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.