“Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken.”
Boy, ain’t that the truth. And as I’m pretty sure the great thinker Kareem Abdul-Jabar was trying to say, in our time, when your power cord dies for your computer, you’re pretty much screwed.
And so I found myself yesterday, sitting in the Santiago Times office working when suddenly my power cord stopped feeding my computer. Shit. But no time to worry about that, as I had to rush off to our first orientation at the University of Chile orientation, in which they did presentation after presentation, including several videos, showing us all about campus, its history and its significance through the years.
I never really realized what a great school it was in the greater Chilean scheme of things, because obviously it’s not really something that we talk about in the states. La Chile and La Católica are the two best universities in the country, so to tell Chileans that we’re going there is a big deal. The best way I can imagine it is if somebody came to do an exchange program to Harvard, or Yale, or one of those schools, and didn’t understand all of the baggage that goes with those names for the average American.
La Universidad de Chile is the oldest and biggest higher education institution in the country. It was founded in 1842 and has educated two Nobel Laureates (including Pablo Neruda) and almost every Chilean president, including except three of the 20th Century presidents (including Eduardo Frei, who I’ll mention more about in a sec, and former dictator Pinochet, who I’m sure will come up again).
Basically, it’s a big deal, and they’re very proud of their history. Great for us, and lucky that the University of California pulls such swing that they can get their students in here. Go us. I’ll talk more about the university system here after I get to know it a bit better. I haven’t started classes yet, and I’m sure I’ll get a much better insight from the inside.
After all the speeches, they led us into another (freezing cold) courtyard and, as we huddled for warmth, a small man came out and spoke very quickly in Spanish, telling us to keep the middle section clear and watch (and much more, I’m sure). A few minutes later a string of incredible dancers came out in several styles from very Spanish, colonial dance to folk dancing to belly dancing, ending with a combined dance among them all and a declaration that this is “Chile,” that is, a mixed bag (ranging from very Spanish to extremely Spanish), with a dash of indigenous thrown in there. Fun stuff, but it got me thinking about the American version.
Stick with me for a second, and imagine that we’re at UC Santa Cruz (or whichever university suits your fancy). Now, imagine that it’s the first day for a group of international students at your university. This is where I find it hard to believe, that this sort of thing could ever happen in America. They sit through hours of people talking and bragging about their school’s historical prominence and how great it is, and then usher people into the courtyard, saying “You’ve learned our history, our politics, our language. But this… is how we DANCE!”
I’ve become very aware that I’ve now been in this country for a month, which is officially the longest I’ve been outside of the U.S. in a given stretch of time. I’ve been trying to think of certain observations I’ve made about the “culture” here, and think there are a few things that are certainly of note.
Thing 1: Santiago is f**king huge. That’s not to say that it’s particularly bigger than other Latin American capitals, or even Latin American cities. It’s dwarfed by Buenos Aires, and even with its greater urban area it’s a fraction of Sao Paolo’s, which is over 21 million people. That said, Santiago has over 5 million residents in a country of just 17 million. Plus, if you include Valparaíso, a nearby city, and a few others in the region, you get a couple more million in a very small area, compared to the ridiculously long country that is Chile. This is also greatly due to the difficulty in living either far north, due to a tremendous desert, or south, due to the extreme cold because of the proximity to Antarctica. What this means is that basically, with a couple notable exceptions here and there, Santiago’s the only game in town.
Thing b: Everybody follows the news, but pretends that they don’t. This one needs a bit of explaining, because it’s just been a strange experience talking politics here. Santiago has a ton of media, including radio, television, and at least six or seven daily newspapers, just from my own count. Try to imagine that in any major American city, where that many papers could print that often and not cannibalize each other in ad sales. Answer? They’re all terrible newspapers. El Mercurio, which is the most prominent of the papers (and has a distinct right-wing bias) scores from time to time, but it’s interesting. I try to read the news everyday and though I’m the first to admit that confusion is probably due in large part to my own language barrier, I’ve come to realize that some of these articles really are just incredibly badly written.
Still, politics is curious, because everybody has an opinion, and the data to back it up, but most would describe themselves as “not political,” or even vowing to abstain from the upcoming presidential election.
Thing Three: People don’t speak English here, but everyone really wants to learn. Again, oversimplified, but basically. A lot of people have a little bit of English, but it’s way different from certain parts of Mexico and Costa Rica, where you just feel silly using your terrible Spanish when they could easily ask you the question in English. Not so here, which is nice for learning, but a bit hard when it comes to words you don’t know, because Chileans would be the first to tell you (and not really care) that they speak terrible, fast, slangy, colloquial, slurred, abbreviated, oddly punctuated, reverse Spanish. Still, they’re eager to meet and talk to Americans and try out their English, though this ranges from great English to terrible, broken English that just makes me want to assure them that yes, I do speak Spanish, and luckily so do you, so please let’s just use that.
Thing IV: There are a lot of a) stray dogs and b) pharmacies and c) small corner shops everywhere: I mean, that’s basically it. There are in between pharmacies, with pharmacies four pharmacies on four corners of intersections. They all sell basically the same things, basically what you’d expect to find at a pharmacy, and they’re open late. Same deal with ferreterias, or small corner shops, that have nothing more than a few cases for various beverage bottles, Nestle ice cream and cigarettes. The dogs are just everywhere around town, and for the most part (other than the damn dog barking outside my window all hours of the night) they’re incredibly well behaved and actually fairly elegant in their presentation. I found this to be the case also in Costa Rica, that you see a lot of really nice, well fed, very cute-if-a-bit-dirty dogs.
So that’s enough of that, as I seem to have run out of things, but I’m sure I’ll get more soon. I think I’ll start a new post for some of the more “daily” updates about work, so so long for now.
Note: I am very displeased with the Giants at this juncture. Darn them to heck.