Thursday, September 15, 2011

La vida nocturna

One thing I love about my Chilean life is how active it is. Weekdays are dedicated to lesson planning and teaching, and weekends to partying until the wee hours and then sleeping the whole next day to recover. We're coming up on a holiday weekend that promises ample opportunity for this, so I figure I'd talk a bit about the night life here, which is--in a word--awesome!

In general, Chileans are exceedingly friendly and patient enough to deal with beginning Spanish speakers without derision or exasperation. They are very relaxed about social gatherings, and since I've been here, I've been able to just sort of waltz my way into a circles of friends and show up at parties where I don't know the host without surprising anyone (well, other than the initial 'ooh, gringa !' reaction, por supuesto.) This is a breath of fresh air after France, where social circles are constructed at a young age and practically impenetrable (and where the people, in general, are much less welcoming and laid back as warm latino americans).
But what isn't a breath of fresh air is--the air! Chileans smoke. A lot. Technically, you have to be 18 to buy cigarettes, but the older high school students who come to class reeking of smoke report that the law is never enforced. Unlike in the US and France, there's no smoking ban here, so every bar, restaurant and club is full of smokers and clouds, and I come home from a night out smelling like an ash tray. The only positive thing about the cigarettes are the packages themselves, which skip the death warnings that Americans go for and appeal to the real fears of young, seemingly "immortal" youth--impotence! (Seriously, isn't that the most hilarious picture above?) The air quality in general isn't great, either--it's not as bad up north as the equal-to-5-cigarettes-a-day Santiago smog, but we have the dust of the desert and whatever sort of chemicals go into the air from the copper refineries nearby.

Anyway, back to nightlife. I came to Chile expecting the stereotypical, smooth-tongued, hard-bodied Latin Lover. What I've found, happily, is much more subdued. Yes, men can be forward (regardless of relationship status, age difference, etc) but they are generally not crude, and they are generally fairly respectful of women's interest or lack thereof. When dancing, most people seem to actually want to, you know, dance! Not just grind and grope, which is what passes for dancing in most of Europe these days. Here there's a trend towards more organized styles of dancing, and when men put a hand on your hip it's to guide you through the steps, not to cop a feel.

Here, a night out is marked by cheap drinks (relative to the US and Paris at's about $4 for a beer and $5-$7 for a cocktail). The alcohol of choice is pisco, a strong grape brandy, that is most commonly mixed with lime juice (pisco sour), mango juice (mango sour) or Coca-Cola (piscola). If you byob, wine is abundant and dirt cheap. I have to admit, I still prefer the heady, full-bodied reds of France to the lighter, spicier, fruitier wines here, but quality is pretty good, especially considering the ridiculously low cost.

A night out here tends to last until the morning, which makes every weekend feel pretty epic (and often leaves me feeling like I need a weekend after my weekend!) Here's a taste of what I've done so far:
...checked out a lot of local bars/clubs/performance spaces and seen a few shows including a Beatles cover band (called, appropriately, Sgt Pepper's) a quadri-lingual modern jazz performance in the municipal theater and an up-coming Pink Floyd orchestral tribute...
 ...gone dancing (seen here in a really cool bar called Cafe del Sol, which is only two blocks from my apartment and which specializes in jazzing traditional folk music--think covers of 70s social activist Victor Para, or pan pipes and traditional, lute-sized charango guitars made from armadillo shells fused with saxophones)...
 ...sang karaoke (including once at a legit music venue, where singers had access to the stage, the lights, the sound system, costumes--everything! I sang Eye of the Tiger, Don't Stand (so close to me) and I Will Survive. Truly epic) ...

 ...attended "asados" (BBQs, where the specialty is the spicy "choripan" sausage, slathered in mayo on a hoagie roll)...
 ...eaten more than my fair share of meat-filled empanadas, and pichanga platters (french fries topped with a greasy assortment of sauteed onions, ground beef and sausage, with various spicy and creamy dipping sauces)...

...and attended a weekly conversation club in a bar, which is where I've met most of my friends. A language dork is a language dork in any language, and j'adork them all.

In fact, I'm off to the políglota meeting now. Hasta luego, mis amigos, y felizes fiestas patrias a todos!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Choreography and caserolazos for change

In case you haven't heard, student protests against the high cost of public university tuition are an ongoing "problem" in Chile, and almost all universities and a large percentage of public high schools have been taken "en toma" or seized by the students for a live-in protest. You can tell which schools have been taken by the chair and table legs that stick menacingly through the fences surrounding them, serving both as a physical barricade and giving a sort of barbed wire look to the property. Huge banners draped along the outside ("affordable, high-quality education for all!") and a few scowling student guards operating blasting subwoofers by the barricaded entrances are equally good indicators. Students have set up whole communities inside these institutions, with infrastructure for cleaning, public service, sleeping and meals (to prove they're responsible and serious), not to mention plenty of practice time and space for their creative protesting techniques.

It is these inventive, peaceful techniques that have won the movement international attention, as well as a sort of awe for the numbers and passion of the youth involved. Their publicity-stunt methods have included mass kiss-ins, large-scale public pillow fights, a nationwide day of marches with plenty of honking, puppets and banners, skits, and even dramatic mass ¨suicides¨where students choose a public area to lay motionless on the ground--"killed" by a neglectful government.

And then there's the dancing. I already posted video of their Thriller protest in an earlier blog, but here's a more recent Lady Gaga approach and an even more recent Party Rock episode that just occured last week in my city, Antofagasta. My tenth floor apartment towers over one of the high schools en toma, so for weeks leading up to the performance I was able to sneak a peek into the courtyard and see them practicing.

Chileans are constantly asking me my opinion of all of this. In general, I support the students, and believe that higher education, like health care, will only strenthen the societies that value it and should therefore be goverment-funded and affordable everywhere. However, when they point to my country as an example, I'm quick to clarify that universities in the United States, while excellent, are also exorbitant, although we at least have a much better system of scholarships and federal aid in place. On the flip side, I'm also fast to point out that the "free" schools that I experienced in France (or closer to home for Chileans, the free system in Argentina) are severely lacking in quality. In other words, I think there's a compromise to be made between the current, expensive system that doesn't make accomodations to cost of living or family income and the free-school-free-food-free-transport dream that the students are demanding, but in any case, change definitely needs to happen.
The Chilean public, which I think at first had more of an "aww, look at the young rebels! so cute!" attitude at the beginning, has become more and more respectful and supportive of the movement. In a country that is still very much living in the shadow of Pinochet's oppressive regime, the movement itself has grown to symbolize much more than just education--it's a demonstration of the power of individuals to affect change, of the political voice of the youth, of nonviolent protest and a good life for all Chileans. Chileans of all regions, ages, genders (the student leader is a girl!), races and backgrounds are banding together to support the students. One popular method being a nightly caserolazo, or pot-banging, where people lean out of their windows or take to the streets to hit empty pots with wooden spoons, creating a metallic chorus of discontent that echos that produced during the dictatorship (with the empty pots then representing the hunger of Chile's starving families). I participated in one of these with my host parents, who were moved and empowered by the parallels to the dark era that marked their early lives.This parallel was driven home in a quote from Camiola Vallejo Dowling, the student leader, who said “For many years our parents’ generation was afraid to demonstrate, to complain, thinking it was better to conform to what was going on. Students are setting an example without the fear our parents had.”

It's difficult to know when the protests will end, since Piñera's (new and increasingly unpopular) administration doesn't seem poised to appease them any time soon. The tension is escalating, though. At this point, many of the students have been absent from class for so long that they have forfeitted this year and will have no choice but to repeat it--in other words, they have nothing left to lose, and no reason to quit fighting. Protests have also been turning more and more dangerous, with more violence and tear gas on the part of the cops, culminating in public outcry over the accidental death of a 14-year old boy in Santiago last week. My students experienced this violence firsthand when a few of them tried to break into the school early last week to take it en toma, only to be roughly apprehended and taken to the police station to be collected by their parents.

Since my school is semi-private and owned by the Catholic Church and not the governement, it cannot legally be taken en toma--it would be trespassing on private property. My students still got their fair share of the action, however--striking with the teachers' blessings on the national day of "paro" to participate in the Antofagasta march, and then continuing to strike for several days afterward against what they perceived as the school administration's failing to protect them from the aggression of the cops during the failed takeover bid. After three days of sitting in the soccer field and drafting their own set of demands (that they not be punished for the classes they'd missed, that the school allow them to hang banners in solidarity with the cause, that the school agree not to call the police to discipline students in the future) they finally, begrudgingly returned to classes, but I get the feeling that many of the would prefer to join their comrades, because really--what an exciting time to be a Chilean high school student!

And what an exciting time to be volunteering here! First Tunisia, now Chile--I seem to have a knack for picking the most exciting, dynamic political climates to live in!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sociology report: general observations about Chile

This weekend marks the two-month anniversary of my arrival in Chile. I thought I'd celebrate with a summary of my observations about this wondrous country and its people thus far:

Relative to other countries I've lived in, Chile has an extremely homogeneous population. Even in Santiago, the capital city, it's rare to see people of African, Arab, and especially Asian origins, and we "gringos" (which is not offensive, in Chile at least, but is simply used to identify white, English-speaking foreigners) while a little more common, are still pretty few and far between. Don't think for a minute that this somehow equates to less discrimination, though: Chilean society is very classist. This is reflected in derogatory words that exist for pretty much every group, such as flaites (ghetto) or cuicas (snooty upper class). Sadly, skin tones roughly correlate with class (the variations between which seem slight to this gringa's eyes, but apparently a few shades can carry a lot of meaning here). Dark skin and hair are associated with the working class, peasant indigenous populations or "morena" immigrants from Peru or Bolivia, while pale skin and light hair and eyes (here, blue eyes are not azules but a heavenly sky blue, or "celestes!") are idolized--not to mention an immediate target for sexual attention. I often hear "rubia" (blonde) hissed at me as I walk past men on the street (I can never tell if it's a come-on, approval, or just stating the obvious) despite the fact that my light brown hair ranks, at best, "dirty blond" in America. Meanwhile, flaite girls who bleach their hair to my color are distastefully called the far less flattering "rusia," a word that technically has the same meaning but carries a connotation of fake and trying too hard. Even within my growing circle of friends, the Chileans have taken to calling me Ricitos de Oro (Goldilocks) in awe of my hair.

On a more positive note, of all the countries I've traveled to, I think Chile also has the least direct relationship with/hatred of Americans, which has been a pleasant change. Here, America culture is adored, and unlike in Europe, American English is valued over British English and our vocabulary and accent is taught in schools, where nerdy students savor Americanisms and collect our slang. Students love American music and American tv shows, and don't have the same contempt for the less-than-flattering portrait they paint of us (I've learned since being here that Jersey Shore's Snookie is Chilean, so they can't hold her against us!)

Stray dogs are everywhere, and their health is usually a good indicator of affluence (dogs in the nicer neighborhoods of Santiago even had little polar fleece jackets, courtesy of some local do-gooding group). Street dogs are usually pretty street savvy, knowing to look before crossing busy roads, or to at least tail human pedestrians to avoid being run over. Once I watched a street dog eat the ubiquitous pina empanadas like a pro, peeling back the pastry and nosing out the olive to lick up the beef, then the pastry, only finally turning to the olive to knaw the fruit off of the pit. For the most part, they're pretty harmless, although they tend to get whipped into a frenzy by motorcycles and bikes and will attack the riders from time to time. I've become accustomed to the dogs that live in our neighborhood that I pass on my 15 minute walk to school, which include a white, three-legged dog that my host dad has dubbed "Tripodo" and a threesome he calls the "Flojos" (or lazies) that sleep all day on a rare patch of Antofagastian grass.

Lunch is the main meal here, and society's schedule is arranged around it. Everyone is given a two-hour lunch (or longer!) break to allow time for going home and sharing a large, multi-course meal--schools close, shops close, and work ceases until midafternoon. This puts a bit of a burden on Chilean mothers, who are expected to prepare this daily feast, regardless of whether they work or not. Some of the teachers I work with report getting up a full hour earlier in the morning to began preparing the day's lunch in their "spare time" before our first classes at 8am. Schools go until 6:15 to compensate for the long lunch break, and work schedules last till about 7. Dinner, on the other hand, is a nonevent consisting of something light--salad and juice, or bread, avacado and tea, and as such, is not even known by that word ("cena" in Spanish) but by "once," or "elevensies" (the photo on the right shows a restaurant advertising their once). Snacks throughout the day are sickeningly sweet: chocolate bars, chips, ice creams, candy and a whole rainbow of sugary sodas--although since they overload on these sweets earlier in the day (rather than splurging for a late evening desert) they seem to have plenty of time to burn off the calories. This little snack shop in the photo selling soda, ice cream, candy and chips is right across from my school, and is a pretty typical find in Chile (down to the "Hay Pan", or "There is bread!" signs that crack me up every time I see and translate them in my head, which announce that they sell the round rolls Chileans like to eat for once).

Due to delicate plumbing in Chile, toilet paper should be binned, not flushed. Nuff' said, but important for gringos to know (one boy in the problem said that he managed to block the family toilet three times, with them passing it off to "gringo problems" before they finally realized that he wasn't aware of the 'bin it' policy!)

Chileans are pretty affectionate in general, much to my delight, and they greet each other with kisses on the cheek and incorporate a lot more physical contact (arm pats, shoulder squeezes, hugs) into conversations. They also love public displays of romantic affection. I once got trapped in the corner of a shop when my path to the door was blocked by a woman whose overenthusiasitc boyfriend was practically sucking her neck off as she disinterestly browsed jewelery. He didn't even pause when I muttered a "discúlpeme" and pushed past to freedom. The students at my school imitate this sort of behavior with their teenage boyfriends/girlfriends, and the teachers hardly seem to notice.

Chilean Spanish is muy raro (really weird). I probably should have researched this before I came, but Chile is perhaps the hardest country in the world which to learn Spanish. Chileans speak rapidly, often dropping the ends of words, so that plural feminine nouns sound nearly indistinguishable from their singular form, (ex. las ventanas or the windows-->; "la ventana"), or omitting hard vowels, so that todos ("all" or "everyone") becomes "to-ohs" (much like one might say "aiight" instead of "all right" in English--except that here it's not slang, it's just the way language is spoken). They proudly pepper their speech with Chilenismos, or a type of Chilean slang that is so commonly used that one might well call it a dialect. Even their normal Spanish has odd variations, where words that I learned in college Spanish class, like "novio" (boyfriend), "frijoles" (beans), or "fresas" (strawberries) are replaced by synonyms: "pololo", "porotos," and "fruitzilla" (an odd word which, for me, evokes the image of a giant berry on a rampage through Tokyo). Perhaps their most common Chilenismo is their "po," which ends up at the end of everything. "Sí-po." "Ya-po." "No-po." The closest equivalent I could give in English would be the SoCal valley girl "like," a pointless add-on that contributes nothing to the sentence but a certain colloquialism.

Chileans, while living in a Catholic country, are actually fairly liberal overall. Gay culture is still a new thing here, but overall, there seems to be little discrimination and growing acceptance of the community at least on a societal/political level (although as could be expected, I've heard from friends that getting your family to accept a queer sexuality is another story...). Birth control and abortion are still fraught topics but are becoming more and more accepted and available. Women are respected and empowered, with many in the workforce and marriage and childbirth often delayed to even later than in the United States. Politically, socialism and even communism are not uncommon, and services like tax-funded health care are an expectation. Low cost, quality education (at the college level, too) is also an expectation, although on that is not currently being met, and that has resulted in country-wide strikes for the last several months. More on that in tomorrow's post!