Thursday, December 31, 2009

Salt in Your Pocket

Año Nuevo is huge here. Right now the number of people in the city is in the process of doubling, creating traffic scenes that look daunting even to a native Bostonian. They say that the fireworks display at midnight (or apparently somewhere around then, Chileans aren't so bothered by punctuality) is one of the biggest and most impressive in the world. Although I can stay out pretty late by New York standards (I'm no stranger to six am), the party here apparently goes until eight or nine. When Maca and Caro told me this I nearly moved to show them the gray hair I found this summer. I feel old and tired just thinking about it.

In addition to fireworks and dancing and drinking on the crowded streets, the celebration of New Years here involves lots of traditions. As Nike pointed out it seems to be the opposite of what we're used to, Christmas is no big deal and New Year's has lots of significance. All of the traditions have to do with luck in the New Year. They range from familiar to deeply strange.

Yellow Underpants No one has mentioned why exactly, but it appears to be very important to wear yellow underpants on New Years. The street vendors have had stacks of them laid out on blankets all week. Judging by the styles I saw for sale, it seems that the tradition applies mostly to women. Although perhaps gents also don lacy thongs to celebrate.

Eat Lentils You're supposed to eat lentils without salt before midnight. Apparently this will bring wealth in the New Year. Conveniently lentils are one the foods I can afford, so it couldn't hurt to try... Do you think cooking them with sausage would be cheating?

Walk Around the Block With a Suitcase This is supposed to make all your travel dreams come true. It seems like it could be sort of goofy looking.

Eat Twelve Grapes Apparently this tradition originated in Spain. No one seems to be sure why, but it might have started with a royal proclamation intended to help the grape industry. Sounds a bit hard to believe, but ultimately pretty simple.

Put Salt in Your Pocket In your left, front pocket to be exact. I didn't quite understand why. But no other pocket will do.

Hug Someone of the Opposite Sex at Midnight This seems similar to kissing someone you want to be with for the rest of the year at midnight. It doesn't seem to have the same romantic connotations. For example, I am hoping to hug a six month old baby at midnight. I really like babies.

So I'll be sure to let you know how it goes. I'm going to nap now. It looks like I have a long night ahead of me. Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Emergency Update!

Another mailman just came to my building (without the package)! It wasn't Soto, the guy I met this morning! Have I been lead astray? Was this all an elaborate hoax to steal the hooded sweatshirt and tampons my mother sent me?? Does anyone know anything about the Chilean mail system?

Complaints: International Mail Infrastructure

Yesterday Nike and I went to inquire after packages we had been expecting for some time. My mother told me the USPS records show a delivery attempt was made on the 23rd. The gentleman working told us there was absolutely nothing he could do and that only a postman could answer delivery questions. It seems like the postman is individually responsible for all mail items. It makes me wonder what qualifies someone for such tremendous responsibilities. People send really important things in the mail. Like contracts and birth certificates and tax returns and bridesmaid dresses (I'm working on it Leila!). My postman is available for inquires between 8 and 10 am.

So this morning I woke up bright and early to see him. I went with the tracking number for the package and the information listed on the USPS website. According to them, two attempts were made, at 2:50pm and 11:16pm. The idea that someone in any country would deliver mail so late at night is suspect. But everyone at the post office assured me it was absolutely impossible in Chile. There must be some mistake. Furthermore, there is no record of a package with that tracking number ever arriving in the Chilean mail system. A gentleman carefully explained that as soon as customs clears a package it is scanned into the system. So if they had it, the computer would show it. He very kindly told me that anything so important to me was important to them too. And then he gave me his phone number, you know, in case I had any questions. Or whatever.

So I went home feeling reassured that at least thieves and villains weren't absconding with my mail. And then I dialed the customer service number for the USPS. After ten minutes of muzak (which is not improved by the poor sound quality of Skype, btw) I finally got through to a person. She proceeded to read me the information from the website. When I asked if they might have used another service, she said it is the US Postal Service policy to use local post offices. Her computer said the delivery attempts were made and so the package must be here. Nothing more to be done.

I'm sure that computerizing systems has made mail delivery exceptionally more reliable, fast and inexpensive. But I do feel that this experience highlights a shortcoming of automated services. The computer is always right. Even if there are two computer systems and they don't say the same thing. Obviously one computer is wrong. But policy does not allow for such a possibility. And all I can do is sit in South America and wait. But when it comes, I'm totally going to bake my mailman a cake. And I'll tell him not to share it with the lady at USPS.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Things I Don't Understand About Christmas in Chile

1) The weather- Ok. I understand this intellectually. That the earth is on an axis that moves and sometimes the bottom of the planet is closer to the sun and the top is farther away. But today is December 24. I woke up this morning and put on jeans, a t-shirt and sunscreen. And the strangest thing is that they don't even try to adapt it. There are machines that blow fake snow in the department stores. If you get this message in time, please send snow and mistletoe.

2) Pascua- According to sources as varied as my high school Spanish text book and Wikipedia, Pascua means Easter. But apparently it also means Christmas. Santa Claus is Viejo Pascuero. I've asked lots of people how and why they came to call Christmas Easter, and I've never received a satisfying response. It just is. Nothing about the etymology of the word or the history of the celebration seems to justify using Pascua to refer to the birth of Christ. If someone could shed some light on this mystery I'd be much obliged.

3)Bagpipes- Maybe it's a strange coincidence but some guy around the corner has been playing "Amazing Grace" on a bagpipe the whole damn day. I don't know what holiday that is appropriate for (Veteran's Day?) but it's certainly not Christmas. Quit it, dude. You're only making things more confusing.

Anyway, I hope you all have very merry christmases or at least happy days today and tomorrow. And that you're warm and with people you love. I'm going to go make ceviche and a peach tart. One nice thing is that I don't have to eat ham.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Disturbing Trends: Juvenile Public Urination

Cultural differences are always hard to understand. That's what makes them interesting. That's also sort of what makes this blog interesting. But I feel like there is a universal expectation of parents that they are instilling positive habits in their children. Toothbrushing. Vegetable consumption. Respect for the law and basic public hygiene. But sometimes that just doesn't seem to be the case. No fewer than four times now I have seen mothers helping their young children pee against walls. None of the children were more than six years old. Everyone can understand that bladder control is newer and more difficult at that age. But urinating against the wall of a business hardly seems like a responsible solution. I witnessed these events not in tucked-away alleys or side-streets, but in plazas, pedestrian malls and major thoroughfares. Just today I saw the most recent example at 2:30 in the afternoon in the middle of the financial district of the city. No one expects these children to have perfect control of their bladders, but really? Public urination is illegal is not just because of puritanical expectations of modesty. It just isn't hygienic to have human waste on the sidewalks. I am hoping I have just noticed a large number of aberrations. That this isn't a commonly accepted phenomenon. Though if it is perhaps it explains the drunk man who continued to cat-call at me while urinating on the building next door to mine last week.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chilean Election Primer

So this Sunday is election day in Chile. Officials at all levels of government from municipal to federal will be selected. Of course, the presidential contest is the most closely watched of these races. This round of voting has four major front runners. If no one wins a majority there will be a run-off between the two candidates with the highest percentages. Most people seem to expect a run-off. This election is particularly interesting because for the first time since the military dictatorship ended in 1990, a candidate from the right is likely to win. The incumbent, Michelle Bachelet, is pretty popular right now but has decided not to seek another term. Neither of the candidates from her party have been able to parlay her popularity into real momentum. In ascending order of polling numbers the four major candidates are:

Arrate: Jorge Arrate is the candidate for the communist party. He held a position (economic adviser of some sort) in the government of Salvador Allende. He seems to have the most interesting, liberal policies. Pretty much everyone I know who plans to vote plans to vote for him. They also all seem confident that he will only take about 12%. Since most of what I know about candidates I infer from the campaign signs that litter EVERY intersection in the city, Arrate has an appealing, Mark Twain-like style. I dig him.

Enríquez-Ominami: As far as I can tell, Marco Enríquez-Ominami's most distinctive qualification is that he is sort of a babe. He's thirty-six years old and has very little experience to recommend him, except that his dad was a popular figure in leftist politics. I get the feeling that a candidate like Ominami would get a lot of flack in the US for being a spoiler. He's not going to win, and it seems like he's only splitting the centrist vote. Because technically there is a coalition system in Chile rather than a strict bipartisan system this isn't exactly true. Ominami has the endorsement of four parties. Practically speaking, this run seems more like an attempt to set a foundation for future national campaigns. But for now, we can all enjoy his super-shiny hair and dazzlingly white smile.

Frei: Eduardo Frei seems like sort of a wet blanket. I mean, dude is never smiling in his campaign photos. What's more, he has already been president and ran into some problems with corruption. It's a bit puzzling that he would win the candidacy at all. But he too is the progeny of a figure in the Chilean left. His father was president before Allende in the late 60's. He's become something of a martyr since it was recently proved that Pinochet had him slowly poisoned to death. The major problem with Frei the second is that everyone thinks his government will simply perpetuate the status quo. People are pretty concerned about the state of health care and education here (public schools were closed for more than a month due to a strike this year). Many people care more about change than they do about the potential policies that will be implemented. You could see it as a twisted turn in the world-wide, Obama-ist change movement.

Piñera: Is currently leading all polls. Sadly because he's a total neoliberal. Additionally he is the richest man in the country. Which is always sort of suspect (remember how Steve Forbes always seemed vaguely unreliable?). The final creep-factor for Piñera is that he is highly involved with Opus Dei. Opus Dei seems to have quite a lot of power in Chile and often comes up when discussing right-wing politics. Generally I nod knowingly during such conversations, when in reality everything I know about Opus Dei I learned from The da Vinci Code. So if (and, it sadly seems, when) he wins he'll probably move to privatize health care further and implement even more voucher programs for schools (or the Chilean equivalent of vouchers which seem to subsidize private schools with public money). And we all know how great those ideas work.... Sigh.

Election Policy: Certainly every democratic system has its short-comings. There are two particularly strange policies concerning elections in Chile.

-First of all, if you are registered to vote, it is illegal not to. Unless you can prove to the police that you were sick or more than 300kms from your poling place you must pay a fine. People have told me this discourages them from registering. While I understand that the idea is to underscore the importance of the democratic process, this just seems a little backwards. If I'm not mistaken, this law has been overturned and this is the last affected election.

-Secondly, it is illegal to drink the night before the election. Apparently all the bars are closed. This sort of cramps my style since I unwittingly planned a margarita-soaked, Mexican dinner party for tomorrow night. I hope I don't get arrested.

I'm sure I'm grossly over-simplifying and over-editorializing here. Even after two months it's hard to fully understand the structure and history of politics in Chile. Anyhow, it will be interesting to watch how things go. I don't think Piñera has enough votes to avoid a run-off, but people seem more and more certain of his eventual success. I'll be sure to keep you all posted.