Procrastination

Procrastination is most likely the absolute worst habit known to man. It is known only to man because we as a human race (at least in the developed world) have become so accustomed to luxury and leisure time that we can afford to procrastinate. Unlike bears constantly foraging for food for fear of frostbite, our survival does not immediately rely on our ability (or inability) to withstand procrastination and maintain a constant motivational drive. Procrastination is, however, quite dangerous and is most likely the worst habit one can hold on to.

Worse than smoking, worse than speeding on the highway, worse than lying motionless on the couch watching hours of thought dampening television, procrastination is of greater danger to our personal and societal wellbeing. Other than perhaps speeding on the highway, this is due to the fact that procrastination is at the root of most of these other personal and social vices. Biology aside, I will wait until tomorrow to quit smoking, another 3 hours of electronic boredom, because tomorrow is a new day, a fresh start. That is, until tomorrow comes and a friend offers you a cigarette, or that new History Channel special is on. Procrastination prevents many things from getting done. And if they do get done procrastination has its influence on the half-assedness of the project.

I have grown too accustomed to procrastinating. During college I became a self-proclaimed professional procrastinator, waiting until the last minute for the immense pressure of the fear of failure to kick me from first straight into sixth gear. Once out of school, with a broken leg and no deadlines for projects, life and all the motivation to keep fighting seemed to be sucked out of me. It has been well over a year since my expedition to Patagonia and I still have only written about the first two days of two and a half weeks. Books piled high on my coffee table, each marked halfway through, stacked next to a rarely opened box of GRE vocabulary cards. But the life is slowly coming back. I am slowly re-realizing its importance.

To use the banal paraphrase of Newton’s First Law of Motion: a body in motion tends to stay in motion while a body at rest tends to stay at rest. And thus as situations turn sour mood turns sour, which in turn creates a lack of motivation in which procrastination festers. Yet the opposite is also true. Motivational momentum builds with each success, propelling one towards a state of bliss. Over the past seven months physical therapy became my only motivation. But as each small step was reached, I began to branch out, applying for jobs, setting new goals, and for the first time in too long: building calendars.

If there is one thing that I have learned over the past two years it is that moments and opportunities are meant to be seized and turned into a reality, not procrastinated upon and left in a dream.  For although we can afford to procrastinate in our comfortable human lives, not having to worry about building precious fat reserves to last the winter, our survival does in fact rely upon our ability to deal with procrastination. The soulless psychopaths who’s attitude in life is to screw everyone over so that they can die with the most toys will walk all over us as we sit in front of our television sets and think about what we might consider doing tomorrow or next week. Our economies, or societies, our natural environments, and especially our personal lives will eventually collapse if we sit idly, lacking the motivation to fight procrastination.

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Dogs and Public Spaces

As I near the end of my semester here at Pontifica Universidad Catolica de Santiago Chile, swamped by an unexpected excess of work rivaling the workloads of the University of California, I am a bit saddened by the fact that I have not been writing so much. However, as part of my final coursework I am involved in a group project in which we are conducting an ethnographic study of the street vendors at the metro stop in front of the university and their interrelations with their customers (mostly students).

I have thus been reminded of my own ethnographic study I conducted during August of 2008. This study was conducted for a class at the University of California, Irvine, yet I wanted to stay out of the city of Irvine as much as possible. Therefore I decided to observe a public park near my parents’ house in Encino, using my background in urban studies to note the affects a group of local dog owners had on the public space.

Attached is a pdf copy of the study which you may enjoy while I finish up my finals here and eventually get back to making some progress on my excursion in Patagonia.  Watchdogs of Encino park copy

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Cerro Plomo

4-17-2010

Finally, the rich satisfaction of my Barba Negra “Robust Porter” from the Chilean craft brewery Del Puerto. “Extra Fuerte,” although it does not list the ABV on the bottle. Far from the richest porter I have had, it’s well toasted malt is nothing to complain about, especially after yet another adventure out of La Parva. The trend continues that each time I venture up to this Andean section of the metropolitan region I am thrown into an adventure more ridiculous than the previous.

This time our goal was Cerro Plomo, the largest of the group. Josh and David apparently were still shaken from Leonera, and Eric was still feeling the stiffening effects of the Santiago Marathon. Luckily, McKay accompanied me, greatly increasing my chances of survival had I attempted this solo. This would be the first excursion which necessitated more than a day trip. Most people take three days, however I have been told that it is possible to do in two. Either way, I would have to borrow or rent a sleeping bag and pad for this journey.

I met Cecilia at 9 am in the metro to pick up her sleeping bag, the same one that I had borrowed in Longaví to construct houses. I knew that the thin fabric of this sleeping bag would barely keep out the frigid temperatures which I would experience. My plan was to go to the one store that every other mountaineering store says is the only place in Santiago that rents gear, Patagonia Sport. However, I borrowed Cecilia’s sleeping bag just in case. A two hour search the previous day had led to no findings of this store, and there was no telling if they actually rented bags or not.

On arrival at Patagonia Sport, which to my surprise had no relation to the large company “Patagonia”, I found a small, urban house in which there was a mountaineering school and a closet filled with gear that was the sales and rental shop. To my disappointment and contrary to what the website had stated, this store only rents technical gear such as crampons and other things useless to me for this excursion. I ended up buying a sleeping pad, fuel, a sporknife, and the most inexpensive pair of gloves they had (woolen with leather palms), knowing I would probably have to layer with every clothing item I had to stay warm that night. As I left the store, the city was still shrouded in mist. Cerro San Critsobol was hidden behind the thick clouds. I began to worry slightly about the weather as I made my way back to my house to pack up.

I finished packing within the hour and decided it would be a good idea to buy two empanadas to send me off. As I was making my way through the hallway towards the door I heard a series of loud pops coming from my room. I turned around and looked up at the corrugated green fiberglass outside my window. I then ran to the front door to find fat drops of rain exploding as they pounded into the cobblestone street. Pedestrians ran for cover with books, newspaper, and anything else they could find to keep they heads out of the rain. “Wow, this is amazing,” I thought, “the first rain in Chile since I have been here. Well, it rained in Patagonia but that doesn’t count, it always rains there (I was lucky I had so much sun there). The first rain in Santiago, the day I am leaving for the mountains.” Filled with the childish joy I always get from experiencing rain, I began to think about the weather conditions I would experience that evening. I hoped my layers underneath the meager fabric of the sleeping bag would be sufficient.

Pack on my back, empanadas in my stomach, BIP card in hand, I headed to the metro station to meet McKay. From here we hopped on a crowded bus and sat for an hour in traffic as we crawled towards the edge of town. Swaying back and forth from the heavy foot of the driver, I began to think that we should have taken the metro. I rationalized this by explaining to McKay that with this bus we would have to make fewer transfers, which always bring with them loads of uncertainty.

Approaching the Terpel station on the edge of town, we came to our next obstacle: finding a taxi for a decent price. We came to the parking lot where they like to hang out, waiting for needy clients to come to them. McKay noted that more of them in one place is better for us, providing competition to keep the price down. I disagreed, claiming that with more of them they are more likely to reinforce each other’s decision to keep the price high. This is not an open market, this is an oligarchy of cab drivers praying on desperate tourists. I got the familiar response of $25,000 CLP. “Bullshit” I thought. And much to my expectations they would not drop below $20,000. We decided to try flagging down a cab. As the driver got out of the cab to help us put our bags in the trunk we had him in a better position than the ones socializing in the parking lot. His engine was running, his car in the street with the potential to block traffic. He reluctantly agreed to drive us for $18,000, and we were on our way.

On the way up I tried my talkative technique again, hoping to establish a relationship in which the driver would not mind accepting a discounted price and would raise the chance of driving us further, all the way to the chairlift. This, however, was soon destroyed by the weather conditions as we entered the cloud ceiling in the town of Ferrellones. The driver slowed down, gripped with fear of the low visibility. I noticed he was driving the wrong way on a one way section of the road. With every turn he asked if it was a good place to drop us off, complaining that he couldn’t see anything. “No, sigue. No estamos en el pueblo de La Parva.” I was not going to have this guy drop us off in the middle of the road. I urged him to continue to town, reassuring him that we were fine. We passed by a dog wandering in the middle of the road, looking up at the window of the cab driver who responded to his wagging tail and curious nose, possibly a bit of comic relief in his horrible driving experience. The dog followed us for a few steps and then stopped in the middle of the road behind us. We watched him as he stood there, staring at us as he faded into the mist.

Finally, we reached the town of La Parva. The driver had complained so much that we told him to park at the entrance of town, paid him the full $20,000 that he originally wanted and then made our way to a small shelter to prepare for our hike.

The large buildings in town were completely hidden by the clouds. We could hear the sounds of motors passing by but could not see the trucks which they belonged to. A man appeared to throw away something into a trashcan and then quickly faded as his silhouetted was concealed by the fog.

We decided to hike up through the town on the road, hoping to catch a car bound for the chairlift. One car passed by with three people dressed in mountaineering garb. We tried to flag them down but they continued on. Therefore so did we. We were soon joined by a large black dog with an enormous head. As we rounded a corner we were joined by a second dog, who I quickly noticed was the same dog that followed David and myself to the top of Cerro Leonera two weeks before.

The dogs watched us as we changed into our waterproof gear underneath a balcony of a building. As McKay rigged a cover for my pack with the rain fly from the tent, I couldn’t help but think about how I saw a cover in the store that morning and didn’t bother to buy it, electing to buy a sporknife instead. I was also a bit worried for this was the second place that we should have seen a sign for the bike park, despite the thick cloud cover.

We hiked on, up the dirt road towards the ski lift. I began to seriously worry as we passed by the third place where there should be a sign for the bike park. After climbing up a steep road at which I was amazed that we had descended in the rickety truck of the Russian, my fears were confirmed. The chairlift lay motionless. The parking was lot empty. The nets and features of the bike park had been taken down. The chairlift was closed for the season.

Onward, following the bike trails up through the clouds. The top layer of the dust and dirt became saturated by the moister of the mountain fog, forming a sticky mud which gripped the bottom of our boots and collected in balls like the slush of a melting glacier collects in the crampons of a descending mountaineer. Rain turned into snow. Icicles began to hang from the thorns of the small shrubs and small, white balls of “Dip N’ Dots” snow began to collect in the depressions of the earth. Suddenly I recognize the features of the terrain and begin to break off from the dirt road onto the trail leading up to the saddle. Large rocks dusted with snow against a backdrop of grey cloud marked our destination. On reaching the saddle we were immediately struck by a constant stream of icy wind. We decided to descend a bit to get out of the wind before taking our first break.

Soon after dropping below the saddle the clouds suddenly broke up, revealing beautiful snow dusted terrain, the small lake which was now frozen, and peaks of mountains which poked through the clouds in the distance. We stopped to take a few pictures and soak in the mysterious beauty of the mountains as they showed themselves and hid amongst the shifting clouds. Now we really felt the power of the Andes. An otherworldly experience, we felt the power of the mountains but were left in wonderment of what was not seen, hidden behind the clouds.

I notice that the tops of the clouds are painted with the beautiful golden light of the setting sun. My first reaction was one of awe and admiration of the great natural beauty that can be found in this world. Quickly thereafter I realized that this was also a warning message. We still had many kilometers to cover before we would reach the refugio, and these beautiful colors meant that our light was soon to run out. And it did as we descended down the next ridge.

As the darkness crept in so did the clouds. Soon we were back in total obscurity. No more sunlight, no light from the moon, and thick fog there to block out the limited starlight. We were surrounded by an aura as the mist glowed from the light of our headlamps. It became difficult to navigate, as not only had visibility dropped to about three feet, but neither of us had been on this trail before, relying only on what we had picked up from looking at the map. We could hear the river but could not tell how far away it was. It sounded as if it was down a steep slope or cliff off to the right. We could not decide if we were close or far from the crossing, so we continued on the trail.

We eventually came to a point near the river where the trail split. We decided to take the higher route to the left, knowing that the trail to Cerro Bismark should split off by the river. However, we soon decided that this trail was taking us too high up the slope towards the south ridge of Leonera. We descended back to the lower trail and followed the ice crusted river as it wove its way through many paths in the wide river bed. Indeed, rather than one giant river, this late in the season there were many small streams spread across plane, each encrusted with ice and slippery rocks. As we followed them up they began to join together and the banks grew steeper. We determined that we were nearing the waterfall and should cross sooner than later.

Finding a suitable spot, McKay prepared to jump. He took a step back. “Be careful, this is ice” he said as he readjusted his footing. He leapt across without complication. I placed my foot on the edge and as I slowly shifted my weight it slowly sunk into the icy crust. Icy water, no good. The many ignored opportunities to reapply the waterproof coating to my boots flashed across my mind. I then placed my foot on a rock and as soon as my weight was shifted I immediately slid on the icy covering, my foot breaking through the ice and throwing by body backwards into the snow. McKay’s first concern was to see if I had been hurt, quickly followed by an inquiry as to if I had gotten wet. Thankfully, neither had occurred, although I did feel like a tortoise which had fallen on his back as I struggled to lift myself against the weight of my pack.

I approached the river for a second attempt, weary of my footing, searching for solid ground. With some persuasion from McKay, I decided to commit and smoothly leapt towards a small landing on the other side of the river. McKay complimented my second attempt and we continued on, up the steep, loose slope of the river bank.

We began to veer off on separate courses. McKay chose a more direct route, climbing straight up the slope. I began to follow snow covered depressions, remnants of a previous climber, leading me off the left and zigzagging up the hill. As we reached the top I heard McKay yell “This is slowly turning into a survival story!” I briefly thought of the many episodes on the Discovery channel, where people would go on an adventure in the wilderness and things would change horribly for the worse. I didn’t feel frightened, but I did see the potential. I resolved to make sure that I would not end up on one of those shows.

We rejoined with the trail and passed what we assumed to be the waterfall. The clouds had long cleared but the moon was nowhere to be found. The sky was filled with stars but the land was filled with darkness. It was still difficult to determine our whereabouts, so we continued to follow the trail, assuming that the refugio would be close to it in plain sight.

We hiked on for what seemed like hours over what seemed like kilometers. There was really no way to tell. Neither McKay nor I had a watch and it was too dark to make out features to match with the map. I had my phone in my pack but didn’t bother to take it out. As we continued on the temperature only grew colder and the wind grew stronger. We came to an area where previous hikers had created small wind barriers behind which they had pitched their tents. McKay assumed this was the second campsite, doubting that the first refugio existed. I explained that this was probably just an area where people had camped, not the “official camp site”, and that we still had a while to go for the refugio. We continued on into the icy wind.

The lights from our headlamps swayed from side to side, falling on every large rock to make absolutely certain that it was not the refugio. As we wind our way up switchbacks I begin to feel as if we had passed the first refugio and the second camp site and were now nearing the second refugio. We take turns wandering off the trail in search of it, meeting back at the trail, and pressing on into the frigid night. I didn’t want to think about how late it was. I considered pitching the tent but the thought of sleeping in a wooden structure which would insulate us from the cold was too enticing. We continued our search. Tired and beginning to feel effects of dehydration, I turned to McKay. I did not want to put ourselves in a life or death situation. I was honest with him when I told him I did not know where we were. It was late, it was cold, it was dark, and neither of us had ever been on this trail. The enticing thought of sleeping in the refugio could prove to be perilous. Returning to the rock wind barriered camp sites seemed like the smarter option.

As we backtracked I was amazed at how much land we had covered in search of the refugion since the campsite, surprised at the amount of hills we had climbed and corners we had turned. I then noticed that we were on an unfamiliar trail, yet a trail nonetheless. We then came to a flattened plot of land at the base of a small slope, surrounded by a small rock wall in the shape of a rectangle, with a large rock at the north end sheltering the area from the wind. This was not the original camp site we had intended to return to, but it was the campsite we were going to use. We then quickly set up the tent according to the ordered procedure we had planned. I ducked into the tent. “No bags in the tent” I heard McKay tell me. I emptied almost everything out of my bag and piled them up in the tent. I quickly took off my clothes to put on my base layers and threw my hiking clothes back on followed by my medium weight top and rain gear before I lost too much body heat. I slid into my sleeping bag with my slippers on and piled all of my things close to my body for fear of them freezing. McKay had already buried himself in his sleeping bag. I pulled out my water bottle and began to drink. The water was ice cold and was actually painful to swallow. I felt the top of my stomach tense as the frigid liquid entered my body. I knew this would lower my core body temperature but at this moment I feared dehydration more than hypothermia. We had taken very few brakes in our desperate search for the refugio. Yet I shivered as I lay down and began to wonder if I had made the correct decision.

That night was horrible. I could feel cold drafts of the mountain air robbing my head of its warmth. I put on my gloves and tried to hold the sleeping bag over my head. I did not fit correctly into it and needed to constantly hold the hood in place to stay warm. My fingers and the back of my hand would become chilled. I routinely rotated, shifting positions and using the opposite hand to hold the bag while the other regained its warmth. As I used my arm as a pillow I feared the lack of blood running to my hand causing it to fall asleep would also cause it to become more susceptible to frostbite. I flexed my biceps and clenched my fist to keep the blood flowing but ultimately the only solution was to shift positions more often. This went on all night. Between many short intervals of sleep and shifting positions I became frustrated. I thought of my warm bed back in Santiago, Pepi jumping up at the kitchen window to see what was cooking for dinner. At one point I woke up and felt my body was rested. I considered waking up McKay to ask if he wanted to continue our journey but quickly realized I already knew his response. When I had asked him if I should set an alarm he responded with a firm “no”, telling me he planned to stay in his sleeping bag until the sun hit our tent. I then thought of waking him up to ask if he wanted to turn back. I immediately realized how ridiculous that decision would be and tried to ignore my desire to leave and tried to fall back asleep.

Twice (out of the many times) during the night I was woken to a load groan, which I realized was my stomach. I couldn’t help but think that I probably should have tried to eat something before I went to bed. It was too late now, for my bag of salami and cheese was now a meager pillow which had to be bolstered by my bicep. I felt hard objects poke me, my camera, by belt, rocks beneath the tent, as I rotated positions. On many occasions I noticed I was breathing heavily, unsure if it was a result of the lack of oxygen at this altitude or an affect of dehydration or the cold. The warm gooey liquid oozed from my eyes and crusted in the cold, dry mountain air. My nostrils became more and more clogged, forcing me to breathe through my drying mouth. I could hear McKay having a similar experience as he pulled out his bivy sack to insulate him.

Finally on one of these cycles I woke to find that it was light out. “Should we continue towards Plomo?” I wonder. I then recall that McKay would probably be against the idea. I agreed, acknowledging that it was still freezing out. I could picture in my mind the light sky but the great shadows cast by the mountains as the sun had not yet risen above them. I fell back asleep and woke again to similar conditions, only slightly less cold.

McKay was also now awake and told me to turn on my phone and check the time. Half asleep I turned it on and fell back into an uncomfortable sleep filled with strange and disturbing dreams. I then woke up again and noticed it was warmer. Our tent was finally hit by the direct sunlight. McKay asked me if I had slept. “Kinda, not really, I woke up a lot” I lethargically responded. McKay laughed as he recounted his sleepless night, his feet cold from the holes in his sleeping bag.

I looked at my phone, 10:26am. I was then suddenly surrounded by excessive warmth. We jumped out of our sleeping bags. I shed most of my layers as McKay prepped his stove. I grabbed my camera and climbed a small hill nearby to find out where we actually were.

It is insane how different everything looks without the veil of darkness and heavy fog, not to mention the desperation and distortion brought on by extreme cold and exhaustion. I looked at the map and compared the land features to find that we were actually far below the refugio. Had we continued on we probably would have made it to the first one. I then looked down the valley towards Santiago to find clouds building in the distance. “We better get going” I thought as I descended down the hill back to the tent. We talked as we packed up of how it is possible to summit and return in two days, but everything needs to be planned perfectly. The clouds continue to build in the distance. We are both disappointed that we cannot summit, but neither of us wants to spend another night out here and hurry to begin our return journey.

As we descend down the trail I am amazed at how different everything looks. The waterfall is out in plain sight, encrusted with ice. The grassy flats of the first camp site off in the distance. The river crossing is insanely easier now that we can see further than five feet and the banks are not covered in slippery ice. As we continue down the trail we turn back to look at Plomo, growing as we pull away from it. I debate with McKay that it is possible to do in two days. Our problem was we left too late, the taxi took longer than expected, the chairlift was not working, we didn’t have a car to drive us out to the ideal trailhead, and night and fog significantly slowed our pace.

As we entered the first of two valleys which separated us from La Parva we saw a large flock of gigantic brids sweeping through the valley. Condors, eagles, and falcons. I had never seen anything like it. So many majestic birds in one place. We watched them soar through the valley and circle over our heads, listening to the screaming at each other. We slowly approached them, noticing that they are feasting on something below, a dead mule or cow. They swoop low, close to us, turning their heads as we express our excitement. Much like the failed attempt at Leonera, the wildlife made the trip worth it. I laughed at how on the trips I had summated I had not seen any wildlife, but the failed attempts were filled with rare creatures. I took many pictures, only to realize as we turned away that I was taking them in the wrong setting. I feared that the pictures would not come out but it was getting late and we both wanted to get back to civilization.

At the top of the next ridge sat about five cars parked at the trailhead. Knowing that we still had a massive valley to pass, followed by a long descent down the ski resort, we were frustrated that we could not have started our journey from here.

As we walk through the next valley, I imagine it filled with snow and I ski off towards the chairlift. I then snap back to reality as I adjust my pace and breathing to ascend a long, steep climb up towards the saddle. As we reach the lake we are once again consumed by the clouds. This time, however, it is not as thick, allowing more visibility, yet creating an eerie sensation. We decide to wait on calling a cab, hoping that we can find a ride in town.

As we descend through the ski resort, opting to save our knees and wind our way slowly down the dirt road rather than slide down the steep shortcuts that the Russian had lead David and I through, our conversation began to take a philosophical turn. It begins with my anxiety of receiving the email response from my dad. I am certain that when I return to my computer I will have the response waiting for me in my inbox, bearing the decision of my biggest concern: the decision if I would be able to extend my program to the full year. This leads our conversation to McKay’s thoughts. He is not eager to return, yet he is looking forward to it. He values his family, his friends, the people and places he calls home. My desire to extend does not conflict with this sentiment, for as I explain to him, I also value the relationships in my life back in California. However, I know that they will always be there for me when I return, and I need to squeeze every last possible drop of experience out of this cultural sponge, for in reality there is no telling when, if at all, I will return to this country. McKay explains how when he was 18 he was all about going out and being independent, exploring the world by himself and exploring himself. He is now ready to return to his social relations, having achieved a newly found respect for them.

I then explain to McKay that my outlook is different. It is not about being independent. I am independent because I am forced to do so. I travel alone or with small groups because nobody else is able to follow me. Nobody else wants to follow me. That is why I am so appreciative of people who do. I agreed with McKay explaining that some of the best places I have experienced alone, I sorely wished I could have shared.

We look up and realize we have stumbled remarkably close to two cows. One of them has large horns and we cautiously proceed to the left, turning down the road away from them. Our conversation here follows the theme of traveling. I explain to McKay my outlook on traveling which I had solidified in Patagonia. There are two sides to traveling, each equally important. There is tourism, a quicker, more general exploration of a new territory. Many choose to travel on the road less traveled, in “Third World” nations and in long forgotten lands, attempting to escape tourist acts. This is however, still a form of tourism. In the end they are doing the same things and acted the same way, only transplanted to a setting in which most of the rest of the world does not go. The ironic part of this is that these places are generally harder to get to, thus requiring more resources. Thus the people who tend to travel through here tend to be the richer, using the poor as their playground. I do not, however, want to seem too critical of this, for everyone does it. In fact, I believe that this form of traveling is necessary. The world is too big to only travel the second way, which is slowing down, taking your time, and actually emerging yourself in that society. This is what I am trying to do here in Chile, and this is what I hope to do throughout my life. Spend years at a time in a country, living, working, becoming a part of the culture. Adding to their societies rather than extracting experience in exchange for my USD. McKay then tells me about his summer on the French coast, working on boats and receiving tempting job offerings. Agreeing with my two sided thoughts on traveling, he recounts his own experiences of each.

After a few more turns in the conversation, taking the topic to friends growing up and getting married, sustainability, and craft beer, we find ourselves at the empty parking lot of the dormant chairlift. We drop down the road and turn the corner around the ridge to witness an amazing view of the town of La Parva, surrounded in the mysterious fog as it slowly creeps up the mountainside. McKay is amazed that we climbed up through the entire town as I marvel once again at how different things can look without the thick veil of fog leaving so much up to the imagination to fill in. As I stop to take a picture, the dog that followed me up Leonera came up to greet us on our return. We passed a few workers on our descent. The idea to ask them for a ride crosses my mind but is quickly subdued by the realization that they are still on the clock and probably live here in town. We pass by an older man in an Autti, not even bothering to ask him if we could cram our large, dirty bodies and bags into his tiny, leather clad coupe. We pass by the black dog with the massive head, as well as a pack of other local dogs, who follow us down the winding road to the edge of town. The whole time I was thinking that there must be a bathroom where I can refill my long depleted water bottle, and possibly chat someone into giving us a ride back down to Santiago.

I did find a bathroom. However, to my disappointment, other than the workers who were not returning to Santiago and the wandering dogs, the town was completely deserted. We sat down on the steps of the vacated ticket office. McKay begins to cook some pasta while I fruitlessly tried to call a cab. Neither of the numbers in my student handbook worked. I called my host mom to no avail. I then called  my Chilean friend Juanfra, who gave me a number to another taxi service. After a long conversation the man on the other end decides it is not worth his time and tells me that it is too far of a distance and that I should call the Carabineros. The Carabineros told me I need to find a cab. As she begins to explain to me what a cab looks like I couldn’t help but grow frustrated, telling her that I know what a cab looks like, the problem is that there are none in La Parva. I eventually gave up and called Junafra again, imploring him to call the company for me. As we sat on the side of the curb, waiting for a possible passing car or the call from the taxi, I ate my pasta and McKay began to cook his bowl. Suddenly a truck finally stops. We ask him where he is going. Not Santiago, but Ferellones, the next town below, a better location to find a ride down to Santiago. McKay pours out the water from the pot as I throw our things into the bed of the pickup.

We thank the man as we get out in Ferrellones. The cab company suddenly calls me, offering $40,000 CLP and a wait of more than an hour. I was unable to talk him down lower than $35,000. McKay and I are reluctant to pay $70 USD, despite our desperate situation. I told the cab driver I would call him back in five minutes as we discussed our options. We then took off down the road towards the corner, supposedly the best place to find a ride. McKay took off to a sheltered bus stop for nonexistent busses as I tried to wave down cars. The first one flies past me. The second driver attempts to ignore me. The third is a small pickup and pulls over. I ran to the passenger side window, my exhausted mind unable to comprehend that he does not have automatic windows and the car is packed with random objects blocking his access to the door. I then ran around to his window and was amazed that he was actually going down to Santiago. He said we would have to ride in the back. I looked in the back seat, filled with blankets and other random objects, realizing that he must mean the bed of the truck. I tossed my bag in and jump in after it, telling him my friend is waiting at the corner. As we approach the stop I poke my head around the side of the truck. McKay’s expression shifts from one of exhausted desperation, on the verge of giving up hope, to one of ecstatic relief by this salvation. He poured out the water of his pasta for the third time and threw his bags next to me in the back. Confirming with the driver that we were in fact going to Santiago, he jumped in next to me and we were on our way.

We laughed the entire way down as the driver zips around the turns. I am amazed at the fact that we are actually in a much more dangerous position than last time with the Russian, yet I had absolutely no fear. This was probably due to the fact that the driver, although descending rather rapidly, was not nearly as reckless as the crazy Russian. We looked off into the painted clouds of the setting sun, happy that we had a secure ride back, an extremely unique one at that, and better yet a free one, with a strong sense of relief that we would not have to spend a horribly cold night up in the dark, cold, cloud saturated wilderness.

After a few bus rides and a metro, I finally stumbled back into my house to an epically warm and filling meal. I took a soothing, hot shower in the unexpectedly clean bathroom. Then I finally sat down with my dark roasted porter and opened up my computer to find that my friend Lindsey had posted a message on my Facebook wall. She said that she lives with a Chilean who loves mountaineering and owns a car, and he wants to summit Plomo in the next few weeks…..Perfect.

View the rest of the photo album here

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The (sub)Urban Octapus

As I continue to procrastinate on publishing my account of my attempt at Cerro Plomo last weekend, as well as the mountain of readings for my clases, my good friend and ex-room mate Ricky asked me to help him with some opinions I have on California’s water policy. I had written a paper about a year ago which I thought would be able to help him both in terms of content and in terms of formulating a title. I then thought, since it is one of the papers I am more proud of, that I should brush it up and post it online. I would love to expand on this topic some day after I complete my growing to-do list of works from here in Chile, so for now please keep in mind that this work was written for an undergraduate course on “Urban and Social Change”.

suburban octopus-final paper

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Operaciones Semana Santa

Late Sunday night/early Monday morning (April 4th-5th)

I lay in bed after a long, hot shower, cleansed and cleaned, wrapped in my soft, warm comforter. I relaxed the comfort and security of my own bed, my own room, Pepi dozing off on the other side of the window. I no longer had to worry about elbowing Constantine in the face as I cram up against the cold stone wall, or covering every inch of skin with clothing in a desperate attempt to ward off potential bed bugs. Yet as I lay in this secure and familiar environment to which I have finally returned, I reflect upon the experience I have gained from this extended weekend.

Operaciones Semana Santa. What had previously been nothing more than another facebook event which would probably lie in my invitation box, unanswered and ignored, had turned into an experience from which I may have gained the most so far in Chile. This experience began out of the chaos of last week, the stress of balancing my classes and reforming my plan for my future. During this week I was looking for an excuse to get out of this event  which I had been talked into by Cecilia. I knew that she would be the only face I would recognize, and I was even more certain that I would be the only foreigner on this trip. Yet as the departure drew near I decided to give it a try. This would be a great opportunity to practice my Spanish, and helping out some families recover from the devastation brought upon them by the earthquake wouldn’t be so bad either.

On Wednesday, after another long day of stress and sadness for not fully understanding my Mundo Andino lecture, watching all the other students taking notes as I struggled to make sense of what the teacher was saying, not understanding the jokes that the entire class, including the other foreign students laughed at, I finally returned to campus at 7:30, ready yet still nervous to embark on this journey. The campus was filled with the light of the setting sun, rendering the buildings in a manner like I have never seen. Not knowing where I was going, I loosely followed the other students with large backpacks and tools as I snapped a few photos with my point and shoot, regretting that I had left my large camera behind. I came to a set of tables and computers by the church, only to find that this was the wrong organization. One of the staff members kindly lead me through another building looking for another group. When we finally found them I thanked him as he left. I then quickly found that I was at yet another group with whom I was not registered. A staff member of this group then helped me search for the correct organization. Finally, after finding it, I found myself alone without any members of my subgroup as I was told the group leader was off driving somewhere. As students filed in and out of the room my group slowly began to build until we left to shop for some last minute tools.

We were running late as we descended the stairs of the metro. We began to follow more staff members and group leaders as we ran across a dark, grass field. In my boots, carrying shovels and pikes, I felt as if we were in some military training exercise. We panted as we entered the busses and searched for an open seat. It was now midnight as the busses left, and I soon fell asleep. The bus ride was uncomfortable, as I had expected, but I slept surprisingly longer than I had anticipated. However, on reaching our destination at 3:30am I was ready for a shower and a bed. I sighed at the fact that I knew that I would not be able to have either of these for the next four days.

As we piled into to the classrooms I began to worry about my sleeping situation, using a borrowed sleeping bag but not having any form of mattress to protect my skeleton from the hard, tile floor. But as I went to brush my teeth, mattresses began flowing into the school, one by one. I thought back to Heather’s experience with bedbugs in Puerto Natales as I lay my sleeping bag out on the uncovered mattress. If I was to have a similar experience this is where it would happen. I prepared myself for it as I covered every possible inch of my body and tried to fall asleep.

The next day I awoke crammed between another volunteer and a cold, stone wall, yet relieved to find myself free of bites. The sun was barely up as we prepared ourselves for our days work. After a light breakfast of bread and tea, we piled into the busses and drove off into the country. Pikes pointed towards the ceiling, everyone sat erect, energy flowed through the bus. I felt as if we were a squad of infantry in our transport to the battle field, ready to tackle our mission.

As my group, joined by another group descended the bus, we were greeted by a small, old lady and a variety of dogs. We were shown around her property. I looked in awe at the mud brick walls surrounded by rubble that was once a large country house. I couldn’t help but wonder why we were making a new house instead of helping to rebuild this one. I was reassured by my group leader that what we were doing was something quick and temporary to get the family out of the rain while they attempted to slowly rebuild their old house.

After a long morning of sinking wooden logs into the ground, anchored by rocks taken from the dirt road in front of the property, we sat down at a table outside behind a mud brick and plastic structure for lunch. This apparently was the kitchen. A wood burning stove, a refrigerator, and a table, all outside. We ate our pasta, surrounded by chickens, dogs, and cats, relaxing in the cool breeze. I looked beyond the table to find that the large pile of clothing and plastic tarps and other unidentifiable objects was actually a makeshift tent under which were beds. This is why we are building a house for this family. We continued work until completing the floor at dusk.

I desperately wanted a shower and a beer when we returned to the school, disdainful of the knowledge that I would not be able to obtain either of these desires. Alcohol was not allowed on this trip and I had forgotten my towel in Santiago. After first attempting to wash my face and arms in the sink, I eventually gave in and showered in the cold, dirty bathrooms, using my clothes from that day as a towel.

The next day I was surprised on one hand by the cheap quality of the prefabricated materials we were working with. A light wooden structure, no insulation, holes in the walls, and a corrugated metal roof. Yet on the other hand I realized that this is probably all that could be afforded by this organization. I wondered if some of the materials were donated like my labor. This structure was, after all, better than what this family was currently living in.

This portion of the construction was more of what I had expected to be doing. Instead of digging holes in the ground and stepping in mud we were now sitting on top of wooden walls hammering in support beams for the roof. I had never loved my Mutt Lynch’s T-shirt so much. I felt like a real construction worker, with a slogan on the back reading “I used to drink out of the toilette, now I drink at Mutt Lynch’s” and a breast pocket full of nails. The only thing I wish I had was some sort of tool belt, like the Doite hip bag I saw one of the other volunteers wearing, filled his large format camera, construction supplies, and topped off with a bottle opener keychain in the shape of a hard hat.

After a long day’s work we presented the houses to the families, taking pride in our accomplishments. I noticed one volunteer standing amongst the rubble of the previous house as the sun set, soaking in the purpose and affects of his work along with the golden light.

The next day I grew anxious as the bus driver appeared to be lost. We passed by our houses that we had built the previous day, driving deeper into the network of unpaved country roads. After a few stops in which various other groups descended the bus it was now our turn. We stopped in the middle of the road, far from anything which looked like a house. We were then told to pile into the bed of a pickup truck. We bounced along a narrow dirt road, constantly worried about driving a shovel into our tail bones, passed some open fields, crossed a river, and finally arrived at our new house.

A new day, a new family. I was immediately awestruck by the beauty of this property. Unlike the last one, which looked more like a farm in the French country side of 1942, this family lived in what appeared to be a wonderful, decent sized house, surrounded by grape vines which followed a trellised overhang creating a shaded porch.  On the other side of the open space which would probably be a driveway had this family owned enough cars, was a small mud brick house with adobe tiles, which had been burnt either as an effect of the earthquake or something completely unrelated. Beyond a series of clothes lines and around corner of the main house to the left was another mud brick structure which contained the kitchen. Straight back through the trees from the main open lot was a small outhouse and a greenhouse, beyond which lay fields of chilis and other crops.

As we started measuring out where the pilings would go in this main lot I couldn’t help but wonder why we were constructing this new house in the middle of what I felt was an essential open space to the beauty of the property.  I could not understand why we were building a cheaply made, prefabricated house with limited resources when it appeared that this family only needed to renovate and reinforce the current house, which had a beautiful country character to it. However, at our lunch break we all went to wash our hands at the outdoor sink, the one and only source of water for this family. Behind this I was able to see inside the greenhouse. Amongst the garden inside I was able to see piles of clothes, most likely effects of the earthquake.

We had an amazingly relaxing lunch on the porch underneath the tranquil shade of the grape vines. We sat with the family and talked about Santiago, Chilis, which Raul, the father, grows in his garden and the children’s interests. Raul’s friendliness was reinforced by his like for chilis and beer as we conversed over the table. If only I could spend enough time with him to understand his ridiculously rapid Spanish and to show off the fact that we had similar interests.

After lunch, Raul and his children helped us continue digging holes and anchoring pylons with rocks we had collected from a nearby river. Raul took me around the back of the house by the kitchen to show me some interesting fruit which I have never heard of nor seen before in my life. It was so strange that I forgot the name of it almost as soon as he told me what it was. Almost like a small, soft pomegranate, peeling back the skin I ate a soft, sweet goup filled with seeds. While I was back there I noticed inside the kitchen and the room next to it which held beds, the floors were in fact the dirt ground, and some of the walls were plastic tarps. I then walked over to the outhouse, which was a small wooden structure above a pit. I was actually surprised at the lack of horrible smells emerging from the abyss.

We continued working until we ran out of light, at which point Raul’s wife invited us into the kitchen for dinner. Knowing this was not part of the program (we were supposed to return to the school for dinner) but still waiting on the pickup to retrieve us, we graciously accepted the family’s hospitality.

The eight of us sat around the kitchen table eating bread and salad, drinking tea brewed on the small wood burning stove. A low amber light from the single light bulb covered everything in the room, from the mud brick and plastic tarp wall to our faces, to the dogs playing on the dirt floor at our feet. Raul’s wife and kids sat in the corner keeping us company as we ate and conversed.

It was here that I was hit hard by a realization. A realization of where I actually was and what I was actually doing. I had known it all along but I had not really felt it until now. I was in a completely different world, far away from sprawling, smooth pavement and tidily trimmed hedges of Irvine. Cecilia had asked me earlier that day as we collected rocks from the river for the foundation if I was surprised or impacted by the poverty. I replied with a simple “no”. Considering this family’s beautiful land, I explained how they appeared very well off compared to the slums I had seen in Costa Rica. But here at the kitchen table I was stricken with the realization that this family indeed lived in poverty. Yet it was a completely different type of poverty, something I had only heard about until now. Despite the fact that this family did not have to live in constant fear of drugged out, armed strangers robbing or violating them, they still lived without many basic luxuries. I began to realize that we were most likely building this cheap, ugly structure on their beautiful property because they do not have the economic resources to do so themselves. I let this soak in as we piled back into the bed of the pickup, watching satellites cross the night sky filled with more stars than I can remember ever seeing in Mammoth.

The next day as we finished the temporary house, Raul’s wife and children showed Jose and I through their actual house. It was here that I was able to see why we were here.  Although from the outside the house looked intact, with all its beauty, inside we found that the earthquake had rocked the support beams for the roof, which had fallen about a meter. The family explained that when the rains come, the roof will most likely completely collapse. This is why their beds were out on the dirt ground of the kitchen. This is why clothing articles were pilled the greenhouse. This is why we were here to help build a temporary structure to get this family off the ground and out of the rain.

After cutting the ribbon to their new home, we walked back down the dirt road towards the extraction point. Arriving at the river we stopped to soak our feet and admire the beauty of the country side as we waited for the bus. We were proud of our work. We had completed two houses in four days. We had also met some interesting people, from different worlds than our youthful city life.

I will never forget just how friendly, welcoming, and happy this family was, despite the fact that the floor of their kitchen is made from the same dirt as their driveway. This indeed is a different type of poverty. One that constrains the family in certain ways, but does not restrict their ability to show the love and respect that every human being deserves.

View the rest of the pictures on my Picasa account

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The First Test

Wednesday evening, 5:00pm. My weekend has begun. My first exam is over. I’m not too sure how I feel about it. 3 questions in short essay format. During the first one I felt as if rather than writing a well structured essay I was simply writing a block of cyclical notes, my writing style hindered by my limited Spanish vocabulary. I normally rely on my writing style to save me when I am unsure of the information I should be writing about. Some call it “BS”, I call it a well written work. However, there was no help of this sort here. I strained to write down anything I could think of, knowing that the more information the better in this situation.

Moving on to the second question I came up with a similar response; the road network and system of redistribution and reciprocity of the Incas. The outline was formed. I began to write closer to my normal structural style. Yet I wished I had a translator handy, as my vocabulary was still limited. Sweat formed puddles on the desk as it flowed out of my armpit down my triceps. I kept the pace moving, making up for lost time as well as lost potential to demonstrate my understanding of the Incas. As I flipped over the page to finish the concluding paragraph I admired my work, pleased of my achievement yet hoping that I had answered the question.

On to the last question. I sat there staring at it for a while. I had a general idea of what it meant but could not gather my thoughts to formulate a worthy response. Art and spirituality, art and nature, examples. I decided to take a backwards approach and began writing down a list of examples: the reoccurring theme of decapitated heads in the Nazca culture. Trying to find my way around forgotten translations for words like “decapitated” I began writing whatever came to me about this theme. I concluded again, unsure if I had correctly answered the question but feeling better, much better than I had throughout the week.

As I left the classroom I felt the relief of the stress and worry for this test lift off me. I heard foreign exchange students talking in English as I walked across the grass, yet I was not stricken with the annoyance I had previously experienced. I thought about how at first many of the people on my program, including myself, wanted an “authentic Chilean experience”, denouncing anything we considered “tourism” or aspects of U.S. culture. Yet now I realized that this is a large university much like any of the UC system. Why should I feel disgusted when surrounded by English speaking students? This is, in fact, part of the culture here at PUC. I was also no longer frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t understand the Spanish conversation behind me on the metro but could understand everything the group of students from the U.S. were saying next to me, even why I was trying to ignore them.

It was almost certainly an effect of completing this exam. No more stress, no more impatient repulsion.  I am now free to relax, catch up on my English writings, my Spanish readings, my cultural explorations of the city, all with the freedom of not having to worry about struggling to understand the language and concepts of the courses. I am now reminded of the long, slow process involved in learning a language, and even slower and longer to fully understand a culture. I can now go about this with the knowledge that it will come in due time.

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Quality

The past few days have been full of stress and concern for the mountain of reading I must scale in order to perform up to par on my first to written exams tomorrow (Weds). Two weeks ago I was really beginning to feel at home, as I felt the comforting sense of familiarity as a left the subway station on Manuel Montt, skateboarding down the street keeping a wary eye out for cars, when entering the bathroom downstairs, not shared with anybody, the familiar look of the toilette, my towel the only one which hangs on the rack, my shaver still sitting on the counter from the previous four days. Unlike all of this, during the past two weeks I have felt a great struggle to fit in, awkwardly misunderstanding people when they talk to me, and completely lost in my clases.

Last Tuesday, my interview for an internship was amazing. I was complimented on my Spanish as well as my background in sustainability. Ten minutes later, in my social work class, I felt completely out of place. While the professor was talking I felt as if I could understand every word she was saying. However, after she had completed each sentence or came to a rest, I would quickly try to recall her point and find myself in a linguistic oblivion. On leaving the class I felt as if I understood barely fifty per cent of the lecture, much less of the logistical information such as where to obtain the readings and how to get into a group for the project, or even when this project is due.

This continued in a few of my other classes this week as well. On reviewing my notes I find that I have written down only the words from the beginnings or ends of sentences, most often missing the key words and fundamental points of the lectures. I leave the lecture feeling like a “tonto gringo” unable to adapt to his new cultural setting.

Today was the most horrible of all. I had about five important things to take care of today, including fix my camera, pay for my student metro card, and go to the EAP office to lay my bag of issues on their desk. But due to so many little problems with paying for this metro card, all other issues had to be dropped. This metro card sucked up my day as I had to keep running back and forth between my house and the internet café attempting to format the document in a manner that would print.

Things got even worse when I finally made it to campus for the review session for my European history class. Again, I was hit with the feeling like I understand everything, quickly shifting to I understand nothing. After the session the only thing the T.A. was able to help me with was to direct me to where I can obtain the hundreds of pages I would have to read for one of my two exams tomorrow.

Trabajo Social, was surprisingly a relief in today’s miseries.  Unlike last week, I could really understand what she was saying this time, able to actually leave the lecture feeling somewhat emboldened and provoked to think about new issues. I also found a group studying an interesting subject with, by chance, two students from California. I left this class slightly more relaxed, yet still full of uncertainty.

After a few more emails and a ton of thinking, I decided it is in my best interest to drop a class. However, the question remained as to which one I would drop. I had narrowed it down to one of the history courses, both of which I have an essay test in tomorrow. I decided to study for both as if I was not going to drop either, than drop whichever I felt I did worse on the exam.

As I was checking email I noticed Eric was on facebook. I asked him if he was ready for tomorrow’s exam. His response got me comically frustrated. For he was correct, the exam was not tomorrow but next Wednesday. I felt as if I had wasted half the day stressing about nothing. I then decided to continue studying for European history with the intention of seeing how I would do on the exam tomorrow. But after browsing the major approved summer session courses I had already made up my mind. I am going to drop this course. Although this subject interests me, there is no need to take a class on 20th century European history in Spanish, in Chile, on top of everything else I have to worry about.

I have grown accustomed to overworking myself. Despite the fruits of success it has brought me, my overambitious nature has also robbed me of any free time over the past year, plaguing me with unneeded stress. I have decided that it is time to take a step back and actually enjoy where I am, what I’m doing, and who I am becoming. There is so much I am able to continue to learn without overworking myself. In fact, by providing myself with the freedom of dropping one class, I will now have more time to devote to learning in the other three, and more importantly in this situation, outside of the classroom. This will bring me more time to spend with my host family, Chilean friends, internships, volunteer work, and most importantly it will allow me to interact in all these situations without begin burdened by the stress and preoccupation of constantly struggling to keep up to date with the readings and preparing for exams.

I can characterize each year of college as a growth in a unique area. My freshman year was an explosion of social networking, breaking out from behind the shy wall I had been stuck behind since middle school. Sophomore year was the largest growing experience to date, slowing down this social exploration and looking inward to begin defining myself. Junior year I began to focus on school, realizing its importance. Senior year I continued this trend, championing the knowledge I had gained from classes and internships. The summer before my 5th year I began to realize that this year would be characterized by taking all of that knowledge, all of that experience that I had spend the previous four years learning, take it out of the academic setting and apply it to real life. What better way to do it than in a different country, far away from the orange curtain, with people who have never even heard of Orange County much less Irvine. I am prepared to do this now, with the freedom I will give myself by dropping only one class. It is time I follow the motto I have always idealized: quality over quantity.

March 29, 2010

P.S. I hope you guys enjoy this. This is the first time I have published any of my thoughts to this degree. To be perfectly honest I was going to write this by hand in my journal, but I was too tired and decided typing would be much more efficient. The window in the mind of Seth has been opened.

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