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Requiem for a dream

Time July 22nd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I’m not quite sure on what note I want to summarize my time in Chile; my reflections are firmly nestled in the past, relevant once, when they were the catalysts of the present, but this is an ending (or a transition) and to pretend I am a Chilean using my introspection to reintroduce myself into the US would be to ensure the phenomena of never being able to go home again. In some way one can’t return, once I truly engaged the people of both Bolivia and Chile the boarders of my home expanded —or perhaps even disappeared. While I love New Hampshire and the people I’ve reunited with here I call the place “home” with an asterisk, an annotation that leads to small print at the bottom of my thoughts and read something like:

Some experiences may not clearly translate from the language they were experienced in…love and amor are not the same idea, sometimes they have geographic boundaries…the antiplano is as friendly as the Atacama and the White Mountains…

There is really not much more I can go on about. I was there, I am here, I will forever be tied to both places and it is a “thing” that only I own. Returning was not weird nor jarring nor depression-inducing —as a return home shouldn’t be— and I am confident that if I return to the painted streets of Valparaíso or the steep hills of La Paz I will feel the loving weight of the city’s open arms equally as I do here.

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The world is a beautiful place and I am no longer afraid to die (Part 1)

Time June 17th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Blow Up

Nerves se in, calmed, and are now here again. They first arose not too far outside of Viña, where the reality set in that I was left everything on a journey unprepared and potentially unready for the implications that I could never return. Of course, this isn’t my forecast but the idea that I could never get to indulge in an act as simple as hug Moira again stings. Long journeys eventually start to sooth these tensions ––I enjoyed a wider variety of Chilean frontier than I had been accustomed too and the last section of the bus ride through the desert was particularly nice; we climbed rather high into the mountains to a point at which the peaks that had once dwarfed as monoliths on the horizon now sat below as mild scenery. A few small cities exist up there, that is kind of all they do: exist. Stay there with their permanent carnivals that I suppose, when one is surrounded exclusively by rock, make sense of the flashy lights and constant sounds as the only way to drown out the alienation of modernity imposed on a barren land. My thoughts travel often to us; things that have always been a reality but I just couldn’t see. Perhaps it is when I am loneliest that I look past the predilections that isolate me from other people ––though this didn’t close me, if anything I felt connected to another human who was potentially feeling the same hundreds of miles away.

Yet now, in Iquique, my physical seclusion reflects how emotionally stranded I am. I landed here, I need to get to the airport, I have time to kill and yet the nature of the city has already murdered it. It’s these moments that make solo travel such a trial; the inability to immediately turn and find security in another, the constantly fleeting feeling of solace. Perhaps if I keep writing I can remain close.

All the cabbies said they were doing me a favor, it was Sunday after all and the airport is 35 km outside of the city; this was the best price I could expect. Some eve quoted higher than the price all the others told me was standard; I wasn’t feeling to well and even though I needed to get to the airport spending that much didn’t sit right with me. I went for a walk, got harassed by more cabbies and then returned to the bus station. I asked the driver of a south-bound bus if he could drop me at the airport on the way as I really needed to catch a flight at 3:50. He agreed, but when I walked outside the cabbies told me he’d never do it because the police wait right at the airport looking to catch malicious bus drivers helping people get there (it is not a normal stop on any route). They reiterated how generous their offers were. That hour south on the bus was tense; I sat on the edge of my seat close to the door, always watching for the airport on the horizon, paying attention to the velocity of the vehicle ––if they didn’t stop it was another four hundred km to Antofagasta, where my journey would have probably ended.

 

A faster heart, a slower peace

Flying into La Paz  is a wonder of its own, at first one sees the Andes towering above all else on earth, almost looking divine in their juxtaposed grandeur. Then, beneath the blue-white monuments a city begins to form on a high plateau, it grows and grows from scattered houses into a jumble, it tears up the ground into streets, confuses rocky formations with unbuilt houses, and grows and spills over into the valley with a momentum that carries the tide of people down unto it’s depths with such a surge that the splash up the other sides of the bowl. It is as if someone founded a secluded valley in the most remote of places on earth and poured La Paz in until it stretched outward with the Andes.

I helped a dutch traveler find a hostel and figure out the exchanged rate; we now room together and found pizza after an exhaustive search for vegetarian options in nighttime La Paz ––there are plenty of women that grill up food on the street, many with a few benches and a fabric roof where people can sit once they order the food; a standard dish is salad, potatoes, grilled onions, an egg, and llama meat but apparently one cannot eat any of the parts without eating the whole. Thus we settled for pizza. To get to the actual restaurant we walked into one building, through the kitchen, out the back into an ally and then through the kitchen of the pizza place (which was also, more or less, the seating area). Like most foreigners I have met he doesn’t really speak Spanish —most get by on a combination of slow English and gestures— yet the effort to try to share a language with the Bolivians often warms their hearts, if nothing else perhaps purely by a function of contrast. It is here where I first begin to learn I apparently look like an ethnically ambiguous individual; that first night no Bolivians could guess where I was from; many said I speak with the accent of an Argentinian but slightly like a Chilean, yet my look is European (some even said middle eastern). The United States was never elected as an option, surprise always followed the reveal.

Nearly everyone I speak to for a short time praises my Spanish though I know it is not on the same level of the Bolivians I converse with and I assume it is a result of interacting with foreigners who only know slow, imperial English. Sargana street and the surrounding area are interesting: everyone is selling more or less the same alpaca products at more or less the same prices —it is crowded, noisy, and full of Bolivia. Part of this area is an actual witches market; this isn’t just the moniker given to it by foreign tourists but an actual market for the magical goods that remain grounded in indigenous traditions surviving the reach of globalization. The stalls sell everything from painted stone to llama fetuses —burned in the home to induce an abortion— and none of the women want their picture taken as they believe the camera robs part of the soul.

Altitude sickness has set in in the form of a minor headache though, all things considered, I am doing well in the face of a long day of walking and this being my first foray into high altitudes. If anything, this was my biggest concern before arriving to the country, the fact that altitude sickness and its more fatal forms can strike almost randomly as they are not predicated on level of fitness. Water intake remains high, food continues not to escape me, and I am walking as slowly as I can. Bolivians may have adopted a slower lifestyle as a result of the altitude’s coercion but the tendency to walk softly now pervades other facets of Bolivian-ness —most notable to foreigners (and much to their chagrin) restaurant service is characteristically slow, with the expectation that company will have plenty to discuss before and during the meal and thus shouldn’t mind waiting long periods of time for both alimentation and service.

At times I am tempted to contact “home” but I know there is really no point other than to reassure them and stave off some loneliness, yet if done once one finds the need to continually reach outside of their immediate life. This isn’t a tour through Bolivia that I passively enjoy for the sake of “memories” or the newly popularized “bucket list”, this is my actual life right now and I need to engage it. Death road tomorrow.

Put your finger in the socket

From la cumbre the asphalt road open up to a vista many are not ready for, a series of grand mountains continue infinitely into the distance leaving among them enough space for the most beautiful of perilous drops. We were not yet on the Yungas but the paved prelude, the new road that has since cut down the fatalities on the death road from 300 a year to roughly 20. Everything started off dangerous enough; beginning at the back of the pack I quickly overtook most of our group, yet as I was passing two more in a curve I felt my body moving in a different direction than my bike, My seat had come loose at 70km/h, the changes sending my bike into wobbling fits near the edge of the cliffs. Eventually we reached the old Yungas, a road still used by everyone from Taxi drivers and buses to commercial cars and dump trucks. Parts of the road are no more than 10 ft wide (remember, it is officially two lanes), parts go under waterfalls, and almost all of the camino features drops of nearly 400 m —the first time looking over the edge of such a fall on a small road is not even fear inducing, there is no space for fear, all one can do is marvel at the beautiful juxtaposition, be caught in the mix of beauty and death. Those going down the road stay to the left, this way the driver has a better view of how much space their vehicle has before certain death when passing those coming up the road. It is not just cars that do this either; buses, taxi, and freight trucks make the journey through the road that used to claim hundreds of lives a year (traffic used to be 300 cars a day, now it is about 30). Today, following the left edge, we did it on bikes.

The road is actually not a difficult one to cycle; experience will get most through it easily, though a relaxed person could do it without much prior mountain biking —as the guides will tell you, the only fatalities occur from faulty equipment and people doing to road less than 3 days after arriving in La Paz from sea level. You need to let go of your marriage to life and safety, the best way to survive the bumps and turns is to recognize that you could die but what is going to keep you alive is mindfulness on your biking as a form of existence and not as a spacial place which may put you near an edge. At one moment I cam upon a dump truck stopped on the left side, which I figured was waiting there for another large vehicle to pass (given the openness of the area it is easy to see vehicles miles in advance, save blind corners, usually drivers will wait where they know there is space rather than hoping they fit by). I figured I could get around the truck and the mystery vehicle no problem and thus pulled to the right as I came up on the truck. As soon as I did I saw that the oncoming vehicle, another large truck, was also passing. The commitment to pass had already been made, my bike was in line with the back tire of the first truck, I had to go forward. I squeezed through both with no more than a 2 inch margin of error and then had to immediately drift around the back of the passing truck to avoid going off the cliff that accompanied the turn. Passing vehicles can be exhilarating  many wait for them to go by before they start biking again, and, in some places, there is no choices but to pull aside. Sometimes the vehicles are bearing down on you.

One part of the ride I raced a bus down the dusty roads; I knew it couldn’t go too fast without risking going over the edge but it remained a close 10 ft behind me until a local checkpoint —certain parts of the Yungas region use a rope raised or lowered to signal whether or not vehicles can pass into the next area, even though a truck could easily plow through one it is an unspoken rule that people must follow the wishes of the villagers in charge of the checkpoint. Upon coming up to this one the people in charge were not paying much attention; I was almost forced to bail from my bike because the bus behind me had started to slow down (in anticipation of the rope lowering) and yet the rope remained up, right there like a trip wire.

The whole trip was a blast, an enjoyable ride through an exceedingly beautiful region of Bolivia (the waterfalls there are gigantic and gorgeously backgrounded by a swath of greens). Going fast with 400 m drops 2 ft away, drifting around corners, and almost losing control of the bike at several moments —this is where relaxation helps— make for a good day, The area is some of the most beautiful nature in the world, made marvelous by its impressive heights, angles, and drops.

That high feeling

El Alto can feel pointless, like station 2 from Heart of Darkness, it looks like a massive expanse of people working not toward anything but for the symbolic significance of work. Most of the buildings are not finished; some are foundations, others just the skeletons of the whole building, some lack a roof, others have select floors completed and one was entirely dilapidated save a really fancy house perched atop the third and final floor. All of them have bricks out front, some have workers talking by them, and a few have workers doing a few things without making much of any progress. Although El Alto starts concentrated on the cliffs of La Paz it quickly becomes a sparse expanse of small houses, the occasional church, and trash pits strewn about the country side of the Antiplano. It is in these remote locations where one usually sees workers working. Trucks stop to refuel or pick up stuff but there seems to be no story of how the cargo gets there no where it goes, nor even if it is taken. El Alto feels like it has something imposed on it.
100 Years of Solitude

Ideological transfigurations ensure that we are all ghosts to some extent, alienated and estranged from our own history, relying on the safety of mimicry. Traveling gets lonely fast. That’s not an axiom, of course, I am just speaking for myself. Tonight is particularly isolated, the lack of camaraderie palpable; a bunch of events transpired at once and, although insignificant on their own, culminate in how I feel now. I am in a cafe with bright walls trying to seem worldly; they feature photos of famous musicians that have never visited, various cultural knick knacks, and signs in French and Italian. Everyone seems to know everyone else,  but that’s not the issue; although I am potentially trying to drown my feelings in food no amount of fettuccine  will erase my departing from the dutch man I grew close with in La Paz, nor will it retroactively make the bus ride the normal 7 hours rather than the 9.5 it became, and by no feat will it change the feeling of arriving in the dangerous part of a foreign city at night and not being able to find a cab for the longest time. Travel exacerbates the most alienating parts of day to day life; the lack of security, the unavailability of immediate companionship, and just how fragile happiness is. I don’t know what to do, as of now my plans, tentative as the were, are in peril. The past few days  were fun, the interactions great and, even then, likely to draw attention to how I miss certain aspects of my “normal” life. Just people I’d like to travel with, I guess. Part of me wants to call a lot of this off, skip to Tupiza for the southwest circuit tour, spare myself the agony of the several other longer bus trips on the horizon, and be closer to the thing my life wants the most right now —an engagement with the natural world, a person close to me, and an environment in which I don’t feel like the onus is constantly on me to break some nebulous viel of un-interaction with the world. Time is longer while on the road and it is starting to concern part of me, but sometimes the worst voices are the loudest.

Cochabamba is odd. Although a lot of the city is lain out in a grid it feels chaotic. Although cars constantly fill the principle streets with noise a lot of the roads feel desolate, even dangerous at times, as if everything has gone silent in anticipation. The food in Cocha is wonderful; it is varied, tasty, and, like much of Bolivia, cheap. The clubs are good too, whereas nightlife in La Paz felt virtually nonexistent Cochabamba offers a variety of well-kept places with some of the most colorful variety of drinks. But that’s what Cochabamba is: an expectation. The anticipation of a foreign tourist that adorns the walls of cafes and lights the clubs. The assumption of Catholicism that litters the city with churches which make an otherwise uniform set of city blocks feel differentiated. Even the expectation that you won’t venture beyond the center; maybe you were told not to, maybe hostels and clubs were what you wanted, but what’s more likely is that once you see these areas you won’t continue. They don’t feel like tourist Cocha (they don’t want to), there are run down futbol courts, even less stable streets, streets with distinctions that are not easy to anticipate, and a bustle that is less predictable. This, the city at the fringes of the center, is where cocha is.

The Park of Forking Paths

Here it feels as though Bolivia tried to preserve something rather than work toward what the world was asking of it. The buildings are old and beautiful, the parks sedate but also grand; it is what we think of when us cosmopolitans summon the word culture. It’s why Europe is more rich, a more pristine notch on a traveler’s belt than the US, why the streets of Buenos Aires feel fun but maybe not the bends of La Paz. We aren;t even really seeking any of it, we’ve prefigured culture to the next colonial church or oil painting; we know what culture is, we’ve already experienced it, sometimes we just want proof. Sucre is just that, it hands you the cultural production you are asking for —not intentionally, of course, this is your fault— and asks you to forget the Bolivia you thought you knew. I won’t lie, it is a wonderful city, somehow the parks are the perfect size for secluded inclusion, the sky is always clear, the food better and cheaper and larger than much of Bolivia. I am a bit pacified, I don’t pay attention to my body shaking, my gait lapsing, nor my hands and feet losing feeling. Like the day of the week or time of day I am no longer cognizant of altitude, I might as well be at sea level before I try to sprint, but it feels like it is insidiously creeping up on me.

Sucre reveals itself at 4pm (more or less). Historic buildings open to tours, the tourists wake up, and the poorer Bolivians from the outer neighborhoods return to sell everything. There’s a market off the center of town which is a labyrinth of shops; street-side the storefronts vend DVDs, toys, personal beauty products and other effects…

The cafe I am sitting in has a window that looks onto the street and a table built into the window at about 1 ft off the ground so that the tabletop and sidewalk form a singular plane separate by a pane of glass. Whenever children walk by they are mesmerized: one smiles when I notice him, others jump about when I quickly throw them a funny glance, one even starts brushing the window with a long balloon he has. Am I a foreigner to them? 

As soon as one looks into the shops they realize a staircase or hallways leads back, there begins the twist and turn of vendors of similar wares, which eventually give way to an indoor market. Not everyone is occupying their triangular stalls but everything from freshly killed goat to homemade cheese can be purchased. From here begin other hallways to other storefronts but also a courtyard where old women sit among giant sacks of potatoes and wait for customers

When solitary people walk by the are fixated, we certainly don’t know one another but would they like to change that? Do they want to know why I am sitting in a cafe writing and staring out a window? Are they lonely, are they trying to reach out of their normal life, is the act all they need? Men look the least, they always posses a forward gaze, not so they can reach something but rather so they can make sure people watching believe what they feign —why isn’t my gaze sufficient? They also often reassert their connections to their female companions when they catch her being curious. A couple will be walking down the street for a long time without any contact and it is only in that momentary pause of possibility that an arm reaches firmly for a waist to signal that there is none.

The foreign tourists mostly keep to themselves, nearly all of them traveling with a member of the same sex, either on vacation or carrying over prepared backpacks (and front packs…). None of them venture into the market and even less make it far enough to see the fringes of it (it is in an area just on the fringes of the european-esque parts). Like in La Paz none of them really speak much to the locals and they only really interact with them when they need something to eat or drink.  Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves in center Sucre.
I love you Jesus Christ

Going to bed is the worst, never fall in love:

The street children call me Jesus Cristo, they start to look the same; battered cups, bags of trash, and runny noses. I’d love to give money to help all of them but what does that do when the world will just go on to create more. The man who stopped me was from Potosí, in the city seeking medical treatment —apparently writing in this journal draws people to me, first Enzo-Reyes and now Roberto— his family grew crops, an accident had deformed his hands, and the treatment was going to cost too much. His gaze begged for money before he even began to talk, but he never outright asked me for any, just elaborated continuously until I reached a point at which I would fold. We talked for a long while, eventually drawing a crowd of street children. I am no sure I look wealthy —certainly a quick glance around the plaza and one would readily spot more affluent looking individuals than I— but it was something in how I held a conversation that drew the,. I genuinely talked with Roberto despite his intent being clear, his lack of money, and battered hands. I spoke too with the children in the same manner. Passerby stared —Roberto said it was because everyone here is rich by Bolivia’s standards so none of them have to care about the country— it shouldn’t be a gift to talk to someone genuinely.

When a museum hosts a film /documentary festival or showing, often on some human rights related topic, it draws a certain crowd, and with them arrives a thick air of a specific attitude; it involves looking down on those who aren’t as worldly, aware, and horrified. The same presence is what you find when hanging out with foreigners from the global north abroad; they’re often in cafes, maybe at film screenings (always subbed in English) or at a bar. They talk about the local population but not with them, the wonder how people can be so ignorant about the world without ever acknowledging what is happening to people back home and how they might even play a part in it all. Ostensibly, the don some item associated with the local cultural garb and work it into an otherwise mass produced set of clothes, as if to say “don’t forget I am modern, but I am also a cosmopolitan”. It looks like a pretty euphoric circle-jerk.

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Gastronomy: predicting fate through the alignment of food

Time May 22nd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

One of the things that fascinates people is foreign food, the allure of something so ostentatiously not normal during a time and practice that most feel is obviously normal. In a grotesque sense, this is the American scoping out the foreign McDonald’s for abnormalities in the menu. I’m not really interested in taking photos of food and declaring to people “look at the funny/yummy/adjective things I’m eating!”, nor does my disposition favor that typical blogging direction, but, nonetheless, I’ve decided to list some of the more interesting cuisine I’ve quaffed in Chile. In a country as large as Chile it would be foolish to claim dishes are static. The north sees an increased use of quinoa and mango, both of which are produced in a region whose food is sometimes closer to Peruvian cuisine. The south, on the other hand, tends to have a greater influence of mapuche culinary practices as well as certain crops only endemic to that area —for instance, Chiloe is said to produce the best potatoes in the world and is a staple of southern Chile’s diet. That said, the middle region enjoys the splendors of all other areas (plus a wealth of tomatoes) and, even then, many dishes are consistent only with region product substitutions. With some of the anthropology out of the way it’s time to move on to the food:

Principle dishes

Humita

Fresh corn, basil, onion and sometimes pepper are combined to form a masa harina that is placed inside a horn husk that is folded and tied together with it’s own loose ends so that it looks like a small parcel. On occasion sugar is added to the inside to make the mixture sweet. The whole this is boiled and then served wrapped, usually with fresh tomato slices or a spicy sauce, sometimes sauteed vegetables. 

Pastel de choclo

A paste of sweet corn is lain on top of a filling that Chileans call pino —or protein (beef or, in my case, soy protein) mixed with onion and paprika— which is on top of a layer of cooked eggs (some also add olives and/or raisins to this layer). The whole thing is baked together until the top layer is a crispy golden brown.

Papas rellenas

Baked potato surrounding cheese and mushrooms, packed together in a small, oval shape, cooked until golden brown on the outside —at which point the potato mixture has a consistency that resembles friend dough— and then topped with powdered sugar. Sometimes meat is used as a filler as well. 

Charquicán/carbonatta

If a group of people are talking, their conversations so passionate and involved that an outsider coming into the circle would result in them hearing a chaotic mess of garbled tales and no clear connections then what has manifested is charquicán. In culinary terms this came to signify any large mass of vegetables and spices cooked together in a similar way that a stir-fry might signify a general umbrella term under which a cook’s creativity can flourish. Now there are some staples of the dish, which include: potato, pumpkin, corn, and onion. Other favorites to add are peas, spinach, and peppers —though again, anything goes. Sometimes the whole mess is served with a fried egg on top and it is nearly always eaten with a side of onions in ceviche. Personally, I think it works best when a ton of merkén is added.

Carbonatta is simply a variant of the charquicán dish, adding more rice and more water with the goal of having a more stew-esque mixture. Some eve say Cazuela —a stew with one full half of corn, one large half of a potato, large slice of pumpkin, and large piece of meat in a broth— is a third variant of this family of dishes, all of which bear names that have the same origin.

Fruit:

Caqui

With a quick glance the red skin, smooth texture, and green stem of fruit look like a tomato. The caqui comes from a tree found throughout Chile, one whose fruits do not really begin to mature until the leaves have fallen off ––most farmers take advantage of this, picking the fruits while still green so as to get them to market before they ripen, but if one were to encounter the tree naturally they would find a beautiful silver-grey tree surrounded by dried leaves and holding a wealth of red-orange fruits. Most Chileans buy the fruit and let it mature for days in their houses; once it is a bright red-orange, soft, and the body is practically melting off the stem the two are pulled apart, the skin peeled down like when one opens a banana, and the insides are eaten with a spoon. The marmalade-esque texture is complemented by a flavor that combines the Chinese persimmon with a hint of a mango. It is subtly sweet, smooth, and easily confusable with a prepared desert.

Feijoa

On the outside it looks like a slightly longer, smother lime. Inside it has the texture of a slightly tougher, and less mushy, banana. The taste is mildly acidic, sweet and yet slightly sour at the same time, conjuring flavors of guava, strawberry, and pineapple with a pleasant (and noticeable) aftertaste of wintergreen. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable things about eating a feijoa is that as soon as it is cut the aroma fills the room, this particular fruit does not have a smell that one would expect as in genuinely smells like a fine perfume (with your eyes closed you could not tell the difference).

Pepino dulce

When mature the pale yellow skin is highlighted with purple strips that look like the result of a quick attempt to paint the fruit in a more attractive manner. The flavor recalls a mix of honeydew melon and cucumber, perhaps some papaya.

Cherimoya

Oblong-ish, oval, and somewhat smooth it feels similar to an avocado when ripe (though is the size of a grapefruit). Inside it has a white, creamy flesh filled with black seeds. Remove them and one is free to eat the flesh which tastes of banana, pineapple, papaya, peach, and strawberry and has the marvelous texture of good sherbet.

Murta

Small, reddish (or purplish) berries that were called “Uni” by the Mapuche who first harvested them (they are only found in southern Chile). It has the texture of a creamier Asian pear with an equally sweet flavor ––kinda like a mix between strawberries and vanilla cream with a strong presence of guava. Some Chileans say it tastes like cotton candy.

Desert:

Alfajor

There’s no one way to make these pastries that originated on the Iberian peninsula, but one thing is for sure they no longer adhere to the traditional Spanish recipe (this is due to the lack of availability of ingredients in early South America). They almost always have manjar/dulce del leche and can have fruit marmalade included. The desert is two round biscuits joined together by manjar or fruit, the whole thing is then covered in powdered sugar or, more often, some type of chocolate. Sweet, soft, and addicting.

Murta con mebrillo/ descarcasada

In the first the fruit and the grain (usually something like quinoa) are cooked together with sugar; the water comes out of the fruit and joins with the sugar to make a sweet syrup for the murta and quinoa to be consumed in. The other one has peaches de-pitted and cooked with sugar to make a syrup that they are left in. When ready to consume they are poured into a bowl with a grain like quinoa and eaten. The mixture of soft fruit, sweet juice, and slightly tougher grains makes the dish an interesting one to consume.

Bourbon cookies from Tip top

Although these can only be found in Viña del mar they are certainly worth mentioning, The name says it all, tip top makes a thin, crispy cookie out of little more than bourbon, butter, and sugar. Everyone says it is best to eat them fast before they loose their crispiness ––if nothing else, it’s a good excuse to quaff them down.

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A theory on testing space

Time May 9th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The first time I sat down to take an exam in Chile it was close to that United States “here is your exam, please take this seriously, tests are the only means by which we can evaluate your knowledge and abilities, remember you are competing” style; this occurred in one of the program classes where one would expect the “rigor” and “integrity” of US academics to find its mirror image ––in all fairness to a very good Spanish professor, the snarky semblance to US exams is only important from a relative lens which I wish to explore, albeit implicitly. When I sat down to take my second exam I was handed a piece of a long piece of paper with a question at the top, and as I though to myself “fantastic, essays demonstrate a better ability to synthesize knowledge” the professor left the room, noting she would not return and that the tests were to be brought to her office. I am told this is not a rarity in Chilean schools.

There is another phenomena in Chile, one which, given the institutions I attend, have not been subject to but is evidently held in high regard. That is, during periods of examination the male students are expected to dress in suits and take their exams thusly dressed. If what I mentioned above was an insidious ideology working its way into the exams of Chilean schools then this is most certainly its ostentatious counterpart: tests are not always about the material, nor managing the material, nor even the content of the test. Sometimes the theory and the ideas are irrelevant, sometimes it is more important how one comes dressed to confront them.

Obviously my professor leaving during the political theory exam did nothing to undermine the content of the test, to this minute the question and potential exist in the same perpetuity, yet although she mentioned the test should obviously be answered alone (her words, not me moralizing), the thoughts of what would ensue once she left the room must have followed her ––or rather, entered the room with her and remained there in her absence. The university in question is a professional one, it teaches engineers, scientists, and economists/business people and hopes to disseminate them among the global work force; they are not there, as even some I’ve talked to have subsequently put it: to waste time learning about literature, politics, or cultures dead or alive. No, it would be too easy to ignore that stuff, to divorce one’s life completely from from even something as pervasive as “politics” because your prospect is a well paid job; that’d be too easy, and it is.

The dynamic is more than that, for there are two principle actors complicit in this. Knowingly leaving the room, even remarking that one should not cheat, is a tacit acknowledgement of what is to ensue; it is not enough for the professor to make a test easy enough to not be studied for and then subsequently passed, but rather the test environment must be transformed into a space in which the “real” lessons are learned. Examination thus occupies a space of integrity or at least ostensibly so; the options are two fold: one is to maintain the superficial trappings of honesty despite an acknowledgement that it need to be practiced when the act of it is no longer in view, when confronted with the potential for honesty it is okay to break one’s earlier “promise” so long as it is reconstituted when back in public. Some Chilean students have claimed the act of the professor leaving the room for the examination is a conditioning exercise to inculcate these rising professionals with honesty and integrity. I will not follow these students for the next few years while they round out their college careers but I cannot imagine how several consequence-free Pavlovian sessions do anything but foment the act and the collective lie that covers it.

Humanities do not serve the same purpose here in Chile as many assert they do elsewhere in the world. While I will not claim that there are any universal moral systems that the humanities neither do nor should teach what they often impart are the ability to introspect, analyze, and, eventually, remove oneself from the naturalized orders of life that dig channels for our free will and make natural laws out of human ideas. From what I have encountered in Chilean schools humanities can be a space for the opposite, a place to acknowledge not only their uselessness in the face of success but also to throw the value of humanities back at itself in a display of conscious dis/(mis)-acknowledgement. This is not to assert that any other countries necessarily facilitate a better educational system as a whole ––certainly I could spend my life writing blog posts about the shortcomings and contradictions at play my university alone––  but rather to treat Chile as a case for Chile. If any Chilean laments the corruption of their politics, the idea that the country seems to be run by a collusion between business men and lawyers, or the fact that politics are full of stale, traditional appearances rather than (unelectable) fresh ideas tell them to kindly look at their schools and have the mysteries revealed.

It is certainly worth noting where women (don’t) factor into this dynamic. As touched upon earlier the men are the ones that must wear the proper attire for examination day, with women apparently not needing to learn the virtues of integrity, honesty, and their subsequent negation. If I know anything about Chile it is that this is not the case, there is certainly no valorization of the superb character of women and their inherent ability to fulfill roles to which men must aspire and be instructed to learn. Women are simply left out of the narrative. They can certainly aspire, but perhaps they need to aspire in a more “appropriate” direction.

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Bonfire of our vanities

Time May 3rd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

“It’s Mayday.”

“No, I think it’s their labour day or something.”

“It’s el día internacional de los trabajadores, everyone has the day off and, even if they didn’t, they’d take the day off; there’s too much to fight for, we can’t afford not to.”

“I don’t care, as long as we have the day off from school. Usually I have to wake up early on Wednesday but tomorrow I get to sleep in.”

The energy in Viña del Mar and Valparaíso concentrated, a story of silence I imagined being repeated miles up the coast from Reñaca and Con-con onward, a juxtaposition identical to a solitary heart attack, the world in silence, the air thick, the center thumping and struggling, palpitating, an arrhythmia of people ––el pueblo–– trying to determine whether it would revivify itself for a little longer or succumb to the stress and bow out. We all knew what would happen in Santiago ––a peaceful protest surrounded by flames, broken glass, doused in chemicals in front of a wall of shields and rifles; we could hear the accusations of delinquency, todo es insólito y insolente–– but we were Valparaíso. We had nothing to prove over Santiago, they were our comrades in this struggle, and we could only help them by being ourselves.

“The funny thing about Mayday is that it’s no more than a cough in the dusty pages of history in the very place it started.”

––funny is certainly not an appropriate word––

“Where’s that?”

“¡Solidaridad con Chicago con Canada con Bahrain¡” The loudspeaker on the back of the truck let out cries of acknowledgement; of course it was not only Valpo and Santiago, of course this was not simply labour day, como si fuemos connected no through the truck that lead the thousands through the streets but the fists in the air, the smiles on the faces, and the chants that overtook the volume of the loudspeaker. An hour before the march began Plaza Sotomayor was as empty as the rest of Valpo. One could at least see the occasional car or micro drive through, but the amount of people there could have easily been memorized.

“Do you know what our government calls it now? The day of loyalty and law. Eisenhower dreamed that up, our day of labour was taken from us and moved months away; we were not only alienated from our own production pero from context and celebration.”

Red flags rounded corners into the plaza, toy horns made their presence known, a crew of drummers eventually arrived, and as people hugged and shook hands and asked questions the plaza finally regained its life. The noise that enlivens the streets is born in the breath of the pueblo, and the people were ready to make this known. Before everything got underway a tour group of American students stopped by the plaza and sequestered a man for the large Chilean flag is was holding. They snapped a photo with their activists faces and their fists halfheartedly pumped, returned the flag and left before things got too rowdy ––if there is one truth about South Americans it is that their impassioned populism always turns violent, thank safety for our democracy.

“Anyway, I’m going to take the time to do the homework I’m behind on, there are too many clubs here.”

There were various groups present; MIR is still alive, CUT is going strong, and various other shades of red an scholarship amassed in the streets. Jovenes lead by their mothers were a favorite of many, as were the ancianos fighting for pensions and tax changes, and those wishing to stop the construction of new malls. To me, the most empowering “factions” were two of the smaller ones. One was a group of women with taped mouths and a banner, they sought to call attention to the unaddressed sexism still very much alive in Chile ––despite my pride in social movements it is no secret that they are far from perfect, on this particular day in Valpo only a few women spoke at the final rally and sexism was not a subject beyond the banner of those few women. No struggle should take more precedent than another, but to ignore aspects of what makes us human while fighting with and, for some, on behalf of humans is a dangerous precipice. The other empowering group was a man and two women holding the flags of Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. From academics and progressive to church goers and the devoutly religious, Peruvians and Bolivians are hated in Chile; people see them a poor, dirty, inept individuals looking for jobs in Chile but not class ––which Chileans think they can offer in abundance. These three flags were another message that needs to be clearer.

Ultimately, I do not speak for Chileans, I do not speak for Americans, I do not speak for any entity beyond myself, but I can’t help but think even those comfortable enough to not take to the streets would benefit from it ––then again, that South American socialism could be getting to me. Though I saw none in Valpo plenty of Americans took to the streets back home, fighting for education reform, immigrants rights, and several other worthy ideas that are often left out of the quotidian conversations (in a meaningful way). My heart goes out to all those that fought this mayday, whether in the streets or in spirit, thank you all.

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Food and Chileanness

Time May 3rd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

When considering food visuals are often as far as we get; if a meal looks good we eat it, reflect on the taste, smell, and presentation, and, for the more culinary-inclined, perhaps we inquire about the ingredients. Yet food is an important window into the lives of those who make, not just in what is used, but how food is talked about, prepared, consumed, even conceptualized. While I could go into an analysis of what ingredients characterize the culinary landscape of Chile ––carne, mariscos, pan y queso, if you’re interested in a quick primer–– but what has intrigued me are the number of meals each day. There used to be five (kinda) and now there are four (kinda) though it’s really more like three with a conceptual nod to a fourth. Let me explain.

Desayuno

The first meal of the day. To Chileans breakfast does not carry any of that complex rhetorical baggage that it does in the U.S. ––only reason I make the comparison here is to draw the attention to the fact that while breakfast is proclaimed as the most important meal of the day it is often skipped, and the cultural emphasis is placed on dinner. To many bread with butter or marmalade (and perhaps a glass of milk) is a fairly standard breakfast. Of course, this is by no means the rule, but while the fare may deviate desayuno is a practice most Chileans partake in.

Almuerzo

In all respects this is the most important meal to Chileans. People leave work at 2pm, return around 4 or 4:30pm, and eat with friends or family. Given the size of the meal it can be broken down further into several parts:

Aperativo: This is a drink which proceeds the meal, usually a wine or pisco sour. Served with the beverage are nuts, cheese, crackers, and preserves (such as eggplant, red pepper, and garlic spread for crackers). Restaurants feature some variation of this, as do middle to upper-middle class households. Chileans, ever aware of class, will be the first to tell you that if someone serves mani (usually on its own) they most certainly lack class.

Entrada: Soup, salad, or some other dish which many would call an appetizer. Salads are common year round, with soups gaining prominence in the fall and winter months, when Chileans use it as a source of warmth in the face of a nation without central heating ––it’s probably not needed here, but that’s not why it’s absent.

Plato principal: This usually consists of meat and a starch, such as potatoes or rice. Veggies, while inexpensive in Chile, often do not make it past the salads ––okay, they are present just not in any nutritionally recommended amount. Hearty, large, and the focus of the most important meal this is what really brings the desenlace that follows the meal (contrary to popular belief, not all people that speak castellano fetishize the idea of a siesta).

Everyone, perhaps with the exception of students, eats this meal. That’s not to say that students go hungry at lunch, but that they often don’t have as grand of a feast. School cafeterias sell food and many parents pack a sandwich or microwaveable dish and some snacks, but there’s never any pisco.

La hora de té

Tea time is exactly what it sounds like: a midday moment set aside to drink tea and eat a snack ––usually cookies, or bread with marmalade. However, this meal is all but not existent, its presence exist more or less in vernacular only. University life pushed this out of the way, as many students were not returning home until the late afternoon, a gap in which eating would have jeopardized the next meal.

Once

Sandwich (palta, queso, tomate, mayonesa) is the standard far. Though equally common is bread with cheese, marmalade, butter, tomato slices, and egg (obviously the consumers elect which of those ingredients share space on their bread). At this moment once and la hora de té are synonymous concepts, thought with distinct connotations. Most people call this meal once and never mention tea time (though tea or mate is consumed during this meal). Restaurants serve once, families say once, and, for all intents and purposes, the meal is once. Yet to some it is la hora de té, and those tend to be families of higher classes, almost always with a maid that visits the house. It’s a slightly more refined idea to the Chileans that use it, the lexical change serving only the purpose of reinforcing identity distinctions to themselves and their friends. From what I’ve gathered the idea very much comes from the west ––with no origin in pre-colonial Chile–– meaning it could even be another attempt to align oneself with a western identity. Once definitely exists, la hora de té, kinda.

Cena

A larger dinner, usually later in the night, dishes larger than sandwiches or bread and spreads, but not as extensive nor grandiose as almuerzo. Not many Chileans eat this anymore, nor can many afford to. Logically, if tea was pushed back into once (which itself had occupied a later hour as tea first encroached) then cena would have moved so close to bed time that eating it would have seemed foolish. Indeed, Chileans no longer see any rational for a large meal in the evening, an ethos captured in the popular saying: “Breakfast like a king, lunch like the middle class, and sup as if you were poor”. Now the adherence to this is not exactly spot on, with breakfast not being a large affair while lunch is most certainly more “fit for kings”. What we can see is another injection of class-based rhetoric into dining, which, for those who can afford to eat like kings and joke about the impoverishment of their quantities, masks otherwise visible inequalities.

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Two versions of time

Time April 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

As I reach the halfway point of my studies in Chile I find it is easiest to reflect on the present and future; the past is but a series of dark rooms filled with dusty cobwebs, the “truth” a nebulous light one follows through the valley the exists between memories and desire. The future, on the other hand, is not that cliched light at the end of the tunnel that we like to think it is; that charming fantasy is the past, a track that guides us forward on the idea that what has happened must necessarily shape what will. No, the future is much more insidious, it is a wrenching feeling about how to leave the present; how to make moments stretch, elongate, and compress to reach the next moments we want to consciously enjoy and label “present”.

Right now I’m living two versions of time simultaneously. The split won’t show in this post ––though I will try to describe each experience–– and can best be described as the ground being pulled out from underneath me just as I’m settling in to enjoy the scenery.

The first is certainly not mindfulness, rather it is a desire to remain in a position to be mindful of this new area; I want these next three months to be long and full of Chilean-ness, I want them to track the sun across the sky but each in a distinct way, and, in some sense, I want home to be a word I no longer apply to the States. In many respects I’d love to remain here, explore outside of Chile and really acquaint myself with the entire continent. At this juncture I have neither the time nor money to do so ––or so we tell ourselves–– but life in Spanish is beguiling; it’s nice to struggle to articulate myself at times, to search for words, to not dominate a conversation because I’m incapable of doing so. There are, of course, other things on this timeline’s horizon; hikes in various countries, adventures, cities, and unknowns. Many, perhaps most, will not be reached in the way this timeline thinks; perhaps later in life I can graft these illusions on to feasibility, but for now the thoughts remain an appreciative slowness.

The second speed is one of realizing one is nearing the end of a sprint; it’s not that the finish is in sight and that I need to reach it for the sake of having completed  a semester in a foreign country, but that life after study abroad has particularly wonderful attractions. This timeline is a combination of the things I miss, the things I’m yet to do that do not conform to the reality of the other timeline, and things I want in my life again (this differs from purely missing something in that these are aspects of life that are not tied to specific geographic locations nor even people, at times). On this front I’m excited to have life filled with tons of laughter again ––I mean constant and uproarious–– to cook meals for myself, or just stay up all night playing mah jong. It’s one of the feelings that leads into the “it’s good to be home” sensation.

Neither is a better feeling, a more correct feeling, nor even a more desired one, but they are my multiple versions of time right now, two ways of seeing the hands on the clock turn.

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If you saw what goes on at naval bases you’d be suprised we fight wars.

Time April 19th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The British had a base on the beach made out of wood, beautiful material, especially in contrast to what our quarters are usually made of, in thirty years I’ve never seen a nicer looking naval base, but that wasn’t all. Inside all the walls were covered with paintings of naked women, Do you know what that means? “Desnudos”. Yes, beautiful naked women everywhere And their beach was heated,  I couldn’t believe it the first time I set foot on it but, day and night, that sand never got cold. 

One day we were having a beach party with the Argentinians, a cook out, only they didn’t have any supplies; they had lost it all gambling on football games and we realized that if war ever broke out between Argentina and Chile the government would have to decide what it would rather fund, football or the war ––and, even then, supplies would only arrive in time for us to enjoy them at their bases. Anyway, all of our bases were near an active volcano or something because as we were having the beach party an island started to form off the coast in the water; the British, who had their base right there, went on high alert and frantically accounting for their members on the beach. Well, the helicopters that came in to rescue the sailors were Chilean, as we had some stationed at the base, and so we saved the Argentinians and the British that day.

On another occasion I was stationed in Bogotá, “Colombia”, back before things really started to pick up. Every night when the admiral went home he’d get in an armored car, drive out the gates of the base and then down two blocks where the driver would park and walk the admiral into a safe house. There he got out of his uniform and put on a ton of local garb, I mean colorful clothes and hats and all sorts of stuff, a real maricón, “Got that? Mar-i-cón.” Si…, and from there he’d walk two blocks into another safe house where he’d meet a jewelry maker and he’d get a gemstone broach with something engraved in it. Those were his orders.

And, sailing to Spain, all you could hear over the radio was this jungle music, stuff they play on the streets of Brazil, “For capoeira?”, don’t know what that is but it’d just be this really low beat with a constant “hooga hooga hoogaaa hoooga” over and over most of the way to Spain, that’s all we had to listen to on the radio.

This lecture was transcribed and translated almost exactly as it was spoken by a Chilean Marine. Viva Chile.

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“We need an Anthropologist”

Time April 11th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It was my first time white water rafting and probably the second or third time in my life zip-lining through a canopy; there are highlights, sure ––not hesitating when the rafting guide urged us to jump out of the boat mid-rapids, or perhaps narrowly avoiding trees that the zip-line was perhaps placed too close to–– but the memories all rest comfortably in the shade of something much larger, a presence greater than myself, the collection of my thoughts, and even the memories held collectively. In some respects it’s an interesting juxtaposition; I’ve skydived, I’ve now white-water rafted, I’ve done the normatively thrill-seeking things that I’m supposed to want to do ––the stuff of adventure stories, of vacations-not-travel, of uniquely western ideas like “bucket lists”.  Rest easy family and friends, fellow students, others I may meet back home, I am now officially permitted to die happy and fulfilled.

Pucon is not a beautiful place, it’s masquerading as one, the settlement is dishonest. The area known as the lakes region is home to forests with a green and cold reminiscent of home, and several large volcanoes that do nothing short of captivate (though I doubt they intend to). Imposed on this landscape is town of all the amenities; restaurants with chiefly American food, nice hotels, gift shops, and all sport the faux-log cabin exterior that lets us really know we’re roughing it. Hot springs abound in the area and, after some long walking, they are admittedly nice(ish). Our journey ended here.

The first place we stayed was a small Mapuche village on lake Budi where we roomed in some Rukas. These straw huts are thatched well enough to stop the rain from seeping in, and sport a nice fire -pit in the center as a way to warm the entire structure. Here we slept, talked, and ate fresh bread with blackberry jam and cheese in the morning. However our first introduction to the Mapuche was a game played on long, narrow court with curved sticks used to bat a ball around. It is reminiscent of field hockey, and played be only men. Hearing this I was tempted to stop, but the rain forced that almost immediately after learning we could not let our female companions sub in (truth be told, the majority were not inspired to play anyway, favoring sideline chatting. Still, equality from both side would be nice). Although the rain was soothing the reality of the game had soured the otherwise beautiful countryside that surrounded us; it is never nice to be reminded that oppression exists, though equally depressing was the fact that this confrontation with ostentatious sexism caused the first semblance of feminism I had seen in anyone.

Over lunch the next morning the professors from the community school told me they very much needed an anthropologist in their community, an ally that they wanted to help articulate their stories more widely and perhaps even outside of Chile. There are several ideas that simply do not come to mind when Chileans think of this homologous monolith of indigenous people called “Mapuche”. Yes, they all want their land to be returned, but there is far more to the proverbial story. What one first notices when meeting many Mapuche is that they lack what some may think of as traditionally Mapuche names. In fact, almost every Mapuche for the last 30 years has received a catholic name at birth even if they no longer bear it today. The professors said the practice is an attempt to spare their children some of the pain involved with being a Mapuche in Chile, to not give them a mark that they believe immediately identifies an individual with some sort of shame in the mind of many Chileans. In their young adult years children are able to reclaim their Mapuche-ness in the form of acquiring a name based in the mapudungun language ––either self-selected or revealed as an alternative birth name conceived by their parents.

The Mapuche of lago Budi also reject the idea that the Aracaunía was ever pacified; to them the “land reform” fundamentally fractured the foundations of their cosmology. Luf, a sense of home and community based it the land but strengthened socially, is no longer alive to these professors. Although the mapuche (technically Huenche, or people of the mountain top) we met near Villarica believe that, although unfortunate, their luf shrank rather than disappeared, the Mapuche of lago Budi think their luf cannot exist until the traditional lands are restored. Although social relations didn’t appear more dire in one area than the other , a strong belief exists near lago Budi that something is missing and ruining the community.

Near Villarica we helped harvest piñones, a nut-fruit that makes up the bulk of the Huenche’s yearly diet but is only available for one to two months each year. The community may be small but the harvest is still grand. We walked around the base of the volcano to a chilly lake and searched for tree hearts (wood with crystalized minerals that leave translucent yellow lines in cross-sections) with our guide Pablo. Here too we heard a rejection of the idea that pacification ever took place; while the Huenche appear to have reigned themselves to the changes more than the Mapuche have they still think the state is acting unjustly and attempting to cover that up with euphemisms. However, most of our time with the Huenche was spent in the woods harvesting food or trekking around the base of Villarica so it’s hard to make any further conclusions about their beliefs.

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Unlimited space-time. Finite Context.

Time April 1st, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Under the guise of travel blogging it is acceptable to brag, or rather aggrandizing one’s life occupies a position of new-found meaning: exploring the world is not an activity everyone is fortunate enough to enjoy, for when I post countless photos to the internet and write blog posts detailing how amazing I’m convinced my life is and remind my friends that I am not where they are it is viewed as a product of providence ––rather than the pleadings of a pesky attention seeker, as such things may be received by a US audience if I did the same about daily life in the states. For some, study abroad is an impetus to do more fantastic things ––be it buying a ticket to the next country over or exploring a locale of worldwide fame–– yet it’s not as though we lack any of these in the United States. If anything, as a resident of the contiguous states it is much cheaper for me to fly outside of New York and stay with friends than it is to bus to Argentina and stay at a hostel. Granted, the experiences are not analogous and there certainly are parts of Latin America that cheaper for tourists, but these aren’t the places people studying here tend to want to go ––there is a pretty clear “understanding” of where is safe and where one should not tread (or, more egregiously, where North Americans are not wanted). The fears are founded in little more than expertly wielded (mis)context, but they remain fears nonetheless. Cultural misunderstanding cannot, however, be the only roadblock, for if safety was the only concern people would have no issue traversing most of the US. No, as with many things, it is not simply of matter of what was around us at home but what is around us no that we are in not-home. An exotic outlook does wonders for the mind.

Regardless, I feel compelled, for a moment, to relish in some of the experiences I’ve enjoyed over the past week but have lacked the context to share ––an odd statement coming from a creator of their own context. I’ll touch on them as they existed, fleeting moments tied to the shackles of memory almost as soon as I elected to take them on. It’s as if starting something binds it to a heavy anchor that is immediately pitched overboard, the activity amount to clawing at the deck while the world is tugged underneath us. And so we spend most of our lives drowning, somewhat pleasantly. This is memory.

Given Aconcagua’s proximity to Santiago everything else in Chile is called a hill, including the 6,100 ft mountain I hiked last week. It was nowhere near as difficult as the mountains I’m used to in New Hampshire (often of a similar altitude) as the first 5.5 km of the 7km hike is well-trodden foot paths. The last 1.5 km is a scramble up rock-slides and boulders that has lead to the death of a handful of hikers. It really wears down your legs. Water is plentiful, and, the Friday we went, the mountain vacant. Climbing to the top was supposed to take 4:30 hours but we decided to do it in 3, giving us plenty of time to relax at the summit, enjoy the view of the Andes, and just generally have a good time ––sandwiches taste considerably better at the top of a difficult climb.

Thursday night Chileans packed the stadium in Santiago for a world cup qualifier against Uruguay, we had just lost to another team and needed this victory to move on, but such thoughts were insignificant to the extent that calling them distant memories would have been too charitable. The stadium sits with a decent view of the Andes, a nice concrete monolith and memory to the days of Pinochet; the Uruguayans were corralled into a small section that marked their sanctuary from the sea of red jerseys, and, as the game progressed, Chile’s battle cries of valor and victory quickly turned to a literal “Fuck you Uruguay”. Of course, the Chileans were angry when the referees failed to cite the Uruguayan footballers for the same acts they were joyous to get away with, but such is this double standard of sports. A mirror for the ideologies we partake in daily or, as sports will tell you, it’s called “reading into it too much”.

There are probably more spectacular memories failing to surface, so for now I exit with those. I can’t promise there will be more exciting things on the horizon, but I will.

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Holy! Holy! Holy! Everything is Holy! (traditional form)

Time April 1st, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Down to the chorus that sang like Gal Costa, down the hills of resorts left only to whisper by lamplight, down with the sun to the sea sank a haze of dark purple settling on fourteen wooden crosses placed along the beach; a string-tied path of paper bags, a wind of salt, a growing darkness, a growing crowd. On the sea wall waited a line of down jackets watching the wayfarers gather around the first cross, cups and cut bottles in hand and eager to protect flames from the sea wind, an amalgam of children and grandparents and new loves and old ones buried in parkas, carried in the arms of others, and waiting, silently hoping the sun would set and the ceremony begin.

We are condemned to death

Most churches in Chile carry out the traditional semana santa procession; 14 stations, not 14 passages from the bible, 14 moments of reflection on the faith present and the faith absent in our community, our world, and our hearts. In Reñaca ––the place that enjoys a summer of company promotions, endless alcohol consumption, and a beach packed with towels so carefully placed they are guarded more than city parking–– people gathered; one could not say where the others are from, nor where their faith nor obligation would take them next, but for one night they were all willing to share a dark beach.

A burden carried

As the sun takes its remaining light from Chile the task of illumination is ceded to the crowd; candles flare up, tiki torches blaze, the first story of Jesus’ end is told by an individual no one can see. People whisper of the new Pope, the era of South America, the world finally looking at what they have on their shoulders ––several kilograms of parka, two extra layers, a child, a promise.

We all fall once

I was not raised catholic, and in a somewhat rare fashion for American pseudo-catholics I was not baptized,  but that does not make these ceremonies alienating; there is a certain light in the eyes of people who feel it is their obligation to join with strangers on a beach one fall night. If anything they are happy to learn even heathens are celebrating, and that if not the procession, maybe the camaraderie will win me over.

Our Mothers

The anonymous speakers remind us constantly of our mothers, the women to whom we should be grateful, the women who provide life on earth, the women who fix that life food and dress it and teach it to be good life, the women who have not changed an inherent mother-ness bestowed by a supernatural “he”. I get confused at the message, should my homage be directed at the femininity I am supposed to take for granted or the masculinity that evidently created it?

Carrying the cross

The chorus begins again at the close of each biblical passage with songs that don’t so much as guide the crowd but let them know something is still out there. Paper bags filled with sand light the path, and while we all know Jesus never walked this beach in Reñaca many feel content knowing they are undertaking a small pilgrimage in his memory.

Clean faces

Someone near me quietly remarks, “no one need hide their face, we are all family”. But what is less disingenuous about this idea than that of wearing a mask? What are they hiding from themselves with the axiom, “we are all good catholic neighbors”?

Falling again

Can I find the ceremony beautiful and still hear the word tyranny ring in the echos of someone giving voice to religion? If I were writing a memoir of my life I like to think that my spirituality would come in the acknowledgements; chapter titles give too much control to ideology, an epigraph is too obvious, and footnotes are insidious.

The Women of Jerusalem

Absent from the biblical passages is an earnest acknowledgement of the equality of women; reverence is sometimes oppression’s tricky cousin, a valuation that permits coordination elsewhere. The pastor at the end makes no mention of women, is their place in the church the pages of the bible? reproductive rights, opportunity, and a more existential discussion on identity may not be the typical Easter dinner discussions but how long can the church continue to tell us of its ancient female heroes when it strives to stop the fostering of modern ones?

Clothes are taken away

As the crowd moves down the stations of the beach I have the urge to jump in the water; it is not the holy spirit rising in me, compelling me to undergo the baptism I never had, it’s just the calm feeling that comes from being in a body of water. I am the only one not in a heavy coat, the only one with shorts and no shoes, the only one constantly receiving looks for his attire. Being comfortable with this weather is an odd thing for many Chileans to confront, a day at the beach swimming usually ends in several people asking me how I can stand the cold or how I am crazy enough to even dip my feet. Some things are a matter of conditioning.

Crucifixion, death, and entombment 

The fourteenth cross is draped in white, lit from the base, and visible from the beginning; we all knew it was our final destination and yet most all looked at it was awe upon arrival. There are certain things we need to affix our surprise to in order for the whole thing to work ––not Catholicism, not the cross, not the beach parade, just a general it. On the pastor’s word the crowd raises its hands in the air, a series of flames thrust upward revealing a collective fire larger than any could observe from the thick of the crowd. It is warm on the beach in Reñaca, if there is one thing I don’t understand, it’s the coats.

 

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Back then America was like heaven

Time March 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The micro is an interesting theatre for Chilean performance, there a passenger sees unfold more of what it means to enact Chilean-ness than any other place in the country. Vendors hop on at stops to momentarily hawk their goods; they talk quickly, loudly, and do not care who is listening, they are looking for people to buy their products as the Chileans struggling to be self-made. If older people, pregnant women, or disabled people board it is customary for another passenger to vacate their seat for the groups designated of needing it most, yet at the same time we see this display of Chilean grace it is juxtaposed with the bus driver treating these new passengers like all the other ones; as soon as they board he (yes, always a he, if there is a woman participating in the operation of a micro it is take money and never driving) starts speeding away unconcerned if they can handle the sudden acceleration. In the same moment some groups are exalted they are simultaneously equalized.

There is little talk on the micro, in fact interpersonal interaction is somewhat sparse. The bus driver will occasionally ask a new passenger where they want to go, but beyond that they tend not to converse; questions about stops go unanswered (sometimes they will respond if you ask before paying) and if there is a question about whether or not you received the correct change it is handled in a deft and silent manner contingent on whether or not the bus driver thinks he has shortchanged you. Similarly, the passengers are silent; people face forward, listen to music, or, when seating is limited, pile into the aisle and stare out the windows. Female passengers may get stared at by the male ones, but beyond that the connection between passengers is that they are all Chileans going ––to school, to work, shopping, or out––, participating in the act of actualizing life as a Chilean.

A final note of importance regarding the micros is that the majority of the music played is American music. Occasionally one hears the latest pop song making the rounds in Chile (at the time of writing this that song is Daddy Yankee’s “Limbo”, the artist a Puerto Rican) but ostensibly Chilean music is scarce. American music is, in a sense, Chilean; ask any younger Chilean what artists they like and the list is filled with acts from the United States. The same music that fills the clubs also enlivens the buses, it is more personally entwined with quotidian Chilean-ness that the traditional songs that one may hear on festival days or out in the country far from the city.

American shows are as frequent on the airwaves as Chilean ones, those targeted at children and young adults being particularly popular. One such program is the Simpsons, whose airing begins with a curious omission; at least in my experience watching the show on Chilean TV the infamous intro is not where the program begins ––the panorama of the town and its inhabitants–– rather the first seen we are treated to is the zoomed in living room, the space where, before each episode, the family is arranged in some running couch gag. It doesn’t take long to contemplate why; although the Simpsons has been exported for Chilean consumption there are obviously certain aspects that Fox (the company that owns the rights to the Simpsons) believes are too hard to swallow. Despite a Chilean youth’s ability to comprehend the humour of the program the network does not want to confront them with a display of Americanness so foreign to Chileans that it is alienating; there are context clues within the show that clearly suggest it is not based in Chile, but such things remain subtleties rather than a continuous barrage of reminders. It seems that Chileans come to occupy a place where they feel transitional, where what they want is to latch on to some Americanness and claim it as their own, but perhaps that cannot start with too ostentatious an alienation; Chilean youth must first be worked into a position of want, of craving of American music, clothes, and lifestyles before a more complete America is dangled in front of them.

I suppose it is at this point in the travel narrative where I am supposed to engage in some self-reflection, where I push my own experiences of maligning the US out of the way like the low hanging vines that one of our movie stars brush aside when entering one of those exotic native temples. It is here where I need to internalize the words a Chilean woman said to me, that back when she was young America was like heaven to the Chileans, and that it still is a paradise they are trying to reach. Students aspire to work there, get rich there, see the home of the music and movie stars that they adore. It is here where I realize that I took my country for granted and should have appreciated it more. Only I would do all this, if the US standard were truly one to aspire to. Americanness has been exported to Chile, it is one of the most hotly consumed commodities. But it is also consistently sold to US citizens as well, the idea that we should not take our Americanness for granted and rather appreciate the greatness we have. We do have some laudable aspects of life; our peanut butter is cheaper and more varied, our utilities come at a lower cost, and we have a presence more powerful than Chileans feel their country has. While there are certainly ways in which parts of America are handling life more justly (for instance a better focus on the extension of human rights to all, of acknowledging pre-marital sex, reproductive rights) it is not a perfect standard toward which I would advocate one strive.

But for now, here in Chile, America, the land up north, is still heaven.

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Too shy a wor(l)d

Time March 11th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Our time at the bus stop verged on an hour, we never saw a sign that said “Quintero” nor “Quintero-Con-Con” nor a bus that lacked a number. We sat talking of stomach problems. We had found just enough shade . We were eager. A man who I can only describe as the bus director fluttered about the street, micros would speed into the stop within inches of his back and they would stop just shy of his body ––we knew he was our man. A conversation later and we stood on another street; the micros that idled here lacked numbers, some said the things we hoped they would say, and after several miscommunications, readjustments, (and lamentations for ginger ale) we were on our way to the bridge. The man in the sunglasses assured us he would leave us in the correct place, though as we left Viña east (not north) and sped through areas we had never seen our hopes rose. Today was most certainly going to be an adventure, though we did not know that’d be too shy a word.

The micro passed the correct Coca Cola bottling plant, in it’s place and comforting, it headed into the mountains and through tunnels and stopped on the side of a highway with forest on one side and planes on the other and expelled us. Mauco towered on the other side of those planes, which stretched and twisted in the heat of the day; we reasoned our only choice was to ask someone nearby, to verify that we did, indeed, tend to hike that mountain at the end of those planes. The first place off of the highway was a campground, where we found two older men skeptical of our intentions ––it was not that they though ill of us, but probably assumed we were crazy. As soon as the older one started walking away Lauren and I looked at one another and began laughing, something in the air tickled us with the notion that we had scored a ride. We were right.

Several minutes of driving and seconds of questioning later and we were at a trail, unmarked and on someone’s property; no one was home and so we hoped the barbwire fence and began our hike. The vistas were spectacular; all of Viña and Valpo and the surrounding neighborhoods slowly became condensed into a foreign point, a blemish that stuck out among the patchy fields, hills, and dunes that actually comprised the area. This is hiking. To call it leaving civilization is to banalize the feeling that washes over someone scaling a mountain: previously important things don’t just become smaller, you notice that they were always small; as the tree line recedes so do the conditions, the boundaries, predilections of life closer to see level; and you realize that to call the mountain by any particular name or sign it over to any particular nation is to insult its existence. Sometimes we spoke of the life out their, the one foreign in all but memories, but mostly we were silent as we carried our packs; respectful of what surround us, of ourselves, and of one another.

Given that we had not taken the correct way up we assumed it’d be easy to encounter another way down. It was not, and in the end we decided to return to the base via the same route we had left it. At the bottom a supernatural feeling of openness greeted us; we had no idea where we were, how to get where we needed to go, and if we’d be able to get there. Lauren chose a direction and we walked; we walked past areas without houses, we walked past horses, we walked on concrete, asphalt, and sand, we walked with excitement and sore feet and cautionlessness. Our feet took us to beverages, past festivals of steak and Peruvian music, to a bathroom and a secluded recreational center and to a better comprehension of the other’s condition. It all sat down at a bus stop miles away from the mountain, back where it was a hill, back to where we contemplated and waited.

We exited the micro early on in Viña and walked toward home filled with the denouement of post-hike ride home. I cannot speak for Lauren, but although we talked of our mutual eagerness for diner and showers and clean clothes and beds for me they were comments too shy. What I await is next time.

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Reflections: Dividing laterally

Time March 6th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It is in the shadows of some worlds that we seek the light in others. If there is anything that I could say most exchange students are guilty of it is comparison, the noxious juxtaposition of things which makes two lives into those  puzzles where the player sees two nearly identical pictures and must seek out the differences. In some sense this is natural to the human experience, language traps us in needing a starting point of communication, a locus of reference that the frame can move outward from. Or rather, we tell ourselves this. Things are easier when they are natural, subjugated to the chains of biology or culture; inherent-ness is a clever refuge.

“This campus is like Hogwarts,”

The guide shifted in place at the expression of the student’s collective imagination; it was a sentiment he was familiar with but the echos of the past always remained, it were always as if hundreds of students were telling him what this place was like, and each year that number grew.

As we continued the tour of the campus, beautiful as it certainly was, enjoy comparison to several universities throughout the continental US; it was a beautiful gem on the hills of Valparaíso, truly an amazing piece of architecture in that Harry Potter sort of way. What we have to ask ourselves is why? What did sitting among the gnarled trees on the main quad lack? What reflections remained obscured in the courtyard pool? Why did many need to reach down inside themselves to find out what worth lived in this place they had come to?

We want a visceral incorporation in our lives. It is not enough to live nor even live well, we must, through ourselves, live vicariously. This act of double living is what actually builds an acceptable foundation for the initial life, which will still be lost and subsumed in the falir of the second’s fantasy. Our first life is structured by the wood we gather, the pit we put it in, and as we ignite the flames of our life with energy the coals formed sustain it. It will be squelched one day, the remaining cinders disappearing into a burned and rotted ash.

 

 

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Coca Cola costs fifty cents in Chile. I’m glad they’re doing well.

Time March 4th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The chilean flag fluttered against the front window out of sync with the Ramones blasting from the speakers, strips of grey fabric billowed in the wind, and people chatted; as all of this flew down the coast outlining the Pacific it didn’t feel as though anything was left behind. Buildings always sit on the horizon, but the feeling is more powerful than knowing you’re returning to something alive and bustling ––it’s as if you’re never coming from something but always heading toward it.

Reñaca is the beach community where I spent most of my day, and, as beach communities go, this place is one (I hope the shallowness of the generality becomes clear in a moment). Hotels and high-rises line the hills, the beach is a series of crowded open stretches and areas where various companies have hired attractive Argentinian women to where tight closethes and entice the passersby to come chill in their respective areas. The restaurants are of similar quality, pre-packaged-ness, and price; and, unlike nearby Valpo, the streets and buildings lack the charm of existing as an expression of humanity. So, as beach communities go, Reñaca is one.

Realizing I wasn’t much cut for the area I walk north; on the horizon were a series of large dunes, which I was determined to climb. The view one enjoys at the top almost gives Reñaca enough character to consider revisiting; while there I contemplated continuing north toward Con-con (and I did, for a bit) but ultimately it was little different than superficiality I had just fled. It’s sad to see the dunes being encroached on; a few hotels already lie on the outskirts, and the nearby construction equipment looked poised to make more incursions. Despite the fact that they are a preservation area business usually gets it’s way, a shrinking reminder of what sells Chile.

Cost of living is an interesting entity here. At any given farmer’s market (which exist year round) one can buy the following for 1000 pesos (2 USD): 2 large heads of lettuce, one of cauliflower, or 10 of garlic, 12 zucchini, 10 ears of corn, 1kilo of peaches or nectarines, and several other produce in amounts that compare favorably to the US. Gas is far more expensive, electronics can be more than 40% more to purchase, and utilities are nothing to laugh about. Coca cola costs 50 cents.

The day prior we attend a dance club with the other student immigrants. Everyone had fun. Some people dance. All drank. And it was free so I suppose I can’t complain. It’s no different from any other club, though while many where I am from are playing EDM and house music the clubs that dot Chile are enjoying the top 40 songs from 2007.

All things considered, I endeavor to hike. Coming here and not hiking feels like an affront to the natural landscape this area enjoys. This is a non sequitur because it is an interjection of one of the most important things one can do; just get out and exist in vast tracts of nature for a bit. Time to start researching, the mountains are always on the horizon here in Viña and Valpo, and I think they’re starting to whisper.

 

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Viña, vidi, Valpo (or: the man from Buenos Aires)

Time February 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Thirty minutes before the American Airlines flight from Miami was about to board I looked up; after a short flight from O’Hare I had been citing in the airport for almost the whole day, waiting, trying to pass time, read to depart for Chile. When the flight information finally came on screen the big text read: “SANTIAGO (STI) – THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC”. Something had gone awry in booking, but it didn’t matter now, I needed to get myself onto another flight. The staff was cordial and able to retrieve my luggage on very short notice, but when they informed me that the next flight to Santiago (SCL), Chile only had first class seats left, and would cost $3,7000 round trip, I decided to sulk back into Miami international. Apparently the mix up happens to many people. This was of little consolation.

The next few hours proceeded with a similar lack of luck; with my luggage not being available for another hour I had hoped to find another flight, but the American Airline’s staff informed me they were booked solid for the next week and that any flight would costs thousands. I was given a voucher ––only redeemable domestically, as it was to the Dominican Republic– and told to check with LAN, a Latin American carrier in terminal J. The fun thing about the Miami airport is that there isn’t any effective transportation, so when it looked like LAN flights would be leaving within the hour I had to sprint to J from terminal D, all luggage in tow. In my frantic rush south I forget to reclaim my passport from the AA agent, who had begun talking to someone else before I left. Arriving at LAN without it ment another mad dash back and forth. As night’s tend to, this one was not getting any brighter. Areolineas told me that I could fly through Argentina if I could acquire the entrance fee, but with the flight leaving in an hour the day was all but lost. I went to the bottom floor where the agents are to speak with American, and prepared to sleep in the airport.

The ladies of the AA travel service tried their best, but were unable to find me any affordable flights. Exasperated, I had the idea of flying back to Chicago with my voucher and restart the whole journey. My parents bought an airport hotel room for me against my will (which was nice, and made for a more relaxing sleep) and I departed in the morning.

From O’hare to Evanston takes an hour by bus, and with Moira in class I headed to the library to wait, unwind, and see what my next steps were. Upon arriving the wifi enabled by to check my email and read the message that said if I could not make it to Santiago the next morning (Thursday), I would be kicked out of the program. At this time it was nearing two, and the only flights leaving Chicago were at four; I needed to buy a ticket and get on the bus in ten minutes time.

Suffice to say, I was unable. By the time I had purchased a flight the bus was already on its way to the airport. In the aftermath, I could barely collect my luggage; my hands shook, and I was filled with the resignation that now I’d need to find a cab or start looking for a flight back home. Moira arrived, had money for a cab, a lunch prepared for me, and was able to print my boarding passes (never waste your time with the Evanston public library printers). Although it felt good to see her again the moment was recognizably ephemeral the minute it began, as if she were a hallucination, the stronger part of my fortitude. By that evening I was in Atlanta International, the mall with an airport attraction, and on my way to Santiago, Chile. Nerves began to calm.

From the airport I took a taxi to Olmue, and on the way passed mountains, fresh fruits stands, and small towns that appeared as quickly as one drives through them, their color vanishing into the flora like a mirage. At the Copihue hotel orientation had begun one day prior, and still in the same oxford and jeans that I had been wearing for three days I had no choice but to jump right in. Orientation is an odd entity, and an uncomfortable one for me; in most cases it is a constant reminder that you are in transition, a body in limbo, someone who must be forced to take time out to relocate their self in space. In this case, it’s learn what it means to be Chilean. Thus, together, we tried to adjust before needing adjustment. In the walled off compound of Copihue we ate meals of four courses, say the teleology of Chileans lain out in power point form, and danced south american dances. On the final night we played a game of soccer against the cooks. Lacking sneakers I went barefoot ––a feat which later gained respect from the Chilean team– and reveled in a game that we lost 2-7. I scored one of our two goals and by the end of the next game (almost three hours later) ready for bed. Most of the IFSA students left so our team continued to play without  subs (as the Chileans did). The game of mixed teams ended in a close 9-10, with my feet black with blood and dirt from the concrete we played on. A fantastic night, returning to an old comfort like soccer is always a nice feeling.

Life in Viña and Valpo is off to a fine start. I’m being fed more than I ever endeavor to eat in the U.S. and although my spanish is not up to par with most people living here people assume it is because I speak a different dialect and hail from Buenos Aires. Right now it seems to be perpetually sunny during the day, there are huge flea markets all over the city n select days, and the area is currently home to an international music festival. The travels started off interesting enough, hopes are high.

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All’s Chile in the Windy City

Time February 5th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The purpose of a blog is not something I ever fully understood; the act seemed masturbatory, a production of oneself for oneself. The direction blogs tend to take are those of old anthropological travel writings, that is they are an emphasis of difference, and establishment of paradigms and binaries. In discovering the heart of both “us” and “them” the blogger is able to re-conceptualize the world, to carve out a space for spiritual growth not at the blogger’s expense but of the subject matter:

I grew up and I learned from them

The entire world is simplified in the face of the tremendous rebirth. Fictionalized stories would do just as well ––perhaps their effect would be even grander, left to the imagination of the blogger surely the tropes would be reified and the revelations more spectacular (not to mention the adventures). But do these stories, fact or fiction, have to be at the expense of others? WIll these sacrifices always be a bad thing? And does the blogger need to come away unscathed?

Chile is a distant visage whose whispers are tucked away in the violent winds of Chicagoland, a warm memory on the horizon. I’ll wander the streets here now, for Valpo is not present.

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