Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day

On April 22, 1993 – Earth Day 15 years ago – I went to Taco Time with my family for a delicious crispy burrito and mexifries. That day, my meal also came with a tiny evergreen sapling of a tree that I named Herb and planted in my parents’ backyard. Today, Herb must be 100 feet tall and growing. That is my earliest and most lasting memory of Earth day.

Sometimes I get the impression that people think I take things too seriously, that the little bits I obsess over every day don’t make a difference. I think that’s too bad, because they do make a difference and even if they ultimately don’t (which I will never concede because they do) they make a difference in that I feel good doing them, feel good caring about something that is bigger than me. So here it is, borrowed from David’s popular blog method, my top five things we can do to make the world a better place. They are all things I do (or have done when my life permitted it) that make me feel good about myself, and that you can easily add to your daily routine.

5) Compost.

This is really easy for those of you with yard waste, since anything you can compost you can put in the yard waste bin. In fact, in most areas, if you pay for yard waste service you can pick up mulch made from the area’s combined compostables for free! If you don’t have access to this service, never fear; it’s a bit more work for you but nonetheless relatively simple to build or buy a compost bin from which to make your own rich compost. See www.howtocompost.org for help.

Lots of the things we toss into the garbage are compostable: to wit, about 40% of landfill material could have been composted instead (which also would have cut down on the methane that landfills emit). Paper products (napkins, tissues, paper plates, paper towels), egg shells, any and all parts of vegetables and fruits, cooked and raw rice and grains, stale breads, chips, crackers, and baked goods are all compostable. Pretty much the only organic items you can’t compost are meat and dairy products. So, have three receptacles instead of two: garbage, recycle, and compost. It’s fun and easy!

If you can’t commit to composting, you can do one very easy thing differently with these compostable items: don’t put them in your garbage disposal. Adding solid waste to liquid waste pollutes our water resources. It also increases the cost of treating water in sewage systems, uses unnecessary electricity, increases our water use, and in general costs more - environmentally and fiscally – than simply throwing that waste out or composting it instead. If you don't believe me, think about this: some cities have already banned the installation of new garbage disposals.

4) Use fewer paper goods.

Each U.S. citizen uses, on average, 749 pounds of paper products per year (!!) (for other paper- and recycling-related facts, go here: http://www.resourcefulschools.org/facts.html). This figure is mind-boggling to me, so I’d like to invite you each to take the Paper Product Challenge. Spend one week actually thinking about each paper product you’re going to use before using it. This includes: grabbing a napkin at a meal – can you get by using only one? Wiping a counter clean – might you really only need half a paper towel? (I often rip paper towels as small as fourths, if that’s all I need.) If you must use a paper plate, is there only one plate or have two or three stuck together? And yes, even going to the rest room – most of us are guilty of using more than is necessary most of the time. I’m confident that after seven days you will have altered your paper product consumption, which will ultimately save you money on paper product purchases. Ppppp.

3) Bag it.

In the U.S. it is estimated that we use 60,000 plastic bags EVERY FIVE SECONDS. Worldwide, we use 1 million bags each MINUTE. Is anyone else appalled by this? (For other interesting facts about plastic bags, including how some countries have combated them, click here: http://www.reusablebags.com/facts.php?id=4) Here are a few things we can do to help out the plastic trees.

First, bring your own bags whenever possible. Whether you reuse old bags or buy cloth or mesh bags, the most important thing is to bring your own to avoid adding new bags to landfills. Second, be very aware of how your items are bagged. Sometimes you might not even need a bag. Most of the time you only need a single plastic (they’re sturdier than they look), and even more of the time all of your items can fit into fewer bags. Don’t be afraid to speak up during the bagging process and say ‘make them heavy’ or ‘please don’t double bag them.’ In fact, I usually bag my own groceries, which is sort of a fun puzzle and reduces the number of times I have to request they not give me 7 bags for 5 items. Finally, bring plastic bags back to grocery stores or other participating outlets and recycle them – believe it or not, you can recycle plastic bags, but you have to take them to a designated bin, usually at the back of most grocery stores.

2) Turn the water off!

This is probably my biggest shudder-inducing wasteful behavior. Despite this being the Number One “Save the Earth” provision taught to us from a very young age, it is disturbing how many people discard such a simple rule of thumb, so I think it bears repeating: Shut the water off between uses. The water doesn’t need to run while you’re sudsing up a plate, brushing your teeth, or washing your face. We don’t need to shower ever day (shock!), and we certainly don’t need showers that last longer than 10 minutes (15 for those of us who observe the ‘don’t shower daily’ rule). If you think there isn’t a water shortage, think again, especially those of you in drought-prone areas (is anyone else concerned about the Southwest?). Furthermore, heating water uses electricity, which is a huge contributor to – yes, skeptical readers, here it comes – global warming. Any effort you can make to reduce your electricity use – including switching to incandescent light bulbs, unplugging appliances when not in use, and turning lights and other gadgets off when not in the room – will help you do your small part to save the world (not to mention save you money on your electricity bill). Here's another Web site I like that gives 50 tips to help adjust your lifestyle to be more Earth-friendly. Even if you only do one or two of them, it's better than doing nothing: http://globalwarming-facts.info/50-tips.html

And, now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, my number one way to improve the world:

1) Smile at people.

If you thought these would all be environmental tips, you were right! This is the tip that will have the most noticeable and immediate effects. Smiling at one another greatly improves our shared environment. Now, before you write this one off as far too corny, consider this: how often does a stranger smile at you, and how does it make you feel when it happens? It gives me a tingly feeling, like all is right with the world. On the other hand, when people project their anger onto others, it can ruin an entire day for no good reason. Think of the concentric circles our actions, both positive and negative, can create among one another. If you think no one is paying attention to you and how you behave, you’re wrong. This goes doubly, I think, for ‘poor people’: just because you aren’t going to give them money doesn’t mean you can’t give them respect and a smile.

I really tried to write this without being preachy, and instead offer practical, useful solutions to the “What can I do to help?” question that seems to be increasingly on a lot of people’s minds. Here’s your chance to get the warm fuzzies by being a good global and local citizen.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this post to Justin Hellier and Matt Roberts, two people who care more and do more for the Earth than almost anyone I know:

Happy Earth Day!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

First visitor, Argentina, and photos (finally!)

My friend Jacob Stone is in town at last and about halfway through his visit. So far we've been getting along remarkably well considering we're both strong willed and sharing a small apartment. We've been telling everyone we're cousins because it's a much easier relationship to understand than "Friends. Yep, friends. Yes, we really are just friends." I met him in Santiago last Saturday and we spent a good day exploring the city, plus a night of drinking with my Santiago friends. It was pretty hot there so it was nice to get back to Valparaíso where the sun was shining but there was also a nice ocean breeze. So far he's been able to spend a day at the beach and is hooked, but I keep warning him that the weather will turn any day.

This past weekend we were in Buenos Aires and it is an incredible city. The weather was mostly good and we were on foot for a lot of it, wandering through its many neighborhoods and sampling a variety of Argentine cuisine (read: beef). We did a few obligatory tourist things - took in a tango show, during which I was involuntarily made to dance - and also got around to a few off-the-beaten-path activities like biking around a lovely ecological reserve that was built on top of a landfill. We went shopping - he found a store called Stone and bought merchandise branded with his last name - and I got two pairs of shoes made from genuine Argentina leather. We were also able to meet up with a friend of mine, Paula, and it was nice to get a local's perspective. To us it felt like Europe meets New York, two places I love. All in all it's definitely a city I want to revisit. I can see why so many people choose to move there, although I do have to say the accent got on my nerves... all Ls become Js in Argentinianease.

By pure happenstance we were there for the arrival of the Olympic fire, so we saw the running of the torch through downtown on Friday April 11. I heard there have been some crazy protests in other cities - London, Paris, San Francisco - and there were definitely some demonstrations, but the police kept them confined to a small area and completely surrounded with riot-gear-clad officers. For our part we weren't sure if we were pro or against until we were forced to move from our perfectly staked-out spot (two hours in advance!) because the local Chinese organizers demanded the police relocate any non-Chinese to less than choice spots, presumably for the newscast but also for posterity I'm guessing. It was sort of a bummer, especially considering it was the only stop the torch made in South America and locals weren't even welcome to watch it from their own sidewalks (not that we were locals, but plenty of Argentines were moved as well).

Anyway, the actual torch running was pretty intense, once it finally came through. I had no idea it would be preceded by busloads of media, athletes, and school-age youth, though I could have predicted the abundance of police enforcement, many of whom seemed to have gone completely insane on four-wheelers, often driving against traffic and into pedestrians. The athlete with the torch was surrounded by a human chain - literally twenty or so people running with arms interlinked - to protect him from the masses, plus an additional outer circle of various athletes, plus a crush of military and police officers. The word 'mayhem' seems appropriate to describe the two minutes or so it took for the torch to move by and past where we were standing. We were lucky to see the fire actually passed from one athlete (apparently a famous soccer player) to another, which was pretty cool. For the video Jacob was able to take of the torch, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5hWDpEV7p0

We didn't have much time in B.A. and spent pretty much an entire day on the torch, but ultimately it was worth it for the unique experience. I can always go back to B.A., but probably not when the Olympic torch will be passing through it.

We spent today lazing around, giving our feet a break, doing laundry and uploading photos. Speaking of, exciting news! I finally have a way to transfer photos from my camera to my computer, and they are posted on flickr for your viewing pleasure: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vidadesconocida/

The shots date all the way back to my birthday and include my apartment here as well as Santiago and Argetina (plus a bonus shot of my sweet bruise), so be sure to check them out. I am still working on finding photo resizing software, and once I get that settled I'll start posting pictures to the actual blog. Imagine that, more than just me rambling on in text format!

Speaking of photos, Jacob has done an incredible (read: obsessive) job of documenting his trip thus far, so if my photos don't quite satisfy that photo urge, feel free to check out his: http://redorangeyellow.smugmug.com/gallery/4651652_K2Erc#274663129_z6fSr

The weather here is still holding out, though today was quite windy. Fall is definitely upon us, which makes me especially jealous that you are all about to enter spring.

I don't have much else to say so I'll make this a (relatively) short post. As always I hope everything back home is well, and I encourage you to post comments on my blog so I know you're reading. Questions, comments, concerns are all welcome!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Gringa Observations, or "Please don't call me fat!"

I’ve decided to celebrate this April Fool’s Day – which they blessedly do not observe in Chile – with a list of things they DO have. I just got Internet access from my darling neighbors upstairs, so I'm ready to blog at will. (Instead of paying them I’m giving the French boyfriend English lessons. I love the barter system.)

It’s hard to believe I’ve been here more than 4 weeks, which is 1/10th of the total time I will spend here, which seems like a lot. Here are a few of the observations I’ve made during the last month.

First, Chile seems to be a fairly rude culture. Everyone here stares with reckless abandon. I have gotten into the habit of staring back, which seems effective, but it also makes them uncomfortable because they don’t even realize staring is rude in the first place. Also, an alternately amusing and annoying characteristic is that Chileans love to cut in line, especially old ladies.

People here are not necessarily considerate of feelings. For instance, a common nickname here is gordo or gordito (gorda for women) which literally means “ fatty.” My personal favorite example of the rude gene was when I went to pick up my Chilean ID card. As the woman handed it to me she told me the picture was ugly and made me look 10 years older, neither of which I think is true but that’s Chile for you. It doesn’t help that working at the Civil Registry is akin to working at the DMV in the states…

Second, this country is completely plastic happy. Every single grocery store trip results in an abundance of plastic, and no matter how hard I fight it I always get double bags, which I promptly remove and leave at the register, though I’m convinced they just throw them away. So far, bringing my own bags has not been a very welcome habit. Alternately, buying something from a department store not only results in excessive plastic bags, but they obsessively cover every square inch of the bag’s opening with security tape, rendering it completely useless as a garbage sack, for instance. One excellent characteristic of my building is that I can recycle here, and I do take some sick comfort in watching the wretched poor sift through garbage every night retrieving recyclable items (it’s a living?) but for the most part Chile has some work to do on the recycling front (not to mention the class divide).

Speaking of buying things… this is something I actually find pretty hilarious. Any time you go into a small store to buy something - a bottle of water, avocadoes, or an empanada, for example - you have to order from one person, who gives you a tiny receipt, which you then have to take to the cashier’s box, who stamps the receipt indicating that you paid, and then you have to finally return to the original person to present the receipt and retrieve your items. I have dozens of tiny slips of paper cluttering my purse for amounts less than a dollar, which I must say doesn't go so far these days.

On to fashion… or, that is, lack thereof. Chileans seem to be surfing the same fashion wave that swept Europe about 6 years ago, which if you were in Europe during this time period, you know was dominated by gypsy scarves and, you guessed it, mullets. I love the Euro mullet and it is everywhere here. I went to get a haircut the other day and the woman actually asked me if I wanted it ‘shorter in front, longer in back.’ I've never gesticulated "no" so wildly in my life. They also have the leggings / general 1980s theme going on, which I can’t fault them for since the U.S. is suffering the same trend.

It has to be said, Chile speaks its own language. I have an entire book of “Chilenismos” and even people from other South American countries have a hard time following the natives' speech. Sometimes it’s frustrating because Chileans aren’t necessarily good at speaking slowly or clearly in the presence of a foreigner – even when you ask them to. Also, they have this interesting habit of adding “bo” or “po” to the end of anything and everything – actors, news anchors, and even politicians do it! So, for example, si becomes sibo, no becomes nopo, and even something like te llamo (I’ll call you) becomes te llamopo. It’s a strange thing to get used to but it always makes me smile.

I know I focused a lot on food before, which led some people to be concerned about my cholesterol / weight / health in general. What I neglected to mention is the fabulous agriculture, and that I eat my weight in fruits and vegetables every day. Next time you go to the grocery store, check the fruit stickers and count how many come from Chile. Unfortunately the greenery is being threatened with a severe drought, which is also leading to an energy crisis that makes the nightly news. (For as much as I hate the local news in the states, I never miss a Mega Noticias program on my fuzzy TV.) I can’t tell you how much electricity costs down here. If you turn on a light in the daytime and someone sees you, you can be sure that light will promptly be turned off and you will be scolded. The government is even encouraging everyone to unplug their appliances when not in use (which use up a surprising amount of energy). However, this drought hasn’t really led to any reduction in watering as far as I can tell; every day, in peak sunlight hours, I see gardeners watering plants, grass, and even tiles and sidewalks – always with hoses, as the sprinkler system has yet to make its way this far south. (I think it’s a method of employing people, actually.)

It may seem like I’ve focused on the negative here, but most of it isn’t positive or negative – it’s just different. And, to leave you with a more fair and accurate depiction of the locals, here are a few of their more sellable features. First, they are uniformly generous. Everyone donates to everyone else in the street, from panhandlers to street performers to volunteer firemen, and even to boys begging for money to go to the stadium to watch their fútbol team play (though I should note that people only give to boys who support the same team they do). Also, they are kind and patient, which I’ve witnessed over and over firsthand as I’ve struggled through the language, and countless times secondhand as a feral dog sprawled in the middle of the sidewalk during rush hour has delicately been stepped over and around by hordes of people.

It is also a notably affectionate culture, where kisses on the cheek serve as greetings and people who have been married for half a century still neck in the parks. (Don't get me started, however, on the many teenagers doing the same.) It is likely this affection - not to mention the fact that something like 90% of Chile is Catholic - that has led to what can only be described as a perma baby boom.

Finally, it should be noted that anyone my age or older lived during a cruel and terrifying dictatorship, and for that alone should be pardoned many misgivings. This is part of why I let old ladies cut in front of me in line. The other part is that I don’t yet know how to say “I was in line first” in Chilean Spanish.