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.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Viña Bizarre

Before I left, UNCA Study Abroad gave me a gargantuan packet of information about living in a different country. I remember reading the "culture shock timeline" which outlines the stages of adjustment that you can expect to experience during your semester or year abroad. According to the timeline, the first two weeks are called the "honeymoon phase:" you're in love with this new place and enchanted by everything and you find yourself hugging random chilenos on the street because you love them, too, and you recognize and appreciate the differences between this culture and your home country. Then comes a horrible month ("negotiation phase"), according to this timeline, when the small differences begin to feel alienating rather than charming, and you're frustrated because you can only express yourself at a fourth grade level, and you miss readily available good coffee. I'm filling in some blanks, here. 

At one and a half weeks, I am still in the honeymoon phase. I can't help but grin every time I look out the window of the metro on my way to class and see how the old city curves into a crescent shape around the harbor, or listen to the seagulls calling each other while I boil water for tea every morning. But sometimes I catch glimpses of the cultural "negotiations" to come, like my frustration with the apparent lack of a system involved in catching the micros, or the lukewarm showers that are never long enough, or how the other night a cute little black street dog straight up ate mayonnaise off my pants when a big glob of it fell from the amazing food I was eating (it's called a completo. more about these later). What the hell, street dog? Don't you know that's totally disgusting? And then I accidentally dropped another glob directly onto one of the other street dogs that was hanging around, and the little black one jumped on it's back and ate it. Yes. The dog ate the mayonnaise off the other dog. Cultural negotiation.

I feel like I'm getting the hang of this city, though. Or, rather, these two cities. I live in Viña and go to school in Valpo, and I have been taking the metro because it's new and fun, and I can take a bus anywhere. Swiping my card and going through the turnstile, walking underground to the station, and reading my book while I wait for the train feels so much calmer than basically diving into the street kamikaze style to catch the micros. The Miramar metro stop is about a kilometer from my house, whereas the micro stop is much closer, but it's a really lovely walk right along the one of the main streets in Viña. I can see the ocean through the buildings. 

Notable moments from the past week: 
1) When I ate lunch at my host grandma's house with my entire family, and my 10-year-old cousin periodically shouted the word "Fuck!" to absolutely zero reaction from anyone because they don't know what it means and ten-year-old boys are always yelling things randomly.

2) When I ate a completo. It is a hot dog inside a giant piece of really good bread, surrounded by chopped tomatoes, sauerkraut, and avocado, and then slathered with mayonnaise. This was the food that led to the grim third world moment discussed above. They cost like $2 and there are food stands everywhere that stay open all night and sell them. 

3) The pack of Hello Kitty dogs. There are street dogs everywhere, and they are really friendly to humans because that's the only way they can eat. They sleep on the sidewalks and run around in packs, and some of them even have little jackets. Apparently, my friend Trent saw a pack of these dogs running around, and they were all wearing Hello Kitty sweaters. I believe him. If only because the existence of the homeless Hello Kitty dog pack clears up any lingering question I may have had about what postmodernism is.