Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

The title says it all! I hope this new decade gets off to a wonderful start for all of you, wherever in the world you may be. I've enjoyed sharing this past year with you, both those I've met in person and those I've gotten to know through your posts and comments.

My new year's blog resolutions: blog more and be less flakey when it comes to comments. A lot of you have left me kind, funny and insightful comments I haven't been able to respond to. Please know that it's not because I don't read or care about readers' comments: todo lo contrario. It's just that my full-time job, part-time studies and array of side projects have made it difficult for me to find time to blog for the past few months. The good news is that after just a few more edits, I'll be able to e-mail off my last paper for school, so I should be starting the new year with considerably less stress and considerably more time. So get ready: lengthier and more frequent navel gazing coming soon!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Gringo con-man

Abby's post on how living in Santiago has forced her to be less gullible made me think back to a particularly memorable experience I had while living in Quito. One afternoon, I was preparing to board the bus to go to work when a gringo approached me and said, in English, "Hey, I'm really sorry to have to do this, but some guys just stole my friend's and my jackets on the bus. Our passports and all our money were in the pockets. Do you think you could help us out with a few coins?"

It wasn't that hard to believe. Petty street crime is relatively common in Quito, and most of my friends -- Ecuadorian and foreign alike -- who had lived there for extended periods of time had had a cell phone or wallet swiped at some point. Fortunately, I went an entire 14 months without losing so much as a quarter -- unless, of course you count all the times I was charged the "gringo price."

But back to this particular gringo. Like I said, what he was claiming was completely conceivable. And I'm all for lending a hand to another foreigner in need. Still, I didn't give him any money because 1) my bus was about to leave, 2) I didn't feel comfortable pulling my wallet out on a busy street corner and 3) call me cynical, but something about the situation just seemed off. There was something a bit too unshaken and a bit too practiced about the whole thing.

"I'm really sorry that happened to you. Good luck," I said to him as I boarded the bus.

Later that day, I mentioned what had happened to my coworkers. "Yeah, there's a gringo that does that," one of them said.

"You mean he makes up stories about getting robbed to get money from other gringos?" I demanded, taken aback.

"Yep. He hangs out in La Mariscal (a touristy, bar-filled area of Quito) and does that."

Holy crap. I had considered the possibility that the guy had blown all his money partying the night before or something like that, but it had never occurred to me that tricking other gringos was the way he financed what apparently was a long-term stay in Quito.

I was pissed. I began preparing a speech for the next time I saw him. It went a little something like this: "Hey, did you ever find your jacket? Oh, that's too bad. I know how frustrating it is when someone tries to take advantage of you just because you're foreign. But Quito's still great, isn't it? I like it so much that I decided to live here. I have a lot of gringo friends who did, too. You know how we support ourselves? We got jobs, which is pretty damn easy for gringos to do here. With that in mind, don't you feel a tad bit guilty about tricking other people into financing your awesome vacation in a country where there is so much real poverty? So no, I will not help you out with a few coins."

Unfortunately, I never saw the guy again. So if a short gringo with dirty-blonde dreadlocks asks you for money in Quito after feeding you a story about a jacket, would you mind giving him the speech for me?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

March against gender violence

November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Here in Santiago, the Red Chilena contra la Violencia Domestica y Sexual commemorated the day with a candlelight march down the Alameda, the city's main east-west thoroughfare. The march, symbolically, ended in front of the La Moneda presidential palace, where participating groups gathered on the grass and spread their banners. One group set up rows of candles to commemorate victims of femicide -- women whose murder, usually at the hands of current or former husbands or boyfriends, was related to unequal relationships of power between genders -- and another gathered signatures for a petition to make the HPV vaccine free.
The turnout was decent, although I think the ranks would have swelled even more if the march had been more highly publicized beforehand. Most of the people I spoke with about it had no idea it was going to happen. As I was walking down the Alameda to join up with the march that night, I saw a man glance down the street toward the crowd and heard him ask, "Was there a game or something?"
Publicized or not, I hope the march helped raised consciousness about gender violence in a country where at least one television network considers this comedy.
Below are more photos from the march. I lost my Photoshop when the good people at the computer repair center deleted my entire hard drive, so here they are in all their naked glory:

Saturday, November 14, 2009

When good intentions go bad

I went to a party last week (gasp). When the time came to leave, I got in a car with a group of people who had agreed to drop me off at a major street where I could catch a bus home. Since it wasn't that late and buses run on said major street all night, I didn't anticipate any problems.

The late-night bus thing is pretty much standard procedure for me by now. I'll be straight: My Chilean salary simply cannot finance boatloads of cab rides. And, since the phrase "Just crash here" hasn't appealed to me for a few years, I go Transantiago, frequently by myself.

Chileans think I'm insane. Even more insane than they think I am for moving down here on my own. How could I possibly even consider taking the bus home by myself? Don't I know how many people are lurking in the shadows waiting to attack me? After all, I am foreign and female -- that most perilous of combinations. I should be afraid. Very afraid.

And I did end up being afraid last Friday -- for slightly different reasons.

When we pulled up to Major Street X, I got out of the car and headed toward the nearest bus stop, grateful that the others appeared to be letting me go without a fight.

Not so fast. One of the other passengers, a guy who had had a handful too many shots of tequila back at the party, got out too and began to follow me.

"Thanks, but it's really not necessary," I said.

I was told the guy's house was on the way to mine and that he would ride with my until his stop. "It's more for his protection than yours," someone whispered.

OK, I figured. I supposed there was no harm in him riding with me if he was heading in the same direction anyway.

The car pulled away, and I continued toward the bus stop. But alas, we couldn't go to that bus stop because my chaperone considered it unsafe. During our trek to the next bus stop -- a few blocks down a stretch of sidewalk that I consider sketchier -- I learned my white knight was from southern Chile and had been living in Santiago for four years -- enough time, apparently, to learn to be terrified of the city. As he tried to convince me to be terrified, too, I stood shivering and craning my neck to see down the street, praying the bus would come quickly and all this would be over soon.

The bus did come, but this was far from over. Soon after we had wedged ourselves onto the crowded bus, I learned that my new friend was one of the many Chileans who enjoy practicing English when drunk. And this guy enjoyed practicing it loudly. As the bus hurtled onward, each bump in the road threatening to launch me into the driver's lap, he treated me and everyone around us to an English-language panegyric lauding the bravery I had displayed by coming down to Chile all by myself.

My irritation quickly turned to anxiety when it occurred to me that the person who thought he was keeping me safe was actually putting me in danger. Despite what most people I know consider my dangerously irresponsible penchant for independence, I'm willing to admit that, the world being what it is, foreign women have to be careful. I realize that many assailants would consider me an easy and profitable target. With this in mind, I try not to call attention to myself when I'm in situations in which I'm potentially vulnerable, such as late-night bus rides. I keep calm, walk confidently, and don't yell in English about how I'm foreign and came down to Chile all by myself. Obviously, my tipsy companion did not find it necessary to take the same precautions.

For the record, I don't believe that Santiago all night buses are packed with shady characters waiting for an opportunity to attack someone. Still, if one of our dozens of fellow passengers had just so happened to be such a shady character, my amigo would have been providing him or her with quite an enticing scenario. Well, I was going to head home early and watch late-night variety shows with my mom, but now that I think about it, I might as well jump that gringa and that drunk guy.

I heaved a sigh of relief when the bus pulled off to my chaperone's stop. After I gave him the customary cheek air-peck goodbye, though, he didn't move.

"This is your stop," I said in Spanish.

It didn't matter, he explained in English, because he was going to escort me all the way home.

Oh God.

"Look," I said as the bus pulled out of the stop. "I appreciate the gesture, but I don't need your protection. Please get off the bus now."

He didn't, of course. And since it would have just aggravated the sitution to tell him that drawing the entire bus's attention to us was not doing me any favors where safety was concerned, I grit my teeth and endured several more blocks of loud, drunken English. I felt extremely, dangerously exposed.

When we finally got off the bus at my stop -- by ourselves, thank goodness -- I pointed out the bus stop where he would have to wait after dropping me off at my house. He scoffed, apparently insulted that I had felt the need to worry about his safety.

Luckily, our short walk to my house was uneventful. But I couldn't help wondering if I wouldn't have been safer simply taking the bus home by myself as I'd originally planned.

This wasn't the first time I'd pondered this. A few months ago, I found myself standing on a street corner at midnight in San Bernardo, which is so far south that only a slice of it appears on most maps of Santiago. A coworker had invited me to a club for a friend's birthday party, but the club had refused to let us in because one of the members of our group had a broken leg and was apparently too much of a liability for them to deal with. So it was that we ended up shivering on a street corner debating what to do next.

Anyone who has ever participated in a Great Chilean Plans Debate knows that they are rarely brief. As the minutes stretched on and I got colder, I noticed that express buses were passing regularly on their way downtown.

My coworker's eyes widened when I told her I was going to hop on a bus and head home. Me on a bus alone? No way in hell. The group was going to come up with a safer alternative.

About 20 minutes later, the safer alternative arrived. It was a pickup truck that was going to take us to one of the partygoers' apartments. Yep, all 12 of us. Yep, all at once.

As the truck accelerated onto the highway with all of us smashed into the bed (disclaimer: NEVER DO THIS), every instinct inside me was screaming that I should have just gotten on a damn bus. There was absolutely no way in hell, heaven or limbo that this was safer than my original plan. I lack scientific proof of this, but I'm positive I was more likely to get horrendously injured in that truck than I would have been to get robbed on the bus.

Nobody else seemed to understand this, though. To them, it was other people I had to be afraid of, not a multi-fatality rollover crash. And I suddenly despised Chile's crime-packed sensationalist TV news shows more than ever before.

Miraculously, we made it safely to our destination, a public housing project in Puente Alto. Already exhausted from silently willing the truck not to flip, I was ready to call it a night after about an hour of dancing. I announced my intention to catch a colectivo (multi-passenger taxi) and head home.

Absolutely not, I was told.

"You have to listen to them," my coworker told me. "They live here."

In the end, I did listen to them and crashed in the birthday girl's apartment, which was a few blocs over. Thinking back, I'm really glad I did. I had never been to the area before; how could I have presumed to know enough about it to strike out on my own at 3 a.m.?

You have to listen to them. They live here. I think about that advice a lot and wonder if it's always true. Should I, as a foreigner, always take Chileans' safety advice? On the one hand, the fact that they've lived here their entire lives means they know a lot of things I don't, like where not to take colectivos at 3 a.m. On the other hand, I don't find non-crime-related safety consciousness to be high here (seatbelts and bike helmets, anyone?). As illustrated in this entry, some of the alternatives Chileans suggest to your hazardously independent ways can be more dangerous than what you originally had planned.

But, drunk guys and pickup trucks aside, I don't think it would hurt me to swallow my pride and listen a bit more. After all, someone did try to attack me once while I was waiting for a bus in the middle of the night. I took him down, but I might not be as lucky next time. I think I need to work on learning to be more flexible -- sleeping on a trusted friend's couch isn't that bad, is it? -- while paying close attention to my instincts (no more drunk escorts, thank you very much).

What do you think?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Just what the doctor ordered

While standing in line at the pharmacy counter this afternoon, I noticed a set of purple boxes stacked inside a display case. The featured product? NastiGrip.

Finally! A medicine that promises to make every santiaguin@'s daily commute less harrowing by painlessly eliminating those pesky public transportation passengers who apparently cannot resist the compulsion to enclose certain parts of neighboring bodies in their nasty grip (or use a packed bus as an excuse to rub up against them from behind, which also counts). I can picture the animated graphics now: squeeze-poised hands being surrounded and pulverized by armies of valiant purple dots. Oh, the relief of knowing one's ass is (not literally) in such good hands.

OK, I don't have to explain to the Spanish speakers out there that NastiGrip is actually flu medicine. "Gripe" is Spanish for flu, and as for Nasti -- well, I guess I don't have any idea where they got that from.

Oh, well. Until science gets its act together, I guess we'll have to find other ways to defend ourselves against rush-hour molestation. Wouldn't it be nice if you could simply pop a pill and make that slimy fellow passenger and his/her grasping hands dissolve like bothersome nasal congestion? Hopefully, our children will know just such a world.

Has anyone else out there come across humorous product names in foreign countries? I'll throw in another one: I always feel self-conscious when I sit down at a Chilean restaurant and order a bottle of Pap.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Athenian plague

Back in high school, we learned about a deadly plague that struck ancient Athens. One of the signs a person was doomed was if he or she was overcome by insatiable thirst.

If Santiago were ancient Athens, I would be on my way out, because that's how I feel most of the time here. Glancing around the cafeteria at work the other day, I discovered a possible reason why.

Lunch at the cafeteria comes with a small cup of suspiciously fluorescent juice. I usually finish mine off within the first few minutes of starting to eat. As I eyed the trays of those around me last week, however, I realized that even those who were a number of bites ahead of me had nearly full glasses in front of them.

This seemed to confirm what I had long suspected: Apparently, I consume more liquid than most Chileans, or at least the ones I've come in contact with. When eating with Chileans, I am almost always the first to finish off a beverage. Back when I lived with my host family, I would frequently be on my second refill before anyone else even finished their first glass of juice. It was the same way in Ecuador.

Well, one might say, the reason is simple. As a glutton from the land of supersizing, it's only natural that you would ingest anything and everything in greater quantities and at a greater speed than people from countries with less opulent consumption habits. Not so, I would have to contest. I don't notice myself eating more than the people around me, and when it comes to speed, I'm actually a slower eater than many of the Chileans I've dined with.

Well then, one might say, it must be because of money. As a spoiled gringa from the land of plenty, you're probably unaware that powdered pineapple juice -- that beloved Chilean classic --does not grow on trees. While I'm not ready to give up on my dream of a powdered-pineapple-juice tree, I don't think this is the case, either. I drink more and drink faster even when it comes to tapwater. When I see Chileans drinking tapwater, that is.

Which is rare. Drinking just plain water does not seem to be nearly as common down here as it is in the States. In fact, people seem to prefer the hydrating powers of pop, caffeinated black tea and uber-concentrated "fruit" juices. My coworkers, all Chilean, look at me like I'm nuts when I fill up my mug with water instead of tea in the morning. My former boss once even asked, "But isn't that bad for you?"

Yes, I know. I'm really trying to quit water and replace it with something healthier, like Fanta.

I must be missing something here. I honestly don't know how this entire country hasn't long since died of dehydration. Do buildings have some secret room where Chileans guzzle water on the sly? Can anyone out there enlighten me on Chilean drinking habits?

One thing's for sure: The next time the Athenian plague strikes Santiago, no one else will bat an eyelash.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Birth control pills in Chile

**DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional or anything close. The following are my personal opinions and should not be considered medical advice. **

While waiting at the pharmacy counter the other day, I heard the young woman next to me ask for "the cheapest birth control pills you have."

Birth control pills are available without a prescription here in Chile. This means you can simply walk into a pharmacy and ask for the pill you want -- or, in the case of my fellow customer, whichever costs less -- without having to set foot inside a doctor's office.*

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I believe contraception should be readily available to women and men who wish to use it. Selling birth control pills over the counter makes them more accessible to women without the means or the time to make a doctor's appointment. It also makes them much easier to obtain for girls and women who wish to keep their decision to go on birth control private. On a more symbolic level, there's a lot to be said for being able to take the pill without having to ask anyone's permission first.

On the other hand, I can't help but suspect that this system makes it easy for women and their partners to make important decisions about their reproductive health without being properly informed. At the risk of sounding like the condescending voiceover on a TV commercial, I'd like to remind everyone that every birth control pill is different. Different pills have different doses of hormones, different modes of use and different potiential side effects. A pill that works swimmingly for one woman may be detrimental to the health of another. That's why part of a gynecologist's job is -- or should be, in my opinion -- to help patients choose a birth control method that is right for them.

It strikes me that a woman who asks for "the cheapest birth control pills you have" is very likely not making an informed decision. Of course, she has the right to make a choice based on whatever criteria she wants. Certainly, cost is an important factor for many women, especially given the fact that Chile's public health insurance provider, FONASA, does not cover birth control pills purchased in pharmacies.** Still, I'd be willing to bet there's more than one low(er)-cost pill out there, meaning women and couples on limited budgets still have options to weigh. But it can be difficult to know what your options are when nobody tells you, especially when it comes to a specialized field like medicine.

Of course, one could make the argument that consumers have the responsibility to inform themselves. As long as information is freely and widely available and easy to understand, I would tend to agree. However, I don't think this is the case when it comes to medication. As anyone who's ever glanced at them knows, the informational pamphlets that come with medication aren't exactly easy reading for those of us without medical training. Searching for information on the internet -- which, it should be noted, not everyone is able to do -- presents its own problems. First off all, it can be difficult to separate reliable information from B.S. Plus, when you research a product on its own website, you're getting your information from a company that wants you to buy what it's selling.

This lack of access to reliable information is even more worrying to me when I consider the spotty reputation of sexual education in Chilean schools and the misinformation about reproductive health -- "But virgins can't use tampons!" -- that circulates here and in the world in general.

I'm not saying that selling birth control pills over the counter is necessarily a bad idea. Like I said before, I think it has a number of benefits. What I do think is a bad idea, however, is selling birth control pills over the counter without providing women and their partners every opportunity to make informed choices. I'm guessing that whoever sold my fellow customer her birth control pills didn't ask her about her medical history, other medications she may have been taking, or whether or not she smoked (which a lot of young Chilean women do) -- factors that, as far as I know, are generally thought to be important when a woman is considering hormonal contraception.

But what if the pharmacy employee had been required to ask her if she had any questions about the pill or how to use it? If the pharmacy had been required to have someone on hand who was qualified to give detailed answers to all these questions? If pharmacies, educational and medical facilities, government agencies and NGOs distributed accurate and user-friendly information about birth control options in multiple formats, including on the radio, the internet and TV? And what if --gasp! -- prices were low (or nonexistant) enough so that monetary considerations would never have to outweigh health-related ones? Maybe then the young woman at the pharmacy would have asked for whichever pill she considered right for her and not whichever one was cheapest.

Needless to say, this is a topic that requires more than one opinion. So please, share. What do you think of the birth control situation in Chile (or in whichever country you happen to inhabit)? Any suggestions as to how to improve things? Is there a Chilean health insurance provider that covers birth control? Obviously, I'm not going to demand that anyone share his or her personal experiences, but if you want to, please feel free to do so.

*To get the morning-after pill, however, you have to make an appointment with a doctor, get a prescription, and find a pharmacy that has the pill in stock.

**In theory, women who have public health insurance are able to get free birth control pills at their local public clinic (consultorio). However, I don't know what pills consultorios give out or how many options they offer. Also, many consultorios operate on a "first come, first served" basis when it comes to appointments, and not all women are able to get up at the break of dawn to stand in line.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Overheard in Santiago, part 2

20-something guy: The classical composers were real musicians. Like Vivaldi and Paganini on the violin.
20-something guy's friend: Yeah, and the deaf guy.
20-something guy: The deaf guy had this thing with music. He would have no idea what it sounded like and it would come out incredible. You know why he went deaf?
20-something guy's friend: No, why?
20-something guy: Syphilis.

Overheard on the 506 bus

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gringo pesa'o

Many gringa bloggers have observed that santiaguinos can, at times, seem cold, brusque, or borderline surly. While I certainly don't see Santiago as a six-million-contender cage fight, I sometimes feel here like I did when I was living in a major city on the East Coast of the United States: Things move faster and people are more stressed out than I'm used to.

Because of this, I was a bit nervous when I started at my current job, which involves a lot of face-to-face interaction with the company's clients. I was worried that Santiago's stressed out, overworked and overcaffeinated would consider me the perfect dumpster for their accumulated tension. As it turns out, I've been pleasantly surprised by my clients, the vast majority of whom are patient, friendly and understanding.

Of course, there are exceptions. Like the delightful man who treated me to ten minutes of condescension and riddled me with orders like "move over." My boss later told me the charmer had been a member of Pinochet's cabinet.

The fact that people like him stand out in my memory goes to show that they are uncommon. Like I said before, most of the clients I deal with treat me with respect. Today, however, I found myself dealing with another exception to the norm.

When I saw him approaching, I immediately began to ponder, "Is he or isn't he?" -- gringo, that is. He was relatively tall, relatively blonde, and relatively light skinned -- but then again, so are a lot of Chileans.

I smiled and greeted him in Spanish. He did not greet me back, instead emphatically stating a single word: "English." Not "do you speak English?". Not "(Sorry,) I don't speak Spanish." Just "English."

Aside from resolving my uncertainty about his nationality, he'd started me wondering if I just might have another ass on my hands. I find it incredibly presumptuous when gringo travelers expect people in their host countries to understand English. Of course, I did understand the guy, but the point is that he had no reason to suspect I was a native English speaker. While I'm neither tall nor blonde, I would place my look solidly in the "is she or isn't she?" category, so I would have understood his assumption had we been in a hostel or a gringo bar. But we were in the Chilean work environment that I share with an exclusively Chilean team of coworkers. I wasn't wearing a "Kiss me, I'm bilingual!" pin or anything like that. In fact, most of the foreign clients I deal with don't even catch on that I'm not Chilean unless I tell them -- although they do ask me where I learned my wonderful English.

Still, I wasn't ready to peg Mr. English as a presumptuous prick just yet. If he thought I didn't speak English, I reasoned, he may be trying to simplify things for me by saying as few words as possible. So I pulled out my "Wow, where did you learn?" English and asked him what I could help him with.

He formulated a two- to three-word request, and I listed possible solutions -- none of which met his needs, apparently, which is fine. However, what I do not find fine is muttering "OK" and walking out of the room without bothering to thank the person who tried to help you.

My lips actually began forming the word as I watched him leave: "pesa'o." Literally: heavy. Figuratively: mean. That gringo had been mean to me.

I suppose coming across a rude gringo shouldn't have shocked me that much. After all, we foreigners are just as capable of being pesa'o as santiaguinos. I just hadn't come across a mean gringo at work yet. It may all boil down to simple mathematics: Since our Chilean clients vastly outnumber our foreign ones, it's much more probable that I'll encounter a Chilean meanie than a gringo one. Also, the gringo clients tend to be on vacation or business trips, so chances are that they're not as stressed out as their santiaguino counterparts. I'm not going to venture to say that people from the States generally act more respectfully than Chileans toward the people who provide them with customer service, because I simply haven't found that to be the case.

Maybe I was just expecting a little gringo solidarity, that superficial but real connection that tends to form between two people who find themselves together in a strange land. Of course, it would have been unfair of me to expect this from Mr. English, who had no way of knowing I was foreign, too -- at least before I switched to English. In any case, he was mean, and he caught me off guard.

Shortly after my run-in with Mr. English, I got on the Metro and headed home for the day. The universe was on my side, because I got a coveted seat. When the train arrived at my stop, I stood up and realized there was a pregnant woman standing standing beside me. I'd been so absorbed in my trashy magazine that I hadn't noticed her standing there, probably waiting for me to offer her my seat. As I exited onto the platform, I imagined my fellow passengers thinking to themselves, "Qué pesá."

I guess not everyone who comes across as mean intends to be. Maybe I should cut Mr. English some slack.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In which "Vitacura" and "bargains" appear in the same sentence

This evening, I went to a book fair in Vitacura, a part of Santiago I rarely visit. In fact, before today, I'm pretty sure it had been five years since I´d last set foot there.

I suppose it's all for the best, because, as the municipality with the highest per capita income in Chile,* Vitacura is out of my price range. I confirmed this today while walking up Alonso de Córdova, were I passed Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo and Armani boutiques on my way to the fair. By the time I arrived at the tent that housed the event, I was convinced that the prices of the books were going to be just as exhorbitant as those of the designer bags in the shop windows.

I wasn't entirely torn up about it, though, because the primary reason I had come to the fair was to attend a book launch -- which, I learned when I arrived, had been suspended until further notice because "the authors couldn´t make it." Thus, I was left to wander around the tent and be tempted.

The Ferial del Libro de Vitacura -- yes, that´s Ferial -- pleasantly surprised me. It´s smaller and much more manageable than the gargantuan Feria del Libro de Santiago. Sure, most of the merchandise is marked down just slightly from bookstore prices, but good things come to those who dig: I strolled out of the tent with three books that had cost me a grand total of $4.990 pesos, or under US$10. So, it would seem that there are bargains to be found in Vitacura -- at least until Sunday. Also, the fair is set up on the edge of the lovely Parque Bicentenario, where I´d never been before.

The most humorous moment of the night was when a salesman tried to pitch me an English course. I jumped slightly when he appeared out of nowhere and intercepted me as I rounded a corner.

"Can I ask you a question? Do you speak English?"

I´m used to people asking me if I speak Spanish, so this threw me off a bit. "Yes," I replied apprehensively, hoping I wasn´t about to be drafted into translation duty. The last time that happened, I was stuck in a police station until midnight...but that´s another story.

"Would you like to perfect it?"

I grinned.

*According to the 2006 CASEN survey, if anyone wants to get rigorous.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The monophonic symphony

Back in the days when Santiago city buses were yellow, many passengers engaged in an activity that oh-so-efficiently accomplished two things at once: keeping them entertained during the ride and aggravating the caca out of everyone around them. These considerate individuals took it upon themselves to treat their fellow passengers to a medley of five-second snippets of the contents of their ringtone libraries.

Bear in mind that this was a few years ago, so we're not talking symphonic masterpieces here. We're talking the Nokia jingle and monophonic tunes with names like "Summer Breeze." In other words, abrasively, unbearably obnoxious. I would tense up every time I saw a cell phone emerge from a a pocket or purse, praying its owner was not responding to a sudden urge to take ringtone inventory.

Fortunately, this custom seems to have disappeared with time. I can think of a few possible explanations for this. First, mp3 players and iPods have since provided Chileans with much snazzier ways to entertain themselves on the bus. And why flip through a list of ringtones when you can take photos, play Tetris and send e-mails on your cell phone instead? Also, Santiago's new buses have very few seats, meaning most people are too concentrated staying upright to get extremely bored. Who said Transantiago doesn't have its benefits?

Just when I thought I was in the clear, I went to the immigration office (Extranjeria)* last week to address what ended up being unfounded visa-related hysteria. I was sitting in the waiting room when I heard it: Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture -- about four seconds of it. Then the opening stanzas of the theme from The Simpsons. Then the chorus from Good Charlotte's "I Just Wanna Live." In all their monophonic glory. The DJ: the guy seated in front of me.

Apparently, the public ringtone roll call is alive and well in other countries. Or at least at Extranjeria, where the wait is longer and more eyeball-twitchingly boring than the vast majority of bus rides. And when you're sitting in a hard plastic chair waiting for strangers to decide your future, there's nothing like fragments of high-pitched electronic melodies to calm your nerves.

*Some tips about Extranjeria: Go early, go with a book, and -- when in doubt -- go in person. The information I've received over the telephone has rarely been correct.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The List

When my sister and I were (not so) little, we used to watch the Nickelodeon show Hey Arnold! (when we weren't watching Mexican soap operas, that is). In one episode, Arnold resolves to complete every activity on a list that supposedly consitutes a recipe for a perfect Saturday. As one might expect, misadventures and life lessons ensue.

I set out to complete a list of my own this past weekend, when Chile celebrated its independence. As those who have lived here know, saying the Fiestas Patrias are a big deal in Chile is an understatement. And since I never know which September 18 will be my last in Chile, I try to live it up each year. This time around, I had compiled a mental checklist of activities that, in my mind, stood to make this year's Fiestas Patrias memorable:

1. Spend time with friends. OK, kind of an obvious one. Part of what made this round of Fiestas Patrias so enjoyable for me, though, was the fact that I was able to spend it with a wide variety of people: workmates, new friends, old friends, friends I hadn't seen for months, and people I met along the way. The marathonic nature of Chile's September celebrations lends itself to this. This and severe hangovers, which -- luckily -- did not afflict me this year.

2. Eat ungodly amounts of food off a grill. Mission accomplished. Twice.

3. Drink chicha. This sweet alcoholic cider isn't something I would necessarily keep in my fridge year round, but it is just as much a Fiestas Patrias staple as empanadas or meat kabobs. I also had the pleasure of ingesting navegado, which is red wine boiled with sugar and orange slices -- a tasty and efficient way to warm up when the coals under the grill start burning low.

4. Fly a kite. OK, I'll admit it: V. and I didn't actually fly kites in the strict sense of the world. We yanked furiously on their strings in a completely fruitless effort to keep them from nosediving into the ground. Never mind that the seven-year-olds next to us were enjoying some success; we blame lack of wind and faulty kite mechanics.

5. Dance cueca. In all fairness to the cueca, one or both of the previous two words should be in quotes. I know the basic steps and the order in which they come, things I learned on the "Learn to Dance Cueca" DVD a friend sometimes busts out at barbecues. When it comes to dancing with style, however, I'm pretty sure my cueca skills are on par with my kite-flying prowess. Still, if the lights are dim and there are enough people on the dance floor, I dive in. I did so on Friday night at a fonda (public Fiestas Patrias party) in a small (and smoke free -- yay!) bar near downtown Santiago, where two of the four invited bands got heels stomping and handkerchiefs spinning to the beat of Chile's national dance.

If my life were a Nickelodeon cartoon, I would have learned that no list makes for a perfect Fiestas Patrias. In real life, though, I had a pretty damn good time. Tikitikitiiiii!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Terror rides the bus, and I use Neutrogena

Chilean writer José Donoso was once given morphine after undergoing a medical procedure. He had an adverse reaction that brought on a series of paranoid hallucinations, or so the story goes. They say this drug-induced delirium inspired the nightmarish narration of El Mudito, protagonist of my beloved El obsceno pájaro de la noche.

When I was in seventh grade, I was given morphine after having ankle surgery. Instead of writing a master work of literature, however, I consumed an entire box of orange Popsicles and had a pizza delivered to my hospital room at midnight. The following morning, I was unable to produce a coherent protest when a troika of clowns appeared in the doorway brandishing a giant pair of plastic scissors and announcing it was time of cut off my cast.

As you might imagine, this experience only exacerbated my preexisiting fear of clowns. It´s not that I´m convinced they´re going to murder me in my sleep...although I wouldn´t put it past them. What distresses me about clowns is exactly what gives them such great potential as social critics: Safe behind layers of facepaint, they shine the spotlight on others, exposing and manipulating them as they see fit. To put it dramatically, they draw you against your will into a game they control.

This is precisely what clowns do when they perform on busses in Santiago. They incorporate the captive passengers into their routines, even those passengers who, like me, stare fixedly out the window and try to will the plastic seats into absorbing them. Of the people who laugh, I wonder how many actually find the routines funny and how many are simply relieved not to have been singled out...yet. I think it's safe to say that these situations are even more distressing for those of us who, due to certain linguistic factors, may find ourselves at a disadvantage when it comes to witty banter.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I got on the bus a few days ago to find a clown standing in the aisle, patiently awaiting his audience/victims/next meal. "There's a seat here!" he called out to me as I passed, patting his lap.

Oh God.

I hunched down in my seat, arms firmly crossed and gaze firmly diverted. The clown's routine began with mother-in-law jokes, then progressed into an analysis of the relationship between cleanliness and gender. When he started asking female passengers what brand of soap they used, I knew I was screwed.

"Neutrogena," I replied when, inevitably, he got around to me. I pronounced it "Neu-TRO-he-na," the way they say it in Ecuador, silently praying that it was the way they said it here, too. I learned that not all dialects hispanisize foreign brand names the same way when I asked for a tube of Col-GAH-te in a Chilean pharmacy and the attendant arched her eyebrows in disdain and asked if I meant COL-gait.

"What?" the clown demanded.



"Is that a Peruvian soap?"

(Passengers laugh.)

"No." Just say as little as possible, Leigh, and he won't notice your accent and be suddenly inspired to perform a routine about gringas who use Peruvian soap and can't stand their mothers-in-law.

"Where is that soap from?"

"I don't know."

I held my breath until the clown turned to someone else and the crisis could officially be declared averted.

When the clown walked up the aisle asking for coins at the end of his routine, I didn't give him one, convinced that looking his way would be tantamount to offering myself up as a target for whatever else he may have had planned.

"Quit causing problems," he muttered.

(Passengers laugh.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Send in your stories!

Just a reminder to all you writers out there that tomorrow is the deadline to send in your stories to the Santiago en 100 Palabras contest. As has been previously established, I'm something of a fan. This year, the organizers have made what I think is a wonderful change: You no longer need a Chilean RUT (identity card number) to participate. Who says only legal residents have something to say about this city?

Speaking of Santiago en 100 Palabras, does anyone else think it would be fun to create an English version (without the contest aspect) in the blogosphere?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sunday in the ´hood (part 2)

Previously, on Leigh´s blog...

Buoyed by neighborhood pride and surrounded by all things edible, I invited a friend over for dinner.

I hadn´t seen this particular friend in a while, so I kind of went all out. I spent the afternoon chopping, frying, boiling and seasoning. I set up my stereo speakers in the dining room and rolled my gas heater in to warm the area up. I cleaned.

My friend was scheduled to arrive between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. At some point during this interval, I dropped my cell phone in the toilet for the second time in as many months. Seconds later, there was a knock at my front door. As I scuttled toward the foyer with my keys, the pounding grew more insistent.

While I turned the key in the lock, I arrived at the conclusion that my friend, who always calls instead of knocking, must have called me while my cell phone was on its diving adventure.

Leigh: Hi, sorry. Did you call? I dropped my phone in the toilet.

Leigh´s friend: No. I couldn´t call because someone just stole my cell phone.

Great, yet another person taking a swipe at my neighborhood.

Leigh: Quit messing around.

Leigh´s friend: I´m not. A group of like 15 kids just pulled a knife on me and stole all my stuff.

I didn´t believe him until he opened his backpack, which was completely empty except for the carton of peach juice he had brought for dinner. All that was left in his pockets were his keys.

I was floored. My friend had been robbed by an adolescent mob just steps from my house before 8:00 p.m. While walking, just as I had instructed him, along the most well-lit streets in the area. Could it be that all those people who had spoken negatively about my neighborhood had been right?

I´m still not convinced. Of course, no neighborhood is perfect, and mine suffers from certain difficulties that aren´t as present in wealthier areas. But people get robbed all over this city, even in its most exclusive corners. The difference is that when it happens there, people assume it´s because thieves from other areas have astutely zeroed in on the places where the most profit is to be made. When it happens here, though, it´s because the neighborhood is bad. Period. Regardless of how kind its residents are or how awesome its street market is. I prefer to focus on the latter characteristics.

Still, the fact remains that this group of kids chose to carry out their activities in my neighborhood (we came to the conclusion that they may very well not be from around here, since if you rob one of your neighbors, you run the risk of him/her and his/her entire family knowing where to track you down**). And they chose to target my friend. It sickened me to envision someone pulling a knife on him and enraged me to think about how much time he´s going to have to spend standing in line to get new ID cards and a new student transportation pass. It also enfuriated me to think that the same guys who robbed him probably intended to do the same to my neighbors, who, in general, are people who work their asses off for what little they have.

So it was that I made my second call to the Chilean police. Unlike the first, this was not a 133 (911) call, but rather a ring to the nearest police station. Like the first call, however, this one led to consequences that deserve their own blog post. So stay tuned...

**Case in point: A coworker once was held up at gunpoint by a group of would-be thieves who apologized profusely and ran away when she told them she lived in the neighborhood.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Sunday in the ´hood (part 1)

A lot of people raise their eyebrows when I tell them where I live. Not because Santiago doesn´t boast a slew of areas with sketchier reputations; it does. Some of the people taken aback by my address even come from them. I think their reaction is simply due to the fact that people don´t expect gringas/os to live in working class neighborhoods like mine, regardless if that´s where our levels of income place us.

Whenever I´m confronted with a cocked eyebrow, I jump to my barrio´s defense by telling the truth: Aside from catcalls, I´ve never been the target of any kind of aggression there. What´s more, there are people who have gone out of their way to be kind to me. If there´s time, I tack on a bit about the neighborhood´s underappreciated historical value.

Not to worry. This isn´t the part where I pontificate about how much more "authentic" my Chilean experience is than that of foreigners who choose to live in wealthier areas. Providencia and Las Condes are in Chile too, after all. However, I do believe that living where I do has brought me in touch, at least in part, with a reality that is both literally and figuratively miles away from the more exclusive corners of this city. Part of this reality: bitchin´ street markets.

Sunday afternoon, I staggered through the door of my house weighed down by bags whose contents included lentils, nail polish, tomatoes, garlic, a purple dish towel and a pot of honey. I had been eyeing some potted plants as well, but bringing them home to join the growing family on my patio would have involved sprouting a few extra arms. One possible solution would have been to purchase the barbecue grill someone had been selling on the curb, stuff everything inside and roll it all home, but I hadn´t been thinking very creatively at the time. Plus, I´m pretty sure we already have a grill.

While strolling between the dozens of stalls while dodging (and envying) gaggles of cotton candy-brandishing children, I felt a surge of neighborhood pride. It seemed as if the whole barrio had turned out to make the week´s purchases, joke with the vendors or just enjoy a Sunday stroll. Say what you will about my neighborhood; you can´t find festive street markets like this everywhere, especially not in areas where people generally have enough money to pay exhorbitant supermarket produce prices.

I was so delighted by the wealth of edible objects that surrounded me that I decided to invite a friend over for dinner. And this, dear reader, is where things get interesting. Stay tuned for Part 2.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Mea culpa

Aparte de saludarl@s, I'm writing to apologize for the following:

1) Having written little of substance these past few weeks. And for having been terribly remiss when it comes to commenting on your blogs and responding to the comments you leave me. I'm sorry. I fully intend to right my ways. In my defense, all I can say is that working full time (and believe me, Chilean full time is longer than U.S. full time) while writing two term papers has left me with very little time for much else. After I turn the last of them in next week, though, I'll be free to finish up the numerous half-written entries I have queued up.

2) Enabling comment moderation. This is not my way of silencing everyone who disagrees with me. I did it to have more control over how much personal information about me appears on the internet. As some of you know, my desire to do so stems half from an actual creepy experience and half from good old-fashioned paranoia. So, don't worry: As long as you keep it respectful and don't mention my home address or place of employment, I won't censor you.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Disease for sale

Way back when, I blogged about a guy who tried to sell me a pair of very possibly used underwear near Estacion Mapocho. Today, I came across a set of similarly attractive products lined up on a street vendor's blanket: dented, dirty and very possibly used surgical masks.

Damn. It being the end of the month and all, I can't afford a pair of men's briefs and a filthy swine flu mask. Any thoughts on which I should choose? I'm going to go sleep on it now.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

On the Chilean runway - part two

Good morning, boys and girls. It's time for part two of On the Chilean Runway.

As has been previously established, the streets of Santiago are fertile soil for inventive fashion statements. This weekend alone, I've noticed two particular styles that hold their own against even the most glaringly neon of fanny packs:

1. Gring@s in shorts. I work in an area frequented by fellow gring@s. With a new semester poised to begin in August, gaggles of eager exchange students (ah, those were the days) have caused the area's foreign population to swell even further.

Fresh exchange students are easy to distinguish from tourists because 1) they travel in groups the size of the freshman hordes that show up outside senior parties the first week of college, 2) they engage in animated getting-to-know-you-in-an-awkward-new-setting conversation ("Do you guys say 'pop' or 'soda' in Connecticut?"), and 3) they drink in their surroundings deliberately, visibly filing away each new piece of information for future use.

I've spotted dozens of newbie exchange students this past week. And a few of them have been wearing shorts.

Dude. You guys. It's cold. Below-freezing-at-night cold. Top-story-on-the-evening-news cold. Wear-leggings-and-two-pairs-of-socks-under-your-pants cold. I know you're suffering in those shorts. I know you did enough climate research before you came here to know you would be. I know there's at least one pair of jeans in the half-unpacked duffel in your room at your host family's house. What I don't know is why you're not wearing them.

2. A chilena in pajamas. Last night, I went to a gas station to buy liquor (yes, it has come to that). The place was populated by a handful of other people with the same idea -- and with a chilena dressed in tennis shoes and a pair of bright orange polarfleece pajamas.

I would think nothing of this if someone did it in the States. But, while I would hardly say they dress formally, Santiaguinos tend to be more reticent about letting the world see them in their grungiest. When I walk to the bakery in my sweatpants in the morning, I can't help but feel underdressed. And if, on top of that, if I'm not wearing earrings -- well, I might as well be naked.

So, like the Egyptian pyamids and my short-clad compatriots, the chilena in the orange pajamas is a mystery.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Start preparing your resume

Santiago is papered with sketchy notices, like fliers proclaiming "WORK VISAS! TODAY ONLY!" in confidence-inspiring blue marker or offering "attractive women ages 18-30" a "pleasant environment" with lodging and high wages.

While perusing the bulletin board at the bakery this afternoon, I came across another one to add to the list:


So fear not, unemployed gring@. There's a job with your name on it here in Santiago. There's even a guy with a blue marker you can talk to about a work visa.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Luxury in a 12-pack

This is what the high life looks like:

Yep, that's a whole 12 rolls. Of the soft kind. And yep, I bought them all at once.

The toilet paper aisle wasn't the only place I splurged this weekend. I also bought the pictured fingerless gloves (or "arm warmers," as the package dubbed them) from a stand outside the bus terminal, brought home an entire kilo of apples from the street market, and rolled up to the grocery store checkout line with a box of multigrain Cheerios in my shopping cart.

You guessed it: I got paid. For the first time since I quit my previous job in January, I received compensation for a month of full-time employment.

My time between jobs wasn't completely devoid of economic activity. I taught an English class twice a week and did occasional translations. However, the money I pieced together at the end of each month usually didn't even go far enough to cover my (low) rent, which meant I had to start trimming my savings -- or, more realistically, hacking away at them.

As is to be expected, I tried to find ways to cut costs. Why buy Q-tips when I had a stack full of only moderately abrasive kitchen napkins with which to remove my eye makeup? Why buy real fruit juice if I could add water to flavored powder?

I carefully planned my transportation routes so as only to have to pay one fare. I hung onto dairy products longer than advisable. At one point, I dug into my coin jar and spent the next few days carrying a plastic bag full of change around in my purse.

For the record, I'm aware that this was not real poverty. I could have always picked up more English classes or sawed a few branches off my savings if things had gotten serious. But there's no denying that I had very little money to spend on non-essentials. Now that I have a few pesos to my name again, I'm afraid I'll get so giddy over being able to buy useless things like fingerless gloves that I'll get carried away. The truth is that even though I am making money, I'm not making very much of it, which means I'll have to be prudent if I want to be able to 1) save and 2) set aside a slice of my budget pie for books.

Also for the record, I'm aware that the outfit I'm wearing in the above photo is, in the words of Dwight K. Schrute, "a ridiculous choice for this climate." The two sweaters I wore over it all day wouldn't have let my arm warmers show in their full glory.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Every once in a while, Santiago shows its benevolent side and grants us a brief respite from winter. The sunlight that soaks up the previous day's puddles doesn't quite qualify as warm, but at least it tries. Today was one such day, and it felt like this:

Unfortunately, these also seem to be the days when I leave the house with rain boots and an umbrella, congratulating myself on how prepared I am.

Oh, well.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The difference a raincoat makes

It rained in Santiago last weekend. And, true to form, I had lost my umbrella. Thus, when I left my house on Saturday morning, the only thing standing between me and Liquid Apocalypse was the oversize hooded camping raincoat I bought in middle school. I would have looked like a serial killer had it not been for my polka-dotted rain boots.

Despite the fact that it rains all winter here, you don't see many raincoats on the streets of Santiago (although snazzy rain boots are all the rage). Santiaguinos seem to have a strong preference for umbrellas or, in their absence, simply walking in light rain.

There is, however, a group of people that do pile on the rain gear in Santiago: gringos. An outdoorsy raincoat is about as much of a gringo giveaway as a pair of high-tech cross-trainers. It makes sense: Most tourists come to Chile planning to have at least some contact with nature, and they come prepared. It's not uncommon to see pairs of hooded visitors plodding through the city while shielding their maps from the rain.

I didn't have a map on Saturday, but I sure had a raincoat. I'm neither tall nor particularly light-haired and therefore am frequently assumed to be Chilean until I open my mouth (or so I've been told), but my water-resistant apparel pushed me over the line into Unmistakable Gringadom. As I walked past Cerro Santa Lucia, a man approached me with a handful of fliers and pointed across the street to one of the city's biggest artisan fairs. "Across the street, there are handicrafts from all over Latin America," he informed me in slow, percussive Spanish.

"Yeah, I've already been there," I said. The raincoat, I thought as I walked on.

Moments later, at the bus stop, a taxi slowed and idled in front of me. This is what virtually every free cab did to me in Quito, where I did look very obviously foreign. They rarely do it to me in Santiago unless it's late at night. And unless I'm wearing a raincoat, apparently. Eventually, this particular Santiago cab driver realized I wasn't going to ask him to drive me back to my hotel and moved on.

It's amazing the effect a single garment can have on the way people perceive and treat you, huh?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Woodpeckers from space

This week at work (yep, I've been frequenting a place that meets that description), we've been listening to Radio X, a station that seems to specialize in funk, showtunes, "Video Killed the Radio Star" and "Runaway Train." I much prefer it to the station we were listening to last week, Radio Amadeus, which broadcasts uninterrupted elevator music with lyrics that include "shoobady bah baaaah."

Say what you will about Radio Amadeus, but it was Radio X that played the following song this afternoon:

This is not the first time a Chilean soundtrack has left me grasping for an explanation -- any explanation. After "Woodpeckers from Space" came into my life, I started to suspect that these (in my view) questionable music choices may have less to do with DJs' filters than with cold, hard economics. I'd be willing to bet that the rights to "Woodpeckers from Space" are significantly more affordable than those to...well, most other songs.

In my fantasy, the stereo speakers at work emit what I consider the more pleasant sounds of Radio Uno, Radio Horizonte, Rock and Pop or FM Tiempo. However, since the chances of this actually happening are about the same as the chances of me making it through the next six months without getting tear on, spacepecker, fly on.

P.S. I know it goes without saying, but I won't be offering many details about my job on this blog. I've already been internet stalked once, and it's not an experience I'd care to repeat. Suffice it to say that 1) it's not teaching English and 2) it's something I've always wanted to do.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Love of person vs. love of place: Chilean men revisited

One of the entries that soak up the most hits on this blog is the group post on Chilean men that several gringa-in-Chile bloggers participated in last year. It doesn't surprise me. Before I first left for Chile -- and, a few years later, for Ecuador -- I too prowled Google for sneak peeks at the dating scene I was soon to confront. To be honest, I didn't learn much, probably because many of the expat blogs I came across were written by people who were married or in stable relationships, not hitting the bars. And those who were on the prowl were wise enough to keep the details to a minimum.

Sorry to disappoint, but I will be doing the same. I can, however, address a broader issue I've been thinking about recently: love of person vs. love of place.

For me, the experience that best illustrates this dilemma is a date I went on when I was studying abroad in Santiago. It was a second date with a very esthetically pleasing young man who picked me up at my host family's house and took me to the movies. For two agonizing hours, I sat stone-still in front of the screen debating whether or not I should continue to let the guy's uninvited hand sit awkwardly atop my own or banish it to the other side of the armrest. Unfortunately, I chose the former.

It was even more unbearable than our first date, when he spent an hour and a half spinning an epic tale that involved the glories of his teen modeling career, the droves of people who worshiped him when he was in a band, and his disdain for a younger brother who was a self-centered asshole for -- gasp! -- wanting to go to college. By the time he finally asked me a question, I was too disgusted to answer in detail.

I know what you're thinking. Why, oh why, would I grace the jerk with a second chance? No, it wasn't the fact that he was attractive. The real reason, as ridiculous as it sounds, was this: While strolling through one of my favorite areas in Santiago a few weeks after we'd first met, I had bumped into him on the sidewalk in front of his family's mechanic shop. That's it. Really.

I wasn't always great at pickin' 'em when I was 20. But I did have a journal (oh, if only I had it with me and could quote from it now!) in which I arrived at what I considered some pretty sage late-night insights. Among them was this one, which I remember scribbling down after that excruciating second date: I did not like this guy. What I liked was the fact that I had bumped into him on the street. In front of the family-owned mechanic shop where he worked. In a neighborhood I loved.

As I believe has been clearly established in this blog, I'm a sucker for chance meetings, urban landscapes and grittiness. Knowing this, it’s not difficult to see just how much of a recipe for disaster this situation was. Already on a high while strolling through one of my favorite neighborhoods, I just happened to bump into someone I knew. Not only did this make me feel ever so integrated into my adopted surroundings, but it also – at least in my gleeful imaginings – opened the door to a part of Chile I had yet to experience. I pictured myself hanging out in the mechanic shop, gazing out into the neighborhood while listening to my charming boyfriend play guitar and getting to know his undoubtedly equally charming family. Collectively, they would welcome me into a world that most exchange students would never get to see, and by golly, I would feel special.

Luckily, I snapped the hell out of it before it was too late. But I would be lying if I said Mr. Teen Model was the only guy I’ve tricked myself into thinking I liked during my expat career. That time, it was a mechanic shop. On other occasions, it’s been aging houses, midnight architectural tours and a salsa club with wooden floors. In each case, I eventually arrived at the (painful) realization that what was truly making me happy was where I was, not the person I was there with. I’m not saying these guys didn’t have anything to offer; they just weren’t right for me, which my passionate love of place blinded me to for a while.

Anyone who’s ever walked down the street with me knows that buildings, cobblestones, graffiti, windows and cracked cement often distract me to the point of robbing me of the ability to carry on a coherent conversation. Therefore, I may be more prone to love-of-place/love-of-person confusion than most. That said, I think anyone who ventures abroad – or undertakes a dramatic change of scenery within his or her home country – is vulnerable to making this mistake. Think about it: You’re alone. You get lost. You’re frequently confused and frequently confusing. You miss your family, friends, dog and everything else you’ve left behind. Why wouldn’t you want to be with someone who could not only provide you with the affection and sense of belonging you crave but also help integrate you into the surroundings you’re coming to love?

Because dating someone from your new country/city/neighborhood does help you integrate. Your boyfriend introduces you to his group of friends. Your girlfriend’s family invites you to their Sunday lunches. While you and your significant other enjoy (insert local specialty dish) at (insert low-profile local eatery), s/he offers a local perspective on (insert topic). And, of course, all in (insert local language/dialect). But dating is not the only way to integrate yourself (if integration is what you’re going for), and if you don’t have real feelings for the person involved, it’s not the right way.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for love of person and love of place to coincide. I know a number of happy cross-cultural couples who are a testament to the fact that they can. But I also know that for exchange students and expats, conditions are ripe for the development of relationships that don’t quite gel but are difficult to end because “So-and-so is this country for me!”

If this post has proven anything, it’s that I may not be the best source of dating advice. But, as someone who’s been there, I have this to say to those who haven’t: Date abroad, but bring your criteria with you. If you wouldn’t have a romantic interest in this person at home, s/he probably won’t be right for you here, regardless of how quaint his or her street is or how beautiful that beach s/he took you to was. Obviously, going abroad involves meeting and forming relationships with people who may be very different from those you left behind, but that doesn’t mean you can’t value and seek out the same qualities (compassion, intelligence, humor, insight, etc.) in a foreign partner as you would in someone who shares your background. Linguistic and cultural differences require an open mind, but certain things – like what your gut tells you – need no translation.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Metro from the crypt

Sick of Metro stories yet? I hope not, because since my life has taken a turn for the busier this past week, I've been spending a lot more time aboard everybody's favorite underground train. In other words, it's likely that you'll be hearing a lot about my adventures in the kingdom of Bip! cards and orange plastic seats.

Despite the countless times I've traveled on the Santiago Metro over the past few years, I've never once heard the conductors do what I would if I had their job: get creative when announcing the names of the stations. It must take a heck of a lot of self control to rattle off the same rosary of station names for hours each day without adding a personal touch.

The first time I heard a subway driver snap was in D.C. He announced each station with a raspy, ominous voice similar to that of the mummy from Tales from the Crypt. I broke into a smile when he hissed, "Next stop: Metro Centaaaaaaaah," and I continued to grin contentedly as the train hurtled forward toward what apparently was grisly doom.

Ever since then, I've been waiting. And on Friday, I got my reward. It wasn't exactly Tales from the Crypt, but the the sing-song exaggerated formality with which the driver proclaimed, "Los Heroeees, combinacioooooon con la Linea Dossssss" made me smile long enough to forget how much my feet hurt. Something tells me the driver knew what it was like to be trapped in an underground tangle of elbows at 8:30 p.m. and wanted to do his part by reminding us that it was, after all, Friday.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mr. Darcy on the Metro

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a handsome man wearing a top hat on the Santiago subway, must be in want of a gringa to fall in love with him. And so it transpired yesterday, when I saw Mr. Darcy on the Metro.

I had just stepped into my carriage (subway car) when I noticed him sitting staidly in an orange plastic seat. There was nothing exceptional about his clothing -- except for the Austenesque top hat that towered over the balding heads of the two men flanking him.

Handsome, handsomely sedate and wearing a handsome top hat. This was none other than Mr. Darcy.

Looking back, there were a number of ways I could have started a conversation, including, "Hey, I like your hat" (the witty banter would have come later). Nevertheless, I succumbed to shyness and hurried away to the nearest handrail.

How despicably I have acted, Jane. And I don't just regret it because he was cute. It takes a brave spirit to wear a top hat in a city where people tend to stare at the outlandishly dressed.

So if you see a guy walking around Santiago in a top hat, give him my e-mail, please.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jesus on rye

Remember Navy Jesus One? If so, it may interest you to know that I've finally learned what they sell: sandwiches and salads.

That's right. It's a deli called Navy Jesus One. Oh, and they deliver. Perhaps the placing of an order would sound something like this:

"Hello, I'd like to place an order for delivery."
"Which sandwich would you like?"
"The navy Jesus one."

Mystery solved. But a new question arises: Are the sandwiches made with Communion wafers?

I find it amazing how many businesses here in Chile choose to christen (no pun intended) themselves with incorrect or just plain strange English. The name Navy Jesus One is so delightfully ridiculous that I suspect logic was hardly a concern for whoever thought it up. But you would think someone would check with a native English speaker -- and believe me, they're not hard to find in Santiago -- before naming their clothing store chain Fashion's Park or investing in a fluorescent sign proclaiming "Nigth Club." I know I would consult with a native Spanish speaker before printing a Spanish menu or opening a business with a Spanish name. That way, I would be sure to avoid the fate of the U.S. Mexican restaurant Vicki wrote about in the comments of my Navy Jesus One post.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


People aren´t afraid of me very often. I have a relatively tranquil disposition and a more-than-relatively short body. My weapons arsenal is limited to pepper spray and my vendettas to the administrators of Santiago´s Galpón Victor Jara concert hall (more on that another time).

This week, however, this harmless little gringa got scary. Not by growing several inches or spontaneously developing a penchant for violence. Apparently, all one needs to do to strike fear into the hearts of Chileans is come back from a trip to the United States.

I first knew Chile was suspicious of me when a flight attendant handed me a batch of Chilean customs and immigration forms that included, for the first time, a health questionnaire. As a "traveler arriving from an infected area," I was asked whether I'd experienced sore throat, vomiting, muscle pain or a variety of other symptoms within the past 10 days. Luckily, I was able to check an honest "none of the above" and banish fears of being dragged away by men in hazmat suits.

Upon arriving in Chile, the passengers on my flight filed one by one in front of a thermal camera. Apparently fever free, I continued to immigration, where an official in a surgical mask stamped my passport.

I remained a deadly threat after leaving the airport as well. Upon hearing that I had just returned from a visit home, people take a step back only half-jokingly.

With so many people afraid of me, I've started to become afraid of myself. I feel an inexplicable inner certainty that swine flu is not the way I go. However, that doesn't mean I can't unknowingly infect slews of people who may not be as lucky, right? I've started standing a bit further back when I talk to people and have become paranoid about what I touch. For example, after blowing my nose while teaching yesterday, I spent the rest of the class avoiding touching anything with the hand that had held the tissue.

Now that there have been a handful of swine flu cases confirmed in Chile, I'm afraid of other people too. Yesterday I wore mittens, both because it was cold in the morning and because I didn't want to touch the handrails in the Metro. When someone sneezed at the bus stop, I moved away quickly, forfeiting a coveted spot in the shade. I hold my breath whenever someone coughs or sniffles and immediately grow wary of the puffy-eyed.

Am I being ridiculous? It's been known to happen.

I've heard people theorize that swine flu is part of a worldwide conspiracy to make us afraid of one another while distracting us from real problems that no surgical mask can fend off. If this is true, then congratulations, shadow government. I raise my glass to you with a mittened hand.

(I took this photo at a Labor Day march I'll blog about at some point.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Contrary to popular belief, Chileans do not have a monopoly on distinctive slang. I was reminded of this yesterday, when I stepped out of the shower and exclaimed, "Achachay!"

Had a Chilean overheard me, she may have assumed I had stepped on a nail or reached some kind of psychological breaking point. A Quitenian, on the other hand, would have known I was freezing. I can't count the number of times I've had to explain myself in Chile after sputtering an "Achachay!".

Herein lies the curse -- and the blessing -- of the globetrotter. After spending months adjusting your vocabulary to the local dialect, you find yourself transplanted somewhere where people have absolutely no idea what the hell you're talking about. Frustrating? Yes. But also demonstrative of the richness and diversity of language.

Without further ado, I present a list of Andean Ecuadorian slang words that I miss:

Achachay! - Brrr!
Llucho - Naked
Chuchaqui - Hung over
Huasipichai - Housewarming party
Fffff - Quito's version of "po," used in many of the same contexts

For example:

“¿Tienes frío?”
“Sífffff. Quedé llucho y chuchaqui después del huasipichai.”


“Are you cold?”
“Yeah. I ended up naked and hung over after the housewarming party.”

In Chilean:

(Some sound to indicate being cold)
"¿Tay con frío?"
"Sí po. Quedé en pelota y con caña después del carrete de inauguración."

Tomato and tomahto, right?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Free Santiago en 100 Palabras books!

Free Santiago en 100 Palabras books are being given away at select Metro stations today until 5 p.m.! All the info is available here.

I hardly saw this publicized anywhere, which is why I'm just posting about it now. Maybe the Metro powers that be wanted to avoid a mob scene like the one I found myself in the middle of the last time I went to get one of these books.

I picked up my book at Los Heroes this afternoon. Then I went to a beauty parlor where a toy poodle named Simba growled at me and a 60-year-old woman in curlers called someone on her cell phone to announce she was getting "pimped."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Shoeless Crusader

There's a Santiago city bus that rolls to the end of its route a block from my house. I greet the driver whenever I get on to go home late at night, knowing that it will probably be just him and me by the time the bus sighs to a stop at the end of the line.

Earlier this month, I climbed on board at about midnight, said hi to the driver and settled in for the ride home. As we approached the home stretch, I realized that the only other remaining passenger was a middle-aged man in stocking feet gesturing to an invisible antagonist seated across from him. I began to feel uneasy at the prospect of being dropped off on a dark corner with a guy so very likely under the influence of something and was considering asking the bus driver's assistant to walk me to my door.

Meanwhile, the shoeless man was becoming disconcerted himself, apparently having discovered that the bus was not taking him where he wanted to go. He shouted up to the driver to ask if the route included his destination.

It was after the assistant told him it didn't that the real excitement began. When the shoeless man demanded to know why he hadn't been told, the assistant retorted that the route was on the sign in the front window. The confrontation that ensued involved the assistant brandishing said sign and Mr. Stocking Feet jumping the turnstile and making menacingly for the front. Luckily for the assistant, a group of cops were standing on the corner just outside, and the driver had only to open the door and deliver the wayward passenger into their waiting arms. As we rolled away down the street, I saw the ousted man pointing to his feet, as if protesting, "But Officer, I lost my shoes!"

This and other experiences have led me to believe that being a Transantiago driver is about as thankless a job as one can get. It's not uncommon to witness passengers -- and sober ones at that -- hurling their accumulated frustrations at whatever chofer happens to be behind the wheel. They press the stop button repeatedly, shout and bang on the side of the bus if the driver refuses to let them off between stops. I've seen more than one driver insulted simply for sticking to the rules of his or her job.

When a passenger's latent rage detonates, the shrapnel doesn't just fly up toward the steering wheel. Inter-passenger abuse usually takes the subtle and even subconscious form of pushing and territoriality. Sometimes, though, it's more patent, such as the time a passenger chewed me out for being in his way as he got off the Metro, apparently not having noticed that I was struggling to stay on my feet as a human tidal wave bore down on me on its way for the doors.

It would be easy to claim that the frustrations of public transportation tend to bring out the worst in people. But I've also seen them bring out the best. Passengers are quick to offer their seats to pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities. I've had an elderly woman help hoist me into a seat on the bus and have had numerous people offer to carry my bag in their laps. One morning, the woman sitting across from me noticed I was struggling to keep my eyes open and taught me a Metro-friendly relaxation technique involving deep breathing and curling my toes. And as I may or may not have mentioned on this blog before, I still hang out with a friend I met on a Santiago bus more than four years ago.

So while tensions can boil over when dozens of strangers pack themselves into a sardine tin on wheels, the door is open for kindness as well. I sometimes feel a strange solidarity with the people in my Metro car, as if we would all have each other's backs if someone from another wagon decided to take us on. After all, we're all in this together.

Oh, and speaking of the guy with no shoes, I once saw a young, almost certainly foreign woman get on the bus completely barefoot. I would not have wanted to be the person who did her next pedicure.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Taxes for drunkards

I'm not a big partier. Like everyone, though, I've had my moments. One of the most ignominious of these involved dancing on a table at a party my sophomore year in college and proceeding to rant (in Spanish) to everyone in the bathroom line about how racist the Mercator projection is. Not a high point.

It's been a while since I've danced on a table. That hasn't stopped me from being a magnet for drunken tirades here in Chile, though. Just the other night, a stranger at a bar treated me to a monologue on what he called the vulgarity of the Chilean bourgeoisie. He only shut up when I turned to the Chilean friend I had come with and entreated him not so quietly not to abandon me. Unfortunately, I hadn't had anyone to rescue me a few months earlier, when a Chilean guy cornered me at a party and enlightened me for 20 minutes on the intricacies of the Chilean taxation system.

I have a theory that being foreign makes one a particularly attractive stop on inebriated lecture circuits. If everybody finds what you have to say fascinating -- as drunk people tend to believe -- it must be even more enthralling to the newcomer who obviously came to this party to be educated by you.

When I described my theory to V. (for those new to this blog, a friend who moved from Bulgaria to Chile as a child), he laughed knowingly and mused that once you've been in Chile long enough, your knowledge or experience is eventually bound to contradict, in places, that of your tipsy professor. Since I have a bit of a pride problem, this may be what makes these booze-fueled harangues so frustrating for me.

So here's my message for all Chileans with something to say: I want to learn from you. I know you have a lot to teach me about your country. But please, for the love of beef-and-onion empanadas, do it when you're sober. If not, I will retaliate. Ever heard of the Mercator projection?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Good Friday on the West Side

Gruta de Lourdes, Quinta Normal

Entrance to Parque Quinta Normal, Santiago Centro

Barrio Yungay, Santiago Centro

Street fish market, Barrio Yungay, Santiago Centro

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Digital atrophy

Ever since I can remember, I've felt an inexplicable attraction to all things dilapidated. When my family and I used to drive from Minneapolis to my grandmother's lake house in Michigan every summer, I would press my nose to the window and drink in the abandoned grain elevators and tipping silos that filed past outside. I anxiously awaited stepping onto the grungy dock where we boarded the overnight ferry that would shuttle us across Lake Michigan.

Obviously, decay is symptomatic of economic circumstances that are far from enchanting. However, something about structures marked by the passage of time and the corrosion of glory gives me chills.

A perfect example of such a building is the abandoned Machasa textile factory in southwestern Santiago Centro's San Eugenio neighborhood. Since drowning during Chile's plunge into the free market, this once emblematic establishment -- which I'm pretty sure employs a number of the characters of Antonio Skármeta's novel Soñé que la nieve ardía -- has been overtaken by weeds and rust.

Meaning, of course, that it's the perfect place to take photos. Last weekend, I circled the perimeter of the giant complex, searching for a gap in the fence or an open gate. After finding nothing, I approached a guard, connivingly conscious that gringas frequently can charm their way into exceptions to rules. He was just about to let me in when his stern-looking coworker emerged from the guard hut and dashed my hopes.

Oh, well. The exterior of the building is derelict enough to be more than photo-worthy. And as for shooting inside one day, let's just say the fence isn't that high.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Window to the world

I have something of an obsession with windows in Santiago. First and foremost, I like looking through them. Even when they're closed, I find that curtains, shutters and stickers can provide a glimpse into the lives of those behind the glass. I also consider windows fascinating in and of themselves because they frame people's view of the outside world.

While wandering around with my camera this afternoon, I came across this particularly eye-catching window in southwestern Santiago Centro's San Eugenio neighborhood:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book club logistics

It looks like we have enough interested people to get the book club idea off the ground! Those of us who live in or close to Santiago can have monthly meetings (with refreshments, of course), and those who want to participate from afar can read along with us and blog about the book.

So here's my question: How should we go about it?

One way to start would be for us all to get together to look through the books we already have and decide on which one to read. We could then find an inexpensive way to, um, procure copies of that book for everyone.

Another option would be for everyone to contribute suggestions, either in the comments or to the e-mail I've posted in the "About Me" section of this blog, and for me to make an online poll and have everyone do the virtual voting thing. We could then figure out among ourselves how everyone could get a copy of whichever book came out on top.

What do you think? Can anyone think of another way to do this?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Wedding bells

At this time last year, I was engaged to a Chilean named Oscar. We had met a scant three months earlier, but we were very much in love and knew we were making the right decision. We were planning our wedding for the Chilean spring.

At least that's what my uncle thought.

See, April Fools Day also happens to be my aunt's birthday. As I finished typing her birthday e-mail, I decided to add a little April Fools prank. Hence, the birth of Oscar. Since I figured it would be anything but funny to lead my entire family to believe I was getting married to someone I had just started dating, I added "April Fools!" at the bottom of the e-mail.

Apparently, my uncle didn't get that far when he was checking his and my aunt's e-mail later that day. He -- usually a relatively stoic guy -- sent my mom a frantic e-mail with multiple exclamation points in the subject line and even more disbelieving question marks in the main text.

My mom, in turn, forwarded his e-mail to me to make sure I was kidding. My uncle, in the meantime, had left on a business trip and was unable to be reached by phone.

Oh, goodness.

The funny part is that my aunt, the person for whom the prank was intended, reacted to my nuptial news the way one intends people to react to April Fools jokes: with a few moments of shock quickly followed by the realization that she had been had.

I guess this just goes to show that one should exercise caution when pulling pranks from afar.

On a completely unrelated note, I'm excited about the enthusiastic reaction to the book club idea. Let's do it! Logistical information to come.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Book club, anyone?

Today was literary in a way that only the days of the unemployed can be. After meandering in and out of consciousness as my roommates hit their snooze buttons and eventually got up to shower, I sat up in bed and read the final pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind (La Sombra del Viento, in the original Spanish). The novel, essentially a love letter to books and Barcelona, is an engrossing mystery that, like The Da Vinci Code, left me certain that it's only a matter of time before someone makes a movie out of it. However, masterful bits of figurative language in unexpected places make The Shadow of the Wind much better, in my view, than The Da Vinci Code, as does Ruiz Zafon's absorbing depiction of Barcelona, a character in its own right.

Lovers of realism will find the coincidences that hold the plot together preposterous and charge that some supporting characters approach caricatures. But The Shadow of the Wind, like the radio soaps that captivate so many of its barceloneses, isn't trying to be realistic. On the other hand, if it is trying to entertain, it more than succeeds.

Toward the end of the book, one of the characters laments that "great readers are becoming more scarce by the day." The line was like a condemnatory index finger pointing up from the page. Because I haven't been a great reader of late. Before, I could point to my long work days as an excuse. No longer. Practically the only thing keeping me from reading now is the multitude of Intervention episodes available on YouTube.

I vowed that I would set off for the library immediately after turning the last page of The Shadow of the Wind. Or after just one episode of Intervention.

When I arrived at the Biblioteca de Santiago, I learned that I would have to provide proof of address -- which I didn't have -- before being allowed to check out a book, presumably so that the library staff would know which window to throw a brick through if I were ever late making a return.

After arriving home, I scanned my bookshelf for books I hadn't yet read. Dejected after my failed mission to the library, I chose the skinniest one, Un asunto de honor (A Matter of Honor) by Arturo Perez-Reverte. My Spanish former roommate had told me it could be read in one sitting, which I figured translated to a week for me.

As it turns out, he was right. By the time I returned Un asunto de honor (thumbs up) to the shelf, I was still unemployed and there was still a good hour and a half of daylight left. So I went to the nearest Bibliometro and jumped on the Bolaño bandwagon. By the second page, Llamadas telefonicas had convinced me that 1) I'm ignorant and 2) not all books can be read in one sitting.

Leaving my last job has meant making sacrifices. For example, I now replace pop and real fruit juice with the Chilean version of Tang on a fairly regular basis. But I've gained a lot more than a fluorescent orange tongue. Like time to read. And write. And (try to) cook. And visit friends without falling asleep mid-conversation out of exhaustion. Sure, it's about time I got serious about the job search. But not for a second have I regretted my decision to take a breather from the working world -- or forgotten how fortunate I am to be able to do so.

If everything goes according to plan, there will soon come a time when I will have to make time to read. I know from experience how hard it can be to motivate yourself to pick up a book at night when all you want to do is fall asleep watching Intervention. Which is why it occurred to me that it might help to have a book club. The books could be about Chile, living abroad or none of the above. We would have at least a month to read each book and then could talk about it in person or group blog about it (or both). What do you think?