Monday, September 28, 2009

Chilean Cowboys

I've been wanting to write about the national celebrations in Chile for a week now, to explain what they were to me as an outsider, and what they seemed to be to the people here, to say something about patriotism and small beauties but far from insight and revelation all I've got right now is rage. Howling, screaming, weeping rage at everything Chilean.
Our apartment looks onto the riverfront in Santiago. 'Nice,' you might think, for surely in any city in the world the riverfront is a prime location. Not so here, for Santiago's city planners in all their wisdom have decided that the river shall be host not to peacefull parks or to lively waterside cafes, but instead to not one, not even two, but to three of the city's largest and busiest roads. From my bedroom, I look onto fifteen lanes of traffic. And our apartment is on the second floor.
The noise level is literally making me weep. It never stops, not at midnight, not at two in the morning. I'm sleeping with earplugs in and they don't seem to make a blind bit of difference. And they hurt my ears. The only way to deal with the noise of the traffic is to make sure I've got the TV or stereo on even louder in a tangle of competing noises.
It's driving me insane.
I'm furious at everyone and everything. Chilean cowboys, driving their dirty trucks, horns blasting at the first hint of having to step on the brake for any reason. The antisocial and completely insane belief that riding motorbikes designed for motocross or trail biking through the city is and should be acceptable. The use of horns as part of the arsenal of the Chilean motorist. The lack of renovation in this city, which means that old suburbs are simply left to get increasingly decrepit while the city planners and builders simply move their projects to untouched ground, leaving the city constantly expanding and meaning that its impossible to get around without a vehicle. The complete lack of aesthetic sensibility in any element of Chilean life from the dumpy businesswomen in ill fitting brown trouser suits to the monstrous 70s high rises that define the city's architecture.
I'm pissed off.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

On September 11 and Being Complicated in Chile, past perspectives

Here is an article I wrote in 2007 about September 11 and Chile's history:

The Other September 11
On Tuesday 11 September all eyes turned to America as that nation looked back to a different Tuesday in a different September, and mourned its loss.
Far away in the ‘other’ America, that which exists south of the Mexican border, Chile too remembered a day when planes flew low over a nation’s largest city, of buildings in flames and the deaths of  civilians. But it was not thinking of New York. Long before Islamic terrorists made their bid for immortality at the helm of hijacked passenger jets, Chile experienced its own ‘Black Tuesday’ when extremism confronted democracy and won. Yet in this case the extremists piloting the low-flying jets were members of the country’s own air-force, the building in flames was the besieged Presidential Palace from which the President never emerged alive, and the operation was encouraged and supported by the United States.
The September 11, 1973 coup that deposed the democratically elected President Salvador Allende and replaced him with General Augusto Pinochet left the country in the grip of South America’s most enduring military regime. During Pinochet’s 17 year dictatorship over three thousand people were killed or ‘disappeared’. One million Chileans fled the country. These are the official numbers, unofficially, the toll is said to be higher.
During the dictatorship years the coup anniversary was celebrated as the ‘Aniversario del Pronunciamiento Militar’, or Military Declaration Day, and marked by parades and speeches. Even after the dictatorship ended the day continued to be commemorated as a national holiday for another ten years. As recently as two years ago the Chilean army was continuing to salute General Pinochet with a parade outside his home.
Today there is no national holiday yet the 11th of September continues to be a day of declaration. It is a day when protests rage across the Chilean capital. Last year over 79 arrests were made in the capital for riots and violence including a fire bomb attack on the government house. In the poorer districts of Santiago barricades go up early and citizens and police ready themselves for trouble. Those who are not gearing up for confrontation stay indoors.
 The feeling of unfinished business is palpable, and hardly surprising. There has been a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the justice process has been slow and ineffective. Few of those indicted on charges of human rights abuses have seen days in court. Pinochet died last year without ever facing trial. Just last month the man convicted of the 1974 car-bombing murders of Chilean former army chief General Carlos Prats and his wife was released, just seven years after being sentenced to life in prison.
Yet it is an issue as thorny as it is troubling. Unlike other dictators, Pinochet was never forced out, he stepped down after a vote, and continued for many years to perform political duties as a Senator and head of the army. During and after his rule Pinochet enjoyed widespread support from the wealthier sector of society who profited from his free market economic policies. He is praised for saving the Chilean economy and rescuing the country from the grip of Communism. Margaret Thatcher famously thanked him for ‘bringing democracy to Chile.’ At his funeral last year thousands queued for hours in the blazing sun to pay their last respects. One man, the son of the murdered General Prats, spat on the coffin and was nearly lynched by the crowd.
It is this aspect of Chilean society that I find hardest to grapple with. The fact that despite the hard evidence of massive human rights abuses, of institutionalised murder and torture, many people in Chile today look back fondly on the Pinochet era. ‘There was no crime’ I am told, ‘it was safe to walk the streets.’
There is a phrase in Spanish, complicarse, that translates as ‘to be complicated’ about something. It is a clumsy phrase in English, but in Spanish it is an apt description of the relationship between Chile and its recent past. Chileans are proud of their country’s economy and its status as the most ‘developed’ of the Latin American nations, changes that came about under Pinochet. While there are extreme viewpoints at either end of the political spectrum, those occupying the middle ground radiate uncertainty, an inability to look the past squarely in the eye and reject it. It is a feeling of being incredibly compromised, the niggling suggestion that the end somehow justifies the means, that going through hardship and extremity now can be endured if it is for the good of the future. As ideals, they would be at home in the rhetoric of any idealistic leader: Mao, Lenin, even Allende himself.
I spoke to a former member of the Chilean armed forces who served under Pinochet and who as a young officer witnessed the execution of fifteen men. Today he works for the army in a civilian capacity and suffers from depression. I asked him about how he feels about what happened under Pinochet: ‘Very proud’ he answered, ‘I’m very proud of what we achieved.’

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Suitcase Traveller

Recently, for the second time in my life, I used a suitcase.
The first time was when I was about nine years old, going for a sleepover at a friend's house. My parents had this dinky little blue and white 60s era overnight-case, just the perfect size for a kid. I considered it the height of cool: with the case, I was cosmopolitan, even at nine.
I packed it up with all the essentials a nine year old needs for a sleepover, insisting to my Mum that taking the case for a one night stay at the house round the corner was absolutely appropriate. Actually, I don't know if she asked.
It went perfectly until my friend came around to pick me up, driven by her older brother. Perhaps it was part crush, part awe (he was the only older sibling of any of my friends who was even approaching adulthood), but I was determined to impress this guy. The suitcase, with all its blue and white boxy glory, was my secret weapon.
I imagined how it would go: he'd see me standing there, suitcase in hand, and realise that I was not a child, but a traveller, a sophisticate, confident, a person who knows precisely how much or little they need in life, and has it all on hand, folded neatly. After all, isn't this what your luggage says about you?
And even though all that happened was that he looked at me, looked at my suitcase, and, very kindly, offered to carry it; with that gesture I knew suddenly that I'd gotten it horribly wrong, that I should have worn my grungiest clothes and packed a ninja turtles backpack like everyone else. I was just a kid playing at being a grown up.
Perhaps this early experience had something to do with it but for the next twenty years I haven't gone near a suitcase. Travel has meant backpacks, kitted out with pockets in concealed locations, straps for who-knows-what, top-loading, side zippered contraptions that weight in at close to what I do. My backpacks have gone places that a suitcase would never make it, hauled up the dirtiest tracks, flung onto the roofs of chicken filled buses, stowed in the holds of the most unseaworthy looking ferries. They've been a part of the way I've travelled.
But coming to Chile, this time around I packed a suitcase. 
I told myself it was because while I didn't need portability, I did need space. Especially for the 600g jar of Vegemite that was first into the bag. There was no way I was leaving that behind.
Walking through the gates at Santiago airport, bleary eyed from 14 hours on the plane and wondering through the sleepless haze whether O and I would still look the same to each other, I remembered that other time, waiting to be picked up, suitcase in hand.
Who says people change - I'm still humming the same tune.