On staying in Chile

By Posted on Location: 4 min read
Somewhere near the El Tatio geyser field near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020

I’m currently in the process of working out how I’m going to stay in Chile. Not forever, just for longer than my current visa allows. My Chilean friends think I’m mad. Why would I stay somewhere with such an unreliable social and political system? Why would I want to live here where the police are hostile and the government corrupt?

My family I think also struggle to understand why I would live somewhere that makes me so poor. We are living in different worlds, in more ways than one, and I’m like the squirrel Ratatoskr in the world tree, running up and down through the different places, only really belonging to the tree itself. Luxury hotel to shared dorm in a hostel, neither really fit me.

But why stay in Chile?

The truth is it being Chile doesn’t really matter. If the cards had fallen in a different pattern last year, it might have been a different country, but they fell as they did and I ended up here. I ended up beneath the military curfew in a house of Chileans and with friends who are Chileans and I watched as people began to speak about sadness in a way that I have rarely ever seen.

That squirrel in me that scurries around collecting stories, peering into other people’s lives, stopped and stared. Here there was something new, something as yet unseen but something incredibly familiar.

Deep sadness resides in all of us, even if we don’t often recognise it as being there

For me, recognising my own submerged sadness has been a battle of therapy and self-love. I do not always find it easy to identify sadness, but being resilient and strong depends on my willingness to put the effort to accept the sadness within.

Now the volume of my sadness has, I believe, reached a natural and healthy balance. Whilst I will never be ‘over’ my trauma, the event has been relegated to history. I have mourned that shattering of my being and I have rebuilt myself in a different fashion. Through that rebuilding, I have changed. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I now have a great curiosity about this post-trauma period of change that is necessary to rebalance the self.

Chile is a place of scars

Graffiti covers the walls in town, screaming the people’s pain. The fear and the hurt are real, the question for me is how do the people recover, redevelop their own sense of their own identity. Is it possible to do it in a healthy manner, or the more this goes on, is it to be more of the same, more of the ‘us and them’?

It’s not just Chile where such an attitude leaves scars behind, the whole world is bathed in a painful mixture of fear of the other. It gets more complex in Chile because of the history of the dictatorship and the current role of capitalism, which has a weird Stockholm syndrome like effect upon the people. Nurseries in my town are advertised with pictures of smiling girls with yellow pigtails when in the yard such children rarely exist. Similarly, the smiling faces on my university notebook have had the colour zapped from them, leaving a set of images behind which would not be accepted in England anymore – they would be considered unrepresentative of our genetic diversity. Pale skin is also associated with those who are better off. Those who wield power.

Chilean Flag
Praying for Llamas
Near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, January 2020.
(Dear Mother – do you have the place name?)

When we were in the Atacama desert, an indigenous lady, in jeans and a t-shirt, showed us carvings in the stone walls of the craggy valley that ran beside her small town, pictures like llamas and birds. The engravings were done slowly, with rituals and deep meaning, focusing the people on what it was that they desired, focusing the community on the needs of the whole community. I asked if the people still make such images and she shook her head. Why not? Her face changed. She hesitated. Vergüenza. Because they were ashamed. They didn’t want to be laughed at.

But did she believe?

Undoubtedly. And as we drove back from the river I saw the flocks of sheep shuffling along together with feathers marking their woolly coats with signs of protection, protection that would spread from the sheep to the earth and to the environment and which would look after the people who depended upon the land.

In a world crumbling under climate change, I would suggest that such shame is dangerous. I listen to the stories and I hear about how much damage is being done to the wildlife through mining, or how taking sea-kelp from the ocean to give bathroom products that gel texture is destroying the wildlife beneath the waves, and I wonder who ought to be ashamed?

And I’m caught in my own curiosity

All this, the traumatised country trying to understand what it is, the fact that here there are people who really understand how to live with nature, the fear, the shame, the sadness. The contradiction of adulating and fearing the other. The continual struggle that goes on. All this adds up to a fixation on my part. A fixation that I cannot simply walk away from.

“Catherine, your life is chaos” – The Grump

A local woman weaving in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Peru, January 2020.
[Written at the beginning of February.]

On the aeroplane between Lima and Cusco I tell my parents that I’m staying in Chile. I’ve asked my boss and he’s written the most wonderful recommendation letter and it’s confirmed, all I need to do is renew my documents and I’m sorted. I feel pretty chuffed with myself. As a dear South-African friend would say, I’ve got my ducks in a row.

It doesn’t last

A few days later whilst I’m on the plane from Lima to Santiago my boss sends me a message. Something in the bureaucracy has gone amiss. Perhaps funding’s been cut, perhaps there’s been some disagreement somewhere up the line, it’s not clear but either way, it’s nothing personal, but I don’t have a job.

This upsets me.

In the current jumble that is my life, the idea of some stability was soothing

I had a plan. I knew where I was going to live. Then reality struck.

Although I try to maintain a routine, reality doesn’t work that way. Ever since I arrived in Chile I’ve been battling to create a routine. I arrived in August. When we had a week of holiday in September, everyone else was overjoyed, I was frustrated and wanted to go to work because I’d finally begun to settle into a rhythm. A month later, when protestors took to the streets and the military curfew was placed upon us, I was the one who kept hoping that we’d soon get back to normal and I’d be able to go back to class.

It never happened.

Nope. We’ve gone from protests to online examinations to summer holidays

And I’ve felt like I’m spinning from one thing to another. Last week I was on holiday with my parents, then I was back in La Serena for the weekend and now I’m miles and miles and miles further south, wearing the most ridiculous pink woolly hat about to go hiking in the mountains.

It’s all proving quite a challenge.

This morning I was shaken awake by a bus conductor

In a friendly kind of fashion of course. I’d woken up in the bus station in Santiago which was where I was supposed to be, but disorientating all the same. Tonight, I’m in a hostel. Already this year I have slept in 12 different beds and home has not yet been one of them. By the time February ends it’s going to be twenty-something different places.

My poor body has no idea where it is or what it’s supposed to be doing next.

Despite all this, I am, more or less, managing it all

Me. The same woman who was only a few years ago struggling to manage simple tasks like cleaning one’s teeth is now juggling all this uncertainty. Tonight I am tired, but when I woke up this morning on the bus I knew what I needed to do. I knew how to look after myself.

I stepped off the bus and ate my banana and a cereal bar. I cannot make decisions on an empty stomach so don’t try to. It’s helpful to know one’s limits. Once I was thinking better I headed to the bathrooms to clean my teeth and get changed. I put on my make-up. It’s not that I wear make-up every day, but sometimes doing so makes me look more alive and therefore feel more alive.

There’s nothing elegant about doing your morning routine in the bus station’s toilets, but elegance is a luxury.

Then came the next bus, this one to the airport where I found myself squeezed into one of the few remaining seats. I didn’t head straight to check-in but stopped off first for coffee and a media-luna (croissant to you and me). Now I was feeling human.

Then came the first attempt at check-in where I found that I wasn’t on the passenger list

This led to a short debate with a woman at the (“this is not a”) help-desk to be reinserted on the passenger list, and a second more successful attempt at check-in. No surprise, I slept most of the flight down to Puerto Natales.

Nobody would have guessed that I nearly screwed up the whole thing by imagining that my flight was the day after it actually was. However, at the bus station back home in La Serena, the helpful man at a (“how can I help you”) help-desk came to my rescue and sorted out my wrong bus tickets without a fuss. So, in the end, there was no grand disaster.

What’s noteworthy here is that having made a mistake, I could have chastised myself. I could have played at criticism, but instead, I got myself a cup of tea and sorted out the problem. I dealt with what I could deal with and I did it whilst remaining calm.

For me, managing chaos comes down to not expending energy on the useless

Always, it’s a lack of energy that’s going to trip me up. Without energy my willpower is diminished and my decision making becomes disastrous. Amid chaos, there are so many decisions to be made. You need willpower to choose the helpful route rather than the easiest. This is why, in my experience, you should take a banana to your therapy session and eat it immediately afterwards, or consume a tower of marmalade sandwiches, just when your energy levels are crashing and you’re feeling rather raw.

Or before you head to the supermarket so that you have the willpower to choose the food you need over the food you want. Or when you wake up in a bus station and need to keep yourself from freaking out.

In fact, thinking about it, my management technique for chaos might come down to three ideas:

  1. When you’re tired prioritise sleep. If you can’t sleep, eat a banana. If you have to do something taxing, eat a banana. Don’t make decisions on an empty stomach. Bananas are great.
  2. If you have no idea what you’re doing or how you’re going to solve a problem, sit down and have a cup of tea. Don’t multitask here, simply have a cup of tea. If you’re so overwhelmed you can’t think straight to make a cup of tea – and it happens – simply sit down on the floor. If you have to sit down on the floor of the bus station, that’s okay too.
  3. This one is based on Rapunzel’s guide for intercontinental flights. Whenever you have a connection (maybe a metaphorical one rather than an airport style one), change your socks and knickers and don’t forget to brush your teeth. The father would add, wash and comb your hair. Clean hair helps a lot.

And it seems I have to throw the dice up in the air again, but the intention is still to stay in Chile a while longer…

Alpaca and guinea pig are both on the menu

The altitude is making my body feel all a tad disorientated. I’ve got my birthday cards laid out on the desk beside a cactus and a sign which says that should I want any more pillows to call reception. I have four pillows already, all for myself, so I should think that’s going to be unnecessary. I can also request a hot water bottle should I require one, or maybe I could request the filling of my mini-hot-water bottle which remain in the depths of suitcase number two. These days I am a two-suitcase woman. Suitcase number one awaits my return to Chile.

I am very pleased to be able to write that I now have a functioning computer and can write at a sensible pace. I have never been a swift typist on a telephone, I’ve always been a bit awkward with the touch keyboards. On the computer, I’m not fast, but I am significantly faster and what matters more, I feel at ease writing this way.

Through the balcony windows and out across the private garden I can see a fountain, water pouring through clusters of cheerful pink flowers. This is living in luxury and is, I admit, a bit of a contrast to my everyday life where I live on a not a whole lot. In the last twenty-four hours, I have eaten more meat than I would normally consume within a week. Peruvian food is good. It’s full of strong flavours and has a heat to it that Chilean food lacks. At lunchtime, I bit into a sweet potato and my mouth was filled with such sensations that I sat in my seat and stared for a while at what remained on my fork. So much flavour from a potato. And yesterday’s ceviche came with enough chilli that my eyes actually began to water, something which hasn’t occurred since I was in an Indian restaurant near the train station in Leeds.

Alpaca and guinea pig are both on the menu and the Father responds to this with his dead guinea pig impersonation which I used to think of as excessive silliness, but which I realise probably looks tame compared to some of my theatrical (histrionic) behaviour when I’m teaching.

Living with such a marvellous range of experiences, I’m pretty sure that I’m the luckiest person in the world. I get these moments of sweet wonder – I write from a fancy hotel in Cusco – but without living entirely in a money-padded bubble. I could not afford such a hotel, to eat such a volume of food or to be escorted around by a friendly chap called Julio Cesar or the nifty Lima traffic trained private drivers. Normally, I drag my suitcase along using my fierce muscles and get the bus.

And oddly I’m glad that at least at this point in my life I don’t have much money. I love my parents’ world, but I can’t help but feel that having substantial funds would give me a very different experience of Chile right now. In England, I am of course middle-class, even when I’m unemployed, but I’m told that no such thing exists in Chile. In a temporary exhibition on immigration in the human rights and memory museum in Santiago I saw a film depicting the views of Palestinians living in Chile, and one woman stated how in Palestine they have apartheid (based on religion and race) but in Chile, there is also apartheid, economic apartheid.

The teachers with whom I work fiercely declare themselves to be working class.

Because I don’t have much, I find myself overwhelmed by intense gratitude as I accept a refugee paying for my coffee. I bake English cakes in return and introduce my friends to that very British dish coronation chicken. One of my birthday presents is polka-dot bun cases, these are going to get used in my baking for the people for whom I feel affection. My money gets absorbed into airfares so I carry a flask with my tea in my bag and go for picnics on the beach rather than the fancy restaurants that my family can afford.

Right now, I, therefore, feel like I’m living in a fantasy. A cushy hotel in Cusco, a private guided tour of Machu-Pichu, birthday presents of expensive notebooks and quality shoes; it really is dream-like.

Feliz Navidad

Palm tree.
Summer; Christmas.
Limari Valley, Chile, October 2019
Summer; Christmas.
Limari Valley, Chile, October 2019

I have never spent Christmas away from my family. Until now.

It’s been coming upon us for weeks now. I’ve taught small children Christmas carols and had my photo taken in a stupid Santa hat. I’ve sat with friends preparing traditional Venezuelan Christmas food – a ‘mais’ pastry filled with everything but the kitchen sink and boiled wrapped in a banana leaf. And with my housemate, I’ve made origami stars and storks. Like the Christmas stork that brought Jesus to the world amid a night of brilliant stars… or something like that.

And my mood goes up and down. I have an injury to my left shoulder and a stabbing pain which makes me mardy, and if I were at home I’d be pouting and stamping and causing a right fuss, and I’d be laughing and leaping and causing mayhem, but here is not there and as much as I am at home here, it’s summer and Christmas is mid-winter and I am ill at ease with the gods changing the seasons like this.

I tried to explain why Christmas feels so wrong here. First, there are the songs, playing in the supermarkets, which with a something like 3% of the population in La Serena being at a decent level of English are unlikely to be understood by anyone. Second, there’s a colour scheme problem. Christmas, as a winter festival, is done in winter colours: forest green, deep crimson. This is aesthetically weird placed in the middle of a city which is sunny year-round. I’m not saying Chileans should skip Christmas, I’m saying enjoy Christmas but do it in a Chilean fashion. Or go traditional and put Mary in a beautiful blue dress and have wise men arriving on camels from the desert. We do have a desert. Third, people here are stretched for cash and watching the shops mount up with plastic crap makes me want to scream.

But all this is making me think, what is the point of Christmas? And it’s not meant as a cynical question. Festivals do matter. They’re a time for people to step out of the routine and think a little differently, treat themselves to something nice, celebrate being alive, together.

Mine this year will be a bit strange. I’m going to miss home more this week than usual. It’s a quarter of the planet away.

Theatre: Siervas o Prisoneras del Buen Pastor

From a village in the Limari Valley.
Chile, October 2019.

I went to the theatre. My friend asked if I wanted to go, and I said yes. On the way I asked what it was we were going to see. My friend didn’t know but said that it was set in a women’s prison. I considered that it might be a little violent, a tad uncomfortable. Racking my brain, the only theatrical production I could think of to base any assumption on was Chicago.

The production was nothing like Chicago.

You see, I’d missed one crucial thought that really should have passed through my brain, but didn’t. I’m in Chile. This was a Chilean production set in Chile. It was a La Serena production set in La Serena. For the poster they didn’t need to create some fake revolutionist graffiti, it currently decorates every wall in town. They stepped outside.

As I’m far from fluent in Spanish, I thought that I might have difficulty following the play. I didn’t. I understood. Not all the words perhaps, but I understood. Sometimes I fearfully felt that I knew what was being said without being certain. And I hoped I was wrong, whilst knowing I was right. As if I could excuse myself from the truth with a lack of comprehension. As if anyone can comprehend such abuse. No, even when you can relate personally, it still manages to remain indecipherable.

But, I realised, if I could watch Shakespeare, and get it, although I never understand everything that’s said because the language is not my English, I could get the gist of this familiar Chilean Spanish. I did not know this story, but the Chilean story is something I’ve been wincing at again and again over the last few months. I read Chilean authors in translation and I listen to my colleagues and friends. The pain and shame in their faces when they talk about their country strangles my breath.

There is nothing comfortable about the current Chilean misery.

But telling these stories matters. Sitting on the rickety construction that served as seating, that bounced rather when someone moved, surrounded by a local audience pained by a history that many of them had lived through, I laughed and I sang.

And I watched the solemn faces in the audience and wondered what had brought these people here, what made them want to watch such a horrible tale, even a tale woven with moments of sweetness. When I told a friend afterwards, he was amazed that I had managed to find a theatrical production here in the city. It is, I’m told, a rare occurrence. La Serena, he said, lacks culture. He misses the theatre.

The conversation reminded me how valuable the theatre is, how in a country with poor public education telling stories through theatre could teach truths in a more accessible fashion if only there were more productions.

We walked home, after the show, making wishes on the stars, talking about corrupt pension schemes and Dickens-esque orphanages and I found myself thinking about the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights in Lithuania, previously known as the Genocide Victims Museum, where I’d wandered alone down in the underground prison of the old KGB headquarters in Vilnius. Until I couldn’t. Because although the corridor went on, my legs wouldn’t walk any further. I couldn’t step into any more rooms. It felt like their walls screamed at me.

And it’s like someone holds my lungs in their grubby hands and inside I feel the actress’s jerking movements, the shaking of her body and I tense. This is no ‘all that jazz’. I may be foreign and European, privileged in every sense, but as she’s acting, I’m remembering. She’s telling a story that I need to hear. We all need to hear.


Siervas o Prisoneras del Buen Pastor by Héctor Álvarez directed by Juan Diego Bonilla at Casona La Gaviota performed by the Escuela Teatropuerto, La Serena.

Incomprehensible Chile, I still love you

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Bunting in the Elqui Valley
Chile

I cycled home from my yoga class this morning, keeping to the roads which, although not smooth, provide a gentler ride than the haphazard pavements. I wasn’t in a rush and even if I had been, I wasn’t going anywhere fast. The city centre was jammed with traffic, the reserved horn-beeping of previous months has given way in the agitation to a cacophony of angry noise. The crossroads fail to function and cars crawl past, winding around each other having to think without the guiding green, amber, red of the traffic-lights. The poor, decapitated green-men, how I miss them.

On my journey, I passed a hotel which has been sacked, looted, pillaged, think broken glass, burnt out rooms, every window above the ground floor open to encourage fresh air in, every window on the ground floor sealed with metal sheets, soldered in place. This isn’t like reading a newspaper. It isn’t happening somewhere else to someone else. It’s different cycling past in person, knowing that people I’m acquainted with were pouring their customers drinks here just a few days ago.

Quietly, I wonder what they’ll do for jobs now.

Back home I let the coffee percolate and try to recover enough energy for the day’s real task. I don’t have work this week, actually, I haven’t had work (expect for the occasional meeting) since the state of emergency was declared, and so I’m making headway with writing my novel. No. Editing the novel. The damn thing has been written for ages, I’m now buried in the line-editing stage and this goes on and on.

The mother interrupted my preparations asking when she was going to get something to read on Happenence. I explained that I was working on the novel. The thing is, I have written things for Happenence, I have a few drafts stored, but I can hardly face doing any more editing. I don’t fancy rereading what I wrote a month or two ago and trying to work out if it fits with my new, more nuanced view of Chile. After all, the Chile I arrived to and the Chile I’m living in are two very different countries.

So here’s what I’m thinking, or perhaps, more accurately, what I’m feeling.

Chile is in a mess. Like me, it’s suffering from a trauma that it has tried very hard to ignore for much too long. It pretends to be fashionable and modern but when you really look you see a sad people in terrible credit card debt. Its people are carrying grief that they don’t seem to understand. I wonder if they know how much they need to grieve still? The sadness is palpable. The people act out, as I did, although I screamed and shouted, wailed and cried whereas there are people here who are inclined to violence. Setting fires in the local hotel for example. Others sink into passivity, drinking too much, dabbling in drugs to feel or to not feel.

I have struggled for weeks to see how to understand the country I’m living in when everything feels so incomprehensible, but the thing is, I know these feelings because they are familiar. I know grief and sadness, I know helplessness and powerlessness, I know how it feels not knowing how you’re going to go on, not knowing what the future is going to bring, worrying if things will ever be normal, or if normal even exists. No wonder it’s incomprehensible, it’s all happening on an emotional level, it’s incomputable. You can only feel it. On paper nothing makes any sense. And I know what it feels like to forget how to laugh. I know fear, real, heart clasping fear.

I don’t understand Chile, but nor do I understand myself. That’s okay though, and I can accept myself, we can accept Chile, as it wrenches with agonising pain, trying to recover from the horrific violation that took place and continues to take place against its people.

It’s a journey of reclaiming one’s dignity. And this is something I can relate to, intimately.

Post-protest chicken nuggets

“My paralised mum gets a pension of 118 quid (a month) for me, her and my brother. ¡¡We eat!!”
La Serena, October 2019

I’m buying post-protest chicken nuggets. I would have chosen something else, but the Chilean fast food restaurant that we’ve found has run out of bread.

I hand over my card and the chap behind the counter pushes it into the machine. This is my Chilean card. The machine is passed to me so I can key in my PIN, which I do. The transaction fails. I’m not surprised. This often happens. And no, it’s not the card. The chap tries again. I read the screen as he does so.

“No,” I say, “es debito.”
“Debito?”
“Si, debito.”

The sounds of spatulas against saucepans.
La Serena, 2019

Because almost every time I go to pay for something the person processing my payment assumes that it’s a credit card. I became very self-conscious of my pronunciation of the word ‘debito’ and wondered what I could be getting wrong.

The truth is, half the time they tap the buttons on automatic pilot, not listening. I’ve concluded that they must be so used to processing credit card payments that the fact that I’m paying with my own money takes them by surprise.

I’m keeping myself occupied this week (when I’m not on the streets) by learning about neoliberalism, bank-deregulation, workers rights and a variety of financial and social crises. The more I learn, the more complex the story becomes. I want to understand how Chile came to have such inequality, but more than that, I want to understand what has occurred that has made the Chilean people so dependent on credit and so tied to consumerism.

So tied to it that they’re now looting the shoe stores and smashing the windows of the banks.

When I first arrived in Chile I was shocked at how European the place felt. The shopping mall here is pretty much identical to any shopping centre you’d find in England. Familiar brands line the supermarket shelves. The high streets have survived better than their English counterparts, and you can pick up some food from any street corner. There’s more litter on the streets here than in England, but less than I remember from Murcia in Spain. I might be the only person who uses an anorak, but I see coats with the same American branding daily.

“No more ‘disappeared’ people. No more deaths. No more abuse. No more AFP (the private pension scheme). No more Piñerismo (Piñera being the president).”
La serena, October 2019

A friend jokingly accused me of cultural appropriation, for wearing a pair of crazy hand-made earrings that I got here, but I just raised my eyebrows and asked him where he thought his flat-cap was culturally appropriated from.

The Chilean reality is not quite as shiny as it first looks. One of the things they shout is that Chile has woken up. I’m reserving my judgment. They shout that they’re not protesting because of the 30 peso* metro ticket rise, but against 30 years of a democracy that has successfully made the rich richer and done not a lot for the average person on the street. Whilst it might have made steps to tackle those in dire poverty, it’s not done much at all for the general poor. Plus, culture has changed. We live in a consumerist, materialistic world where higher education is becoming more and more necessary to get a decent job. And some of those decent jobs are paid a pittance.

Chile might have woken up, but I doubt my students have. One of the hardest things about teaching in Chile has been adjusting to the attitudes of the students. Or, you could say, the lack of attitude. I graduated at 21. The earliest my students can graduate is at 23, assuming they consistently pass their exams. But I have heard about classes where the entire class have failed. Normally I would say that if the whole class fails then it must be the teacher’s fault. And the teacher’s do tell me that they feel some responsibility for the situation. They feel the responsibility, but they have no idea what they need to change.

Why does a class fail? Because half the time they don’t turn up for lessons. When they do they’re reluctant to put pen to paper. When faced with an exercise to do, they stop as soon as the obvious solution proves to not be the case. Throughout any explanation, they play on their phones, message their lovers and friends or have an earphone in one ear to listen to music. They don’t even have the decency to look ashamed of their behaviour.

With the music flags and energy, it might have had a festival atmostphere. But the Chileans weren’t smiling.
La Serena, October 2019

A friend asked me what I thought about the violence on the streets. I replied that I abhor the violence – both by the military and the people. I have a British attitude to guns. Additionally, I want to scream at those responsible for the plumes of black smoke that we ought to not take our anger out on the environment.

Maphuche flags flying high.
La Serena, October 2019

Mostly though, I see the violence as being a child-like tantrum, an ill-directed plea for power, a result of poor self-discipline and a lack of respect for the community. The same missing self-discipline that’s required to pay attention in class and pass your exams. The same lack of respect that the students show by listening to their music whilst the teacher is trying to teach.

This might all sound rather harsh and it doesn’t do justice to those people who have been out fighting for their rights whilst remaining peaceful as most have. Nor does it recognise how incredibly warm, kind and generous I have found the Chilean people to be.

I haven’t got the answers. I can only feel that there is a depth to this problem that I cannot comprehend. And the broken window

Meanwhile each time I step up to the till, I shall keep on repeating that my card is a debit card, with a smile.

Living amid the Chilean protests

Militares pass by the supermarket.
La Serena, Chile, October 2019

When I was a teenager on holiday in Greece, I went to Albania for the day. That day remains in my mind, not because of the beautiful ancient ruins we explored, nor the earrings I bought, but because of the contrast between the red Coca-Cola signs everywhere you looked and the hordes of malnourished children begging for our money.

I am reminded of that day now, not because here in Chile the people are underweight, I’m told three-quarters of the population could do with losing some of their squidge, but because of the huge discrepancy between the life that is advertised and the life which is affordable.

For me, it started with the mystery of the price of coffee

It got worse every time I faced the white smiling faces used in advertisements and occasionally my frustration with the education system splurted out in my conversations. I struggle to comprehend the passivity of the students. For the country, the blatant inequality is a norm, but then, on Sunday morning, we awoke to find ourselves thrown into a state of emergency.

I’d known things were a mess on Saturday night when I went to bed, with friends and colleagues warning me to stay home. There were blockades on the streets, people broke into supermarkets and there were many fires, including the razing of a supermarket in the neighbouring city of Coquimbo where many of my students and colleagues live.

Traffic lights.
La Serena, October 2019.

Police officers attacked my housemate as he tried to walk home

The only road between the centre of town and our house was full of people and trying to pass through and come home, he got caught.

Fires were already burning when a friend and I passed down Calle Francisco Aguirre on our way home Sunday afternoon, trying to get home in time for the suddenly imposed 8 pm curfew. Soon after we passed, one of the statues, some pompous looking figure with ruffles, was dragged from his plinth and pulled into one of these fires. I figure that this is true, having seen the video and because the same image is on the front page of the local newspaper.

The truth though is always hard to ascertain

Many stories are being told. Some of them horrifying abuses of power. As always, the ones that spread easiest are those which are the most sensationalist. The average granny banging her saucepan because she believes her grandchildren deserve a quality education isn’t front-page news.

The newspaper also says that there was a death

Sunday afternoon in the mall. A 21-year-old boy. I had warnings that the military was shooting in the mall from one of my WhatsApp groups and then rumours flew back and forth, stretching my Spanish vocabulary and leaving me sad and disgusted.

Afterall, the image I think of when we talk about a 21-year-old boy is a nervous face in a classroom trying to find the courage to reply in English and tell me how many siblings he has. Or the stressed face of a young man fumbling over his calculator, not knowing how to use the bracket symbols.

Casarolaza.
La Serena, october 2019.

Inequality is tied to education

Not just English and mathematics but also self-discipline and the ability to make rational decisions. This educational struggle for the young people here was at the forefront of my mind on Monday, when I met up with some Venezuelan friends. We drank beer and chatted in Spanglish about the challenges that face us. The students have a genuine problem with paying attention in class, they’re passive and disengaged.

I’m told that many schools have large classes with poorly paid teachers

At university, I watch my physics students using a calculator to multiply single digits. They mess with their phones throughout their classes, having passed through a failing system is it surprising that they are disenchanted with learning. They’re stuck in this place for at least five years learning things I learnt at secondary school. No wonder they’re bored. I worry about how they manage their finances. There is an aggressive credit system here which preys on the vulnerable leading to a culture of deep personal debt.

The trajectory is worrying.

“The police officers, of whom we do not approve, are providing the president with oral sex.”
La Serena, October 2019.

Meeting up with my Venezuelan friends proved a calming influence

They know about living in a state of emergency under curfew with the military haphazardly shooting at protesters in broad daylight. If you’ve left your country because of the chaos, then you’re already adept at adapting to changing circumstances and having the military on the streets and a curfew in place is probably not so frightening. For them it’s sad, but unlike me, they’ve seen it before.

Haphazardly is my word

Perhaps it’s all organised and just appears haphazard to me because of the videos I’ve seen and my ‘British’ sensitivity to guns. Or perhaps the military here are mostly kids given guns with too much of a sense of power in their heads but still lacking in some of the same self-discipline and ability to make rational decisions.

The military and police are hated here

Until this week I hadn’t quite comprehended how angry the population are with those who enforce the law. They are despised. A long-term dislike and disrespect for the military and police are part of the culture here. The crowds chant against them. Police cars drive past, their sides dented. Graffiti describing the officers in vulgar terms now covers the city.

Wreckage has changed the city. The building in town have been boarded up. Traffic lights lay on the sandy barren earth. The statues along the main street of Francisco Aguirre hold cardboard signs and wear masks. I wonder though, what lesson is the state teaching the people by shooting at the looters and arsonists? Disregarding the sanctity of their lives (however badly behaved they might be) isn’t going to lead them to respect state property.

It’s all incredibly sad.

I’m struggling to comprehend the situation

An Argentinian friend likens it to Argentina in 2001, a Chilean friend talks about 1973. I read pages on Wikipedia and try to catch up with my history. However, I’m still looking at it from the outside. I still have my European perspective. I’m missing a comprehension of the psychology of the people. Something like this doesn’t just happen, the resentment has been building up for a long time.

Trying to relax and not think about the sadness that permeates the country, I spent Monday afternoon with pink flowers in my hair

They were presented to me by a friend’s four-year-old daughter while we drank our beers and Venezuelan rum, apparently (and believably) one of the top five in the world. Then I was treated to Venezuelan hot-dogs, there was no bacon nor sweetcorn in the hotdog because of the situation with the supermarkets, but there was a whole host of other ingredients, including five sauces.

But what’s the most refreshing is how my Venezuelan friends talk about their country with immense pride and a deep love. I am told I must come back another day, there is so much Venezuelan cuisine I have yet to experience.

Securing the shops.
La Serena, October 2019.

Despite the state of emergency, closed shops and the curfew life continues

I buy vegetables from the same woman as I normally do. My housemate assures me there will be no problem with vegetables, even if the people are queuing to get into the supermarket – the military are standing guard and there’s a limit as to how many people are allowed inside at once. For now, ours is still standing. The shops alongside it are all closed and boarded up having been ransacked over the weekend. The sister supermarket in Coquimbo no longer exists, it was razed to the ground on Saturday night.

Trucks of soldiers pass by as I walk along with my vegetables in my rucksack.

With a friend I walk into town

Crossing the streets without the aid of the green men (they’ve been decapitated), but the car drivers slow down and wave us across. As we walk, I translate the graffiti using my newly learnt vocabulary and understanding of common spelling deviations and, with all my British correctness, suggest that it means that the police officers, of whom we do not approve, are providing the president with oral sex. Chilean graffiti isn’t the most creative.

We have lunch in the usual cafe, walk through the streets where workers are busy boarding up windows and sit in the warm sunshine in the middle of the tranquil park. As we walk back home there are more people about, some bashing pots cacerolazo style but under the watching eyes of groups of soldiers. It’s a simple but effective way for the people to protest at how the life advertised to them just isn’t feasible on their meagre salaries. After curfew, you can still hear the clattering of pans coming from houses further down the street.

“The bread that with blood was taken with blood will be got back”
La Serena, October 2019

The inequality is real

Living in Chile is comparably expensive. A tube of toothpaste, a bottle of face wash and a cup of frothy cappuccino are all more expensive here than they would be back home. Food ends up being a comparable price. I have only bought one pair of shoes, so I’m not particularly clued up about clothes prices, but they too seem similar. Unless you have the ‘meal of the day’ the price of a meal in a restaurant is like back home. My glass of ginger lemonade the other day cost £3.20 which is 1% of the monthly minimum wage here but not an unusual price to have to pay.

Paying for goods in instalments is normal

The BBC might have all these statistics about the ‘average’ income, but few of my colleagues at the university will be getting paid anything like that average. The statistics are swayed because the rich get paid a lot – look at the politicians’ salaries – as do miners, but the typical person on the street is working ridiculous hours to pay their bills and send their children to school. As my father says, averages hide variation and inequality is about variation.

So, whilst Chileans might have the same access to many of the goods we have back home, they do not necessarily have the funds to pay for them nor the education to realise how much big businesses are manipulating them.

Protests.
La Serena, October 2019

However, as much as it’s about money, it’s also about image

On Saturday afternoon, after buying my shoes, I stood in a salon, waiting for a friend to get her nails done. I stared at the faces which looked down at me from the wall and the long white legs and slender white fingers of women with complexions that make my 00 ivory skin look dark. Chilean women have a wonderful mixture of complexions, often even within a single family, but in general they have warmer skin than mine, deep dark eyes and thick, long black or brown hair. This alien, Barbie-like, photoshopped image used in advertising offends me. It has nothing to do with the Chile I live in. I hate that there is such a constant comparison with this globalised image of the tall slender white girl. It makes me angry because it does no service to the people here, nor to those of us who just happen to be pale and blue-eyed.

This unaffordable fake perfection is like a virus

When it comes to skin tone, then at least for me it’s obvious to see. But this dangling of a fake image has infiltrated all parts of life, as has the inevitable disillusion that follows. The disillusion is frightening.

So, am I surprised there are riots? The shock was real, it seemed to happen overnight, but on reflection, is it that surprising? No, not in the slightest.

Protests.
La Serena, October 2019.

And so, taking all that I’ve seen here into account, I wonder today, how are those children I saw in Albania doing? They will be adults now. Fifteen years have passed since I saw their hungry faces, fifteen years in which they will have been bombarded with advertisements showing them a life they will never quite be able to afford. I wonder how they see the world.

I’m now so cool I’m writing about modal verbs

By Posted on Location: 2 min read
obscure grammar
Grammar can sometimes be a bit obscure. Just like the view when you climb, camera in hand, a big hill that supposedly looks over the entire city and the Pacific Ocean. But oh well. We shall keep trying.
La Serena, September 2019.

I often keep a grammar guide in my handbag

It’s a side-effect of my constant war with language.

I mean, sometimes I find myself having coffee and someone asks me an awkward question, like, “What type of word is ‘ought’?”

And I’m like, “Huh?”

It’s a real everyday sort of challenge

As is not always saying ‘like’ remembering I have the letters ‘t’ and ‘h’ somewhere in my mouth, and not greeting people with a friendly ‘How’s thee doing?’.

Of course, until the question is asked, I’ve no idea

When I was asked, in Spain, at one of the outdoor tables in front of the café – the one with the excellent cookies – I blinked. To start, I imagined the ways I use the word ‘ought’ but this didn’t help much.

I tugged out the grammar-guide.

“A modal verb used to convey potential or obligation.”

Grammar guides are problematic because you need to translate them into everyday speech to make their great wisdom usable. I cannot just tell a student that this word conveys potential. Not unless they’re already a bit of a language geek. And if they are, they probably know more than me.

I have to find ways the student can begin to use these modal verbs.

The truth is, a year ago, I had no idea what a modal verb was

When I started learning things like the conditional in Spanish, I didn’t know what it looked like in English. If you don’t know, don’t feel bad. I had to consult my grammar guide and the children’s textbooks to piece it all together.

Unlike English, Spanish has a sweet way of doing the conditional. It’s like my favourite tense, even though it has an ‘r’ in it so I can’t pronounce anything in it. I found that I was using it before I could describe it.

“Me gustaría un café por favor”

In Spanish, you conjugate for every scenario

There are many conjugations to learn. In English, however, you add extra words. These extra words are the modal verbs. They change the mode/tense of the verb. ‘Ought’ is one of them. So is ‘will’.

And if you’re reading this and you speak beautiful received-pronunciation standard English and knew what a modal verb was long before you turned 28, good for you. You probably didn’t need to read all this and you won’t need a grammar-guide in your handbag.

Upside-down or downside-up (the yoga class that didn’t go as expected)

Life in Chile is proving to be subtly different, and it’s not just the yoga. Walking along the beach I came across two South American sea lions. Or sea wolves if you want the direct translation.
(Phone) Coquimbo, September 2019.

Here in Chile, I’ve taken up going to a regular yoga class. It’s a tad more spiritual orientated than what I’m used to, with the occasional bit of chanting or prayer thrown in amongst the asanas. I started with a Hatha class, but, because of my timetable, I’ve been doing Ashtanga yoga where the teacher gives each person individualised instructions, and spends the whole session instructing and correcting rather than demonstrating. Now and then, she’ll demonstrate an individual posture, but it’s on an individual basis. During this class the heater is on, blowing warm air over our sweaty bodies.

There are some ladies with incredible flexibility and strength in my class

They might not look much different from other women, but I am envious of what they can do. I have accepted that I am the only person in the class incapable of doing a decent downward dog. Although we don’t call it a downward dog in class, we use the Sanskrit which I can never remember.

Hence when I arrived at the Hatha class yesterday, with a different teacher, and I explained that I’m English I answered that yes, I could speak Spanish, but I had no idea of most the Sanskrit words. This proved not to be a problem as nobody else turned up for class. It was the evening of the 17th and the 18th here is a national holiday.

This didn’t worry the teacher

She had a calm happy yoga face. Thankfully, when she discovered that I was incapable of chanting, she adapted and taught me to ommm at the same time as her. Even her omming was pretty impressive.

The class commenced and feeling a tad self-conscious I proceeded to do as instructed. When it came to my downward dog she pressed on my back and pulled on my heels and managed to stretch my hamstrings in ways I hadn’t expected. We did some sun-salutations, a and b, which, thank the gods, I know. Some warriors including a warrior for which I didn’t know the English name. And I hung upside down on the wall.

I should explain

The earth, you see, is full of negative energy and the heavens full of positive energy so in life it helps to stick your legs in the air from time to time. Get some balance back in your life. Don’t worry, I haven’t gone mad. Energy is energy. It equals mc^2. There are many types of energy, but I save the positives and negatives for charges. Language fails to accommodate the difference between the emotional and the scientific. This earth and heaven interpretation of positive and negative functions to explain something human. Positive and negative emotions perhaps. But I don’t let that interfere with my very human practice of yoga. Pretty much like I don’t feel that god needs to exist to make prayer a worthwhile exercise.

Hanging upside down, I concluded, did make me feel good.

This though is an achievement

As a child, I was not the sort to hang upside down from climbing frames. I became suspicious of my body’s ability to support itself very early on. Since I couldn’t do the monkey bars then putting my feet were above my head would be dangerous.

However, this was a yoga class and the young super-flexible yoga teacher moved my mat to the wall. She took two, securely attached ropes and proceeded to walk up the wall until her feet were above her head.

There was no deep breath and go

Being yoga everything had to take place with a calm and even breathing. I moved slow, breathed steady and found myself hanging upside down. To my amazement, once I was up there, it didn’t seem all that much like hard work.

We continued this yoga class, with me sitting with my back against the wall, bum secure on the floor, legs stretched out in front of me. Another hamstring stretch which I am useless at, or so I thought. But no. Instead, my yoga teacher now explained that she wanted me to do the same position but to turn the whole thing 180 degrees. Although I understood the Spanish, I couldn’t grasp what she could want me to do. Then she showed me.

Oh.

My mind raced through a few scary things that I’ve achieved

Moving to Chile, reading poetry to my students, singing Frere Jacque to French children at the breakfast table. And I decided that trying a new yoga position, with an expert beside me, wasn’t very scary at all. My body had other ideas. I felt afraid to be sure. But my rational brain knows that fear isn’t always helpful and sometimes has to be noted and allowed to pass, like a thought in meditation.

So I placed my head and hands where my heels had been and lifted my legs, placing my feet upon the wall. The teacher moved them to where my head had been.

When I turned the right way round again, I was laughing

The teacher asked if I wanted to try again. I said, “Si.”

This time I got up into position and she challenged me to lift my legs, one at a time. This is almost a headstand I thought, which wasn’t a helpful thought to think because it made me hesitate, but right foot first, I did it anyway.

After class, she asked me how I felt

My face must have been beaming because I was on a high, amazed at what I had achieved. I told her I felt good, I liked the class and I was learning a lot.

It might be quite spiritual in its orientation and not what I’m used to but this yoga class provides a challenge. I need challenge. I need experiences of not what I’m used to. Otherwise, how would I know I could hang upside down from the wall?