Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Potrero Grande

If you missed the last post, check it out here.

I first met Marcela, the D-Sav therapist, in my first few weeks at Club. She acted extremely giddy upon talking to Carmen and me, very excited to test out her intermediate English knowledge with us. In line with what has become a theme of hospitality towards me in Chile, she invited us both over after only a half hour of talking to me. Beyond the typical dinner/asado invitation that is common for me to receive, she offered to let us stay at her parents country home situated on a raspberry farm about 2 hours by bus from Santiago. It sounded fun, but I figured I should get to know her and her family better, attending a couple family dinners in the coming months at their house close to Club.

Absent at the dinners was her son of similar age to me Manuel, who I wanted to meet since VEGlobal volunteers generally fall into the mid to late-twenties age range. Thus, when Marcela came to Club and invited me to head to the farm to spend a long summer weekend with Manuel and her family, I gladly obliged.

I was soon at the family's house, packed and ready to head to Chile's Seventh Region, but I quickly sensed that the family dynamic wasn't as rosy as I had expected. Marcela and her husband's marriage wasn't in good shape—I was apparently coming into a situation in which the couple was in the midst of separating. I would actually be accompanying Marcela, Manuel, and his preteen sister Consuelo to where they were to remain indefinitely without their respective ex-husband and father. As we packed into the car with the restless family dog, it was uncomfortable to witness Manuel and Consuelo say goodbye to their father, not knowing exactly when they'd see him next.

In the car ride through Chile's agricultural core, the familial relationships really came out. Manuel and Consuelo occasionally bickered with each other, and Marcela would often chastise them while the siblings would unite to defend themselves or just as frequently accuse each other to their Mom. Though it might sound bad, everything was pretty typical. I was happy to finally experience genuine Chilean family life, something I had been lacking since I arrived.

Passing through the small city of Curicó, we eventually made it to Potrero Grande, a sparsely-populated grouping of fruit farms and houses nestled in the Andean foothills. I was instantly hit by the realization of the drastic change in scenery from the mass public transportation and smog of Santiago to the passing horse-drawn cart and crisp blue sky of the countryside. Content to be away from the grind of normal life, I was also worried if my sanity could endure what seemed would be four days of clucking chickens and excruciating boredom.

After meeting Marcela's parents, who were surprisingly unfazed by my gringo presence, I asked permission to do what I had been dying to do since I had first heard about the farm. Like a kid in a candy shop, I scurried out into the endless rows of shoulder-high, raspberry bushes ready for harvest. Dodging thorny stems and buzzing bees, I soon conceded that I couldn't pick as fast as I could eat. In fact I only managed to collect a cup's worth of berries in a half hour. Luckily, Marcela joined me shortly thereafter and added three times as much fruit to my harvest in half the time, allowing me to consume glasses full of ripe raspberries as if they were water.

After gorging myself to the point of needing to lay down to rest, Manuel and I set off to explore the local attractions on a pair of too-small, rusty bikes that had been sitting for years unused next to the farm's chicken coop. We traversed the uneven, unpaved roads, visiting the trickling stream along the side of the mountain where locals would cool off during the day when water didn't flow from the taps because the farms' irrigation used up the whole supply.

On occasion we would run into some of Manuel's acquaintances, but our most significant meeting came late that Friday. Sneaking out of the house in the pitch-black night against Marcela's wishes, we crept away from the farm to where Manuel said his friends would be. Anticipating a house party of some sort, I was surprised to find a group of teens sprawled across a bus stop bench where seemingly no bus would ever pass. After Manuel introduced me, everyone was immediately intrigued by my foreign identity, as they probably had limited encounters with non-Chileans.

Despite the unusual situation, I was enjoying hanging out with Manuel's friends until suddenly, a horse ridden by a man galloped up us, and the girls approached him to converse for a bit. The girls inexplicably left alongside the man, leading an uneducated outsider to suspect that horses are the Chilean countryside equivalent in attractiveness to Corvettes during 1960s American culture.

Once the girls had gone, the conversation plummeted in intellectual level as the guys initiated an impromptu question-and-answer session with their new favorite gringo. The questions they asked were absurd and hilarious, but the sheer quantity made it that months later I can only remember my favorite. With an expression of utter fascination on his face, one of the boys inquired, "How big are the hot dogs in the United States?"

Overtaken by a rattling belly laugh, I mustered up enough composure to stretch my arms the largest they could span. In response, he merely dropped his jaw and gazed wide-eyed into the distance.

In the following days I pedaled around Potrero Grande with Manuel, wading in the refreshing stream, shooting pebbles with slingshots, and, of course, eating gross amounts of raspberries at my every whim. Life in the countryside was relaxing, and I was grateful for the warmth and magnanimity of Marcela's family. Ultimately my time came to return home, but Marcela wouldn't let me go without a goody bag of fruit, eggs, and a freshly-slaughtered hen, all from the farm, to take back with me on the bus to Santiago.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

New Year's Eve

With little time to recover from my epic adventures in Pucón, I was soon off to what many bill "the best fireworks celebration in South America." Having heard that title thrown around many times even before arriving in Chile, I was set on heading to Valparaíso to view the brilliant spectacle for months in advance. Thus, I was eager to support the idea when other volunteers' proposed a trip to the coast for New Year's Eve.

The voyage is usually an easy hour and a half by bus from Santiago, yet since bus tickets were sold out in the lead up to the popular celebration, six of us managed to sque
eze into Dennis' car meant to comfortably seat four. Unlucky for tall and lanky Paul, he was crammed and contorted into the leg space in the back seat, trying to avoid the prying eyes of police officers the whole way. But if that weren't bad enough, the trip lasted three times what it should have, slowed to a snail's pace by bumper-to-bumper traffic and an unnecessary number of freeway tolls.

Finally descending into the city from the coastal hills, I was impressed by the unusual landscape. Nestled in Chile's most active port, Valparaíso is a historic, tightly-packed city of steep ridges over-brimming with brightly-painted houses and narrow, winding streets. Public transportation consists of antiquated buses and funiculares, precipitous tracks equipped with rail cars used to haul people up and down the sharp inclines. I was more than content with the intriguing backdrop fo
r what Chileans proudly claim to be the second (and supposedly soon to be first) largest fireworks show in the world.

Image from

Meeting up with more gringo and Chilean friends, we bypassed the droves of street vendors selling shiny hats and other party paraphernalia to lodge ourselves into a good spot amongst the crowd in the main plaza. Though we were snugly jammed amongst thousands of spectators, I was expecting a larger space with more people. However, I later realized that the display could be even better witnessed from dozens of other viewpoints throughout the city, which meant there were likely thousands more people spread about the surrounding hills and building rooftops.

In the lead-up to 12 am, I had only one doubt in my mind that could literally cast its shadow upon the coming spectacle. Dense, misty clouds hugged the shore like the infamous "June gloom" that Southern Californians dread during said month every year. I voiced my worries to my friend Carlos who responded in typical Chilean form, "Tranquilo, no pasa nada," indicating it didn't matter. His words were proven true as soon as the first fireworks burst, penetrating the thick shrouds of fog with a brilliant splash of colorful explosions. My senses were soon overwhelmed by the sheer concentration and frequency of the fireworks, reaching levels unrivaled by anything I'd ever experienced neither in the open air nor on television. Clearly the show was a large sense of pride for locals as the crowd broke into chants of "¡Chi-Chi-Chi-Le-Le-Le, Viva Chile!" and "¡Valparaíso, Valparaíso, Valparaíso!"

Image from

Finally, the fireworks ended, and all that was left were scattered
drunken people, broken champagne bottles, and lots of confetti. We then settled down by some steps in the plaza and found ourselves socializing and joking around with a large extended Chilean family. In line with customary Chilean hospitality, we were shortly thereafter invited to a barbecue at one of the family's houses.

We then decided to pack into cars again to head to the adjoined city of Viña del Mar, which has distinct vibe from that of Valparaís
o. Viña is better characterized as a summer beach resort city, one of the best-known in South America, where visitors can sunbathe on the sand, try their luck in the casinos, or dine in gourmet establishments.

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Most of the gringos soon decided to doze off to sleep in cars, but I along with three hardcore Chilean friends were determined not to go to sleep, even if it meant just sitting and talking on the coastal promenade. By around 5 am though, I was too exhausted, and the rhythmic sound of the waves crashing started to lull me to sleep. The wooden bench nearby seemed irresistible, and I was soon curled into a ball with my arms pulled out of my sleeves and scrunched close to my body to stay warm amidst the chilly beach breeze blowing against me.

My defenseless position and drowsy state made me the potential target of an inebriated pair of far-from-altruistic party goers. The two spotted me, helpless and in dreamland, and schemed as to how they could stealthily swipe my authentic Los Angeles Dodgers hat, the only prized semblance of American baseball I had with me in Chile. As they were about to smugly sneak away with one fine piece of sports memorabilia high in sentimental value, my still-awake, Chilean acquaintances came to the rescue. Wise to the plan of these "picáo a choros" (fronting gangsters), my friends insulted the the pair's bravado and scared them off, in the process they themselves ironically becoming
"picáo a choros."

The next morning, after notifying me of their earlier heroism, the Chileans and I hopped a bus back to Valparaíso, so I could witness a typical
Valparaíso breakfast in the central market. Entering the multi-story, dilapidated concrete building, I quickly judged that in no way would it ever pass a safety or health regulations in any first world country.

Rising above stalls overflowing with fruits and vegetables, is a level seemingly dedicated to one thingpaila marina, a mixed seafood stew.
As Carlos explained to me, locals eat the dish for breakfast! This fact announced itself not just in all the restaurants but to my nose too as an intense, fishy odor overcame all my other senses. Utterly repulsed by the thought of eating almost all forms of things that live in water (besides canned tuna), I warned Carlos that I needed a "normal" breakfast or would just go hungry.

Though paila marina was the main attraction, there were many other seafood as well as non-fishy Chilean dishes offered, so I hoped we could encounter at least one place that was mutually satisfying of all our cravings. In our hungry search, waiters from all the restaurants we passed would simultaneously approach us and make aggressive sales pitches extolling the virtues of dining at their various establishments. It was quite overwhelming, but my requirement of a non-seafood, "American-ish" breakfast finally led us to a small eatery in a far corner of the complex.

As soon as the waitor could say "huevos" (eggs), I was sold. Though they eventually broke the news that they had no reasonable equivalent to bacon, sausage, or orange juice, I was dissapointed yet glad to not be force-feeding myself seafood soup to prevent my stomach from consuming itself. My Chilean friends reluctantly gulped down their paila marina, claiming they had better in the past.

As quickly as I could eat my breakfast, I just as seemingly returned home to Santiago. As I slothfully dragged myself out of the car seat to head to bed, I reflected on the most fun New Year's I'd ever had.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Dirty South... of Chile (Part Two)

The first part of this post can be found here.

Pucón: Never-ending Adventure (Continued)
While it would be hard to match the adventure factor of jumping out of a plane the day before, we managed to come close with our Saturday activity—whitewater rafting. Like skydiving, it was my first time partaking in such an activity.

Sporting our awesome “Skydive Pucón” hats from the previous afternoon, we boastfully displayed our unfazed attitude towards the less dare-devilish prospect of barreling down Class 3-5 rapids. Though skydiving’s outcome was less dependent on what we did and more on when the instructor pulled the parachute cord, rafting, on the other hand, required much more collaboration on our part and that of untrained strangers. The active role our uncoordinated band of rowers played was both comforting and unsettling in different ways.

While our skydiving instructor cracked his fair share of gags that played on Forbes’ and my nervousness, our rafting guide, little did we know, would have a field day with our group. I sort of couldn’t blame him, sympathizing with the fact that he paddled the same section of river day after day as he became horse-voiced from yelling at out of shape tourists.

After we piled out of our gringo-filled bus and suited up, a mumbling man from New Zealand gave us a brief orientation in both Spanish and English, in neither which language anyone comprehended. Fortunately, he would not be on guide duty for the day, instead manning the fast-moving kayak used to rescue helpless gringos who fall out of their rafts. Once we boarded the raft accompanied by equally-clueless pairs of tourists, our Chilean guide reviewed the series of Spanish commands he would shout in succession in order to navigate us safely down the river over the coming two hours. (Note: I find orders screamed at me in Spanish to be much more likely to spring me into proper life-saving action than their English equivalents.)

Having warmed up our ligaments and eardrums on some smooth parts of the river, we were ready for our first rapid. Despite the flurry of commands and subsequent rushed paddling, I witnessed a few other rafts traverse the small downward drop and was frankly unimpressed. After a couple more rapids, it appeared our team was in good shape compared to some other groups as no one on our raft managed to fall overboard. I soon realized that the theme for the expedition would be making our own fun.

After successfully crossing a larger rapid, our instructor gave us the perplexing command to turn around. He then told the most petite female member of our group to kneel at the front of the raft. Having seen many of the other rafts pass us while we patiently waited on a bank of the river, he then ordered us to paddle full-steam ahead into the face of the rapid. Paddling to numbness in our arms, the front of the raft plunged under the breakwater, inundating the tiny woman kneeling into the torrent of frigid water. Though confused at first, the guide’s repeated instruction to do this over and over again made everyone laugh through quick breaths.

Farther downstream, our leader described a game we were going to play, which involved one of the guys standing on the edge of the boat. Willingly standing up, the chosen man awaited more instruction, but suddenly we were jolted as though we had struck a jagged rock. Too surprised by the bump, we hadn’t noticed our fearless crew member had fallen into the icy water. Lodged into the other side of our boat was one very smug Kiwi in the rescue kayak, cackling in unison with our guide—so much for saving drowning gringos. We all took everything in good humor and hauled the soaking guy back into our raft.

Not quite trusting our prankster guide, I was reluctant to do so when he told us all to jump in the water. Even though rain was spattering our faces and both the water as well as the air was cold, I didn’t mind the refreshment of it all being that we were in insulated wetsuits.

Finally, everyone pulled their rafts into a cove, docked, and changed out of our gear. Back where we began everyone was greeted by a spread of beer and wafer crackers, which enticed some German men all too much to not waste the time to change out of their speedos. We watched a slide show of all the action pictures but opted out of the spending an exorbitant amount on the CD, justifying it by reminding ourselves of the footage we had of much more death-defying endeavors from the day before.

The following day, we took in some sun on the beach of Lake Villarrica, recovering from our adventures. While there were uncomfortable, small, volcanic rocks instead of sand under our feet, I still managed to take a long walk away from the troves of tourists in order to get an unobstructed view of the always-active, smoking Villarrica Volcano. With the beautiful landscape, I reflected upon one of the more enjoyable and eventful vacations I'd ever been on.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Dirty South ... of Chile (Part One)

Until December I hadn't ventured more than an hour outside of Santiago's smoggy confines, and I was beginning to get the itch to see the rest of the country, acclaimed for its breathtaking and diversified landscapes. Because of its geographically anorexic profile, seeing even the major sites of Chile in one trip would be daunting. The longitudinal difference might start to take their toll.

A Horrid Journey, Puerto Montt, and Chiloé
I thus came to the swift conclusion that I would travel South of Santiago, but not as far south as to where summer's warmth had yet to thaw frozen pampas. That meant I would be heading about three-quarters of the way down the country to the majestic Lakes District and the mysterious island of Chiloé. While traveling alone wasn't out of the question, I figured I'd spare my parents the apprehension. Luckily, the December Class of volunteers had just arrived, and I found an eager travel companion in Forbes.

After vague planning and shoving definitely unfolded and possibly unwashed clothes into my suitcase, I was ready to go. We met up at Santiago's main bus terminal, expecting to hop onto a comfortable, 14-hour, overnight bus ride, which would take us swiftly to our desired destination of Puerto Montt. Everything was going as planned while Forbes and I chatted, waiting beside the bus to load our baggage into the cargo. Yet suddenly, Forbes found himself victim to a disgruntled man audibly and physically taking out some unclear grievance upon him. In hindsight this man wasn't a passenger. Even worse, neither was his female accomplice who was swiping Forbes' wallet from his right side as the man shoved him on his left side.

It took Forbes about a minute to realize he had been pick pocketed within his first few weeks in Chile. Without credit cards and pesos, he was rightfully upset despite my best efforts to put things in perspective and reassure him that I'd cover his trip expenses until he had access to money. With the sting of the unfortunate beginning to our trip fresh in his mind, you could imagine how difficult it might be to sleep on that marathon of a bus trip. Our prospects of sleeping were made even more unfavorable by the fact that we were seated in the last row next to the bathroom. Even though we could recline our seats to a greater angle than anyone else, doing so only brought us closer the pungent lavatory fumes, which wafted in from the air conditioning vent that was seemingly connected to the bathroom.

Though we thought we would be going directly to Puerto Montt, we soon learned that almost all multi-hour bus journeys make many stops, often at little sheds in uninhabited places. However, the only ray of hope we experienced during those 14 painful hours was when a Jesus-looking man across the aisle struck up conversation and invited us to stay with his family in Chiloé. While logistics prevented us from taking him up on his kind gesture, it was a perfect example of Southern (Chilean) Hospitality, a concept one might be hard-pressed to find on Santiago's bustling streets.

Once we finally debarked from our hellish bus ride, we had a few hours to explore the modestly attractive, port city of Puerto Montt. With a 150,000-plus population, it's about as large of a concentration of people that can be encountered that far south in the country. Its size and setting in a sheltered, Pacific bay make it that section of Chile's hub for transport, commerce, and the likes.

From there, we made or way via bus and ferry to the tranquil island of Chiloé, where I was drawn due to magnificent reports I'd heard from friends and travel guides alike. Besides its renowned landscapes, Chiloé's geographic isolation from the mainland has facilitated the formation of a distinct cultural identity over hundreds of years after colonization.

Staying in the main town of Castro, we strolled along the shore to get a closer look at the well-known palafitos, brightly-colored fishing shacks on wooden stilts that jut out into the water. Supposedly they were built in such a precarious manner so that owners only had to purchase the small slivers of land upon which the structures are supported.

Another of the island's characteristics are its wooden churches, of which Castro's is a prime example. Though I was not very impressed by its interior, the placard describing the building's history made me laugh. Since its construction in the 17th century, the church has burnt down nine times only to be reconstructed again and again with wood. I would imagine that after the fourth time the clergy might begin to wonder about investing in less flammable building materials, regardless of the abundance of lumber on the island.

When night fell, we began to get hungry only to realize that virtually nothing was open on Christmas Eve in a small town in a heavily-Catholic country. After stumbling upon a ritzy hotel that offered us a 70 dollar per person dinner, we opted to starve instead of incurring overdraw fees from maxing out my checking account, which was supporting both of us. Yet just like in a Holiday movie, we experienced our own Christmas miracle in the form of another, much cheaper, hotel restaurant willing to feed us, and just us, because we were the last ones there. Euphoria combined with stomach pangs caused us, much to the dismay of the staff, to order at least six dishes between the two of us. At 12:30 am our request to pack up much of the food to take back with us was met by disapproving looks from our server.

The next day we ventured to the small town of Chonchi, which our travel guide claimed is the island's most picturesque location. Upon stepping off the bus, we realized we had made a bad decision. It was Christmas Day, and everything was dead. We walked a block, and then walked back to the bus station to purchase the earliest ticket back to Castro. Besides a small, purple, and yellow church, there was nothing to do or see.

Chiloé overall was pretty and peaceful; it reminded me of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle, Washington. However, we were looking for something a bit faster-paced, so we set off north on the next leg of our journey.

Pucón: Never-ending Adventure
After another far-from-direct bus trip that zigzagged the Lakes District, we finally arrived in Pucón, situated at the foot of Lake Villarrica and a soaring volcano of the same name. Normally, after a long trip, one might typically check into lodging to rest for a few hours, but we had the exact opposite planned. Right at the terminal we were met by Peter, our skydiving instructor for the day.

Wait, What?! Relax. Take a breath. Allow me to explain. Before leaving Santiago, Forbes had one requirement for our trip. He wanted to jump out of a plane, thus being able to check off one more entry on his "Things to Do Before I Die" list. Though I hadn't thought much previously about the idea, there was no way I was just going to be a bystander and not participate myself. Furthermore, it added special meaning to the act that both of our grandfathers were paratroopers in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II and had both jumped in D-Day. Maybe they knew each other?

Side Note: That same Grandpa Herbert (for whose name I was given my middle name) broke his leg and was hospitalized for months after his 13th jump resulted in a freak accident by which his emergency parachute became entangled in his normal parachute. He was technically the last American soldier to die of WWII-related injuries.

Regardless of the fact that Peter spoke perfect English, I wasn't at all reassured by the fact that when he showed off the tiny Cesna to us before takeoff, the co-pilot's steering wheel was still in its normal place. Sounds fine, right? Actually it's not. He pulled it out of its socket and calmly explained that if a scared jumper were to have pulled on the control wheel in order to get his balance before jumping, for instance, then the plane would've stalled and crashed. That was not a very comforting fact as I was squeezing into my harness. Moreover, his nonchalant attitude and breezing through the safety instructions didn't exactly quell the butterflies in my stomach.

Forbes was brave enough to go first. He took off in the shaky little plane and within 15 minutes, I was watching a zooming dot in the sky quickly become a floating open parachute. He landed absolutely exhilarated and soon went off in search of beer to calm his nerves and celebrate the achievement.

Then it was my turn, and to be honest I was nervous for none of the normal reasons, such as the nearly two-mile altitude, jumping out of a moving plane, or the parachute not opening. My heart was racing because of a weird, psychological condition that I am convinced only affects me. In the face of wind over maybe 40 miles per hour, I simply can't breathe. I gasp for air even if I stick my head out of a moving car's window. Now imagine my difficulty breathing during free fall at 120 mph with a large, mustached man tightly strapped to my back.

Anyways, I awkwardly sat with my back inclined against the pilot's seat as Peter notified me that we would be jumping regardless of my response at 9,000 feet to his inaudible question, "Ready to jump?" Even though Peter was casually snapping one-handed photos of the landscape at an arms length outside of the plane during takeoff, we managed to get some beautiful aerial shots of the breathtaking landscape.

When the scenic ride had reached its end, and it was time to get to business, Peter shouted various incomprehensible instructions at me as we uncomfortably shuffled and turned to get the open side of plane. Peter's bulk and force would have pushed us out into the blue yonder in spite of how much I could've resisted. Hence, I wasn't surprised care when he kicked my right leg out of the plane, so I could get traction on the small step below. My pulse really jumped in that moment as my leg dangled limply, being pushed off the step by the powerful gusts along the side of the plane. Before I could even begin to ponder the possibility of not being able to breathe once I had actually jumped, I had already plummeted out into the open. I suddenly became an unwilling variable in every physics equation I had ever grudgingly worked my way through in high school.

In a matter of a couple of seconds, I was no longer accelerating but rather stagnant in weightlessness. Arching my body as I had remembered to do, I witnessed ever-growing mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes, forests, and snow-capped volcanoes in all directions. In that instant there was unrivaled tranquility in spite of the constant gusts enveloping me. I was living my childhood dream of flying for a few glorious seconds.

Unfortunately, I had gotten what I paid for, and little did I realize I was only a fraction of the way into my eternal half minute of free fall. Maybe I had forgotten to breathe at first, but now I surely couldn't. Blood was coursing through my veins in my futile attempts to suck in air. I felt desperate and began to fear fainting, for the first time in my life, yet before I could get to that point, I felt a queasiness in my stomach and sudden deceleration. The parachute opened, and I was floating serenely as Peter let me steer us with the right-left directional chords.

After a few minutes of taking in my surroundings from a much lower altitude, I finally glided in for my landing right where I had started 20 minutes before. I was shaking for the next few hours, but I got an awesome "Skydive Pucón" hat to sport for my courage.


I will detail our other thrilling tales in Pucón in the next post. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Christmas in La Granja

With all of the connections Olga has fostered over the years as the director of D-Sav, I’ve become accustomed to seeing hordes of unknown people pass through Club’s doors. They come to eat, to visit, and often to interact with the kids. One example was a band of student musicians from an elite local high school who put on a painfully bad show for the children. Another involved a group of elderly women donors tour the classrooms, pose for pictures with the kids during homework time, and butcher all of the kids’ names in futile attempts at speaking Spanish.

In every case, it seems like outsiders come with pure intentions but with little idea of how to communicate with the children and execute what they planned to accomplish. Either way, the kids always smile for the cameras and accept whatever’s given to them despite being terribly confused about the strange people breezing in and out of Club.

These strange visits culminated in the days leading up to Christmas. There had to have been at least four events within a few days time thrown by outsiders for the kids. I soon caught on to the routine—overly-dressed people from a corporation organize some type of activity, which is soon followed by a feast of sugary treats (as if the kids were starved for candy) and then gift distribution.

Don’t get me wrong, the concept of providing the children with some Holiday joy is a noble idea. However, the execution was poor in that every event always seemed to devolve into a scene similar to that of a humanitarian aide truck pulling up to a war-torn refugee camp. Ultimately, the kids had become so conditioned to receiving sweets and presents that Mami Olga would sit them down as a group after the events to scold them for taking advantage of the organizers of the festivities.

Yet, the grand finale came in the form of the D-Sav Christmas Dinner, an annual tradition that dates back to the early 80s when D-Sav was a tiny, struggling, group home during the Pinochet regime. In those times, Olga scrapped together what she could, so that the kids could have a respectable Christmas celebration, but now she does things on a much greater scale. This celebration was the largest it had ever been, incorporating about 60 children, not only the kids from Club but all those who are supported by D-Sav’s community foundation.

Compared to the Exposition a few weeks earlier, there wasn’t nearly as much preparation involved. However, Carmen had the awesome idea of bringing the gringo Christmas tradition of gingerbread-house-making to Chile. That sounds pretty straight-forward and simple, but in practice, making 15 houses with 15 kids ages five to eight proved to be a challenge. The kids had a blast, yet I severely underestimated the engineering and architecture that goes into creating a gingerbread house. Ironically enough, the preparation and construction process is not child’s play. I much prefer the raw dough and icing, yet vague warnings of salmonella and childhood obesity hindered my efforts to save a lot of time as well as money spent on oven gas.

Unfortunately, I ended up making a lot of children cry upon them seeing their tasty houses come crashing down after I had held the walls in place until the frosting had dried. Finally, Carmen and I discovered the perfect combination of sugar, egg whites, and water after much trial and error. Despite the unsanitary decoration process involving too many saliva-covered hands being used to adorn gingerbread roofs and walls with colorful candies and sprinkles, the kids ended up with some cute and tasty gingerbread houses to display at the Christmas dinner.

Finally, on the Sunday before the holiday itself, dozens of familiar and unfamiliar faces shuffled through Club’s doors, looking as pretty and handsome as they could afford upon Mami Olga’s request. Everything seemed pretty typical for Christmas with one marked differenceit was an 85 degree summer day. Sometimes I forget about the Southern Hemisphere and its reverse seasons, but it tends to make for snowy July's and blistering January's.

In spite of the heat, Carmen and I sat down in too-tiny chairs at a table with a few kids while Olga led the kids in grace and remarked upon the tragic, unfolding situation involving two girls’ families. While for me, at least, the magic of the evening was overshadowed by the previous days’ events, most of the children appeared to be unfazed as they ate a delicious meal and sang Christmas carols. However, no Christmas fiesta would be complete without a visit from El Viejito Pascuero (Santa Claus), in this case one of the kid’s dad dressed up pushing a shopping cart brimming over with presents. Best of all, it was truly heartwarming to see the younger kids squeal with anticipation as their faces lit up upon hearing, “¡Jo, jo, jo!” in the distance.

Note: There are pictures from the Christmas celeration here, taken from D-Sav's blog.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Domingo Savio Exposition: A Circus of Chaos at its Finest

I've been so bad at keeping up to date that I basically have three months of living in Chile to discuss and limited time to do it. Allow me to begin the process by taking you way back to the end of 2008.

Every year the works of the past months at Club culminate into one monster of an event filled with music, plays, and art. The many weeks of preparation for ExpoClub 2008 wreaked its toll not only upon Carmen and me, but also upon Tío Jorge, the master event planner extraordinaire. Though he claims to be a casual cigarette smoker, I spotted him lighting up while draped listlessly over a chair in the office much more frequently than usual. Furthermore, I think I most dreaded going to Club during this period because it seemed like we were always being reprimanded for our shortcomings as a result of his dwindling patience.

The lead-up to the Expo called for near daily rehearsals, which the kids detested. They were less like play practice and more like military drills. I can't recall elementary school performance rehearsals ever being that brutal. The kids sat in fear of Jorge lashing out at them for minor mistakes. His most commonly yelled threat was to take out of the act those who didn't play their parts well. Yet worst of all, he actually followed through on his promise in many cases. It was sort of traumatic for me to merely observe him do so to such young children in front of an audience of their peers.

During actual rehearsals, Carmen and I did virtually nothing. In fact, I can't imagine us doing anything significant in preparation of any of the acts since Jorge ran the show and every aspect of it was closely guarded in the depths of his mind. Most of the time I resorted to joking around with the kids sitting in the back rows while simultaneously trying not to get any of us in trouble.

After days of extended hours and a final night spent nearly passing out while blowing up balloons, the day of the event finally arrived with great relief. However, there was still much to be done in those few hours beforehand in order to invoke ExpoClub's theme—the circus. The irony in that is unrivaled since I can classify everything involved with the Exposition, and even my months at D-Sav, as a circus of sorts.

Besides the labor that went into transforming the classrooms that displayed the kids’ crafts into lion and monkey cages, Daniel and I had one very notable task. In the most haphazard way possible, we rigged a massive, cloth sack filled with balloons to open onto the crowd upon the show's finale. The sheer ridiculousness of this idea could only be dreamed up by Jorge's flamboyant imagination.

Once the back patio had filled with an expected 150 people sitting in a scattered array of borrowed chairs and benches, the program consisted of a distinctly-Jorge selection of performances. One example was the youngest kids performing a dubbed, politically incorrect reenactment of something involving tigers and a boy decked out in blackface. Another was the oldest kids exhibiting a "dance:" slow, synchronized movement of colored paper lanterns matched with a sleep-inducing Enya track. My personal favorite involved all 40-something kids jumping up and down on the shoddily-assembled stage to the tune of a Christian pop song with such lyrics as, “Praise Jesus for all he's done for me." I think one could even construct a mediocre argument that ultimately the show extolled certain positive values and traits for the children.

I, on the other hand, had the supreme privilege of staying backstage with Jorge to work the poorly equipped sound system. Being that I had only practiced briefly the day before, it turned out that Jorge merely resorted to frantically whispering to me when to press the play and pause buttons. Sometimes he would just end up doing it himself. Since their was so much noise and movement behind the curtains while the kids were in the wings waiting to go on, my job came to be hushing them and keeping them in line. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t prevent the kids from peeking through the curtains or just causing general chaos.

In the end, Daniel pulled the string to drop the balloons, the kids flailed around to Jesus Pop, and the families applauded. That, my friends, constitutes a grand success. Yet, sarcasm aside, everyone really did put a lot of effort into the event, and I was genuinely proud to see my kids dancing, singing, and acting with confidence in front of so many people.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Random Acts of Blog-ness

First off, I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year (Feliz Año Nuevo)! Things at D-Sav have come to a close as the kids take their summer vacation, but the end of 2008 was jam-packed with activity. I hope you enjoy the following post about two rather miscellaneous subjects. Don't worry, I'll be following this post up shortly with a wrap-up of the past couple months' events.

Spank Your Children Only So Hard That They Don't Renounce You to Child Services

When I first saw Patito's Mom, I thought she was his grandmother. Stout, wrinkly, and sloth-like in her movements, she can often be seen sucking on cigarette, which is quite possibly a cause or result of her aforementioned qualities. There's seemingly none of her DNA in her five-year-old son. Quick, wrestless, and spikey-haired, he has no fear of playing with those thrice his size.

Thus it surprised me as she described the active parenting role she takes, out of character with what appeared to be a lax child-raising style. Active, just not necessarily in the good sense of the word.

While I guarded the gate, moms and dads passed by with nothing more than an "Hola," dropping off their kids for a Saturday afternoon Christmas activity. Patito's Mom rounded the corner at a snail's pace, released her son to wreak havoc on the play yard, yet failed to waddle back home as all of the other parents had. I took a firm position against the gate, knowing it was time for her to regale me with the mundanities of mothering her children.

Recounting what Patito left on his plate for lunch, she jumped to the subject of discipline. She made it clear that the liberal, phsychologist-endorsed view of corporal punishment is not in high standing in La Granja. If she were speaking in English, I'd expect many sentences to begin with, "Kids these days..." As the mom of a teenager, she believes herself to have perfected the strategy of "correcting" children's behavior up to the point of pain that doesn't cause their kids to report them to child protective services. She claimed that even youung children used this as a threat, stifling their parents desire to inforce good behavior. But really, what harm has the occasional, nice, crisp spanking done to a child?

"¡Vivan los Yankees!
(Wait, who?)"
A hemisphere away from the fabled streets of the Bronx, I'm not surprised when I hear someone confuse the Great American Pastime for a more characteristically Canadian sport rife with poor dental hygiene. However, it is surprising (at least at first) that everyone and their abuelito would appear to be a New York Yankees fan. Sorry, I mean, "Los Yanquis de Nueva York." You're seemingly uncommon in Santiago if you aren't the proud owner of a heavily-adorned, unauthentic, Chinese-manufactured, Yankees hat. It's so bad that after any given trip on the metro, I typically have the letters "N" and "Y" etched into my retina for the next couple hours. I wouldn't be so offended if people at least knew who Babe Ruth was, for example, but unfortunately globalization has left its mark upon the superficial consumer preferences of a First/Third World country's adolescent male population.

As an obnoxious gringo, I feel a deeply-ingrained instinct to protect the integrity of game played long before your great-great-great-grandmother was churning ox butter on a farm in Czechoslovakia. Admittedly, my disposition leads me to loudly heckle people in English as a reaction to the logo emblazoned on their hats. For all those unfamiliar with my team preferences, allow me to state for the record that they lie far from the stomping grounds of Mickey Mantel and Alex "Madonna's Boy Toy" Rodriguez. Hence, it is rare that I grunt words of praise to befuddled passersby. To get an idea of the likelihood of me getting sucker-punched by an irritable, Chilean, Yankees aficionado, glance at the highly empirical table below listing the number of pedestrians I've spotted equipped with memorabilia from a select few, esteemed, MLB institutions.

New York Yankees- 3.4 x 10^7

Los Angeles Dodgers- 7

Atlanta Braves- 5
Boston Red Sox
San Francisco Giants- 2

Philadelphia Phillies- 2
New York Mets- 2
Tampa Bay Rays- 1

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