Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Las Primeras Impresiones

It's been just over a week now and we've seen, tasted, and experienced much more than we could have imagined before leaving. In fact, I can hardly believe that just 10 days ago, we were stuffing our belongings into boxes, tugging on our winter coats and running off to the post office in Amsterdam.

We arrived last Friday night after a 28-hour journey through Germany, the Dominican Republic and Panama and were greeted at the airport by Simon, G's new employer and the head of the new project he's going to be working on at OAN (el Observatorio Astronómico Nacional). He drove us right to our new place in Las Condes, which is a posh suburb in the north-east of Santiago. The house is situated at the foot of a hill known as Cerro Calán and hence just a 10 minute walk from the observatory. It's also enormous by any standard and even more so because it's just the two of us here, but we're very comfortable and have quickly gotten used to enjoying the use of our garden, the enormous terrace which gives us a beautiful view of the city, and the spacious living room complete with two big, soft couches which we usually crash onto at the end of the day and heave a sigh of contented exhaustion.

The first night we went out for dinner and drinks with Simon and G's new office-mate Sebastian. They took us to this amazing restaurant called Liguria in the heart of Providencia (where we're going to be searching for an apartment) and tossed us off into the deep end of Chilean cuisine. Tangy, frothy pisco sours and sauteed scallops in white wine butter sauce to start, then hake cheeks with garlic for me and seared steak cubes and sauteed veggies for Gerrit. With red wine, naturally. It was simple yet unspeakable decadent and we both kept flashing looks of bewildered happiness at one another across the table all night.

After our amazing welcome, we spent the first weekend here getting to know our new city a bit. We traveled into the center and got familiar with the bigger landmarks, learned how to use public transport (no easy feat, believe me), went hunting for farmers markets. One thing we noticed very quickly was that Chileans are both exceptionally consumerist and obsessed with all things new and shiny. This means that the parts of the city which we love and gravitate to the most are usually more run-down and neglected, but this only seems to add to their allure. The cost of living is also MUCH higher here than we had anticipated, with some things costing the same or even double the price in Europe! But of course, there are ways around this- mostly by buying local products and simply accepting that some dietary changes are unavoidable (no more import cheese, canned goods, roasted nuts, tofu or homemade thai curries for us). But for every concession we get a lot of new things in return (cheap, high quality sea food, big juicy strawberries & cherries, empanadas of all sorts, and creamy, perfect avocados by the dozen for a euro or two). Chileans are also big on covering their food with heaps of fresh onions and cilantro (salsa verde, as they call it), fresh lemon juice and a tasty red chili sauce called ají chileno, which neither of us can get enough of. The one indulgence neither of us is willing to give up is coffee, but as there isn't really a strong coffee culture in Chile, we've been subjected to some of the most rancid, repulsive, scalding hot, and grossly over-sweetened rubbish of our lives here. And that's not even mentioning the Nescafe! The thought has crossed our minds to switch to tea, but I doubt that will actually happen.

The rest of the week was interesting, and no less vivid than the first few days. We joined Simon one afternoon for a trip to the immigration office downtown to get the documents necessary for G's ID card and RUT (the local variant of a social security number/ burgerservicenummer), which was quite a slap of reality and a wake up call to the incredibly privileged position we enjoy here. To calm our nerves afterward, we enjoyed an extremely Chilean lunch at the local fish market of baked pink clams with parmesan (machas a la parmesana), abalone (locos) and eel stew (caldillo de congrio).  We were also treated to a concert on Plaza de Armas, which is one of the most important (and picturesque) squares in central Santiago. It was a tribute concert to Violeta Parra, who is a singer, songwriter & national icon that sang about love, strife and socialism in the 1940's. Thousands of people, young and old had congregated on the square to sing along and dance la Cueca, which is the traditional chilean folkdance and a very beautiful, seductive one at that.

On Friday things reach the peak of intensity when I accompanied Sebastian and his little sister to the student protests near Universidad de Chile (on the grimier side of town). We arrived at around 11 and marched with the group (which was made up of students, teacher, young professionals, veterans, parents and even grandparents) for about 2-3 kilometers until they reached the barricades that had been set up by the police. Riot vans, heavily armed officers and tank-like vehicles armed with water canons and tear gas guns lined the side streets around the square where the students converged and it was striking to see how much of an effect their presence had on the atmosphere. The students were permitted to keep protesting until 2, but (as Sebastian told me is often the case), the police started pushing back the perimeter much earlier. Within a matter of about 20 minutes, things started to get ugly and the students at the front lines, visibly agitated by the provocation of the police, started throwing stones, bashing on their drums and belting out anti-government songs as hard as they could. The situation became so tense that we started to head back down the street to leave, but before we could get very far, a wave of students at the front of the protest started running in our direction, nearly knocking us off our feet, and we flashed a look back at the tanks that had heaved around the corner and started running too. It's a strange sensation that comes over you in a situation like that. With all the side-streets on our right barricaded and nothing but a stone wall with a 7 meter fence above it on our left, we had nowhere to go but straight, and within no time the armored vehicles were whizzing past us and spraying out thick, billowing clouds of tear gas. At one point we reached a tiny enclave in the wall and all huddled there for a second to regain our bearings but within seconds one of the tanks had stopped right in front of us and blasted us with tear gas again. We ran further and I could hear people gagging and retching behind me, but you can't stop to help anyone in a moment like that. You can't see anything, you can hardly breathe. Every inch of exposed skin feels like it's on fire. After what seemed like ages but couldn't have been more than 10 minutes we reached an opening in the gate and crawled through it, tearing open the bags of lemons and cigarettes we'd brought with us and sucking on them like they were a gift from the gods. The adrenaline rush was immense and when Sebastian started apologizing, saying he didn't think things would progress so fast, I just smiled and said "we should do it again next week!".

The protests are on everyone's lips here. Young and old, rich and poor, local and foreign, everyone seems captured by the moment, enthralled with this idea of change, enchanted with the prospect of power to the people. It's an exciting time to have arrived and it feels very different than any change that may be happening back home. There's something dynamic, almost magical in the air that makes you feel like anything is possible. It's incredibly inspiring to say the least.

There was much more talk of the movement when we joined Sebastian for the weekend in Valparaíso, which is a beautiful, grimy, colorful and very lively city on the coast, about 1.5 hours outside of Santiago. His uncle, a local artist there, was throwing a birthday party and we joined in the with the festivities whole-heartedly, drinking local concoctions such as chimbombo (which in Chile is a cocktail of young white wine and juice, but also a word used in other parts of Latin America as a derogatory slur for homosexuals), and trying our best to navigate through the intricacies of chilean Spanish. G held his own extremely well and at one point I walked past him and heard that he was completely engaged in a conversation (entirely in Spanish) about the excessive privileges enjoyed by trans-nationals and inefficient use of natural resources in the country. Go G! It was a legendary night and we partied with the best of them until nearly 5am before succumbing to our exhaustion. The rest stayed up until nearly 8, but by 11 everyone was awake and chipper, sitting around the dining room table for breakfast and mischievous recollections of the night before. After washing up, we all headed into the city to check out the local markets. Valparaíso (Valpo) is absolutely stunning! Pablo Neruda lived there for a number of years and wrote many famous pieces about it. It's also a world heritage site and for good reason. The stacked, colorful houses, curving streets and picturesque seaside setting make it unforgettable. Sort of like Porto, but much noisier, dirtier, more real somehow.

We finished the afternoon with a typical Valpo-style lunch of beer and chorillanas, which are basically huge plates of sauteed meat and onions served over thick fries and and topped off with a fried egg. It's the kind of thing that makes a vegetarian scream and a cardiologist rich. The mouth says yes but heart screams no. Needless to say, it was a good ending for such a glorious weekend, but for the sake of our waistlines and our arteries, I think it will be a few months before we give it another go.

Anyway, this post is quickly becoming quite Tolstoy-esque and there will be much more to tell in the coming weeks, so I'll cut short here and say, in summary, that things are wonderful here. We are enjoying ourselves very much and excited to keep setting forth on this new chapter of our lives. The weather has been beautiful- clear blue skies and 25-30 degrees during the day, with crisp chilly nights of 10-12. The people are amazingly open, helpful and curious about our backgrounds, our reasons for being in Chile and the origin of my apparently very obvious Spanish accent. And above all, we're happy to be able to share all of these new experiences with each other. We're both so acutely aware that we are making memories that will undoubtedly last a lifetime.

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