Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye Noughties, and Good Riddance

There's something about the end of the year that makes people all nostalgic. Like, life will never get any better than it was in 2009. Pity its over.

Its also the time of the year to pass judgment. From our wise old perches at the end of December we can decide what we liked and didn't like about the year, with all the wisdom of .. well I guess a one year old. Because of course it's not acquired wisdom, for after all this reflecting and soul searching the very next thing we do is go and drink ourselves into a stupor on New Years Eve, thus forgetting everything we learned and ensuring that we start the next year with a blank slate. It's a good system.

Well, as we're not yet quite at the stage where I down another piscola and let off  some illegal fireworks right here in the street, before falling into the gutter and ending up like this guy:

I'm going to give you some reflection and some judgment written here into internet eternity so that I'll have something to remember when I wake up from my piscola/pollo induced coma:


My judgment on 2009 is that it sucked. And, honestly, if 2010 doesn't pull its pants up and start to try harder something's going to crack. Which may or may not be my mental health or my relationship, or both. Sure, some 2009 things were awesome, like working on my first real job in TV. And getting engaged. And not breaking my spine when I fell into the bathtub that time (although the broken rib part definitely goes into the sucky category).But overall, 2009 has been akin to one long visa process, at the point where you've handed in your paperwork and you're just waiting for that magic approved stamp so you can just get on with your life. And you've been waiting so long that you're starting to wonder what the reasons were that you ever wanted the god damned visa in the first place.
That's been this year. And I'm pretty happy to say adios to it.

Oh, and it was the worst named decade in history. Noughties? Give me a break.

Ok someone gimme a piscola and slap me in the face. I'm ready for 2010.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I know its meant to be all about Christmas..

... but first, I feel I really have to draw your attention to the air quality today:

I took these photos this morning from the roof of our apartment building, bringing to mind two questions:
Firstly ... what in the name of the sweet lord am I breathing here?
And secondly.. will I ever be able to have children after this?

Now I know I could have left it there and continued my life in somewhat outraged ignorance, but in the spirit of Christmas and because we live in the age of the internets where no question is merely rhetorical, I asked Professor Google.
Which makes me either a canny internet researcher or a massive geek. Either way, I'm now an expert on air particles.**

Firstly, according to the ever so helpful air quality map provided by Chile's National Commission on the Environment, today's air contamination levels are considered to be 'good.'
Ok, ok ok, hold on people. Do you see the smog out there? Do you see the Andes? No! That's right, you don't. Because the biggest mountain chain in the Americas is currently obscured by a layer of brown smudge. Jeepers if this is considered 'good' I'd like to know what bad looks like. Actually, it probably looks something like a John Carpenter horror film from the 80s.

Perhaps this 'good' classification is not that surprising, because after more reading, I have to tell you (and I'm trying to be as nice as possible, it is Christmas after all) that Chile's classifications do seem a little, shall we say, relaxed. And by relaxed I mean insane.
According to Chile's National Environment Commission, levels of PM-10 (particles in the air less than 10 microns in size i.e. small enough to burrow into your throat, lungs and other organs and leave you with nasty cancers) can reach 100 micrograms per cubic meter and air quality will still be considered 'good.' What does that mean? Well, for some perspective, the limit set in the EU is 50. Yes, that's right, half. Here the Commission's little map tells me I don't need to be 'on alert' until we get to 200ug/cubic meter, and emergency levels are considered 500 or above! Well yes. If 500 micro-whatsits of cancer causing particles are swirling around every cubic meter of air around my head, then I do rather think that is an emergency thank you very much. John Carpenter, you'd be proud.

All I can say is I hope Santa's reindeers have been fitted with gas masks when they do their rounds tonight.

Righ, now I gotta to go see someone about my emphysema. Merry Christmas all.

** Disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on anything. Except perhaps Alaskan brown bears. And how to Google things. Not on air particles. Sorry I claimed I was.

For those eager beavers who want more comprehensive and intelligent commentary on this issue, some recent articles can be found here:
El Ciudadano "El aire que viene para Santiago" (Spanish) 
El Ciudadano "De qué se compone y qué daños causa el aire que se respira en Santiago?" (Spanish) 
El Mostrador "Contaminacion del aire en Santiago se escapo de las manos"(Spanish)
Blog from 2008: chileno "air quality" (English)
New Zealand's PM10 levels

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cheers to That - Things Chileans Like No. 1: Speeches

I don't know whether this is an Australian thing, but there are very few occasions in my life where I have felt the need to impart my wisdom to a random group of people.**

Those in Australia who do feel that need I invite to proceed directly to the Speakers Corner at the State Library where they will be able to stand comfortably on their soapbox and spout off about anything they like (anything they like within the limits set by anti-terrorism legislation of course) and everyone will duly ignore them.

In Chile I don't know if the Speakers' Corner thing is a tradition. What I do know, however, is that there is in actual fact no need for a Speakers' Corner here, because that role has already been filled more than comfortably by a fundamental part of any Chilean social gathering - 'the brindis'.
Yes, its time to put your soapboxes away and sit down people, for its much more comfortable to give a speech from right here at the dinner table.
A long speech. Very long. And ponderous.

Brindis means toast, which to me is something that happens at a 21st birthday party when either your dad or your best friend uses their consumption of the entire contents of the open bar as inspiration for a series of hilarious anecdotes featuring you. I understand the same thing happens at 30th birthday parties, although with less cask wine and more brand-name alcohol. Either way, toasts as I know them are generally funny, irreverent, and most importantly not too long as even the toast maker wants to get to the end part where we all raise our glasses and get back to the real reason that we are there. That is, drinking. We are Australian, after all.

The Chilean brindis seems to be an entirely different beast. For starters, it's not confined to rare and important occasions such as big-number birthdays or weddings. Nope, all it takes to make an appropriate moment for you to start dinging your cutlery against your glass is a simple table-full of people, preferably the instant they have just been served the hot portion of their meal, which of course they will now have no chance of consuming as in Chile it is considered rude to eat while someone is toast making.
With regards to the length of your toast, short and sweet is definitely out - think quantity over quality. The longer, the better.
Furthermore, for prime toast giving, make sure you are middle aged and a man, as the Chilean brindis seems to be almost exclusively the territory of the Chilean Dad. I have NEVER seen a Chilean Mum initiating nor giving a brindis. Actually, I've never seen anyone other than the said Chilean Dads doing so (cue discussion on machismo and/or paternal societies). But any reluctance on the part of everyone else to participate in the toast giving is more than made up for by said Chilean Dads, as they are quite happy to make multiple toasts. Get two Chilean Dads together at a table and they will take it in turns to pontificate to the captive crowd, repeatedly, at length, one after the other. I kid you not.
Finally, in the Chilean brindis, while it is customary to dedicate your toast to the person in question, you are under absolutely no obligation to confine the contents of your speech to that person and his/her achievements. Actually, the wider the range of topics that you can incorporate, the better. Rhetorical questions are also good, as are philosophical ones. I was at a birthday celebration the other night where an all time classic brindis was given that started off with Happy Birthday and ended up with the speech giver's thoughts on evolution, with a detour to consider the question of love somewhere in the middle. Bejeezus. If we didn't all need a drink before that, we certainly did afterwards.

So with the silly season and no doubt multiple toast giving opportunities nearly upon us, I would like to take a moment now to dedicate a toast to the Chilean Dads, for only they know how lonely it is to be always giving the speeches, and never receiving them.
Dear Chilean Dads, during the course of many meals, and thus many of your fine discourses on life, the universe and all that, I feel that I've learned a great deal. What have I learned? Good question. I've learned to listen out for the melodic tinkle of your fork against your glass and to take it as a cue to immediately eat as much as possible while my dinner is still hot. I've learned that surreptitiously drinking while you are making your toast is a good idea and that if people think I'm a crazy foreigner with no manners, that this is at least preferable to being sober. I've learned that I understand your speeches better if I am not sober. And I've learned that it certainly ain't over till the fat lady sings, or till your wife tells you that enough is enough and takes away your glass.
And so I sincerely thank you for taking the time out of your busy social schedule to educate, nay, to enlighten me on these and any number of other topics. I for one am certainly more informed about love and evolution now, and for that I say cheers!

**Except of course, on this blog.

Photo by Sebduggan on Flickr (note, person depicted probably not a Chilean)

All I want for Christmas is..

... one of these awesome rigs for my camera. Sigh. Santa?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cerro Manquehue, or how we almost died of exposure just ten minutes from the city

Photo from Flickr by Rodrigo Martens

Ask a Santiaguino about what they like best about living in their city, and chances are they won't mention anything about good public transport, friendly customer service or having clean lungs - and rightly so because these things are scarce on the ground here, if not actually mythical. Instead, chances are they will mention being able to leave your house and within a couple of hours drive be either skiing in the Andes in a fluoro 80s ski-suit or, if you drove in the other direction, be indecently exposing large amounts of buttock at a sea-side resort.
Yep, it appears that the best thing about living in Santiago is being able to get out of it.

With this in mind, on the recent long weekend O and I begged a car from his parents (as without one you are pretty well screwed here, or at the very least condemned to spending large amounts of time on rattle-trap buses / with your face jammed uncomfortably close to someone's armpit on the metro) and set out to enjoy what the city has to offer. i.e, we left it. For the mountains.

In a city surrounded by mountains, its funny that they are not a constant presence in people's minds, in fact, people kind of forget that they are there. (For a very funny example of this, see Sara's post on giving directions in Santiago). One reason for this forgetfulness might be the obvious: obscured by the thick smog you could argue that quite often the mountains aren't there.

 Peanut seller on Cerro San Cristobal; note obscured / non-existent Andes in background    
Yet on the weekend, all kitted up with our wheels and ganas de salir, we discovered perhaps another reason that Santiago's mountains are not on the radar here - its damn hard to get onto them.

Chileans love a gated community, and with the city in a constant state of expansion, it is gated communities all the way to the foothills of the Andes. And by gated I mean you may not under any circumstances enter. And by community I mean a group of houses with a big-ass fence all the way around them cutting off public access to anything in the zone plus anything on the other side ie the god damned hills.
Now, there's a lot to be said about this, about a culture of fear, the media, the aspirational middle classes and the fact that I damn well hate fences. Unfortunately for those who like the sound of a bit of semi-political ranting, all that will have to go into another blog post. Once I've slept off my hypertensive migraine.
In the end our first attempt to get out onto Santiago's mountains was, if not actually thwarted by the condos, technically it was trespassing. We spent a while driving around some of Santiago's wealthier suburbs, looking for the public park or hiking trail that I insisted must be there, and found only fences, private land and security guards. On our way up one of the subidas we gave a lift to a skater, who pointed us in the direction of a broken bit of fence through which we could squeeze, proving true the old adage that if you want to do something illegal, your best source of info is a teenager with a skateboard. Squeeze we did and our picnic was fine, the bad feeling in my stomach coming not from the food, but from the fact that we had to force our way into an area that should, in my not-so-humble-because-its-my-blog opinion, be available for everyone to enjoy, not just those willing to break property laws.

Not to be defeated, and slightly delirious after an all-night film shoot so randomly hilarious that it will get its very own blog post in the coming days, the next day we decided to climb Cerro Manquehue. As a disclaimer, and before you read the rest of this post, this undertaking was described to me, by Chileans, as 'a walk up a hill, although perhaps you shouldn't wear those sandals.'

Cerro Manquehue is the big volcano looking thing just outside Las Condes. You can see it from the city. Perhaps the fact that it looked like a volcano should have tipped me off that what we were about to do was not, essentially, the smartest decision. Yet strangely it did not. Thus I can now report that despite all appearances Cerro Manquehue is a) not a volcano and b) not a bloody hill. It is a mountain.

Its also the exact place we had been looking for the day before - I'm not sure what the legal status of the land is but I can say that there are no fences and a lot of paths, so I'm guessing that its either public access or that no-one cares much. Regardless, its a wonderful escape from the city, just a short drive from downtown. A walk in the park you might say. So did I. Incorrectly as it turns out.

At a certain stage (ie several hours after setting out and half way up what can only be described as a sheer cliff face) I wondered if we should not, perhaps, be using ropes. Or a helmet. Or at the very least have on us a larger supply of water that two 500ml bottles. I also wondered where the path was. This was a question that we were all contemplating. There was no way to find out, because there was also no cell phone coverage.

Now I've seen Alive, and therefore I know what happens when you get lost in the Andes. So as the prospect of us finding the path faded with every passing moment, I started eying up my companions as potential meals. O, ever the gentleman, assured me that if a reenactment of Alive was going to unfold here on the hillside with Santiago in full view, that at least I would not be first on the menu. Realising that I was not only more succulent but also somehow cleaner than everyone else, and that O was perhaps intending to lull me into a false sense of security before braining me with a boulder ready for first course, I promptly face-planted into a pile of dust and prickles. In fact, I'm fairly sure that Manquehue is Mapuche for Prickle Mountain, such is the prevalence and persistence of the flora. There were thistles god damn it. I thought those things only grew in Scotland.

Having given away somewhat the punchline, that we survived Manquehue and that no-one got eaten, by the fact that I'm still here to write this blog, all that remains to be said is that we scaled that god damned mountain in a way that no-one has before and no doubt no-one ever will again.
The true thorn in my side is that after staggering down the other side, three and a half hours later, filthy and dehydrated, in the carpark we bumped into the two friends who'd we'd been aiming to meet up with on the hill. They were fresh. They were clean. They had water left. They had spent the afternoon drinking beers and enjoying the view.

Oh, and they told us that the reason there were no other people on the hill was because the night before the news had reported of a masked mugger who roamed the trails and relieved hikers of their cameras and wallets.
Somehow, I don't think he would have chosen the path we were on. Small mercies, anyone?