Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The electric truth

Wherein Leigh Goes to Brazil and Almost Gets Hit by Lightning

One of my favorite icebreaker games to play with new English classes is One Truth and One Lie. Some fellow teachers introduced it to me in Quito, and I will be forever grateful. The rules of the game are that each student must tell two stories, one of which is true and one of which is completely made up. Then the other students ask the speaker questions to try to determine which tale is B.S. Since the idea is to trick the rest of the class into thinking your true story is a lie, people usually talk about their most outlandish experiences. Needless to say, I've learned some pretty unexpected things about my students on the first day of class.

Art House Queen's recent entries about Bahia, Brazil have called to mind one of the stories I always use for One Truth and One Lie. Most students find it absolutely impossible to believe, and they label my other story, which usually involves almost getting attacked by a bear, as true.

They're totally wrong.

When I was studying abroad in Santiago, two students from my exchange program and I decided to visit Brazil between semesters. The many warnings I'd heard about traveler safety in Brazil petrified me into not bringing my iPod and frequently leaving my camera behind at the hostel. Our first day in Salvador, Bahia, we met a young tourist who had recently been held up at gunpoint, which didn't do much to tame our nerves.

Despite everything we'd been told, absolutely nothing happened. We were never robbed or even slightly inconvenienced. The most danger we ever found ourselves in was when we found ourselves packed onto an extremely narrow overpass with hundreds of people pushing to enter Rio's Sambadrome for Carnival -- which, now that I think about it, was actually really dangerous. But we were never victims of crime or aggression. Which, juiced up on horror stories as we were, surprised us at the time.

As it turned out, the only serious threat we would directly face in Brazil would come from the most unexpected place: above. While staying in Salvador, we decided to check out one of the many beaches just outside the city. Not long after we arrived, it started to rain. Since it was time to break for lunch anyway, we scurried off to take shelter under the giant table umbrellas at one of the restaurants near the waterfront.

Since there weren't many other customers, one of the waiters tried to do us a favor by uprooting umbrellas from vacant tables and planting them in a protective circle around us. By the time it became clear that the rainstorm was an electrical one, we were surrounded by five tall metal poles.

It didn't take long for me to start thinking back to my brief Girl Scout days and recalling that this, along with low cookie sales, was one of the scenarios they told us to avoid. We were pretty much setting ourselves up to get electrocuted.

Suddenly, we saw a column of light -- just a handful of meters to the side -- that was so bright we had to look away, even though it disappeared after an instant. We heard a resonating crack, as if someone had shot off fireworks. When we looked back, the area around the table next to ours was smoking. Wide eyed, one of my friends --who had been touching one of the umbrella poles during the incident -- said she'd felt her entire arm tingle.

We bolted. We took shelter under a thatched roof with a giant group of Brazilian college students who chatted us up -- in a perfectly functional mix of Portuguese, Spanish and English -- until the storm blew past. They were quick to let us know how they felt about the recently reelected George W. Bush.

It took a while for what had happened to properly sink in. When it did, we were in disbelief. During the nearly two weeks we'd spent in Brazil, none of the expected calamities -- robbery, illness, logistical disaster -- had befallen us. Instead, we had almost been hit by lightning.


I'm not surprised that so many of my students refuse to believe this story. I myself don't quite understand the science behind it: Why didn't the lightning strike the umbrella poles directly? Why didn't it catch the wooden table next to us on fire? If anyone can think of another explanation for a column of light that creates smoke and sends electrical charges through nearby metal objects, I would be happy to be enlightened. Until then, though, I continue to maintain that my friends and I nearly fell victim to one of the most improbable accidents on earth. In one of the most beautiful places possible.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Urban safari

I'll be honest: I'm not a gym person. Believe me; I've tried to be. In college, my friends and I would hit the elliptical machines on weekends, but looking back, I think what motivated me to do it was the fact that we would invariably head to the dining hall afterward and treat ourselves to marathon multi-course brunches. However, without an edible incentive -- or an approaching beach trip -- I find the idea of skiing in place relatively unappealing.

It's not that I don't like to be active. I love biking, playing team sports and going for extended walks. For me, the critical difference between these activities and sweating atop a stationary gym machine is that they involve tangible progress. Teams work together toward common objectives; when you bike or walk, you actually go somewhere. There are enough distractions to make you forget you're working out.

When I was in Chile as an exchange student, I bought a gym membership and went twice, which my former host family makes fun of me for to this day. By the time I arrived in Quito two years later, I had come to terms with my aversion to mechanized individual exercise and quickly found another way to stay in shape: trekking the city's notoriously steep hills and staircases.

Quito's altitude did not make this easy. It was several months before I was able to make it more than a few blocks uphill without getting winded. As time passed, however, I found I was covering extended distances with increasing ease. I would walk for hours. I would snake along the western edge of the city into the historical center with its colonial churches, adobe houses and flower-filled balconies. I would climb through the neighborhoods -- like my own -- that clung to the urban foothills of the Pichincha volcano and was always rewarded with sweeping panoramic views of the city.

The vistas weren't the only payoff. As one might imagine, hiking at high altitudes makes your body work hard. This may be why I found myself to be something of an athletic powerhouse during the weeks after I ended my 14-month stint in Ecuador and returned to Minnesota. Shortly after I'd arrived Stateside, some friends and I went rock climbing at Wisconsin Dells. To my disbelief, I -- who had made only a few unimpressive attempts to scale things before -- was a rock climbing machine. The guide said I was the first woman he'd seen make it to the top of the course, which -- to me -- hadn't even seemed that hard. Evidently, my body had gotten so used to workin' it on scant mountain oxygen that doing anything at sea level was a walk in the park.

My superstar days didn't last long, but I will never forget everything I learned about Quito while walking. I discovered neighborhoods I never would have seen had I remained tied to bus routes. I witnessed close up the tremendous diversity the city has to offer in everything ranging from culture to ethnicity to architecture. Once, I met two little girls who recruited me into their elaborate sidewalk chalk project for over an hour. And every time I returned home after a walk, I felt more comfortable and at home in Quito than ever before.

I walk in Santiago, too. Sometimes I leave home with a route mapped out, while on other occasions I simply wander. Occasionally what starts out as a quick stroll down the block turns into an hours-long odyssey that leaves my feet in pain and my eyes glutted with new sights.

For example, last night V. and I set out to grab some quick dinner near his student pension. We started walking south and, somewhere along the line, implicitly decided not to stop. We walked the entire stretch of Parque O'Higgins, then turned east near Franklin and made a couple loops around the tucked-away Plaza Huemul with its old stone theater. We continued south into San Miguel, where we met an adorable four-year-old at a playground and played a game of tag that left me with a scab on my toe (flip flops had not been the best footwear choice). Once I was all bandaged up, we kept walking, this time at my insistence: If we made it to Metro Lo Vial, we would have officially crossed onto the "Santiago Sur" plane of the Metro map, which I had decided was a milestone.

We made it all the way to Departamental. By the time we got there (around 11 p.m.), we were so hungry that we staggered into a Domino's and ordered a medium pizza each. After chowing down, we hopped on a bus that dropped us off about a 20-minute walk from the pension. I don't know whether the stray dog that accompanied us the entire way was more interested in our company or our leftovers.

I probably would have burned more calories sweating away on the elliptical for a much shorter period of time, especially when you take the pizza into account. But I'd take city streets over the gym any day. When you walk, you have direct contact with your surroundings, impossible when you’re observing them through a bus window or speeding underneath them on the Metro. You move slowly enough to take everything in. You can peer through windows and stop to talk. You can set your own route instead of following the programs on a machine. And, most importantly, you learn something new.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunday experiment

I decided to do a little experiment today. A number of gringa-in-Chile bloggers have posted recently about how much they spend on groceries (see the list here), so I figured I would make a contribution by doing a little market research. Plus, I was all out of food.

The mission: compare fruit and vegetable prices at the neighborhood street market, where vendors set up stalls every Sunday, and the HiperLíder.

I hit the market first and purchased the following:

2 giant cucumbers: $200 (all prices are in Chilean pesos)
1 cantaloupe: $400
1 kilo of nectarines: $250
3/4 kilo of lemons: $150
1 kilo of plums: $250
3/5 kilo of pears: $150
1 green pepper: $100
1/2 kilo of blackberries: $600
TOTAL: $2,100, or US$3.41 according to the current exchange rate

My shopping bag bulging, I then trekked to the HiperLíder and prowled the produce section with notebook in hand. Had I bought the same products there, this is what I would have paid:

2 cucumbers (smaller than the ones at the market): $538
1 cantaloupe: $599
1 kilo of nectarines: $449
1 kilo of plums: $389
3/5 kilo of pears: $419
3/4 kilo of lemons: $368
1 green pepper (bigger than the one from the market): $189
TOTAL (minus the blackberries, which I couldn't find at HiperLíder): $2,951, or US$4.79

If we take the blackberries out of the mix, we get a total of $1,500 (US$2.44) at the market compared to $2,951 (US$4.79) --almost double the price -- at HiperLíder. Which just goes to show that the savings really do add up when you trade in your shopping cart for a flour sack and take to the streets.

Obviously, one of the things you pay for when you go to a supermarket is convenience. And I picked up a few things at HiperLíder today that I never would have found at the street market, like new tupperware and the all-important peanut butter. But I feel better knowing that when it comes to items for which I have a choice -- like fruits and veggies -- I'm giving my money to the little guys (and gals), who probably need it now more than ever.

Also, I might not be able to afford the peanut butter otherwise.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

25 Random Facts About Me

I was tagged for this by two people with almost the same name: my college friend Claire and blogger Clare, who tagged all the other Chile bloggers. The idea is to share 25 random things about yourself that you think other people would be interested to know.

I'm tagging...anyone who reads this, especially Vicki and Natalie.

1. I used to eat my vegetables only if they were doused in mustard.
2. The use of past tense in the previous sentence is misleading.
3. In high school, my girlfriends and I predicted tragic love stories for one another. Mine was that I would have a passionate but impossible affair with a professor. I guess there’s always grad school.
4. I’m afraid of dark things underwater, primarily anchors and drains.
5. I don’t like wine.
6. I adore thunderstorms and hate that Santiago hardly ever has them.
7. My completely unbiased opinion is that there is no better place in the world to grow up than Minneapolis.
8. My dream is to take a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. I have the “teach yourself” Russian books to prove it!
9. My mom made me sit in a car seat until I was seven.
10. Sometimes I get on random public buses just to see where they go.
11. I start crying pretty much whenever I see someone else cry, even if it’s a complete stranger.
12. I love train tracks, grain elevators, abandoned factories and buildings on the verge of collapse.
13. I’m not a fan of suburbia.
14. I am a fan of White Cheddar Cheez-Its.
15. I will always be a Pink Sleeveless Magic Thunderweasel at heart.
16. I am a hopeless nostalgic.
17. I love having an extremely unusual last name. I don’t think I’ll change it if I get married.
18. Sometimes I think of my life as a movie.
19. My least favorite time of day is when I have to dry my hair.
20. I have incredibly vivid, strange dreams. The other night, I dreamed 500-peso coins had the power to transport a chosen few to a parallel dimension where all truth would be revealed.
21. I’m a synesthete. Meaning the letter S is orangey-yellow and Wednesday is friendly.
22. I look forward all year round to spending the holidays with my extended family.
23. When I was a kid, I would lock myself away for hours and write stories.
24. One of the reasons I recently quit my job is so that I can start doing that again.
25. I am in awe of the people I’m lucky enough to have as family and friends and want those of them who are far away to come visit me NOW.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Overheard in Santiago

There's a hilarious Web site called Overheard in New York where people post the funny, disturbing and just plain ridiculous things they overhear people saying on the streets of NYC. I haven't come across a similar page dedicated to Santiago, but that doesn't mean eavesdropping here isn't every bit as fascinating.

I confirmed this Friday when I biked to the Banco de Chile in Quinta Normal. For the record, I hate going to the bank in Santiago. There are usually a few teller windows reserved for special clients, only a handful of whom are ever waiting at a time, and a single station for those of us unlucky enough to be "general public." This means we plebeians have to shuffle slowly through a line that zig zags through the bank and frequently snakes out the front door, which is a particularly agonizing ordeal for those – like me on Friday – so unwise as to show up at lunchtime.

With a roll of my eyes, I took my place at the end of the line and silently berated myself for not having brought a book. This was going to take a while.

And a while it took. I stood in line for an hour. It didn't take me long to realize, however, that not having brought a distraction along allowed me to focus on the details of a reality every bit as entertaining as fiction. Had I been reading, for example, I probably would not have noticed that the man waiting in front of me had taken the infamous Chilean mullet to a new, unrivaled level: A close-cropped cut devolved at the nape of his neck into stringy long hair, which had been woven Cancún vacation style into about a dozen tiny braids and tied off with a hair binder that the bottom. I was in awe. And I was just plain perplexed by another guy in the line, who appeared to be using a rubber band to intentionally cut off the circulation to all his fingers and see how long he could stand it.

The most intriguing part of the wait, however, was the soundtrack. As three little boys dragged along by their mother perfected their underarm fart technique, someone blasted “Gangsta’s Paradise” – that most fitting of bank anthems – from a cell phone. What caught my attention most, though, was a conversation between two middle-aged men behind me, one of whom apparently had been in some kind of army reserve program when he was younger.

“After ’73, I didn’t report for duty,” he told his friend. “They came after me and beat the crap out of me. I didn’t walk for a month. Because I didn’t show up, they assumed I was a communist.”

“’73,” for those who don’t know, refers to September 11, 1973, the day a coup by General Augusto Pinochet and the rest of the armed forces ousted socialist Salvador Allende from power.

The two men proceeded to discuss where they were when a massive earthquake struck central Chile in 1985. Meanwhile, I reflected on the fact that Chile is full of unexpected history lessons for those who open their ears. And realized I was glad I hadn’t brought my iPod.

Anyone who’s lived in South America knows that doing so involves a significant amount of waiting. Waiting at the post office, waiting at the immigration office, waiting for the bus, waiting weeks for the telephone company to install broadband. We in the States are used to a lightning-speed efficiency that matches the tumbling pace of our lives. Things are not done well unless they’re done fast. Here, however, certain things tend to take a bit longer. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, because – as I learned at the bank – it’s frequently when waiting that we find ourselves forced to focus on the fascinating reality of our present surroundings. And what’s the point of living abroad if we don’t unplug, look up and take notice?

Sometimes I wonder how much I’m missing when I walk through the city with headphones in. I suspect it’s a lot – another reason why I love being one of six million in this sprawling, cacophonous city.