I Feel the Earth Move Under my Feet: Earthquakes and Such

If you know anything about Chile you have probably heard about: the 33 Chilean miners that were trapped after a cave-in (and subsequent movie detailing this drama), Chilean sea bass (which is just a marketing gimmick and not actually a thing), and the number of earthquakes this country experiences. In fact, the largest earthquake EVER recorded is the 1960 Valdivia earthquake with a magnitude of about 9.5. In comparison, the 2011 Virginia earthquake that damaged the Washington Monument (and upended patio chairs everywhere) was a 5.8.

Scenes from Virginia's 2011 Quake

And when I say lots of earthquakes, I mean pretty much every day somewhere in Chile you can feel an earthquake. It is such a (beloved?) part of their culture that they even have a drink named after these famous terremotos: a sickeningly sweet blend of dessert wine, ice cream, and grenadine that will cause you to stumble around like the earth is moving underneath you. Pretty much every Chilean drinks this classic cocktail all September long during the celebration of fiestas patrias.

I actually felt my first earthquake in my first week here in Maria Elena. I remember it was a Friday afternoon and I was sitting on my bed relaxing when I felt a noticeable shudder. My host father, when asking me later if I felt it, said “Bienvenidos a Chile!”

Since then, I have felt a few quivers and quakes and on Halloween night there was one big enough to wake me up in the middle of the night. But fortunately, I have not experienced one that resulted in any major injuries or property damage. A previous volunteer here was not so lucky. In 2007, my host family hosted their first English Opens Doors Program volunteer (I am their third). That is the year of the big Maria Elena earthquake.

Although from what I have heard there were not any deaths here in Maria Elena, much of the town was leveled and it took quite a while to rebuild. My host family talks about how frightening it was, and you can still see signs of the damage. I live in the “chalets” on the edge of town, single family homes that are allocated to bosses over at the mining company. Many of them are boarded up and abandoned. I assumed this was because there were fewer people living in town overall as saltpeter mining continues to wane in importance. But no. These houses were damaged during the earthquake and never got repaired.

Again, I am lucky. The biggest inconvenience I have experienced due to an earthquake is the cancelling of a tour. Over the long weekend November 1-4, I went to Iquique and signed up for a tour on November 2 to go out and visit the red lakes. On the evening of November 1, an earthquake struck near the red lakes area, causing lots of rock and rubble to fall on the road. It was impassible, and we could not go on the tour. Fortunately, the tour company refunded my money with a shrug saying “eso is Chile.”

All was not lost, though. I ended up hanging with two other volunteers from the program (one who lives in Tocopilla and one who is living in Iquique). We ended up going out to Humberstone, Pica, and some thermal baths out in this desert oasis. And of course, barbequed some meat. Although I do not think I will have another chance to visit these red lakes, which is a bummer, it ended up being a lovely time. I wonder what adventures await me next week…

You’re Welcome Here: Chileans are the Perfect Hosts

As we enter the last few weeks of my time in Maria Elena, I am reflecting on what I have enjoyed about my experience here so far. Something I have been very grateful for is that Chileans are THE perfect hosts. I have been constantly impressed by the little ways people check in on me or show that they care. I enjoy being invited to go to lunch, or tea, or an asado and I try to join people for meals as much as possible (but sometimes its just too late on a school night for me – Chileans like to eat late). During fiestas patrias I missed an asado at the school (I was not feeling well – too many empanadas and completos) and multiple people at the school, including the principal, came up to me later to ensure I felt welcome at school events and invite me to the next one.

One of the things I enjoy the most is the constant sharing of food. I love food, and probably anyone who has ever eaten a meal with me knows that I love to try and sample as many things as possible. I would much rather us get two plates to split than I eat my meal and you eat yours. Fortunately for me, a lot food is shared here. Big platters of meat come off the grill at asados, and you can choose whatever you want! At restaurants, often a number of dishes will be ordered and shared family style. And students enjoy sharing their snacks with me, just to see how I will react to the different (and sometimes bizarre – e.g. pickled onions) food.

Since there is not always much to do or see IN town, I am fortunate that some folks here are interested in taking me places nearby. There have been some days where I have nothing to do, so I will just go for a walk. Next thing you know I run into people that I know in town, we start chatting, and before long I have an invitation to tea or to go out for a ride in the desert to see something. A lot of people were born and raised either here in Maria Elena or nearby, and they are so knowledgeable and proud of the surrounding area and eager to share it.

Some people have really gone above and beyond. I am of course living with a host family, and they have taken me in as one of their own, making me feel welcome and comfortable, helping me with anything I need, and introducing me to others around town. For example I mentioned that I liked avocados, so there is always a mountain of avocados available at the house. I have been extremely fortunate to have them, especially my host mom Rosa, as a support system here.

And I was welcomed graciously as a member of the family over the fiestas patrias holidays by my friend Yari’s family in Antofagasta. Everyone is really interested in where I plan to travel after my teaching is up and how they can help me as I go along.

While it is still a struggle to express myself fully and create deep relationships without a full grasp of the language, I can only appreciate the beauty of this culture of sharing. Even if at times I feel like an outsider (because, really, I am an outsider), I also feel welcome and comfortable. As we enter my last few weeks here in Maria Elena, my excitement to start exploring other parts of this country – like Patagonia! – is only increasing.

A Feel for History: Walking with Pinochet

Anyone who knows me knows I love history. It was always my favorite subject in school. I read presidential biographies for fun and The History Chicks is one of my favorite podcasts. For crying out loud, I used to be a volunteer docent at a small historic tavern museum in my quaint colonial town (holler, Gadsby’s Tavern). So, it has been fun for me to explore Chile through its history, and here in the mining lands of the desert you can ride around through these abandoned towns and literally walk through history you guys. It’s super awesome.

One of the more interesting chapters in Chilean history is undoubtedly the overthrow of the Allende government in 1973 and the installation of Pinochet who ruled through a military government until the 90s. I am far from an expert on the man, but Pinochet is widely recognized as a dictator who really enjoyed building the nation’s infrastructure but had a very casual regard for human rights.

But it isn’t black and white. Many hate him and are deeply affected by what are referred to as “the disappearances” – the thousands of intellectuals, political enemies, old people, and other ‘undesirables’ or enemies of the state that vanished during the Pinochet years never to be seen again. It was at this time that the cueca, the national dance I saw performed dozens of times during fiestas patrias, became a form of protest. Traditionally a pair dance, women would dance it alone to highlight their missing partner. It was such an important act during those years that Sting even made a song about it.

Others appreciate what Pinochet did to build the country, including some of the roads that unite the country and allow thousands of people a year to visit Patagonia (as I will be doing in a few weeks, hopefully). Furthermore, I have heard that as long as you didn’t speak out against Pinochet you actually had more freedom under him than under the previous Allende communist regime (which, for example, limited freedom of movement in and out of the country). This side of the debate doesn’t sit too well with me, though. It is too close to saying “well it’s not a problem for me, so it’s not a problem” …

Regardless of your opinion, it is strange to think about how recently all this happened. Pinochet didn’t leave power until after I was born. There are constant reminders and touchpoints of the Pinochet years. I saw it even in my first week in Chile, when I was in Santiago for my program’s training and orientation. Every day we went to our classroom on Calle Londres, and we would see walking tours stopped at the building next door. For some reason, it took a few days for us to investigate further because it appeared to be a normal building. Until I noticed the graffiti that said “aqui torturaron a mi hijo.” Here they tortured my son.

In addition to this prison/torture house in the middle of a modern city, I have also seen literal signs related to Pinochet in the desert. In Pedro de Valdivia, someone left a poster next to someone else’s grave, hot pink and eternally hopeful, begging for information regarding one of the “disappeared.”  Recently, I had the chance to go to a place called Chacabuco a former mining town that closed its gates in the 1940s and became a national heritage site.

In the 1970s, the Pinochet regime turned this heritage site into a concentration camp for men who were predominantly intellectuals and political enemies. The guide informed us that other than one suicide, no prisoners died here. Just your regular torture, I suppose. It was eerie walking around the abandoned towns seeing messages on the wall, both from those who were imprisoned there and those keeping the memory alive.

News and popular culture consistently refer to these years. The news has recently been covering the death of a woman who had spent the majority of her life trying to find her husband, children, daughter-in-law, and unborn grandchild who got caught up in the disappearances as well. People still frequently listen to Victor Jara (rest in peace) and Illapu, some of the bands famous for protesting Pinochet in that time. History is never gone.

To wrap this up with a positive note, while we were wandering around he ruins of Chacabuco my friend Andres asked me if the US has ever had a dictator. Of course, the US is far from a perfect country and has faced very rough times both in the past and at present. While the current states of politics in the US is definitely cause for concern, we have not lived under a violent dictatorship that completely suppresses freedom of speech and creates a culture of fear to the extent that Pinochet did. May it always be that way.

**Para que nadie pierda la memoria porque soy parte de esta historia/ So that no one loses the memory because I am part of this story**

— From the song “Tres Versos para una Historia” by Illapu