Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Hippie pants, skinned knees, and outer space

I bought hippie pants. They're billowy and floral. They have elastic at the bottom, and if I'm being honest with myself, they're borderline hammer pants. But you know what? I like them. This was a decision I made after pacing in front of the fitting room mirror for about half an hour, examining them from every possible angle and trying to determine how much I resembled my mom in the early 90s. I bought them for the vacation I took this weekend to La Serena, a gorgeous university beach town on a bay about eight hours north of Valparaíso. Just inland from La Serena is the famous Valle de Elqui, a long, fertile valley hemmed in by colossal, dry mountains covered in scrub and cacti. The valley floor is lush and green and if you jumped out of a micro careening on the tiny high roads above the valley (which I was almost tempted to do after I didn't get a seat and had to stand in the aisle and hold on for dear life on the hour-long ride), you would almost definitely land in a vineyard. The Valle de Elqui is the heart of Chilean Pisco country. It's also famous for it's geographic location: if you dug a tunnel in a straight line and crawled through the earth for a few years, you would come out slightly singed right smack in the middle of the soaring, mystical land of Tibet. So, of course, the Valle de Elqui is imbued with all the spiritual powers, crystal vendors, good vibes, and soul-searching, hippie-pants-wearing people you might expect to inhabit such a holy place. I fit right in.

The eight of us arrived in La Serena on Thursday afternoon, and spent most of the day getting settled into our hostels and exploring the town. My hostel had a roof deck, and it was Pisco Sour night, so I stayed up late hanging out and talking with a small group of people from all over the place. I met a writer from Nashville, Tennessee who works as an economist in Santiago, and talked about what it's like to learn a different language with a woman from Germany (who has learned five of them!). People are so cool. The next day, we took a micro to Coquimbo, a town about twenty minutes away from La Serena. If the region of La Serena were a croissant, Coquimbo would be its delicious crunchy southern tip. The city is built on two hills and tapers out to a rocky point that juts into the sea. We walked around the fish market right on the water and I ate the best ceviche of my entire life, loaded with fish and cilantro and onions, for the equivalent of $2! After the market, we hiked through neighborhoods to the top of the hill to see the absolutely massive, futuristic concrete cross built on top of one of the hills that we had seen from the bus the day before. As it turned out, you could walk up a few flights of stairs to an elevator that would take you up to a lookout room in the arms of the cross. The day was gorgeous and clear, and we could see all the way from the ocean to the mountains. On the way back down, I decided it would be awesome and efficient to slide down the banister instead of wasting my time walking (ha! please) down the last two flights of stairs. The first flight was great. On the second flight, however, I started going way too fast and totally wiped out under the unmoved eyes of the higher power whose giant symbol towered above me. And that's how I lost my faith in Coquimbo. Just kidding. I walked away with one skinned knee and some damaged pride, but otherwise I'm doing a great job of being an adult. 

The next day, we took a micro out to Vicuña in the Valle de Elqui. Vicuña is a small, hot, beautiful, dry, Latin American town, centered on a dusty church that faces a plaza. A pretty woman was riding through the plaza on a bike in the sun, selling empanadas de pino from a cardboard box. A somber procession of traditionally-dressed musicians trudged through the center of the plaza underneath low-hanging trees, playing slow music while the man leading the group read aloud from the Bible. It was like David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Wes Anderson had a baby. It was kind of creepy but so gorgeous I wanted to fold it up, put it in a box, and bring it home with me.

On our last night, we had a reservation to tour the Mamalluca Observatory at 1:30 a.m. This was incredibly exciting because 1) The Mamalluca Observatory is a professional observatory that offers astronomy tours to the public 2) Space is totally rad 3) Los Jaivas, a Chilean folk/Andina/psychedelic band wrote an entire album about the observatory and 4) I love outer space. The tour began with a half hour introduction to general concepts in astronomy, and our guide talked about how the Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile, viewed certain constellations. Then, we split into smaller groups and went out onto the roof terrace. I have never seen so many stars in my entire life. This is what the night sky looked like:

The arms of the Milky Way were so bright and pale, it was easy to understand the Greek myth about its creation. Our guide discussed different objects in the sky and then we viewed them through the telescope. I got to see the nebula in Orion, Jupiter and four of its moons, betelgeuse, sirius, and the sculptor galaxy! And I learned about them all in Spanish! There are so few times in my life when I am confronted with the knowledge of how itty bitty and speck-like I am. I think I tend to side with Walt Whitman ("I am large / I contain multitudes!") on the issue of self-perception. Peering into a spot in the sky that seems smaller than a blood cell but actually contains something alien and beautiful and more enormous than the solar system I live in does something to my sense of scale and perspective. Space is humbling. And all that worldly perspective at 3:00 a.m. makes a girl sleepy. We got back to the cabins around 4:30, and I was asleep in bed by 4:32. 

I returned home yesterday morning, and it felt like coming home. My life here hasn't become boring, but it definitely just feels like life now. I go to school, I eat, I walk around, I read, I make an ass of myself a few times a day, I spend time with my friends, and I sleep. All of those things that felt overwhelming at first are a part of my daily routine now. And just like in North Carolina, sometimes it takes getting away for a while to realize how much a place does feel like home. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Abyss and a Happily Ever After

There is a giant hole in the sidewalk that I walk along every day on my way to the metro station. It is a man-sized municipal booby trap. When someone falls into it they will drop about four feet. The first time I saw the hole was two weeks ago when Shawn and I were walking around in Viña. I didn't even notice it until he pointed it out, his eyes fresh from North America, and since then it's been a daily source of baffling entertainment to watch the public works drama unfold on the surface of the hole. I think it's super fun to look at holes in the ground. To each her own.

Two days after we first saw it, Shawn and I were walking on the same stretch of sidewalk again and there was a respectable four-legged wooden barrier set up around the hole with "AVISO DE PELIGRO" tape all over it. Good. That makes sense. It is totally dangerous for old people, drunk people, children, people with good posture who don't shuffle along looking at the ground like I do, etc. to step into a hole the size of their entire body. In the week after they put up the barrier, however, it was progressively reduced to splinters. One day it was missing a leg and hanging lopsided over the hole like a sad lobster with rubber-banded claws in the tank at the supermarket, trying to clamber on top of another lobster's head to freedom, totally ignorant of the futility of its efforts in the face of imminent demise. Kind of like that. The next day someone had absconded with the AVISO DE PELIGRO tape. I don't blame them. Caution tape is like streamers but even more fun because it's free! The next day it was missing two legs and lying on its back, halfway in the hole, the remaining two legs sticking up in the air. And today it was completely gone and there is once again nothing covering the hole. On the up side, there is way more trash in the bottom now, which could make it more or less dangerous depending on the ratio of beer bottles to candy wrappers.

It's weird because Viña is an orderly, clean, safe city, and I usually forget that I live in a developing country by the standards of those in the developed world. It's a pretty heinous distinction. I take hot showers, I eat at restaurants, I can find almost anything I want at the store, I have to go through a wall of bureaucracy to do anything official, and if I'm smart I don't fall into gaping caverns in the sidewalk. This is how "developed" is defined, right? There are plenty of things in Chile that still don't make sense to me, like the hole, but in between the daily frustrations I have with annoying differences, I get to reward myself with equally different indulgences and experience different comforts. Like, for instance, I think bread toasted in a tostador on the stove is nine times more delicious and home-feeling than toast from a toaster. And when I'm bummed I go sit on the rocks by the sea wall, stare out at the Pacific Ocean, and get really philosophical about how I should be more like the waves. And I love the comfortable, uncomplicated closeness of my host family. My life is different here, but I'm the same, so the struggle is to figure out how to be more at home with myself wherever I am. And then sell the secret for billions and live like a king.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A small wave of unrelated anecdotes

1)    For my host mom’s birthday, I gave her a totally perplexing card that was made by Hallmark. I will translate, and I promise that nothing at all is getting lost in translation. Front: “Have you realized that your refrigerator is making weird noises? Fum! Sp sp sp sp! Rrrrak! Don’t worry, it’s just making ice.” Inside: “So when you worry that you’re getting older, don’t! You’re just making ice. Happy Birthday.” I put the card on her bedside table, and a few minutes after we had washed all the dishes from her birthday party and said goodnight, I heard her burst out laughing for like five minutes through the wall. She shouted, “Mi hija preferida! Esta tarjeta es increíble!” (My preferred daughter – that’s what she calls me when I clean my room/wash dishes/give her a birthday card that contains a fart joke – this card is incredible!). Win!

2)    I was sitting in the coffee shop yesterday when "Blood Bank" by Bon Iver started playing on the speakers. That song has been following me around for the past year, and there's so much significance attached to it I don't even know how to feel when I hear it. I listened to it last November when I was sleeping in my almost-empty apartment right before I moved out, and it always came on shuffle in my car this Spring when I was driving back and forth between Asheville and Winston-Salem to see Shawn, and then my sister played it in our hotel room in Rome this Summer with the window open and the sun and street noises coming in, and now it's here at a coffee shop in Chile, on the edge of Spring in the southern hemisphere, playing while I slog through modernist poetry in Spanish. This is the song, with a disclaimer: this video is a total abuse of time-lapse - if you watch it for very long you'll want to barf. Press play and immediately look away from your computer.

3) I’m starting to feel like Chile is carving out a little place in my heart. If that makes sense. I know shortcuts, I finally understand the micros (the esoteric bus system), the baristas at the coffee shop near my house know my name, and that crazy hot water tank contraption in my kitchen? I could make it work with my eyes closed now, but I wouldn't, because it involves matches, gas, and fire, and I like living. When I walk across the San Martin bridge on my way to the metro station and see the skyrise apartment buildings and palm trees reflected in the river, it’s something I can picture with such clarity when I close my eyes that I know I’ll have that image with me forever. I love being here. There is plenty I miss from home (North Carolina is, after all, the best place in the whole world), but at the same time I know I’m going to miss a lot about Chile when I'm back home in December.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dark Humor and Penguins

My sense of humor is so at home in Chile. If it were a pie chart, sarcasm, morbidity, and five-year-old humor would probably account for the biggest slices. Most of the Chileans I know have a pretty dark sense of humor, but still laugh at fart jokes. My people! During one of my first weeks here, for instance, I was helping my host mom carry giant boxes of candy to her car. She works in the social security office, and they were passing out gifts for Día del Niño. I somehow managed to get wedged between a box and the car door. I looked at my host mom and said, "I don't know what to do." She started laughing, and even though I had a giant box of Super8's and potato chips crushing my body, I almost peed my pants I was laughing so hard. It was awesome. I think Chile's dark sense of humor may also account for the fact that death metal and fanny packs are simultaneously in style here. It's a theory. 

It also explains a lot about an adventure I had last weekend. A group of friends and I planned to take a micro to Zapallar, a beach town about an hour north of Viña. Someone had read about a penguin sanctuary on an island right off the coast, and it was the perfect plan for a day trip: take a bus to the beach, eat some awesome seafood in the sun, hire a boat, cruise around a little island and watch penguins flapping around and being totally adorable. But the night before we left, my friend Sophie's host mom told her that all the penguins had died. The news spread on facebook, and I started getting messages from my friends like, "sophie's mom said they all died. the penguins," and "Wait, the penguins are dead? how?" and "NOOO Let's cross our fingers that the pinguins are still alive!!!" I asked my mom about it, and she told me that penguins don't live in Zapallar. At all. 

It was total information chaos. 

I researched it, didn't find a single news article about any mass penguin deaths, but did find out that there is actually a penguin sanctuary in Zapallar. So we decided to go and find out. The bus driver dropped us off at the end of a small dirt road that led to beautiful, remote beach. We climbed a set of stairs to a lookout point where we stood and gazed at an island off the coast covered in penguin poop. There were no penguins. So we used our imaginations! This is me, using my imagination:

My imagination isn't working. I'm pretty sure the penguins only come to the island every so often. But I have no idea how Sophie's mom got the idea that they all died. That is like the grimmest possibility on the planet. This is what I mean when I say dark imagination. We took a micro to the actual town of Zapallar, which is a steep, wooded valley that slopes down into a small cove at the bottom. We ate ceviche and empanadas at a weird restaurant decorated with mid-century light fixtures and bright paintings of nude women covered in deteriorating crepe paper and deflated balloons. They also had a piano and a guitar (I think their decorating concept was "everything! and all at once! do you like?!") and I realized how much I miss playing music. We walked down to the beach where we drank wine, talked, and watched the sunset. It was almost a perfect day, perfect if I choose to believe that the penguins are alive somewhere, which I do.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

El Paro Nacional

There's nothing quite like an emergency message from the U.S. Embassy to give you the sense of being in the middle of something important. The two-day national strike began today, and it's big. In every major city in Chile right now, thousands of university students are demonstrating and the largest labor union in the country is on strike. I'm sitting in my house by the sea, drinking tea, and weighing my photographic urges, intense curiosity, and total support for the student movement against the warning from the U.S. Embassy that specifically said "No, Lindsey, reject those urges. Stay home and blog instead."

Some background: the students have been on strike since May, when they started taking over the schools (more like taking them back, I think) and hanging banners that declared the institution "en toma." I don't know how to translate it literally, but it means "under conquest" or "captured." It's ripe for an etymology study! I thought it meant "entombed" for a long time, which I still think is a cool way of looking at it, even if that's not what it means at all. Here's a photo of PUCV, my university, in May:

See the chairs stacked against the inside of the door? In the building right next to this one, the students somehow managed to glue the chairs onto the ceiling. Neat! Now, three months later, the building is covered in chalk messages and cool banners. It looks like this:

I like the last message. It means "They are robbing us, they are lying to us. On TV, on the radio, and in the daily paper." Basically, the education system in Chile has become increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional since the 1970s, when for-profit universities were introduced under the U.S.-backed dictator and all-around terrifying dude, Augusto Pinochet. To give you an idea of how expensive it is for Chileans to attend university, the average cost of tuition (for both public and private schools) is around $600/month, and minimum wage here is the equivalent of about $390/month. In addition to the cost, the quality of education in many of the private, for-profit universities is seriously questionable. The students don't want a capitalist education system, and I agree. Mostly because I think the idea that increased competition in the market will improve the overall quality of the system has totally failed when applied to education: only students from the middle and upper classes can afford to attend university in Chile, and the quality has declined so much that recent graduates have trouble finding work in the fields they studied for five years. 

So basically, the past few weeks have felt only slightly less epic than the moment of anticipation before the Battle of the Hornburg in Lord of the Rings, when the Rohirrim are watching the Uruk-hai advance on Helm's Deep in the dark. While I'm not in any danger of getting chopped up by a terrible, gooey, vaguely human creature wielding an axe, the suspense in the air is comparable! My classes are canceled today and tomorrow because public transportation might be blocked or limited. I've walked out of metro stations to find groups of students clapping and singing at the top of the stairs (they're called "manifestaciones" which is another term that I think is accurate and evocative at the same time). I was in Valparaíso recently and I heard drumming closeby so I followed the noise to a plaza where hundreds of people were banging pots and pans in support of the students. There is a really vital energy here and it's almost tangible; like right before a lightning storm when the air feels thick, and it's brimming with all kinds of molecules that want to react. Sometimes I like to compare my life to Lord of the Rings and talk about molecules, alright? 

I'm being safe and aware and using my noggin and blah blah blah, but most of all I'm really excited to be here right now. I mean, how cool is it that I get to study in Chile right when studying in Chile is about to change forever?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mind-Numbing Linguistics!

For almost three weeks, I've spoken more Spanish than English. I'm learning bad words and slang, but I'm also adding words like "poetic voice" and "Nerudian" to my vocabulary. Every language filters and shapes the world in a different way, and I'm beginning to realize how differences in grammar and syntax affect the way I think about certain things, depending on what language I'm thinking in. The awareness always happens right around the moment of the "switch" in my brain. Like when I'm reading poetry in Spanish, and I've totally just read three lines without my dictionary and I'm feeling pretty cool until I hit a speedbump word like "amargura...;" my thoughts switch over into English while I look it up in googletranslate ("amargura" means "bitterness" or "sorrow," and I suppose it's a good sign that I'm not walking around Valpo talking about sorrow so often that I know the word in Spanish. Thank you, depressed 19-year-old Pablo Neruda, for that addition to my vocabulary).

Those are the moments when I realize how Spanish arranges thoughts in a different way than English. I've always been grammatically aware that nouns come before adjectives in Spanish. Instead of "the green house" it's "the house green." I think this really simple grammatical fact gives Spanish the quality of unfolding, or blossoming, especially in poetry. The stanza with the word "amargura" actually shows this perfectly: "Y si por la amargura más bruta del destino, / animal viejo y ciego, no sabes el camino, / ya que tengo dos ojos te lo puedo enseñar." Which, reeeeally roughly, means, "And if, by the coarsest bitterness of fate, old and blind animal, you don't know the way, I have two eyes and can teach you." Okay. I'm dorking out major here and boring everyone but, I think this is really cool. The way it kind of burgeons and blooms in Spanish is totally beautiful. When I read "bitterness most coarse" and "animal old and blind," I realize that my expectations shift, so I'm waiting for the noun to lead the sentence rather than the adjectives. I apologize to you all. I promise to write about something really fun next time, like balloons. 

But come on! Language is completely fascinating! It's central in my idea of what it means to be a human, and I will totally argue that point. Maybe that's why people start asking me super easy questions (like "So, do you have brothers and sisters?" when I know that everyone at the table is talking about the education strike), or speak really slowly after I make a stupid grammatical mistake (like "when I was a little girl I will live in California"). If you can't convey your intelligence through language, people don't know you're intelligent.

Soooo I heard the next post is going to be about balloons.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras, secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma."

For the first time in my life, an answer came to me in a dream. The answer addressed the idea of "Latin American-ness" I was thinking about last week, which has become more about getting closer to a definition of what makes Chile the way it is. The streets are filled with people bundled in dark clothes, in unassuming styles, who don't say hello to strangers. And yet every single surface in Valparaiso is covered in street art, the buildings are painted turquoise, pink, and orange, and there are boys who run out in front of the cars stopped at red lights to perform juggling shows all over the city. I think it's a pervasive, somber sensibility tempered by the lingering awareness of complete possibility. And if not possibility then impending frenzy. My host mom works 60-hour weeks and the Errazuriz clubs are all open until 5 a.m. Divorce became legal for the first time in 2004 and Chile has the highest number of ecstasy users in Latin America. I'm not making any connections between any of these things, they're just tellingly odd and contradictory. Back to my revelatory dream.

Of course, I was dreaming about being in class. Probably because I'm really cool. I was sitting at my desk, and I raised my hand and asked the teacher why Chile is the way it is. You're allowed to ask all the vague, dumb questions you want when it's your own dream. He looked at me and said, "Boundaries." How mystical and guru-like is that?! That's all I remember from the dream, but I've been thinking about it for two days. I think the word "boundaries" actually explains a lot about Chile. For one, it's a tiny slice of the Earth bound to the East by the Andes, to the West by the Pacific Ocean, to the South by Antarctica, and to the North by a giant desert. If we can disregard the geometry of a sphere for a second, Chile is basically on the edge of the world. In addition to its extreme geography, Chile is hit with crippling earthquakes every ten years or so, has like a million active volcanoes, and is a tsunami target. No wonder they call it the "Land of Poets." It makes me want to write a love sonnet while I still can. I'm exaggerating. But I do think geography is the underpinning of culture. I mean, duh, right? People show up in a place, they decide to live there, and the society they create is limited and sustained by what's around them. So it makes sense that parties last all night here and so many writers come from Chile and Catholicism is such a major part of the culture. If we're about to get wiped out by mother nature, we should probably confess first. And maybe one of the reasons I love it here is because Chile is like the grim reaper wearing a powder blue leisure suit underneath his robe. It's overcast a lot and people don't walk around smiling, but there is this sense that something amazing might happen, and it might be tonight, so you want to be ready.