Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 26, 2011

Tuesday and Wednesday were the first two of three days that I am to spend at la Escuela San Gabriel. We were out the door at the crack of dawn. That’s ten before eight around here. On the way out we said good-bye to the concierge.

A word about concierges. They seem to be pretty common in Chile. It’s a lovely concept. You have somebody waiting for you when you come home to let you in, give you directions (OK, they are not always accurate) when you need them and to see you off when you venture into the vast unknown. They’re comforting and friendly. I think I want one.

As usual, we took a taxi to San Gabriel. I’m getting a sense for the layout of these schools. They are a labyrinthine collection of buildings and courtyards laid out in elaborate and chaotic patterns. These are big schools, usually located in the same neighborhoods as embassies. We’re not talking about your tired and poor here. I get gifts when I come. They set rooms – no - suites aside for the day for me to perform in. I get break rooms. The school grounds themselves are all gated, with a concierge attending the entrance, ready to send you to a receptionist inside the building. The time clock at San Gabriel is a palm recognition device. No asking your buddy to punch you in at this place!

Like in the United States, many of the teachers are women. Being introduced to a woman here means putting cheeks together and kissing the air. It’s charming. But I’m not used to it yet. I never know when to do it and when not.

The English skills of the kids range wildly even within the same school system. As does the discipline. I’ve learned to spend the first couple of numbers that I do gauging what that ability is, and how fast or slow I need to move with the kids. They have a fantastic sense of rhythm and they LOVE to sing. It’s a sure fire way to restore order; bring out a call and response song and they’re right there with you. I need to be spending some time putting more of those in my bag of tricks.

In between shows, I’m able to relax a bit in the break room. Wednesday, Alberto and I took a walk around the school neighborhood (definitely not your tired and your poor) and sampled a neighborhood café. Surprisingly, Chile has very limited coffee choices. Restaurants typically serve instant coffee. In the cafes you can get espresso, cappuccino, and sometimes a mixture called café corta: coffee floating on top of a bed of milk. I wish I knew how they did that. Frappaccinos, Chai, Mochas: they’re all unknown here. They do have a drink called Chocolate Submarino, which is coffee with a piece of chocolate in it at the bottom. I haven’t tried it yet.

Tuesday night, Alberto and I took a Lonely Planet recommendation and dined at El Huerto, a vegetarian restaurant a short walk away from our Hotel. It is, quite simply, the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. The décor was subdued hip, with beautiful and carefully chosen colors everywhere from the paintings on the walls, to the walls themselves, to the waitresses aprons. There was wonderful blend of quiet international quasi eastern music flowing from discretely hidden speakers. They burned incense! Which seemed like a counter intuitive thing to do in a restaurant. And, mama mia! The food! I’m going back as soon as possible.

Dinner time around here is late. The restaurants don’t even open until 7:00 pm or later. Wednesday night Alberto and I made our way to the Barrio Bella Vista, a somewhat funky neighborhood chock full of trendy eateries, nightclubs and coffee houses. We got there by walking along the Mapoche River, the main river through Santiago. We passed a lovely fountain along the way, and more “amantes” than you could shake a condom at, snogging each other on benches and lawns throughout the riverside parkway.

By the time we got to Bella Vista we were hungry. In the process of looking for a place to get some distinctively Chilean food we discovered that, on that very night, a local café was presenting the final night of a story telling festival it had been running for the last few Wednesday nights. Starting at 9:00 sharp. Is there a God, or what? So, after a big bowl of fish stew at a neighboring restaurant, it was off to Casa del Aire, a true, old style, counter culture joint, with pictures of Che, Salvadore Allende and Victor Jara – all heroes of my rowdy and rebel youth. The sign on the door welcomed smokers. But, as they say here: vale la pena. It was worth the annoyance. The stories started some time after 10. Wonderful story tellers from all over South America spent the evening not only entertaining a truly appreciative audience but reminding me just how much Spanish I need to learn.

The evening was marred somewhat by a taxi driver who, on our way home, tried to charge us nearly three times what he should have. Alberto was having none of it. I learned some more Spanish and felt grateful to be in such capable hands. We were both tired by the time we made it into our beds, smoky and slightly guilty about a couple of calls we each had thought we were going to be making.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April 25, 2011

Talk about your day of unusual and singular experiences.

We commence at somewhere between 6:00 and 7:10 am. The hour is a bit nebulous because for some reason the track phone that DreamOn has given me isn’t keeping correct time. So while I think I’ve got plenty of time to get ready, Alberto is sweating bullets wondering when in the world I’m going to come out of my bedroom, we have a fricken taxi to catch. Taxis are our gig chariots of choice and we’re supposed to meet one at 7:15. I manage to get out to the waiting cab just in time, but only because I skip breakfast. This is not a big deal, due largely I suspect to last night’s Chinese dinner, or maybe to the inevitable adjustment to the local intestinal flora.

At any rate, I get outside at 7:15 am and the first thing I notice is that it is dark. Not dim. We’re talking the black of night here. The sun sets early too. Really, I was kind of groovin’ on those lengthening days I left behind. This switching hemispheres stuff requires a bit of an adjustment. I am still getting used to the sun doing it’s daily meandering in the Northern sky. It’s just weird.

But I firmly determine to adjust to the solar irregularities and it’s off to the show we go. I confess to having some anxieties about doing story telling programs for kids who speak English only as a second language. At today’s school I will be presenting for two groups of kids: roughly something like 2nd graders and 3rd graders. It’s interesting seeing the school set up. Inside courtyards are covered by a roof but are pretty much open air. Kids run around playing their games in what seems (to a transplanted rural boy like me) like a pretty cramped space. The programs go well enough. The space is cozy and conducive to story telling. The kids are boisterous and eager for me to sign autographs on any slip of paper they can find (including paper towels), using any writing instrument they are able lay their hands on.

The school presents me with a bottle of wine as a gift. This is a first for me. And while I am still absorbing the novelty of it all, a teacher gathers a gaggle of students around me for a photo, telling us all to say “Whiskey” (instead of cheese!) before snapping the shot. Clearly there is a different approach to alcohol prevention here.

Alberto and I walk from the school to a trendy little eatery called the Mozart café, where the napkins are emblazoned with the opening bars to “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik,” and where they are playing Strauss Waltzes. Go figure. The menu isn’t really all that different from one that you might see in any trendy little eatery in Wisconsin. Except, of course, it’s in Spanish. They do like their fruit drinks here. And the tropical fruits are much fresher and tastier. I love the Mango.

By the time we get back to The Chil we are energized enough to turn right around and head out again. This time on the Metro in search of a chip that will make my phone work. The store front we are looking for is called “Movistar” or something like that, and it’s downtown. Today being Monday, it is my first experience riding the Metro on a work day. To say that the Metro is crowded is to tax the meaning of the word. What’s crowded is the Metro platform. The train, when it arrives; that’s crowded. When the crowd on the platform gets a running start and hurls itself into the crowd on the train, like the Packer defensive line, leaving the straggling remnants to fight furiously for to as the doors futilely try to close around them – this is a workshop in collapsing matter. The ones that don’t make it in all the way in are dragged along by the doors until the next stop where they will have the opportunity to try another sortie into the train.

In a train this densely packed, and with this much gravitational pull, you wouldn’t think a fight would be possible. But you would be wrong. One breaks out four or five feet (or about 140 people) away from us. Two middle aged women are having at it, to the surprise and consternation of their fellow travelers. My Spanish isn’t great. But it’s good enough to catch some of what they are saying to each other and learn a few bonus words besides. I really don’t think you can swear in any other language as well as you can in Spanish. See me later for the translations. Someone behind me asks what they are fighting about and a wizened old woman cackles: “Varon”. There is laughter all around. She is right, it turns out. Both women and the twenty something man they are fighting over get off at the next stop to continue their confrontation in the relative capaciousness and more stable gravity fields of the Metro station platform. I learn some more Spanish before the train leaves them behind.

The streets of downtown Santiago are packed in a way quite reminiscent of the subway cars of Santiago. Alberto and I manage to find a MoviStar store, get the phone chip and head out to a nearby plaza where we encounter a sculpture memorializing the battle we have just witnessed on the Metro. This seems like an awfully quick commemoration, so I read the plaque to make sure. Ah ha! It has nothing to do with the Metro at all. Somehow it is connected to Simon Bolivar. Right. Just the picture of Bolivar that I’ve always carried in my head.

On the same plaza Alberto and I peruse several dozen book stalls and vendors who have set up for book week or something like it. I buy a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda. He’s one of my favorite poets, I hope to visit one of his houses when we travel to Valparaiso next week. Next it’s off to the park.

Specifically the park that houses El Castillo Hidalgo, an ancient (well, two hundred years old) castle that overlooks, and used to protect, the city of Santiago. It is located on – what else? – the sacred land of the local indigenous people. The descendents of both the original conquistadors and the Native Americans they subjugated have seen fit to asuage their inherited ethical discomforts by including an extensive Indigenous Peoples section in the Castillo Hidalgo gift shop. I buy a CD of Quecha Music. I’m a sucker for CDs.

Hidalgo (Spanish for noble) was apparently one of the valiant soldiers who died defending this fortress. There seems to have been no lack of dying soldiers in those days, but details about why the castle is named after this particular soldier are a bit vague and require more translation skills than my brain can produce at the moment. I am more interested in the flora. Lots of flora and flora with flowers. I’ve been surprised at how many winter flowers there are. The trails that lead to the top of the Castle itself are many, and replete not only with flowers but cobblestone roads, intimidating stairways and lovers looking for discrete spots to rendezvous. Left over cannons are scattered here and there on what must have been battlements. It is a relief and a pleasure to have so much greenery around. Charles Darwin, who did much of his seminal collecting and research in this general area of the globe, has left his footprint by way of a garden. The views are urban and smog filled, but impressive. The stairways are just as intimidating going down as going up. The architecture is fascinating if, at times, inexplicable. Or at least unexplained. I’m not sure why the statue of Neptune is here. But it makes a lovely fountain. I take a ton of pictures and then it’s time to head home. The subway is less crowded. And there are no fights.

Monday, April 25, 2011

April 24, 2011

The powers that be are looking after me. Upon boarding my re-scheduled flight to Dallas a kindly voice announced over the loudspeaker that “Mr. McMullin, your luggage did make it onto this airplane.” Phew! All of that hard work, fasting, and meditation really paid off. I celebrated by eating fast food Chinese in the Dallas airport, in a restaurant where I could recharge my laptop and buy some non-fortune (unfortunate?) cookies for my flight. Said flight from Dalles/Ft. Worth, Texas, to Santiago, Chile, was practically empty. This meant that I got to stretch out on the middle three seats of the 767 in a pathetic attempt to sleep.

Now, three airline seats with one required seat belt – and they do wake you up to remind you that the seat belt light is on – is not, by any stretch, as refined a test for royalty as say, a pea under 29 mattresses. But it’s three times better than one seat. I was able to toss and turn with much greater freedom. As a result, when I landed in Santiago I only got into the wrong line three times (once for each seat!) and left behind only a handful of Chilean heads shaking in resigned disbelief at the stupidity of American. Just think of the results had I actually been exhausted.

My luggage was waiting for me! O joyous sight! Alberto, my road manager and contact with DreamOn was also waiting for me. Double Joy! We made our way into Santiago and I was able to collapse, shower, take three naps (one for each seat!) and spend some time chilling and getting to know the neighborhood.

I am chilling in a second floor apartment of an 18 floor building that belongs to – I kid you not – the ChilHotel. At first one is struck – or at least I was – by the similarity to Tai Pei. The same kind of narrow streets feeding onto major, busy arteries. My digs are on one of the former, Cirujano Guzman (Surgeon Guzman). House walls and gates form the border to narrow sidewalks that meander on either side of a narrow road. Here in Santiago the sidewalks are useable and safe to walk on whereas in Tai Pei the sidewalks were defacto parking lots for the ubiquitous scooters.

And, hombre, they could use some scooters here. I’d read in my copy of The Lonely Planet that smog is a problem in Santiago. They were not lying. Like Tai Pei (where smog is also a problem), Santiago is nestled in the arms of the mountains surrounding it. This makes for lovely scenery if you can actually get a glimpse of it through the miasma of exhaust, smoke and ozone-layer-free, sun-baked vapors that settle throughout the basin wherein rests the greater urban area. Down on the street it’s more difficult to appreciate the obfuscating nature of the air (you want Buenos Aires, pal, you gotta cross the Andes). But a trip up to the roof of my apartment building gives you the full Monty. My guide and amigo, Alberto, assures me that there have been days when the mountains weren’t visible at all. For those government hating Americanos that would like to dismantle our environmental protections, I recommend vacationing here for a couple of weeks. Leave your inhalers at home and when you get back to the U.S., after a few days of respiratory therapy we’ll talk. I’m praying for rain.

Aside from the buena vista of the polluted air, the roof also sports a pool. It is not a large pool, as pools go. But it is a large bathtub. Standing next to the bathtub you can (on a clear day) look out onto the roofs of neighboring buildings. Maybe a half dozen of them also have large bathtubs. I’ve not yet tried it, but perhaps tomorrow I’ll bring my rubber duck up and swim a couple of thousand laps.

The buildings too, many of them newly constructed with a somewhat shabby, un-sturdy patina, are reminiscent of Tai Pei. And when one remembers that Santiago, like Tai Pei, is in an earthquake rich geologic zone, one is perhaps not surprised to notice – architecturally – that a higher value is placed on flexibility than on longevity. The last Big Mama that hit (a couple of years back, you may remember) did only minor damage in Santiago. But still, a 9.1 Richter temblor, even from a distance, has a deflating effect on elevated esthetic sensibilities. Neither Tai Pei nor Santiago has spent a lot of time on exterior décor.

Today, after spending some time reconstructing my plugs so that my computer and the Chilean electrical system are now friends, I spent some time with Karen (yea, Skype!). Then Alberto and I took the Metro (which has new, shiny train cars that are also very Tai Pei-ish in appearance, but stations that are much more reminiscent of downtown Chicago) to a very touristy arts and crafts fair filled with faux thatched roofs sheltering stalls and buildings wherein one can buy hand thrown pottery, hand crafted jewelry, hand knitted clothing, hand carved wood furniture and pets; all at handsome prices. Pets, you say? Well, not the cats that seemed to have free run of the place. They belong to the artisans. But there were dogs for sale. And a remarkable variety of birds. Everything from parrots to chickens. These couldn’t have been calmed by the presence of so many artesian (?) cats. But there were no disasters while we were there.

It was a beautiful sunny day. A harpist and face painting clown added to the festive atmosphere. The fair wasn’t too crowded and it was a great place to see other tourists walking around just as cluelessly as I was. Alberto was able to point out the other South Americans from their accents. Peru, Argentina and lots from Brazil, where a robust economy and good exchange rate has propelled many of the newly affluent into neighboring countries in search of escape, adventure and slightly over-priced hand made goods.

We had dinner in a Chinese restaurant. I wasn’t expecting much and I got it. The maitre de might have been Chinese. The waitress needed to check to see if they had tofu. Still, Chilean Chinese food is not Chinese in a way that is distinctly different from the way that American Chinese food is not Chinese. A lazy walk home during which we visited a patisserie and then back to The Chil. Tomorrow, my first school!

Friday, April 22, 2011

April 22, 2011

Last night Karen and I went to the Wabasha Street Caves, in St. Paul. Created by miners harvesting the sandstone found in the surrounding cliffs, they aren’t really caves at all, just big holes; the results of 19th century industry building needs, entrepreneurial zest, and a total lack of eco-consciousness. But they are big. And heck, you put a bunch of holes like that into a cliff and they’re bound to attract the attention of folks who like to hang out in, well… holes. Gangsters, thieves, pimps, prostitutes; they all enjoyed the illegal liquor and shady company to be found in the speakeasy that made it’s home there in the 1920’s and 30’s. Ma Barker and John Dillinger are said to have frequented the place. Why, you can see their pictures right there on the walls of the current establishment, scattered among a handful of other portraits of low life types that you would not want your daughter to bring home. Or even text with.

Between prohibition and now the caves served as storage for the flotsam of river floods, and as an ideal location for growing (what else?) mushrooms. It’s been years since the names Baby Faced Nelson (he’s there on the wall) and Scar Face Capone (he’s not) struck terror and grim fascination into the hearts of Americans everywhere. Nowadays nothing is left but the (considerably less grim) fascination. The contemporary establishment likes to play up it’s sordid history. Like it’s predecessor it serves up liberal doses of (now legal) booze and hot music. The clientele has changed. The gangsters have been replaced by throngs of restless college students hungry for a place to cut loose and practice their newest, coolest… swing dance moves. Yep. Each and every Thursday an eighteen piece big band lays down the groove and everybody starts shimmying to the music and moves that their great grandparents invented. Take away the tattoos and the smart phones (OK, and some of the hairstyles and clothes (well, better leave the clothes)) and you’d have thought you’d traveled back in time. We had a blast.

The caves are said to be haunted by the ghosts of old and malevolent gangsters, anxious to refill your drinks when you turn your head. Regrettably, none visited our table.
But dancing was a lot of fun and the perfect way to spend the night before my flight, which, OMG I’d better get out of here to catch.


I keep thinking about the great heroes of the epic journeys. Beowulf and Ulysses, who fought armies, and monsters and mono-ocular cannibals. The heroes in the Jack stories who set off to make their fortunes with nothing but their wits and a modest, fiber filled lunch which they inevitably share with a grateful hag/helpless animal/stunning enchanted princess – take your pick. None of them had to deal with flight delays.

My particular Circe is a thunderstorm over Chicago which, while not turning me into a pig, has made hash of my connecting flight schedule. So here I am sipping a hot chocolate as slowly as possible in the breathtakingly expensive Caribou coffee café at the Minneapolis airport while I wait for a flight, not to Chicago and then Miami and then Santiago (no!), but to Dallas Fort Worth and then Santiago. At least it’s the same end destination and one less change over. One can only hope that one’s baggage is headed in the same general direction. My fiber filled lunch has been a bag of peanuts and a pumpkin muffin, which I would have been happy to share. Alas I’ve seen nary a hag/helpless animal/stunning enchanted princess – take your pick. My alleged, revised flight time approacheth. I goeth.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Am I packed? Yes. Mostly.

Am I ready? I sure Hope so. Got... to... remember... my... passport.

Do I know anything about blogs? Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha...