Sunday, February 25, 2007

Transantiago... The tires are a burnin´

I heard the sirens and faintly smelt the tires. Walking home from work that day I might as well have seen a sign that might read “better late than never, welcome to the neighborhood!” Months had passed without a sign of the prophesy, but I flashed back to the words of warning that this was how the neighborhood dealt with most and all issues considered controversial.
Being new here I still can not fully explain it, but apparently there is an infatuation with burning tires to protest anything and well, from the looks of it now, everything deemed unlikable by the younger generation in this part of town. They are the children of parents who protested and resisted aggressively under the Pinochet dictatorship, and void of a dictator, they fill the streets looking for their right of passage into civil disobedience. While it is true there is evident shortage of police patrolling the neighborhood, I am hardly an advocate of creating bonfires of tires to attract funny looking men in riot gear whose faces from what I see on the news have anything but expressions on their face to say they find the situation funny. Though not an advocate, I must say, the anger at least this time was justified.
The last few days I too have fallen a victim to the infamous Transantiago, otherwise known as the city solution to make over public transit. Readers who have never been hamstrung on public transpo might not be able to appreciate the pains of having “an extreme transit makeover” but imagine it for a moment if you can. All the bus routes you had known for years are now gone and in their place is a new system with not only smaller busses, but less busses that run SHORTER distances, much shorter distances. Say one bus used to take you to work in 30 to 40 minutes you most likely find yourself taking three transfers and if you make it there in under 90 minutes, it was a good day. If you got a seat on the bus and weren’t left with your rear parts dangerously hanging outside the door of an overcapacity day, it was a really good day.
And so the images of the last week have been frustrating. Crowded bus after bus refusing to stop at overcrowded bus stops where people run, push, and fight their way onto any bus crazy enough to stop. A once efficient subway system now also overcrowded and equally impossible and if that were not enough, some genius in Transantiago decided to make my neighborhood, one known for its “activists” the only neighborhood to be even further hampered because they didn’t manage to get enough drivers for all the busses they wanted in the neighborhood. Bringing us back to burning tires and funny costumes on frighteningly serious men. While the protests have lessened, the nightly news still has some image and more often then not, it is somewhere in my zone of town.
The failures are frighteningly enough but when you take into consideration that February is vacations months and come March there will be a whopping increase of passengers, in most estimates, by 15%. Six out of ten people in Santiago use public transpo according to the statistics in the newspaper. If things keep going the way they have been, the statistic might as well be rewritten to remark that six out of ten people are screwed when summer begins and school and work resumes.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Passing Empty Busses

I should not have waited so long. I had just gotten done visiting a friend who lived in one of the wealthier parts of Santiago and so there I was, parked on a lonely street corner, waiting, hoping really, for any bus that would get me within some proximity of my house.
At last at 1:45 AM, after an hour and a half of stupidly but hopelessly waiting, I let reality sink in. I hailed a cab, fearful of what the final cost would be but aware I had run out of options. After getting in I gave the instructions to get to my house and then sat content, amused to play the game I have become rather accustomed to down here in South America. I speak, the driver looks me up and down in the mirror a few times, and then finally the question comes out. “Where you from?” he asks. “The United States” went the rehearsed reply. Part one out of the way, and now on to part two.
The driver glances down at his watch, his eyes get large with curiosity, and again, a bit of hesitation until question two comes out. “Why are you going to Peñalolén (the neighborhood I live in), especially at this hour?” “I live there” came the reply. More silence. A nervous chuckle. Glances again. “You do not understand” he tells me and then repeats the question, this time very slowly and pronouncing every syllable. I smile, and repeat my answer, “because I live there.” “no, no, no” he says, even slower this time. “You live in this neighborhood, Vetacuña.” At this point I just smiled and laughed, “so I am told my friend” I say, and this time it is my turn to chuckle. “But I do live in Peñalolén. Let me explain.” It took a few minutes to assure him I did indeed live where I said I live, but at last he seemed content to believe it, and in true Chilean fashion, we spent the majority of the ride thereafter with him bragging about his country, and me listening attentively, interjecting with a word or two here and there.
But something happened that night I was not prepared for. As we drove through the streets we passed a number of busses running empty. Being the underpaid volunteer I am, I was not above studying each bus, hoping that maybe I would see a line that passes my house and we would get far enough ahead where I could order the taxi to the corner, pay, hop out, and catch a bus and save large amounts of money. But that is not the way this story ends.
At some point I became intrigued enough to question the taxi driver about the whole mess. I asked what time the busses ran till and he smiled his signature smile and gave me the first dose of reality, “until whenever each bus driver wants” he said. “Funny” I said more to myself than to him, “I have not seen any that pass anywhere near my house.” And for the third time I got that glance in the mirror but for the first time I felt it deserved, as though there was truly something I was missing. He went on to explain that correct or not, bus conductors won’t pass through my neighborhood late. If I wanted to take a bus home, it was best I find myself on one before 10 PM, or I might as well get used to taxi service.
I made it home safe and sound that night but not without passing bus after empty aimlessly navigating, empty, through wealthy streets. To this day, the shortcomings of public transportation to serve those in the greater public who truly need it, baffles me. My imagination can’t let go of the painful irony of those empty busses passing through wealthy neighborhoods while the people most in need of those busses after a long night of work are left with little if any affordable options. Another not so subtle reminder of how the poor of Santiago are kept hidden in the shadows of the cities increasing wealth and for me personally, a good reminder, via the power of the purse, to get my butt on a bus early if I have any hope of surviving on my stipend!

Friday, February 16, 2007

A tour of the house

I am working on another blog but for now you can check out a mini tour of my house. Photos of the place are available here and hopefully next week a new blog will be up.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Silence can be so deafening

Sometime silence can be deafening. I can´t explain to you the sound grass makes as you carelessly fall back on it and I don´t think I will ever be able to repeat for you the many other sounds I took in that day. There were birds chirping, children laughing, wind rustling leaves, English, Spanish, a whole slew of things, and yet, it was the silence of her smile that captivated me. I had just pretended to have been tackled by this seven year old ball of energy and laying in the grass looking up at the most curious and confident of eyes looking back at me, I wondered how she did it, to smile in spite of the cards life had handed her.

There is the temptation to romanticize this story and there is the fear that my words won´t do justice to the testimony it has the potential to be. I saw life in a child many of us would rush to take pity on. A child with deformed hands and missing fingers. A child who has lived everyday of her life before that day and will live everyday of her life after that day never having the opportunity to overlook the subtle cast aside sounds of nature like the movement of grass or animals. She can not read, she can not speak with her mouth or her hands, and living in the campo, I can´t honestly tell you if she ever will be fully educated to communicate with sign language. And yet, she has the most brilliant set of eyes that speak the volumes she has been shortchanged in life.

For the last few days of the sumer camp we worked in I watched a little seven year old girl without fear or abandon aproach anyone, be it a four year old child, camp counselor, or stranger in the museum and begin to comunicate. It usually started with a smile and then pointing and gesturing and finally the discomfort of the other would wash away with her signature smile and laugh.

I heard the voice of God in the silence of a deaf girls smile and I wonder if you can too. Just as you start to wonder what´s it all about, why are we where we are, I truly would like to believe that God is speaking, giving us the answer, but often it is in the most subtle or overlooked places or people. It´s liberation theology taken out of the ivory tower and placed in front of our eyes, if only we choose not to avert our eyes. We might not admit it outloud but we never expect God´s voice to be a seven year old deaf girl.

A lot of people ask what it is I do down here and to tell you the truth, the answers they´d like, the answers I´d sometimes like are hard to come by. How I´d love a two word answer like English Teacher or Social Worker or even Traveling Hippie to make it easy for us all. But being a Holy Cross Associate means my life is more simple than complicated and for that, it is hard to explain to people living in a complex world.

As I started to get angry at the lot this little girl was cast she tackled me in the grass and laughed, and for the first time in a few weeks, I didn´t just laugh (because God knows I laugh a lot) I laughed like a child laughs, a small distinction I almost forgot existed up until that moment.

I don´t want to downplay her struggles because they have been many and will continue to be unfair, but for just a moment our vulnerability and failure meant nothing as they shrunk in the light of laughter and love. Again you ask me what is it I do down there in Chile. Teach.. yeah… social ministry… sure. Volunteer… duh. But I´d like to think that something like being present to the moments God whispers in your ear by saying nothing at all sounds a hell of a lot better than stamping a job title on what it is I do.

When you stop and think about it, we all have job titles that fill in the blanks on the documents and emails and casual conversations, but if we do it right, regardless of the title or the place, our jobs bring so much more than a mundane title. I have lived my life these last few years under the principle of the Magis, a thirst for the more in all that we do and I found that Magis is achievable in all that we do, if only we are willing to patiently seek it out and when we find it, live in it. Truly, unabashedly, live in it.