Thursday, March 27, 2008

Apartment and Argentina

I find myself with a spare half an hour before a meeting starts and a lucky internet connection, so the only logical thing to do is blog of course.

As of this Monday I officially no longer live in a hostel - three cheers for private space. I moved into a "luxury" condo on the water in Valparaiso, which does not mean on the beach since Valpo is a port. My commute to work is a lovely 20 minutes on the new metro which is only 2 blocks away, during which time I plan my lessons and gaze at the ocean. The condo itself isn't exactly what I was looking for - a bit too expensive and a bit too small - but it was the best I saw out of about a baker's dozen, I was sick of looking, and it's quite charming. The building is new and has 24 hour security which is nice. There is a washer/dryer which RULES, and I have a full kitchen (a rareity among the places I saw), a private balcony that connects to a building-wide balcony with views of the ocean, and two swimming pools that theoretically work but have been under maintenance since I arrived. It also has a tiny gym and is in a good location. All in all I'm pleased with it, although getting internet is proving a bit tricky... since I still don't have a camera cord, you´ll have to wait to see what it looks like!

We´re in the third week of classes and my students just got their books on Monday. We have our first test next week and I am terrified I haven't taught them the right content, which would not be my fault since we don't yet have any clear guides on what, exactly, they should know. Also, despite my preference for advanced classes it turns out my beginning students are much more respectful - as freshmen, they arrive on time, pay attention, and participate. My advanced students - the seniors - do not have the same, shall we say, zest for learning, and also don't seem to speak English any better than the beginners. I can't help but wonder, who has been passing these fools?

Last week we had a few days off for Semana Santa or Holy Week. Two (American - still no real Chilean friends to speak of, though I do have a ¨date¨later this week) friends and I decided to head over to Mendoza, Argentina to take in some scenery and some wine. The bus ride was truly incredible - a five hour trek OVER the Andes, with some terrifying switchbacks, plus a two hour wait at the border, which I'm told is a lucky amount of time and that it can last up to 5-6 hours. (On the way back, an old man tried to smuggle cocaine across the border, resulting in a strip search of not only him but of this sweet British girl sitting next to him since the dogs smelled it on both their seats. Talk about the wrong place... after an hour and a fine, he got back on the bus and continued on to Santiago with us since it was only enough for "personal use" and he was not trafficking it...)

Once we go to Mendoza our hostel reservation had been lost - as had the reservations of about a dozen other travellers - but they somehow found us beds in large dorms and we were off to explore. First on our list was to eat, which proved harder than it should have since the service in Argentina, it has to be said, SUCKS. It would be one thing if the tipping rate were 2%, but they demand the same 10% our attentive Chilean servers get. We started with a snack and later that night ate at a ¨tenedor libre¨or ¨parilla libre¨which means "free fork" or, alternately, "open grill." This translates to them bringing vast quantities of grilled meat to your table, and then bringing more at your request. Argentina is famous for its meat and wine, and we indulged in both.

Speaking of wine, the next day we decided to do a very popular if not touristy activity: rent bikes and tour wineries. The road we had to bike on ended up being not a quaint, tree-lined country lane but rather a semi-truck-infested, gravel and pothole-filled highway of doom. We actually ran into a few other friends/teachers at one of the wineries and as we were all biking back, something rather shocking occurred. Two young delinquents on a moto (aka mini motorcycle) cruised past us, mysteriously slowing down at points and seemingly slapping some of the girls on their backs. Now, those of us in the front of the line didn't know this, and those of us in the back of the line had no way to notify the rest of us and didn't really realize it would have required notification had it been possible, BUT when the two fools made it to me and my bike, they didn't slap my back: they ripped my messenger bag off of it! Naturally if one is going about 15 mph forward and is suddenly wrenched backward, one will fall, which is exactly what I did, in the dead center of the aforementioned drive of doom. I had no idea what had happened - it was all quite surprising to say the least - but I seem to know how to take a fall and was able to land in such a way that all I have in the way of injuries are gnarly bruises on my legs - I didn't even scrape my hands, which is magical, since after my thighs my hands took a reasonable amount of blunt force. I hardly even bled. Seriously, I cannot underestimate HOW LUCKY I was, especially considering the sheer quantity of moving vehicles in the immediate proximity.

Two Argentine women were in the road next to me before I had even finished falling and were yelling, "don't move!" There was no way in hell I was staying in the middle of that road, however, and within about 5 seconds of being down - enough time to realize I wasn't seriously hurt - I sprang up and jetted for safety. By this time both my bike and, thankfully, my bag (which they broke but did not get) had been retrieved, my friends behind me had stopped, the Argentines had run for paper towels and a glass of water, and I was bent over in what I'd like to call controlled hysterics trying not to lose a bellyfull of wine. The "tourist police" came - I swear that's what they were called - on their own motos, took what details my friends could give them, made sure I was ok and didn't need to be taken to the hospital, and then dispatched other tourist police motos to seek out what one of the bike employees described as "drugged out blacks who should all be shot." My reaction to this? "Dude, they were white..." Turns out racism has a home in Argentina as well.

Easily the best part about the whole incident - other than not losing my bag which had my credit card and passport, and that my camera and sunglasses inside the bag weren't broken - was the ride I got to take on the back of a police moto! My friend Angie has photos chronicling the whole event, which she will post to her Flickr and I will then send to you for your enjoyment.I can now say I have been the victim of an attempted robbery in every south American country I have been in, and that I have also been the victim of a violent crime. Bring it on, Peru!

So... yeah. That's all I can write since my half hour is up. Otherwise I did have a lovely but short stay in Argentina, and particularly enjoyed their highly esoteric brands of street performances: one man did an Italian opera using puppets, complete with timed lighting and sound, while another juggled knives while balancing on a ball on top of a ladder. We paid them both.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Comida de Chile

I've been here for two weeks and feel I'm now qualified to offer a discourse on the local cuisines in middle Chile. Since you all know I live to eat, this is a very important topic for me.

The very first thing we discovered is an amazing sandwich which they call either an italiano or a completo, depending on where you are. It consists of a type of meat - generally thinly sliced pork (lomo) or steak (churrasco) - plus what seems like an entire avocado, tomatoes, and mayonaisse (when it's called an italiano it's because those are colors of their flag). This is served on delicious roll-type bread that is always toasted. I always get it sin mayo and I'm telling you, I could eat one every day. In 14 days I've had at least 8 of them. A very popular variation - especially in Viña - is a hot dog covered in avocado (sometimes in guacamole format) and tons of mayo. I'll admit, a hot dog with avocado (palta) is more tasty than I ever thought possible. I guess the same goes for cream cheese hot dogs like we have in Seattle - you have to try it to believe it!

Speaking of mayo (which goes on almost everything) there is an abundance of wondrous potato salad here. They call it papas mayo. Now, those of you who know I have a dislike for mayo will be shocked to learn that I INHALE papas mayo. It usually consists of perfectly cooked potatoes, carrots, parsley, and of course mayo, and is often served on a bed of lettuce. (It should be said that carrots appear in most everything, as do parsley or cilantro, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and of course avocado.) This is a typical first course, usually with slices of tomato or cucumber and, sometimes, a slice of deli ham on top... don't ask. Of course, before they bring that they always put bread and salsa - spicy and also with parsley - on the table. So much better than butter as a spread, let me tell you.

If you can't do without your mantequilla, there is plenty of butter to be had at breakfast, which is a roll served with butter and/or jam, and either tea or Nescafe, which they drink everywhere. Luckily I am not a caffeine drinker and as such have not had to accustom myself to instant coffee. Either of these drinks, for a typical Chileno, would be accompanied by a mountain of sugar, which brings me to my next point: overload.

Chilenos, as far as I can tell, should all die early deaths from their salt and sugar intake. The saltiest dish you've ever tasted could be put in front of you, and the Chileno next to you is salting it while drinking a sugary bebida - they make fun of Americans for drinking water with meals. One girl said she had her water taken away from her and was told it was bad for her; she was given a coke instead. However, Chilenos seem to live long, healthy lives, and I have yet to see someone who is obese. This could be due to the freshness of everything. For example, before starting this blog I ate something called a dona, which is like a deep-fried donut cut in half, filled with cream, and covered in chocolate. Within 10 seconds the brown paper wrapping was soaked through by the oil, and yet I felt nearly healthy eating it compared to some of the sweets we're known to produce in the U.S. of A. I know there's nothing but known ingredients in my dona and that, if left unattended, it would start to decompose in a matter of days. (And, not to add insult to injury, but I ate it on and am now blogging from a sunny balcony with an awesome view.) (Speaking of housing... let's not. I'll update when there's an update to be had.)

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the empanadas. If you don't know what that is, it's like a savory pastry filled with... whatever. They are sold everywhere, including in mini markets and by streetside vendors. The weirdest kind is pino, which is ground or shredded beef plus a hard boiled egg and an olive (pit intact). The best kind is napolitana, which is tomatoes and cheese, but I'm an equal opportunity empanada eater and I've tried and enjoyed them all.

In addition to a mountain of sandwiches and empanadas, I've also been eating many delicous menus. This is a three- or four-course meal plus a drink that most places serve at lunch. Menus generally consist of salad (see above) and/or soup (usually Lipton, always salty), two or three entree choices, and a dessert which could be fruit, sorbet, milk pudding, or even Jello. The entrees are usually simply prepared cuts of beef or chicken with tasty gravy and either arroz (rice) or pure (mashed potatoes, pronounced 'pooray'). I love them both - the rice is garlicy and usually filled with carrots, and the potatoes usually taste like they're partially instant, which I secretly enjoy. As much chicken as I eat, my near-daily beef intake is sort of terrifying, and I'm trying not to think about it until I have a kitchen of my own.

Of course, it's not all meat. Chile has amazing seafood. Last night I went to my first fancy dinner with an Argentinian woman staying in the hostel. We found an awesome seafood place with three levels of balconies overlooking the ocean. We split a seafood soup, an incredible piece of salmon, and a "pricey" bottle of smooth Chilean wine. It has to be said, the seafood here (not to mention the wine) is to die for. I am a total salmon snob and I would argue that Chile's salmon is on par with and possibly even better than the Northwest's. It was probably a 3 star restaurant, and in the end I 'invited' her and paid a whopping $30,000 pesos, with tip: roughly $50. Bear in mind that Chile is South America's most expensive country - the same meal in Argentina could have been half as much. Only it would have been beef. Lots and lots of beef.

That was far and away the most I've spent on anything so far here. Usually my meals are between 1,000-3,000 pesos, or 2-6 dollars. Mom, you'll find it humorous to know that Chileans LOVE pizza and there are pizza places everywhere (the last meal I asked for in the U.S. was pizza, thinking I wouldn't have it again in a long time). Granted, it's not nearly the same, but as long as you think of it as Chilean pizza and not American, it's quite good.

Another popular ethnic cuisine here is Chinese food, which, I'll be honest, isn't very good. They do Italian better and serve pasta just about everywhere, but for the most part it's all Latino, all the time. So far I'm not sick of it, but I am definitely looking forward to having my own kitchen again. (Jacob, stand by to bring me spices I can't find here.)

That's all for now. Chaocito, as they say in Chile!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Greetings from Valparaíso and Viña del Mar

Hello again! I’ve finished my stay in Santiago and had an awesome time. We had a weeks’ worth of training on what is expected of us as teachers, which was mostly helpful but often repetitive. I’m grateful for the teaching experience I have since for a lot of people this marks the first time they’ve set foot in a classroom – those who have never taught and don’t speak Spanish are far braver than I!

My teaching schedule is AWESOME and I’m so relieved about it, especially considering some of the schedules other people got. I teach two beginner classes on Monday-Wednesday from 11:00-2:00, and three advanced classes on Tuesday-Thursday from 2:00-6:30. May I just say, w00t, especially since the campus is open until 11:45 pm (!!) and on Saturdays. One teacher has class until 11:45 Friday night and then teaches for 6 hours on Saturday starting at 8:00 am. Other teachers only have Sundays off, and still others don’t start classes until 7:30 at night. Of course, there’s always next semester for my schedule to suck, but for now I plan to enjoy it.

My first classes have gone extremely well so far. The campus is beautiful, the other teachers seem friend, and my students are all really sweet. Most of them belong to the school of tourism, which I think is fun, and so far are more than willing to participate in class. They also think I’m pretty funny which is nice since they’ll be comfortable talking in their beginner English (apparently students are sometimes nervous to make mistakes in front of a native speaker).

The hostel in Valparaiso has a lot of personality but is a bit dilapidated. My first night I showed up five minutes before the guest of honor at a surprise birthday party, so there was free wine and a huge asado (their word for barbecue: think delicious sausages, thick steaks, and potato salad – who says we’re so different?) which luckily ended right as I wanted to go to bed. The next morning I left for a beach further south to meet friends from my group. Although we all used sunscreen we were burned to a crisp after a shockingly short period of time. My students all got a good laugh out of the gringa’s sunburn. The sun really is stronger down here, partly for the hole in the ozone above us (eek!) and partly because it had rained for the first time in two months (can you imagine??) which diluted the pollution. Apparently in addition to giving us black lung, the smog also protects us from UV. Who knew? I learned that Santiago’s pollution gets even worse in the winter, so I’m doubly grateful to be on the ocean, although admittedly somewhat lonely now that I’ve left my new friends behind in the big city. There are other U.S. teachers staying at my hostel and teaching on my campus (there are a few organizations that place teachers in the same school systems) but it’s not the same – I never expected to get so attached to people after only a week.

I did get some good news for my sanity, and it has to do with daylight savings time. The five hours’ difference was because when the Northern hemisphere springs ahead, the Southern falls back, so we move two hours apart. Now we are only 4 hours ahead of Seattle, since y’all sprung forward but we didn’t fall back due to the electricity crisis. The Chilean government sort of decided to do this at the last minute and people weren’t necessarily well informed, and I’m not sure when it’ll happen, but one of these days we really will line up with the east coast! In addition to a power problem Chile is also experiencing its worst drought in 100 years. But hey, at least I’m not in Colombia, Venezuela, or Ecuador. It’s kind of ugly up there at the moment.

Speaking of ugly, someone tried to rob me on the metro in Santiago on Friday. After days of being warned that Chile has little violent crime but many thefts, I was careful to always hook my bag to a table or bench when sitting (we use these fun nylon straps) and to always hug my bag to my chest in a crowded public place, especially on public transportation. Well, the Metro is ALWAYS crowded in Santiago which blows my mind since the trains literally come every 2 minutes (although I guess a city with 6 million people - half the country’s population – can fill up lots of trains) so I was standing, as usual, hugging my bag, as usual, surrounded by a horde of people, as usual. It’s normal for thieves to work in pairs or groups, and this was a man-woman duo. She was in front of me, trying to distract me by acting like she was sick. He was next to me, holding his jacket over his arm so I couldn’t see his hand. It seemed suspicious so I pulled my bag away from him. I do have to say their timing is incredible – right as we were about to come to a full stop she made a big to do about getting around me (for no good reason – the door was in front of her) and pushed me into him, causing me to lose my grip on the bar and then fall back onto him as the train stopped. I righted myself and pulled my bag away again, but was again pushed when the train started rolling. Someone behind me said ‘déjala’ (leave it/her alone) and the two of them quickly got off at the next stop since their cover was blown. As soon as they left and there wasn’t anyone pushing me around, I noticed that my purse was hanging out of my bag, which was latched shut and snug against my body. Luckily they didn’t get anything, and if they had it only would have been my purse filled with chapstick, band-aids, and my cheap cell phone, since I keep my wallet in a zippered pocket. I literally couldn’t have taken any more precautions, and it was a good lesson for all of us to know what to watch out for. A similar thing happened to our program director on the same day, only that time it was four women and they DID get his wallet. He’s lived here for 5 years and it was a first for him. It just goes to show, the warnings are correct! I’d rather be robbed than stabbed though, so I’ll take the ladrones (thieves) over the violent criminals any day. Otherwise, the Chilenos have been helpful and polite, and it’s an interesting culture to get to know. They practically speak their own language consisting of chilenismos, which I will share once I understand them better.

Phew! This is pretty long. Just a few more random/funny things before I sign off. 1) The signs for meat shops randomly feature pictures of horses, which I find creepy. 2) Our hostel owner doesn’t speak English and as such his translated signs around the place are hilarious. The best is in the bathroom: “It extinguishes the lights and it closes the water faucet before it leaves.” Silence of the Lambs anyone? 3) I learned that the clean and well-fed feral dogs are not, in fact, feral, but simply house pets that wander the streets by day and don’t wear collars. I also learned that ‘está prohibída comer las mascotas’ in Chile, which means that eating pets is not allowed. Hmm.

Finally, I regret to inform you that I am still picture-less, this time because I can’t find my photo cord. I was sure I packed it and will hopefully find it when I move into a permanent location. (I started the housing search in vain today and was overwhelmed so quit to come back to blog. I fully plan on making a more concerted effort tomorrow.) If not I’ll have Jacob (who visits in a mere 3 weeks, yay!) to bring me one, among other things. So, pictures inside of three weeks, I promise.

Ok, that’s all for now. I hope this post finds everyone well and I can’t wait to talk to you all once I’m settled somewhere. Be sure to leave me comments or send me e-mails. ¡Hasta entonces!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Hola de Santiago

After months of planning and preparation I've finally arrived in Chile. My LAN flight was relatively uneventful - not a ton of leg room, but I was able to watch four movies and I sat next to a very nice lady, although the couple in front of me was stinky (literally) and made out quite a bit - those of you who know how I feel about PDA must know how much this got to me. My favorite part of the flight was when they informed us that not only are cell phones expressly forbidden, but so are remote control cars... I arrived in Santiago at about 6:30 am and, after 30 minutes standing outside my hostel waiting to be let in, was able to get a nap in before meeting the other people in my group. I was secretly hoping the people wouldn't be cool because I have to leave them all in a week (most people are teaching here in Santiago) but by and large everyone is fantastic. We've mostly been wandering around near the hostel but tomorrow I think we'll brave public transportation. Speaking of, the hostel is quaint and in a good location but leaves a few things to be desired; namely, a bit more space, any sort of air circulation, and another shower (there is one for 20 people, and it takes 10 minutes to drain...) Surprisingly it's not nearly as bad as it probably sounds and we're all quite good-humored about it.

In other news, Santiago is great. Within five minutes of arriving I was coughing, presumably from the smog, but either it's worse by the airport or I adjusted quickly because it hasn't bothered me since. Also, if you walk around outside for awhile you gather a film of dirt on your feet and any exposed skin, but it's no worse than New York. There are markets and street vendors everywhere, as well as a surplus of the most well-fed and well-behaved feral dogs I've found anywhere in the world. It's been about 85 degrees so I've had the chance to air my summer dress collection. Not too humid and I'm not bothered by the heat. In fact, I haven't been bothered by anything - I feel quite zen so far! The food is all I wanted it to be - amazing produce, fantastic wine, and deliciously tender meats. I had an incredible piece of salmon last night and everyone else's food (which of course I tried) was equally good. I was going to cook tonight but the supermarket was closed, so we'll have to venture back out to eat, which trust me will be a pleasure. (I love sidewalk eating.) We have a group meal tomorrow provided by the organization, so we'll meet the other people who are teaching in different organizations. Also, it turns out that even though no one else from my group will be at my campus in Viña del Mar, but other TIPS (teaching intern practicum students - aka us) teachers will be there from two other organizations. I'll meet them at training this week and have high hopes that they will be just as cool as the people in my group.

It turns out I was misguided when I was told Chile was on east coast time. It's actually 5 hours ahead of Seattle, so two hours ahead of what I was anticipating. It was confusing for about five minutes and then I had a head-slapping moment. So, keep that in mind if and when you call! I do have a cell phone but for some reason it isn't working so I have to take it back tomorrow. Once it's functional I'll share the number. It's free for me if you call, so get a good international plan!

I think that's all I have for now. Stay tuned! I hope all is well back home.