Monday, April 30, 2007

In Search of the Soda Gods

It was a pretty risky thing to do. I might be brash, but in the end I like to be as politically correct as possible. But all the indicators told me my best estimates would prove me correct. The group of people sitting there were of a darker complexion. Many Chileans, with their blonde hair, ghostly skin, and blue eyes, are anything but that Andean culture with darker skin and darker hair. They were sitting alongside the chapel, a common hang out for them I have been told many of times. And, a few Chileans walked by, dishing almost unnoticeable glances of disgust at them, and that all but firmed up what I already knew to be true.

“Are you Peruvian?” I asked the group. Their hurried conversation came to a stop; they starred at me blankly for a moment, and hesitantly answered, yes. I don’t blame them for eying me suspiciously, reluctantly admitting their nationality. They are often poor in Santiago, working to feed a family back home, and treated by Chileans, the same way so many Latin American immigrants are treated by “US Citizens” back in the United States.

I suppose when I smiled and said “thank God!” they lightened up a little. When I told them I was dying for a Pisco Sour, a real one, like the ones from Peru, I sealed the deal and we were laughing together. The Pisco Sour, a traditional drink of Chile and Peru, is fought over amongst the two cultures as to who claims the original ownership of it. It’s a good way to win a Chilean or Peruvian over, or permanently frost relationships with them, depending on how you structure your comments about the drink. But anyway…

After a little bit of small talk, I explained I had a Peruvian friend back in the United States that got me hooked on something they might be able to help with. They were all ears. I explained my absolute obsession with the Inca Kola, a yellow cola, the Cola of the Gods! At this everyone laughed and when one man said, “who would have ever guessed a gringo in Chile in search of the Cola of the Gods” they all roared. Eventually laughter subsided and directions were given. It was an import, and so it is pretty expensive by cola standards, but fortunately, I was talking to experts. A left turn here, a right turn over there, there will be a building that looks like a galleria, turn into it. Walk five floors up the circular corridor and look for the nondescript restaurant without a name. There will be a bunch of Peruvians eating away, and it is there, the cola of my dreams will be.

I felt like a detective acting on a hot lead and it made sound cheesy, but I felt the sweet joy of victory when I walked out of this hole in the wall restaurant, the Peruvians looking at me somewhat oddly but also giving me that acknowledging smile. One man as I left smiled particularly big, and I as I was turning the corner, he shouted “Oye, amigo!” I turned around to look at this man with his own bottle of Inca Cola raised up high. “Salud.”

It’s the little victories that make the biggest differences anymore. When I opened the bottle of cola that night I must have made my roommates a little uncomfortable. I felt like I was in that Herbal Essences commercial, because I just kept taking sip after sip of my soda, going “ohhh my God, yeah!” “Ohhhhhh.” “Jeez this is sweeeeet!” I even started to address it as though it was a person. “My God I have missed you!” I’d like to think after my roommates had a taste, they understood, but then again, no one else seemed to react like I did, so who knows. Either way, besame el culo Coca Cola, I got Inca Kola!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Earthquake in Chile

I didn´t even wake up to it. Little by little the house began to come alive with noise until at last I woke. Did you feel the earthquake everyone asked? I was half asleep and I guess in true LA fashion asked if everyone was OK and if anything broke. No, came the unanimous reply, everyone and everything was ok. It´s not a big deal then was my reply and I went right back to sleep.

So for those of you that know, there was an earthquake 800 miles south of Santiago. We felt the aftershocks but nothing big enough to create damage. When we got back to our house in Santiago (we were an hour north at the time) our voicemail was flooded with calls of concern and our email boxes as well.

So all is well for the Associates in Chile. No one was hurt, and some experienced their first earthquake like sensations for the first time!

Hope all is well with everyone else!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Responding to Human Tragedy

Your brain goes into a helpless overdrive. I remember the day when a man on the street in Bolivia identified me as an American, and told me "it´s a tragedy you know, another plane crashing into a building in New York." Immediately my heart begin beating rapidly, as I pressed the man and sadly he could offer no more information. Slipping into an Internet cafe, I was relieved (if there ever is such a way to be relieved) that it was not as I had imagined, a 747 jumbo and instead ended up being a small prop jet.

And again today, it came crashing back. I heard something briefly about the university killings in the United States last night while playing soccer. But as I pressed for specifics, none were made available.

This morning, as I was running around obtaining my VISA, getting finger printed, the woman doing my finger prints commented about the tragedy. A shame she said, 30 some people killed at this university. We spoke for a minute and I asked her if she knew where it happened. Without a hesitation, she told me: Los Angeles. She had seen the news and thought it was Los Angeles, Chile, but no she said, it turned out to be Los Angeles, USA.

I got panicky, frightened, hoping it could not be LMU. I asked her if she was sure, she replied yes, she was. I left the office in a zone and even trembling a little. Surely someone would have called me if it was LA. Wait, I received a call last night, but I missed it. What if, oh God no, what if was all I could think.

I can´t explain to you what it means to be away from a world that is still your own, living in a world yet to embrace you. You hear things about planes crashing, university shootings, and you run to the nearest Internet cafe, trying desperately to get more information.

And a cruel irony of it all is reading about human tragedy, and knowing, despite what you want to believe, your first instinct is relief. Relief the plane wasn´t bigger, relief it was someone else´s friends and family, someone else´s Alma Mata. I go through these emotions, I realize they are not right, and in a way, it gives me insight into how so many in an affluent country like mine can overlook the genocide in Sudan, the nameless child blown apart in Iraq. Not my family, no in my realm, not my problem. While still untolerable, it becomes easy to understand why this was the most searched news items on Google in 2006...

Google News - Top Searches in 2006
1. paris hilton
2. orlando bloom
3. cancer
4. podcasting
5. hurricane katrina
6. bankruptcy
7. martina hingis
8. autism
9. 2006 nfl draft
10. celebrity big brother 2006

My heart goes out to everyone involved in that shooting. I feel great sadness for the students, the family, the community around Virginia Tech, and even the young man who did it, as well as the Korean or Asian community who will now be targets of misdirected hate and confusion from Virginia to California.

People often ask why we do what we do, this social service. Sometimes the answers are hard to come by. If I did not realize it before, after my time here I realize I won´t change the world. My causes, my ideals, as great as they are, they will never be a chapter to be closed. Poverty will persist, senseless death pass by unnoticed.

But it´s moments like these it becomes clear why I do what I do, what hopefully all of us do in our own small ways: you do good acts when possible, to take a shot at balancing out the many evil or indifferent acts that arise again and again, from here to there. You bear witness to the pain knowing you can´t change it, but by acknowledging it, you do more than so many would ever dare. Yeah, we aren´t going to win, but I´d like to think all God asks of us is the desire to erase hate with love, to come together, different as we are, under that which unites us under one canopy: that which brings us anguish, and the dreams we still dream in spite of it all, in spite of the temptation to turn ideological and hateful.

Again, my heartfelt condolensces to the many victims around our world today.

"Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together." Eugene Ionesco

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bring a Good Book!

Say what you will about the United States, but I can tell you this: what happened to me yesterday in Chile would never, ever, in a million years, have been tolerated in any American business worth the salt in the ground upon which they build on.

The more ironic thing was, it didn’t really piss me off. I could have gotten up and walked off at any point, called it a day, but in the name of research, i.e. this blog, I stayed, and stayed, until another roadblock came up.

I carry a book with me wherever I go in this country. Whether it is going out to meet a friend for a cup of coffee or going to an important business meeting, I can’t remember a time the words “let’s meet” from a Chilean hasn’t sent me running for my book. For you see, the power of the book is such that any tardiness becomes tolerable, to the point that sometimes when the person I am waiting for shows up, I get irritated. Five more minutes, I think to myself, you’re already 20 minutes late, and what would another 5 have hurt you so I could finish this chapter!

The really funny thing is that this organization has the professional appearance of an American non profit. Tidy offices and people scurrying in a hurry to do this project or that. Meetings have, been amusing. It usually results with me traveling an hour each way to have a 20 minute discussion, or the classic and most common occurrence, we have meetings to set up meetings. But this was the grand meeting I was assured, this is where we would be hitting the road, surveying these communities of squatters, void of electricity and running water. This was the hidden poverty that had eluded me for so long, that I was starting to doubt existed in Chile.

And for a while, I started to believe them. They even rearranged the meeting, moving it up from 10 AM to 9:30 AM, gently urging me that by 10 AM it would be too late to do all we needed to do, casi imposible (almost impossible).

Still, knowing Chileans, I showed up a casual 10 minutes late, and walking through the door at 9:40 AM, I wanted to pat myself on the back for learning to be tardy. This is Chilean culture streaming through my veins damn it!

At 9:40 AM, I was ushered to the waiting room and told as soon as one more member of the team got there, we would be leaving. At 10 AM, I sighed, grinned, and then opened up my book and read.

It was a damn good book, and before I knew it 10:40 AM passed into 11:40 AM. Every now and then, the director rushed into the room and told me “a little longer” or “any minute now” words I have learned are really code in the American language for “it could be hours” or “it may never happen.”

I probably should have gotten up and left, but in the name of cross cultural research that begged the question “how much longer can they possibly keep me waiting!?!” I stayed.

Unfortunately, at 12 PM, I had finished leafing through the remaining 150 pages I had in my book. I read some informational magazines around me, but quickly I was bored, and with my backup plan exhausted, my research came to an end. As I stood up to leave, the director came in and again assured me we were just waiting for one more man to get to the office. “A few minutes more” he pleaded with me. I looked at my watch; we were 30 minutes away from when the meeting was supposed to have ended that day! I laughed as politely as I could, and said I had to get moving along, I had a commitment more pressing: visiting the kids at the orphanage, and, unable to resist a subtle moment for irony, I explained, “I don’t think I have the heart to make them wait hours for me.”

Coming home from the orphanage that day, the busses took longer than usual, and the Chileans, found it difficult to form a line to wait. After four busses and the course of more than an hour had passed and time and time again middle aged businessmen and women had ruthlessly cut with pushes and shoves past this elderly man and me patiently waiting to board a bus, I reached the limit of what we might call my Chilean tolerance: I close lined a woman. Well, it’s not like I knocked her down, but as she tried to run by me, I stuck a firm arm out, catching her in the neck. I pointed to the bus as people were still getting down from it, and told her with a chilly voice to wait and get in line.

Riding home on another overcrowded bus full of pushing and shoving, I could have focused on the unnecessary hours I spent waiting, for the meeting, for the bus, but instead, my thoughts went something alone the lines of this:

1. Great book, glad I got to finish.
2. I got gifted at the Hogar, as usual, with whatever they had. Paola gave me a flower, kind of closed up, but really pretty. It bloomed into this...

May we all be so lucky in our day to day lives.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Week in Pictures

I took my rarely used camera out this week and well, a picture really can tell 1,000 words, or so I hope... Enjoy!

While on the coast of Chile this week with my dad, I was reminded no matter how much I sometimes think my job stinks, someone has it much, much, worse...

Just another photo of a son and dad in front of some foutain, right? Wrong. A photo of me, inside the presidential palace in Santiago, the first location with any týpe of high ranking official I have dared to enter since my adventures in Bolivia. I was trembling going through security, no joke!

If I told you this crowd then fought to get into a narrow hallway and slowly inch their way down a 100+ yard tunnel, and that this is, by most accounts, normal for us now in Santiago, would you begin to see why there have been violent protests about public transpo here?

Despite no Spanish skills, dad was a big hit with the kids I work with at the hogar. They played a game that I translated for him, and the kids sung it in Spanish, he did it in English, it was great!

Valpo, a good place to come and just chill.

How can something so common, so ordinary, never cease to amaze? I guess in the end, it´s kind of like family, pretty common, but yet day in and day out, always so special...I watched this sunset on the Pacific, and you start to wonder, what if someone else I love back home was looking out at that mysterious body of water the same time I was. A world so big when we are so far apart, and yet, we can watch the same thing. Amazing.