Living the Chilean Life

With the real primary elections on Sunday, TECHO decided to have a mock election here at the office with a special category for “extranjeros” (foreigners). From all the politics that have been circulating the past couple weeks, I still only felt slightly prepared to check a name on the ballot sheet. I signed my name and stamped my fingerprint but wasn’t rewarded with the typical “I voted” sticker as I was in the last presidential elections but then again, I didn’t really vote this time. At the end of the elections, the votes were counted and the megaphone announced “Orrego!”

The conversations didn’t end there however as conversations buzzed about political opinions and discussions all weekend long until we watched the real election primary results of socialist candidate Michelle Batchelet and right-wing Pablo Longueira. Congratulations Chile on your first year of primaries! Good luck in December when it comes time to once again cast your vote.

ImageSo it turns out I’m turning more and more into a true Chilena (always while still representing my home of course wearing my Berkeley sweatshirt). This weekend was filled not only with politics but also with knitting and both cooking and eating some of the typical foods of Chile. America, step up your game because Betty Crocker has a lot of learn about cakes. After sticking a fork into a fifteen-layer manjar cake in celebration of my cousin Maya’s birthday, I don’t think I can ever go back to boxed cake mix and tub frosting. This weekend I learned how to make empanadas, yet another South American delicacy that the North is truly missing out on. After being told that they don’t come out right unless you put ‘love’ into making the dough, I packaged the little picket of dough with a mixture of meat & onions, a slice of hard boiled egg, two raisins and an olive and lined them up on to a pan to be placed in the homemade, outdoor oven. The efforts were not unappreciated and definitely worth the wait as everyone enjoyed the delicious warm, fresh bread and empanadas as they overflowed the kitchen. I was told that I’m not allowed to forget how to make them until I return home and make them for my family and my grandparents. Lunch is the largest meal of they day always filled with plenty of family and friends here in Chile.

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ImageThe other day my younger brother asked me what life was like in Chile, asking me if it was very different from life in America. Having been asked that same question already several times here as new people I talk to ask what my opinion is of Chile and the people here, I had my answer ready. The last time my brother and I had visited Chile was 10 years ago so besides the candies and manjar (that he asked me to bring home for him) he didn’t remember much. I told him that living in the big city of Santiago things are pretty similar to living in a city in the U.S. just with more stray dogs but the big differences appear in the culture and the lifestyle lived by the people. Chilean people are very nice, warm, friendly and welcoming. The women are sweet and the men are gentlemen. They value family and friends much more than work, money and luxury items, where I think a lot of people in America have these things reversed. (I realize I am categorizing and stereotyping and there are plenty of exceptions to the things I am saying but this is what I have noticed of people in general.)

The first difference I noticed upon my arrival in Chile is of course the greeting, as I have mentioned previously, everyone greets you with a short and simple kiss on the cheek. This is the greeting and the approach to saying goodbye that is in place of that awkward moment of question when making the critical decision of whether a hug, a handshake or just a wave would be the most appropriate in every encounter we make in the US. Here the rule is consistent, avoiding any opportunity for awkwardness. Whether I’m just meeting someone or I saw them the evening before I am always greeted with a short cheek to cheek kiss and a quick “Hola, como estas?” – Hi, How are you?

Aside from the greetings, the biggest difference I see here is that Chileans simply have their times wrong. Lunch is typically around 2pm here which pushed dinner back until around 8 or 9 and then going out at night is around midnight resulting in not returning to your house until sometimes as late (or as early, depending on how you look at it) as 4 or 5am. Requiring a full night of sleep, they wake up for a short and simple breakfast and coffee, never ever involving anything close to pancakes, waffles or omelets, just before the next day’s monster lunch. I personally really value my breakfasts, but the one part of these meals that I wholeheartedly approve of, and wouldn’t mind bringing back with me to America, is teatime. (While slightly less popular and consistent than the last time I was here) Teatime happens around 5 or 6 in the evening and involves your choice of tea or coffee and is accompanied by locally made bread with some kind of spread of your choice which might include avocado, jam, cheese, marmalade, or majar (which for those of you who are deprived and don’t know what manjar is, it’s a sweet caramel-like spread that is used in all sorts of deserts including things like McFlurrys at McDonalds or stuffed in churros, or used to spice up a fruit or piece of toast. It is similar to dulce de leche in Argentina and sometimes found in ice cream flavors in the U.S.)

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Meals in Chile are long and often involve several courses ending the meal with the salad and then desert follows. Meals must never be eaten alone, here that would be absurd, in America that would be called multitasking and efficient. Most of the time the meals are prepared and served by the family’s maid.

After being here for almost 2 months already, it has been hard to even remember what I do exactly for meals in the US but if I remember correctly they are much more casual and are much shorter, and often eaten out somewhere rather than home cooked. Dinners are usually the big meal in America eaten around 6 and usually only involve the immediate family, with the rare occasion of a friend or visitor but typically cooked by the mother or sometimes the father of the household. Can you imagine the number of fights that would be avoided by having a maid that does the cooking and the cleaning rather than that responsibility usually being delegated to the wife/mother of the household after a long day of work. This particular cultural difference of the middle/upper class seems to me a little strange. While maybe making life a lot easier, I still feel slightly uncomfortable handing my dirty laundry over to someone when I could easily do it myself. Almost every household here has one or two full time women to serve as maids, some with rooms and separate bathrooms of their own in the house by the kitchen. While maids here are for the most part, if not always respected and treated with love and kindness, it is still a custom that just doesn’t quite sit right with me. Shouldn’t they be at their own homes, cooking and cleaning for their own families rather than someone else’s?

When people here ask me what I think of Chilean people first I tell them that everyone I meet, no matter what their economic status may be, immediately treats me like family offering me food, something to drink and a place to stay. While they value family and extended family – as many families are extremely large in this country, I don’t think I have met a single family with less then 3 children and I most definitely haven’t met any only children. Most often this family value extends also to close family friends including boyfriends and girlfriends and best friends who call everyone the generation above them tia and tio – aunt and uncle as both a sign of comfort and also respect. That is compared to the Mr. and Mrs. that is often used in the U.S.

Most young adults attending a university here live with their parents often times into mid to late 20s. Contrasting the independence that is extremely prevalent in the states that encourages almost everyone to follow the social norm of moving out of the house and going away to school at the young age of 17 or 18. This cultural difference I’m certain leads to many externalities as well as many social and cultural differences in the youth and young adults that I could not even begin to point out. While it is very usual for the people in their 20s working at TECHO to be living with their families, if that was the case in the U.S. I think it would take many people aback. Just as strange as it is for me to explain to people here that I live in a city 6 hours away from my parents in a sorority house with 45 other girls under the age of 22 with out adults.

The final aspect of life here that I would like to bring up is humility. What I have noticed, and tried explaining to several people already, is the lifestyle and manner of living of most, if not all, of the families here is the lack of necessity for luxury items and accessories. Most households I’ve seen live comfortably but they families live in houses that don’t need to be new or perfect or large or flashy. While a living room in the U.S. is not complete without a big screen TV and a couch with factory made pillows and blankets, a Chilean living room isn’t complete without something old or homemade draped over the couch or placed on a table. This difference has stood out to me and to me this style is admirable. It shows that people obtain what they need to live a nice and comfortable life but don’t need to be extravagant with the things they own. I think that is exactly the opposite in the United States. I think it gives people in Chile a state of being humble that I really appreciate. I think this can also be seen in the clothing that is worn and the food that is bought at local, small stores close to home.

As I continue to immerse myself in the Chilean lifestyle and continue to learn about the lifestyle and costumes here, I am continuously reminded that I will never quite fit in with my terrible Spanish accent, my blonde hair and my tall stature: I will forever be labeled a Gringo.

10 Things I’ve learned from working at TECHO so far

About the Central Office in general:

1. What is supposed to be an hour commute to work everyday is easily shortened to just under 40 minutes when you take into account the rapid stops and quick accelerations of both the METRO and the Micro as they maneuver like all the rest of the drivers here in Chile. I’ve learned that this is not something I will get used too and requires my full attention just to stay standing.

2. The workers at TECHO are all young, energetic and enthusiastic as indicated by the sometimes extremely exhausting long hours and the minimal immediate rewards. And they don’t do it for the money, often working overtime while getting paid in salary not hourly.

3. However, it is common that those exhausting hours can burn you out! Many leave the job after a couple years of work because it is just too strenuous. It is work that is most appropriate for youthful disposition.

4. Everyone who works in the office is treated like they’re special, meaningful and important. A large, gong-like bell is rang so everyone knows to gather in the center of the office when it is time to sing someone happy birthday or give them farewell speeches when they are leaving their position, both accompanied by presents and balloons.

5. Dress code is casual, making it much easier to dress for the cold weather rather than having to worry about dressing formally. (Except special occasions of course) Note* I still lack the ability to dress appropriately for the cold often leaving me shivering with purple lips, not fun.

Specific to my area, Area Social de Proyectos (ASP):

6.These are the liaisons between the poor people that TECHO works with and the government who provides the homes; they are essential for smooth business interactions demanding the use of their excellent social skills.

7. This double agent work requires a level of professionalism as well as an ability to be personable. Both relationships seem to be very good; the people of the campamentos seem to respect and are also respected by the workers at TECHO creating a pleasant atmosphere for collaboration.

8. Driving is necessary and for the most part far, add to that the heavy amounts of city traffic (also known as “taco” – learned that one early on) and a working radio is critical. Because ASP are the liaisons they must drive to communities to work with people almost everyday typically spending the mornings in the office and the afternoons in the field making for especially long days.

9. Each community requires a team of leaders including a president, secretary, treasurer ect. who are the main communicators for the campamentos and meet with people from ASP frequently. Each employee of TECHO is assigned to roughly 3 or 4 communities which allows them to have consistency and build lasting and sustainable relationships with the leaders of the communities which is important for them to envision a brighter future with concrete changes and improvements being made.  

10. While the workers at TECHO work long, exhausting, strenuous and sometimes what seem like never ending days, they always emphasize that weekends and nights are meant for relaxing and being with friends and family always encouraging me to explore the city and have a good time while I’m here! 

Of course I have learned a plethora of things from observing, interacting and spending time in the office and out in the field besides these 10 but these are what I have found to be most applicable and most telling about the employees of the organization. 

This is the unreal view I see everyday on the METRO, even on a rainy day it’s gorgeous! 

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Education Protests Continue

I can’t believe the protests are still going on!

Two years ago, when I travelled to Chile as a graduation present from my grandparents, the news about the education protests was something brand new and exciting for me. When I arrived in June 2011, students had just started to occupy the central office of Universidad de Chile and classes were suspended indefinitely. The students were protesting to have the public university system be more affordable to the middle class. The scheduled “Marcha” which I attended (and where I sang, danced and protested) ended in riots and the Carabineros (Chilean Police) spraying water and tear gas to end the protest. Little did I know that what I thought was a once in a lifetime opportunity would come around again two years later.

ImageThe Carabineros ImageStudents passionately protesting for their right to an affordable educationImage“Education is dead” ImageMe marching in the protest 2 years ago in the center of Santiago

Today the protests not only ended with violence but they also started with it. At 7AM hooded protestors threw Molotov cocktails at a police station and broke into a restaurant to use the chairs as a barricade in order to block traffic along some of Santiago’s main roads to start the day for the scheduled nationwide student demonstration. Again, the police responded with water cannons and tear gas.

These masked, violent protestors however were not the majority. The scheduled protest from 1-3PM today was a peaceful demonstration by more than 100,000 students demanding education reform. They were joined by teachers, dock workers and copper minors. They all joined together to demand a wider distribution of Chile’s copper wealth and reform of the education system in an attempt to put the state back in control of the mostly privatized public universities. With the primaries coming up this Sunday the protest was strategically planned to demonstrate that the dispute over education reform remains a key electoral issue of this years presidential elections.

After two years of student marches I’m just waiting to see some changes. These social movements cannot continue to be left unnoticed. It is now up to the government and policy makers to recognize the civil unrest and do something about it. When I took a course last year taught by former president of Chile Ricardo Lagos, he defined democracy as a system by which citizens decide what goods and services should be provided to everyone. Well, it’s been clear for the past two years, citizens have decided and announced that higher education is a service that should be available to everyone. Today, once again, reinforced that decision.

The Hidden and the Ignored

When is poverty seen and what does it look like? If you wish, you can very easily spend your whole life avoiding the fact that 3 billion people earn less than $2.50 a day and 1.4 billion live under the unimaginable condition of living on less than $1.25 a day. You can spend your days living a comfortable life in the suburbs never once thinking about these people or the lives they might be living. Or more likely, what many of us do, you can simply ignore the poverty that exists right in front of you.

Here in Santiago, and I imagine many other places, there are two types of poverty, the poor that are hidden and the poor that are ignored. The latter are those on the streets that are passed by everyday. On every corner there is someone selling sopaipillas or empanadas for a dollar apiece, or someone with socks, gloves and hats lying out on the ground in front of them or someone at a stand selling candy and chips. Only rarely, when your grumbling tummy or your freezing fingers need salvation do you stop and recognize the street venders, every other situation you walk by without a second glance.

The Ignored:

ImageThis type of poverty is very easy to ignore because we become rather quickly overexposed and desensitized to the reality of the lives of these venders.

The hidden are those that aren’t often talked about and are often never seen, these are even easier to forget about. Sure we might hear something in the news or on a commercial every once in awhile about communities living in shacks on the outskirts of the city but how often is it that we really think about who these people are.

The Hidden:

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This trip for me has been about making the hidden seen. After these past two weeks of visiting different campamentos around Santiago I realized what I saw wasn’t really what I was expecting to see. Sure it was a bit of a surprise to see these houses that people lived in and wonder where exactly they go to the bathroom and where exactly they get their water living in camps that have no plumbing, but what was even more surprising was that the people I met looked normal. I don’t know what I was expecting, I guess maybe I was expecting the people I was going to meet to be wearing rags or to be especially dirty or something that would distinguish them from everyone else but what I wasn’t expecting was for them to look just like me. Everyone I met wore normal clothes and with the exceptions of a few who might be missing some teeth everyone looked for the most part clean. Everyone was friendly and nice and just like everyone else I was meeting here in Chile. I think I was anticipating that these trips were going to be very difficult, expecting it to be very evident that the people I met were less fortunate and I was worried that I would treat them as such. What I wasn’t expecting was that our interactions would run so smoothly. I didn’t expect to be welcomed into their homes and offered tea and cookies. I started to wonder what was it really, that made us so different. Sure maybe our family incomes were different but that didn’t seem relevant when I was sitting in their living rooms having a normal conversation. We both seemed to like watching tv and drinking tea and we both had pets and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. We were both living our daily lives, executing our daily routines. We were both just people. Now you might be thinking, well duh, but for me that felt unsettling. I was expecting to feel something other than just normal. I thought it was strange that I wasn’t having that shocking experience I spent so many weeks preparing for.

When I got home today I started to think about what a difference between us could be, a difference that really mattered and distinguished us. We interact with people who are different from us everyday, people with different incomes, different families, different lifestyles and different values. For some reason I was expecting the difference between the families living in poverty and me to be more clear cut and immediately evident. After the past two weeks of interactions I now realize that there is no amount of money that someone can have that would make a person on this planet different enough from me to make an interaction uncomfortable because we are all just human and we are all just people.

However, upon further pondering I was determined to find out what it was that made everyone put people living in poverty in a category that was separate from my own. I came up with two key differences between the individuals I had met and myself.  One is about being hidden and one is about being ignored.

For me, it is very easy to ignore people living in poverty. I can simply go about my day passing homeless or street venders without a second thought. Every time I eat a fresh, home cooked meal or take a hot shower or sleep in my warm bed it is very easy for me to ignore the fact that many aren’t as fortunate to have these things to use at their leisure. However, every time a meal is skipped or someone can’t sleep because it is too cold they think of me, or someone like me who has what they want so badly. They spend more time thinking of me than I will probably ever spend thinking of them.

In terms of being hidden, yes the poor might be hidden living on the outskirts of the city but I have made the choice to visit and see what is too often hidden away. Over the past two weeks I have driven sometimes as far as an hour away to see how the poor live. To me, these communities are no longer hidden. I have the privilege of making the hidden seen. On the other hand, many if not all of the families that I meet will probably never have the opportunity to make my life seen to them. I can fly to Chile and drive an hour from the city to see the houses that they live in whenever I please but they will never get the opportunity to see the life that I live back in the United States. My life will always remain hidden to them. I realized that a big difference between me and them was that while they so kindly open up their homes to me and offer me treats when I came knocking on their doors, if they were to do to the same I might not be so kind.

I never quite understood why, in a lot of situations, people living in poverty don’t trust when individuals come from an NGO or a non-profit to help them. I always thought that I would be so grateful to have someone who was able, to be willing to help if I was in need. Now I understand why volunteers aren’t always greeted with open arms and praise. Coming to the realization that I might not be so open to having random people help me even if I was living in poverty, I am ever more grateful for all the lovely individuals who I have met the past two weeks here in Chile. The smiling faces that greet me with warmth and hospitality and who are excited to share their country with me. I now see that they were giving me a lot more warmth than I deserve and I was giving them a lot less credit than they deserve.

We are all just human beings. Living our lives with the resources we are born with and the tools we are given. We must remember to stay conscious and present in every moment, to be grateful and always willing to let others into our hearts.

Right back to Business

Monday morning, bright and early, ready for another day of productivity. Today was the final stretch in document collecting before turning in all the paperwork of the families from several different camps to SERVIU in order to process to the next step in applying for permanent housing. It’s exciting to see this tedious process come to some sort of conclusion (for now at least). Everyone in the office was organizing and checking that all the necessary information was filled out correctly and then they were off to drop off the documents. After a busy morning attempting to fill in for Sofía, who is sick at home, a big bell in the center of the office was rung and everyone gathered on the wooden bleachers in front of the large projector screen.

Every Monday all who work at the TECHO central office gather for the Ampliada (that translates to extended/enlarged/magnified) where the office is given a chance to, altogether, debrief what happened the week prior and also share anything that is upcoming and new. The presentation today was especially cool for me because I had been involved with almost every part. They started by showing a news video, available with the link below, on the opening of the new permanent housing project that I attended last week. (Unfortunately I didn’t make it into the background of any clips shown in the news but I was there to see it all happen!) After the video, a few individuals shared about how fabulous the day went and how the families were so grateful for all that TECHO had done for them. This made it so that those who weren’t able to attend the ceremony could get a feel for what it was like. Everyone clapped and was happy to share in the excitement of the project’s success and completion. Then, one of the architects who works upstairs talked about and showed the plans for a project that is going to be built in the near future. He displayed a picture of what it was going to be like and explained the dimensions of each building complex. To end the presentation we discussed what was raised from all of our fundraising efforts from last weekend.

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We came very close to our goal. We raised $264.277.182 (which is about 517,682 US dollars) almost reaching the goal of 300.000.000 pesos. While we didn’t quite reach our goal, we raised significantly more than last year so that was very exciting. In the graph above the fundraising is separated into regions, each with an individual goal in which many were surpassed.

It was awesome to see all that had been accomplished in the short two weeks that I have been working here. I’ve been told that not every week is like this but from what I can see and from what I hear TECHO does some really incredible work here in Santiago making a huge difference in a lot of people’s lives. I feel very fortunate to be able to see it happen right before my eyes. Good work guys!

Familias que vivían en campamentos recibieron viviendas sociales en Maipú (Families that live in camps receive social housing in Maipú)

http://www.24horas.cl/nacional/familias-que-vivian-en-campamentos-recibieron-viviendas-sociales-en-maipu-694045

Even if you don’t speak Spanish, from watching the first couple minutes of this video you can see an overview of what it looks like to live in some of the camps here in Santiago. You can only imagine what it might be like to receive keys to one of these beautiful new houses equipped with working plumbing and heating for the winter months we are now entering. Check it out!

The Progress Continues

With every signed and filled out document, we get closer and closer in the process of creating permanent housing developments for the families TECHO works with. Today was a day full of collecting these documents and signatures. The process is very tedious and time consuming. Each member of the community must photocopy all necessary documents (such as their IDs), fill out a document with each of their child’s RUTs (equivalent to Social Security numbers) and sign a big book of Registers of Members of that specific camp. As you can imagine, not only tracking down every single member of the community can be difficult but added to that the difficulties of acquiring all the necessary information can take a very long time. In addition to all of the time spent doing that, the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism, SERVIU revised their documents now requiring an estimated monthly income box which means that we have to have each member of the camp refill out and sign the document for a second time, talk about a disorganized system. All afternoon Francisco, my partner, and I spent going through each member’s file ripping out the old document and replacing it with the new one. Not the most exciting work but the end result makes it all worth it. Plus it’s not that bad sitting with the community leaders who all joke and laugh; it’s a great opportunity for me to practice my Spanish.

The first place we visited today I was exposed to a standard of living I have never seen before. About 30 families live not more than 5 feet from a functioning train.

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I was with Sofia filling out and collecting the necessary documentation from the families. With the first group we met, we went through each part of the document reading it aloud (seen below).

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Not only are a lot of the families we work with illiterate but additionally, the phrasing and the word choice used by SERVUI can be confusing even for me: “The nuclear family with which I postulate in this act…” A member of TECHO seems necessary just to get the correct meaning across for the families to know what they are signing. It’s amazing for me to look at the book of registers at all the signatures, some look the way I would have signed my name when I first learned cursive. One woman, in place of her signature left a stamp of her thumb print. It makes me wonder how many times they get a chance to sign their names; I sign my name every time I use my debit card which is probably every other day.

Because of the terribly slow and sometimes disorganized process, a lot of families don’t have the hope that I have, having seen the newly built permanent housing communities. We met with one family of a woman, her daughter and her granddaughter. The granddaughter was the cutest little girl, running in and out of the shack where she lived returning with a fist full of candies that she carefully offered to each of us. She came back again, after we worked with another family, to bring us stickers and then cried when we left. I can’t wait for the time to come when she will be moving into a house with plumbing and heating far away from these train tracks, I just wish it would come sooner.

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Sofia was telling me that the first two times she came to talk to the families of this camp the little girl’s grandmother didn’t smile once, assuming there was no point in getting excited about a project that would probably not become a reality for her. When we came back this time with the documents to sign she was beaming, smiling with the few teeth she had. It was an amazing sight to see.

Talking to Sofia on the drive back to the office she was telling me that this community has a lot of social problems that are beyond the abilities of TECHO to help solve. One woman we met was telling us about the high prevalence of drugs and alcohol abuse in the camp and how bad it all was. She also told us that she had cancer. Sofia explained that this camp needs something more permanent and consistent than what TECHO can do. She hopes that she will be able to get people who are doing their Practice (similar to what I am doing but one which lasts much longer) to come in at least 3 times a week to work with these families. While that sounds rather demanding, it is what I think is necessary in order to obtain permanent improvements.

The poverty and the condition that these families live in is unbelievable to me. Lying in my warm bed with a belly full from a fresh, home cooked meal writing this I feel so incredibly grateful for all that I have. I’m grateful for the lifestyle I was born into, my extreme freedom and opportunity for mobility, and of course, I am grateful for experiences like this where I am given a chance to help others increase their standard of living in hopes of a better life for them and for future generations to come.