Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Mysteries of Santiago

I recently found a copy of Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh at The Strand in New York City. In the book, a motley group of eccentric new friends help the protagonist, the Washingtonian Art, discover the hidden charms of his adoptive city. Even though Art has spent four years studying in Pittsburgh, he begins his final summer in the city oblivious to such marvels as the mysterious Lost Neighborhood and the Cloud Factory, whose smokestack hiccups perfect white puffs into the sky. Art begins to see this city with different eyes: At one point, as he looks out over the city from his front steps, "[f]our years of familiarity and unconcern with Pittsburgh turned suddenly to arousal and love, and I hugged myself."

Like Art's, my days in my adoptive city are numbered. I generally don't like to post about things on my blog until they're set in stone, but suffice it to say that within a few months, it's very likely that I will be posting from another hemisphere. As evidenced by my temporary disappearance from the blogging world, I've recently spent some time outside of Chile, part of which was spent negotiating the terms of my departure from this long, skinny land.

I have, as one might expect, mixed emotions about this. I'm very excited about beginning This Next Stage in My Life but very sad to be leaving the country I've called home for the past two and a half years (three and a half, if you count my junior year abroad). Being the nostalgic, sentimental person that I am, I'm prepared for this to involve no small amount of blubbering and an even less small amount of wistfully staring off into space. While I know that a certain degree of melancholy is inevitable, though, I don't want to spend my remaining time Chile steeped in the type of funk that overcame me during the final days of my study abroad experience, when I was so anguished that my hair literally started falling out.

I would rather have a last hurrah similar to Art's and spend the next few months discovering all the Mysteries of Santiago that the hulking girth of work, study, and routine have elbowed outside of my realm of vision.

I'm already privy to a few of these mysteries. I know, for example, that one can purchase delicious mote con huesillo at the south entrance to Parque Quinta Normal. I know that southwestern Santiago Centro is dotted with abandoned factories which, although they don't produce clouds, exercise a silent and oxidized draw of their own. I've eaten lunch at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that requires a password and purchased used paperbacks at hole-in-the-wall shops populated by dusty towers of books and booksellers who know their contents like they know the lines on their palms. I know where to send an international fax on a Sunday afternoon and know that there's nothing like a steaming sopaipilla from a street cart at the end of a rough day...even if I invariably get the hiccups after gobbling it down. I know that if the city falls silent at just the right time, you can hear the deliciously spooky whistle of a late-night train leaving Estacion Central.

I'm confident that everyone who has lived in this city has his or her own collection of mysteries. So, as someone who wants to make the most of her remaining time here, I'm inviting you to share them, either in the comments or in a post of your own. What special, surprising or enigmatic discoveries have you made in Santiago? Between us, I'm sure we have more than enough to write a book.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Busiest post-earthquake day yet

In which Leigh does the following while wearing a sequined fanny pack

I haven't written many day-in-review posts on this blog, probably because readers would be bored stiff by how routine the majority of my days are. ("She got up, took the Metro to work and spent the day daydreaming about peanut butter again? I'd rather be checking my Facebook.") However, 8.8 earthquakes tend to leave routines in shambles, so this one might actually be interesting.

Wednesday was, up until that point, the busiest day I'd had since the earthquake. Shortly after I woke up, the owners of my house came over to tell me that there was structural damage to one of the walls in my bedroom (the one right next to my bed, as it turns out) and that I would have to move myself and all my things into another room as quickly as possible. When you look at the wall, it's not that surprising:

Since strong aftershocks are still common and probably will be for quite a while longer, I knew it was in my best interest to get as far away from that wall as possible. One of the owners of the house helped me set up temporary camp in another room. I was very lucky to only have to move down the hallway. A friend of mine had moved into a new pension the day before the earthquake, only to be told a few days later that structural damage had rendered his room uninhabitable. We spent yesterday hauling all his things into another house. Infinitely worse off, of course, are the thousands of people who lost their homes and have nowhere to go.

Once the move was complete, I headed back to the FECh to volunteer. This time, we were sent to collect supplies outside a supermarket in Maipu, an area none of the four people in my group was particularly familiar with. We arrived to find the supermarket closed. Refusing to resign ourselves to defeat, we hopped on a bus and backtracked to another supermarket we'd seen on the way; there was already another group there collecting donations. Another bus ride later, we'd arrived at a third supermarket, this one located in a strip mall. The supervisor at the supermarket told us we would have to get authorization from the mall administrator, whose office, due to the fact that most of the building's entrances were closed because of the earthquake, was a serpentine 10-minute walk away.

So we walked. When we arrived at the administrator's third-floor office, we were told to wait. So we waited. We waited for a long time. While we were waiting, a strong aftershock made the entire building rattle; just as we were all about to head for the stairs, it stopped. And we waited some more.

Finally, the administrator appeared. I hadn't even finished introducing the group when he interrupted me and said, "You're not going to get authorization." He proceeded to explain that the mall planned to launch a campaign a few days later to benefit the Cruz Roja and that until then, he wanted people to "forget." When I tried to explain that we didn't even want to go inside the mall -- just collect donations outside the supermarket -- he interrupted again and repeated that we were not going to get authorization.

I gave him my iciest glare as we walked out of the office. I was so angry that I was tempted to rip my volunteer credential off my shirt, scribble "Forget what?" on the back and tape it to the office door. It had my full name and identification number on it, though, so I chickened out.

"Forget what? That half of the country is in shambles?" one of my groupmates demanded once we were outside.

We were all disgusted, both by the disrespectful manner in which we'd been dismissed and by what we felt to have been the administrator's less-than-altruistic motivations. Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that his mall wants to work with the Cruz Roja. But on Wednesday, they weren't doing it yet. Meanwhile, FECh volunteers were loading donations into trucks and taking them directly to affected areas. Instead of allowing people to assist in that effort by donating a packet of pasta or a bar of soap on their way out of the supermarket, however, the administrator wanted them not to donate anything until they could do so in the name of the mall -- which, coincidentally, would bring them to the mall on a weekend.

Who knows. Maybe he reasoned that people would donate more if they had the entire day to shop and had been motivated by the nationwide telethon, which Chilean TV personality Don Francisco was scheduled to host on Friday and Saturday. Maybe the administrator really was trying to act in the best interest of those in need. Still, the word "forget" left a sour taste in my mouth, one that I still haven't been able to brush entirely away.

By then, it was obvious that the Great Supermarket Odyssey had come to an end. Two of my groupmates headed home, while another volunteer and I went back to the FECh headquarters to see what needed to be done.

A lot, as it turned out. I started out organizing boxes and then became part of an "assembly line" that passed along bottles of water and boxes of rice, pasta, flour and other necessities. Finally, I was given the task of boxing up toys and school supplies. Seeing the entire compound full of donations and teeming with volunteers was extremely heartening after such a frustrating day; people hadn't forgotten.

Want to volunteer for Chile earthquake relief work?

Twitter and Facebook are filled with posts from people looking for ways to volunteer in the aftermath of the 8.8 earthquake that struck Chile on Saturday. It was through social media that I learned about the relief efforts being coordinated by the University of Chile's student federation, the FECh. Yesterday afternoon, I decided to head over to their headquarters at Periodista Jose Carrasco Tapia 9 (off Vicuna Mackenna near Metro Baquedano). The area was swarming with young people dropping off donations, loading trucks and organizing themselves into work teams. After completing a brief registration, I joined one of the teams, and we set off for Rotonda Quilin in Penalolen.

Once there, we split up into smaller groups, some of which carried boxes into nearby neighborhoods and went door-to-door collecting non-perishable food, cleaning and hygiene supplies, clothing and blankets for the residents of towns hit particularly hard by the quake. Unfortunately, these groups ran into a bit of difficulty because apparently there have been cases of scam artists going door-to-door collecting money for "earthquake victims." Even so, the FECh groups managed to bring back quite a haul.

I was assigned to a group that set up at the entrance of a Lider supermarket. We informed the people walking in that we were collecting supplies for earthquake victims and collected their donations as they walked out. Some people's generosity was extremely touching. A guy in a cast hobbled up to us with a full shopping basket and proceeded to hand over everything he'd bought. One woman donated about half of the contents of her full cart, while another went home and returned with two giant bags of clothing. And a little girl toddled over and silently handed over her juice boxes.

I know Lider has not received very positive treatment on this blog in the past, but I have to say that the manager on duty was wonderful to us. Volunteers have been kicked out of other supermarkets, but this guy even made an announcement letting customers know what we were collecting. Points for the Rotonda Quilin Lider.

If you're looking for ways to help in Santiago and are relatively close to student age, the FECh is a great option. They don't require you to be a University of Chile student; yesterday, I met a lot of volunteers who were current or former students of other universities and institutes. The sign-up process is quick, and you get to work immediately. If you're not too keen on standing at the entrance of a Lider, there are other activities in which you can participate. Today, for example, I've been slated for some kind of mystery activity involving bikes and shovels. If you want more specific information, call up the FECh at (02) 977-1932 or visit them at the address given above. If you choose to do the latter, you can bring a donation to drop off.

If you're looking for more ways to help, check out Clare, Emily and Kyle's posts on how to get involved. Radio Cooperativa has a nifty little sidebar in which you can learn about relief efforts and the state of different services (airports, transportation, commerce, etc.).

Also, Colegio San Ignacio El Bosque (Pocuro 2801, Providencia) is collecting supplies for earthquake victims.

Monday, March 1, 2010

How to help Chile earthquake victims

It is becoming clearer and clearer to me just how lucky I am. Neither I nor anyone I know was hurt in the 8.8 earthquake that hit Chile early Saturday morning, at least not that I'm aware of at the moment. The house where I live suffered some damage, but it was minor compared to the destruction I've seen on TV and around the city. I had electricity, running water and internet within hours of the earthquake and have quick, reliable access to public transportation.

So many people in this country are experiencing a very different reality right now. There are people in Concepcion without food, water or shelter. When I arrived at work today, I learned that most of my coworkers still had no electricity at home and that one of them had lost her house. Her entire house. It just fell down.

So what I and all the other lucky people out there have to do now is help. I feel that the media here has been so focused on reporting the tragedy that they haven't devoted enough time to spreading the word about how we can support relief efforts. Here are some options:

1. Drop off clothing, blankets, diapers, cleaning supplies and non-perishable food at the Cruz Roja warehouse at Seminario 973 in Nunoa. It's very easy to get there by Metro (Irarrazaval, now in service) or bus (Grecia, Irarrazaval or Vicuna Mackenna). When I went to drop off food this morning, the volunteers working there said people had been throwing donations over the warehouse gate the night before. It's great to hear that so many people want to help.

2. Drop these items off at the headquarters of the University of Chile's student federation, the FECh, located at Periodista Jose Carrasco Tapia 9 (Metro Baquedano). Student groups are taking donations to affected areas like Parral.

3. Hop on your bike and bring these items to Plaza Italia (Metro Baquedano) tomorrow (Tuesday) at 8 p.m. Everyone will then pedal to Cruz Roja together.

4. Donate to Cruz Roja. From Chile: BancoEstado account 362883, RUT 70512100-1, From abroad: CitiBank account 9941973331, ABA 021000089.

5. Read about other ways to help here (Google's earthquake relief page), here (Publimetro) and here (Emol). Clare and Emily have also posted about how to lend a hand.

6. Spread the word! I've learned more about relief efforts through Twitter and Facebook than through news broadcasts. Those of us lucky enough to have internet should use it to help those in need.

Thank you!