Sunday, May 18, 2008

Various National Crises

Where to start? It would be easier if any news had reached the upper hemisphere, but Latin America is eerily absent from the media in North America. I suspect this stems from the U.S.’s less than savory “investments” in the continent stemming back decades, or perhaps we are genuinely uninterested so news networks don't bother. At any rate, allow me to update you from my semi-local perspective.

First, I do know that some news of the volcanic eruption here – even amid cyclones and earthquakes in Asia, admittedly much more impactful events – has been publicized. The volcano in question, Chaitén, is in the Lake District in the south of Chile and was considered dormant before it started spewing ash on May 3 (its last eruption was 9,000 years ago). It has been erupting constantly since then, and most experts predict it will collapse any day – in fact, it’s incredible it hasn’t already. The ash is blowing southeast, so Argentina is also being hit pretty hard, and it has reached as far as Africa. This is an actual NASA image taken a few days after the eruption started:

This next one has become a famous image of a little-understood storm phenomenon that often happens during an ash-only eruption:

All local residents have long since been evacuated, of course, but the sad truth is that they will probably never be able to go back. The ash is not the soft, melty kind that falls off incense sticks or cigarettes; it’s more like concrete, and the pouring rain is not helping. The region may not be habitable again for decades, if ever.

It’s harder to evacuate animals but most of these people are farmers to some extent, so plenty of cattle and sheep – not to mention the pets that weren’t allowed to be evacuated with their owners – are slowly being transported from the area, though a great many have died and will continue to die. Unfortunately these are some of the poorest people in the country and they have lost everything. No amount of government aid will help them rebuild their lives, though the government, as far as I can tell, has been pretty committed to helping out, suspending all taxes and interest on debt in addition to providing stipends until they can get back on their feet.

Like all tragedies, the best of human nature has been put on display, with complete strangers opening their homes to one or more displaced families, but there are always those who try to profit, and many have unfairly inflated rent in safe areas for those who need a place to live.

While it’s raining on the least convenient sector, the rest of the country is parched. The drought and energy crisis continue unabated. It has rained only twice in this region since December, and a large percentage of the country’s energy comes from hydropower. Unfortunately Chile has vast potential for solar, wind, and other renewable energies, but as yet has left them practically untapped. Other countries are having their own issues, and Argentina (which would merit a whole post on its own) recently cut northern Chile off, so to speak. So, the climate here is conserve, conserve, conserve, though not in as many ways as it could be done (cutting back on plastic bag usage, for example, which need a ton of oil and energy to create). It recently became painfully obvious that there is no heat in our classrooms, and my students sit shivering while I teach in fingerless gloves (so I can still write on the board) and my coat. I may start bringing my portable heater to school…

Speaking of school, holy protests! I knew that Latin America was gung-ho about demonstrating, but Chile has blown me away with its endless capacity to protest. Lately it’s been mostly students – common this time of year, I’m told – and they’re specifically fighting against an increase in their public transportation fare, among other system-related issues. It started weeks ago with daily walk-outs and marches, and last week reached a new level when students started taking over schools (also, apparently, common). Valparaíso is pretty much school central, and there are about six universities a stone’s throw from my apartment that are en toma, or “taken” by students. Apparently, if students decide through a democratic process that they want to take over the school, university officials pretty much let them. There’s no police force or interference, and you wouldn’t really know there was anything different except for the banners hung from windows and the fact that no classes are in session. Students eat, sleep, and hang out inside the school; they have the keys, and they choose who to let in and who to keep out. Negotiators frequent the schools, trying to strike a favorable compromise.

In the meantime, bus drivers are angry because the increased fare means more money for them, which isn’t totally unreasonable considering the rising price of oil, and THEY have started staging their own day-long strikes here and there. If they strike for more than a day, by their union agreement they are fined, but this week it looks like they’re going to start a strike and continue indefinitely. My school is private and therefore not greatly affected by protests, but when the bus drivers strike, attendance is meager. I’ve been told the protests will come to a head on Wednesday, which is Día de los Héroes, the anniversary of a naval battle in the northern city of Iquique. I’m not exactly sure what it has to do with student protests, but it’s a national holiday, and it will be interesting to see what there is to see from my excellent vantage point above some of the most protest-filled streets. Also on this day, president Michelle Bachelet will visit Valparaíso in honor of the holiday (not sure why she isn’t going to Iquique…) and as a result there has been a local crisis regarding street animals. To make the city as ‘clean’ as possible for the national spotlight, there is widespread belief that local strays will be rounded up and euthanized. This idea has been mostly condemned by the general population, and stencil graffiti proclaiming animal amnesty is abundant. We will see what ends up happening.

I’d like to close with what I consider a crisis of national decorum. Chile’s motto might as well be “the world is my bathroom.” At first I tried not to let it get to me, but the constant and shameless urination, at all times of day and in all parts of the city, not just shadowy corners or dark alleys, has become a major sore point for me. There is no attempt to hide what one is doing even in broad daylight. Having to step over streams and puddles, sometimes as they are being generated, is, in a word, foul. I live in fear that someone will catch a scowl and turn the stream on me. I admire New Orleans for really only enforcing the one law that matters when there are thousands of people in the streets, and that is absolutely, unequivocally, NO PUBLIC URINATION. Lest you have forgotten that it has barely rained here in months, every square inch of sidewalk that I walk on every day has, at least once and more likely a dozen or more times, been peed on and not washed off. Does this city smell like urine? Yes it does. Is anyone the least bit embarrassed or sheepish about it, not to mention completely disgusted? Seemingly not. While this is by far the least important (and least perceived) national crisis, it nonetheless speaks volumes about the culture, both in the sin verguenzas who engage in the activity, and the rest who don’t make a peep about it.

Next week’s blog will be lighter, I promise, with zero toilet references, as I highlight the impressive stream of visitors I will have had by then. I hope all are well! I’ll leave you with a renewed call for comments. I love reading them and get so few, so if you’re a long time reader and no time commenter, please give a shout out.

**Editor's note, 12 hours later: It's pouring rain.


Pat said...

ok - you caught me. I am a long time reader and no time commenter. hi! I came across your blog because I was reading the blog of another American who is also down there teaching (Lucas). When both of you recounted the story of you almost having your purse stolen while biking, someone commented on Lucas' blog that you were also blogging. So now I read both - and I'm learning so much. Thank you! I look forward to your terrific posts.

ElizaBeth said...

Welcome, Pat! I enjoy reading Lucas's blog, so I'm happy to have his readers reading mine.

Auntie Sandy said...

Hi Beth,
I'm afraid I'm a sporadic reader and never-blogger, but caught this latest (and yes, icky) state of affairs. I'm thinking of you and "Beth's Excellent Adventure." You will have so much to tell your grandkids someday. Let me know if "Cousin Jeff" shows up in your neck of the woods.
Love & Hugs,
Auntie S

ElizaBeth said...

I should probably mention that only family and stubborn friends still call me Beth... in Chile, I've been given the nickname Eli (like Ellie but in Spanish) so if Elizabeth is too cumbersome I invite any and everyone to use that instead! I also approve of any derivation of Archer.

Mary said...

OK, I'm the one who named you, so I'm gonna call you Beth. Just an editorial comment.

Keep these posts coming. I'm living vicariously through you!