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!

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