So I meant to write this blog post over a week ago, when there were elections going on here in Chile, but things got too crazy and I ran out of time. But guess what?!? I can still legitimately write this post now because apparently there are more elections today! I swear, the elections are non-ending. Everywhere I go I am surrounded by propaganda, propaganda, and more propaganda. I am beginning to think elections are even more of a big deal here than they are in the US. This isn’t even a presidential election year, and everyone is going CRAZY over voting! So not only are there elections for mayor (alcalde) and all the other community government positions, but there are also extremely important elections (or so everyone says) at my university, La Católica. In fact, these elections are so intense that they had a round of ‘primaries’ last week and today is the real deal. Add that to the fact that the election of US president is apparently a world affair, and you have yourself a crazy few weeks!
Like I said, propaganda is crazy here. I really haven’t watched any Chilean TV in the last two months or so, so I have no idea if there are a lot of commercials, but other forms of propaganda are definitely present… in excess! All candidates here are obsessed with signs in the street- and when I say obsessed, I mean that you will drive down a street and every 10 meters there is another identical sign advertising the exact same person! When I was on the bus one day we seriously drove past 100 signs for the same lady within 5 minutes. Don’t you think I would have gotten the point after the first 10 signs or so? The most ridiculous guy I have seen is Mr. Montt, a mayor candidate. He has not only plastered my entire comuna with GIANT signs, he has also hired people to drive around La Reina in giant semi trucks covered with MONTT signs blasting music, dancing around, and pretty much just yelling at people to yell for Montt. Quite a winning strategy, I would say. To top it all off, there are also random people who wait at intersections for the lights to turn red, then run out and try to force people to open their windows to listen to their speeches about political candidates, donate money, or take pamphlets for one of the candidates. Even I have been victim to this fun game when I am walking to the metro station, and I can’t even vote here!
It is not only the mayor candidates that are going crazy- the university students are extremely intense about the elections too! Groups of about 6 students form political parties with a president, vice-president, concejal (a very important position whose purpose I still haven’t discovered), secretary, and a few other positions. Each group has spent what must be a ridiculous amount of money printing huge, extremely fancy posters and hanging then all over campus. Then they walk around trying to talk to people and convince them to vote for their ‘party’. Today, for the real elections, there are even two different ‘sides’ and people showed which side they support by wearing red or green. Crazy stuff. It is quite different than the two or three quickly scribbled sidewalk chalk messages written in Madison the day of the student elections saying ‘Vote for Peter’. Although I guess it is different because here people actually care about the university elections and vote.
What is really strange is that almost all of my Chilean friends at my university have voted in the school elections, but the real city elections are definitely not as popular. Up until this year, the Chilean government had a system where it was voluntary to register yourself as a voter, but if you registered, you were legally obliged to vote. This year, however, they changed it so that everyone was automatically registered to vote, but whether or not you actually voted was completely voluntary. The bad news? The new system completely failed: some parts of the city only had 30% turn-out, which is way lower than they have had in the past. So it seems like they might be going back to the old system in future years…..
Now on to the presidential elections in the United States. It surprised me how important this election was to everyone in Chile. I originally assumed no one really cared, but I was definitely wrong. Not only do they show the presidential debates on TV here, but people talk about US politics all the time! I can’t even count how many times the United States comes up in conversations, in classes, on the TV in the metro…. It has never been so obvious to me just how big of an influence the United States has on every other country in the world. So I guess it only makes sense that Chileans are interested in US politics since it is so connected to their own lives. Tons of people here have talked to me about the upcoming elections… and when I say they talk to me, I mean they blatently ask me: Who are you going to vote for? Apparently there is not a social rule preventing people from asking that here. So anyways, from what I have heard pretty much everyone in Chile likes Obama more than Mitt Romney, so people were very happy with the election result. I am happy to say that I did my duty as an American citizen and voted from 5,000 miles away, even though it involved a stressful trip to the American Embassy building here in Santiago and a lot of confusing conversations about how to obtain the proper envelope to send my ballot in. But the deed is done. Hopefully now my neighbors in Neenah will not be getting any more mail saying I have not voted in the last 5 presidential elections, even though this is the first time I was old enough!
Another surprising twist on Chilean culture is that people here celebrate Halloween! And no, not the Mexican Día de la Muerte version of Halloween, the real, live version of the holiday: trick-or-treating and all! At first, I was a little confused about how trick-or-treating was going to work exactly, since all the houses here have gates, but a lot of people just leave the gates unlocked that night or the trick-or-treaters just ring the door bell incessantly until someone comes and gives them candy. I was talking to my younger host brother Joaquin about Halloween a few days before it happened, and he told me that every year he dresses up as a vampire. When I asked him if he was going to go trick-or-treating he seemed insulted that I would even ask such a thing, because ‘trick-or-treating is only for babies.’ So anyways, Halloween came and with it came the trick-or-treaters. The only problem was, my host mom went to the grocery store to buy candy about an hour before trick-or-treating started and apparently they were all out! So every time someone came to the door she would get really nervous they would see us and would make us all be quiet so the kids wouldn’t hear us and know we were here! Apparently there is nothing like the outside lights system here in Chile where you can signal whether or not you want kids to show up outside your house begging for candy! But in my opinion, the most entertaining event of the night was when Joaquin suddenly decided around 9:00 or 9:30 that he DID want to go trick-or-treating after all, so he put on his vampire cape and ran outside to join a group of kids outside. Here’s the catch: the other kids were probably all 8 or 10 and very short, like most Chileans. Joaquin is 14 and super tall (he is the same height as me). Honestly, it kind of just looked like he was the supervising adult for the group! Apparently every mother’s biggest fear is their child getting attacked or kidnapped on Halloween, because as soon as Joaquin left, my host mom started panicking that he wans’t going to be ok. She had told him to be back at 10:00, and when he wasn’t back by 9:40, she went out on a search for him! She kept coming back to the house and going out to search for him for over half an hour, panicking because Joaquin wasn’t back on time. Around 10:20 or so Joaquin casually strolled back to the house, with a huge bag of candy, having no idea he was late. I had tried telling the host mom that there was no way Joaquin was coming back until the houses ran out of candy, because he absolutely LOVES it, but she was convinced something was wrong and did not believe me. Oh well, things worked out in the end. Although I definitely saw that one coming…..
So it turns out most people here don’t actually dress up for Halloween, mainly just children and foreigners. It surprised me that there weren’t a ton of costume parties or anything on Halloween night because Thursday and Friday were both vacation! Thursday was All-Saint’s Day, and since Chile is almost a completely Catholic country, it was vacation (I swear, we have had at least 5 days off for Catholic holidays). Friday, as I learned yesterday, was made a holiday to not discriminate against all the other religions in Chile. I don’t think there is actually any specific reason the government chose that particular day, other than that it made a super long weekend, but it was apparently to make sure the other religions feel like they are being represented too. Which is a nice thought, but it seems like a strange way to do it: just pick a random day and tell all the religions other than Catholicism that it is ‘their’ day to celebrate.
I did have a little bit of Halloween dressing-up excitement though! Every since I have gotten to Chile, I have been working on getting into a hospital to do some type of volunteer work. It has been quite the interesting process, I will tell you. I found an organization through my university that goes to hospitals, jails, and nursing homes and volunteers once a week. I emailed them and told them I was interested in volunteering at the hospital and they instantly emailed back saying they were really excited I was interested, and that I could start that Saturday! No forms to fill out, no interview, no medical tests, absolutely nothing. A far cry from the process I went through to volunteer at the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, which included getting 2 TB tests, letters of recommendation, and filling out a huge application. If this is any indication for the medical school application process, Chile is suddenly looking like a pretty good option for my future…..
But anyways, I was actually traveling that first weekend I was invited to go volunteer, and through a combination of busy schedules and bad luck with email communication, I wasn’t actually able to go volunteer for the first time until Halloween weekend. We ended up going to the hospital associated with La Católica (the university), a private, very nice (and very expensive) hospital in the center of Santiago. I was expecting there to be a ton of volunteers there, because in the United States it seems like practically everyone in the university volunteers at the hospital, but there were only about 6 or 7 other girls there. One girl from Australia, another from the United States, and the rest from Chile. Turns out that the group’s job is pretty much just to go play with and entertain the kids in the hospital and give the parents a little bit of a break from watching over them for so long. Which, for me, is almost exactly what I do in the hospital back at home too! But here in Chile, the volunteers go all out. Not only did we dress up in costumes for Halloween, we also walked around giving out candies to all the kids and parents AND gave out cool balloon animals and shapes to the kids! Honestly, it was the first time in my life I have ever thought about what it is like to be a clown: you come, you entertain, you give out balloons, and you leave. Enough said. The kids absolutely loved it, though, and it was fun to be able to actually use my Spanish in a medical setting for the first time. Plus, I learned some great life skills such as making a weiner dog and a flower out of balloons! Who knows when those tricks will come in handy?
In general, it surprised me that this hospital honestly just seemed like pretty much any hospital you can find in the United States. There were the different departments for children, cardiac problems, surgeries, etc. with doctors and nurses traveling around visiting all their different patients. One major difference I noticed was that instead of each child having their own room, like in the Children’s Hospital in Madison, every room held 4 patients, which definitely makes the place seem a lot more cramped. But overall, still a very nice hospital. This weekend, we are actually going to a different hospital, a public one this time, so it will be interesting to compare the two types: public hospitals that everyone can go to for free or cheap, and private hospitals that only the wealthy people can afford.
I guess I should give a little update on my other volunteering now as well, teaching English in the middle school in Maipú (a section of Santiago). I still absolutely love volunteering there, and the girls are all super nice and all love talking to me every Wednesday. Pretty much every week the professor I work with asks me to plan some sort of activity or event, so I have been busy doing skits, playing games, and (best of all) making cootie-catchers with the girls to practice the future tense! I am also the proud designer of the new classroom bulletin board:
The thing that makes me laugh is how different the Chilean school structure is from the structure in the United States. In the States, punctuality is a huge deal- arriving 5 minutes late is considered unacceptable and you will receive a warning and potentially have to go talk to administration if you are late enough times. In Chile, that is definitely not the case, seeing as the teachers never even arrive on time! I am not kidding, Sonia (the English teacher) and I will go down to the break room in between classes and when the bell rings she doesn’t even move. We just sit there for another 5 minutes before she asks me, ‘Do you think we should go up?’ Which means that by the time we get there all the girls are already waiting outside, ready to enter the classroom. So we get there, enter the room, and then have our daily ‘greeting session’, which is quite an experience in itself. Here is the script that we pretty much follow every day:
Sonia: Hello, girls.
Girls: Hello, Miss Sonia.
Sonia: How are you today?
Girls: Fine, thank you, and you?
Sonia: Fine, thank you.
Heather: Hi girls!
Girls: Hi, Miss Heather.
Heather: Are you happy today?
Sonia: Sit down.
Keep in mind that this is a group of 50 girls practically shouting back these answers to us. Hearing the girls shout ‘fine, thank you, and you’ will probably never get old for me. Another interesting note is how much down time we have during the classes. Most of the time, we are doing some type of activity with groups, since there are so many kids, so I am walking around trying to help as many groups as I possibly can, which Sonia is doing the same. But when we finish the activity, many times, if there is less than 20 minutes left of class, we simply do not do anything else with the rest of the time. Sonia works on grading or something, the girls talk, and I walk around trying to get at least a few of them to do something productive and English related. The fact that 30 minutes of the class each day are being wasted really doesn’t seem to concern the teacher at all- it is pretty much just standard protocol here! All the teachers have a slightly different, much more relaxed attitude toward their jobs than in the United States. One day, for example, Sonia was telling me how 4 teachers couldn’t come to school that day but there was only 1 sub. When I asked her how they were planning on using 1 person to cover the spots of 4 people, she said she had no idea, but something would work out…. Ummm?? An interesting strategy, to say the least. Sonia also appears to have very high confidence in volunteers, even though I have absolutely no official teaching experience. One day she literally just left for the last 30 minutes of class without warning, leaving me to lead the class and think of things to do. Luckily that day was the only day where there was a different student there helping out, so we managed to think of some corny version of Simon Says to keep the girls occupied! There is apparently also a new 29 year-old volunteer who just started at the school, whose volunteering has apparently gotten off to an interesting start. The very first day she was there, Sonia’s son got sick or something, so she literally just left the school and left the volunteer in charge for the entire day! Something tells me there might be a few upset parents about that in the US….
Sorry for the long post with very few pictures— trust me, the next one is going to be jam-packed with absolutely beautiful pictures from one of the coolet places I have ever been: San Pedro de Atacama, in the center of the Atacama desert!!!! Here is just one picture as a sneak-peak (and, yes, those are flamingos!):
P.S. Just so you know, Mr. Montt lost his election. I guess big party semi-trucks are not the key to winning a political election in Santiago…