Sunday, January 24, 2010

My life as Panchita

So a gringa and a Bulgarian called to order a pizza in Chile. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right? In this case, it's the beginning of the story of my alter ego.

Her name is Panchita Perez, and she was, indeed, born from a delivery order. My Bulgarian friend V. and I had decided we were hungry and that only the good people at Telepizza could ease our suffering. After no small amount of negotiation -- to call my pizza topping preferences picky would be quite an understatement -- we dialed them up.

The placing of the order was simple enough. The difficulties began when the Telepizza employee asked V. for his name. It was only after repeating, repeating again, spelling and respelling that he was finally able to hang up.

"Next time you should just say your name is Juan Diaz," I said.

It certainly would make ordering pizza easier. Like me, V. has a first name that's unusual even in his home country and a Slavic last name that strikes fear into the hearts of the uninitiated. This means that both of us have spent sizable chunks of our lives spelling out our names in the air and explaining our family histories to strangers. Chileans have called me everything from Lily to Lisa to Light to Leich (pronounced like a phlegm cough) to Bruce to But You Don't Look Asian to Is That Your Stage Name, and sometimes I just don't care enough to go through the arduous process of correcting them. My Ecuadorian former roommate, for example, thought my name was Liz for about three months.

It's not like nobody's ever gotten my name wrong in the States (Leia, as in Princess Leia, stands out). Here in Chile, though, it's a lot more difficult to convince people that a female member of the species can in fact have a monosyllabic name that is not also a word (i.e., Luz, Paz and Sol). At some point, I decided that in order to store up the energy necessary to correct people's pronunciation of my name when it matters (for example, at work or on first dates with a future), I had to stop correcting them when it doesn't (for example, when ordering a pizza). In order for this to be feasible, however, I would have to change my name entirely.

Thus was born Panchita Perez. People have told me this is hardly believable, but I figure that it's my fake name and I can do whatever I want.

Shortly after the delivery order that began it all, V. took his new identity on a test run at the Domino's in San Miguel (we eat a lot of pizza). "Juan Diaz," he replied when the cashier asked for his name.

When a Domino's employee called out for Juan when our pizza was ready, a little boy near us perked up and tugged on his dad's sleeve. "No, son, his name's Juan, too," the father replied, motioning to V. It took all the self control we could muster not to burst out laughing.

Panchita's test run didn't go as smoothly. "What?" the cashier at the food court asked when I told him my name.

"Pancha," I repeated.

He wrote it down, but there was no way in hell he believed it.

OK, so maybe Pancha wasn't the best choice. After all, having a fake name that everyone asks you to repeat isn't the best way to avoid having to repeat your name. The good news is that Pancha is a nickname for Francisca, which has proved a much more viable alias. Now all I have to do is remember where I'm Leigh (the coffee shop near work) and where I'm Francisca (the pizza place near work).

This will prevent me from making the same mistake as V. "Juan Diaz," he replied when an employee at a pasta bar near his house asked for his name.

The employee glanced up with a raised eyebrow. "You changed your name."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lying solo

One of the many ways in which living abroad has changed me has been by forcing me to become more comfortable with my own company. Since before coming to Chile, I have enjoyed spending a certain amount of time each day alone with my thoughts; if I can't, I become anxious and, I would venture to say, a bit unpleasant to be around. However, living in Santiago and Quito has taken my alone time to a whole new level.

First of all, I have a more limited support system abroad than I do in the States. This isn't to say that there aren't people here and in Ecuador whom I laugh with, confide in, trust and love. It's just that there are fewer of them. This means that frequently, I deal alone with problems that, were I in the States, I would discuss with family or friends. I've had to learn to trust my own instincts, form my own criteria and analyze my own decision-making process. The fact that I've been able to successfully take on challenges --negotiating my rent, assembling a bed, standing up for myself when I feel I've been scammed -- by myself means that I've grown more confident in my own capabilities. Additionally, reflecting on things like cultural differences, my home and host countries' places on the world stage, and my place in Chile has made me spend a lot more time inside my own head -- and realize that I'm pretty comfortable in there. That's fortunate, because judging from the blank stares I get whenever I try to crack jokes around here, very few others would be.

The result of all this is not constant loneliness -- although there certainly is some loneliness involved -- but rather the realization that I rather enjoy my own company. Last year, this led me to try something that, despite having moved halfway across the world by myself twice, I'd never done before: going on vacation alone. I guess I'd just always assumed that travel was something people did with other people.

This changed last year. I made my first solo excursion last February, when I spend four days traveling by myself in southern Chile's Chiloe archipelago. I made my second this past weekend, when I ditched Santiago for Laguna Verde, a small beach town just south of Valparaiso.

"Why?" the server at Laguna Verde's vegetarian restaurant demanded to know when I told her I was traveling alone. Her surprise probably stemmed from the fact that this is not something many women do in Chile.

"Because I needed to relax," I replied.

This was absolutely true. Work, school and other projects had conspired to not allow me a moment's peace for the past eight months, and the stress had taken its toll. I needed a few days to sleep, read and just plain lie around on my own.

Laguna Verde turned out to be the perfect place to do this. The town is tiny, and the only paved road is the one that goes into and out of it. Don't let the presence of a vegetarian restaurant fool you: Aside from a handful of places that rent rooms and cabins, tourism infrastructure is minimal. The beach, which borders a large cove, is long enough to afford visitors with personal space.

Since Sunday was election day in Chile, the beach was virtually empty -- as virtually empty as a beach on Chile's central coast can be on a weekend in the summertime, in any case -- meaning that my weekend looked like this:


Of course, even while stretched out in the sand, I made sure to always be aware of my surroundings. Contrary to popular belief, I try to be careful about safety and realize that a young woman traveling alone in a foreign country unfortunately faces certain risks. I probably would have thought twice about traveling alone had I been less confident in my Spanish and in my experience living and traveling in Chile. Before I left for Laguna Verde, I e-mailed both my mom and a friend in Santiago letting them know where I was going, when I was going there, where I was staying, and when they should expect another e-mail letting them know I had returned safely to Santiago. During the trip, I tried not to broadcast the fact that I was alone, and I had an "I'm traveling with my boyfriend but he's sick and is resting back in the room" story ready, although I never had to use it. And I made sure to return to the lovely Hosteria El Tilo before dark.

Safety concerns aside (not that they ever really can be), I really enjoy traveling alone. There's no schedule to follow but my own. There's also no pressure to be the "perfect" tourist -- i.e., going on a hike in the hills when all I really want to do is lie around. And, perhaps most importantly, I have plenty of quality time to spend with myself.

Anyone else care to share solo travel experiences?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Saturday, January 2, 2010

In which I give up on my dream of becoming a ninja

I once read about a study in which an orangutan was placed in a room with a couple of crates on the floor and a bushel of bananas hanging from the ceiling. The aim of the study was to observe how the animal used the materials at hand to try to get to the food. In the end, the orangutan was smart -- or hungry -- enough to stack the crates on top of one another and climb the resulting tower until s/he could reach the bananas.

I was reminded of this study this evening when I found myself in a similar predicament. Unfortunately, there was no food involved, but my problem-solving skills were definitely being put to the test.

I should preface this story by establishing that I love living in an older house. You just don't find the same combination of hardwood floors, high ceilings and huge internal patios in Santiago's newer buildings. The downside, however, is that the years appear to have warped a few of the wooden doors and their frames. This is especially noticeable when the weather changes and the wood swells or contracts accordingly. Whenever it rains, I know I'm in for a shoving match with the front door.

Apparently the heat had gotten to the bathroom door today, because when I turned the knob to exit into the hallway, the door didn't budge. So I turned the knob harder. Nothing. Tried to wedge the door open from the side. Still nothing. Pounded on the door with both fists and shouted expletives at it. Nope.

I was trapped in my bathroom.

I leaned back against the door with a sigh and surveyed the situation. Nobody else was home to come to my rescue. There was a window that opened out into the aforementioned internal patio, but it was too high for me to hoist myself up to from the ground. I had at my disposal a trash can too unstable to stand on and a toilet far enough away from the window to require a jump.

I couldn't help thinking that if this had been a movie, the room would be filling with water or hourglass sand. And that the orangutan would have figured this out by now.

Figuring that a change of perspective couldn't hurt, I climbed up onto the toilet and stood staring at the window. I could reach the windowsill if I extended my arms and leaned forward, but the rest of me would have to be briefly airborne if I wanted it to get there, too. Seeing no other option, I channeled my inner Spiderman and jumped.

The sharp pain that bit into my stomach when I hit the windowsill reminded me that I was no superhero. I knew I was strong enough to pull myself up onto the ledge, but every time I started to wriggle upward, I felt like I was scraping my internal organs against pavement.

After I slumped wincing back down to the ground, I checked out my stomach in the mirror. I looked -- and, hours later, still look -- like I'd lost a fight. Apparently, I could rule out a career as a circus performer, SWAT team leader or ninja.

Vocational crisis aside, I still had an escape to plot. I could have really used some crates.

When I looked around, though, all I had were towels. And then I had an orangutan moment.

I folded up one of the towels and draped it over the window ledge, then stuffed the other one into the front of my shirt. The result was a painless second leap for the window. Anyone who had seen me climbing up onto the ledge and out onto the patio would have surely wondered what kind of ninja act that frazzled pregnant gringa thought she was pulling.

So it was that I shuffled back to the house sore and dirty but free. A few minutes later, my roommate walked in the front door.