Terremotos, or earthquakes, were somewhat of a motif for my first real weekend in Chile. February 27th represented the second anniversary of the 8.8 quake that rocked the country and killed over 500 people and caused billions of dollars in damages. Many buildings are still under repair. There have been specials on the news (the TV is always on and showing the news) about the earthquake all week, even through today (Wednesday). My first direct experience with earthquakes in Chile (my only prior one being the DC tremor) happened on Thursday when a group went to a bar known as La Piojera for terremotos, an infamous drink that consists of wine, rum and a scoop or two of pineapple ice cream. And there is certainly a reason they are called earthquakes.
The next day (Friday) all thirteen AU students hopped on a bus to Tongoy, about 500km northwest of Santiago for a weekend at the beach. While my first week was far from stressful, I always look forward to spending time near the ocean. Listening to the waves and the sea breeze, smelling the salt in the air and feeling sand underneath me is irresistible. I can never quite get enough of it. As much as I love the energetic nature of a city, especially in Santiago, I feel at peace near the sea. If I settle into one spot in the future, it will have to be in a beach town. Possibly Tongoy itself.
As opposed to taking every opportunity to wander around Santiago, we spent Friday night and Saturday relaxing by the pool and on the beach. Saturday represented the next earthquake experience with a small tremor. In reality, it was nothing noteworthy, but it rattled my bed, and the cabana, enough to startle me awake, which is pretty exciting for an east coaster.
Surprisingly, and thankfully, I managed to avoid any sunburn, a major feat for a gringo under the strong Chilean sun. On Sunday, with the others who were fortunate enough to avoid the agony, I explored the port, with brightly colored fishing boats stretching into the foggy ocean, and then climbed the local cerro to see the town from above. Chile’s landscape continues to fascinate me, with the Andes providing mystifying scenery everywhere you go, and almost every town or city having a beautiful lookout point above them.
Despite the beautiful vista, the calming breeze and the rolling waves, the highlight of the trip laid in a deep fryer. Apart from the automatic “delicious” rating that fried dough warrants, the empanadas made in a shack in the middle of town, El Lenguado, had a touch of heaven in them. I thought of this empanada shack much like Mac N’ Manco’s pizza in OCNJ, where the perfect combination of beach, salt air and well made food creates something worth a long trip for just that. Our love for the empanadas probably boosted El Lenguado’s sales well above what they expected, with the 13 gringos consuming a total of 61 empanadas over two days. They were that good.
Today also represented an exciting day when our orientation class visited one of Pablo Neruda’s three houses: La Chascona. While I have read very little of his work, and don’t know much about him, our tour today whetted my appetite to discover more about Neruda, who was a pretty fascinating character. Also, for a very quick overview, Neruda is a very famous Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize at the age of 19 for his work. I guess I’ve fallen a little behind in my life achievements then…
As I continue this post I continue to mention one thing that tops the other. The beach, the cerro, the empanadas. But what has really gotten to me in the past week has been conversing with Chileans. In theory, one should avoid bringing up politics with Chileans, as the subject can be incredibly divisive. However, when I have to answer that I study human rights, the conversation is almost inevitable. Despite the potential tension that could arise, I have had incredibly fulfilling, and fascinating, conversations with various Chileans that have left me chewing on new thoughts for hours, or even days. At the same time, they’ve helped alleviate the cynicism that had been mounting in the back of my mind with every semester in DC. My optimism has returned.
(I originally meant to use earthquakes as a metaphor to bridge to the next part, but I’ve since realized that would be disgustingly cheesy, so I’ll refrain, but just note that this was going to be the culminating aspect of the terremoto theme regarding something along the lines of shifting perspective.)
The first major figure around this idea is Maggie, my host mom. She immediately took me in as a son (and counting all exchange students + real children, she has about 10) and I could not have been made more welcome from a complete stranger. Over dinner, we discuss everything from family to travel, but have also strayed to the more controversial topic of the Pinochet era. While I always knew it, this conversation reminded me how incredibly important perspective is in understanding a situation. This was my introduction to having strongly held beliefs slightly undermined by an opposing and well-articulated idea. A friend from GW introduced me to a concept from the book Siddhartha that came to light with these conversations: for every truth, the opposite is equally true. Try resolving that.
Next, I learned just how extensive Chilean cariño is. On the bus ride towards Tongoy, I sat next to a professor from Universidad Católica, one of the more prominent schools in Chile. Even as a complete stranger, Victoria was incredibly eager to share stories about family, life, and the politics that my major has made omnipresent in my life. She showed off her sons, one of which lives in Germany, and I showed off Cole, Tate and Avery (nephews and niece). However, what struck me most, and I’m not even sure this is Chilean but it made a good impression, was that Victoria decided to give me the empanada and soda she had just purchased for the 6 hour ride, and later bought a dulce for me from a vendor. Cariño to the extreme.
Finally, my host cousin moved into the apartment for the school year, and since then I have had very provoking conversations over onces that still leave me thinking. What struck me the most is something that I have noticed in most Chileans: national pride. Obviously I’ve seen plenty of it in the States, but there’s something different about it here, although I can’t quite figure out what. When Cote (coh-tay, my host cousin) talked about how proud he is to be Chilean, I could feel the pride oozing from his words and from himself. Something about this struck a chord with me. Maybe it’s because I had always been surrounded by United States pride and the different environment made it noticeable, maybe it’s the ebbing cynicism, but something about it fascinates me, and I hope to figure out what it is.
Based on the first week and a half, Chile has turned out to be a fascinating country on so many levels. Naturally and politically, there is so much to explore, and Santiago alone has countless adventures to offer. Socially, however, it offers the most adventure. Chileans have a different mentality than Americans, as one would expect, and learning about this aspect of life is fast becoming the most rewarding part of travel for me.