(note: originally started this post almost a month ago, and just now finished it)
Last week, Chile (by some counts) turned 204. This week I turned 21. Much wine ensued. For Chile, there was also incredible amounts of meat and dance. For me, cake.
Fiestas Patrias is Chile’s biggest holiday. It tops Christmas (which is saying something for a catholic country), Easter, and anything else you can think of. It takes up the entire month of September, practically, because there’s two weeks of preparation, then the week of, and then a week of post-parties and recovery. If September 18th is the happiest day in Chile, the Monday after has got to be the saddest. In the leadup, it was described to me as an event of almost mythical proportions. There would be monstrous grill-outs. There would be barrels of wine. There would be interminable cueca (the traditional dance modeled after chicken courtship rituals). It wasn’t just talk, though. As soon as September hit, people started putting up red, white a blue streamers and decorations everywhere. The weekend markets were full of the colorful and frilly traditional dresses that little girls are practically-speaking required to wear. Instead of sopaipillas, every street corner seemed to sport at least one guy hawking flags. Everywhere along the roadsides (including the freeway) were people selling paper kites, another tradition, to take advantage of the brisk spring breeze. With all of this mercantilization, people have to save up for the entire year to be able to celebrate. And oh boy do they celebrate! 3kg worth on average, as goes the most oft-repeated fact of the holiday, in pudge. That’s six and a half pounds gained in one week!
I decided to go to Chillán for the holidays to spend them with family friends. I wanted to go, and was convinced by friends that it was the right idea. Chillán, they told me, is much better than Valparaíso for the traditional stuff, and besides, how was I going to get the grill-out experience living in a 7th floor apartment? I think I chose right. Valparaíso would have meant much more alcohol and a lot less meat, a bad idea for someone with a conveniently-timed intense headcold and later stomach infection. Oh the joys. Instead, I got 3 asados (grill-outs), 2 quite sub-par and vaguely hilarious attempts at cueca and 1 trip to the countryside.
I spent most of the time at the house of my ‘nana’, who took care of me as a baby in Chillán, and her three kids. It was a return visit after having spent a couple of days there before moving to Valparaíso during the semester. My first day there, Amely, the daughter who is a little older than me, and I, in my vaguely dizzy resfriada state, wandered around town and ate ice cream and talked. It didn’t help that I’d spent the night traveling in a bus, arriving in Chillán at 5:30 in the morning, only to finally pass out in my bed until 9am. Meanwhile, Gaspar and Davy, the oldest and youngest, spent the day rotating the tires on their van in preparation for the next day. During onces, “can you push?” they asked me. That’s when I knew the next day would be an adventure.
Wednesday we woke up early to eat empanadas and drink a tea before heading out. We piled ourselves, an immense amount of food, a toolbox, lots of clothing and several gallons of water into the van and were off. About 20 minutes after making it onto the highway, we pulled over to the side of the road because the engine didn’t feel right or something. Amely and I piled out and Davy proceeded to take off the cover for the engine, which was just behind the front seat, and fiddle with it for a while. With some coaxing and pushing and a constant mechanical dialogue between Davy and Gaspar in the driver’s sat, the engine started up again and we were off. Everyone was completely calm. I took their cues and continued my friendship bracelet unpreturbed. After all, we had a ton of food and Davy is about to finish high school training as a car mechanic.
|the youngest throws the farthest|
|at the old swimming hole|
It was a great day. First stop was at a grey, industrial looking lake where we had a rock throwing competition. Davy, the baby, won hands down. He’d probably be a good physicists, what with a solid grasp of mechanics and mastery of projectiles. They asked if I wanted to drive, and I said sure, thinking I’d just drive around in the gravel parking lot. So, with only Amely with me in the van, we set off. Gaspar and Davy, thinking I was leaving for good, started running after. Retrospectively, they shouldn’t have been so eager to get in. I hit one pothole so hard (because, in my defense, the brake was super far away from the gas) that the glove compartment box popped open and all its contents flew onto Davy’s lap. The poor van saw worse, though. Gaspar, forgetting that he had to shift into first for a particularly steep hill, upon realizing this had to stop and back down what little we’d climbed. The time before, he’d done the same thing, but, not paying enough attention, had smashed into the left gutter on the road and had to get towed out by a passing truck. In his attempt to give the left roadside a wide berth, of course we backed right into the right one. Thankfully, with much pushing and gravel spitting out, we escaped a possible towing situation and continued, this time in first gear.
|a successful rescue effort|
Our destination was the family’s land in the hills 2 hours from Chillán. In a more difficult financial time for a year and a half, they had lived up there in a house they half built. I think they’re time in the countryside for those 18 months was a lot like Costa Rica for me, a kid’s paradise. There was a river, endless woods to explore, a frigid stream where they built a dam to make a bathing pool, a horse. Even though it was hard work to rebuild a lot of the house after the earthquake in 2011, and hard work to get the van ready to return, they come back when they can to eat a picnic and visit their old haunts, hacking through ever-encroaching pricker bushes. I felt really honored to be allowed into this annual ritual, allowed to tag along with these three tight siblings in a rare day of goofy fun.
|at the river at last
(Amely, Davy, Gaspar, me)
Other highlights, besides roadside adventures, included Amely driving the van for the first time. I think both of us were equally terrified of collisions with oncoming cars and equally jostled by the other’s skill-less gravel road driving. I walked right through a nest of sancudos, which are kind of like huge lathargic mosquitoes that could also pass for daddy long legs, to find myself covered with them when we reached the river. We saw two black slugs that oozed yellow goop when poked. Gaspar showed us where he’s going to build his house when he gets the money to buy the land from his uncles. We ate a very well-deserved lunch in which each one of us was allotted 1 liter of chocolate milk. (!!!)
|“this is where I’m going to build my house”
— Gaspar, on buying the land from various uncles once he gets his resources together
The evening brought an asado at the house of one of Veronica’s full grown sons. We each got three large pieces of meat and wine or punch was pressed into everyone’s hands. This son, Cristian, seems to live for the asado. His house is pretty small, but sports a sizeable covered patio with a grill installed in the floor. I asked how often he hosts asados, and he said whenever there’s a free weekend and they have enough money. Like so many family gatherings, this one seemed to move in a rhythm that everyone tacitly understood. First we go and hang out and eat some little snacky things (Chilenitos, which are sweet bread with icing on top, and baby empanadas). Then we continue to hang out, talk and watch TV for a while, with a quick run to some relative’s house to deliver empanadas. We congregate in the patio and watch the progress of The Meat, possibly eating choripan (mini hot dog of sausage in a roll) to get warmed up. The table appears and in front of each person is placed a plate piled with Meat. There are plenty of salads in various states of mayonaise to choose from — pea, potato, corn, lettuce, tomato, onion. We eat and drink some wine until everyone gets that dilated-pupils over-stuffed look, at which point, after a lul in the conversation, the table is cleared away and we are persuaded to cueca. We cueca until everyone has reach their Dancing Embarrassingly Limit, at which point the adults retire to the sideline to smoke cigarettes and talk and the young’uns are left to their own devices. This resulted in about an hour of pollito, which is kind of like marco polo without the marco-ing and polo-ing. Whoever’s “it” is blindfolded and has to grab one of the people avoiding them. As you can imagine, much taunting and poking of the blindfolded one is involved. Luckily, I was the only one to collide with a post in an ill-placed lunge after Gaspar. And mostly, after about 5 minutes of stumbling around, the dodgers would feel sorry for the pollito and let them catch someone. Cristian’s daughter at age 7 provided the impetus for this game and most of the energy. After a while, exhausted from hiking and driving and Meat, none of her pleas could get us old kids off the bench where we hoped that if we looked tired enough, the adults would take notice and let us take leave.
The next day was spent recovering from the previous night’s festivities. For the chileans, this involved sleeping a lot and a nice long breakfast with tea. For me, to their utter astonishment, this involved a run. Their response to “it’ll be short… 20 minutes or so” was met with a response that can be described only with the adjective ‘agape’, in the incredulous way, of course. We hung out in the house, mosly clustered around the wood stove, and, once the adults left the house, Gaspar, Amely and I had a really nice conversation. The kind where you share deep soul thoughts and, in the sharing, learn some more about yourself. Where you feel safe and also understood and like the other person is even listening to the space in between your words.
Eventually it was time to go to the asado I’d been invited to at the house of Chechi’s (childhood babysitter) parents where her family and the neighbors and a random cousin all converged for the evening. There was a nice mixture of rehashing the old days when my parents were in Chillán (my dad was apparently quite game for the cueca), random games that kids play to keep themselves occupied (there were 4 between Chechi’s kids and the cousin) and adult conversation when we’d retired to the living room because of the cold.
|near the river|
Times like in Chillán make me realize just how much I want to live in an intergenerational setting. It was nice to play goofy kid games like pollito and I Spy, and at the same time I treasure the conversations I’ve had with Amely and Gaspar who are more my age, and then it’s really interesting to talk to Chechi about gay rights or her husband’s experience with cultural conceptions of time in the US and Chile. I’ve been in settings where everyone was either my age or my parents’ age for so long that I’ve forgotten how much I miss mixing it up. I am just as out of practice entertaining little kids (something I could do unthinkingly for so long growing up) as interacting with people my grandparents’ age. I remember writing in one of my first blog posts in Chile that while El Salvador had felt like an experience, Chile felt like my real life. There is a similar analogy, I think, to made between my learning process in Wellesley and here in Chile. At Wellesley learning is structured and constrained to a specific environment almost exclusively with people within 3 years of my age, whle in Chile I learn factual knowledge alongside people in a much greater age range with cultural sensitizing and linguistic competence building intertwined. Wellesley feels like school, while Chile feels like an education. And it’s the kind of education I want to have for many more birthdays.