Sunday, 27 March 2011


There are many different kinds of traveller in the world. There are many different kinds of traveller in Latin America. There are many different kinds of traveller in Chile.

There is the kind that plans meticulously and packs in anticipation of every possible need. They always carry a satchel or backpack brimming with first-aid implements and emergency numbers, and are wary of any food sold in the street or any brand that doesn't look like it has an english-language equivalent. The kind that carries all their money on them at any one time, but hidden in various (intimate) parts of their person. The kind that panics upon discovering in transit that their connection is located on the other side of the airport. The kind that calls home. A lot. 

There is the kind of traveller that dives headfirst into the culture of the new country, making considerable noise as they go. That has a dubious past and has assumed a new identity to accompany their new surroundings. They have often chosen a particular niche of society, the maya in (on?) the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, the Mapuches in the South of Chile, and have learned to perfectly imitate the language and behaviour of their host society. They have cut ties with the outside world, and are in the habit of popping up every so often at the sound of an anglo-accent or a word of english, offering advice and directions whilst all the while attempting to draw attention to the fact that they were once, like you, a traveller, but are now a superior species that has completely absorbed and acculturated to their new environment. The kind that is usually seen riding a rusty bike with half a handle. The kind that often sports matted, slightly greying hair no matter their age and an unwashed look, as if to say to the world that they are so atune to their new environment that they are no longer bound by capitalist habits of cleanliness, or apparently the even hygiene of their host culture for that matter.

There is the kind of traveller that likes to like to travel. They like to make conversation and tally up the places they have visited, notching their belt for every museum, ruin, gallery, monument and national reserve that they lay foot on. They invest in package tours, and end up experiencing places in ways unknown even to it's residents. They take crash courses in the language, spend on souvenirs, pose for picture after picture in front of tourist attractions and are rarely seen without an (oh-so-fashionable and oh-so-handy) bum-bag/fanny pack. They do not scour for discounts or barter with local merchants (not successfully at least). They travel in packs and can be seen following an umbrella or flower across town squares or the nearest, picturesque field. 

There is the kind that bought into the idea of travel in relation to their situation at the time. Perhaps they chose their destination for it's similarity to their current surroundings, or the fact that the official language was the same as their mother tongue. Upon arrival they scout out the nearest pubs/bars/restaunrants that serve the food they're accustomed to. They make friends with other anglophones, and manage to live for months, even years in their host country without learning more than a few words of the local language. When they travel home they bring back supplies in bulk to sustain them until they can make their next trip back to (as one such traveller recently referred to it) "Civilisation". They congregate with other, like-minded travellers for conversations based around the general theme of 'this country' and its shortcomings.   And when they leave, they take with them friendships that could have been found elsewhere, and the memory of the views of the towering mountaintops or rolling seas, from over their morning, starbucks cup of coffee.

I have met all these kinds, and more in my life. Especially since being here. I have found myself, at different times and in different circumstances to be one or a mix of every kind of traveller I describe here. But there is a kind of traveller I want to be. The kind that considers their new environment their new home, not a temporary fix or a experience that brings them to count down the days 'til they leave. The kind that appreciates help and advice from fellow foreigners on how to settle in and struggle through the red-tape of moving country, but quickly sets about trying to get to know the residents of their new host country. The kind that understands the appeal of the natural and manmade attractions that the country has to offer, but is more interested in getting to know the country's greatest resource and export- it's people. The kind that can find humour and amusement in the quirks and differences between what they're used to and what they're faced with, without allowing their humour to turn to condescension or frustration. The kind that is keen to see the lay of the land through the eyes of those who live in it. The kind that refuses to speak their mother tongue unless it's absolutely necessary. The kind that is willing to entertain different ideas and attitudes, even when they surpass threatening to the point of being offensive, but is able to appreciate the difference in the root attitude that is being expressed. The kind that leaves having impacted and been impacted by the cultural differences and similarities between the host country and their country of origin. The kind that leaves taking with them a few or many precious relationships and unforgettable experiences. The kind that by the end of their sojourn can truly say that they have 'lived' in every sense of the word, in the country in question.

I'll let you know how it works out in 8 months time...

6 things

Some things you're unlikely to find in your Lonely Planet guide or any Internet search.

1. You need a ticket to be served (see my post on being served). In any business in which you need to be attended to, there is sure to be a little box-machine thing dispensing tickets with numbers to minimize queuing and ensure everyone is attended with steady regularity. I would have loved to have been aware of this before coming. Would have saved me a lot of time!

2. There are fans in the metro that spray water at regular intervals. My first few experiences standing on the platform awaiting my train when suddenly sprinkled with cold water left me scowling around at the other people on the platform, mentally accusing each one of opening a well-shaken bottle of fizzy water, or shaking out their freshly washed and still damp hair. I was relieved, to say the least when I worked out where the water was coming from, and am now grateful for this revolutionary (no pun intended) invention, especially during the hot, sticky rush hour.

3. (Speaking of being ambushed by water) The buildings leak. Avoid taking the sharp end of a sharp corner around a building. You will get splattered. It feels just like have a bird drop one mid-flight, and the feeling when realising that you are in fact bird-poo free is a mixed one... "Where did this water come from? at least it doesn't stain!". They call it 'el sudor' (the sweat) which, as one can imagine, does nothing to make you feel any better about falling victim to it. I'm told it's actually faulty air-conditioning units.

4. If there is a protest, everything will close. And of protests- there are many. Stock up on essentials.

5. Tea is drunk without milk. Should you want 'tea' in the British/African sense of the word, you need to stipulate 'té con leche' (tea with milk). And this is readily available in a whole host of disguises- milk with a teabag; hot milk with a teabag; hot water, teabag and glass of milk; hot water, teabag, jug of milk; amongst others.

6. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is a night owl. Well past 22:00 babies still roam the streets and invitations to 'go out' are usually only valid from 23:30 onwards. This isn't just hip, young, Chilean twenty-somethings sporting all white bopping from side to side in electronica night clubs, this is also family gatherings, dinner in restaurants, movies, visiting friends etc. From birth chileans are groomed to stay up late and still get up and do a decent day's living the next day, or so I'm told. Interesting, as this contradicts the 8-hour theory, suggesting that the amount of sleep we need is actually very relative and dependent on our environment and what we're used to. I'd like to say that my body-clock is adjusting, slowly but surely, but unfortunately, that would be a lie. Thank God for coffee!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

A Nation to be admired

In 2010 Chile garnered the attention and gained the respect of the world. It suffered a devastating earthquake and the massively covered mining accident that left 30 miners trapped underground, as well as a return to a right-wing government. Being here one can but admire the 'keep calm and carry on' attitude that Chileans have towards the lives they lead and the environment in which they lead them.

Chile is a distinct country in so many ways. Different from the rest of the world, but also very different from the other countries of Latin America. Talking it over with a work colleague called N he pointed out to me how naturally inaccessible Chile is- to one side the endless pacific, to the other the almost insurmountable Andes, to the south punishing Antarctica and to the north, Atacama, the driest desert on earth. Have these circumstances caused Chile to develop the independence and self-sufficiency that is in many ways makes it so distinct to its Latin neighbours?

Geography aside Chile has also suffered one of the bloodiest dictatorships of Latin America, and consequently one of the most famous in the history of the world. The almost 20 years under (the US backed) General Pinochet ushered in neoliberal reform and saw the mass oppression, repression and at times, violation and murder, of the people and their most basic human rights. Moreover, Pinochet and many of his henchmen were never brought to trial, let alone justice, and were allowed to die peacefully, not even in exile. On the "compassionate" grounds of the UK courts. Nice one, Britain.

Yet to speak to those who lived through the brunt of those 20 years, you would think they were telling you about a story they had read in the paper long ago, or something that had happened to a friend of a friend of a friend. They are not reticent, nor blazé, but rather exhibit such a clarity of mind, such a singular understanding and such a strength to carry on despite having been subjected to years of oppression and terror beyond what most of us could conceive as surmountable.

They display the same stoic resistance towards the very earth that seems to punish them. There is something terrible and fearful about an earthquake. Beyond all that it damages, destroys and engenders. Hurricanes and Cyclones are terrible, but they are dangers that come from outside, from the exterior, and strike the very same chord of fear in us humans that keeps us going to movies about Alien Invasions and other exterior threats. Droughts as well, are caused by the absence of an exterior agent, and can be outrun and, if lucky, outpaced.

But there is something truly formidable about the very earth upon which you stand; upon which you have built your houses and planted your crops; throwing up great heat and motion and rejecting you from it's very surface. It cannot be outrun. It cannot be outpaced. Until we learn to fly there is truly no escape. We remain subject to the earth's caprices. And caprices it has many.

And yet Chile remains- damaged in places but unbroken, conscious of the danger but unfazed. Many criticize the previous government for not rejecting many of the policies put in place by the dictatorship, just as many criticize the current government for delays in reconstructions in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. But Chile truly remains a nation to be admired. 

When the Earth moves

The other evening a friend was telling me about the first time she kissed her fiancé (boyfriend at the time). He's European, and had been living in Chile for only a few months before they started dating. As they stood outside the cinema and passionately locked lips she said she had butterflies in her tummy and the earth began to tremble. Literally.*
"did you feel that?" she asked,
"feel what?"
"That." It happened again. "The earth is moving"
"Yea, baby, the earth is moving..." he replied, moving his face closer to hers once again
"No, seriously," She insisted, pulling back, "The earth is moving."
"We're experiencing and tremor."

Ok so maybe she didn't describe it to me in that much detail but that's I reckon that's the way it should have happened, at least to make it an anecdote worth retelling.

I looked forward to experiencing my first tremor, but during my first months here I began to worry that I was immune to them. My lack of experience in the movement of the earth's plates had somehow dulled my spidey-sense to detect tremors. I blame my parents for raising me in countries devoid of any natural hazards. In Mauritius the risk of cyclones is still very much an exterior one. In the UK you aren't really at the mercy of mother nature, (more at the mercy of the coalition government). And in the DRC, the dangers are definitely potent, but mostly manmade.

In the middle of one of my classes the students looked up at one another from completing an exercise in silence and announced "¡Está temblando!". I felt nothing. They advised me to sit down on a chair to better feel it. I felt nothing. One of my students told me to crouch down with my palms flat on the floor to feel the vibrations. I felt nothing. I leaned up against a supporting wall. I felt nothing. Disappointing.

The first tremor I actually experienced was in my sleep. Well, I say "experienced"...

I was napping (a habit I have cultivated since arriving to the point of making it a talent) and had fallen into that light, half-sleep stage where your subconscious somehow translates whatever is going on around you into your dream. I began dreaming that there was an old man trapped under my bed trying to get out. (I think I should take a moment here to thank my older sister for the one horror story she told me when I was 13 that to this day evidently haunts my dreams. Love you C.) He was writhing about under my bed shaking it violently. I woke up to find my whole room shaking but, believing I was still dreaming and it not being an unpleasant sensation, I turned over and fell back to sleep.

I woke up half an hour later and stepped out of my room to find Daisy and her husband waiting for me right outside my door, which was odd to say the least. Apparently they had been hesitating whether or not to knock on my door and see if I was OK and hadn't been too frightened by the tremor (bless 'em!). They found it very amusing that I had, at that point, no recollection of feeling it whatsoever. It was only hours later when thinking my dreams over that I realised that in fact my bed had been shaking, thankfully not because of a writhing, old man but rather because the 14 floors below me were jiggling about from the tremor.

There have been 3 tremors in the past 24 hours. For all 3 of them I was in the apartment, on the 15th floor. It's quite a pleasant sensation if I'm honest, kind of like the beginning of a ride in Disney land or the first few moments of take-off in an aeroplane. For the most part these tremors are small, and happen all the times to the extent that some people tell me they hardly notice them anymore, although the one this morning did knock a few things off my nightstand, but that may be more the fault of how precariously they were perched on the mountain of books, papers, chocolate boxes and hair-bands that ever adorn my little bedside table.

I've been told that lots of little tremors are a good sign, it means that the plates are moving about in a quiet but regular way. I'm no geologist, or geographer, or seismologist (just in case anyone had come to the conclusion that I was), and have yet to look it up for myself.

*About the earth trembling. She didn't literally have butterflies in her tummy as far as I'm aware.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Does that come in a bag?

One crisp and sunshiney tuesday morning I was asked by a teacher to contribute part of the day's lesson, as I had observed one of her lessions the previous day. The previous day's content had been quite heavily grammar based, so I was grateful that I wasn't the going to be the one to inflict the stodgy rules of the present perfect continuous onto the poor, unsuspecting 8 o'clock class.

The content I had been given was fairly simple to the point that I was struggling to find an interesting way of presenting it. The topic was "in the kitchen" (be still my beating heart) and my job was to teach the various types of containers that one would find in the 'average' kitchen cupboard. If there's one thing that this particular lesson taught me, it's that the idea of an 'average kitchen cupboard' is a highly relative one.

Since I hadn't had the forsight to bring with me the various containers to make the lesson a nice, kinaesthetic experience, I resolved to simply sketch said containers on the board, and allow the students to draw on their own common sense. Again, a sense of what is common: highly relative. And so I drew: a can, a tin, a bottle, a box, a jar, a packet and a bag.

The book we were using was British based and gave some strict(ish) guidelines as to how to explain and justify what sort of food was kept in each e.g. liquid in a can and solid food in a tin (something I had never really noticed but interesting when you think about it. Well... relatively at least). After sketching (a dubious semblance of) said containers onto the whiteboard, I handed the board markers out to the students and asked them to come up to the board and list all the things that could be stored in them next to the appropriate drawing. 

I wasn't really sure how to react when all of the students unanimously decided that every possible type of food and drink was sold in a bag. With the exception of wine and beer, my little sketch of a bag of walkers crisps found itself surrounded by the names of every food and drink you could imagine. Milk, jam, dog food, oil, orange juice, cream, mayonnaise, fruit, honey, you name it, my students thought it came in a bag. At first I thought they may have misinterpreted my drawing, but upon eliciting more information from them they too seemed confused as to the purpose of this excercise. "But you can buy it all in a bag?" one student said, with polite but poignant undertones of "what is the point of this, you foreign teacher who obviously doesn't go out shopping very much?". I was confused.

I put it down to 50% misunderstanding 50% possible cultural packaging differences, and on my way home I stopped at a little supermarket to investigate the omnipotence of the bag as a Chilean packaging solution. To me, honey is a fiendish substance to manage even with the most sophisticated of pots and spoons, so you can well understand my surprise at finding, yes indeedy, bag upon bag of honey, milk, jam, cream, oil, orange juice and, wait for it, even wine.. It would seem that my students were right, the mandates of the book I had been using did not hold water here. (I was later told that the last item was the worst and cheapest form of alcohol available. If you think drinking wine from a box is tasteless, imagine wine from a bag)

The lesson to be drawn from this is that although there must be structure and content in our teaching and our perception of the world, (see my description Re: the fiendishness of honey), everything is always and ultimately extremely relative, varying from person to person and from place to place; and in Chile, apparently sold in a bag.

We are all Students

My first few days working here at the language school I didn't have all that much to do. The academic year here begins in March and runs until November, so January and February are the longer (summer) holidays. During these months (or so I'm told) Santiago is empty, as all the families make the most of having time off work and school to retreat to the mountains, the coast or the south to get some rest. The school I'm working at offers intensive courses over the summer, but by the time I had arrived they had all been allocated teachers. So, in order to justify paying me for two months, I was despatched to various classrooms to observe other teachers at work and, when I felt ready, was expected to co-teach a section of the lesson that followed.

Although intially I resented the feeling of being fobbed off onto "observations" by my coordinators who didn't seem to have anything more productive to give me, the experience soon proved to be an infinitely enriching and enjoyable one. I was priveledged to watch every shape, size and design of English teacher I could ever imagine. There was the quiet, soft-spoken R with his North American lilt and his expertise in phonetics and sound formation; and the loud and boisterous I who cracked joke after joke and and kept his class in hysterics; then there was the bubbly V who spoke with soothing condescension to her students, like a mother pigeon cooing to her chicks, eager to laugh at their jokes or reassure them of their progress. I watched teacher after teacher and slowly began to piece together a semblance of the sort of educator I want to be. Teaching, in this sense, seems to me to be like any form of modern art- part original creativity, thoughts and ideas; part reinvention, reconstruction and inspired by other's performances.

Another facet of what I observed that made a great impact on me was the humility that these teachers possessed. Not all of them, to be sure, as I have outlined before TEFL attracts people from all walks of life and seems to provoke misplaced-ego-syndrome in the most unlikely of victims, and to this my current environment is no exception. But for the most part, I have so much to learn from the attitudes of the teachers here. There are about 70 odd teachers employed at this particular branch of the school, 6 of whom are native-speakers, the rest of whom are chilean. Most, if not all of the chilean teachers have a 5 year bachelors and masters degree in teaching, as well as years of experience teaching English. They are well-versed in grammar and linguistics, and have transformed themselves into that rare and desired breed of bilingual chilean, admired by the rest of society. And yet, when I walk into their classroom, barely 3 years experience and not even a degree under my belt, they are just as keen and eager to learn from whatever small contribution I could attempt to make as their students. They are quick to correct themselves and take notes and ask questions just as much if not more than the actual paying students. After the observations they rush to ask me what I thought and if I had any feedback on how they could improve. I am there to learn from their experience, and yet they want to hear from me. 

I see in this attitude something that I never want to lose. In order to be a good teacher, one must remain a good student- ever learning but moreover ever ready to learn. One cannot learn if one sees oneself as superior to the person who is imparting information or expertise. One cannot learn if one dismisses some people on grounds of age, experience or talent and accept only to learn from certain others. I truly admire this about the teachers I have met here. I don't know if this can be generalised to all chilean TEFL teachers, or chilean teachers, but the ones I have met so far, in the situations I have been in up to this point have inspired my admiration and sparked in me a genuine desire to remain ever as humble a student I can, in order to become as good a teacher as I ever could be.

Friday, 11 March 2011

A word of gratitude

I really like getting to know people. I look forward to the stage where a relationship is no longer polite and civil; when you've had a few ugly days, a few misunderstandings, and now something has taken root and is growing in a healthy, honest manner. I was very fortunate upon my arrival here- arriving with no expectations and a somewhat broken heart I didn't have the energy to put on a brave face and act like a good guest or entertaining foreigner. And as luck would have it, Daisy, the lady I live with met me with open arms and has, since then, truly adopted me as one of her own children- caring for me but also setting me straight when need be. Her entire family have treated me as one of their own and willingly gone out of their way to see that I am taken care of. I bless the lord for their generosity and I bless them for their golden hearts.

Please use your own fork...

The one thing I really like about where I am staying, is that I feel like I am part of a family. It takes away the pressures of being completely self-sufficient, and ensures that every experience I have will be shared, or at least recounted and therefore intensified and better appreciated. For instance, when coming home from a recent weekend of city-hopping, I loved the few moments I spent telling Daisy and her hubby about my adventures- at once practicing more Spanish but also sharing and reliving all the fun and enjoyment I'd been blessed to experience. Travel is about building relationships- with the people you meet and with the places you visit. Staying with a family (rather than renting my own place) ensures that that happens.

It's about sharing really. I don't like living alone, and although at times I need my space and I do enjoy my own company, I would rather share as much as possible than live things alone. Everything is shared in a Chilean family home. Adventures, stories, bills, laughter, meals, crockery, cutlery...

Yes, cutlery.

Now, when traveling, I'm not usually one to complain about the differences in how food is prepared, or even served. Different Culture, different rules and all that. Heaven knows how odd my family's behaviour and manners must seem to the hordes that have cross our threshold over the years, so I am definitely in no place to judge. The only concern I ever have, is that of hygiene.

So, those who know me well enough can imagine my facial expression (for those who don't, try harder) when seated at an amply stocked dinner table, down whose centre are various dishes of assorted salads drenched in sumptuous dressings, each with their own serving fork, upon seeing my fellow diners reach for said serving forks and help themselves to salad before putting the same, used fork, back in the salad for the next person to use. Imagine the intensifying of my expression when the next person, without qualm or flinching, does the same, with the same, used fork!

Just to clarify, these forks are not used to pile salad from the serving dishes onto the diner's plate, they are used as personal cutlery- to shovel salad from the dish into the diner's mouth. And then they are put back. And used by the next person. Et cetera. Et cetera.

So far I don't think anyone has cottoned on to how alien this community approach to eating utensils is to me. I'm not sure if this is a Chilean habit, or particular to the background of the family I'm living with, or if they are just a VERY close-knit family on more levels than I am accustomed. I'll probably never ask, and consequently never know. Suffice it to say, I soon took up the habit of piling my serving of salad onto my own plate before anyone else has had the chance to dive in. I'm still a fan of sharing, but some things, in my opinion, are still better left unshared. And yes, cutlery is one of them.

The Menfolk 'round these parts

I thought it was important that I write about Machismo before writing this post, in order to put it in context.

I would recommend to any woman feeling a bit rubbish about herself to walk down a Latin American high street. And I would defy her to not be bright red by the time she got to the end of it.

Growing up in Mauritius, I've gotten used to receiving male attention whilst walking about the town. It's not really that much of a compliment, as they aren't all that discerning, and to attract your attention they make noises as if calling a puppy. The two times I ever actually turned around and asked the gang of young Mauritian boys whistling and clucking at me whilst hanging out at La Gare** what they actually wanted, they were all stumped for words.I'm not a demanding person, but I would appreciate having some sort of follow-up to simply clucking at me. Most disappointing. Suffice it to say, I was left quite cold.

Living in London, cat calls are either obscene to the point where I feel like calling my mother or taking a shower after receiving one, or nothing more than a whistle and a disgusting, lustful look. I have learned to just keep walking and have cultivated a fairly horrific scowl that I would like to think works as a powerful deterrent.

And it is wearing this very same scowl that I find myself walking down the high streets of down town Santiago. Armed also with my ipod in my ears (and therefore supposedly immune to any attempt at attracting my attention) I charge forward, focusing solely on my destination and the various stray animals that wander the streets.

On the street corner near my apartment block there is construction going on. Mixed in with the constant hum of the concrete mixer and the machinery, one can hear wolf-whistles and cat calls emanating from this site from opening to closing time.

My strategy is usually not to let anyone have any level of false hope. I have to walk past this site twice a day, and usually armed with my Ipod am immune to whatever it is that they are saying. I feel dirty just remembering the filth that these particular construction workers have been heard to say. Walking past the site one afternoon, without my Ipod, but with my ubiquitous frown, I was treated to a "¡Tú eres la reina de mi vida, y haré cualquier cosa pa' hacerte feliz!"*. I, in turn, treated the gentleman to one of my most pronounced scowls, before charging off, reaching the end of the street and thinking to myself: "ooo... actually... that sounded quite nice to me!"

Cat calls aside, I was little prepared for the other Chilean strategy for grabbing female attention. Although two or three men have been polite and just approached me and began talking- a strategy I respect and feel comfortable politely rejecting, The majority, however, adopt a rather odd and quite startling method of dive-bombing me. I have never felt more flustered than when I was walking down the amply spaced high street, I experienced several men, one after the other, walking in the opposite direction as me, approaching me a great speed, as if to kiss me on the cheek, and scuttling off. "What on earth is going on?!" I asked myself. They were acting like cats who'd had half their whiskers cut off.

This dive-bombing kept occurring (and startling and confusing me) until I mentioned it to Chilean friend M, who explained that they were (or attempting to) whispering "sweet nothings" into my ear. He warned me not to try listen to what they were saying, as they were probably obscenities. So, "sweet obscenities", more like.

And then the day came when I left my Ipod at home and had to walk without any audio entertainment. Once again, sporting a scowl, no makeup and a quick march I charged out onto the high street determined to ignore any attention I received. And then it started.

"¡Qué hermosa!"
"¡Mi Princesa!"
"¡Me enamoro!"
"¡Tan linda!"
"¡Eres el sol!"***

In soft, dulcet tones I was told that I was Rodrigo's  princess, that I was Marcelo's sun, that Cristóbal had fallen in love with me, that Miguel thought I was beautiful. And so on. Granted, still by strange, dive-bombing Chilean men in the high street  in the middle of the day. My thoughts? That Chile's idea of obscenities is far removed from what I'm used to taking offence to.

**Bus Station
*You are the queen of my life, and I will do anything to make you happy!
*** "How beautiful!" "My Princess" "I'm falling in love" "So pretty!" "You are the sun!"


There is a particular phenomenon here in Latin America. Well, in all honesty, it exists across the globe, but it is pronounced and acknowledged here to such an extent that it has been given it's very own name: Machismo. Easy to work out what that means.

In a recent class I was giving I was trying to explain how this word could be translated into English. It's a fascinating concept in that there is no single word in English that describes all that it encompasses. It's a delightful cocktail of sexism, chauvinism and misogyny with a little vim and chutzpah thrown in for effect.

Machismo is a curious thing. It connotes the subordination and subjugation of women, but in so many a subtle way that it is often misunderstood. Machismo can be seen in the obvious objectification of women's bodies in the media: for instance after 23:00 there is sure to be a semi-naked woman on every TV channel you tune into. Objectification is readily available at any number of the most popular chain cafés you walk into, where the waitress uniform is a skintight mini-dress and they only employ women under 30.

However Machismo also takes more subtler forms. One thing that surprised me as my Spanish improved and I was able to comprehend the language more, was the romantic nature of the lyrics of most popular music. Where English artists specialize in making music about women's undercarriage or how big and manly they are, the Spanish-Language equivalents are often a celebration of beauty and a promise of love and romance. Odd, considering Latin America's reputation for Machismo and female objectification.

But this seemingly celebratory view of women can be just as damaging and oppressive. As Simone de Beauvoir argued in the case of women in France, if a woman is seen as whimsical, she cannot be trusted to make decisions. If a woman is emotional, she does not know how to be rational. Such assumptions provide the premise upon which women are seen as beautiful and lovely objects and nothing more, and consequently excluded from the highest paying jobs, the political sphere and, on many occasions, simply being taken seriously.

So although the idea of a "Latin Lover" is a warm and inviting one, with his easy words and ability to send shivers down your spine; these very talents at charming and swoon-inducing are often a double-edged sword. 

Thursday, 3 March 2011

There's a Dog on the table II

So, my friend K and I planned to meet up for a coffee a few days before she was to go travelling. She's a lovely girl; half English half Kenyan, with a great sense of self- deprecating humour and a very warm nature. The heart bleeds a bit that she is leaving back to the UK. Anyway, this post isn't so much about her, more about this fateful cup of coffee (otherwise my choice of title could be taken as a little insulting, don't you think?).

We met up at the designated hour in the vicinity of Bellas Artes, a corner of Santiago Centro known for it's (as the name suggests) beautiful arts, bohemian atmosphere,  museums and cafés- sort of like the Soho or Camden of Santiago- without the drugs and goths. We decided on a little cafe and ordered. She ordered what I think was a cocktail of mango and coconut, which came in a beaker more than a glass. I was after something warmer and little more virgin, so I asked for a hot chocolate. Much to my confusion the waiter asked me how I wanted it. Now, if I had ordered steak, or even coffee, this question would not have stumped me with the stumping-power that it did. "umm... ¿caliente? ¿y con chocolate, por favor?"* I answered the waiter, thinking that surely my original order had already communicated to him all of the needs I had just outlined. More surprising yet was his retort: "¿Lo quiere liquido?"**. I looked at K. She looked at me. We said nothing but in the silence seemed to hang the understanding and complicity that neither of us had a clue what he was on about. I had traveled much . She had traveled much. Seemingly neither of us had ever encountered hot chocolate in any form other than liquid. I looked at the waiter, and nodded a patronizing nod; a nod would say "yes, surprisingly enough I would like my hot, liquid, chocolatey beverage to come hot, liquid and chocolatey." And off he scuttled.

I'm getting to the dog on the table bit...

So soon our handsome, and according to K, Argentine waiter returned (Although we later discovered he was that rare breed of handsome Chilean- see upcoming post for more details) with said beaker of yellow and white speckled juice for K and a medium sized mug of dark brown syrup. Apparently the concepts of both "hot" and "liquid" are highly subjective ones, as my Hot chocolate was lukewarm (which wasn't too criminal) and had the consistency of thick English custard (which I found equally surprising and of-putting). I was confused, and a little disappointed. And the cherry on the cake (or the lukewarm chocolate custard) of this sad predicament? It tasted like straight syrup- so sweet I felt the walls of my throat recoiling as it slowly journeyed down my oesophagus with the viscosity of freshly curdled yoghurt. All in all, I was not impressed.

Just then, who (or what, I should say) should appear to my aid? A german shepherd. Not a small, stuffed, chilean-jumper wearing German Shepherd, (because in all honesty if one of those had just appeared out of thin air I think I would have started somewhat more than I did). A real, full grown German Shepherd. And, instinctively, I made the 'click click' sound that any animal lover makes upon seeing an animal in their vicinity in need of some sincere petting. Needless to say the GS heard me, and mistook the three pats I proceeded to inflict on his head for an invitation to join our merry party. He leapt onto the table, licked the side of my face, and then proceeded to help himself to my chocolate, umm, beverage. A few moments of shock and awe ensued, after which our handsome, non-argentine waiter came to remove the mutt from the table. And that was that.

It may go without saying, but I will say it anyway- I did not order another.

*Hot, and chocolatey please?
** Would you like that in liquid form?

Are you being served?

0930 In the shower. Squeeze out the last breathe of life from my two-in-one shampoo and conditioner. Determine to venture forth and buy some more as soon as I am dressed.

0940 Scrutinize blotchy red face in the mirror. Curse the dryness of the water. Curse nearby bar of soap. Curse my lack of foresight for not bringing any form of facewash with me. Add facewash to my (growing) mental list of cosmetic necessities.

1000 Ipod and wallet in hand (well, in bag), venture down the main shopping street about 4 blocks from the apartment. Wander indecisively into 2 or 3 pharmacies and wander out again when I realise they don't have any items on the shelves to browse, just people behind counters to consult (about medicines, presumably).

1015 Enter 3 or 4 more customer-friendly pharmacies and proceed to the Skincare section. Think to self that this area of Santiago is by no means lacking in Pharmacies.

1016 I am in need of facewash, facial moisturizer and body cream, the last of which appears to be in amply available. The first two not so much. Leave the 4th pharmacy after searching high and low for some form of facial cleanser to no avail. Mental note to self: pay closer attention to the female Chilean complexion to see how this lack of facewash-readiness is paying off.

1040 Encounter large and amply stocked "Farmácia Ahumada" and proceed to the skincare aisle. Do a happy dance and let out what I think is a small squeal but measuring by the altitude of nearby cleaning-lady's jump is probably more of  piercing shriek. Mental note to self: Personal volume seems to increase when listening to music on Ipod. Eye nearby shopper with an intention to rugby tackle should they attempt to reach for the (last and only) tube of St Ives Apricot Facial Scrub with Minerals and Exfoliants sitting on the shelf.

1043 Pick up shampoo, cream and all the rest. Spot Nivea cream with built-in sun block. Add it to bundle and proceed to the counter.

1045 Note that there seems to be no queue. Stand a meter away from the long counter (manned by around 4 people in smart white coats). Wait.

1046 The man to my right finishes serving a lady and flashes me a smile. I step toward him when out of nowhere another middle aged lady with a bar of soap overtakes me and is attended to by this very same man. Stare in confusion. Think "How Rude!"

1048 Stare in even more confusion as the same thing happens again.

1050 And again. (each time with a different person, just to clarify)

1059 Note that these customers seem to be appearing in order, with steady frequency. Note that as soon as an attendant is free, a customer is served. Think "Conspiracy!". Think "Madness!". Think "Discrimination!" on racial, gender or being-foreign grounds.

1107 Approach an attendant who has been without customer for about 30 seconds. Express confusion when am met with a cold "83?". Quickly analyse possible interpretations of this question: number of items? Decidedly not. Date of birth? None of their business. Final price? Far too low. Shake head. Step back in shame.

1110 Watch as same attendant shouts out the same interrogative "83?" and is answered by a gentleman holding a small scrap of paper with the number 83 on it. Visually retrace gentleman's steps. Notice tiny sign on the back wall of the shop. Approach it.

1112 Read "Take ticket in order to be served". Sheepishly take ticket number 86 from the odd black box below. Head back to the counter. Wait to be served.

1113 Repent in my head for having cursed this country and its pharmaceutical ways. Repent for having mentally accused the attendants of discrimination on every level. Repent for having been ready to rugby tackle a innocent passer-by who probably hadn't even the smallest design on my St Ives Apricot Facial Scrub with Minerals and Exfoliants.

1115 Number 86 is called. I am attended, I pay. I leave. With my tail between my legs.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Who is this "Po" of whom you speak?

 The first Chilean I ever met, (to my knowledge at least), let's call her P, convinced me with each conversation following our introduction that she had mistaken me for someone else. As far as I was aware, she could recognise my face, my conversation and even my Facebook profile. What she seemed to struggle with was my name.

Now "Lizzie" is not too complicated to remember. Granted in a spanish-speaking mouth it either transforms into the god-awful "Lithie" or the quite smooth-sounding "Lissie". I also answer to "Liz" and, occasionally, "Elizabeth". I'm not fussed. I answer to a "you" or grunt or even an impassioned gesture in my general direction. P, however, seemed to think my name was "Po". An odd predicament.

Imagine my surprise (and concern) upon my arrival in Chile to find that almost everybody I met suffered from the same confusion as P. "Po" seemed to me a ubiquitous character, looming over every conversation; addressed at the end of every affirmative (yes) or negative (no). Should I leave my number? "Sí po." Do you sell facewash? "No po." Shall we watch a movie? "Claro* po!"

After grasping that this "po" was used more as a filler than a form of addressing me, I was struck by two fascinating facets of this omnipresent word:
1. It's only used in Chile. (And it's used like it's going out of fashion.)
2. No one seems to know where it comes from.
Both these points are interesting on different levels. The first because it is very rare to encounter a linguistic element in isolation in Latin America, given that the majority of the countries speak the same language. You can hear the use of "Chevre" (cool) in both Colombia and Venezuela. "Vos" is used instead of "Tú" (you) in Argentina, El Salvador and pockets of other countries. But in the art of "Po", Chile seems to stand alone.

The second point is interesting because, in all fairness I haven't dedicated that many-an-hour to the study of the origins of "po", and yet it seems that the general public (or at least the general public within my vicinity) are no better informed that I. The most interesting theory I've heard, which is highly plausible, is that it is a Chinese expression that has serruptitiously infiltrated the language. From where? I hear you ask, as did I. Well, in short, a couple of hundred years ago there was this little scuffle (or rather large scuffle) between Peru, Bolivia and Chile, known as the War of the Pacific. It is generally acknowledged that Chile emerged the winner of the war, and this is (according to legend and some sources) largely due to the fact that mistreated Chinese labourers from Peru defected and migrated to Chile, joining the Chilean army and thus strengthening their numbers. There is some argument that points towards the strength of the indigenous people of Chile warming to the Chinese for their similarity in appearance, but this is hard to prove on many levels.

I will probably never find where this "po" comes from, when or how he began, or perhaps even why he continues to hang on the end of every Chilean sentence. In short, no sé po...

*Claro= Of course