Close to the end

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Walking home Sunday night, minding my own business-staring at the sidewalk as I made my past the Metro Station-a random Chilean youth walking past me, asked "¿Qué te pasa, güeon?" And the complimented it, before I could respond-and before I'd caught the tone in his voice-with a "¡Conche tu madre!" I don't think I need to translate that.

In some ways, I probably deserved it, or at least I shouldn't have been so surprised by it. I was wearing a jacket I bought in Mendoza, Arg., with the logo of the Argentine national soccer team on the left breast. Needless to say, though, I was shocked and a little scared and put off, and chose not to respond instead of picking a fight with a middle schooler. But I did walk the next block home with my hand over the logo.

Chile isn't in the world cup. I know plenty of Chileans rooting for Argentina. After all, they're the only other Southern Cone country in the "mundial." Heck, it was 6:30 at night and pitch black (it's winter down here, again). I was wearing a hat. In that light and attire, I should pass for Argentine, no? Wouldn't that give me a right to wear the jacket? After all, Argentina just beat Serbia-Montenego 6-0 in the best performance of the tournament so far.

I really only bought the jacket, though, because I look pretty good in it (not something I can say about the bright yellow Brazillian jacket I saw).

I'm nearing the end of my trip, though, and I just read over my last entry. Add the beginning of this entry to it, along with some large selections of other entries, and you might think this experience in Chile has been largely negative for me. I would vehemently argue that it hasn't, but I've begun to wonder to myself if my attitude's been wrong for some time. I think I've found an answer to that, but I'll save it for my final entry before dad arrives.

Every day in Chile, though, is a learning experience. And if you're patient, and take a few of the opportunities, you can make something good happen.

This Friday, looking back, was probably one of those good days. That's surprising at the very least, because the places I saw were shrouded in a gloomy past. I went to sleep early Thursday night-I'd had class until late and no one was going out-in order to wake up and meet up with Mauricio, an assistant program director/CIEE sex symbol for his good looks and the mystery that surrounds his past (we could probably just ask, but it's fun to wonder). I've heard stories from bank robber to political prisoner. Anyway, I have a class with him and he'd invited us on his other class' field trip to the General Cemetery and the Villa Grimaldi, once a torture center.

I'd been to the cemetery, but had mostly just gotten lost the first time, and thought it might be good to take time off from paper-writing to see the things no one had pointed out to me at the cemetery. Mauricio's other class is called "Historical Memory and Human Rights in Chile." If you know the name Pinochet, you have a vague idea what the class talks about. Admittedly, Mauricio is assumed to be pretty far on the left personally, but his presentation of the material doesn't alter the facts: Chile has been terribly slow to recognize its bloody past, and the reminders are everywhere.

The first stop at the cemetery was the monument the the "disappeared detainees" of the Pinochet era, which was under remodeling for the third time since its construction. To add new names. Nothing gigantic or overwhelming, it was simply a small mausoleum and a large slab of marble engraved with the names of everyone who was likely tortured and buried in a mass grave, if not dropped into the sea or burned into dust. Yes, this was heavy stuff for a Friday.

The next stop was Patio 29, a nondescript section of the poor part of the cemetary, which a few dozen DD.DD. (as they're called) were buried in the few days after Chile's 9/11, Pinochet's coup. Every grave was marked with a cross, whose horizontal section was painted with N.N. (basically, "no name"). Apparently, some of the graves originally held several people, tied together and placed in the same coffin. In the late 90's when Pinochet was still Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, a journalist asked him about the fact that bodies were made to share a coffin. The general's smug response: "what could be more economical?" Today, the graves of still-unidentified bodies in Patio 29-whose ground is rough and uneven, and a few months ago was covered in trash-are marked with red roses.

Right across the way was the grave of Victor Jara, Chile's Bob Dylan who became more-than-legendary after he was executed in the days following the coup. Taken the National Soccer Stadium (which now bears his name), along with most of Chile's famous liberal artists, his torturers broke every knuckle on his hands and mockingly gave him a guitar to play (according to legend, at least). His coffin is buried among the people, as he would have wanted it, though it is painted a bright red and framed with fresh flowers. Every so often, Chile's remaining musical figures from the time, who largely played a folk music in support of the Allende government, will reunite and do small performances to remember him.

On our way out, we walked past several presidents' tombs, including those of Balmaceda and Allende, which I believe I've already described. The grave of Orlando Letelier, an anti-Pinochet lobbyist who died in Washington D.C. during the Carter administration. Pinochet sent operatives to the US to strap a bomb onto the underside of his car. This was in the days before C4, when car bombs used less-powerful explosives and depended on good positioning to kill. According to Mauricio-yes, his class gets pretty morbid-the aim was to blow off the legs of the front seat passengers, so that they would be trapped inside a burning vehicle with no ability to escape. It worked, and it was the first act of terrorism on US soil perpetrated by a foreign government. Just before Pinochet had him killed, he took away Letelier's citizenship, which was only reinstated after the end of this regime, I believe, when the Chilean congress had to vote to give it back to him. His epitaph is: "I was born Chilean, I am Chilean and I will die Chilean."

From there, it was a bus to Peñalolén, a poorer eastern barrio of Santiago which, 25 years ago, was in the country. Here, the Pinochet government took the land and estate of a wealthy Chilean leftist and forced him into exile. The property, a large house with ample land, a pool and outbuildings, was turned into a torture and detention center. Men and women, though separated, were both torutured there. Electric shock, dipping people in the pool during winter ... everything that could be used to extract "information" (at a certainly point, you'd probably start naming your mother as a militant revolutionary) was used.

A tower at the southwest corner of the property was built up and divided into small yard by yard solitary confinement chambers: just big enough to stand in, but to small to lie down in. Almost all of the buildings have since been torn down, and Mexican artists came in when it was converted into a park to make it a place of remembrance for its victims. Many of the people who came there did not return. Beautiful tile-work (sometimes with tile from the very house, before it was torn down) runs up and down the park. Sets of plaques, one in marble and one in metal, carry the names of those who passed through never to be seen again.

With the coming of democracy, an ex-general in the intelligence services bought the land and tried to have it turned into budget housing. Luckily, someone stopped him. If you ask most people in Santiago, though, what the Villa Grimaldi is, they'll look at you with a clueless stare.

The watchtower has been reconstructed, and inside there are little cupboards that resemble the old solitary confinement cells. I climbed into one, but demanded that no one close the door on me. That desire was respected. I can tell you it was dark and uncomfortable. The strange, nervous fear it sent though me, even so many years and so many governments from what happened there, is not something I have any desire to analyze or explain. It was probably a bad idea to climb into that cell-I think I was the only person who tried-but it gave me a tiny, tiny taste of what it must have been like for those people.

Chile is a strange, strange place, in terms of daily life and in terms of its entire, idiosyncratic history (which I've hinted at here). I think even Chileans would accept that. I'm still unsure what signals my family here is trying to send me. It still weirds me out how sometimes that no one makes eye contact on the subway, and how no one talks either.

In the same way a nondescript park can have the history of thousand lives in every footstep, there's so much left to see, and so much I will never see. In a sense, every day here is full of messages that slip by, of things I overlook. If I have finally settled in here, maybe it's time I allowed myself to slow down a little and let things sink in. The best days are the ones where you can just sit back and muse. Finally seeing that more than justifies visiting the sad sights of the day.

The other things going on in my life:

- My ear infection is gone. My ears still feel weird, however, but the good doctor told me that was simply congestion. She said the only thing that was going to really cure me was to get out of the Santiago air.

- My program does its "goodbye dinner" next Friday. Already. There's also a "re-entry workshop," to talk about going back to the US (a good month and a week before I do, but there's plenty of free coffee, apparently).

- I plan to travel north to the Atacama Desert the first week of July. The air there is so dry and clean that many of the world's largest, most technologically advanced astronomical observatories are located there. If that doesn't cure me, what will?

- I have a paper and a test due next week, a paper and a test the next week and a paper the week after that. I'm ahead on all of it, and most of the work is disturbingly simple and easy. In general, classes here have been disappointing in how easy they are and in how little they teach.

- Ecuador is into the second round of the World Cup. If you're not too busy supporting the US, give the poor, overlooked Andean nation a little bit of your love.
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