Ramblings from Santiago…why 2010 is a great year to be in Chile!

We all know that we should not pay much attention to stereotypes and blatant generalizations about people and countries as invariably they are wrong or at least exaggerated. Yet we all fall into the trap at one point or another. People often refer to ‘Africa’ as if it is one homogenous place with the same people, problems and cultures. Obviously this is very far from the truth and the same issue applies to South America.

When one thinks of South America, often the first images that pop into one’s mind are amazing inca ruins, romantic and sensual dances from the likes of Brazil (the samba) and Argentina (the tango), the great expanse of the Amazon rainforest or the towering peaks of the Andes which stretches nearly the whole length of the continent. In terms of the people, the image we have might be of handsome ‘latin lovers’ from the likes of Rio de Janero or Buenos Aires with the same applying to the women.

Six months (but only two countries) into my adventure around this continent and I am learning that as with Africa, every country is so totally diverse, unique and special in its own way and really the only thing that actually connects these countries is a common language and a common colonial history. Since I can only comment so far on two countries, this story is going to focus on my impressions of the people and culture of Chile, a country in which I have spent the largest chunk of the last 6 months and so one that I think I am beginning to get to know a fair bit…

Chile may not be the most well known country on the continent, but it is certainly unique especially related to its geography. It is the world’s thinnest country which at its widest is only 100 odd kilometers from the cold Pacific Ocean to the snow capped Andes. In addition it is extremely long and so its climate varies dramatically from cold, windy and very wet conditions in Patagonia in the south to more temperate conditions in the central region and very hot and dry conditions in the northern desert. This also creates a huge diversity in activities and aspects of the culture which I will go into more a little later.

So what are my impressions of the people of Chile? I do have to say here though that these observations are based entirely on life in Santiago (which makes up 6 of the 16 million people in the entire country) and life in other regions of Chile is vastly different to the capital. I am also aware that while I said earlier that we shouldn’t make generalizations about people and places, this is now exactly what I am going to do, so bear in mind that these are simply my observations based on the people I have met and interacted with etc…

Chileans certainly do not fit the mold of the tall, dark and handsome Latinos that many of us imagine the continent is swarming with. Most people are extremely short in actual fact and I feel quite tall amongst people here. It is quite interesting being squished on the metro in rush hour and towering above 95% of the people around me…at least the benefit of this is that I get to breathe fresher air! Chileans are also generally much shyer, more reserved and conservative people than some other nationalities in South America. Yet this conservatism is not always the case with local Chilean entertainment such as their TV programmes which can be very chauvinist and involve women wearing as little as possible.

The few foreigners that I have met and spoken to in Santiago have often mentioned that Chileans are not the most friendly and open people and so they often end up socializing mostly with other ex-pats. Perhaps I am lucky with the people I have met here, predominantly through my wonderful friend Coni, but I can’t say I have the same impression. Everyone I have met has been incredibly friendly and warm. Yes perhaps some of them may seem a little reserved at first, but I think some of that comes down to the language barrier since their English is often not great and at first most people presume I can’t speak any Castellano (which was, and kind of still is, a fair assumption). So it means that conversation can be fairly limited sometimes, but I still manage to chat and get to know people any way. It may just take a little longer than in other social situations in other countries.

Another thing I love about Chileans is their fairly casual attitude to many aspects of life – clothes, making plans far in advance, time etc. It is really refreshing to go out with friends to a huge variety of clubs, bars and pubs and find most people in sneakers and jeans (both guys and girls). Again, this is influenced by the circle of people I have met (predominantly very creative people including actors, directors, musicians etc) and not everyone is like this in Santiago. Then in terms of time…Chilean time is fairly similar to Africa time and nothing seems to happen in a hurry and lateness is just part of the way of life. In general no one makes plans very far ahead of time and quite often it gets to 11pm on a Friday night and then people kind of decide what to do and where to go. I think I am getting used to the incredibly late nights in South America, but many times the only way I manage to stay on my feet until 5/6am (and one day 8:30am) is to usually have a nap for an hour or two in the early evening and then wake up and get ready to go somewhere around 11ish. It does mean the next day is usually pretty much written off, or at least most of the morning any way.

A further observation I have relates to the patriotism of the Chilean people. 2010 has been a good year (for both happy and not so happy reasons) to experience this patriotism. So what has the year meant for Chile so far…

1. An 8.8 strength earthquake (the 7th strongest in world history) and the subsequent tsunami on 27 February which despite not having an incredibly high death toll (compared to the likes to the Haitian earthquake a few weeks earlier) did leave a lot of devastation. Yet since Chile is probably the one country in the world most used to the earth shaking fairly dramatically and regularly, there was not much international support for the rebuilding efforts and it was Chile helping Chile (Chile ayudar a Chile) in the end. As seems to be common in a disaster like this Chileans rally around and make a plan to help each other – e.g. by building emergency houses for those who lost everything etc. I was able to participate in one such project in June where a group of people from Santiago, totally separate from government rebuilding efforts, were building wooden emergency homes for people in a place called Nancagua, a few hours south of Santiago. Despite these houses being very basic (almost like larger versions of wooden “wendy houses” we had as kids in SA) they did provide some much needed shelter for people when winter was hitting the country.

2. The Mundial!!! While I was quite sad in the end to not get to experience the World Cup fever in South Africa, I don’t think I could have been on a better continent to see the true fanaticism of football. While Brazil and Argentina may be better and stronger teams than La Roja (the national Chilean team), the passion and dedication to football is no less in Chile than in its South American counterparts. Watching the group matches with Chilean friends, as well as an equally fanatical Belgian football supporter who since his own country was not in the tournament followed the South American teams avidly, was a great experience. At 10am on a weekday morning I found myself on the edge of my seat with great people screaming for Chile to score against Switzerland in a match that would almost definitely seal the team’s advancement to the next round. The biggest thing I learnt from Chile during the tournament is just how much they celebrate every victory (and this is not only during a world cup). After they won their first match against Honduras the streets were full of cheering fans waving flags and blowing a much smaller (and frankly pathetic) version of the vuvuzela. Plaza Italia (a massive roundabout near downtown Santiago) quickly fills with supporters after a victory and traffic has to be diverted for hours by police. You would swear they had won the entire tournament and not just one match. Unfortunately though, as Coni so aptly put it, Chileans don’t really know the difference between celebrating and protesting and so the massive crowds usually ended up getting rowdy and causing chaos which meant the police had to use water canons and smoke bombs to disperse them (a friend from the US, Caitlin, got to experience a smoke bomb as she innocently came out of the metro station on her way home one day thanks to rowdy fans). But despite the few hooligans, it really was such a great feeling to be part of the national celebrations when they won. So I won’t delve into the eerily quiet streets after the loss to Brazil, but despite so much support and patriotism, most Chileans knew the outcome of that game was inevitable. Kind of like South Africans I suppose…

3. The rockfall in the San Jose copper and gold mine in the north of Chile which has trapped 33 miners 700m underground.

It was amazing when the news broke that all the miners were alive and safe after 17 days with very little to sustain them

After the accident on 5 August there was a lot of criticism of the rescue efforts and the government as they seemed to everyone to be moving extremely slowly. But it soon became apparent that the rock fall had created an extremely complicated situation and it wasn’t as simple as everyone hoped. So as the days slowly ticked by, people started to think the inevitable…that they were all dead as it was thought that the emergency supplies they had could only last a few days for a lot fewer people then there actually were. So when a small pipe was finally drilled all the way to where the men were assumed to be and a probe was sent down, it was a miracle that the probe returned with a note attached saying that all 33 miners were alive and safe in the refugio. After this news broke the whole country celebrated and the mood in the streets was amazing. Again many people headed to Plaza Italia with flags to celebrate (this time for a miracle instead of a sporting victory). Weeks later the initial thrill has worn off and it is now down to the reality of the long road ahead to try and drill a proper rescue shaft to the miners. This is going to take months, yet the support for the miners and their families is incredible and everyone is trying to provide encouragement in any way they can. And we can all learn so much from the way these men are tackling the situation. The video footage is incredible with the men trying to keep their spirits up by singing the national anthem and shouting ‘Viva Chile’ and saying that they are proudly Chilean and proud of being miners. It makes me think about how I would be dealing with such a situation…

And the last and biggest reason for 2010 being a great year to be here is…

4. THE BICENTINARIO!!! Every year, September in Chile is a month of partying and celebrating as 18 September marks their Independence Day from Spain and it is also the start of spring. This year is an especially big one though – Chile’s 200th birthday!!! Every building has a flag outside it, cars are covered in flags and ribbons, offices and shops are decorated in red, white and blue streamers and ornaments and the festive atmosphere is incredible. Now apparently this happens every year, this year is just a little bigger and better. Dieciochera (18th) is a great time to get to understand a little more about the Chilean culture including their national dance (the cueca), traditional foods and various livelihoods and traditions from different regions. The best cultural lesson I could ever have imagined actually happened in the most unexpected of places – Coni’s little nephew’s nursery school. Last Friday the school put on a show with all the kids acting out different aspects of Chile’s culture including the animals and fishing activities of the south on the Island of Chiloe, the Mapuche people (Chile’s last native group in the south), the traditions of Easter Island, life in the copper mines up north with a very moving tribute to the trapped miners which nearly had us all in tears, the fauna and flora across the country, the cosmopolitan life of the capital and the farming traditions in the rural campas. And the whole story was told from the perspective of a condor, the giant vulture that is found in the Andes and is really threatened. It was so cute to see the kids in the variety of traditional costumes dancing to local music and inevitably spending more time waving to their parents in the audience. Definitely a history lesson with a difference for me…

I have also had a lesson in the art of the national dance. Now I have to say straight out that compared to the dances of other South American countries such as the tango and samba, this dance may not look as romantic or stylish, but it still has a certain charm. And it certainly isn’t very easy to master either as I discovered last weekend when Coni and a friend tried to teach me. The story is actually one of a chicken and a rooster with the rooster trying to win over the chicken. The man and women dance around each other waving small handkerchiefs in the air and when the man raises his with both hands above his head it means he has won and they walk off together…aahh sweet! Watching it being done with the women in traditional costumes and the men in their gaucho get up complete with sharp spurs on their boots, is quite a sight.

Talk about the food and actual celebrations after next weekend

The main thing I have been thinking about in the last few weeks while watching the excitement for the bicentinario grow is how we lack anything like this in South Africa. Granted we don’t have 200 years of independence to celebrate and we have a very different history to Chile, but for instance how does the average South African celebrate 27 April? Most people don’t even give much of a thought to what exactly we are celebrating despite it only being 16 years ago that we had the first democratic elections. Yes, South Africa still has many many problems and often I suppose we don’t think there is much to celebrate, but I think if we had half the patriotism that Chile has it would do us so much good…and not just around events like the world cup.

So to sum it up, my time in Chile has been amazing and it is certainly not over yet. I still have about 6 weeks of teaching in Santiago and then about a week or so visiting the south of Chile (the Island of Chiloe) which is renowned for its myths, legends and stories of witches etc. This trip will hopefully be done with Coni which will be so special. Finally I will be returning to San Pedro de Atacama for a month of so to volunteer and teach English to some of the local community and live with them whilst doing so…but that is definitely a story for another blog…

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