There was much to do in chile, and still more to talk about. First we covered New York (there was far less news of home than there was of my brother’s exchange), and then we talked of Chile. Chile, Chile, Chile… The place was hazy (rampant smog), mountainous (those Andes! enchanting…), and cold, much colder than I or my brother anticipated. Though the afternoons reached nearly seventy, the mornings and evenings plunged into the mid thirties. It’s currently winter in Santiago, and my brother arrived there three months ago. He only brought a pair of denim jackets. I arrived last Sunday, and I only brought a pair of wool sweaters. (Yes, our apparel tastes are reflected quite aptly there if you were wondering). I was to spend the week with Nicolai and his intercambio Fran (a twelfth grader in the Santiago Waldorf school) at Fran’s house in the semi suburban neighborhood of La Reina.
La Reina— “the queen.” What queen, I wondered? Did it refer to the Spanish monarchs who presided over Chile during its colonial years, via a system of viceroys? Did it refer to an Inca queen who (more justly) held power in the region before that? Modern Chile has had no monarchy, but it did have a dictatorship— I visited the museum devoted to it in Santiago: “Museo de la Memoria,” where we saw black and white video clips of tanks projecting spumes of gas into multitudes of protesting citizens. It was a rather gruesome morning as holiday sightseeing goes (28,000 Chileans tortured, 2,279 executed, and 1,248 missing between 1972 and 1990), but in my inquisitiveness about the identity and mentality of this cryptic country I was ready to devour any information or imagery that might help me understand it.
Chile, though, proved a rather finicky thing to study. Something about it felt to me sort of primal and primitive; sequestered. The Chile I saw was devoid of the recreational trappings and luxuries of my suburban upbringing, and free of the societal stresses— the stigmas and the standards— imposed on individuals in a refined business arena such as New York. People here weren’t as concerned with (or defined by) prestigious advancements in some abstract career track. Nor were they concerned, in their daily lives, with the minutiae of lawfulness (as evidencedby the way my brother and his Chilean friends simply don’t pay bus fare when they ride the city buses) or cleanliness (demonstrated by the bemusing habit Fran’s dog had of pooping in the corner of the dining room every morning, unprevented and unpunished).
But what rather took me by surprise was the unmistakeable air of struggle in the country; of seeking, of irresolution. Perhaps it was leftover from the dictatorship, which still figures strongly in the national consciousness (grandparents and parents of current Chilean men and women are still missing, unaccounted for even 26 years after the fall of the regime.) Perhaps it’s just the way things have always been. I’m not one to say— given my short time here and my minimal exposure to the local reality, I can’t really draw conclusions. But I can share impressions, and I say that my impression last week was of a country still very much developing— still determining its stance on democracy and globalization; as we speak constructing (or reconstructing?) its identity. Chile is steeped in passion, and achingly stolid. It is going somewhere— it’s just not there yet.
I witnessed this passion firsthand when Nicolai, Fran, and I happened upon an illegal demonstration in the city center on Tuesday. We were searching for lunch when we found ourselves confronting a plaza packed with the student movement for education reform in Chile. Eager to explore (and understand, fill in some blanks), we skirted amazed around large armored tanks and groups of visored police guards, pausing as we did to take surreptitious photos of them until they started nudging each other and gesturing towards us and we would scamper on down the sidewalk. A group of kids behind us started dislodging cobblestones from the street and heaving them at guards. Retaliation was not long in coming— the foremost of the tanks lurched into motion, and with surprising speed drove up onto the sidewalk and aimed a powerful stream of water—laced with some chemical variant of tear gas— into the crowd. The exact image I had just seen that morning in the Memoria museum. With the tear gas came (duh) tearing eyes, running noses, burning throats, itching skin, and, an instant later, salesmen with wagons of lemons, which apparently counteract the chemical. We didn’t go for the lemons but we did nab a fistful of napkins from a street cart selling toasted peanuts (…now toasted peanuts a la gas lacrimpógeno)!
I saw their passion resurface two nights later. It was eight pm and I was at a bar with an old friend in the popular Plaza Nuñoa, seated at a sidewalk table. A modest group of high schoolers marched by with a sign I couldn’t quite make out but which had something to do with reinstating free tuition for Chilean colleges, a practice that had existed pre-dictatorship but was abolished with the rise of the military junta. On the heels of the marchers trundled the tanks, methodically spewing tear gas— onto all the customers at all the bars who were all just trying to enjoy a margarita. The whole scenario had the feel of a performance— a rehearsed dance between pedestrian and patrolman, something timeworn and even ritual. Generations have endured this, and continued striving. Chile, steeped in passion, achingly stolid.
My week with my brother in Santiago, however, wasn’t all spent clashing with police and imbibing mildly lethal chemical compounds. We filled our other days with strolls through the shopping district, a trip south to the artistic seaside village of Valparaíso, Pablo Neruda’s house, empanadas sold hot from a neighbor’s kitchen window, poetry writing sessions in Starbucks. A few divine alfajores (traditional South American chocolate/dulce de leche cookies), many mediocre coffees. A photoshoot on a bus at night and a faux birthday party (at a bar one evening Nicolai’s friend secretly alerted a waiter that it was my brother’s birthday, though of course it wasn't, and to our great bewilderment and delight the restaurant staff soon waltzed out of the kitchen with a flaming confection and a loud, unanimous singing of Feliz Cumpleaños). Getting to know my brother again. Something I needed to do not just because of these past three months he’s spent abroad: it’s been longer, maybe even a year or two, since my and his daily realities diverged, and I feel I scarcely know him outside the familial setting. This was our reintroduction, our reacquaintance, and, it happily transpired, our reconnection.
All this against the backdrop of the city of Santiago, with its underpinnings of social and political tension. All this in barrio La Reina. The queen. What was her name, and what would she think of this era, this world? As I rode a taxi to the airport on my final day in South America, I realized that, more than all the fun shoulder-rubbling with police, the cheese empanadas and even the quality sibling time, the most valuable thing this week had offered me was a little sip (not too hot, not too cold) of the ongoing saga of a developing country finding it’s place in what’s becoming an increasingly arbitrary, uncivilized world. I realized that I, too, am a developing entity trying to find my place in this world. But learning a country and learning a brother are light tasks compared with learning oneself. What is my daily reality outside the family setting? What is the story of La Reina?
I, too, am going somewhere— I’m just not there yet.