May 10, 2011
One should always start out entries like these by saying right up front: I’m fine. My tour guide, Carol, is fine. Really, I don’t think we were ever in any real danger. And it’s a bit silly, when you come down to it. If I wasn’t fine, I wouldn’t be writing this. That said, it was my first experience with tear gas, and so perhaps deserves a reassuring note at the beginning. I’ve been using the phrase “Every day another adventure!” here a lot.
Monday morning in La Serena we took a taxi to the school we were doing, El Colegio Ingles Catolico. Seems like a long way to go for one school, but that’s the way it got planned. We followed a big, American style pickup truck for a while with an “Obama/Biden” sticker on it. Another photo op missed. And one of many for the day. I had no idea Obama had a campaign office down here.
El Colegio Ingles Catolico was, as usual, completely different from every other school we’ve been to. The auditorium was a large unheated room on the other side of a wall that separated the auditorium from the (very noisy) lunch room. As usual the rooms are practically outside and there is no heat. It was freezing. The kids all wear uniforms, which are multi-layer extravaganzas that do the job of keeping them warm in any room they happen to be in. I’ve taken to wearing my polar plunge hoodie most of the time, with an outer jacket as backup.
The shows went reasonably well as have nearly all the shows I’ve done here. The teachers and administrators seemed to be perpetually surprised that the kids behave themselves. But the kids are probably one of my favorite parts of Chile. They’re affectionate and enthusiastic and they stare at me as if I were an alien visiting from another planet. Which I am. They are eager to communicate with me and when their English isn’t up to the job (I’m not supposed to speak Spanish so I always play dumb) they either: find the kids in the class that are the nerds and are suddenly really in demand because and have actually studied English and can translate; or they find somebody who has lived in the United States who experience a similar sudden increase in popularity for the same reason.
In the middle of my performances I had the opportunity to meet a temporary expat American. Sandra is here with her husband, who is an architect working on some of the observatories that are being built in this area. It being as dry as it is, northern Chile is a really good place to look at stars. I think it would be really cool to be an architect for an observatory. Sandra is no academic slouch herself, sporting a PHD in something like “Art Forgery”. Who knew? Anyway, she was delightful and I’m hoping to: A. reconnect with her (a fellow vegetarian) at El Huerto Wednesday when she comes to Santiago to meet with some friends or; B. get an in on visiting an observatory in Antofagasta. Wish me luck.
From El Colegio Ingles Catolico we went to El Autobus Tur a Santiago. We were leaving a bit later in the day so our arrival was going to be correspondingly later. Another double feature night at the movies! I got to catch G.I. Joe and Nanny McPhee with Spanish subtitles. A startling combination of films. Once again, much more dialogue in the family film. Other than that the bus ride was uneventful. We got to Santiago safe and sound and found a taxi to take us back to the hotel.
At this point I should mention that throughout this trip I had been getting clues for what was about to happen. When Alberto and I were in Cascada de las Animas we saw a sign protesting a dam project that was apparently being planned for some river in southern Chile. And I had been picking up bits here and there – from overheard radio news in taxis and from newspaper articles that I read when I was trying to find out about Osama Bin Laden – that some kind of bill was being considered that would enable the construction of some kind of hydro-electric project somewhere in Chile. I didn’t pay much attention to it.
Well, the bill passed the day we were returning from La Serena. There were massive protests in practically every major city in Chile. The “disturbance,” as one newspaper so quaintly put it, got a little ugly in Santiago. Students and environmentalists rallied at La Plaza Italia, which is an area on the edge of Providencia that one is obligated to go through if one is, say, taking a taxi from the bus terminal to our hotel. Riot police were called. Traffic was snarled.
We knew none of this. It was a balmy night so we were blithely traveling with our windows open. Both Carol and I were pretty wiped from the day’s journey and didn’t notice anything until the cab driver mentioned that there seemed to be some kind of march. I looked up and saw flashing lights, riot police, their corresponding police vehicles, and clouds of white smoke blowing across the street. The protesters were in retreat. I was trying to figure out what they had set on fire because there didn’t seem to be any flames when the taxi hit the smoke plumes. We were lucky. We didn’t get very much of it. And I’m grateful that our cab driver was able to keep driving. It was a little bit worse than a really, really strong onion. It took us a while to figure out what in tarnation was going on. Carol was pulling Kleenex out of her purse and throwing wads of it to the driver and putting other wads of it into her eyes. I just figured it was better to let my eyes water. I didn’t know what to do about my throat. What with being tired and the tear gas wafting into the car, and the riot police everywhere, I somehow forgot to pull out my camera and start snapping pictures. I know, it’s just one excuse after another. I guess my career as a photo-journalist is pretty much over.
Our taxi driver found an alternate route, and once we were out of the smoke, the air cleared and the effects wore off quickly, much sooner than an onion. There were still riot police stationed along the cross streets though. The alternate route was longer, and more out of the way, and, hence, more expensive. Carol didn’t complain. We were glad to get back. It’s not customary to tip cab drivers here in Chile. Still, I hope Carol gave him something.
I decided the next day to stay a little more on top of the news and I bought a paper. There it was, the whole story: A five dam project along a southern river that will provide 2,750 megawatts of electricity for Chile and wreak havoc on the local ecosystems. Oh yeah. And Paul McCartney has arrived in Chile with his current.
After the events of that night another new school seemed pretty tame. Two schools, actually. This was the first day that I’ve had two schools in one day. They were as different as could be. The first, Los Colegios MonteTabor y Nazaret, was in the really wealthy are of Greater Santiago, with ritzy buildings, lovely surroundings, a very low key staff and an intimidating auditorium.
We had to head back into Santiago for the second school, Colegio de Los Angeles. You could really see the smog from the hills we were in. It’s been very dry here and the air is very bad and the soil is quite dry.
Our new school was in a much more middle class barrio, with correspondingly fewer amenities. The kids were on the floor and much more exuberant. They were all good shows. I realize as I’m doing this tour, that I am getting an intensive workshop in making my voice and body communicate at least as well as my vocabulary. It’s an interesting conundrum. How do you keep people interested when they don’t understand very much of what you’re saying?
Carol and I went to another local eatery, practically across the street from us, named Doner House. For students of U. S. pioneer history the name conjures some unpleasant dining imagery. But I’m pretty sure the historical one was spelled with two n’s. I think the Chilean one is supposed to be a Greek. It’s got all kinds of “kebops” on the menu along with the Chilean version of pita, Turkish coffee and (hot damn!) baklava. It was good. And cheap! But (tragedy!) no baklava. Carol and I had lunch there and did dinner at the hotel: wine, cheese, raw veggies, nuts and cookies.
I’m at the point now where I’m thinking “Oh, wow! I’ve only got one more Monday. One more Tuesday. Just like the zip line my time here is flying by. There’s so much to absorb and so little time to absorb it. Like Robert in the story, I know I will be glad I have picked up the stones and sorry that I haven’t taken more.