge of tribal honor and was not upset by the fact that I could rarely ever get macaroni and cheese to come out right.

All this changed when I moved in with my host family. This clan of excellent cooks humiliated me daily by serving up delicious plates I could never dream of replicating. Before long, my worthlessness in the kitchen became fodder for daily barbs.

Eventually, I introduced my host family to the wonders of gringo breakfast, one of the few edible things I was able to prepare. Soon, they were begging me to teach them how to make blueberry pancakes and French toast. Still, the fact that I remained hopeless when it came to the other two meals of the day meant that I was far from vindicated.

By the time my second move to Santiago came around, the situation had only slightly improved. I could make a decent grilled chicken breast and a mean beef burrito, but I still regarded the kitchen as hostile territory. Ovens, cutting boards and spatulas didn't want me around them, and I sensed it.

After moving into my current apartment, I found myself once again surrounded by culinary prowess. Large, elaborate meals abounded, and I felt ashamed to only be able to contribute my skills as a seasoned dishwasher. Finally, the frustration of being useless--plus the fact that buying prepared lunches during work every day was ravenously gouging away at my meager income--convinced me that something had to be done.

I started slow. Following the charitable instructions of friends, I began exploring the marvelous world of garlic, onions and peppers. I stirred these ingredients into rice, which--after a few mishaps involving worrying smells--I learned to make the Chilean way. I started going to farmer's markets and buying things like laurel leaves. Before long, I was making spaghetti meat sauce that people actually complimented me on.

Last night witnessed the crowning glory of all my recent culinary efforts: I made steak in wine sauce with veggies, rice and salad. A little dry, but not bad. I think I'm still beaming.

Don't get me wrong; I'm still not a good cook. My kitchen repertoire is extremely limited, and I certainly lack the natural cooking instinct that a number of my friends possess. Nevertheless, I feel a bit less useless these days.

I still can't say "disponibilidad," though.