Wandering in America del Sur

Travel time: July 2005 - March 2006  |  by Allison Webb

The price of progress?

Imagine you are at work, the decibel level being similar to that in a club at home, cel phones ringing with all kinds of frivolous ring tones, and your email is full of jokes, personal comments and all kinds of messages, non work related, clearly not fitting into the DFO acceptable use policy! And it is the Undersecretariat for Fisheries, where you look out from your cubicle onto the busy port of Valparaiso. The sound of children´s laughter as your colleague brings her daughter to the office for half a day every day. And when you least expected it, your entire desk will collapse because the lazy workers decided to install it with only one screw! Ah yes, workman´s compensation obviously doesn´t apply here. And you feel lucky to even have your own cubicle because in your section, several people are sitting elbow to elbow, sharing their spaces while the department grows and grows with the use of contractors - permanent staff being rare.

And when you´re not at work, you are marvelling at how you are living in a construction zone as progress is threatening to come to the Region de Valparaiso in the form of a shiny new commuter train, the Metro. The ads on the billboards seem like empty promises as the dust fills my apartment, the street outside is dug up, and my walk to the bus is along a different path everyday while the streets are blocked off. Flimsy makeshift boards are placed haphazardly across holes and hanging wires mean ducking at all the right times and safety is all relative! I have learned to be very careful where I walk and keep my eyes on the road. Dress shoes are completely treacherous and jumping skills are highly important to avoid stepping in potholes the size of craters. And on the weekend, instead of sleeping in, you get to awake to the sound of machines digging and as you walk by the construction workers peer at you - worse when you are wearing spandex on the way to the gym and suddenly you could be anywhere. But you´re not. You´re in Vina del Mar and when this marvel is finished it will be incredible and modern and bring the Region into the 21st Century, but for now it is all just glossy pictures that promise the future -a future I will not be here to see. All pain, no gain!

But the trains are already here, waiting and everyday when I see them I feel envy at the possibility of riding the rails to work - fast, cheap and safe - something which the road from Valparaiso to Vina is not. But already there are problems, vandalism, a national hobby, has already taken its toll on the new plexiglass and I wonder just how long it will look clean, but for now, the train is beautiful, untouched, with the guards by its side, watching and waiting for the next incident.

And as an election promise it will be finished before the end of this government on Nov 30. And they are serious about that, overtime has started in a serious way, working all day and night including the weekends, the sound of power tools lulling me to sleep (not! earplugs now my friend). And I will watch the election on Dec 10th with interest. The country certainly doesn´t seem seized by politics. While on the weekends, campaigners meet the shoppers at the mall with pamphlets in their matching t-shirts, they mostly look like bored teenagers, hanging out without purpose. But they are extremely serious about their signs. Gigantic looking like candidates on steroids, filling all the boulevards, streets and squares as if more than life sized image will leap out and touch you as you walk past.

The favourite candidate is a woman, but apparently with every tv debate her star is falling. Elections are set for Dec so we will see just what transpires. Engaging Chileans in a political debate is like extracting teeth, most of the ones I know are not all that interested so I wonder if any change will come after the same party has been in power for almost 2 decades ...

And life continues on here, with the mystery of grocery shopping now mostly unveiled, food being incredibly cheap - one of the only things along with the good Chilean wine. Laundry a matter of whims of the weather. If it´s sunny and/or windy you can get your things dry, if not, you have to wait another day. And just now I am sitting here two windless, sunless days in a row with my things still damp on day 2 of the weekend with little hope that they will be dry before sometime next week. Murphy's law of weather - always sunny M-F, but cloudy on the weekends!

But for good things of which there are also many, there's pilates at the gym with Maria Paz which is bringing order and strength to my life, not to mention teaching me useful new words in Spanish like "relax"! And during my 30 minute walk to the other side of town where the gym is, I wander through quiet, tree lined streets where the scent of roses fill the air and colour bursts forth from all the balconies and gardens of the highrises because somehow Summer is finally coming to Vina (slowly) and I have waited a long time for it. The fruits and vegetables stands on the street teem with fresh strawberries and cherries - their bright red, irresistible!

And speaking of red, there is the fire department, such a unique Chilean institution. Recently they have been out fundraising in the mall and on the streets, flagging cars at intersections and I figured that it was like at home, money for hospitals, but turns out it's for their core funding because they are 100% volunteer. Although they receive professional training and are certified, all on duty are non-paid volunteers which is a source of pride for them. Apparently various offers to pay them have been turned down as they want to continue on as volunteers. I wonder if they have considered the fire fighters calendar for some extra pesos???!!!

And while I haven't seen any woman firefighters or bus drivers (apparently they are too sane to try the last job!), there are plenty of female policeman with their hair up in buns underneath their small hats, looking like you don't want to mess with them. The other day right in front of me on a small street in Valparaiso, the police car screeched to a halt and out jumped a female police officer who tackled a woman who was running away as a growing crowd looked on. Apparently the Chilean Carabineros (Police) also, always get their man or woman as the case may be! And they are the most trustworthy police force in South America, not a bribe to be taken here so don't even consider it. And while the locals may not always respect them, in this continent they are a rarity with their motto "Value and Honour" being more than empty words.

And speaking of words, there are my doorman, proudly wearing the Vancouver, Canada t-shirts that I brought them from my trip home and as I come through the door, they greet me with "good afternoon" and as my steps recede I hear them practicing "good morning, good evening, good afternoon" in hesitant English as I grin from ear to ear as I think about the cross pollination of culture.

And so life continues on in this city, growing by leaps and bounds, construction filling the air as more condos go up, superstores and progress seems to be in the air, but is it all just show, who knows? My colleagues tell me that the gap between rich and poor is growing, but it's hard to know when all the stores are thronged with people shopping and the streets are chock'a'block at 8pm, everyone with shopping bags in hand and Xmas is coming. Is all this investment in infrastructure at a cost of an even poorer public education system where none of my colleagues will send their children, but instead pay for private school? And who will reap the benefits of more and glossier stores? I don't know - maybe everyone, maybe not.

And after 4 months, I'm still floating on the surface of this country and one of its regions in particular, but I'm having the time to discover certain things like the national obsession for bread, but other things take time which I do not have ... But for now, I'll keep wandering the streets and soaking up the summer sun, the cool nights and trying to understand a totally different culture and language as only an outsider can do.

The bright new shiny commuter train which I won´t get to use : (

The bright new shiny commuter train which I won´t get to use : (

Still with the plastic on - the new turnstiles

Still with the plastic on - the new turnstiles

construction on my street - my apartment is only a few buildings away

construction on my street - my apartment is only a few buildings away

The construction zone

The construction zone

With Ana Clara, adorable daughter of my colleague, Andrea

The busy port of Valparaiso

with my very good friend, Maria Paz in front of our office

with my very good friend, Maria Paz in front of our office

It´s a cubicle world!

Part of the proceeds of your newspaper subscription goes to support the firefighters!

Part of the proceeds of your newspaper subscription goes to support the firefighters!

With my fantastico Spanish teacher, Carmen

With my fantastico Spanish teacher, Carmen

Election frenzy

© Allison Webb, 2005
You are here : Overview The Americas Chile The price of progress?
The trip
 
Description:
My trip through Peru before heading to Chile to work for 6 months and then travels afterward in South America
Details:
Start of journey: Jul 05, 2005
Duration: 8 months
End of journey: Mar 02, 2006
Travelled countries: Peru
Chile
Argentina
Uruguay
Ecuador
The Author
 
Allison Webb is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 15 years.