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The International Writers Magazine
: South American Diary No 13

South American Diary
Dermot Sullivan
on two taboos - religion and politics

Last time I wrote about five of the six channels here showing old Hollywood biblical films on Good Friday. That was nothing to the whole saga of the Pope dying. There was seventy-two hours of non-stop: 'the Pope is dying', followed by 'the Pope is even more dying', 'the Pope is dead - the Pope is dead - the Pope is dead - stop the world' and then 'we bring you live now to the Vatican where the Pope is still dead'. My favourite was seeing a split screen of two live feeds: one being people filing by the pope lying in state, the other people praying live in the cathedral in Santiago.

Dermot himself

El Papa came here in 1987 and it has been shown again and again on the telly as if it was the most important thing to happen since God spoke to Moses. Actually, when he was speaking then some losers stood up and threw rocks at the stage. The Church (no friend of the Pinochet regime) had cut a deal that if there was any hassle when he was there they would deal with it themselves. If it were too much to handle then they would call in the police. Anyhow, when those people started throwing rocks the police weighed in immediately with tear gas, truncheons and water cannon, beating anyone and everyone - including priests. There was chaos for about thirty minutes as the Pope looked on in despair. At the end he stood up and shouted: 'El amor es más fuerte' - love is stronger. These are now the words that replayed again and again on Chilean television. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to show the Pope's other message: 'Los pobres no puedan esperar' - the poor can't wait. That though ties in with the Chilean class system, something I'll mention later.

Being here in South America has really sharpened my atheism. The Catholic Church has hobbled this country so much. The church here is like the church back in Ireland in the 1950s but in a bad mood. Chile is easily the most conservative country in the Western World. Like so much is Chile though, there is a split. This is probably the most schizophrenic country on Earth. Many people don’t give a damn about the church and its conventions (more and more people live together before marriage, for example). As with the rest of the world, society here is increasingly secularised. On the other extreme Opus Dei, otherwise known as the association of Catholic right-wing fanatics, is probably the strongest here than anywhere else in the world. The right-wing candidate in this year’s presidential elections is a member. If that guy wins in December then Chile is quite frankly going to hell!

Despite criticism that I can be pessimistic and cynical, I always try to put a positive spin on a situation. I have never written a missive entitled 'The Things I Hate About Chile'. I tend to laugh at most situations, like the fact that Santiago has no drainage system. This is a First World city, yet when it rains for five minutes the streets are flooded! If that sort of stupidity doesn't make you laugh then nothing will.
An old headmaster once read out a story in an assembly. I was about ten at the time so I can't remember it exactly. I'll have to paraphrase it: Socrates (for example) was sitting out under tree on the road leading into Athens. Some traveller walked by, saw him and said 'Hello, I am from Thessalonica and I'm travelling to your town of Athens. Could you tell me what it's like, please?'. Socrates, being a wise dude, asked him: 'Well, what's Thessalonica like?' and the traveller replied 'Mate, Thessalonica totally rocks! All the people are super-cool and all the women are really pretty. People sing and dance in the streets'. Socrates replied that he would find people in Athens exactly the same and so the traveller went merrily on his way.

Five minutes later some other traveller showed up, interrupting Socrates from his thinking. This traveller said 'Hello, I am from Thessalonica and I'm travelling to your town of Athens. Could you tell me what it's like, please?'. Socrates again asked what the traveller felt Thessalonica was like, but this traveller said 'I'm sorry I have to tell you that Thessalonica is ghastly, never will you find such a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and the people are disgusting'. Socrates said 'I'm sorry, old chum, but you'll find that Athenians are exactly the same'. The traveller went sadly on his way.

Now, when I heard this story I didn't really get it. It was only when I was older that I understood and bored people with its message. I've tried to bear it in mind when I've had complaints about something. I try to either shut up or laugh about it (not always successfully), but recently there have been a spate of things that have really pissed me off (I realise that nobody wants to read me bitching about this and that. If you feel that way then skip toward the end of this epic piece and you can read about me travelling).

There have always been some things that have wound me up: the terrible pollution, the psychotic bus-drivers, the poverty, the dreadful state of education, the classism … and anything else that is just unnecessary. Actually, I never knew what the word 'classism' meant until I came to Chile. Britain is known for having a class system but it's nothing compared to how it is in Chile. Think of Britain maybe one hundred years ago in the past but with lots of class-hate. If you're born poor here then you're screwed for life and the rich will expect you to be grateful for it. The ruling-class pay lip-service to paternalism but do very little and hate to hear anything that would challenge this status quo (especially from a priest telling them that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven). I’m not at all saying that the poor here are saints. Generally, the poor here really hate those with money. The middle-class is so small that it barely merits a mention. The rigidity of the class system is just very hard for me to take. Chile has the second worst distribution of wealth in South America (after Brazil).

One of the ways that the division manifests itself is in the language. Chilean Spanish is radically different to the other Spanishes spoken around the world. In England, the idea behind rhyming slang hundreds of years ago was to be able to outwit eavesdroppers and the police. Well, when many Santiaguinos speak it’s like rhyming slang spoken with a closed mouth! They also speak very fast and don’t bother to annunciate anything. A lot of the words have a coded meaning, just like rhyming slang back home. The words here used to describe someone from the upper-classes have two or three hidden meanings. I actually find the language here fascinating though it can be very hard work to understand people. Speaking to a gringo is a rarity so they have concept of how to modify their language (like slowing down). It’s the very strange that a city of five million people which is the financial heart of South America can be the very antithesis of cosmopolitan. Still, I seem to be able to make myself understood nowadays if not understanding the response!

Many people write to me and they seem to have an impression that I'm on some tropical beach somewhere. That's pretty far from the truth. For all of Chile's positives, there are some pretty whopping negatives as well. Santiago is pretty dull as cities go and it's something like the third most polluted city on earth. Children have fifty per cent less lung capacity here than those outside of Santiago. The natural landscape in Chile is great, but its cities are best avoided. Argentina is comparison is mostly flat and boring (I haven't been to Patagonia yet so I can't comment) but its cities are super.

The health system leaves something to be desired. You have to pay for the ambulance. If you can’t afford it then you have to rely on the one sent by the state which may show up after forty-five minutes, by which time you’d probably dead. One of those psycho bus drivers ploughed into a street kiosk outside of my flatmate’s internet café. Fortunately the kiosk-owner survived but he was left lying in a pool of his own blood whilst the ambulance took forever to show up. It’s somewhat annoying when five per cent of all the copper revenue goes directly to the military to buy new weapons every year. What the hell do they do with the old weapons? It’s not as they’ve been to war in decades, unless you count killing thousands of your own people.

I had some very bad experiences recently with a Chilean school. I originally came here with an aim to teach children. At every level I have found obstacles prohibiting me from doing it. The situation is so bad here that every foreign recruiting agency is thinking of pulling out by the end of 2005. It's not just incompetence or bureaucracy on the part of the Chileans, the an element of what can only be called 'cheating' involved as well. I spoke to a Canadian agency who are one of the primary recruiters of teachers to send to Chile. Twelve out of the eighteen schools who they supplied with native English speakers have not paid them their money. Who wants to do business with someone who doesn't pay their bills?

Chile really wants to set a system here for English that they have in Japan. The Japanese government has for many years ran a scheme called JET (Japan English Teachers … to be best of my knowledge). Native speakers (if they pass the interview), are sent around Japan, paid about £16,000 and often have subsidised accommodation. In fact, I was offered a similar job in South Korea just the other day. Chile has promised to put a native speaker in every Chilean school by 2007. I'll believe it when I see it. Most English teachers in Chilean schools have little or no English and the unions aren’t really keen on their (unskilled) workers being forced out.

Three friends and I were going to work in Chilean school very recently. We would be teaching young children. It's something the three of us really wanted to do. I really like Chilean kids. They tend to have a lot more spark than their parents do. It fills me with hope for this country. Anyhow, we were promised a wage of about £400 a week. It was 44 hours a week, ten thousand pesos an hour. That should work out at $440,000 a week to any right thinking person. The job would have been the rare combination of both financially and professionally rewarding. However, our future employers tried to pull a fast one on us. Luckily I had neither started working for them nor chucked in my old job, unlike my chums. We were told that we would only get $440,000 pesos a month instead … they even had the audacity to say ‘please don’t think that we tricked you’ … no, I thought, you just lied.

I realise that one cannot label Chileans as cheats or tricksters. In fact, Chileans in general tend to be as straight as a die: 90% of the time if something is written on a document then Chileans will adhere to it down to the letter. They are also one of the most hospitable people on Earth. The Chileans I am friends with are outstanding people. Yet in the Chilean culture there exists a bizarre dichotomy where people will try to rip you off. It always seems the more outrageous as you’re are expecting them to be ‘by the book’.
In Chile I will be often asked in the street for money, not just by the obvious beggars but by people who are dressed up like businessmen or respectable housewives. They will try to tell me that they left their bus fare at home or some rubbish (you will often see the same the same person again and again doing it). They will use a whiny pathetic voice to do it … I’m not sure why, it must make some people feel guilty and cough up cash. I’m sorry to have to say that there is a culture of trying to trick people in Chile. People will often tell you anything rather than they admit that they don’t know the answer. The sad thing is that people will just lie to you to get whatever they want. I’m sure that it’s the same all other the world and I should point out that it’s only a minority of people here in Chile … it just seems to be a very large minority.

When we were dealing with that school and telling them that we wanted the money that was promised they had the audacity to wheel out the head of the organisation that would pay us. It is a charitable organisation that seems to pay very large wages to its bosses and nowhere near as much to its schools. The boss then started using the whiny voice of the beggar, saying ‘oh, our schools are so poor, we are so poor … blah blah blah’ and as I looked at this pathetic excuse of a person I had a moment of clarity. I wondered not only why I was bothering to talk to this woman, but what on Earth I was doing in Chile. If it hadn’t been for my friends in the room at that moment I would have stood up and walked up out of the room. If it wasn’t for the fact my parents and my brother are coming in July to visit me I would have probably been on the first plane out of Santiago and back home.

I’m not sure exactly why it bothered me so much and produced such a violence of emotion in me. It has become to clear to me that many people in this country really would rather the poor stay uneducated, even if they only feel this on a subconscious level. The money on offer became less about a wage and more about respect. Not just respect for me but respect for the task in hand. The only way that this country will lift itself up is through education. Chile venerates its Nobel Prize winning poetess Gabriela Mistral. As well as writing she was an educationalist. It seems that just as Chileans pay lip-service to the message of the church here and do nothing about it, the same can be said for Mistral’s ideals. One wonders where all the money from that charitable organisation is spent. We can only speculate. The people who run it though seem to live in the very big houses in the wealthy end of Santiago whilst the school itself doesn’t have enough money for textbooks or the basic essentials.

It would seem that my days in Chile are somewhat numbered. I am back in my old job (which I fortunately never left). I felt a lot better about myself once I told that organisation to get lost (though I did it far too politely). I am open to anything good that shows up over the next year, be it work at home post-July or something here from July to December. Next year I plan to go to Japan anyway. I also cut all my hair off for my interview but it was irritating me long. Now I feel much happier.
I’m sorry for writing such a depressing piece. In future I will write only happy things. If you read below you can read about the end of my travels. They were good times.

Florianopolis - Brazil

Tuesday 8.02.05:
Morning: Still travelling. Brazil is so huge a country that it takes days to cover by land what seems like such a small distance on a map. Try to make conversation with my fellow passengers in Spanish. I find it hard to speak Spanish to the Colombian travelling chums as their English is so good. There is so much I want to express that I don’t have the vocabulary for in Spanish. It’s easier to use English for all. If I know that the person cannot speak English at all then we all have to make do with my Spanish.
Afternoon: Arrive in Florianópolis. I realise that maybe Brazil isn’t the safest place in the world as there are men with guns guarding the cash machines in the bus station. Discover that none of the cash machines accept my card … anywhere in the town. In fact, most of the town is closed up for the final night of Mardis Gras. Go to stay in a campsite with the Colombians as it is really cheap. We don’t stay in Florianópolis but in Ilha de Santa Catarina which is nearby. We are near a big sandy beach.
Evening: Meet a Londoner who gives off the unwholesome air of a pimp. He is able to converse with the Colombian chap in the local lingo of Bogotá. It turns out that used to be involved in the drugs trade and did four years in prison in Cadiz in Spain. Now he lives in some sort of a ménage á trois with two Brazilian girls and runs an illegal bar. Despite Brazil’s reputation for being unsafe it is interesting that it with an Englishman I feel the most uncomfortable during my travels. Thankfully, today is the last day before Lent, therefore it’s Mardis Gras! Hooooray! We find a float in a local barrio and follow it down to the beach with all the other Brazilians. Everyone dances and is happy. Next time I’ll have to go to one of the bigger ones in Rio or Salvador. This is a local one and everyone seems tired out of a week or dancing.
Wednesday 9.02.05:
Morning: Do some shopping for food. Fortunately my credit card works in shops, otherwise I would have some serious problems.
Afternoon: Go to the beach. Remember that I hate sand. It’s just so wrong! It gets everywhere and sticks to you. Nevertheless I go for a swim in the Atlantic. I smother myself in sun cream, though I don’t actually realise that it’s being washed off in the sea. I feel myself burning and go home, trying to find a cash machine en route that works (and failing).
Evening: Start to turn red. Have some aftersun applied by Colombian Professional Dancer. Privately fret that there is nowhere around where I can take money out. I have big problems if this is the case.
Thursday 10.02.05:
Morning: Wake up and I am even redder. Have aftersun applied by Colombian Professional Dancer. Get the bus to Florianópolis to find a cash machine. Finally I find an HSBC bank that accepts my card. Should anyone go to Brazil this seems to the only bank whose machines take British credit cards. I feel good again with a wad of cash in my pocket.
Afternoon: E-mail my family to tell them that I haven’t been murdered in a favela or been kidnapped by the Colombians. Go and have a meal to celebrate having money again. Meet a singer from an American band (which will remain nameless). Musically they are very bland. We have a very bizarre conversation where she tells me that she finds the White Cliffs of Dover a ‘very spiritual place’ and the ‘native music’ (of Dover) very powerful. Apparently her band had passed through Dover when they toured Europe. She also genuinely believed that the reason children disappeared in Belgium due to UFO abductions. One can draw one’s own conclusions from that. It also raises a smile when a black American tells you that they are, in fact, Irish.
Evening: It takes me so long to get back to the campsite that my Colombian travelling companions fear that I have strayed into a favela and have been murdered. Everyone is the campsite freaks out when they see my torso – I have become even redder! Have aftersun applied by the Colombian Professional Dancer. Wash my clothes on an old-fashioned scrubbing board and leave them out on the washing line overnight. Have an uncomfortable night’s sleep due the sunburn.
Friday 11.02.05
Morning: Get up and I am still very red. Have aftersun applied by the Colombian Professional Dancer. Go to the washing line and find that my clothes stink more than before I washed them … also some gobshite has stolen two pairs of my socks. They were new for Christmas and comfy and now some pig has made of with them. I mourn my underwear:
‘A Haiku To My Stolen Socks’ by Dermot Sullivan
You may walk in some
Other man’s shoes but you will
Never be their socks.

I take small consolation that the socks stink to high heaven, but it still hurts me so. We all pack up our tents and leave. I have agreed head home via Uruguay and spend a few days more with my Colombian chums. My birthday is Sunday and I don’t fancy spending it alone on a bus that probably stinks of piss. We head toward Florianópolis.
Afternoon: My sunburn really hurts when I carry my backpack. I am very irritable. We get the bus to a place called Chuy which is bestraddles the border with Brazil. To be honest, I haven’t a bloody clue where I’m going because I’ve let the Colombians make all the decisions.
Evening: Meet two American girls on the bus. Big mistake.
Saturday 12.02.05:
Morning: Arrive in Chuy at five in the morning. Everything is shut and it’s freezing. All five of us sleep in area inside a bank where they keep the cash machines. The amazing thing is that we all sleep really well! Once the town comes to life we change money and buy tickets for a really remote place called Punta del Diablo. We then get to know our new American ‘friends’. I make the mistake of thinking that they’re good company because one of the girls has her birthday on the same day as me (anyone who is born in February is automatically ‘cool’. Anyone who is born on my birthday is very cool. My brother’s is the 17th February – a cool date. If you are born in between these dates are very cool. If you are born on my sister’s birthday, the 9th January, you are cool. People who are born in January or March are cool because they really wanted to be born in February, like me. If you are born in August you are cool because it is exactly six months between the last February and the next one … it’s just occurred to me that I’m in need of psychiatric help). After our chat I discover the worst toilet in Uruguay. It’s some sort of thing where you have to squat … just wrong! I have a look around Chuy which is really hardcore gaucho territory. They’re all out on their horses and drinking mate. They’re very friendly and raise their hats when they pass you. After this we go to Punta del Diablo.
Afternoon: Arrive in Punta del Diablo. Not many people come to this part of the world, save a few Uruguayan and Argentinean holidaymakers. It’s very isolated. Many people still seem to get around on horseback! It is on a peninsula and so is surrounded by the Atlantic. It’s also very windy. We find a cabin for $5 each to rent. My body is now bright pink from the sunburn – an improvement from bright red. The Americans look at me piteously. I am then rubbed down with aftersun by the Colombian Professional Dancer.
Evening: Go out and find something to eat. It rains heavily. Keep an eye on my watch for my approaching birthday. Find a hut where some Uruguayan chap is playing electric guitar. There is a stronger African influence in Uruguay compared to Argentina. Some Candombé drummers come in and join him. Candombé is the rhythm played usually by black people in Uruguay. The Uruguayans go crazy and start dancing. The Colombians are in their element and put me to shame again. Their dancing ability is quite intimidating. So it goes: I am twenty-eight … time moves forward.
Sunday 13.02.05:
Morning: Get up in a leisurely fashion. It is my birthday after all! Buy ticket to Montevideo for tomorrow. It only costs me £2 to cross the country to reach the capital. I need to get back to Santiago and sort out my work for the year. I shall be sad to leave the Colombians.
Afternoon: Go to the beach. I remain covered up as so not kill myself with sunburn. Sand gets everywhere. Try to call home and discover the phones are down throughout the entire region (this includes internet). I feel terribly cut off. After two weeks or so of travelling with her brother and me, the Colombian Professional Dancer spends her entire time talking about female crap with the two Yank birds. The Colombian brother and I gnash our teeth in despair. It’s my birthday and everybody should talk about what I want to talk about! I also feel bad about not being able to speak to my family. I console myself by eating empanadas.
Evening: Still can’t call home. I am sad. The Colombians and Yanks sing happy birthday to me (and the birthday Yank bird) and present me with some funny presents and an alfajor with a candle in it. This makes me happier. Go and eat with everyone. I am served bad food … but everyone else’s is nice so I don’t complain. We all go dancing. The girls disappear to do girly stuff. They will never see my amazing dance moves. The Colombian brother marvels at my jive-like ability. After much grooving, we all go to bed. I rely on the Americans and their alarm clock to wake me up.
Monday 14.02.05:
Morning: The Yanks’ alarm doesn’t go off in time. I am pulled out of bed by the Colombian Professional Dancer who wakes up in a panic and I collapse to the floor. Alcohol and early mornings do not a good combination make. I have five minutes to pack all my things and get to the bus station. I simply climb into bed. The Yank Birds’ bus leaves later than mine so they of course depart with no hassle. Adios.
Afternoon: After a nice sleep we move to a different cabin, this time for three people but still only $5 each. I am able to call home so I speak to my parents. I am happy. I go to the beach with the Colombians but keep my top on. Buy ticket for Montevideo for tomorrow morning.
Evening: Go out for dinner with the Colombians. It is our last night together. Go to bed early.
Tuesday 15.02.05:
Morning: Wake up early. Take the bus to Montevideo. Bid farewell to the South Atlantic.
Afternoon: Arrive in Montevideo. Buy ticket for Colonia on the far west of Uruguay. Buy lunch for the Colombians as a goodbye-present. We part and I am sad. Take the bus to Colonia.
Evening: Arrive in Colonia. Realise that I’ve had enough of Uruguay and walk to the ferry port. Take boat to Buenos Aires. It should take only an hour but it takes three. Arrive in Buenos Aires very late. The ticket offices for the buses are all shut. I will have to wait in the bus station overnight. I have a stash of dollars hidden on me but no place will take them. Have to find a cash machine to take out money from home.
Wednesday 16.02.05:
Morning: Am awake all night at Buenos Aires main bus station. At about three in the morning there are some really strange people about. I suppose that’s the same everywhere in the world. I meet a Peruvian girl and her male travelling companion who is fast asleep. Their money had been stolen in their hostel and they have to wait for her mother to wire money. The banks won’t open until the morning and they have no place to go. I buy them sandwiches as they don’t even have money for food. There is no direct bus available to Santiago so I have to go as far as Mendoza. I leave the fabulous Buenos Aires at about six in the morning and fall fast asleep in my chair.
Afternoon: Wake up when the bus stops for lunch. Go back to sleep again.
Evening: Arrive in Mendoza just before midnight. Find a bus to Santiago that’s leaving in fifteen minutes. Hooray!
Thursday 17.02.05:
Morning: Sleep only interrupted to pass the border into Chile. Chat to an Argie fellow – they’re great conversationalists and actually make allowances for the fact that Spanish isn’t your first language. Arrive in at 07:00 hrs and head back to my flat. Call my brother (he is 21 today). I weigh myself. I am now 80 kilos. I have lost ten kilos travelling.
Amazingly I have been able to keep the weight off! That’s it for now. I’ll write happy things soon!
© Dermot Sullivan April 18th 2005

Pollution in Santiago Recorded April 26th 2005

Santiago 7.30 Am

Santiago 10.30 am

A Year in Santiago
Dermot Sullivan's Chile Diary

El Gringo - Diary Entry 2
Dermot begins teaching
Letter From Santiago No 3
Dermot Sullivan

Santiago Diary No 4
Dermot Sullivan

Santiago Diary No 5
The Naruda House

Chile Dog Nights
Dermot Sullivan No 6

A Week in Bolvia:
Dermot Sullivan's Diary No.7

Diary No 8: Mendoza
Chile Diary No 9
Dermot Sullivan

Chile Diary 10
North & South

Chile Diary 11
Back for 2005

Chile Diary 12
La Boca explored
Chile 14

More about Dermot in Chile in Hacktreks


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