Archive for the ‘Santiago, Chile’ Category


The 8-Week Fantasy of Fluency:: and Other Reflections of ECELA and the Language Immesion Technique

April 21, 2007

Tonight I board a plane for Brazil (whooohooo!!!!!) for the last leg of this trip. Since they speak Portuguese in Brazil instead of Spanish, today is my last official day of speaking Spanish all day. Everyone I hear from back home keeps asking me how my Spanish is coming and if I am fluent yet. WHEWWW!!!…..that’s funny!The even funnier part of the equation is that somehow in my mind before I got here I thought that I would leave here after 2 months of language school not necessarily fluent…….. but pretty close. O what a fool I was.  At school we all chuckle about our unreasonable expectations before we got here. One hears so much about “language immersion” and how quickly a person learns when they are forced to speak a language all the time. After having participated in this program, I wouldn´t say that this is altogether untrue…….. just very overstated. In the past 2 months I’ve had 200 hours of Spanish class time and spoke at least a little Spanish every day with locals for one reason or another. I definitely know more Spanish now than I would have learned in the States under any circumstances in 2 months. However, the Spanish that I am most “proficient” in is the everyday stuff. I am very good at what I call survival Spanish. I can get anything done in a restaurant, whether it be asking ingredients, asking for condiments, telling the server the wine is corked, and arguing over the bill……… I can get most things done in a taxi, give directions, insist that they are trying to rip me off and that I may speak English but I am no fool, and I can ask questions and answer questions in stores that sell just about anything, pool halls, bars, and Internet cafes. What I know is survival Spanish, but please don´t get it confused…. its broken, grammatically incorrect and sometimes damn near incoherent to locals, but it generally gets the job done.  I have learned to never leave the house without my spanish dictionary and a pen and paper….sometimes drawing is the most effective form of universal communication.  Drawing and playing charades has gotten me very far in foreign countries.

The first three weeks of the program I would be able to speak in class, but on the street I would freeze up because I was so busy thinking about grammar and trying to come up with correct conjugations that I would just get stuck. Then I started noticing that other students who at first sounded pretty fluent to me, really just spoke a very confident broken Spanish that consisted of a jumble of the necessarity verbs and vocabulary. So at that point I just started to speak. Every week I had my favorite Spanish phrases. For awhile, my feeling about EVERYTHING was…… “mas o menos” or “yo tambien”.  Seeing how everyone down here thinks that I am Brazillian because I am clearly not of Anglo roots, I can´t count the number of times I start trying to stammer through some Spanish and they tell me “I don´t speak Portugese” , and I`m like “well actually I don´t speak Portugese either” at this point they look at me very quizically almost as if to say, well you certainly aren´t speaking Spanish…….it seems Spanishish….but not Spanish.  I even had one woman at a Chinese restaurant say to me very loudly and slowly as if I was deft “DOOOO YOUUUU SPEEAKAA IIINGLES?”. Umm yess, as a matter of fact I do.  I´ve never seen anyone look so relieved to speak English in a non-English speaking country.

I had to chuckle to myself when another student was commenting last night how impressed she is with how well I can get us around the city and get things done in Spanish. I know very little Spanish, this I know to be true.   However, I too have become a master a maneuvering what little I do know to get alot done. Outside of class I use about 15 verbs that I can quickly conjugate in several tenses, I have a decent grasp on the difference between para and por (I´ve decided that para is the greatest connector/preposition/explaining word on the face of the planet), and everyday I learn new vocab. Even though last night I graduated from only the first of three levels the program offers, at this point I don´t think that my Spanish would get much better if I stayed in the school another 2 months. By now, we´ve gone over all the tenses, and hundreds of verbs, hundreds of vocabulary and after the first level they start reviewing and going back and fine tuning some things that were breezed over very quickly. So at this point its about getting more comfortable with speaking with people and practice, practice, practice! Which by the way,  honestly doesn´t happen with other students outside of class in a situation like this. The classes at ECELA are fabulous. They can be very intense 4 hour sessions everyday but that’s what you pay for.   It seems a little strange that you are basically paying someone to talk to you for four hours a day, but how else are you supposed to learn?  And it´s pretty necessary since as soon as students leave class we return to English. They encourage all of us not to, but it doesn´t make sense to struggle to try to communicate in Spanish when we all speak English.   It´s just not natural.  Whenever students are together we will speak Spanish for the first few minutes to each other, but we always end up back at English because our Spanish is so bad that we can barely comprehend each other.  I will say that South America is a wonderful place to go to learn Spanish despite the funny accents that separate their Spanish from Spain Spanish.  The people are lovely and they don´t get snotty attitudes that you don´t know their language.  They are so tickled that you try that they are very helpful and get very excited for you when you finally get it right, but the only problem is that as you want to practice your Spanish they want to practice their English.  I´ve had half hour long conversations with people where I am speaking in Spanish and they are speaking in English.  I think I´ve learned more Spanish from taxi drivers than my teachers.  You are stuck in the cab with a talkative cab driver and suddenly you have no choice but to talk and they have no choice but to teach.

My grammar and my accent are shot to hell but that will come with time, my grammar gets better when I read in Spanish and I plan to continue to read books in Spanish when I return home. I am not one of those people who just love other languages for the sake of learning another language, but I am extraordinarily dedicated to learning Spanish.   I  like to communicate with people and if I need to speak another language in order to do it than so be it. So whats the verdict on ECELA and their Latin Immersion Program? I now have a solid foundation upon which to build my language skills. It was worth the money and the time, not just for the language but because its an experience of a lifetime.  I am no where near fluent, but I am proud at how far I have come.  I can now have conversations with people about basic things and we can even talk about world politics and deeper issues…..a little bit anyway.   It has been a fascinating cultural exchange on more levels than I expected because learning a second language with people whom you don´t share the same first language or culture is a pretty interesting experience.  I knew that it would be a time for me to get the flavor of South America, but I didn´t realize that everyday was going to be a crash course in almost every country around the world from all the different students. I have met people here that I would have never met or hung out with under any other circumstances. Even Americans that I befriended during the program were not usually people that I would voluntarily spend time with in the States. It’s amazing the kinds of things that unite you with other people when you are overwhelmed with foreignness (or underwhelmed in Santiago)… “You live within 20 miles of a Dairy Queen? Me too!!” and then suddenly that`s your best friend for the next week.

Travel friendships can be a funny and fragile thing especially as a single traveler. You are in a new place and suddenly everything is unfamiliar and so you look for comrades, compadres, or just an amigo to eat dinner with. You find people who seem the least bit nice, willing, and probably a bit as fragile as you as well and BLAM!!….you have what feels like a instant family in about three days. The new family does everything together…. you eat every meal together, discover the city together, get ripped off together, and trade scary/disgusting/unbelievable travel stories. You offer tidbits and glimpses of your true person and your “real life” but really noone is interested in all that reality, most people leave the country for vacations from reality. It´s weird because as you are developing what feels like a close relationship with these people and you all pledge to keep in touch and come visit one another deep down inside you know that you won`t. You exchange emails because that`s the polite thing to do, but you both know that you don´t have enough in common to keep in contact across oceans and continents. There are always people that you meet that you will forever think about, and some you will even keep in contact with but those are the exception, not the rule. For most, your friendship was as sudden and intense as a one night stand….and forgotten just as quickly.


Mistaking Me For A Black Jesus:: Confessions of the Absurd….

April 20, 2007

Time after time while traveling in Argentina and Chile I am always not only the Black American, but the only Black face ever, anywhere (no longer the only minority period thanks to two Asians from Texas and one from NYC, gooooo color crew!). Not really a big deal, I’m a professional only. However instead of being surrounded only by American bred Whites, I am surrounded by European Whites….. that presents a whole new set of racial problems that I’ll post about later. Too often in the past couple of months, particularly after lots of wine, beer,  and local liquor has been flowing I find myself cornered by some British/Dutch/German/Swedish/Norway student confessing their racist sins to me as if I have some sort of power to absolve them from their sins. They range from small to the great.

“I’ve always wanted to sleep with a Black man, I’ve heard loads about the size of their cocks” ….with a pair of shiny bright eyes glowing up at me eagerly, what does one reply to that?

“Tell me, is it true was I really born genetically deficit for pleasing a woman?….are Black men really larger, ya know… down there”

………I know we have been hyper sexualized for centuries, but who knew so many fools were still actually obsessed with the size of the Black penis?

Then there are the others………

“I have stood by and done nothing while minorities in the program (umm, that would be me….and umm me) were referred to in, umm, harsh…..and ::racist:: terms …..I’m so sorry”

“I lived in the States for awhile ……..the Blacks are so colorful, even if they are as lazy and violent as everyone says.”

“I could never ever be attracted to an Afro-Caribbean woman, I mean a part of me wouldn’t mind taking one for a test drive ya know what I mean…… I like other races well enough ya know, but I just couldn’t ever be attracted to ya know, that kind of person, THAT kind of look…. but no offense love, your quite lovely” …..uuumm, what?

This doesn’t happen once, or twice but constantly. What the hell do people actually expect me to say to them? Do I wave my magical Black hand over their head, douse them with wine and proclaim that they have been forgiven for all racist/discriminatory thoughts? What exactly are they expecting?

I had a Dutch roommate last week that told me during a conversation that started off on religion in our respective countries and some how turned into her saying “Holland has a serious immigrant problem right now with North African/Middle Eastern particularly Turkish Immigrants and they screw up everything in our country because they are all horrible people”. Umm all of them? Umm did she forget she was sitting in a room with a Black woman? The best part was she kept saying over and over again how she wasn´t a racist and how Hollands problem was that they were the most friendly tolerant unracist people on the face of the planet. “I’m not a racist at all. I don’t have a racist bone in my body” was all she kept saying after I was clearly perturbed. I replied that hers is the kind of fucked up attitude that Blacks/people of color/immigrants fight in the States and its so absurd that anyone would think it was better in Europe (the lie they teach up growing up… just because Josephine Baker found refuge there in the 20s doesn’t make it better in modern comparisons). She then went on to say how she didn’t understand racism in America. I told her that I didn´t know why because what she just said was racist. Who was I to be surprised seeing how, the English, the Dutch, the Spanish went running around the world colonizing and enslaving every person possible while spreading “civilization”. Those fuckers created racism…until the Germans could perfect it. She kept telling me how she knows that she it probably SOUNDS racist to me, but that’s just because I don´t know these people. I told her that it probably doesn´t SOUND racist to her because she thinks that she does know these people.

………..I’m suffering from European overload this week. I usually try to avoid Americans while traveling, because that’s whole point of traveling, to meet people you usually wouldn’t right? But with the nonsense that I’ve put up with, the superior attitude, snotty uninformed anti-American sentiment every single day (plenty of reasons to hate Bush and America, but if you’re going to run your mouth off get your facts straight from hearsay)……… I steer clear of the Euro’s here. If one more person calls me an Afro-Caribbean….as if all of us colored are the same, or puts their hand into my fluffy fro without asking again I’m going to lose my natural black mind. I just can’t take it anymore because unfortunately I do not have the powers of some mystical magical negro and I can´t wash away racist sins or discriminatory thoughts and frankly I´d rather they keep this shit to themselves. Who do I look like, Black Jesus? ….I don´t know, maybe It´s the fro.


So Santiago Isn´t So Bad…Now That I´m leaving

April 17, 2007

My first impressions of Santiago were pretty bad.  A lot of it had to do with my living conditions that first week I was here and the fact that the weather made the city seem so dreary and sad.  I survived the hellish boarding house for a week, but after throwing a small fit with my school I was moved to a modern apartment owned by the school where I live with other students from the program.  It smells a bit like cat piss, but other than that it’s heaven compared to where I was living before.

Santiago is also EXPENSIVE and I didn’t expect that at all. I knew that the economy in Chile was the strongest in SA, but I didn’t expect New York City prices (ok maybe that’s a teeny exaggeration, but some things are) for everything.  I mean hell I am still in South America right?  After leaving Buenos Aires, where it’s such a wonderful city and so incredibly barato (cheap), you feel like you get so much for your money.  After leaving that for Santiago, you start to feel like you are being robbed here.  So all this combined with the fact that the food is HORRIBLE made me want to flee this city as soon as possible. I wasn’t in a position where I could change my travel plans with out losing a ton of money, so I decided to just bunker down, stick it out and count the days until Brazil. I also ran out of the city the first two weekends in attempts at finding some small relief from what seemed like an icy hell nestled sweetly between the Andes Mountains.

I now know that all of that was my brain reacting to my disastrous first week here and the heartbreak one feels when leaving a city like Buenos Aires.  So last weekend was the first weekend I spent in town, and let me say that it took some doing but I think that I did in fact find the charm in this town.  I read in several books that Buenos Aires isn’t the kind of place that you fall in love with instantly, but it’s a slow love.  That wasn’t true for me.  I fell in love with BA instantly.  I could almost fell tears welling in my eyes as I was driving from the airport towards the city in Buenos Aires because I was overwhelmed with this feeling of amar. However, I can say that I find that sentiment to be true about Santiago.  All the things about the city that initially struck me were negative.   It was cold, dirty, overpriced, and the pollution in the air is so thick that you can hardly even see the Andes most days………. and while these are things that plague most cities, for me it lacked the charm that comes with most big cities.  Anyone who knows me knows how I love big dirty, polluted, rat infested, overpriced cities……… but never for those reasons, I am just willing to accept those things because I love the charm and the spirit in big bustling cities.

Santiago doesn’t have that instant charm.  Not at all.  But it does have its own charm.  I spent the weekend in various barrios SEARCHING for the charm.  This past weekend was my last full weekend in the city and I was determined to not leave this place feeling like I wasted my hard earned money.  I did find it, in art museums and in areas like Bellavista that I thought I had properly toured before but I apparently didn’t.  I went to the noted Chilean poet and revolution visionary Pablo Nerudas house here in town and it was excellent, even though people said that it wasn’t much to see if you had been to any of his other houses in Chile but it was well worth it. ::sidenote:: I went to his house in Valparaiso on the eastern pacific coast of Chile and that was PHENOMENAL……… but everything in Valparaiso was phenomenal.  I went to Valparaiso on a day trip a couple weeks ago and it an incredibly charming, beautiful port side town.  It reminds me a lot of Nice, France which I adore as well……… anyway.

I also had a few decent meals this weekend (which cost me an arm and a leg) but it was worth it to have some good Chilean food.  I have been surviving on ethnic food since I’ve been here because Chilean food tends to lack flavor and seasoning.  I have eaten plenty of Chinese food, Sushi, and Mexican food since I’ve been here because those are places where you are guaranteed some flavor and some vegetables.  One place for people to check out if they are ever in Santiago is a restaurant called Como Ague Para Chocolate (translated Like Water For Chocolate…….named after the Mexican novel/Indie film for those of you familiar).  I had one of the best meals in a long time there.

It has also been pretty sunny and fair the past couple weeks and that makes any place look better, but developing countries in dark, dreary, cold weather are truly depressing.  After the first week and a half, I have come to see little by little the charm in this city that hides from you at first.  With a little digging and a little ingenuity charm is to be found in Santiago after all.   So as I am preparing to leave Santiago in 4 days and I am satisfied that my attitude has changed.  I still probably won’t come back to Santiago…….unless I am on my way somewhere else like Valparaiso, but it’s not such a bad place after all.

…….having said that, I still can’t wait to get to Brazil, but it’s no longer just because I am hoping to flee Santiago.


Who Knew Hell Was So Close to the Andes Moutains?

March 30, 2007

I tried not to, but I’ve hated Santiago from the moment I got off the airport shuttle. My housing accommodations are horrible. When the driver dropped me off at some sort of boarding house that was older and creakier than the joints of Moses I was sure that he had made some sort of mistake. My room faces a busy street and the noise from the street is so loud I have to play my ipod and plug my ears with cotton around my earbuds just to get to sleep. Please keep in mind that I lived next to Howard Hospital for three years and had no problem falling asleep to the sounds of sirens (and a few gunshots) all night. The windows are so old that you could put your hand through the space where the window and the window frame are supposed to meet. So what does that mean when you are in the middle of the Andes Mountains and the city is on the cusp of winter (the seasons are opposite the Northern Hemisphere)? It means you freeze your ass off.

O and did I mention the fact that I was sharing one tiny, disgusting bathroom with 8 strangers, none of whom go to my school. The shower (if you could really call it that, more like a hole in the wall where water ran from and a drain in the floor) is so shallow that I had to lean out of the shower and hold on to sink in order to rinse off my back. The bathroom/shower situation is so shady that some days I just take what I call a travellers bath (a series of actions with baby wipes, face astringent, hand sanitizer, and a bottle of water). It’s amplified by the fact that everyone in the house adheres to the South American toilet paper rules. What are those? Well in South America they don’t flush toilet paper down the drain (probably clogs up the ancient or inefficient plumbing systems), so after wiping yourself one throws it in a small trash can next to the toilet. I have discovered that where you throw your toilet paper is an engrained cultural thing. The Americans and Europeans at school have had many a discussion on our dilemma when we are faced with signs that clearly say “Please do not put toilet paper in the toilet. Please use the bin”. You just don’t feel right putting soiled paper in a trash can and not flushing it away out of sight. So usually we just don’t. It’s probably wrong, but it’s just one of those things about yourself that is extremely hard to change, even times where I have intended to comply, I always forget at the last moment and the paper ends up in the toilet anyway. Culturally engrained.

Anyhow, so I don’t need to say more about the state of the bathroom with roommates who actually follow the SA toilet paper rule. My housemates are a mix of German exchange students from the local university here, and local Chileans. I hardly ever see the two Chilean guys that live here, and let me just say that Germans are not the nicest people on face of the planet…………but that’s a whole other post in itself.

………….at least there is a computer here.


Santiago:: Is it love that I´m feeling?? Umm, no thats just gas…

March 28, 2007

So I´ve been in Santiago for a few days now and I must admit that when I first arrived here I was disappointed, sad, disgusted, and ready to bring my tail back to the states. It was difficult to leave Buenos Aires, a city that I am so in love with so much personality and come here to Santiago where the city lacks a little….. je ne sais que…. Basically in a nutshell, Santiago kind of sucks. I have searched high and low and I have yet to find the charm in this city. The people are wonderful……but I seem to find the people everywhere to be wonderful.

Though this is a city of 5 million or more people it lacks that bustling big city feel that I was expecting. Instead it always feels like you are in a dirty run down suburb of a big city. I am counting the days until I leave.