Monday, June 04, 2007

smoggy in santiago

this week.
This week for me started Sunday night at Maestra Vida with salsa dancing. First, the intermediate class at 9pm which I still struggle to keep up with, but only occasionally do I step on someone’s foot or fully bodyslam another couple—yes, I really am improving.
I’m also learning salsa commands in Spanish. Kind-of. Hence the occasional bodyslam.
Maestra Vida may be my favorite place in all of Chile…we go every Thursday night for live music and salsa and Sundays for the class and dancing til 4am. I’m working on making friends with Hugo the doorman who smokes Cuban cigars and with his cap and goatee, looks like he must belong to some sort of latin revolution. And then there’s Matias, the bartender, who is teaching me all about latin music and Chilean theater.
When I’m at Maestra Vida, I take a big, deep, breath, and smile.
It’s one of those one-of-a-kind places that only fits exactly where it is—big murals of people, laughing, dancing, colors, splashed on every wall. Small, rough wooden tables adorned with a single white candle in a rusted, wax-drenched holder. Colombian drums, churrango guitars, trumpets, more trumpets and people singing along.
Besides spending a lot of time here with my closest volunteer friends, I also have met nearly all of my latin friends there as well—Chilean and even a few Cubans.

Monday…started another week at the Aldea. Daily activities at the hogar include helping girls with their homework—usually English, helping out in our new computer lab, or just hanging out watching Chilean telenovelas (soap operas) or doing arts and crafts.
There’s little volunteer support or structure at my particular hogar (our organization staffs 14 hogars that all have very different structures) which has its perks and its drawbacks. It means I can do just about any project I want—like make pinatas! But than it also means that all of a sudden I find myself alone with a dozen girls, 2 candy-stuffed pinatas and large, swinging sticks. Those are the times I wonder if I’ve really thought things through…

Tuesday and Wednesday—both really good days. I taught my creative writing workshop Tuesday with 5 girls and we did some response writing with random words I chose from a book of Spanish short stories and then wrote stories together as I dictated to them various colors, feelings and places to guide the ideas of their stories. Then we read the stories out loud—lots of laughter—and discussed our next meeting, maybe a play? The girls are stoked about putting together a theater 

Wednesday I took two girls to another hogar, the baby house, so that the girls from my hogar could help out there as volunteers with the babies and toddlers. They’ve been asking me about going for months new, so when I woke up that morning with fever chills and a cough that could wake the dead, I just put on 3 layers of every type of clothing I owned and convinced myself to visualize Havana.

Winter in Santiago is miserable. Add to the steep changes in temperature and the lack of heating, the cloud of perma-smog over the city and the fact that this is one of the 15 most polluted cities in the world. There are daily environmental alert levels to warn people against doing activities out-of-doors (such as anything involving breathing). This means that everyone is either on the verge of, in the midst of, or recovering from, bronchitis. Like I said, it hit me Wednesday…so I get to be in the recovering category—for now.

Still, I played with the babies and toddlers without too much worry. Without any heat in their house or sufficient clothing they are all mostly more sick than I am. And to give you an idea of what a house with tile floors and no heat feels like—I was wearing 2 shirts, a wool sweater, a down vest, a thick ski parka, a wool hat, wool scarf, tights, pants, thick socks and shoes, and still, I was shivering. Crazy. Somehow I think they more or less adapt.
In my room at home I have a gas space heater which is a life-saver in the hours before bed or especially right after a shower. But going into other parts of the house or, for example, using the toilet, can be brutal—like that feeling you get if someone puts ice down your back.
We don’t have hot water on demand. To take a shower we light a furnace to supply the hot water—but luckily our house actually can count on hot water from our furnace…more than you can say about a lot of houses, from what I’ve heard. Never do you use hot water to wash hands or dishes.
Every Chilean home has a plug-in hot water warmer for tea and coffee, both of which you drink numerous times a day and is lovingly referred to as, ‘tecito’ or ‘cafecito’. Either Nescafe instant or Tea Supreme—green or black. Today I splurged and put fresh lemon in my tea.
It is never quiet here. If you don’t hear the traffic from the nearest street, then you certainly hear the chorus of neighborhood dogs. Our home contributes three dogs to that chorus at the moment, but that could grow if my house mom gets a little tipsy again and brings home another street dog. The latest one—Perla—is so not accustomed to life behind a gate that she wails like a banshee all night long—just outside my window.
I share a room with my Floridian roommate, Jess, and our aforementioned space heater—an R2D2-looking thing that we both adore. She’s here just one more week and then maybe another volunteer will move in to take her space—I’m not sure how I feel about that.
I have a map of southern South America hanging on my wall that’s about the size of, well, about the size of the entire wall. I also have an Ansel Adams calendar, various postcards, pictures of friends and family, another calendar of cats and a couple of artistic photos taken by girls at my hogar and displayed at a photo exposition in a local academy of photography here in Santiago (another volunteer organized the exposition to display the girls’ work—really, really amazing). I also usually have clothing slung across my closet door to air out the smell of smoke from going dancing. Although between Maestra Vida, the air contamination and my Chilean mother burning incense, I wonder if I ever really stop smelling like smoke…?
The food is consistent—lots of bread or variations on bread, like fried dough. Street vendors sell empanadas (fried meat or cheese pies) or sopaipillas (fried dough with mustard and salsas). Quick food from a restaurant is some variation of a sandwich with slices of beef, avocado, tomato and mayo. They love mayo. Love mayo. You can also find a kiosk about every 7 feet or so selling every kind of candy, cookie, potato chip, or sugary soda-ish thing. Sweet popcorn is also a very big deal.
Their public transportation system, although lauded by NPR, is a mess. They brought in all sorts of consultants from Bogota, Colombia to try and iron things out, but still ‘Transantiago’ is the topic of daily newspaper rantings and the victim of every communist protest. The trains are always overcrowded, bus service is intermittent and they have no monthly pass, which means public transport gets expensive, fast. You’re only other option for transportation is the municipality buses, which can actually be a lot of fun…If you ever hop on one during rush hour (if they agree to stop for you) you’ll undoubtedly spend at least the beginning of the ride with your backside hanging out the door, until enough people can get off and you can push in and some other guy can have his backside hanging out the door. If you’re lucky, you’ll make it up to the front of the bus by the engine and get to warm your hands on the dashboard.

So after all of this—who wants to come visit??! After reading through some of it, it sounds like I might hate it here…But no, the opposite actually. Maybe because when a place is so quirky it just settles into you and you can’t imagine life being quiet and smooth and ‘normal’ like it is at home. I do wish I had heat—I’ll admit that.
Anyway. Just wanted to give an idea of what I do here and how I do it rather than the random things I think about. I’ll be putting some pictures up as well to give a visual of the photo expo and more of the girls at the Aldea…maybe even Maestra Vida 

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