Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Smoke-free breath in a moonshine jug

One of my more shame-inducing memories of my study abroad experience in Chile involves closing my host family's front door ever so gingerly behind me and shuffling quietly down the hallway toward my bedroom. Just when I was almost in the clear, my slipper-clad host mother appeared in front of me and, eyebrows cocked, asked if I knew what time it was.

I said I didn't, which was a lie. With as much certainty as I know that alfajor pastries are God's gift to gringas, I knew that it was past 8:30 a.m. and that I hadn't called the night before to let my host mother know that I would be staying out really, really late.

Although you wouldn't guess it about me now, I used to party a lot in Chile. By a lot, I mean pounding dance club floors until dawn with the soles of my Converse and -- on one occasion -- running through Estación Central to catch the last train bound for the rural area where some acquaintances and I had heard there was a bitchin' carrete underway.

(Disclaimer: Just as Lonely Planet does not encourage hitchhiking, I do not encourage replicating this behavior.)

Now, just a few years later, my ideal weekend involves watching cartoons, reading a book, riding my bike and catching a movie. I suspect there comes a point in every expat's life when the bass-pounding novelty of the foreign club scene ceases to compensate for the next morning's splitting headache.

Another reason why I now tend to prefer the comforts of home to the strobe lights of subterranean dance pits is that, at least in my own room, I can breathe. This is frequently not the case at Santiago bars or clubs, where my burning eyes and I oftentimes have to step outside more than once during the night to guzzle down a few gulps of air uncontaminated with the cigarrette smoke choking the venue. This -- along with taking halting, shallow breaths the entire night -- is tiring, and knowing that I'll have to do it is often enough to make me turn down an invitation to paint the town red on a Friday night.

Anyone familiar with Santiago nightlife knows two fundamental truths: The party starts late, and it's smoky. I had to put up with even thicker clouds of tobacco fumes during my dance floor glory days than I do now -- statistics show that tobacco use is down among Chileans -- but I seem to have a lower tolerance for it today. Maybe my waning enthusiasm for the bacchanal has made me less forgiving.

In case you haven't guessed, I hate cigarette smoke. I hate knowing that I'm breathing in chemical toxins and hate the fact that I usually have to resign myself to doing so if I want to spend a night on the town in Santiago. Smoking is gross. Period.

Despite my aversion to tobacco, I was struck earlier this week with the desire to find an obscure, seedy bar with a dartboard and cheap beer. So three friends and I hit up the 331 Club, where a family bluegrass band entertained the crowd with instruments that included a saw, a washboard and a giant empty bottle, and Psycho Suzi's Motor Lounge, where we ordered tiki drinks and delicious pizza at midnight. As it turns out, neither of these Northeast Minneapolis bars is a dive.

Still, the night was a success. Sure, I was wiped out by the time I cautiously climbed the ice-glazed stairs to my front door, but I'd made it through the night with significantly more energy than I'm usually able to muster when I go out in Santiago. It didn't take me long to realize why: I could breathe. I was able to catch up with my friends, who now live scattered across the country and the globe, without coughing and sputtering under a cloud of someone else's smoke. I had forgotten that the good city of Minneapolis, in its wisdom, prohibits smoking indoors in public spaces.

To Chile's credit, tobacco laws in my adoptive country are much stricter now than they were when I lived there the first time around. Some establishments have set aside designated smoking sections, while others have banned tobacco altogether. The government has cracked down on tobacco advertising and mandated that graphic health warnings occupy prominent positions on cigarette packs.

While these regulations certainly make eating out more enjoyable, they have done little to clear the air in bars and clubs, which generally remain free reign for smokers. And while a number of my Chilean friends have quit smoking over the past few years, it seems the campaign still has a long way to go. I occasionally encounter situations in Chile that make my jaw drop, like when a young woman at a party I went to a few months ago plopped down next to a pregnant woman and asked if she minded if she lit up. And when the pregnant woman said, "Go ahead; the window's open." Or when I've seen pregnant women themselves start puffing away. I'm sure this happens in the States, too, but luckily, I haven't seen it.

For the record, if you're a smoker, I don't hate you. What I do hate, though, is having my health threatened and my social life smothered by the fumes of a few. This tends to happen much more frequently in Chile than it does here in lovely Minneapolis -- which I'm adding to the list of reasons why my beloved City of Lakes is quite possibly the best place on earth.

1 comment:

Sara said...

I went out on New Year's Eve in Minneapolis and noticed the same thing. I COULD BREATHE! It was astounding. My eyes didn't tingle, itch or water and my throat didn't feel as if it would close up from the toxic gas in the air.

Plus, I could have worn my clothes again the next day...if I had needed to that is.