Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Welcome to Antofagasta: a horizontal strip of a city sandwiched between mountains bordering on the desert to the East and the ocean to the West, and my home until I leave Chile at the end of November. The capital of the region that shares its name, Antofagasta is big enough to have a sense of culture and decent nightlife, but small enough that it's fairly easy to get around and meet people. Although it's essentially owned and run by the mining company Minera Escondida, it manages to escape the dreariness of the true mining towns further inland. As a general rule, the closer you get to the water, the nicer (i.e. more expensive) the houses/apartments become; the closer you get to the hills, the poorer it becomes. Once you cross over the train tracks, it gets a bit rough, or so they say--I haven't tried, of course, although we drove through the outskirts on the way in and based on memory it's a world away from where I live now. Which is here, on this street:

My host family is a young couple in their late 30s. My host mom trained as a journalist and now works for a telecommunications company, and my host dad helps run a nonprofit artist workshop that invites experts to give lessons and lectures to young, aspiring artists, and that also hosts performances or exhibitions of local art from time to time. They have some sort of a side business that specializes in graphic design and creative productions, and their artsy side comes out in the eclectic decor in their beautiful apartment. For example, I love the little collection of antique cameras on this shelf:
We live in a really nice, modern building that is close enough to the ocean for a view, but far enough that we're just beyond the tsunami evacuation zone: I have my own bathroom and bedroom:I share a living room and kitchen with them. As part of the program, they're required to provide meals for me. However, their demanding work schedules mean that they can't often afford to return to the house for lunch, so they buy me groceries to cook for myself. Considering my lack of enthusiasm for the bread, beef and mayonnaise diet that seems to be typical in Chile, this suits me just fine, as I can eat all of the vegetables, fruit and whole grains that I want. Here's our living room:

The huge windows are perfect for Antofagasta's climate, which is consistently sunny, with a high about 16 degrees Celsius and a low of 10 or so at night (in the winter). In the summer it gets warm without being too hot. The mountains and desert to the East keep the air dry and slightly dusty, but the evaporation from the ocean keeps it from being as arid as Calama. It only rains about once a year, and then the city is as dramatic about the water as the Wicked Witch of the West. Water runs right over the hard-packed ground to flood the gutter-less streets, it leaks through un-waterproofed roofs (see example from my school on the left) and leaves standing pools in open-air schoolyards, which have been known to close for rain days. The annual rain arrived in "Antofa" just before I did, however, so I don't expect to see any of this "extreme weather" while I'm here. All I have to worry about are earthquakes, which are apparently a pretty common occurrence.

The combination of low-lying, earthquake-safe construction and desert air makes for consistently stunning sunsets, and our 10th floor windows provide the perfect vantage point.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Last glimpses of Santiago

Although it may not rank among my favorite cities I've vistied, overall, I was a fan of Santiago. With an intimate feel for a capital city, it bustles but is filled with open plazas, street art, and tree-lined avenues. Santiago's downtown area feels surprisingly "western" in terms of cleanliness and commercialism, although the scores of sopapilla and empanada street vendors serve as a constant reminder of where you are. Indeed, many of the buildings were built in the style of buildings in the West, or, as is the case with the Museo de Bellas Artes, directly modelled after existing buildings. It added a surreal quality to my musuem visit to realize that, though I had never previously been to Santiago, I had walked its halls before--at the Petit Palais, in Paris. And as if the building itself didn't offer a strong enough sense of déja-vu, the art inside contributed to the European remix, with plaster casts of famous statues and featured Chilean artist José Bassoes modern geometrical take on Western masterpieces in his "variaciones sobre Monet":

Santiago's own cathedrals were equally art worthy: blocky, bright, and with a very latinoamerican look:
However, there were other aspects, like the Metro, that were nothing like Paris. In contrast to my beloved but filthy Parisian Métro, the Santiago version is new, clean and beautiful, if less extensive and equally impossibly crowded during rushhour. In defense of Parisians, however, I will say that the Santiaguinos sill have a long way to go to acheive the strict, unspoken code of etiquette that governs their public transport. Like the Frenchie I've become, I glared a silent "putain!" at the rude people that stood on the left side of escalators, and that swarmed violently toward arriving trains, shoving their way in before allowing departing passangers to make their way onto the platform. In Paris, where life is governed by innate knowledge of the way things should be done, this kind of behavior would not stand. Also, unlike in Paris, where the metro crowd usually included a lot of tall, lanky Senegalese that made me feel like a dwarf, when I rode the metro in Santiago I felt tall for the first time in my life. At 5 foot 4, I'm a full three inches above the national average height for women, so I practically towered over wizened old grannies, and even stood eye-to-eye with a number of men!

I found these appropriately Americana pair of umbrellas at a street vendor on the 4th of July. That evening, we tracked down one of Santiago's "American" bars (in other words, they offer beer pong and promote dancing on tables) to celebrate our independence by mashing into standing-room-only areas to quaff beer and watch the Chilean football (soccer) match of the night, a big playoff game with Mexico for a South American Cup. It was here that I learned some cheers that served me well for the rest of playoff season ( "vamos...vamos a Chilenos....esta noche...tenemos que ganar!"). We won the match, setting off a mad jumping party that resulted in sloshing pints of beer being spilled over the heads of most everyone present, to the tune of some chant that apparently translated to something along the lines of "we're all jumping for Chile's victory, if you're not jumping you're a gay Mexican." Charming. The victory also set off near riots of ecstasy in the town center, and when we passed through on a taxi back to our hostel we saw that a tank-looking thing with a pivoting fire hose on the top had been brought out to dissuade and disperse the mobbing crowd.

Used book markets in the more bohemian part of Santiago:
My favorite part of the city was Bellevista, Santiago's premiere district for nightlife--for student age and price ranges, at least. At night, the ambiance is great the drinks are cheap, and its cute if rather anonymous cafes give way to packed clubs with the setting of the sun:
And last but not least, one of my favorite topics: street art. Graffiti is a serious art form in Chile, where it serves the clear purpose of adding color and intrigue to what would otherwise be dirty or undeveloped industrial blank space. There were a more great examples in Santiago than I could fit on a memory card, but here are a few worthwhile samples:

Friday, August 26, 2011


I now have a month of solid teaching under my belt, which enables me to reflect on the rewards of teaching (giving back, changing lives, yadda yadda we've all seen that Hallmark commercial) as well as on the downsides (the 9th circle of hell that is school administration, classroom management, not having a fluent mastery of the student mother tongue, the list goes on). By far the biggest drawback, especially during Southern Hemisphere winter, is the constant exposure to germ-ridden tykes. In other words, yes, I'm sick for the second time in two months. But I'm sucking it up (*snnniiiifff, snooorrrk*), ODing on fruits and veggies and trying to find the humor in the situation. Such as:

*One of my students reacting to my correction of her pronunciation of an English word by making fun of my congested voice and trying to correct *my* stuffy pronunciation.

*My host family telling me my English sounds nicer with a cold, because I have more of a British accent. Ha.

*I start every class with "Good/morning class (good morning Miss Rebecca) and "how are you today?" (fine thank you and yoooooou?). So I used illness as a teachable moment, explaining the difference between "I am cold" and "I have a cold" (which switch am/have verbs in their Spanish translations). When one boy finally grasped what I was trying to say, he used a hand to wipe his snotty nose, and gave a big sniff before responding "But Miss, why?"

Thursday, August 25, 2011

da North

I spent my third week in Chile/second week of English camp in Calama, a town that my Lonely Planet introduces thusly: "How do we put this delicately? Hmm, there's just no way. Calama's a shithole."

After having lived there for a week, I'd say that the description is a bit harsh.

But only a bit.

The North of Chile is defined by two things: the Atacama desert, said to be the driest in the world, and mining. Calama is smack-dab in the middle of both.

The Atacama is beautiful in a stark sort of way, and it boasts the town of San Pedro, a mere 45 minutes from Calama, which is a famous backpacking launchpad for visits to nearby geysers, the valley of the moon, salt flats, and flamingo-filled oases.

Unfortunately, Calama's share of the Atacama is only flat, endless expanses of nothingness, the dry climate, the freezing night temperatures, the araña del rincón (chilean recluse spider, one of the most deadly in the world) and earthquakes that happen once every few weeks (or "tremors" as they're called here--in a zone with such frequent seismic activity, it takes a lot to qualify as a quake).

As for the miner half: well, the town is old, predominately male, and way more expensive than it should be considering its size and location (Bumfuck, nowhere--the high mining salaries inflate the local prices). English Opens Doors volunteers in the region said that teaching is pretty bleak. After all, no one cares about learning English in a town where the boys will never finish high school because mining pays more than any doors English can open, and the girls get pregnant when they're 16 and shack up with a miner sugar-daddy (who likely has several such "families" going at one time). (Seriously, it's a often-referenced Chilean stereotype, proven true by the trapped Chilean miners last year, many of whom had several women awaiting them by the time they were finally freed from the earth). Calama's also full of mangy, malnourished dogs, who you would feel sorry for if you weren't so terrified every time a pack of them burst through traffic, yelping and snapping after a cyclist, or after a bleeding, teeth-mark marred compatriot, or crazed by a female in heat. As far as I could see, the one "benefit" of the mining is that it contributes about the only beauty Calama can claim--copper everything, including a spire on the local church, and various shrines to miners scattered through the town, such as the one above (photo complete with street dog!)

All in all, it was an extremely depressing place. The whole time I was there, I saw hardly anyone my age, as far as I could tell, your choice for weekend entertainment is between super smoky, overpriced, holes that qualify as "bars" and the local mall, which is a 20 minute (apparently dangerous) walk away from center town. On my first night I opted the first, only to wind up making my cold worse with the smoke, so I then switched to the latter. I think I was one of a total of 10 people in the cinema for the once daily showing of Harry Potter in its original English.

Calama's other points of interest: monuments to llamas, the town mascot:

On our field trip day of camp, we drove 45 minutes away to an oasis, where I encountered the real deal:
After a week in Calama, the oasis was gorgeous:
And a good place for livestock...

...and abandoned vehicles?

A church in the middle of nowhere (Chui Chui), said to be the oldest in Chile:
In conclusion: The last Harry Potter movie was awesome, and the highlight of an otherwise forgettable town. The week I spent left me feeling apprehensive about my placement town, which is also a mining capital and a mere 2.5 hrs away, but happily, Antofagasta beats the pants off this place. Pictures and details to come, stay tuned.