Los poetas odiamos el odio y hacemos guerra a la guerra — Pablo Neruda
“Pablo Neruda es un Gran Chileno,” our history professor told us. Looking at his life and his world, I’m convinced. Pablo Neruda was a Chilean poet, writer, politician, and professor, but what Chileans love most about him, I think, is his personality.
He was a collector of many things, with a lot of personality quirks. For example, he always wrote in green ink pens, and he had a train relocated to his front yard.
So far, I have visited two of his houses (there were three) and have been very impressed by his whimsical style. I’m inspired by his fun approach to life, and his belief that “la risa es el lenguaje del alma,” or “laughter is the language of the soul.” Honestly, this makes sense coming from a poet who wrote odes to kitchen objects and various fruits.
I’ve been working on a few Neruda-inspired poems this semester that I wanted to share with you. I’m generally nervous about sharing my poetry, but I’m also reminded by Neruda not to take myself so seriously. 🙂 Ok, here it goes:
Laughter is sweet
Like that first crunch of empanada dough,
An easy way to break through the initial awkwardness
Is there a national dance in the US? No, claro, los gringos aren’t very good at dancing.
This was my excuse this weekend when I was asked that question. But the truth is, Chileans aren’t always good at dancing either. It doesn’t stop them from trying, though.
Chile’s national dance, called the cueca, is an obligatory part of every fiestas patrias celebration. For five days, the entire country gets excited about their national traditions. People dress up as huasos and chinitas, eat a lot of empanadas and choripán, and drink a lot of wine. This weekend, I went to a lot of parties where the cueca was danced.
This unique Chilean dance tells the story of the conquest of a woman. It’s danced in parejas, a boy and a girl. At first, the girl acts shy. They circle around each other, coming near and turning away. The guy is supposed to follow her around and stomp near her feet. Finally, at the end of the dance, he sticks out his arm to ask for another. Most times, the girl hooks his arm in his and the audience applauds. I learned that if she wants, though, she can throw her pañuelo on the ground and walk away.
The pañuelos are an important component of the cueca. They are little handkerchiefs that the dancers have to hold in their hands and twirl around. I made sure to have my pañuelo before the festivities began, but Chileans aren’t always that prepared. They improvise pañuelos all the time. It could be a napkin, a scarf, maybe some toilet paper.
In the end, it makes for a pretty unique spectacle. I love watching the Chileans stomp around, twirling their mismatched pañuelos and getting into the character of the dance.
Ask me to dance, though, and I’m a little more hesitant.
How do you find words to describe the Infinite? When I try to explain the beauty and majesty I saw this weekend, especially in Spanish, simplemente no hay palabras. I find myself struggling against my limits. And then the Voice inside me tells me to relax.
“Tranquila,” it says. “We will have all eternity to discover that.” My mind is blown again.
I don’t understand the concept of eternity. But in my limits, I can wonder.
What I learned this weekend is that that’s enough.
Being in the most beautiful place we’d ever seen brought so much wonder to myself and my friends. The trip was filled with exclamations of “¡Guauu!“, “¡Mira!“, “¡Qué hermoso!“, “¡Es maravilloso!” and “¡No lo puedo creer!” We could only marvel at the beauty of the Atacama desert.
Take a look at my slideshow and marvel along with us! Fun fact: it’s the driest desert on earth.
Being somewhere like this also makes you ponder deep questions like why we experience the sensation of beauty. My friend Erin had a very wise and interesting response.
“It’s the size of this place that makes us reflect on our own smallness and insignificance.” And that’s what wonder is. It’s being surrounded by something that’s too big to understand. It’s recognizing our limits of size and understanding.
If we knew everything, nothing would amaze us. If we were bigger or stronger we might not be dwarfed by the majesty of mountains.
Riding around the valle on bikes made me realize how big that corner of the desert was. By the end of the day our butts were sore and legs were tired. I had pushed myself to the limit, for sure. But there was a lot of joy in recognizing my limit; it made room for appreciation of God’s creation.
I think often times we try to push our limits, or forget them. In the process, we lose sight of our place in the world. Truly, we are just one second in the span of history, smaller than one grain of sand in a desert.
We have a choice to recognize that insignificance, or not. Either we accept our place in the world or create a worldview that puts us in the very center. Though it takes a lot of humility to wonder, I can’t help but think it’s worth it.
I met two slightly unpleasant people on this trip. And I feel bad judging them on some short conversations, but I wanted to share what left a bad taste in my mouth– their lack of wonder. A Finnish boy and Australian girl were in one of the hostels I stayed at, and what both of them said was: “I’ve already seen something like that. I didn’t think it was that cool.”
To me, who felt awestruck at the sights I saw this weekend, this attitude surprised me. Maybe I’m just less cultured and important than (they think) they are. But if that’s the price to recognize beauty and value in a place, I’m willing to pay it.
I’d much rather be like our Brazilian roommate, Sabrina, who told me, “pienso que cada lugar que visito es lo máximo”, or “I think that every place I see is the coolest.” I want her sense of wonder to see lo máximo everywhere I go.
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” James 1:19
If you know my personality, you know that I am often a better listener than talker. I’m slow to contribute to conversations, and it seems like when I do speak, my words come out jumbled.
In Spanish, this is ten times worse.
Especially at the beginning of my time here, I was often frustrated by my inability to express exactly what’s on my mind. I forget words like cuchillo (knife), bolsillo (pocket), and silla (chair), and realized I never learned how to say “spill” or “hip.”
When it comes to Latin American poetry, though, my vocabulary is impressive. The words you learn in Spanish class (like dictatorship, military coup, and communism) don’t come up in daily conversation as much, however.
Oddly, I’ve come to appreciate the limits of my Spanish. I’ve also come up with strategies to get around them. But, you know what, listening is an important skill. James tells us to practice listening and practice being slow to speak.
I came to Chile not knowing anything about the culture. Sure, I read up on some history, but I still have a ton to soak up. Which is why I need to listen to people and hear their perspectives. Luckily, Chileans are buenos para hablar– they’ll talk your ear off.
On Wednesday, when that verse from James came up in Bible study, my Chilean hermanos took it as a challenge. For me, I’m already living the challenge. I’m thankful to God for the way He’s using this experience to make me better at listening and forcing me to be even slower to speak. After all, that’s why we have 2 ears and 1 mouth.
I’m a bad vegetarian. I’m not Catholic, but I’m feeling a need to confess.
This last month here in Chile has really tested my commitment to my self-imposed dietary guidelines, and truth be told, they haven’t stood up to the test. I have three (kinda funny) examples of the challenges of being a vegetarian while traveling. Ready? Here we go.
Sushi. (Or as Chileans call it, “su-chi.”)
I guess I’m not the strictest vegetarian to begin with because I’m ok with eating fish. Especially here, in a seaport town, I’m not opposed to a little fresh salmon or ceviche. So, when my host aunt/sister Flo texted me that she was gonna order in sushi for our anime night, I was all in.
“Go for it,” I told her. “I’ll get you back.”
It didn’t even occur to me to mention that I was a vegetarian (or pescatarian). What more is in sushi than a little bit of fish?
In Chile, it’s common to have sushi with chicken or pork. Flo ordered us “handrolls” which had cream cheese, avocado, and a few massive hunks of chicken, all wrapped in rice and seaweed. It wasn’t even cut up in little slices, which I thought was funny. That’s the most distinctive thing about sushi, right?
That, and the fish.
I felt bad when I realized what had happened. And I was too hungry to make a fuss about a little bit of chicken, not when she had ordered me some yummy sushi. So I ate it, and it was good.
Sushi here might not be what I’m used to, but it’s funny. I was glad to have discovered a cultural quirk of Chile. Mixing cultures always ends up being entertaining, and I guess a bit weird.
2. Completos. The Chilean hot dog.
Here’s another cultural mash-up. Imagine an extra-long hot dog slathered with mayonnaise, and topped with an entire avocado, mashed-up of course. Add your typical ketchup and mustard and, if you’re feeling adventurous (or just particularly German), sauerkraut. There you have a completo.
After about two weeks of hearing my gringo friends get excited about this culinary discovery, I was feeling intrigued and interested enough to try a completo for myself. It wasn’t like I went looking for one though. An opportunity fell in my lap one afternoon when I was working on a marine biology project with my Chilean lab group. It was late afternoon, and we were all starving.
Usually in Chile, people eat almuerzo (lunch) at 2 or 3 pm, but once the clock hit 4, we gave up working on our project, resolved to meet another time, and jumped on the bus to Sergio’s favorite completo place. They were really excited for me to try my first completo and since there was a special deal that day (2-for-1) Sergio bought me two, convinced I would love it.
For a hot dog, it was amazing! A completo is the perfect twist on the American classic. Though I wouldn’t eat it regularly, I’m really glad I tried the completo with my Chilean friends. Since then, I’ve had a couple completos without the hot dog (the meat part isn’t the best anyway), but I don’t regret trying it the authentic way first.
3. An Asado (Barbecue).
Did you know that here, people spend Christmas barbecueing on the beach?! And they’re jealous of us for having snow! Personally, I would trade the freezing Michigan winter for a Christmas asado.
Here, we’re reaching the end of Chilean winter. Which I guess means it’s asado season. My friend Sergio invited me again to try some authentic Chilean meat. And I said yes.
We went to his house in a little beach town about 30 minutes away. Then we started cooking. I loved how everyone got involved in the process, but I felt a little useless because one of the tasks I was given was peeling tomatoes. I had to admit I had never peeled a tomato.
About 2 hours later, the pinchos were on the grill. I wish I had a picture, because the amount of food there was impressive. And the meat was rico and juicy.
I had at least 7 skewers. Not to mention the multiple salads, soup, rice, and bag of potato chips I munched while waiting for the meat to roast.
On the bus ride home, I had an awful stomachache.
After that pound-of-meat shock to my system, I think I’ve learned my lesson on staying vegetarian. Sometimes it might be worth it to break it, but I think from now on I’ll stick to salads and veggies to keep my tummy happy.
My friend Luisa has a very sensitive nose. This is one of the first things I learned about her when we met three weeks ago. She sampled my gnocchi and told me it had hints of sweet potato in it. I had no idea.
Luisa’s nose has come in handy various times, like when we were in Santiago and she warned us to stay clear of a marijuana-smelling alleyway. Or that time when she recognized the scent of Peruvian food just out the window and we spent the rest of our class period gazing longingly outside.
Her uncanny ability to distinguish scents has got me thinking about the smells of Valparaíso. It is a city with a lot of different scents I’m grateful to experience. Now, where to start?
Mercado El Cardonal.
This is the big outdoor market in Valparaíso. Although a part of it is indoors, the market sprawls out across the neighboring streets until cars can no longer drive through, and every inch of sidewalk is covered with piles of fruit and vegetables, or vendors selling empañadas. I walk by on my way to class, and I get a whiff of fresh lemons. Another day, it’s bananas or eggplants that are the freshest.
The problem with the streets of Mercado El Cardonal is that at night they become dangerous. It’s a place where lots of drunks hang out. So, combine the smell of alcohol with some piss and leftover garbage scraps rotting in the gutters, and it’s not the most pleasant scent. To be honest, I’d recommend visiting during the day.
Escuela Ciencias del Mar.
My marine biology class is in this building, and it’s my favorite because it looks like a castle. Plus there are often sea lions lounging around on the nearby rocks. We get the smells of the ocean here, a salty misty spray might even hit you if you’re studying on the outdoor patio. There’s also a large fish market nearby, so every time I come back from Escuela Ciencias del Mar, my clothes smell like fish. It’s really fresh though; the mariscos (seafood) here is the best!
Today we hiked up a very steep “hill” about an hour away from Valparaíso. This area was home to the indigenous picunches, before being conquered by the Inca, then the Spaniards. In their native language, mau means suspended and co means water; the suspended water the name describes refers to the low-hanging clouds. While we were up there, we got a refreshing scent of rain, though the shower only lasted a few minutes. The flowers along the way also gave a pleasant aroma, and as my friend Pablo remarked, “el aire huele más fresco arriba” (the air smells fresher up here).
This is the hardest scent to describe. It’s definitely a homey smell, and when our nana, Elisa, is there, the kitchen is filled with delicious aromas of whatever she’s cooking. The house is always spick and span, so I’m sure the cleaning chemicals contribute, and I know the laundry detergent we use is Ariel. The funny thing is, I think I’m starting to lose the ability to distinguish the smell of mi casa. I’m starting to smell like it. It’s become a part of me.
My friends and I were talking the other day about how our houses back home don’t have a scent to us; that’s just the way we smell. Here, too, mi casa es mi casa. My house in Chile has become my home.
Last week, when my Chilean family went on a hike with other families from the church, they turned it into a learning experience for everyone about caring for the environment. It was so sweet how my Chilean parents took it upon themselves to educate people on how to “cuidar la tierra.”
One woman, Gloria, who organized the trip, was also very passionate about environmental issues. I overheard her talking to my little brother, Camilo: “What is this stuff on the side of the road? It’s trash. Camilo, say ‘basura’.”
“Tasuta,” he said back in his baby talk.
“And is it supposed to be here?”
“That’s right, Camilo. Basura is bad for the planet. But we have to cuidar la tierra. We don’t leave trash everywhere.”
And there was more. She talked with Camilo for a while, holding him on her hip, teaching him ways to take care of the earth, and telling him why. This was my favorite part. Gloria told him that God made the earth and entrusted it to us. She said it was a gift, but also a responsibility. In order to be obedient, faithful followers of Christ, we can’t forget about cuidar la tierra.
As we wrapped up the hike, Rocío (mi mamá) and Gloria gave us a little lecture on cuidar la tierra, and they mentioned the responsibility and opportunity we have to make positive changes that protect natural spaces like the one we just enjoyed. I understood and deeply resonated with what they were saying, but as we turned to go I made eye contact with another American girl who had come on the trip with us. Her face looked puzzled.
“They mentioned pizza, science, trash, and God. Then we prayed. What just happened?” she asked.
I laughed, because those things really are connected. But not everyone I talk to sees it that way. I’m really grateful that I’m part of a family (and church family) here that shares my interests and worldview.
In my time in Chile, I’ve met many more people who are interested in preserving and caring for the environment. My lab partner brought in a collection of glass jars he had been saving to recycle, and yesterday I had a conversation with a friend about alternative energy in Chile. Additionally, cuidar la tierra seems to be a theme of national conversation. There are political parties devoted to “green legislation,” and I’ve seen commercials on tv advertising the environmentally-friendly aspects of their products.
Despite this seemingly high level of public awareness, many Chileans I’ve spoken to want to see more.
My host mom, as well as two of my professors, have lamented the lack of environmental education in the school system. So Chileans are making efforts to change that. This weekend, I went to a museum exhibit in the Parque Cultural de Valparaiso focused on environmental issues and innovative ways to cuidar la tierra.
The exhibit touched on themes ranging from biodiversity to pollution to consumerism, and displayed a variety of mediums, including film, false advertisements, and styrofoam cutouts. It was really cool to see artists creating such remarkable pieces for the purpose of raising public awareness of environmental issues.
I think my favorite piece was a digital creation by a Scandinavian artist. He combined a futuristic-looking technology with a beautifully peaceful nature scene. To me, the result is a striking commentary on the interconnectedness of people and the land, and our need for preservation/conservation. But what I liked most about this piece was that it was another conversation-starter on the topic of how best to cuidar la tierra.
Everybody has different ideas on what the best way to cuidar la tierra is, and why (or if) it’s important. I’m just grateful to be participating in the conversation here in Chile. And I hope it’s continuing back home too. I’m excited to bring my new perspectives back to the US in a few months — maybe this blog post can serve as the first link 😉