Monday, November 10, 2008

First Impressions

Hola amigos, I'm back! After so many months, I'm trying to reflect upon my start in Santiago, Chile, which has been my home since May 2008. Dad was bugging me to put up a few photos at least so here are some from autumn in the southern hemisphere. The first is the entrance of a pretty park from the late 1800's, Santa Lucia hill, which I found by chance on my first weekend here.

Let me catch you up. Enroute here I was still pumped with enthusiasm from Guatemala and quite pleased with myself and my new language skills, and also very excited to start this new adventure into the unknown.

I arrived at 2.30 a.m. after a long flight with three stop-overs and went directly to the shuttle desk to get a ride to my accomodation which had been arranged by my new employer. 'Quiero ir a la providencia, por favor' I said to the desk clerk. He responded with 'blah blah blah... blah blah blah'. My Huh? was followed by more 'blah blah blah'. Defeated, I replied 'no entiendo' I don't understand. Thanks to the piece of paper I had the address written, not to mention the obvious context, there really wasn't a problem, only my wonderment. I tried again with the shuttle driver, but got more of the same... fast, slurred, undeciferable expressions. He seemed nice enough though. When we got to the address, there was no such apartment number. We were both baffled. I was tired. He was not patient (another Chilean characteristic one would never suspect of a latino). Luckily, I had written down the name of my director and eventually crashed at her place for what remained of the night.

This is Salvador, who jumped into bed with me the next morning, mistaking me for his mom. He freaked out, but we've since become great friends. He and his mom gave me my first tour.

Entonces... meet the Mapocho River. Smelling as bad as it looks, it flows east to west through the city, making me long for the beautiful Alberta Bow river. I was horrified at first sight. Some of my students have tried to tell me it's from the soil which is full of minerals, but common sense and wikipedia tell me otherwise. However, I have noticed outside of Santiago the same murky colour of the rivers.. even the pacific ocean has brown waves on the beach. hmm
Santiago is in a valley surrounded by mountains, including the Andes to the east. At times, the skyline is beautiful, but for most of the winter, June to September, it's filled with smog and pollution unless it's raining. It's flat, apart from a few hills, like the one I'm standing on for this picture called Cerro San Cristobal, where everyone flocks to on the weekends.

I can't say for sure, but I believe it was the pollution which initiated my affliction of bronchitis. I started coughing up phlem two weeks after I arrived and continued for the next two months. I couldn't walk or talk without going into fits (Dad, I know how you feel now... and how annoying I must have been to others). The worst part of it was that at night (while trying not to choke to death) I just could not get warm. Only the rich in Santiago have central heating. Outside it wasn't so bad, but after working in a drafty classroom in the evenings, I would come home and be chilled to the bone, unable to warm up. Most people have portable gas heaters that they huddle around, but I didn't. Sometimes I went to bed fully dressed, including a winter coat, under a down duvet, sleeping bag, and quilt... all of which I had to buy. It was depressing and added to my frustrations of this city and job. My students recommended getting a pololo (boyfriend), but that story is for another post.

My visit to the medical clinic was pretty funny. The doctor loved practicing his English on me, but only knows it through songs... 'put your head on my shoulder', 'don't worry, be happy', and then would laugh hysterically. It was also weird kissing my doctor on the cheek when I left. We just don't do that sort of thing in Canada.

The address mixup of the first night was only a premonition of things to follow. I have never in my life seen a more disfunctional place of business. At first I thought I was losing it or something, but alas, no... not yet anyway, it's just one of those places - one of those countries. I've heard that Chile has the lowest productivity per amount of hours worked of any other country. They used to have a 48-hour work week but now it's down to 40... still makes for a long day if you have an hour or so commute. The inefficiencies really got to me at times, so much so that I quit my job... twice. But they kept talking me into staying and now I'm glad I did. Recently a girl from Toronto started working with us and my director asked me "what's with you Canadians and having to be effecient?" Now, I'm becoming a master at tolerance and patience.

There's no place better to practise paciencia than the streets of Santiago. Gosh these people walk slow.... and not in a straight line. It's almost impossible not to bump into them. It's like shopping with mom. And when one crosses my speedy-trying-to-avoid-collision path and bumps into me, she'll look up at me... way up as they're very little people...completely offended as if it were my fault. I'm not exaggerating this in any way. Walking down the stairs in the metro when a train is coming actually pains me. I can see the train and the way to it, but can't get past all these little people who are going every which direction. They're busy talking to their friends or day-dreaming. What's funny is when they finally notice that the train is coming, like when it's right in front of their faces, they race as fast as they can (which isn't very fast) to get on the train. Then they stand right at the entrance, blocking anyone behind them (namely, me) from getting on.

Anyway, despite these minor cultural characteristics, it wasn't all that bad, and the promise of a great summer kept me wanting to see it through. There are some fantastic old colonial buildings which kind of remind me of Europe. Most are decrepit and, sadly, lots are being replaced with big, boring apartment and office buildings since they can't afford to maintain or refurbish them. Although the Chilean economy has been fairly strong the past few years, it's still a developing country and, living in my neighborhood of gringoland and malls, it's hard to remember that at times.
Here's a morning view from my last apartment. The snow is almost gone now.
This is looking out towards Santiago from the outskirts where I went for a hike. We couldn't even see the city from above the smog and we could smell the petrol fumes when we were coming back down. Disgusting.

The next day some of my students didn't show up for class because the city had declared a state of emergency for gas emissions, restricting particular car license numbers from driving for the day. As well as the 'emergency' days, the government recently revamped the Trans-Santiago system by cutting the amount of buses in half, although they're still plentiful from what I can see. The drivers are sheer crazy, too... driving like maniacs, sudden braking which knocks old ladies, including me, to the floor from time to time.

Despite the hazards on the bus, I enjoy a ride from time to time. There's usually a someone busking for coins with an 'original' gig, though not necessarily talented. The various street performers are at most traffic lights, too. I see a 'juggler' practicing in the park outside my building every morning.

I arrived in time for Corpus Christie day. Chile is predominately catholic. This colourful sawdust went on for several blocks. Luckily, this time of year doesn't produce much wind, but I did see a street dog 'messing it up'.
I haven't been to church here yet, but I did go inside one. This one. on the left.

There was a month-long student strike in July and one of my classes was at the University of Chile, our school's biggest client, where it was initiated, although other universities and even high schools were involved as the curriculum for entering uni was being challenged. Despite plentiful universities here, the education system isn't very good and most students can't afford to attend. Without it, they get jobs worth on average $350 per month. The campus where I worked was actually taken over by the students... a lock out of administration. They made me sign a petition to get in for the classes.

Here I've already come to Chile's Independance Day, 18 de Septiembre without even mentioning the food (next post maybe). Suddenly, the sun was shining and small breezes were blowing the pollution away. Spring had sprung.. There were Chilean flags everywhere and people on the street had warm smiles and greetings. It was like I'd stepped into a different country. Obviously, weather has much to do with people's moods.

The previous week was the anniversary of Chile's 1973 Coup d'etat. Our classes were cancelled that afternoon so people could get to the safety of their homes. Traffic was backed up for hours. I couldn't even get on the metro so had to walk home. All the shops closed. I didn't witness any riots, but my friend who lives in the suburbs where the action generally takes place, got caught up in what seemed like a war zone. He flagged down a police car to help him get home, fearing a molotov cocktail land on his head.

This is La Moneda government building where the former communist president, Salvador Allende, allegedly killed himself. The country is still very divided politically. They're either socialist or ultra conservative.. there's no middle ground.

I went to a music concert in a park on the other side of this building during the September long weekend called Salvador Allende: 100 aƱos, 100 canciones. A popular folk group who had lived in exile in France during Pinochet's regime, sang 100 songs continuously in honour of what would have been Allende's 100th birthday. They were very good.

There were historical videos playing on the stage and a lot of red flags waving. It was quite emotional. It's hard to believe that in my lifetime, in a country that seems so modern to me, they had to survive communism and a dictatorship with horrible acts of terror and murder. Even more surprising is the different perspectives of the Chileans on the events. My students at a Chilean financial company where I have most of my classes weren't all that impressed when I related to them the next day that I'd been there.

Salva came with us. He likes getting his photo taken.

My room-mates at the my current home held their annual Miss Spring contest. Alejandro and Claudio are on the right, Mariela is somewhere else. The three of them speak only spanish so it's been good for me. Although a lot gets missed in translation, I've learned how to coordinate bathroom time quite well. The others in the photos are friends who I often hang out with.

Alejandro won the contest and I came in 2nd, along with the two gorgeous Columbian guys I'm standing next to.

Santiago certainly isn't what I had expected of a latin-american city, but it has it's own unique characteristics which I've come to appreciate. The red wine is cheap and fantastic. Cheap street food... empanadas (meat-covered pastries), sopillas (fried squash), fresh-squeezed orange juice, completos (hotdogs stuffed w/ avocado and tomatoes and whatever else you want (my personal favourite). There's a guy on every corner selling fresh produce; lemon trees; people singing while walking along the street; and pisco sour. Taxis are cheap and plentiful, though I need to be in the right mood to respond to their questions starting with 'how old are you?' and 'do you have a husband?'. I love the kiss on the cheek greeting, and my lovely students could not be more fun. It's also fun trying to learn a new language... Chilean... I'll try for Spanish in my next country.
Thanks so much to all my friends and family sending emails, phone calls, and facebook 'pokes'. Means so much. Thinking sadly of recently lost friends, dear Vi, Lorne, Ashish, and Alan F. RIP. My thoughts are with you and your families.