Friday, August 29, 2008

Stuck in a rut...literally

If you had happened to be soaking up the midday sun in Santiago's Parque O'Higgins on Friday, you would have seen a Bulgarian and a gringa pushing a ramshackle car through puddles and mud. Contrary to what passersby may have assumed, car pushing is not a traditional Eastern European pastime. How did two pale foreigners find themselves in this situation on a beautiful spring afternoon? Let me explain.

Recently, I've been suffering from postgraduate malaise. I miss learning. Of course, my job and everyday life teach me new things every day; that's one of the reasons why I'm living in Chile, where even the most insignificant routine tasks become challenges by virtue of having to be carried out in another language and another latitude. Still, I can't help but feel that in the absence of classes and research projects, my mind is not-so-slowly rotting away. I took two years of calculus in high school, but now I couldn't even give a coherent explanation of what an integral does.

Possessed by the need to learn something, I asked my Bulgarian friend, V., if he would teach me to drive a stick shift. I knew that in addition to renewing my faith in my mental capacities, this would have practical benefits. Practically all cars in Chile have manual transmission, which I'd never dared to tackle before. Not that I plan on doing a lot of driving; actually, the only time I've driven in Chile was when my mom and sister came to visit and we rented a car. Still, you never know.

So it was that we coasted into Parque O'Higgins in V.'s car, affectionately known as the Hippopotamus for its lurching, lumbering gait and overall lack of grace. With me in the passenger's seat, we wound toward the Ellipse, a vast concrete lot that hosts a military parade on Chile's national holiday in September. I had never been quite clear on what it's used for the rest of the time, but I now know that it has a very important unofficial yearlong function: suffering the jolting stops and squealing tires of novice drivers. Unfortunately, the Ellipse was out of commission on Friday: A phalanx of police musicians marched back and forth across the slab, dutifully preparing for next month's festivities.

It looked as though we would have to take our lesson out onto the park's road, which caused me more than a little trepidation. Like so many other South Minneapolis teenagers, I learned to drive in a cemetery, where it was very unlikely that I would kill anyone. In the park, however, the living were present in abundance. Runners, bikers and lovestruck high schoolers traversed the side of the road in significant numbers. I took a deep breath.

After switching seats with V., I was introduced to the complex world of clutches and gears. A few lurching starts later, I was starting to feel OK. I switched from first to second to third and back to second again -- granted, always with my foot hovering at the ready over the break. I knew things couldn't go this well forever.

And they didn't. One of the Hippopotamus' many charms is that when it stalls, it does so permanently. No amount of key-turning can remedy the situation; the only way to get rolling again is to get out and push. This was exactly what we had to do after a clutchless maneuver left the car dormant in the middle of the road. V. pushed, I pushed, and a random runner pushed -- all while keeping his pace.

Once the motor sputtered to a start, I thought we were in the clear. Wrong. The Hippopotamus croaked a total of four times within an hour. Once, it was even thoughtful enough to do so in a dip in a dirt road full of holes and puddles. All in all, I spent almost as much time pushing the car as driving it.

Needless to say, the experience didn't leave me with a good impression of my driving skills. It did, however, leave me with a glowing impression of santiaguinos. During our multiple travails, we enlisted the help of around eight good Samaritans -- from athletes to groundskeepers to school kids -- who joined us behind the car with smiles and muscle power.

What's funny is that if you were to ask any Chilean -- capitalinos included -- to choose adjectives to describe the 6 million people who live in this city, I would be shocked if one of the words chosen were "helpful." Santiaguinos have the reputation of being pushy, rude and self-centered. And while I've come across my fair share of brusque types -- as, I think, I would in a big city anywhere in the world -- I've also experienced enough anonymous acts of kindness to jump to my neighbors' defense whenever I hear someone bash them as a group.

I just hope they'll be as kind-hearted when I accidentally stall a car in the middle of a busy street.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dog lying down = things looking up

Santiago has far exceeded my expectations since I returned yesterday morning. After spending a sun-soaked two weeks with family and friends in Minneapolis, I dreaded going back to the dismal puddle of damp that is Santiago's winter. My dour attitude received a frigid punch of validation when I stepped off the plane and into the jetway...and shivered.

Jetways, I soon learned, can be deceiving. By the time my loaded-down luggage cart and I had made it to the airport parking lot, the day had completely redeemed itself in my eyes. It was sunny and surprisingly warm. Shedding my jacket, I silently apologized to my dear adoptive city for having underestimated it.

Of course, Eden Santiago is not. When I rolled down the car window to more fully luxuriate in the beautiful day, I was greeted with a blast of black exhaust from a passing bus. Still, I was left with the solid impression that spring will soon come to the rescue of this winter-oppressed metropolis. As I was walking to work this morning, I saw a stray dog snoozing in the shadow of a statue. And when stray dogs seek shadow instead of sunlight, you know things are looking up.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Group blog post: Chilean men

With so many gringa-in-Chile bloggers out there, it was only a matter of time before someone suggested we all share our thoughts on the same subject. The first topic: the alluring, sometimes befuddling, and all-too-frequently mullet-sporting Chilean man.

Some may doubt my ability to make a meaningful contribution to this discussion due to the fact that I appear to be one of the few gringa-in-Chile bloggers who does not have a Chilean man of her own. This never fails to come as a surprise to my former host family, who ask me if I've snagged a pololo (Chilean for boyfriend) whenever I stop by for a visit.

Despite the fact that the only Chilean pololo I have is the imaginary one I tell sleazy guys at bars about, I'm confident that I do have something of value to say about Chilean men. After all, I've lived with them, gone on dates with them, and -- most importantly -- been their friend.

In fact, most of my Chilean friends are men. This is not uncommon among gringas; a frequent gripe among female expatriates and exchange students is that it is very hard to make friends with Chilean women. Obviously, this is not universally the case. When I first came to Chile, however, it was true for me. My female classmates were friendly to me, with some going out of their way to bring me up to speed and keep my deer-in-the-headlights look under control. In general, though, things didn't go much beyond that. We didn't meet up for lunch or hang out on weekends.

Among gringas, a few conjectures circulate as to why many Chilean women seem, well, cold. The most common is that Chilean women are wary of gringas because Chilean men are intrigued by them and because gringas are (falsely, in my experience) reputed to be more sexually liberal than chilenas. Another possibility is that Chilean women just don't launch into the insta-friendships that many gringas -- especially those coming from a university setting -- may be used to. They take their time when it comes to building intimacy and trust. Still, I prefer not to speculate without the input of a Chilean woman, so we'll just say that things are what they are.

As someone who has always had close girlfriends, I felt (and still feel) a void where all the female bonding used to be. Good thing Chilean men stepped up to the plate when I most needed them.

During my exchange student days, I frequently would be the only woman at a table or a gathering. I was more than a little surprised to discover that this did not make me uncomfortable at all. The truth is that I spent way too much time laughing hysterically with these guys to analyze the situation. Chilean men are pros when it comes to finding humor everywhere, which can make being surrounded by them an incredibly energizing experience. Additionally, they tend (at least in my experience) to abridge the pleasantries and get down to gritty, engaging conversation more quickly than their female counterparts. After a long day of
struggling to navigate a foreign cultural landscape with "please"s and smiles, it comes as a great relief not to have to be polite.

Of course, I'm not naive. As Heather points out, not all Chilean men who hang out with gringas are platonically motivated. There certainly has been a guy or two who has dropped off the map after learning that I was only interested in friendship. However, there have also been those who have never given me reason to believe they're after anything other than sharing good times.

That's my take. If you want to read what other gringas have to say about Chilean guys (or foreign guys in general), check out Kyle's blog, where people are posting their links (check the comments, too). I, for one, am excited to learn what others think about this topic!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Random thing I love about Santiago: the Centropuerto bus

Before launching into this, the third installment of the "Random Things I Love/Random Things that Irk Me about Santiago" feature, I feel I must apologize for the dearth of updates that has characterized this blog of late. The explanation lies in the fact that up until a few days ago, I was computerless due to an incident involving me tripping and breaking my fall with my laptop. Call me shallow, but the blogging experience loses some of its sparkle when it requires putting in extra hours on one of the paleolithic desktop computers at my office.

Also, I'm on vacation! For the past few days, I've been at home soaking up the gorgeous Minnesota August. Right now I'm sitting in my backyard luxuriating in the fact that I've traded in my nylon long-underwear bodysuit for shorts and a T-shirt -- at least temporarily. Needless to say, family, Olympics and laziness have knocked blogging down a few notches on my priority list.

Santiago may seem far away right about now, but it certainly is not forgotten. In fact, my current trip brought me into contact with a beloved and oh-so-useful fixture of the Santiago streets: the Centropuerto bus.

As their name implies, these vehicles are devoted exclusively to transporting passengers from the Centro (downtown) to the airport. For under US$3, this brigade of blue buses will shuttle you and your luggage all the way out to the departures terminal, a trip that could easily set you back over US$20 by cab (nope, they didn't pay me to write this).

The low price isn't the only thing that gives Centropuerto a special place in my heart. As the chivalrous young man who accompanied me to the airport last week observed, the Centropuerto bus is linked to travel, adventure and -- for us foreigners -- visits to our homes, family and friends. Boarding the blue bus, in other words, is the first step of whatever exciting journey you have planned.

As it carries you out of the city, the Centropuerto bus gives you ample time to say goodbye. Whereas most taxis spirit you away on the highway, Centropuerto takes the city streets, picking up passengers along the way. Many of these are airport employees who make me ponder what it would be like to make the long trek out of the city every day and spend the night working in a glowing, sprawling mass of terminals and runways.

Sometimes I think life would be more convenient for everyone if Santiago's Metro were extended out to the airport. Then I remember my favorite blue buses and recant.