April 17, 2007
It’s getting colder in Santiago. Sunny, seventy-degree days quickly turn into wool sweater weather as the sun dips down behind the Cordillera. I find myself sleeping in fleece pants, wool socks and sweater every night.
I wrapped myself up in a slow and quiet weekend these last few days—equal parts fighting South American flu germs and losing time in a good book. The book: Gringo Trail. The story: three off-beat Brits travel through South America in search of self-awareness, social injustice and really good drug trips. I wasn’t expecting anything more from it than a bit of entertainment and maybe some travel advice. But instead it turned into one of those books you can’t stop reading—the one you’re glad you have when you incidentally have insomnia one night and then get up and read til 4am with your camping headlamp so as not to disturb your Floridian roommate. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.
So my Saturday was shot. I escaped from the house at 5:30pm or so with a bad case of cabin fever and with nothing better to do, rode the metro into the center to try and find someone to hang out with. I wandered into Plaza Italia at dusk—just as the sun was setting fire to a thousand cracked clouds. I sat down on a park bench in the midst of a river of busy pedestrians and watched the most amazing sunset I’ve seen yet in South America. Having my ipod with me and Sufjan Stevens in my ear didn’t hurt either.
It’s good to have familiarity here—Sufjan Stevens or a good pirated American movie... As much as I sometimes wish I could, I am not one who can lose myself in another culture. I cannot have a foreign boyfriend, (even if only for the sake of learning more Spanish, as some do…) prefer foreign foods, or dream of setting up camp in a small foreign pueblo. It’s all just too foreign. I know—I see it. The smirks on some of your faces…aren’t I always diving into cross-cultural activities and going to Lebanese cooking classes and salsa lessons and dreaming of all the countries I want to visit. Guilty. But somehow I like all the foreign stuff so much more in my own country—where it’s different and exotic. Rather than being away where I am different and exotic (yet no one seems to be interested one way or another in us foreigners).
Deep down and always I am a northwest girl. And I think maybe I always will be.
Overall I think Chileans are crazy. Well, let me rephrase—I think people from Santiago are crazy. The north and the south of Chile are dominated by indigenous descendants and seem to have a pace and way of life that is much more connected with the Earth. Santiago is crowded, polluted and up to its eyeballs in conspicuous consumerism. Foreign companies dominate here and Santiaguinos have been well-trained to respond to consumeristic ques. It’s sad to see the obvious signs of American business practice at work here—and the full swing of Chilean participation.
My book, Gringo Trail, gave me a lot of insight on some of these issues. Not for Chile since the crazy Brit travelers in the book never made it this far South, but for Latin America in general—the history and social reality of the continent. The divide between the ‘latinos’ who are eager to model European social culture, and the ‘indigenas’ who support the latino, European and American way of life by working the mines, the factories, the timber outfits and the tour operations. Living the legacy of post-colonial subsistence as slaves to whatever industry will bring in a few pesos.
It’s fascinating, the themes this book points out…How the indigenous peoples of the Americas consistently have a culture of animistic, nature-worshiping religious practice. These cultures survived for hundreds or thousands of years with complex societies that centered on awareness and respect of self, the Earth, and the Other (spiritual). They maintained complex manners of agriculture which guaranteed crop rotation and diverse diets while sustaining a deep spiritual connection with the place they lived, through animals and nature.
European societies and their colonialist descendents, on the other hand, developed farming methods that overused and exhausted the soil, favored mass crops rather than diversification, practiced Christian and Judaic religions which elevated people and God above the Earth and nature, and generally exploited conquered peoples and raw resources. All of this leading to philosophies of commodification and industrialization and a disconnect from structures of respect and balance.
Obviously it’s easier for Europeans (or Euro descendents, for that matter) to poke holes in the shortcomings of our own society without equal ability to do so to that of indigenous culture. But if only to see, by comparison, the ways in which our culture may be imbalanced or impoverished, it is worth a good look at how we’ve evolved.
South America is an incredible research lab.
Drugs, politics, religion, spirituality, nature, conquest, globalization, social classes, nepotism, racism, resource exploitation…It seems as if there are thousands of open stories flowing here—raw and eager. Redundant in their echo of ‘the eternal human condition’, yet no less captivating as a means to understand how these problems change, yet stay exactly the same.
I’m getting the chance to do a lot of reading here. Always by nature I’m caught up in history and politics…religion, sociology, philosophy. Being here makes these stories and these situations so much more significant. Dictatorships and disappearances. Gold mines dug out beneath peoples’ feet. Socialist presidents refusing petroleum access. Communist protests and police bribes. If these things happen where I’m from then I’m definitely a bit dense and very unaware. Yet here it’s business as usual…
Walking by the Chilean counterpart of Walmart everyday, this place seems both eerily familiar and uncomfortably foreign all at the same time.