Sunday, July 24, 2011

Meet Chile

Now that I've been here for a few weeks I thought I'd do a basic welcome-to-Chile post to share what I've learned thus far for those of you who, like me a few weeks ago, know more about the food (chili) and the temperature (chilly), than about this curious country and its people.

Because of its unique (read: phallic) shape, Chile is an incredibly diverse country. Pretty much all that the entire country shares is (relatively) easy access to the ocean, as the country spans South America's west coast. At its widest part, you could still only get about a 5-hr drive away from the ocean before you'd hit the Andes and the Chilean border.

The Northern part of the country is all desert, the Atacama, said to be the driest desert in the world. My second English camp was in a city called Calama, in the heart of this region, where flat, dry stretches of dusty nothingness extend for miles, broken only by purple mountains in all directions on the horizon. Although desolate in comparison to the South, which is typically lauded for its lush beauty, this region has a haunting beauty of its own. My bus ride from Calama to Antofagasta the other night featured one of the most stunning sunsets I've witnessed, with the bright orange rays of the sun behind distant mountains cutting through the endless flat dark of the dessert, only to give way to a vast sky of stars free of urban light pollution. The climate in this region reminds me of my time in North Africa, where the weather was similarly dry and rain infrequent in spite of the relative proximity to the sea. Here in the North, the sun is harsher and towns tend to be grittier and less welcoming. The main industry is mining, and cities are built up around the availability of resources and jobs, meaning that there's a lack of a sense of shared culture, heritage or community.

Central Chile, where Santiago is located, is known for its temperate climate, its almost tropical vegetation, and the taller, skiiable mountains that surround it. Central Chile also hosts much of Chile's wine country (especially its reds--there are some white-producing regions further south as well).

Southern Chile, famous for Patagonia, is a world away from the North in climate and culture (note: as I've not yet visited this region, this summary is based on heresay from Chileans and from other volunteers and not on personal observation). Although the weather is cool (around freezing, although not often below) and ceaselessly rainy/damp for most of the year, the people are are "warmer" than in the north and have a stronger sense of community and culture. The landscape, with wet forests, glaciers, islands and breathtaking sounds, is similar to that of New Zealand.

Chilean culture as I've experienced it thus far is pretty rich. They have good music, good literature, a healthy passion for futbol (and a pretty good record in the recent playoffs! Chi-chi-chi, le-le-le, viva Chile!), and even, as you know if you read my previous post, a national dance.

However, Chilean "cuisine" as I've experienced it thus far is, to use a Chilean slang word, pretty fomé (boring). The basic diet in this country is a hearty portion of (usually red) meat complimented by an equally hearty portion of either rice or potatoes and a big helping of white bread. They don't really believe in flavoring or spicing food with anything except salt or obscene amounts of sugar, and although the tap water is safe to drink in most of the country, they don't indulge, preferring either a tang-like "juice" from a powder or sodas (coke, fanta, or the Chilean Pap or Bilz, which are shockingly neon yellow and red and taste like liquid bubblegum and artifical cherry, respectively. Perhaps to counter all of this sugar, many Chileans carry a toothbrush on their person and will brush their teeth after lunch or snacks.) Fruits and veggies are treated more like garnishes than real foods (as in there might be some carrot slivers in the rice, or an orange slice on a dessert, but nothing like an actual portion), especially in the North where the climate doesn't really support farming. (True story: I spent 45 minutes wandering around Calama looking for ANYWHERE to buy fruit without success...I even found a huge grocery store with no produce section, and when I asked the cashier where I might buy some verduras or frutas she replied with "hmmm...that's tricky..."). When available, salads consist of iceberg lettuce with a few tomato slices and a lemon slice to squeeze in place of dressing.

Luckily, I managed to land in a health-conscious, modern family, and in the last day I've eaten more brown bread, fruits and veggies than I think I've even seen since my arrival. Which should give me a ton of energy for blogs this week! Tune in tomorrow for more thrilling observations...

feeling camp

Sorry for being MIA for the last two weeks or so. I've been on English Winter Camp schedule, which essentially means up at 7:30, home around 6:30 followed by a meeting to plan for the next day of camp, shitty hostel dinner (after an earlier shitty student lunch), brave the hostel showers, put in earbuds to drown out hostel noise, bed. Sometimes a little bit of Chilean wine snuck into the evening schedule, which did wonders for my floundering Spanish and our camp talent show dance act, but set me back a few hours of sleep for the next long day and took a toll on my immune system.

Anyway, after surviving three weeks of life out of a suitcase, shitty food, shared accommodations and a cold-turned-sinus infection, I'm finally settled in to my host family in my host city of Antofagasta, and ready to take on anything my "real" teaching job can dish out.

All in all, camp was a great (if exhausting) introduction to teaching. As I've worked in academic camps before, it was familiar ground, and a great place for me to practice my teacher voice and "you'd better stop misbehaving and listen to me this instant, bucko" glare:
Also, since the students participating were the most motivated in the country (acceptance to the ministry of education-funded camps is pretty competitive), they were a lot easier to work with then the apathetic, don't-care-about-college-cuz-I'm-gonna-be-a-miner-anyway, frequently-pregnant (Chile is a very Catholic country, and although birth control and condoms are technically over-the-counter, they are apparently in limited supply, as is access to proper sexual education) students that current volunteers keep warning me I'll encounter in the classroom. In other words, they were the perfect guinea pigs for teaching techniques, and they respected my authori-tah. If only a simple blue t-shirt granted me so much power in the real world.
Here I am being all leadershippy:
And, at a more fun moment, practicing a class skit:
I learned a lot, too. After a first week spent with a really negative, disinterested teaching partner, I learned that students feed off of the energy you provide them. If you don't bring enthusiasm to the classroom, they won't either, and if you seem at all cynical about an activity, they'll immediately become stubborn and non-participatory. I learned how to pretend like you have energy even when you don't, and how to muster an audible voice in spite of illness. I learned that high school students respect you more if you treat them like adults, (even if that means explaining what an 'orgy' is). I learned that there is a line to be drawn, however, between the part of my life that I share with them and the part I keep for myself, which is why I now have a second Facebook profile, Rebecca Chile, that has been friended by many teenage Chileans but that has no ties to my "real" self.

I also learned to boogie. For the talent show at the end of the first camp, the girl counselors dressed as gangstas and did the Soulja Boy dance; for the second we did an approximation of the joyful You Make My Dreams from 500 Days of Summer. Much more interesting than my own lame attempts at hip hop moves, however, are the traditional folk dancing steps of one of my students, who performed the Cueca, the Chilean National Dance. It's a two-person dance of romantic conquest and extensive handkerchief waving, in which the man wears a poncho and jingly spurs and plays the starring role, tapping and stomping around the coy woman until she at last succumbs. Lacking a female partner, my student opted to seduce an even more worthy woman, Chile herself. I leave you with the footage:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Viña del Mar

A few snap shots to share from Viña del Mar, which is two harbors over from Valparaíso and for us was just a lunch time side-trip.
The restaurant we ate in: a giant boat, complete with pelicans perched on top
The sea at Viña was odd and haunting in that there was no horizon line between the blue-gray water and the hazy blue-gray sky:
I loved the pelicans:

Battleships off the coast of an old fort:
An authentic Easter Island Moai statue--probably the closest I'll get to Easter Island (since I looked up tickets and a roundtrip costs almost as much as a roundtrip back to DC!)
He's even more impressive in profile:

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hiking over the rainbow

To continue the series of "Rebecca climbing up tall things in Chile to see the lay of the land," I bring you my Saturday day trip to the bohemian seaside town of Valparaíso.

The ride to the city was about 2 hrs, roughly $12 US roundtrip, and made in the plush comfort of one of Chile's billion buses (more on that in tomorrow's post). Valparaíso used to be a big-deal port town before the Panama Canal was built, and it was the home of Chile's first fire department, newspaper and stock exchange. However, it's the city's terrain and architecture that gives it its unique character. Valparaíso is composed of hills on top of hills, all sporting Easter-egg colored shacks carved into the cliffs and practically balancing on top of one another.

Since its glory days in bygone centuries it has retained all of its seaside charm, haphazard hill housing and bohemian spirit, and it's one of only a handful of spots in Chile to have been named a World Heritage site. These days, however, the town is a little impoverished. Almost every urban surface is covered in grafitti that oddly matches the rainbow hues of the houses, malnourished strays roam the streets, and after dark, picture-perfect panoramas give way to a grittier reality that sent us back to the bus.

Getting around Valparaiso is a challenge in and of itself--it's notorious for confusing tourists, and I'm sure even locals must find themselves struggling to navigate the winding roads and stairs between hills. Antique, dilapidated trolleys rattle through the flat, touristy part of town by the port, while small local buses careen madly through the steep hills, barely missing people and dogs, without any discernible stops, routes or schedules. For those not bold enough to try the bus but too lazy to hoof it up hills, there are also a series of ascensores, or funiculars, that are painted like cheap county fair rides but that are a bargain at about a buck per ride.

Everything was colorful and pastel in Valaparaíso. The cars:
The shipping containers at the port:
The pedestrians:
And even the kitties:

To finish off, I'd like to offer a translation of the first verse of a poem by Pablo Neruda(a national hero her--more on him later) who had a house in Valparaíso, and who manages to perfectly capture, in verse, the chaotic beauty of this odd place.

Ode to Valparaiso (first verse)
By: Pablo Neruda
Translated by: Laney Sullivan

What nonsense
You are
What a crazy
Insane Port.
Your mounded head
You never finish combing your hair
Life has always surprised you
Death woke you
In your undershirt and long underwear
Fringed with color
With a name tattooed on the stomach
And with a cap
The earthquake grabbed you
You ran
Broke your fingernails
It moved
The waters and the stones
And seas
The night,
You would sleep
In the ground
From your sailing
And the furious earth
Lifted its waves
More stormy
Than a tempest
The dust
Covered you
The eyes
The flames
Burned your shoes
The solid
Houses of bankers
Like wounded whales
While above
The houses of the poor
Into nothingness
Like captive birds
Testing their wings

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cerro Christóbal

The sun and its blessed warmth have finally returned to Santiago. I learned later that the day I arrived was apparently the coldest day they've had in years, and it even left the brave Chileanos shivering. But lo! temperate winter temperatures (highs in the 60s during the day) have returned, and to celebrate, we decided to make the hour hike up the steep hill that suddenly interrupts Santiago urban space in the center of the city: Christóbal hill.
The rise in temperature meant an increase in smog. This was probably terrible for our poor lungs, who were trying to power our hiking bodies, but it made for some really interesting photo opportunities with hazy mountain silhouettes:
A view over the more commercial part of Santiago, all but engulfed in the haze:
The Virgin awaited us at the top of the hill, arms open to welcome the glow of the setting sun:
More pious pilgrims than we left candle offerings. The area below the candles was white from archived chips of melted wax.
The moon rose over the Virgin... the sun set over the valley:

Mmmmm. Photographer's heaven!

As a reward for the hike, we treated ourselves to a Chilean specialty: Mote con huesillo.
or an oatmeal-like grain covered in dried peaches in syrup. Qué delicioso!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Santiago skyscape

On one of my first evenings in Santiago I walked up Cerro Santa Lucia, or the small fortified hill on the East side of the city center.
Victorious after my climb:
The panoramic view over the city was breathtaking (a fact exploited by numerous couples, including the one in the foreground of this photo, who use the spot as a make-out point).
Looking Northeast:

Looking Southeast:
And finally, the view West, with the setting sun reflecting beautifully through the smog:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

First glimpses of Santiago

Chapter 1 of my newest adventure begins here.

The mission: teaching English as a foreign language to Chilean students as a part of the government-funded "English Opens Doors" program.

The motives for the mission:
  • Quarterlife crisis boredom
  • Part of a larger quest to find my Purpose
  • Hablar Español
  • Traveling!
After a whirlwind few days back "home" in the DC area, I arrived at Santiago early Sunday morning. The shuttle to my hostel departed just in time to allow us to watch the orange glow of sunrise creep over the dark silhouetted mountains and into the misty, frost-tipped valley that shelters of Chile's capital city.

And frosty it remains. It is COLD here. Granted, I knew I was going into winter, but I also knew I was to be placed in Antofagasta in the North of Chile, where proximity to both the ocean and the desert keep the winters more temperate. What I didn't realize is that I was going to be spending two weeks in Santiago before heading north, and worse--that Chileans in general don't believe in central heating. Seriously. Nowhere I've been so far seems to really have it, and according to our orientation leaders, we shouldn't expect heating in our host families. While the highs during the day here in Santiago have been getting to about 15C (just shy of 60F) during the day, which means that it's almost pleasant if you're in the sun, the lows at night sink below freezing, and the insides of buildings are at least as cold as outdoors if not more so, since they're usually insulated from the sun. I've been layering tights under jeans and stacking shirts like a human Russian Doll, and sleeping in tights, pants, two pairs of socks, a shirt, a sweater and two wool blankets.

On the first day, coming straight from a humid, air-conditionless Parisian summer, I felt like my body went into shock, and I honestly worried that I wouldn't be able to put up with it. Since then I've learned the importance of calories--which, luckily, the Chilean meat and carb diet provides for--to power me through the day like a little human furnace.

Overall, I'm really loving the city, which manages to feel urban without being the least bit frantic, and gritty without being dirty. The hostel I'm in is the ubiquitous HI (Hosteling International), which, like most of their outlets, has threadbare sheets and lacking facilities but is cheap and packed with a chill, multi-national crowd. The other participants in my program are a well-traveled and interesting bunch. Orientation in Santiago has been a series of rather long, draining days, but I'm starting to feel pretty confident about my teaching abilities and prepared to move North and dive right in.

I managed to hear the Chilean President speak only a few hours after arriving, when I chanced upon a public ceremony at La Moneda, the equivalent of the White House:
There were lots of uniformed men on horses:

The general opinion of President Piñera seems to be that he's a moron, but his speech was the slowest and most well-enunciated piece of Spanish that I've heard so far, so I, at least, was a fan. After the speech he presided over the raising of a GIANT flag:
I found out later that the point of the speech was supposed to be to appease Chile's students, who have been striking and "taking over" schools all across the country to protest what they see as an abysmal education system. This explained the excessive barriers and the hundreds of armed guards, not to mention the screaming crowd of students that were heckling them from beyond the earshot of el presidente. Apparently they didn't think that the symbolic gesture of a flag was an adequate response to their recent loud and well-choreographed discontent (see the Thriller demonstration that took place in this very same square a few weeks ago). Anyway, lest I get homesick for France's frequent strikes, it seems that Chile's got my back. Here's a picture of some students out front of a banner-covered university ("Quality, free, public education!")
Moving on. I absolutely adore looking up and seeing mountains beyond the city skyline--and so close! It's no wonder Santiago residents love winter sports.
El marcado centrale--a covered fish market where I tried my first Chilean salmon and the country's signature drink--a pisco sour:
There's a lot of cool street art around. I like that this artist put a natural crack in the concrete to good, artistic use:
Here's a gaggle of chess players on a sunny afternoon in Plaza de Armas:
And a view of the Plaza itself (don't be fooled by the palm trees--it's still freezing here):
Last but not least, a view over a Chilean campus from the window of the room we've been using for orientation. This picture demonstrates the reason that Santiago's sunrises and sunsets are so stunning--there's an incredible amount of air pollution, and the outlines of buildings become hazy after a block or two of distance. While the mountains are pretty, they also tend to trap smog in the Santiago valley. Our orientation leader said that breathing Santiago air for a day is the equivalent of smoking five cigarettes, so while I do enjoy the city, I'm glad for my lungs' sake that I wasn't placed here!