Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bienvenido a Vaparaíso

I'm alone in my 12th-floor apartment. Through the curtains I can see the city lights spreading over the hills and reflecting on the ocean. I've closed the glass doors to block out the howling traffic and squawking seagulls. I sip a glass of fine Chilean wine (from a bargain $6 bottle) and bite into the bread I picked up at the packed bakery on my way home from class this evening smeared with the 25-cent avocado I bought at the market yesterday. A professor told me that Chileans are the world's second largest consumers of bread, after France.

I can only laugh when I remember my daily routine in college included a solo run through downtown Charleston, in shorts no less. Now the idea of stepping outside my front door with an iPod is hilarious. It's hard to imagine I used to march around in a skirt and heels. Or how I wore bags that didn't strap across my chest and whipped out my wallet with abandon rather than scrounging coins out of my pocket. I fantasize about buying myself a big diamond ring when I get back to the States and flashing it daily. 

Yesterday on the bus I blinked when I saw a rat running across a telephone wire. Later from my patio I spotted a large mammal wriggling in the ocean, which my roommate's friends confirmed was a sea lion. I'm not so sure because it looked bigger than the cars whizzing by on Avenida Errazuriz. Then at 10 p.m. I passed a group of transvestite prostitutes huddled on the corner two blocks from my apartment tower. In the building across the street I could see college students listening to a lecture on the second floor. (Valparaíso alone has nine universities, and a there's a slew of other institutions of higher education in the surrounding region.)

Downtown Valparaíso shady men who act like they've never seen a pair of green eyes barrel me with piropos, hisses and comments. They don't mind urinating, spitting and scratching themselves in the street either. My feet are always dirty and calloused from the already filthy, now earthquake shattered sidewalks. The other night I walked along the coast of the tidier, less intimidating city of Viña del Mar with a friend, passing the apartment I almost rented and thinking about what could have been.

But just when I decide I don't want to inhale another breath of fumes from cruddy cars or trip over another pile of grime, Valparaíso casts its spell on me. When I climb up a cerro and catch a glimpse of the cerulean bay and the ramshackle spread of colorful houses below, I almost have to catch my breath. 

Last week a friend (a potential roommate I met in Santiago) led me around the city, where she's studied law the past five years. First we made a trip to the market to pick up the ingredients for our lunch of assorted baked vegetables over multi-grain rice with salad. We took the precarious antique elevators up the hills and admired the decaying mansions and graffiti murals. We visited Nobel-prize winning poet (and Chilean national hero) Pablo Neruda's whimsical house, La Sebastiana. The panoramic vistas would inspire anyone to write a few lines of verse.

After a steep descent back down to el plan (the flat city center) we stopped for a long browse in a thrift store loaded with antiques, where I bought a chocolate suede '70s era purse for $4. When we passed the port we jumped on an almost private boat tour of the bay in the golden evening sun, gazing out at the miles of sandy and rugged coast and the massive sea lions napping on the rocks.

On the way home we stopped at a couple of university-run, avant-guarde cultural centers because the official museums and art galleries remain closed indefinitely after the earthquake. Catalina pointed out her favorite cafes, bars, used bookstores and bakeries. We wandered past an artisan market along a dusty could-be-elegant plaza and took a break at the hip bohemian bar El Ritual to share some banana-orange-infused red wine.

Then we said chao, and I walked up the dozen flights of stairs (the one functioning elevator in the 27-story tower has to be strained, and I'm practicing in case I move to a hill with staircases) to my comfortable and modern apartment with a breezy balcony and my closet-sized bedroom with an ocean view. My roommate is a 24-year-old Chilean design student in the Universidad de Valparaíso who's always giving me directions to my far-flung classes and teaching me modismos, Chilean slang. 

So when I'm not busing between cities to my classes, I take refuge from the dizzying streets of Valpo in my little kitchen -- roasting beets, carrots, and zucchini; caramelizing pumpkin with curry and ginger; or reading a Gabriel Marquez novel at the bar. (Notice I'm not cooking with recipes because apparently it's not a Chilean custom to use measuring cups or spoons or even scales to measure grams.) My mornings start with 30 minutes on a rickety elliptical, watching the ships on the sparkling aqua water through the open window in the little room by the pool my condominium calls the gimnasio. (A list of statistics we read in one of my classes found that something like 90 percent of Chileans don't work out on a regular basis. Yet somehow they've avoided the obesity epidemic, more impressive still as they're rumored to be the world's third largest consumers of mayo.)

 In the meantime I practice rolling my r's with the phrase Erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril, Rápido corren los carros, los carros del ferrocarril. I can't leave Chile without mastering the Hispanic alveolar trill. I'm contemplating small pleasures, like how I finally found Febreeze, in Jumbo, the Chilean version of Wal-Mart. I'm the freak non-smoker among Chilean students, and now I can socialize without doing laundry everyday. 

Now if I could only locate some soy milk. Or an affordable perculator or French press. The powdered Nescafe they serve here just doesn't cut it.

Rotary update: Six weeks after my February arrival to Chile I've made my first Rotarian contact -- One historic earthquake, a chaotic tsunami alert and dozens of aftershocks later. Dr. Dan Martínez invited me to his refined home on a main avenue in Viña del Mar for an elegant Chilean once, evening tea, with his wife Telma, 24-year-old granddaughter and her friend. I exchanged numbers with the two younger women who also study at the Universidad Católica, the second-most prestigious university in the country. Dan and Telma gave me a little flag from their club and showed me pictures from their trips to international Rotary conferences in the States. Now I'm waiting for an invitation to one of their club meetings so I can make my Rotary debut and give my third (of a required seven) presentation.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Back to the libros

Two years later, and I'm back to class. I might be a capable, 24-year-old adult this time around, but that hasn't kicked my jitters. The day after I moved to Valparaiso I started my orientation for foreign students in a modern building down the street belonging to the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso. South American universities consist of faculty buildings spread throughout a city (or in this case three cities) rather than the North American concept of sprawling, landscaped campuses. That morning I met the four other exchange students in my group of independents, those of us who came to Chile without a study abroad program offered by a private agency or university. We were two Americans, a Japanese guy and two German girls, ages 23-28.

Our student monitor, Natalia, reminisced about the culture shock and linguistic difficulties she'd survived during the six months she'd studied in Mexico earlier this year. Then she led us to an auditorium with the other 260 exchange students (66 percent of the foreign students in the university of 14,000 come from the U.S.) where we listened to important deans present speeches peppered with earthquake history and facts. Afterward we headed to the balcony, where we snacked on avocado and tomato sandwiches and jugos naturales (sugary juice) while watching Chilean folk dance performances accompanied by an impressive live band. The dancers changed costumes four times to perform dances from various regions of Chile, including a saucy number from Valparaiso.

During the next orientation session I got my results from the nerve-wracking Spanish exams and signed up for classes. In a chaotic room, a student representing each department sat at a table ready to answer our questions and enroll us in our courses. I sat down at every table (well except mathematics, engineering, science and business -- anything with earning potential) to interrogate the monitors about the most engaging and entertaining classes in their departments taught by professors with clear spoken Spanish and an empathy for foreign students. So, now I'm signed up for classes in five different departments. And I'm looking forward to all of them, although I have a month to drop and add classes to find my ideal combination.

1. Literature: Intro to the Latin American Detective Novel
2. Physical Education: Personal Health and Active Living
3. Art: Basic Concepts of Cinematic Language
4. Journalism: Multimedia Journalism or Graphic design (still deciding)
5. Architecture: American Workshop: Urban Spaces
6. Art: Paper Making Workshop
7. Art: Human Experience in the Ideas of 20th Century Art

This week, I started classes and realized that while two of them are a 10-minute walk to the historic Casa Central in gritty downtown, the other four are 20-40 minutes away by bus. Oh, how fondly I remember the days of biking to class in Charleston. Now I fear for my life squished on maniacal buses or walking the edges of the taped off sidewalks of post-earthquake Valpo.

Tuesday night I realized that I'd have to wake up at 6 a.m. to get to my journalism class on time. I walked the streets the next morning in the dark and avoided shifty figures as I waited nearly 30 minutes to catch a bus with standing room only to the Curauma campus nearly 40 minutes away. I arrived to the giant modern building at exactly 8:15 a.m. to find the classroom empty and locked. The professor showed up around 9 a.m. to hand us the syllabus and dismiss the class.

The next day I bussed to my art class only to discover after 30 minutes of frantically searching the streets and berating my ability to survive in a foreign country that the faculty had moved 20 minutes away to the Miraflores neighborhood due to earthquake damages. When I arrived an hour late I found out class had been canceled for a professors' meeting.

In the meantime I'm waiting. Waiting for classes to really start. Waiting for the university gym to open and the fitness classes to begin. Waiting to get the schedules for the language exchanges, volunteer projects, and photography workshop I signed up for during orientation. Waiting for Rotary to contact me so I can start attending meetings and giving presentations. And most impatiently, waiting for the water heater repairs in my apartment after two weeks of cold showers.

I used to say the only thing holding me back from joining the Peace Corps was the almost certain absence of hot showers. God is laughing at me.

(images courtesy of and

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tsunami Alert: Gringa en trauma

I stirred my oatmeal over the gas flame, contemplating how late I'd arrive to my orientation for foreign students in the university's Casa Central 10 short blocks up the street. That's when the rumbling started. Since moving to a 12th floor  apartment two days earlier I'd been bracing myself for replicas, aftershocks from the massive 8.8 earthquake that struck Chile two weeks earlier.

The overhead lamps swung back and forth, the glasses rattled in the cabinets, the floor trembled and the giant glass windows facing the ocean shook. I had the sensation of swaying in the high rise apartment tower. My heart raced as I switched off the gas and ran to the door where I'd left my keys in the lock so I could quickly place myself beneath the door frame. About a minute passed before the shaking stopped.

I wondered if I should run downstairs. I didn't know if I'd just experienced a significant earthquake or just a moderate temblor (tremor) heightened by my location on the 12th floor. I glanced in the hallway in search of neighbors to consult, but it seems I'm the only occupant in my hall. So I took the most illogical course of action: I gobbled up my breakfast, brushed my teeth, touched up my mascara and even scrubbed my retainers before rushing out the door. But before I could make an exit I heard the low murmur of the lamps swaying and the dishes vibrating. This time the trembling seemed even longer. I heard the whole building moving.

In a twisted way there's something enthralling about earthquakes -- the earth suddenly feels so alive. There's a sentiment of connection. After riding dozens of roller coasters and thrill rides in my adolescence it feels almost gentle. But the destruction the vibrations wreak on human civilization reminds us of the fragility of our existence.

Scared and alone, I ran down the dozen flights of stairs to the lobby. I tried to get the concierge's attention but he was on the phone with a burdened expression on his face and ignored me. People fled out the door before I could say anything. I asked a hysterical girl what was going on. "Viene una tsunami!" she shrieked between sobs.

Her mother and older sister ran in, frantic and crying. They all sprinted out the door, and I followed. Before they jumped in a taxi I asked if I could get in too. We piled in the car, with their big, smelly basset hound howling and trying to scramble out the window. I yanked out an infant car seat to make room and kept it on my lap. In the streets people ran toward the hills -- janitors, office workers, vendors and children. Some were sobbing and screaming as the sirens blared and horns honked. Our car barely moved in the traffic-choked streets. The women in the car cried out how they didn't want to die, how we would all lose everything in our apartment overlooking the sea. They screamed "Tsunami!" out the window as we passed fist-fighting thugs and shouting police officers. I couldn't understand the car radio in the chaos.

My heart pounded as I tried to calm the women, although I had no idea what was going on. I fought back tears as I tried to call the owners of my apartment and my host family in Santiago, but the phone lines had collapsed. Just like us, the people running in the streets kept looking back toward the ocean to see if the wave was coming. I stared back at my apartment building, thinking about my Mac and Nikon and all the belongings I'd stuffed into my suitcases with so much thought and care four weeks earlier. I accepted that they were all gone, that I'd have to find a new home. If the apartment didn't collapse it would be inhabitable. I wondered if I would have to leave Chile. I was living the most terrifying experience of my live thus far.

The car was making no progress, and I asked if we should get out and run instead. Thankfully the driver ignored me. Instead he went against traffic to a more distant hill where we quickly sped up and up through dingier and dingier neighborhoods until we felt that the maremoto wouldn't sweep us away. After we parked I realized that we hadn't been in a taxi, but a private car with a generous and remarkably calm business man who'd fled his office in Valparaiso. On the hillside we talked to the neighbors, a group of women who worked in waste management. They invited us into their warehouse to watch the news.

The earthquakes (up to 6.9 on the Richter scale) jolted Chile as the new president Sebastian Piñera was sworn in at an inaugural ceremony in the National Congress in Valparaiso blocks away from my apartment, with an audience of international diplomats and journalists. Piñera is the first elected right-wing leader 50 years after a repressive military dictatorship ruled the country, killing and torturing thousands citizens. (I'm not taking a political stance at this point in light of my ignorance of Chilean politics. I'll only acknowledge the new president's intelligence as he has a doctorate in economics from Harvard and is a millionaire entrepreneur.)

The tsunami alert remained in effect, so the women in the warehouse served us lunch. My apartment neighbors told me they weren't returning to the building that night, and I shouldn't either. When the tsunami advisory ended we drove back into the city, and they insisted I pack a bag and go with them to stay with a friend who lived on a hill. The chaotic center had converted into a ghost town, with all the businesses closed for the day. Although I didn't consider them the ideal emergency company considering their exemplified tendencies toward hysteria, they convinced me I would sleep through another tsunami alert if I stayed the night alone.

So that's how I ended up spending an uncomfortable night in a humble house in a neighborhood of wild dogs and feral cats. The next morning I made it back down to the city in time to sign up for classes in the university.

Still, every so often I tense up and look for swaying lamps. I don't know when the tremors are real or when it's my imagination. Scientists say the aftershocks from Chile's big quake will last up to a year, which is beyond the date of my departure flight. However, I now know that a tsunami is highly improbable in Valparaiso, and I think I'm safe in my building as it survived the big quake and therefore should hold up in the weaker replicas.

Basically, I'm in for a seismic year.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Life unexpected: La vida inesperada

I planned to spend my final week in Chile's elegant capital Santiago exploring the Museo de Artes Visuales, the ritzy outlying neighborhoods, and the Parque Forestal, the last sites on my to-see list. I mentally prepared to leave my leafy and sunny Providencia neighborhood and the comfort of my bustling host family for a new city -- Viña del Mar.

I'd made finding an apartment my mission, having arrived to a foreign continent with only four weeks to locate housing in a city two hours away with no prior knowledge of price ranges, neighborhoods, transportation or lease contracts. After weeks of frantically searching through Internet postings and interrogating professors that culminated in a rushed visit to the resort city of Viña, I'd found an apartment in a new tower (by an artificial lake!) half a block away from the beach. With a pool, a gym and sweeping ocean view from two generous patios, everything about it was luxe.

The Feb. 27 earthquake didn't severely affect anyone I know -- I only heard stories about co-workers and cousins whose families had lost everything in the South. However, after the natural disaster I soon realized that my year in Chile wouldn't go as planned. My host family insisted I remain hunkered in the house during the following days. Even though that seismic night passed without any panic or tears on my part, I've felt like I'm carrying a heavy backpack ever since. I'm grateful rather than fearful, but living with a family dealing with post traumatic stress and the constant flow of damning news reports took its toll.

Four days before my planned move to the coast of Viña del Mar to start classes at the Universidad Católica de Valparaiso I got the news that I'd have to look for another place to live. I felt so incredibly alone. I now had to find a room in an apartment with strangers, in a hectic period when shaken-up residents in apartment towers were scramming to move into solid houses and residents of older houses were quickly renting modern apartments; when the few students who hadn't solidified their housing plans months earlier had returned home to be with their families rather than staying in their university city to show their apartments to potential roommates.

But I made it my life's goal to move myself to school on time, spending my days staring at the computer screen and making bus trips back and forth between the two cities. I visited some houses that should have been condemned, with putrid, horror-movie worthy rooms, but I also met some of the most hospitable people I've ever encountered. They'd offer me a bed in their house until I found a place. After I told them I wasn't interested in their apartment they'd still insist in showing me around the city to the other rooms on my list. And they all gave me their phone numbers in case I ever needed anything.

Monday (only two days late) I moved into an apartment, not in the modern beach city of Viña del Mar as planned, but in the gritty neighboring historic port city of Valparaíso. The apartment is small but comfortable and modern. The terrace with the bay view and the familiar American kitchenette sold me. I'm eagerly waiting for my Chilean roommate to move back in next week. The surrounding neighborhood is not a place I should ever be walking through alone at night, and that's disconcerting. But the main highway connecting Valparaíso to its sister city Viña is right outside my front door, with transportation at all hours. I'm hoping that the earthquake repairs in the building happen soon because I miss hot water and more than one functioning elevator would be convenient. But I can't complain when half of the city went without any water the past three days, and further south people are homeless.

I'm still soaking up Valparaíso. The surrounding hills I've explored (so far I've opted to climb up the impossible staircases and vertical streets instead of paying for the antique elevators, an indication of masochistic tendencies, perhaps?) have confirmed the adjective 'breathtaking' that I've read in every guidebook. The spectacular views of the bay and the ramshackle city built on the surrounding hillsides are bewitching. The quirky and colorful neighborhoods spilling on the hilltops are World Heritage sites, and besides their official historic value they have a bohemian charm and energy like no other place I've traveled. These are streets with proper multi-colored British mansions with flower boxes lined near hippie-ish cafes. Streets with elegant restaurants on steep slopes that end in a flamboyant graffiti wall murals leading to 19th century Anglican churches or eccentric castle-mansions turned museums. And did I mention the views?

As far as the center of Valparaíso, well it's grungy, compatible with the disagreeable image the average North American has of a South American city. Ugly modern (Valpo was the epicenter of the devastating 1906 quake and before that victim of a Spanish naval attack) buildings stand beside decrepit Victorian palaces from the port's glory days. My favorite guidebook cliche, "crumbling grandeur" was written for this city. There's too many abandoned warehouses, stray dogs and litter for my taste, but maybe this jewel (in the rough) of the Pacific will win me over before the year's up. For now braving the streets isn't a pleasant stroll. My wrist is sore from clutching my bag so tightly. The maniacal buses, called micros, are a third-world experience. But on a brighter note, my daily routine now includes a trip to the intimidating  city market to stock up on the rainbow mountains of gleaming produce on sale for mere cents and a stop by the bakery for fresh bread.

Sometimes I wonder how I ended up here. I have the next nine months to figure out why.