Lobbing Shells Over the Andes

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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club mexico

Flag of Chile  ,
Monday, May 8, 2006

The first Friday of every month, Club Mexico, a Santiago boxing gym, stages two or three professional fights. To attract members of the Chilean general public, each fight pits one boxer from Chile with one from Argentina.

There's nothing like a bloody sporting event to build camaraderie between a mass of people, but rarely does it take on such nationalistic overtones as at Club Mexico. The fighters' poorly shaven promoters hung scraggly banners from the ceiling. Listen closely, and you'll hear the few kids shouting brutal encouragement right alongside their parents: "¡En la cara! ¡Así es!"

It's a lot of emotion to bottle up in a room no bigger than a high-school gym, dark and dank-with four large, hot white lights over the ring. The bleachers were carved out of hard, cold concrete and slowly filled up as the amateur opening fights wound to a close. Dreamy, nonsensical paintings covered the walls: a large chicken-dove with a strange stem hanging from its beak, winged cows jumping a fence.

The two Argentine fighters came in dressed flashily--one in a blue satin cape, one in an Argentine soccer jersey, a blue and white beanie and wraparound sunglasses. The Chileans were clearly better fighters, and the matches were something of a disappointment in that regard. It's as if the Argentine's boastful swagger-far more impressive than their skill-was orchestrated to make the Chilean's success all the more satisfying.

Neither fight threatened to end in a knockout; the fighters just weren't landing many solid punches. But the tally of points was certain to swing toward the Chileans. In about the 3rd round (out of 6) of each fight, the Chilean would land his first serious combination of blows, and the place would erupt- "Chi! Chi! Chi! ... Le! Le! Le! Vi-va-Chi-le!

Strange and unreal as the experience was, that dusty gym in Barrio Brasil, right off the Costanera highway, was brimming with riotous, irrational, almost orgiastic effusions of national pride.

It made me think back to my cabbie in Buenos Aires, the veteran of the Falklands War. Besides lambasting Chile for selling Chilean air bases to the British to further tip the scales in an unbalanced war (it was really just Gen. Pinochet who did it), he said that most Argentines (and most South Americans) looked down on Chileans.

For days and months, now, I've been assessing my decision to study in Chile. How comfortable am I in Santiago? What do I think of Chileans as a people?

And visiting Buenos Aires last week meant visiting the other city where I considered studying abroad. I feared the city because I didn't want to believe that I had made the wrong decision in coming to Santiago. But I realize now that I am relatively happy here, and that, perhaps, I did make the right decision.

I'll admit, though, that I regularly flee to this Starbucks in Las Condes. I like to call the street it's on "Little America;" there's a Hooters, a Ruby Tuesday's and a Bennigans, and the streets are lined with SUVs and tall, clean apartment buildings. Can I be blamed for being more comfortable here, especially when you take my suburban roots into account?

In general, though, Santiago is a relatively clean city. The bus system runs regular routes, and is slowly being nationalized and upgraded, to bring even more regularity to what can be a chaotic tangle of yellow vehicles on the city's streets. The Metro is spotless, runs trains in five minute intervals and goes everywhere I need to go.

Grocery stores, pharmacies and banks are common, convenient and organized (if not always well-stocked). The police in Chile are honest, helpful, and have pride in their work (well, mostly). Keeping all of that in mind, I live in Chile with access to comforts much like those I would have used in the US. On the other hand, Argentina was supremely disorganized.

I described some of its attributes in my previous post. In general, though, the streets Borges walked were littered with trash, and stretched out from the Plaza de Mayo in an increasingly disorganized sprawl. Many of the places I liked were tough to reach without extensive knowledge of the bus system.

Argentines certainly seemed friendly, however. And the coldness, or shyness, of Chileans is something I have regularly lamented here. But the few Chileans I have spoken to, at length anyway, ask questions with clear interest and curiosity. Only rarely do I feel negatively discriminated against as a foreigner or as an American-beggars expect more of me, restaurants give me the English language menu without a second thought and always make me repeat my order three times and point it out on the menu, just to be sure.

In contrast, my final few hours in BsAs were a frustrating web of prejudice: a co-worker of my barber told him to "take advantage" of having a foreigner in his chair; the cabbie cheated me out of 5 pesos, saying it was "nothing to me" (it probably wasn't); the immigration officer, after seeing my passport, growled at me for giving him the wrong forms; and when I paid the airport tax, the cashier wanted exact change and felt obligated to show me the price using her hands and to condescendingly say it aloud in English.

The study abroad students I hung out with in BsAs told me that the Porteños, while friendly, also felt distinctly better and more cultured than Americans-and that they wouldn't hesitate to say so. I never saw that, but I felt close to it.

One of the beautiful things about Chileans is the way they can laugh at themselves, and at their history-even if they won't do it aloud. Pedro de Valdivia, Chile's conqueror, arranged the Chilean expedition illegally, and only fooled 11 people into coming to the dangerous land down south, where there was little gold. Bernardo O'Higgins, Chile's "liberator" was a bastard child of the governor of Chile, lost every battle he ever fought in, and eventually had to flee across the Andes to get help from his Argentine friends (José San Martín, in particular). The Argentines won their battles decisively, and resoundingly kicked the Spanish army out of the country before moving on to Perú. Little Bernardo had to stay behind and run this dump, some joke.

Sometimes Chileans show a certain inferiority complex: they're never be as European or cultured as Argentines, they don't have the history of Peru or Bolivia. But, interestingly, they haven't really pegged what it is that makes them "Chilean." The national identity, it seems, is still forming-and it's rising up from the ashes of Pinochet's dictatorship. It's truly something to witness.

And when I go through my ups and downs here in Santiago-which I have kept, for the most part, out of this journal-I try and find the positives. I realize now that, if I were studying in the United States right now (or anywhere, for that matter), I would go through similar mid-semester blues. The tensions I feel now might surge from different roots or might be directed at different people (my host family and my fellow study abroad-ers instead of my Georgetown friends), but they would have been just as strong and just as frustrating stateside.

And I've gone through crises (My study abroad friends and I will, in fact, joke about how we forced an existential crisis upon ourselves by studying abroad). I'm unsure now, for example, about my desire to become a foreign correspondent-something I'd set my sights on as early as seventh grade. The State Department, in fact, is beginning to look quite attractive. I've come to peace with the notion of working for The Man.

Here, I've come to appreciate the comforts of living in America far more, though they are not terribly different from what I have here. Traveling overseas for a few weeks (even a few months) is quite different than doing so for a few years, and each route demands a different of perspective.

But studying abroad was the right choice, and I realize this now, because these tribulations produce results-instead of feeling trapped in a routine, or simply tired of school, I am learning about myself (you knew that line was coming), about my deeply-ingrained identity as an American and maybe about another culture ... I may be out of my element, but I'm not languishing, and I plan to take home everything that I find here.

I'll admit, though, that my plans to grow a long, flowing, Chilean mullet have languished. I hope that doesn't break your heart.
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