Thursday, February 21, 2008

I am the Monster

It's February in Chile, and that means one thing: Viña del Mar’s Festival de La Canción, a pop music extravaganza that monopolizes Chile's attention for six nights each year. I went to this concert three years ago and wrote about it for this week's Santiago Times weekend edition.

This year, I'll have to content myself with watching the Festival on TV. That doesn't mean I can't pay homage to it on my blog, though. Here's my article:

I AM THE MONSTER: MY CAREER AS A VIÑA SAMURAI

Seagulls. Torches. Beauty queens with suspiciously prominent bustlines. I admit it: I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand the phenomenon that is Viña del Mar’s annual Festival de La Canción. And I’ve been.

At the time, I was a chipper exchange student on summer break in Santiago. Having never lived abroad before, I was a gluttonous consumer of all things Chilean. I devoured Chilean literature, listened to Inti Illimani and drowned my avocado salads in lemon juice.

Consequently, I was beyond thrilled when presented with a new opportunity to luxuriate in Chilenity: My friend José Luis and I had managed to get our hands on tickets for a handful of the Festival’s six nights of pop hedonism. On the performance roster were Juanes, Julieta Venegas and a number of other Latin stars I belted along with when my host family wasn’t around. After eagerly packing up a plentiful supply of sunscreen and an extra digital camera memory card, I boarded a bus bound for the Garden City, barely able to contain my excitement.

As it turns out, those on modest budgets are forced to contain their excitement for quite some time before seeing their favorite Festival performers hit the stage. I had arrived in Viña with grand plans to laze on the beach until sundown before ambling over to the Quinta Vergara, the outdoor stadium where the Festival is held. José Luis, however, was Chilean and knew just how delusional I was. He reminded me that our tickets were branded “General Admission,” which meant we would have to arrive three hours early to guarantee ourselves a view of the stage.

Convinced he was exaggerating, I reluctantly agreed to begin plodding toward the stadium while the sun was still well above the horizon. As we got closer, it became increasingly apparent that no exaggeration had been involved. The streets were clogged with eager concert-goers intent on snagging good seats. The congestion was thickened by those who stopped to eye the glow sticks, posters and other Festival paraphernalia being hawked on the sidewalk. Dominating the curbside economy were Samurai-style headbands silkscreened with the names of the night’s performers.

José Luis’ insistence on excessive punctuality was further validated when we arrived in the stadium and made the climb to the lofty realm reserved for General Admission. Although we had arrived almost three hours early, the best place we could find to sit was the far edge of a bench toward the back of the balcony. The Monster—as the Festival audience is called because of its size, rowdiness and merciless treatment of performers who fail to impress—had already taken shape.

So it was that thousands of anxious fans found themselves smashed together for an evening of waiting. It was a potentially explosive situation. Fortunately, the event’s sponsors had foreseen the peril and provided each entering spectator with copious reading material. The coupons and promotional pamphlets handed out just inside the stadium gates enjoyed a literary life of approximately 45 seconds before assuming a much more lasting function—as projectiles.

It started innocently enough. A balled-up coupon bounced lightly off the head of an unsuspecting audience member. However, the situation soon escalated to all-out war. The sky above the Quinta Vergara darkened with wads of paper being hurled at anyone and everyone—not even children were spared. I now understood why security guards had stripped me of my water bottle at the gate.

This apparent ecological disaster may outrage the environmentally inclined. Not to worry: The Monster recycles. Each paper missile became new ammunition for its target, creating a veritable cycle of good-natured violence. The battle intensified when vendors appeared in the aisles waving yard-long balloons that quickly became samurai swords. These weapons were especially formidable in the hands of those sporting the headbands they’d purchased on the street—even if the headbands said “Miguel Bosé.”

Occasionally, there was a ceasefire that lasted just long enough for the entire upper deck to engage in a marathon round of the Wave. At crowd events in the United States, the Wave usually staggers to an unnoticed demise before completing its second lap around the stadium. Not so at the Quinta Vergara, where it lasted up to 10 minutes straight.

About an hour before the show was scheduled to start, the antics were interrupted by a series of sirens blaring over the loudspeakers. Minimally-clothed dancers flooded the stage and began to lead the crowd in an aerobic pysch-up routine that involved stomping and a whole lot of arm-flailing. By the time the Festival ended five days later, José Luis and I had memorized the steps, not to mention a good portion of the lyrics of the newly-released reggaeton anthem “Gasolina.”

On Wednesday, I watched the first night of this year’s Festival the way most Chileans did: on TV. Strangely, the nostalgia I felt as the camera panned over the chanting crowd wasn’t for the music. Sure, some of the artists I saw at the Quinta Vergara gave fabulous performances. It was also incredibly liberating to jump and scream along to Latin pop music in a socially acceptable setting.

Nevertheless, what I remember most about Viña is the collective energy that reined in the cheap seats during the seemingly eternal pre-show wait. The strangers from all over the country—and from outside of it—who converged on the Quinta Vergara three hours early were instantly united by boredom, sore rear ends and envious contempt for “los huevones de platea” (“the jerks down front”), who began serenely filing into their reserved seats shortly before the show began. We laughed together, danced together and pummeled the crap out of each other. The huevones down front had no idea what they’d missed.

One of the objects I refrained from throwing during the paper battles was a big red sticker someone had handed me when I’d entered the stadium. It read, “Soy el Monstruo” (“I am the Monster”). When I returned from my year abroad, I tucked it away with my other souvenirs, confident that I would always have fond memories of the hours I’d spent waiting in the Quinta Vergara. I like to think all the people I bludgeoned on the head with balloons will too.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Disturbing ride

Yesterday evening, I snapped on my bright green helmet and took a bike ride that was supposed to be relaxing. As it turned out, it was everything but.

I began to feel disconcerted while riding south along the edge of Club Hípico, Santiago's monumental horse track. Block after block of stables whipped by on my right, their doors bolted shut. On the opposite side of the street, historic homes filed past, many marching back into narrow passageways. It was on this stretch of road that I noticed an elderly woman slowly approaching the bike path. When I passed, she looked at me fixedly and said, "Hola."

I returned her greeting and cycled on. As I sped forward, however, I couldn't help but feel unsettled by the exchange. I wasn't thrown off by being greeted by a stranger, an occurrence which--though not terribly common in Santiago--is not unheard of either. It was not what the woman had said, but how she had said it. No smile, no wave--just the most serious, sinister-sounding "hola" I'd ever heard. She might as well have said, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." It was eerie.

Things only got eerier from there. Street dogs--who had previously been nothing but cordial--chased after me, barking viciously. Many of the streets I rode down were virtually empty except for a few solitary people who looked up with penetrating stares. It was like the part in a horror movie in which an unsuspecting stranger arrives in a remote village which, unbeknown to him or her but no secret to the locals who look up with penetrating stares, is actually a terrestrial hell where mutants eat unsuspecting strangers. On one of these virtually abandoned streets, I got creepy looks from a group of men. When I came across them again after taking a spin around the block, one of them moved as if to block my path. Luckily, I was faster atop my two wheels, but not fast enough to escape their (once again) creepy comments.

The most disturbing episode of all occurred as I was pedaling down a relatively major street. As I passed a group of young people on the sidewalk, an argument broke out between them. I didn't pay much attention until I heard angry shouts erupt behind me and noticed that other people on the street were craning their necks to see what was going on. One family had even leaned out their front door to catch a glimpse.

When I gave into my rubber-necking instincts and turned around, I saw a teenage girl sprawled out on the sidewalk with a man kicking her in the head. I'm not kidding. No one else in the group seemed to be doing much to protect her other than shouting obscenities.

I motioned to the family that was watching from their door to call the police. At the same time, I pulled out my cell phone and prepared to dial myself. With my thumb poised over the keys, I looked back and saw that the girl who had been receiving the blows had gotten to her feet and was walking away. The man who had been kicking her was walking in the opposite direction. Shouted insults continued to fly, but apparently, the situation had--somehow--diffused itself.

I was in disbelief. The most disgusting part of all: When I looked back at the family of spectators, they were laughing. Because seeing a man kick a girl repeatedly in the head is wholesome comedy for the entire family.

So far this year, 12 women in Chile have been murdered by their husbands, boyfriends or exes. The most recent case of femicide, as these killings are referred to here, took place over the weekend in a town not far from Canela, were I just spent two weeks volunteering. A man stabbed his live-in girlfriend and their three-year-old daughter to death.

Last year, 62 femicides occurred in Chile. If women continue being murdered at the same rate as they have been so far this year, this number stands to increase in 2008. Based on the family's reaction to the beating I saw on the street, it's not hard to understand why. As long as relationship violence continues being viewed lightly, nothing is going to change.

Of course, violence against women isn't just Chile's problem. News reports in the United States are plastered with photos of women who have fallen victim to current or former partners. I had just never seen this horrifying type of violence up close until now.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Vicious metal-toothed monsters

Hello again! On Sunday, I rolled back into Santiago after spending two weeks blabbing away on a community radio station in northern Chile. The experience was incredible, but I'm not going to write about it now. Soon, but not now. An entry of that magnitude requires much more energy than I currently have. As a preview, here's a picture of Canela, the town where my fellow volunteers and I were working:


A sprawling blog post about adventures and misadventures in Canela is on its way. Today's topic is drastically more urgent. I've discovered a horrifying truth: There are vicious, metal-toothed monsters living among us. These bloodthirsty creatures recline in plain sight in office buildings and malls, silently brooding over their sinister intentions.

I discovered the true nature of these homicidal villains yesterday, when a friend and I went to eat ice cream. After arriving to find the neighborhood gelato place closed, we headed to Estación Central, an enormous train station not far from where we both live. Over the years, Estación Central has evolved into much more than a transportation hub; it currently houses a food court, a supermarket, a movie theater, a discount mall and--luckily for us--numerous soft-serve ice cream stands.

As we savored our ice cream--chirimoya for my friend, chocolate-chirimoya swirl for me--we wandered through Estación Central and into the adjoining bus terminal. The terminal was hopping with activity, with luggage-toting travelers speeding through the hallways like the blood cells in those magnified videos of arteries. We took an escalator up to the main platform, where we wove in and out between clusters of waiting passengers.

No, the passengers were not vicious metal-toothed monsters (sorry, U.S. airport security). We only encountered the true member of the Axis of Evil when we decided to leave the platform and start walking home. As we prepared to board the escalator that would take us back down to the main station area, we found ourselves suddenly unable to progress. The group of people ahead of us had stopped right at the top of the escalator.

We probably rolled our eyes. Frozen escalators are an inconvenient but not uncommon reality in Santiago. Sometimes, the escalators in the Metro--which ostensibly make the daily commute less exhausting for the elderly, pregnant women and lazy people--are simply stopped, thus becoming awkward-to-climb staircases. However, this was not the case at Terminal San Borja last night. The true cause of the traffic jam was soon revealed: An elderly woman appeared in the crowd, feebly fighting against the current as she moved away from the escalator she had almost boarded. "I got scared," she said.

That´s how I learned that escalators eat people. Thankfully, my friend and I managed to descend
the spine of the beast without being thrashed apart by metal fangs. After returning home, I went to bed and had a nightmare about ghosts. Coincidence? I think not.

Until last night, I don´t think I´d ever come across someone who was afraid of escalators. My adorable Ecuadorian host mother was terrified of cars and refused to ride in the front seat, but that somehow seemed more normal--or understandable--than a fear of escalators. The woman at the bus station´s phobia seemed, at first, about as irrational as my childhood fear of drains. I remember hovering at the edge of pools for several minutes, eyeing the rippling black squares as I tried to build up either the courage to dive in or the honesty to slink away. What the woman did at the top of the escalator was no different.

During the two weeks I spent in Canela, I saw not a single escalator. Perhaps the woman at the bus terminal had spent eight decades in a similar town; I love transportation hubs precisely because they´re places where worlds collide. The experience served to remind me that not all Chileans are from Santiago and not all people are bubbly kids out in search of ice cream.