Friday, September 25, 2009

Santiago del Chile

Hello everyone,

I have sort of a special blog this time because it´ll only be about my trip to Chile. Here we go!

Santiago del Chile is about 20 hours by bus away from Buenos Aires, but thankfully in Latin America they have several options besides just a regular coach bus. Many companies offer classes called ´semi-cama´ or ´cama suite´ which basically means that your chair will bend almost 90 degrees so that you can sleep. They played lots of good movies (The Departed, Knowing, etc.) and we even played bus Bingo. The food wasn´t that great, but you know, at least it was better than most airline food.

Anyway, I traveled alone because my friend Stella was supposed to come with me but she got really sick. I ended up sitting next to this guy in his 40´s who had traveled to every continent in the world (except Antartica), and had lived in Canada, the US, and many Latin American countries for several years. His hometown was Santiago however. Of course, me being me, I had to ask him what he thought about Pinochet (the Chilean dictatorship who disappeared political prisoners, usually a no-no topic). It was interesting because he remarked that his family hated Allende (the Socialist president who was overthrown) because he had taken away their land that had been in their family for generations. Now, you have to understand something. Only the politically elite had land in their families for generations, and many poor people, especially the indigenous, were left with nothing. I knew immediately that he had come from an upper-class family because Allende had sought to re-distribute land more evenly among the people, and took the large reserves away from the wealthy. It´s not like in the US where people went West and settled wherever they wanted. In Latin America, the friends of the first dictators/presidents received huge parcels of land that they then exploited the Natives and later Africans to work for them as slaves. I had always thought that these families would be such evil people for hoarding the land in such a way, and yet the guy I was sitting next to was really a sincere and intelligent man. I suppose in the immediate circumstances, all he could see was that the president had suddenly taken away his land, but it was an important lesson for me to remember not to demonize people.

Anyway, after customs and all of that great stuff, we traveled through the Andes and it was one of the most spectactular sights I´ve ever seen. I tried to take a lot of pictures out the bus window, but really even my best ones couldn´t capture the massive aspect of the mountains, or catch the colors that seemed to glow from its edges. It was a feast for the eyes on the way back too.

I finally arrived to the hostel, called Don Santiago, and lo and behold, my friend Jessica from ISA was laying in the bottom bunk! It was funny because we had even been talking about hostels when we saw each other at customs. Well, her group of friends decided they wanted to see a trance concert that night put on by this American DJ called Dead Mou5. This, was of course, after they ordered coke (not my friend), (also apparently coke is really cheap in Chile), and got wasted. We got to the concert and it was interesting; my clothes were definitely sharking independently of my body by the speakers. But I think some of the other people I was with also did ecstasy and really I just wanted to go home because it was a long journey. The bad thing was that the concert venue was on the totally opposite side of Santiago. Still, Pato, one of the hostel directors, called a radio taxi for me.

The older man who picked me up was so nice! I asked him if he liked Michele Bachelet (the Chilean president) and he said that politics had been so long in her family that it had gotten corrupt. I can´t say for sure whether that´s true or not, but we did talk some more about politics, and by the time we got to the hostel, the tab was nearly 50,000 Chilean pesos (550 pesos is 1 dollar)! However, the man just made me pay 6,000 and said to have fun, be safe and protect my money. I was so touched!

Well, the next thing that happened started off really badly but turned into something good. Pato had told me these two Australian ladies who had been staying at the hostel would open the door for me when I rang the doorbell, but after 10 minutes of trying, there was definitely no answer (I found out later they were wearing earplugs). I asked one teenage couple walking by where a public phone was, and the guy offered me his cell phone instead! I thought that was a really nice gesture. Unfortunately, the number I had gotten was from this German girl and she wrote the numbers so strangely that we weren´t able to figure them out. So, after wandering around for a little bit to try to find a phone, I came back to the porch of the hostel and sat down and started crying. It was cold, I was hungry and tired, and I was wondering what I was doing in a country where my phone didn´t work, where I didn´t speak the language that well, and where I didn´t have friends I could rely on to save me at a moment´s notice. Well, as this one more person walked by me, this guy asked for the time and as I was getting my cell phone out, he noticed I was crying and asked if something had happened with my boyfriend. (lol) I said no, so he asked to sit down and I explained the situation to him. He was so nice! Mauricio (his name) told me he liked American rap so we listened to some artists like Nas and Dre. He couldn´t understand the lyrics, which I was kind of glad for (because they were soo bad), but he said he liked the beat. (It sounds kind of like me because a large part of my music is in Japanese!) But he really cheered me up and asked if I wanted to go to one of the street festivals nearby. It was Independence Weekend in Chile so everyone was partying. At first I was a little weary but I knew guys in Latin America were rather forward like that and also very protective (he kept saying it was dangerous at night). We first went to a cafe where he bought some beer, and I swear that no matter how much I may try, I will never like beer. But we talked about politics (like usual), and I found out his family was in the military! So his family had been working with Pinochet when he disappeared many of their fellow citizens. I was rather shocked but he said that while good and bad things had happened, it was now in the past.

Eventually we went into the streets where we talked with other Chileans (I´m convinced they´re much nicer than Argentines), and I was given another beer, to my dismay. But when others found out I was a foreigner, they personally asked me if I was okay with Mauricio, and I said yes, but that I understood what they were saying. Later I found out that the park we were in used to be a place where Communists gathered before the dictatorship. Now that people are more open-minded again, some of these radicals still live in the area. Eventually we walked home, and even though I had been very frustrated that I had not been able to get into the hostel, I was very glad by the end of the night that I had not.

The next day I traveled by subway to a local cementary because they held a monument to the disappeared. Well, at least I thought the first cementary I went into was the right one because it had several gardens, all these complexes, elaborate statues and tombs, etc. but I found out that it was actually the one next door. When I finally got there, there was this HUGE stone wall with many of the names of the disappeared and the date that they had disappeared. It was overwhelming. There was a sort of crevice underneath the monument where there were rocks and a little stream where you could place your flowers so they would live longer. I noticed that almost all of them were red, and at first I thought it was to symbolize blood, but I found out it was to symbolize Communism, because many, but by no means all of them had been radicals and red had been their party color. On the sides of the stone wall there were these sort of white long rectangular walls where family members had dedicated little boxes to their loved ones (there were never any bodies). Some of them were so heartbreaking! People had brought cut-out construction paper hearts saying, (translated) "I miss you Papa." There was one who was only 10 years old, and another who had been disappeared as late as 2001!! I bought my own flower, a sort of orange-red rose, and placed it among the rest as my own tribute to them, and I couldn´t help but cry. So many of them had done nothing to deserve torture and death in such a heinous way.

Since it was Independence Weekend, many families had come to put fresh flowers on tombs and I even got caught up with a funeral procession at one point. However, eventually I found what I was also looking for: Salvador Allende´s grave. I noticed it had not been built until 1990, when mostly the military dictatorship had subsided. There is a lot of controvery as to whether Allende killed himself while the military was taking over in el Palacio de la Moneda (like the White House), or he was killed by the bombs or the soliders. Either way, he wasn´t buried for another 30 years. In that sense, his body was not at rest like many of his fellow Socialists for many years.

In the afternoon, Steven, Kristina and Miles had arrived (Kirby mised the bus), and Pato invited us all out to this huge festival to celebrate independence. The closest thing I can liken it to is a state fair, with food, games, and carnival rides, but they also had dance halls where traditional Chilean music was played. It was so fun! We hung out with several Brits and of course some Chileans. We made it an early night (4 in the morning).

Miles and I traveled to Vina del Mar and Valparaiso the next day. It was soo beautiful! They´re like little seaside cities (being next to the Pacific), and in many ways I could compare it to Hawaii. We went on a tour with some Argentines, Brazilians, and Americans, and we ate great seafood and hung out by the beach. We even got to see some sealions nearby! I´m really glad I got to see the place, even if for only a day.

That night Pato, Anna (the German girl), and I went out to the same street festival I had been to before and just hung out and talked. Pato told me something really interesting involving Mexico. You know how horribly we treat Mexicans at the border by letting them starve and go thirsty, or deport them to the border where they have no way of getting back to their hometowns? Well, apparently, the Mexicans are even worse to the Central Americans like the Nicaraguans, Hondurans, etc. As the oppressed often do, they tried to keep the even more oppressed from getting the little that they had. Many Central Americans were born knowing they had to go North, or they would spend the rest of their lives starving. However, to even cross the border to Mexico, they had to pay excessive sums to the Mexicans, the "officials" often raping the girls to be able to gain passage. It´s a sad story that´s not often told, and either situation is horrible.

The next day, we explored downtown Santiago and saw el Palacio de la Moneda, el Plaza del Armas, la Casa del Gobierno, etc. The architecture was beautiful! I haven´t seen anything in Buenos Aires to compare it to. Plus, the streets were clean (there wasn´t shit on the ground!!) and there was actually grass! It was amazing to see that in a city again. Miles and I went to el Museo de los Belles Artes and while it was relatively small, they had some pretty good art. We later parted ways because I wanted to go see el Estadio Nacional where thousands of people had been disappeared (of course!). As another of the hostel directors put it, Chileans used it for playing futbol, holding festivals, killing people... In fact, when I got there, I found out there wasn´t a monument inside like I had been told, but another independence festival was going on outside of it. I decided to go in anyway and stumbled upon this competition where couples performed the traditional Chilean dance to win prizes. After eating some delicious meat and churros, I went to this sort of race track where two horse riders (some were actually women!) had to chase a cow around 3 times in a circle in a small area, and then when the gate was opened, force it to go along the side of the wall where it had to hit a certain line to count for a point. After that was done, they had to bring it along the same wall into another open gate. Needless to say, it was harder than it sounds! Many cows sat down, ran through the middle of the ring, or even tried to jump over the walls! It was interesting, and after buying some jewelry made by local vendors, I left to go back to the hostel. I wondered how those who had been tortured but managed to escape the National Stadium felt about going to festivals right outside of it. What kind of horrible memories would that bring back? Would the pain be too unbearable? Is it impossible to associate a place of such agony as a place of happiness eventually?

One last thing--we got real breakfasts in Chile. Kiwi, oranges, bananas, toast, eggs, tea and coffee. Not just toast like our host families usually give us. I was really sad to leave Chile because of its natural and preserved beauty, and I was also sad to leave a country where I´d never seen such generosity in a people. Alas, here I am in Buenos Aires again, with about a month and a week to go.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Becoming a Porteña

Hello again,

These past few weeks have seemed to be more about fitting into the Argentine culture rather than hanging out with American friends. But I think I'm just only starting to realize what that means.

I left off talking about Noche Internacional and I want to continue with the international students' night at a place that one of our directors recommended. It was actually on the rooftop of a hostel, which I thought was a really cool idea, but unfortunately they really couldn't play the music loudly because of their neighbors. Anyway, I met a girl from Espana, a resident porteno (what the people of Buenos Aires call themselves, sort of like a "port person"), and a guy from Columbia who said he was a Socialist but disliked both his government and FARC (a guerilla group). Unfortunately, the US has decided to set up 7 military bases in Columbia so they can reach all Latin American countries easily; this makes me really upset considering our history in breeding chaos that has led to thousands of deaths through military violence. Plus, undoubtedly, all the guerillas are going to die. My political science teacher said that the president allowed this to happen so President Obama could more easily pass health care reform; if they had said no, it would have looked bad for him. Bizarre right?

The infamous futbol game between Argentina and Brasil (note the spelling) happened last Saturday, and a few of my classmates went to see the actual game in Rosario, but the tickets were almost $200 USD. Instead, a group of us went to a bar in Recoleta where they were playing it on a projector. I don't know how this happened, but we managed to pick the bar that had far more Brasilian support than Argentine! Then again, even though Argentina is a VERY good team in Latin America, Brasil has won the World Cup several times in the last few years. People are really crazy and as soon as someone scores a goal, everyone instantaneously throws back their chairs, stands up and starts screaming! One guy even took off his shirt and started running through the bar! Needless to say, there was a lot of alcohol involved. Unfortunately, Argentina lost 1-3 to Brasil, but it wasn't seen as that shameful since they're a world-renowned team.

Mostly, I've just been trying to stay ahead in classes (though finding the motivation to do homework has been extremely difficult), and finding my way around the city. Today, I took a random bus and wanted to see if I could find my way back home (of course, I decided this half-way through when I realized I wasn't going to the park I had intended). I ended up at a plaza where there were several musical groups playing, including a Native American one that was composed of two men dressed up in their full traditional regalia and using native instruments, many of which seemed to mimic nature's sounds like the wind or the call of a bird, and it was absolutely beautiful! It's too bad I didn't have enough money to buy one of their CD's! Though, really, it all got me thinking... Here are these indigenous men, keeping alive ancient traditions that the Europeans sought to eradicate for hundreds of years, now using these rituals to entertain the same Europeans who conquered their tribes, playing in a city of cement which was originally land that belonged to them. It always comes back to the same question, "What if they had never come...?"

I shall now continue my list of random observances!

1) The colectivos (buses) here are rather strange. Instead of making a loop like they do in most places, they have assigned routes that have a beginning and end, but not an in-between. Does that make sense? You also have to tell the bus driver where you're going so he can assign the correct fare (though it's really only a few centavos different). You cannot buy bus passes, though recently there's been rumors of a rechargeable card.

2) Almost every clothing store her has "Liquuidacion!!!" written on the front. Well, to us of course, that means the store is closing. However, that's not the same here, or every store in Buenos Aires would be closing tomorrow. ^_^' Rather, it just means that there's a sale, and they often have crazy percentages like 40% and 50% off, but those discounts seem to stay up all season as well.

3) Did you know that Argentina has the second highest rate of bulimia and anorexia in the world? It's true. Of course, Japan is the first. I can't prove this, but I think in Argentina it has something to do with the fact that naked women are EVERYWHERE. Really, the billboards outside stores display near-naked or totally nude women who of course are airbrushed, skinny as hell, and are so pretty that it makes an average woman wonder how she can ever compete. It's more obvious to me than ever that we live in a patriarchal society; since heterosexual orientation is the majority, and there are about an equal amount of women and men (leaning towards more women), it is ridiculous to think that straight women, or even gay men, in fact many lesbians, would like the outright exploitation of women's body in this manner. In the curbside magazine stands, they have women with unrealistically huge breasts on the front covers right next to the children's books. I can't say for sure this contributes to the lack of self-confidence that leads to eating disorders, but I'm sure it doesn't help.

4) The value of the dollar here is ridiculous. You might say that the American dollar is doing badly right now, and while that's true, it's also true that it's still much better than many currencies in the world. The conversion rate is 3.8 pesos for 1 dollar. So, even though I eat most cafe meals for about $5 or less, it's not really that inexpensive to Argentines; it's just that I'm bringing "superior" currency. Before you get a big head, just remember that our power has come from subjugating countries like Argentina.

5) The presence of Coca-Cola here is overwhelming. And I'm not talking about the drink - I mean the company. I used to think that the reason it was so powerful was because it was well-liked around the world; that's definitely not the case. Coca-Cola has built many factories around the world with incentives to local communities that it would benefit them, and maybe it has - but at what cost? Just think about how much they must make the local owners pay to have their establishment there (maybe over half?). Does that really create a hard-working business ethic? So much is owned by them here - chairs, tables, even entire restaurants. It's impossible to say which companies they have supported over others for their own interests. To mention nothing of the fact that they used Jewish slave labor in Nazi Germany during WW2 to operate their factories, or their flagrant disregard of the environment around the world, in South America Coca-Cola has gone even further. This is from a New York-based committee that included city officials, who after investing the incident, found that:

To date, there have been a total of 179 major human rights violations of Coca-Cola's workers, including nine murders. Family members of union activists have been abducted and tortured. Union members have been fired for attending union meetings. The company has pressured workers to resign their union membership and contractual rights, and fired workers who refused to do so.

Most troubling to the delegation were the persistent allegations that paramilitary violence against workers was done with the knowledge of and likely under the direction of company managers. The physical access that paramilitaries have had to Coca-Cola bottling plants is impossible without company knowledge and/or tacit approval....

I didn't know about this at the time, but I'm pretty proud of the US for standing up to one of its own major corporations in spite of the fact that the US has supported military dictatorships for years. Since foreign corporations have an infamous history of exploiting workers in other countries by paying them next to nothing and making them work under hazardous conditions, the union members likely went on strike to fix that. Apparently Coca-Cola wouldn't hear any of it though.

To see an entire list of its violations, see Wikipedia.

Five of my friends and I are traveling to Santiago, Chile next week so I'm really excited. I'll make sure to tell you about it when I get back! Hasta luego!