Saturday, December 17, 2011
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Some conservative Chileans that I know don’t see what the big deal is. They think it’s unfortunate that some children receive better education than others, but that it is impossible to change such things. Last night, at a dinner party, it was explained to me, on a piece of pink stationary with umbrellas on it, how impossible it really is. My instructor, a leasing agent, wrote all sorts of strange budgetary figures on the paper accounting for all the hardships that have befallen Chile in the past ten years including the devastating earthquake and the expensive rescue of the famous Chilean miners last year. He then went on to say that the people protesting should work harder instead of protesting, that this would allow them to spend more on their children’s education. In a final tirade (I just sat and listened politely) he said that they were draining the economy by blocking the streets of people trying to go to work. He added that since these poor people lived in different communities on the other side of the river, they didn’t really have the right to march in the city center anyway.
The protests are largely fun and peaceful: people play instruments and chant certain slogans like the ones on their banners, stray dogs bark and frolic along with the march, children walk hand in hand with their parents, the smell of choripans fills the air. I was told of some rather violent protests in the past; even this year tanks with tear gas attacking the crowds could be seen as well as the use of water cannons. However, these days both sides are armed with video cameras. Most protesters have phones with video capability, and many of the police, armed with riot gear, also carry small hand held cameras. This is in part responsible for the now fairly peaceful demonstrations.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
It’s officially winter here now and I’ve got to say that it’s turning out to be one of the coldest I can remember. I haven’t bothered to look at any temperatures and, though I’m sure they would tell me that it’s not that cold, I’m not going to. I grew up in the Midwest of the United States amidst grueling winters that seemed never to end: snowdrifts coming up to my waste, blizzards blinding sight, determined icy patches that wouldn’t melt for four months, and slush (my God that ugly ugly grey slush). So why on earth, given the conditions I just described, does it seem colder here in Santiago where the only snow I can see is on the Andes?
For one, it’s my house. This apartment building doesn’t have any heating and so I spend most of my time at home huddled over a small electric space heater that I bought for ten bucks. It’s an old place and so I won’t try and judge all Chilean dwellings based on it. It’s so old in fact that I find myself playing Mr. Fix-it quite often. It’s kind of like a part time job; fixing the plastic piping in my kitchen that looks like it was constructed by a child playing legos, reconnecting lighting circuits that dangle from the ceiling, using electric tape to separate sparking wires in the bathroom (this was a particularly worrying one), and re-calking the sink to the wall. But I digress, the annoying thing, currently, about this apartment is that it seems to trap the cold. The thick walls seem to collect the cold from the night and keep the house chilled all day. It’s a regular thing for me to leave my refrigerator – a.k.a. apartment— and find that outside it’s actually much warmer.
Another thing that makes the cold hard to ignore is that people are dying out here because of it. I’m sure this was happening back in the Midwest, but I wasn’t as aware of it as I am here. I read an article in the local newspaper, which reported some surprising numbers of homeless people dying each winter. I see them, on occasion, building fires in hidden areas of the park or shivering on the steps of a metro station under a collection of dirty blankets; forced to live outside and face the elements like dogs.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
|Studying up on Chinchillas|
“No mas sexto!” Fernando screamed up towards our friends in the cabin when we finally got to our destination; it was about half past five and still as dark as midnight.
“Hola Tim, no mas sexto!” he repeated once more to the delight we who had been travelling with him.
After this, and a few lion like roars, we walked up to the cabin and met my friends Goo and Hadley who were still in pajamas and looked a little groggy. We sent Fernando and his friend back into the dawn with a few more beers and were surprised we had found the place so easily. Looking around, there was nothing but cacti, foothills, and a few bushes. It was exactly as I’d imagined it; a shack in the desert.
Hadley and Goo were spending a few weeks in the area doing environmental work. The area is a chinchilla habitat, and this particular species is endangered. About twenty five years ago some lady named Amy who was part of some organization (sorry I never did learn the details) built the shack and began trying to plant more of the woody bushes where the chinchillas usually live. Amy hadn’t been there for fifteen years and the place wasn’t in the best of shape. Occasionally, she funds people to stay at the cabin and keep the project going, but overall, it seemed pretty unorganized. Our friends had arrived to find the shack a mess with unwashed dishes and blankets strewn about everywhere. There were plastic bottles about the grounds that were melting in the sun and no water coming through the plastic piping. This, of course, made it rather difficult to water seedlings and try and propagate selected areas with new plant life.
Hadley and Goo had only been at the shack for about two weeks but had fixed the place up nicely. Inside was tidy and they’d even built a hanging lantern fitted with candles that lit the place up at night. Outside they’d started some new seedlings, built a covered shed for tools and materials, and given the place a good cleaning. It all seemed so much fun, building contraptions and solving simple necessary problems, like Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe. By the end of the weekend I was convinced that I too wanted to live in complete isolation.
The morning of our arrival, it was cold in the desert and I had three cups of coffee and did a few jumping jacks to keep warm. As soon as the sun made its way over the foothills, however, it was scorching. So extreme was the difference that I found myself in want of shorts and flip flops. We fried up some flatbread and ate with the woodpeckers, who were busily searching for grubs in the only tree in the area. We sat for hours mesmerized by the vast nothingness and watching as the farmer’s goats came in to pasture. They were left to themselves, no one travelled with the goats except at night; and even then it was a lone dog that rounded them up.
Not wanting to be in our guests way, we helped out with some routine chores. One of which was transporting water from a nearby spring. We decided to investigate the piping problem as well and so followed it through the brush, heading to the water source. Large sections of the piping had been completely ripped out and tossed aside or stolen. At one point we found about fifty meters of the plastic piping beside a dead dog that appeared to have been shot. When we arrived at the water source we were able to get a small section of the water system working, but it was clear that someone had come and destroyed the system. Who? Why? Why was there a dead dog? The whole place was a mystery like that.
When we headed back to the shack carrying large buckets of water, we came across a few cowboys who tipped their hats and kept their horses from spooking as we passed. In the absence of any other people in the area one couldn’t help but place them in suspicion. Also, I remembered a bit of graffiti back at the shack, a pen drawing of a cowboy with the caption “All the water is mine!” above him. Mysterious etchings and drawings surrounded the place, but no answers would be found. At least not by me, at least not in the short time I was staying there. Instead, we drank.
|Hadley with a cactus|
Saturday, June 4, 2011
My morning walk to work starts at near Bellas Artes metro station and proceeds to Los Leones. It’s a straight jaunt through parks and nice business areas. It takes an hour to complete and when I tell people that I do it, they seem shocked that I give up sleep for it; that I don’t simply push my way onto the subway and reach my destination in a fraction of the time. But the walk, you see, is often my favorite part of the day. I like the ritual, the repetitive nature of the thing. The following is a list of some of the people and things I see every morning that make up that ritual
In Parque Forestral the cleaners are busy at work raking up discarded beer cans and cigarette butts. By half past eight the park will be immaculate. The stray dogs chase each other around here or sit vigilant and watch the streets become busy with people. There is one old German Shepherd that sits beneath a large clock at the edge of the park, at a busy intersection. Across from him a female traffic cop wearing some battle armor on her shins whistles and directs traffic with glowing batons. It’s almost as if they are working together, watching out for the pedestrians.
Past the parks I’m over half way to work. The streets are filled by now with smartly dressed business people ready to start their day, but there are a few other peculiar characters I see. One such is the middle aged man with a brown sweater and colorful scarf who zooms by every day with a cloud of smoke. He rides a bicycle to which he has had some sort of motor attached; it doesn’t look professionally done. Another of these characters is the Eeyorish beggar who stands in the middle of the road. He’s bald and stands on a grass island in the middle of a busy intersection. Occasionally he plays a small electric keyboard (very poorly), but usually this bald man with pale eyes and a large fluffy blue coat, just asks for money. He’s quite pushy about it.
There’s a large hill about fifteen minutes from my house called San Cristóbal. It has, as the name might very well hint, a gigantic statue of Jesus Christ at the top of it. It’s something of a tourist destination and I’ve heard that there are pools, cable cars, and even a zoo on the hill somewhere. I’ve yet to do the tourist trek of the mountain; I sometimes see the big buses parking, but that’s not the part of the mountain I visit.
If you’re walking you can reach the first picnic area in about twenty minutes. During the week it’s the home of a few dogs and a park ranger, but on the weekend it is full of BBQs, drinking, and music (the dogs are, of course, still there—happier, I’m sure, for the bones and scraps). The other day I went up to this picnic area with some friends who were celebrating their engagement. We brought champagne, strawberries, and sandwiches. Being fairly drunk before we had even started, the trip up to the picnic area seemed arduous but it was worth the effort.
We cut up the strawberries and poured the champagne on top of them. The bubbles and booze went straight to our heads and watching the two lovers together I felt light as a feather. Peeing in the woods and looking down at the distant skyscrapers I felt I might float away. When I returned from this relieving journey, the group next to us had begun singing and playing the guitar. A young Columbian man by the name of Julian introduced himself and we started to talk with him. Before long another from the group, a thirty something year old woman with a leather jacket, came over and had myself and my recently engaged buddy kiss her on the mouth. She then dragged me by the arm over to the music.
Before long I was talking to an eye doctor about insurance in Santiago. My Spanish is pretty horrible but we got by for awhile. Many of their group, including my friend the eye doctor, were Columbian, the rest were Chilean. They sang folk songs and at one point, on wooden flutes, played Mozart calling it the music of the world. We drank heavily and danced on tables while the sun set.
Inhibitions were lifted and at one point the thirty year old woman who had joined the two groups together started arm wrestling people. She was fun and friendly but she looked like a bruiser, no one wanted to be on her bad side. She defeated my wife and my friend. Her tactics changed when facing the man: she pulled down her shirt to distract him. He said he’d been simultaneously frightened of offending her by not seeming distracted and being thrashed by a possible husband/boyfriend.
Friday, May 27, 2011
|My wife riding a motorbike on Rapa Nui|
As a child I’d once read a book about mysterious places of the world and Easter Island was one of those places featured. The book held that the moai, or the iconic large headed statues, may have been put there by aliens! During my time in university I took a class about the collapse of different civilizations; Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed was on the curriculum and used Easter Island as one case study. It talked about how the islanders, not aliens, erected the statues to the detriment of their society. The statues were enormous art projects that tribal leaders would finance in order to gain power. It led to deforestation, a dark period of cannibalism, and the near extinction of the islanders. The island, so far from the coastline of Chile and so isolated from any other land masses, has held the imagination of many travelers and explorers, but it never seemed like a place to which I could afford to travel. This, like the aliens, was a myth.
When my wife and I arrived on the island we were surrounded by wealthy tourists who rented expensive cars and stayed at nice resorts; it felt like we were somehow stealing a rich person’s holiday. How did we, mere English teachers, afford to get there? How were we able to get around the island without spending a fortune? How did we get through the week without starving? For the South American backpacker there are a few tips I’d like to offer that can make Easter Island a possible destination.
The first tip is to book a flight early and to be flexible with your dates. It seems obvious, but since there is only one airline, LAN, which offers flights to the island, a first look at prices can turn you off the entire idea. Some of the flights are over two thousand USD; we managed to get ours for just over four hundred dollars. The key to our success was flying from Lima, Peru. In the past, the only flights to Easter Island were from Santiago or Tahiti, but from the start of 2011 they had just opened the route from Lima. This alone saved us over a thousand USD. Keep looking, keep checking for changes, do your research about routes and days. If you’re persistent, you should be able to find an affordable flight.
So you’re on the island, but you can’t find an affordable hostel or hotel; camping is an option. For about ten dollars a night, or fifteen if you want to rent a tent, you can stay at Camping Mihinoa (http://www.mihinoa.com/), which was by far the cheapest option we were able to find. The family that runs the place is extremely friendly and respond to your e-mails in either Spanish or English. You should book ahead and they will even pick you up at the airport. It’s a bare bones operation that offers showers and a shack where you can cook – also a big money saver – but for the week or so you’re on the island it’s more than you need. Likely, you’ll be spending your whole day hiking and exploring; when you come back you just need a soft place to lie down and listen to the crashing waves.
It’s a small island, but it’s not that small. My wife and I did spend a day literally walking from one end to the other. We started at the campsite mentioned above, went around Terevaka Volcano, and ended up at Anakena, which has a terrific beach. This took almost the whole day and while it was definitely an amazing trek, including a few run-ins with bulls, I would only recommend walking if you have enough time. Also, as there isn’t much shade on the island, it can get pretty tiring.