Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Beggar and the Taxi Driver

The first event I'm going to write about actually happened about three weeks ago, but it didn't really fit into my last update.

It was a cool Wednesday morning, and I was waiting at the bus stop near my apartment to teach a class uptown.  I was listening to some music on my Ipod and was startled when someone approached me.  It was a homeless man (well, I'm assuming that he was homeless given his appearance) begging for money.  His eyes were wide and pleading, and his dirty hand was outstretched.  My first instinct in a situation like that is to just mutter, "Lo siento" (I´m sorry) and go on with my business.

I did just that, but there was something about this particular man.  As he walked down the street he visited a house, and some people that were out on the porch gave him some change.  His curly hair was unkempt, and he was wearing torn up shorts and a shirt that was practically falling off of him.  

I broke into a run to catch up with him.  I didn´t have any change on me, but I had a yogurt and an apple that I was going to snack on during the day.  I tapped him on the shoulder and gave it to him.  He had a pastry and a cup of tea in his hands now  As I put the yogurt and apple into his arm, I realized I didn´t have a spoon to give him for the yogurt.  He asked me for a bag to carry what I had given him, but I didn´t have one.  I felt horrible.

He then placed what I gave him as well as the pastry and tea on the ground and wandered to the middle of the street and was looking both ways.  Luckily there was no traffic coming either way, but I had no idea what was going through his mind.

I made my way back to the bus stop, but I couldn´t get my mind off of him.  People in Chile seem to be pretty sympathetic to the less fortunate.  People will give money to beggars, and it´s common for people will board the bus to play music or explain their financial hardships and ask for assistance.  (As far as I know, there is no unemployment here).  Sure enough, usually more than half of the people on the bus give the person a few hundred pesos (about 50 cents).  It may not seem like a lot, but here that amount of money adds up and can make a considerable difference for a struggling individual or family.

I`ve never done research or much reading about it, but I remember hearing that a lot of homelessness is due to people having mental problems that go untreated or undiagnosed.  There are also people who claim that the homeless are lazy and could find a job if they wanted one, but I think it´s not as easy as that.  

It made me wonder about this man.  How old was he?  Did he have any family or friends?  What was his life like growing up?  What did he do to survive day to day?  And how did he get to that point of his life?

I found myself realizing how much in my life I take for granted.  I cried for the man and the other people here that do without so many basic things on a daily basis half of the bus ride to my class that morning.

Another event happened during a taxi ride on Tuesday evening.  

It´s about a half hour walk from one class to another on Tuesday evenings, but with the colder weather I had gotten into the habit of taking a taxi.  It usually only costs me about 1200 pesos, which is about $2.50 so I consider it a small luxury that allows me to start my class earlier and therefore get home a bit earlier.  (By that time it is already 7:45 at night, and with luck I can get home at 9:30 after I finish my last class).

I got into the taxi and told him the intersection I needed to go to.  He proceeded to take the roundabout where traffic piles up, and I asked him to take the side street to save some time.  He tried to insist that there was no traffic at this time (it was rush hour), and I kindly asked him again to take a side street.  He took a phone call, and as we came out of the side street I told him the more exact address.  He then wanted to go around back in the direction we came, but I asked him to simply go right and leave me at that corner.  He seemed annoyed but went there.

The total came to 1210 pesos, and I handed him a 1000 bill and a 500 peso coin.  I started to gather my things, and he barked at me: "Mira!  Es solo 100 pesos!"  (Look, it´s only 100 pesos!)

I was caught off guard.  I had heard of taxi drivers changing bills on people.  What they do is you hand them a larger bill, (usually 10,000) and when you are looking away for one second they then change it to a 1,000 they had in their other hand quickly.  They then complain that you didn`t give them the correct amount and then get you to give them more.

Sure enough, the coin in his hand was 100 pesos.  I tried to explain to him that I gave him 500 pesos, but he went on a tirade about how he doesn´t try to take advantage of people.  He told me to look in my pocket, and being confused I did.  He then showed me that he didn`t have a 500 peso coin in his coin holder.  (He most likely put it into his pocket or onto the side compartment of the door).  He continued to go on and on and told me to get out and take the 100 peso coin with me.

I was too caught off guard to argue with him any further, and I had already been on the road since 7 that morning.  (It was 8 at night when this happened).  Looking back, I should have stayed put and insisted on the additional 200 pesos he owed me.  I could have told him I was going to snap a picture of his face and take down his license plate and report him and put his information up on Facebook warning others not to ride with him.

I´m not always very good about thinking on my feet (especially in another language), and I got out of the taxi and slammed the door.  If there´s one thing I really hate, it´s the feeling of being taken advantage of.  One of the areas in which I`ve grown since coming to Chile is that I`ve stopped becoming a people pleaser and am more assertive.  When something like that happens, however, it`s a big blow to your self confidence in regards to your language abilities and leaves you feeling stupid and incompetent.

It also highlights another element of living here as a foreigner.  People see that you are different, and they treat you differently.  People from the States in general are viewed as being rich, and so we are more of a target for pickpockets and taxi drivers.  I walk around with my hands in my pockets on my wallet, cell phone, and Ipod.  I usually only take the amount of cash I need with me and only take a credit card or bank card with me if I need it.  I walk around with a luggage lock on my bookbag when I have my tablet or computer with me, and I almost always tell taxi drivers the amount I am giving them as I hand it to them.  (I forgot this once, and this event was the result.)

On the flip side of things, having white skin and being a native English speaker puts you at an advantage for finding jobs as an English teacher.  Sometimes waiters and customer service people will want to practice their English with you, and it´s a nice occasion to add a little variety to someone´s day and put a smile on their face.

I took some deep breaths as I walked into the building for my next class.  My student´s mother must have seen it on my face, so when she asked how I was I was honest and told her what had happened.  She was understanding, and seeing her concern for me was enough to start to relax and forget about it.  My student was well behaved (he´s a creative 10 year old with lots of energy), and by the time class was over the anger had subsided.  It was, however, a renewed reminder that living here as a foreigner that I need to stay on guard to prevent things like this from happening.

I see myself as a pretty serious and introverted person that likes to stick to his routine, but these two events are things that have evoked both sadness and anger in me that I don´t experience too often.

I think it´s easy to update with the things that are going well, but it´s unrealistic to leave out events like these.  Is my life here in Chile perfect?  No.  Is Chile the perfect country to live?  Far from it.  What I figure is that you take the good with the bad, and you find what is going to best make you happy.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

October Adventures

It's almost the end of October, and it's hard to believe that 3 weeks have gone by since my last update.

Life in Santiago is going well.  It is officially spring now, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from the weather.  We have had a few days when it has gotten up to the mid 80s, some days in the mid 70s, but then other days that have been cloudy and staying in the 60s.  I actually prefer when the weather gets to about 70 or so, as it is warm enough that I only wear a windbreaker given my dress shirt and dress pants but not so hot that I sweat.

About a week and a half ago I finished up classes with CORFO.  They were the classes with Chileans that received a scholarship from the government to learn English, and we had classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night for two and a half months.  The classes were intense, but the students were very motivated.  The program brings together Chileans from different ages and walks of life.  In my class I had students that were still in college, some that were in graduate school, and others that were settled in their career but needed to improve their English.  Some of them were in the early 20s, some in their 30s, and a few were in their 50s.  Some had families and a few children already, but many were not at that point in their life yet.  They were architecture students, graphic designers, electrical engineers, mechanics, lawyers, psychologists, chefs, and police officers.  Despite all of these differences they all came together and created an amazingly positive and enjoyable classroom atmosphere that was an absolute joy to teach in.  

I have to admit that I miss the students already.  When you spend 100 hours together in such a short time, you really get to know each other and enjoy the experience.  We are having a barbeque next month to celebrate their (hopeful) success at raising their score on the TOEIC by 100 points.

The flip side of not having class on those evenings is that I have more free time.  As it is I have class on Tuesdays until 9 PM and Thursdays until 8:30, and it's a treat to get home from work before the sun goes down a few days a week now.  I find myself making plans to meet up with friends for dinner, being able to run errands, or walk home from my last class to get some exercise in.

There's good news for soccer fans: Chile is going to the World Cup!  They had a big game in Santiago against Ecuador about a week and a half ago.  People were nervous, as if Chile had lost the game they wouldn't have gone to the World Cup.  My classes that Tuesday night cancelled since they were going to the game, and I got home safely before the game started.  Once it was over, the streets exploded in celebrations, car honking, and general revelry.  It went on for about 3 more hours as the soccer fans invaded the two bars across the street from my apartment, and I didn't sleep to well that night.  Normally I don't mind celebrations on the weekend, but I had to be up on Wednesday morning at 6:30.

Another big thing happening now is the upcoming presidential election.  Election Day here is Sunday November 17th, and so campaigning is happening all over Santiago.  There are large poster put up on canvases and hung around major intersections, but it's not uncommon to find them destroyed or defaced.  Here is one I came across last week:

It seems that Chileans in general do not trust politicians and feel strongly about the divide between the haves and have nots.  My particular view is that participating in politics and following the news about it doesn't contribute to my overall happiness, so I prefer not to focus my time or energy there.

Something else that has been exciting has been The Amazing Race.  Their first destination was Iquique, Chile, and then they went to Santiago!  They had to go to Plaza de Armas, the main square in downtown Santiago, and they had to shine shoes and then pack up the shoeshining cart and take it through the busy pedestrian streets.  After that, they had to take a taxi to cascada de las animas (a waterfall in El Cajon de Maipo) to get to the pit stop.  It was really cool to see places that I knew on television, and after posting on their Facebook page I found out that they were in Chile for 9 days in June.  I don't have any classes in downtown anymore so it's not likely that I would have seen any of the teams, but just the idea that they were here was really cool.

Chile is also being featured in the media in another interesting context: a web series called Gringolandia.  It's about a Chilean man living in New York and his life there dealing with cultural differences while also following his girlfriend.  There will be 6 episodes that will be released in November.  If you're interested in reading more about it, here's a link:

October 31st and November 1st are holidays here, and so it will be nice to have a long weekend.  So many people are traveling that I decided to just take it easy and stay in Santiago, and it will be nice to navigate the city with little or no traffic.

We'll see what the month of November has in store for me here.

Breakfast at a coffee shop in Bellas Artes

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Goodbye September, Hello Spring

It has been about 3 weeks since my last update.  I normally don't like to allow so much time between updates, but my weekends have been filled with a mix of social activities, working, and general feelings of not wanting to do anything that isn't necessary.

September 18th (dieciocho) is Chile's Independence Day, and the celebration tends to last an entire week.  This year was no different.  With the exception of a private class I had the entire week off.  So what did I do with that time?

Well, Monday September 16th was the grand opening of Denny's in Chile.  

This was something really exciting for me.  Having something familiar coming to Chile is a nice comfort and is a bit of a bonus to living here.  I went there with 2 friends around 1 in the afternoon.  The menu was the same as in the States, with the names of the dishes in English but descriptions in Spanish.  It was about 3/4 full, and so I thought that we would have relatively fast service.

(Cue the laugh track here)

Our order was rather simple: a hamburger, a build your own breakfast slam, and a breakfast plate with a Beglian waffle.  My friends and I chatted and caught up while we were waiting, but after about 50 minutes we started getting a bit impatient.  After asking a few times about our food, their food came out in an hour and 20 minutes, and mine five minutes after that.  

We ended up being served by three different people during the entire time, and the last waitress told me that she'd give us something to make up for the slow service.  She promptly returned and plunked a plate of nachos on the table and walked away before I could say anything.  

I normally am not that picky, but it didn't really make any sense to me since two of us were eating breakfast and the other one of us already had fries with his burger.  In the end I told the waiter who gave us the check, and he offered me a breakfast sandwich to go instead of the chips.  I thought it was a much better solution and accepted.

I walked away pretty frustrated, and bad customer service is one thing that really gets to me.  I should really deal with it better since customer service isn't one of Chile's strong suits, but one of my friends pointed out that it was the first day and it was probably difficult for the waiters (who probably don't speak much English) with all of the plates being in English.  They also aren't accustomed to giving people refills on drinks and checking in on them throughout the meal.  I also felt better since it wasn't just our table that got slow service; some people ended up ordering their food to go when it was taking so long, and one poor girl ended up waiting about half an hour longer than her friends for her food to go.

I decided to go back last Wednesday in the mid morning, and the service was much better.  I think they needed some time to acclimate, and I think that I will be going there from time to time for breakfast.  And yes, the food is exactly like it is back home:

So what else did I do during the dieciocho week?

Not too much productive.  I knew that the grocery stores were going to be closed on the 18th and 19th, so I stocked up on food before then.  On Tuesday night the 17th I went to a fonda at the Estadio Nacional.  It was like a huge fair and had games, food, and music all around.  I played some of the games and enjoyed some kettle corn and salchipapas (French fries with sausage), but after walking around for about an hour and a half it got boring rather quickly.

Pretty much everyone I knew was out of town, so I didn't end up doing anything to celebrate on the 18th or 19th.  I also wasn't in the mood to go out and explore on my own, so I stayed in and watched movies, cooked, and continued on my neverending quest to organize all my teaching materials.  

I would be lying if I said I wasn't a bit disappointed with my dieciocho this year.  My first year here was the bicentennial, and the feeling of celebration and having a friend visiting me on top of it being my first year here made it an unforgettable experience.  The past two years I decided to take advantage of the time off and traveled to San Pedro de Atacama in 2011 and Puerto Varas and Chiloe last year, but I decided I wanted to stay put this year.  After having had such a great time the past years, I'm realizing that experiences won't always live up to our expectations.

On a happier note, the weather is warming up here.  It's still a bit chilly in the morning, and most days it is still in the 40s when I leave the house.  During the day, however, it gets up to about 70 or 75.  I consider this nice weather for English teaching.  Why do I say that?

Well, with the cool weather in the morning I can wear a jacket or blazer.  During the day it warms up, and I can enjoy a nice walk in the sun between classes, but it's not warm enough that I sweat.  In the evening it is cool again, but not cold enough that I need to wear multiple layers like in the winter. The weather usually is like this in October and November and then again in April and May, so I'm going to really enjoy these next few months.

I also had a nice afternoon out with a friend.  Her and I met about a year and a half ago, but with completely different work schedules we fell out of touch  Now we both have classes at the same place, and I had about three hours to kill before my next class.  When I saw her I asked if she wanted to do something, and she also had the afternoon free.  We went to Mall Parque Arauco, got some lunch, and checked out the department stores.  (She's looking to buy some new furniture and a bed).  I normally don't get to do things like that during the week with my schedule, so it was a nice afternoon.

Last weekend I had a pleasant surprise on TV: The Amazing Race started its new season, and their first destination was Chile!

Not only that, but they went to Iquique.  If you didn't read my last blog post, Iquique was where I went for the TESOL Chile Conference and where I went paragliding.  And guess what they had to do for one of the challenges on the show?

Yes, they went paragliding!  It was so cool recognizing the airport, the parts of the city, and the area where they jumped from in order to complete the challenge.  One of my friends here is also a huge fan of the show, and we talked about where they are going for the next part of the show.  The preview showed them going to a salt mine (or something related to salt), so we were both thinking that they went to San Pedro de Atacama, but now upon thinking of it a bit more I think they might go to the salt flats in Bolivia  I'll have to watch and see if we are right!

I'm glad to have made it through another Chilean winter.  My classes are keeping me busy, and I'm enjoying the changing of the seasons.  In about 6 weeks I'll be on a plane back to the gringo winter for Christmas, so I'll be making the most of the spring weather here before then.

Thanks for reading and I hope everyone is having a great spring in the Southern Hemisphere and fall up north!