Dieciocho: More than Just a Date

Last week was the big national holiday of Chile. Whether you call it dieciocho or fiestas patrias, September 18 is essentially Independence Day. In the U.S. we get a measly one day off to celebrate July 4. Chileans get at least three days, although schools were out all week (yay for me!), and celebrations commenced a full week in advance of the actual 18th.  I was fortunate enough to attend celebrations in both Maria Elena (with the school, my host family, and the town) and to visit a friend and her family in Antofagasta for a few days. Here’s what I learned dieciocho is all about:

  • Copious consumption: Chileans seem to eat as many national delicacies as they can during the week-long celebration. This of course includes the mountains of meat at asados, but also anticuchos (shish kebabs), Chilean salad, mote con huesillo, and empanadas #alldayeveryday. All of this is chased with a terremoto (a mix of sweet wine, pineapple ice cream, and grenadine) or some chicha. It feels like the all-you-can-eat special that Americans pull off every Thanksgiving… but on Bill Murray-style Groundhog Day repeat.
  • Celebratory events: For a whole week, there is always something going on. Carnivals (ramadas) take over parts of the city, with rides, arcade games, crafts, performances, and food galore available at all hours of the day. Multiple parades take place, including military parades and school parades (which I got to walk in with my schools).
  • Cueca dancing: The national dance can break out at any moment at any kind of gathering, whether at a parade, ramada, low-key family get together…or the middle of English class. What I love about cueca is that everyone is welcome to join in and add their own personal flair to the costumes, the use of the pañuelo (handkerchief), and the jaunty zapateo step.
  • (Compulsory) nationalism: During dieciocho you will see the Chilean flag everywhere – flying from every house, building, and even most of the cars. Turns out the complete saturation of flags is because the law states that you must fly the Chilean flag from your home or residence on the holiday.
  • Chilling with the fam: Ultimately the holiday provides the perfect opportunity for Chileans living up and down this long, skinny country to visit home and attend the festivals, parades, and parties with their loved ones. Although it made me miss home (and sad I won’t be home for Thanksgiving this year) I am so fortunate that I got to spend parts of the holiday with two lovely families that welcomed me in so graciously.

I also took advantage of the full week off to get myself all the way up to Arica, near the Chile-Peru border. I got to take in El Morro, sight of a famous battle that led to the port city changing hands (as described in a previous post), see the world’s oldest mummies (the Chinchorro mummies of the Atacama are about 2,000 years older than their Egyptian counterparts), eat lots of yummy ice cream and Italian food, and take my first bike ride in probably…fifteen years. A fellow volunteer and I biked about 12 miles round trip along the Pacific Ocean to see some caves near Arica.

I had a wonderful time exploring more of the north, and it was nice to hit the road again. But I have to admit, after the bustle of the city and two not very restful overnight bus rides it was nice to come back to home sweet Maria Elena.

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