Saturday, November 15, 2008


If you're reading this, you're probably more technologically savvy than I am. Which is why I would be eternally grateful if you could teach me how to make a photo banner for the header of this blog. Muchas gracias!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tales from the house of burning snow

One of the Chilean novels I wrote my undergraduate thesis about was Soñé que la nieve ardía by Antonio Skármeta. The title means "I dreamed the snow was burning" and refers to a line in a traditional Chilean song.

A number of the book's principle characters are young people who live in a boarding house in a neighborhood not far from mine. In the evening, they gather in the living room and engage in heated conversations about Allende, proletarian solidarity and the state of affairs at the textile factory where some of them work.

The book left me with a a romantic idea of what living in a Santiago boarding house would be like. Little did I know that I would one day have the chance to do so.

As I mentioned before, I'm currently quasi-homeless and crashing at V.'s student pension. The pension concept was a relatively foreign one to me when I first arrived in Chile, but it's not an uncommon living situation among Chilean students.

For those who haven't been to Chile, living away from home as a college student -- or even as a recent graduate -- is not nearly as widespread a practice here as it is in the States. Students generally study in or close to their hometowns and commute to class every day from their parents' homes. Many stay on after graduation and beyond, sometimes until they get married. Here, living with Mom past the age of 25 is not enough to make a guy the butt of jokes. In fact, it's pretty typical.

Still, some young people are forced to bid their childhood bunk beds goodbye and strike out on their own -- at least when it comes to lodging. These are usually kids who make the trek to Santiago or other big cities to study or work. Obviously, they need somewhere to live. And not all of them are ready to start washing their own dishes.

Hence, pensions. These are houses where laundry and cleaning services and three hot meals a day come with the price of the room. In truth, the only real difference between a pension and home is that the person slaving for you isn't your real mom.

When I first started hanging out at V.'s pension, which is significantly more permissive than most when it comes to visitors, I used to kid him about how easy he had it. I would roll my eyes whenever he tried to stop me from washing my own cups, refusing to believe that eight adult renters could be so pampered and maintain their pride intact.

Now that I've been living here for two weeks, I'm starting to get used to it. Every morning, there's a sandwich with my name taped to it waiting for me in the dining room. Once a week, I leave my laundry bag next to the washing machine in the bathroom and my clothes magically wash themselves. And the home-cooked meals aren't doing much to help me tone up for the summer.

Yes, I'm a little ashamed. As someone who takes pride in the independence she's been able to achieve in foreign countries, it's difficult for me to admit that I'm basically being waited on -- and kinda like it. I want to believe that this is an unsustainable situation that will most likely begin driving me insane by the end of the month. That when I finally do find an apartment, I will cook my own pasta and scrub my own bathroom with relieved contentment. This is why I'm forced to suppress the inkling that pension life is something I could get used to.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


They say men are the ones who refuse to ask for directions. Call me a man, but I do, too. For me, it comes down to good old-fashioned pride: I want to think I know where I'm going and want everyone else to think so, too. I don't want to be the typical gringa who zig-zags around with a map in her hand and poorly disguised befuddlement creasing her forehead. I want to feel local, which is why I beam all day long if a Chilean asks me for directions and I know what to say.

Sometimes, though, I have to crack. Every time I venture to one of downtown Santiago's two large commercial movie theaters, for example, I wind up wandering in confused circles and inevitably am forced to ask someone to restore my bearings to me. On one such occasion, I ducked into a pharmacy to plead for help. I was sure I was within a block of the theater but didn't know which direction to turn. The directions would be simple enough, right?

Wrong. After describing in elaborate detail how I should go about walking half a block, the woman behind the counter repeated her dissertation just to make sure it was clear. Apparently, it wasn’t – at least not for her coworker, who proceeded to give me his own version. I walked out of the pharmacy more clueless than when I’d entered and took a wild guess as to which way to go.

The distances were a bit greater when V. and I went camping recently in Valle del Elqui, a clear-skied pisco-producing area several hours north of Santiago. With its winding, unpaved hillside roads, Valle del Elqui is not a good place to get lost. Luckily, V. enjoys talking to strangers and was more than happy to request directions from drivers, motorcyclists, and pedestrians – and a guy who had just peed on a wall and hadn’t yet managed to zip up his fly. As diverse as these good Samaritans were, most of them had one thing in common: They gave unnecessarily long explanations, which they then repeated.

I can understand why someone would do this for me, obvious gringa that I am. V., however, doesn’t have a particularly foreign look and has lived in Chile for so long that his accent is virtually imperceptible to those who don’t hold extended conversations with him. Could it be that Chileans just love giving directions?

I’m inclined to think so. Although I don’t agree with everything that appears in Chile travel guides, I’ve found one thing to be true, at least in my experience: Chileans like helping foreigners. They like telling you where to visit and which traditional foods to try. They like telling you where you can find a good deal. And they like telling you how to get there.

From what I’ve seen, they like supplying each other with useful information, too. Some disgruntled Santiago residents might object to this last statement, claiming the people who elbow past them on the street or don’t give up their seat on the Metro are anything but helpful. I’m talking about a different type of helpful, though: the type that involves sharing knowledge. Do they get an ego boost from it like I do when someone asks me for directions? Do they believe in some kind of information karma? Or is this pure, good-natured kindness?

Whatever the reason for Chileans’ informative effusiveness, I find their directions completely impossible to follow. I appreciate the effort, though.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Speaking of racism...

Here's an epilogue to yesterday's entry about racism in Chile. It's a transcript of a phone conversation I just had with a woman who's renting out a room.

LEIGH: Hi, I'm calling because I saw an ad for a room.
WOMAN: Are you Peruvian?
WOMAN: Why did you answer so fast?
LEIGH: Because I'm not Peruvian. You asked me if I was Peruvian, right?
WOMAN: Yes. Sometimes people try to pretend they're not Peruvian and you have to make sure. Are you Chilean?
LEIGH: I'm from the United States.
WOMAN: OK, there's no problem, then. It's Peruvians I don't want.
LEIGH: Actually, I'd prefer a place where all nationalities are welcome. Thanks anyway.

I'd say Line #4 is by far the most ridiculous part of this completely ridiculous conversation. I guess I should have put her on hold while I went to check my records.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Group post: Racism and classism in Chile

Anyone who's been to Chile knows that one could write tomes on this topic. In the interest of avoiding carpal tunnel syndrome and keeping your interest, however, I'll limit this post to racism in the context of my current housing search.

Right now, I am living in a student pension with eight boys. Believe it or not, I did not orchestrate this scenario. About a month ago, the owner of my apartment -- a man-behind-the-curtain character I've never met in person -- informed my roommates and I that our lease was up and we had to leave. Thus began the search for a place to live, a process I've learned is much more fun if you're not picky, which I am -- especially about location.

Over the past year, I've become fiercely loyal to my neighborhood. I've gotten pleasantly accustomed to knowing the shopkeepers, being close to and yet removed from downtown, and seeing cobblestones and brightly painted houses when I step outside every morning. Sure, Santiago's full of areas well suited to those with a taste for the picturesque. Only one of them is MINE, though.

Another thing I love about my barrio is that, by Santiago standards, it's quite diverse: Many immigrants from Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Asia call the area home. Apparently, not all of my neighbors feel the same way I do. A few weeks ago, I saw a sign advertising a room for rent and decided to call. The place didn't sound bad -- until the owner told me he didn't allow Peruvians or Bolivians inside. The conversation ended there. As it did when another landlord assured me that none of the renters in her building were Peruvian.

The worst of all, however, was when V. and I roamed the neighborhood in search of "for rent" signs and found ourselves knocking on the door of an old house in a tucked-away passage -- in other words, a place I would pretty much kill to live in. A middle-aged woman answered and told us that yes, she had a room available and would show it to us in a moment. As we waited, two young men approached the house, obviously interested in seeing the room as well. They were darker-skinned than V. and I -- but then again, that's not hard. When the woman returned to the doorway, they told her they were Cuban and looking for a place to live.

"Sorry, I don't have anything right now," the woman told them. "You should try next door."

Once the Cubans had moved on, the woman turned back to us. "Looks like you don't have anything," I said and turned to walk away.

"No, you just have to say that to the Cubans," she said casually. "They're big drinkers."

But V. and I were already on our way out. "We're foreigners, too," V. -- who's from Eastern Europe and knows what it's like to be an immigrant -- said over his shoulder.

Apparently, it's not all foreign renters who are the problem. Only ones who aren't of the pale variety.

I can't say I was surprised. A Chilean once warned me to date only her light-haired compatriots -- not "negros." A few months after that, a friend's birthday dinner turned more than a little uncomfortable when the birthday boy's mother (half) joked that if I married her son, it would help "cleanse the race."

Oh, and let's not forget two of the major candidates in last month's Santiago mayoral elections, both of whom considered the Peruvians who gather in downtown's Plaza de Armas to be a problem that could partially be solved by giving them a building where they could get together out of sight. Hate to break it to you two, but the Plaza de Armas is overrun by another pack of foreigners, too: ones with guidebooks and cameras. I hear these marauding invaders prowl the streets of Bellavista in posses at night and flock en masse to artisan fairs, where they terrorize the native-born. Honestly, something has to be done.

In other words, being foreign in Chile isn't tough -- if you're the right kind of foreigner.

Actually, I've written a little about this topic before. So have a lot of other people. Check it out.