The uninvited guest

Salt lagoon near San Pedro de Atacama.
This is the desert.
January 2020

We had a visitor to the house. Honestly, it really wasn’t intentional.

You see, I live in a small bungalow with a large German Shepherd. This works out surprisingly well most of the time. He’s a very good-natured dog, however, the other day, as my housemate and I were eating our lunch, we glanced out the window and saw that next-door’s cat was in our garden.

The dog peered down at it, calmly with an air of curiosity.

Now, you should know that this cat is not the brightest kitten in the litter. The other day it entered the garden and spent a long time mewing before we realised it didn’t know how to get home and dropped it back over the fence into next-door’s yard. Luckily, that time the dog was in the house and fast asleep.

This time we weren’t so lucky. This time we watched as the not-so-intelligent cat took a swipe at the rather-large dog’s maw.

The dog registered the threat as hostile and acted as a large German Shepherd in Chile is supposed to. He gave chase.

But of course, the stupid cat still had no idea how to get out of the garden.

So, the dog chased the cat, my housemate chased the dog and I did the stupidest thing possible in the circumstances: I grabbed the cat.

If I could have, I would have dropped it safely over the fence, but the cat fought against me (I have the scars to prove it) and I dropped the cat before I reached the fence. At which point the cat darted past the dog straight into the house, I followed, slamming the door behind me, putting myself in the house with the cat, leaving the manic dog barking in the garden with my housemate.

Now the cat was under a bed, with no intention of coming out.

The game became one of waiting. I cleaned up my wounds and put plasters where the blood still flowed, then, cursing the cat, we finished our lunch.

Eventually, of course, the cat had to come out, and when it did, I was ready. I pounced. Got it. My housemate rushed to trap the dog elsewhere and I gently deposited the cat, over the fence, into next door’s garden.

So to anyone who’s asking, no, I’m not finding this quarantine boring.

On staying in Chile

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.

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

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.