Sunday, April 11, 2010

Caira Goes (Awkwardly) to Another City

Last weekend, I took a work/play combo-trip to Bogota, Colombia, during which I was not-so-gently reminded how painfully awkward it can be to navigate a new place. Albeit I was somewhat arrogant when I boarded the plane in Santiago, assuming that any other Spanish-speaking city in South America wouldn't be that big of a deal since I'd been living in one full time for over two years. I didn't have on running shoes. I wasn't carrying a backpack. And most importantly of all, I didn't have running shoes dangling from my backpack by their knotted laces. (I've seen this in airports more times than I care to count and have often thought about snatching the gringos' shoes myself, if for nothing more than to teach them a lesson. I digress)

Well, as per usual with 99.9% of my assumptions over the past 26 months, I was wrong. Naturally. First was the airport. I was thrown off not only by the stray dog that rode the escalator with me to baggage claim but also by the number of uninterested security guards taking their smoke breaks inside the building. That, and when I couldn't find an ATM without having to ask for directions, I started to feel that familiar bubble of distinct panic, one that stems oh so specifically from Feeling Like A Foreigner. "Everyone knows I'm different!" I shrieked internally as I hurried red-faced towards the authorized taxis. "They're all looking at me!" And of course, as I crouched down in the back of a cab, praying the driver wouldn't rip me off, "I want to go home."

It's incredible, really, the number of stereotypes about a particular world region or people that can rush in and overtake an otherwise rational and unbiased thought process during moments of uncertainty. Left to my own devices for a few hours, I uncomfortably wandered the downtown streets in broad daylight, feeling with absolutely certainty I was going to get robbed or kidnapped. I didn't. I also didn't see much worth reporting that day apart from the plate of chicken and rice I ordered and stared intently into so as to avoid the looks of everyone. You'd think I was wearing an I Love New York t-shirt for how poorly I perceived myself to blend in. Don't get me wrong. We gringos stick out. Especially while traveling. But for all the nervous fluster I was putting forth, my 2 years of learning to adapt sailed right out the window.

The friend I was meeting arrived a few hours later and immediately prompted me to put my jittery antics aside. Something about interacting with another human made me feel foolish for having been reluctant to run across the street and purchase a bottle of water alone. (I mean, really, Caira?) Funny to think that sort of discomfort once applied to Santiago and things like purchasing a metro card without a native speaker around. At the end of the trip, which, I might add, was completely safe and incident free, I realized I still wanted to go "home." To Chile- where, despite all initial adverse reactions, has morphed into somewhere I associate with comfort and, as my friend so wisely put it, "where I mostly understand what's going on."

Sunday, March 28, 2010


When in doubt, I have the rather uncanny ability to disregard all decisions I've made leading up to present circumstances. I think as though I've never battled uncertainty before and will never find resolution again. This is foolish.

Just under a month ago, I was told very politely by a certain Ivy League university that I would not, in fact, be welcomed into their upcoming fall pool of matriculants. Brusquely ignoring all previously learned life-lessons, I took this quite personally and assumed that not only would I never figure out what I was doing, ever, but that with one fell swoop, the University's Admissions Committee had undone 2+ years of work towards....something.

Once upon a time, I thought moving abroad to "see the world" and "find myself "(cue the laughter) was the last decision of its kind I'd have to make. "So what are you going to be doing in Chile?" I'd hear from various coworkers, friends, family members. "Oh. Well. First I'm going to teach but then I'm going to figure it out," I'd respond. Maybe I should have done a better job of defining for myself what exactly "figuring it out" would entail. Would it mean finding employment once my original teaching contract had expired? Would it include fluency in Spanish? Making local friends? Doing all the things that constitute a normal existence regardless of where it's being held? Perhaps. What I do know for certain is that that "something" I claim so fervently to work towards is probably a much greater source of self-produced perplexity than it is anything else. In other words, I hold it against myself for not having reached said undefined point of destination the moment some other seemingly stable idea wavers. Sigh.

Funnily enough, this most recent "movement" of plans so to speak, coincided with a far more significant wavering of the entire country, otherwise known as the 8.8 earthquake. It was an odd time. I and everyone I know were completely safe and sound though parts of the country and portions of its population were absolutely not. I sent an email to aforementioned University, hoping that my offering of a first-person's account might be of some interest but received no response until 5 days later, when I was simply told that my application for admission had been declined. Nevertheless I wrote down what I'd observed, believing that even if it wasn't of use for someone else, I may eventually look back to see what I had to say. The very fact that I could do so was interesting to me-that I'd witnessed something historic and terrible and in the midst of it all, felt privileged to a greater insight on the social and economic workings of this once foreign country- that even though the tree-lined sidewalks of my Santiago neighborhood were just as they had been at 3:39am on February 27th, there were streets in Concepcion lined with body bags. There was footage of civillians looting the stores for water and toilet paper, while my grocery store was overcrowded with tanned Chileans just returned from summer vacation, coming home to empty cabinets and overturned terraza furniture. It was all at once a mix of shame and guilt and gratitude for the way things had turned out, for whatever reasons they had unfolded as such.

I suppose then, that in the grand scheme of things, one non-acceptance is not so grand, particularly in light of recent events. I may even be so bold as to raise a glass to Uncertainty and its impartially dealt hands of equilibrium...because from what I hear, there are a few others out there in search of having it figured out. Cheers.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


I admit, I'm a little nervous about "this", as "this" and all the words following, are in fact a calculated attempt to return to the world of public writing. I've been sheepishly hiding out behind my laptop for the past 14 months, hoping that a few half-hearted efforts to document my Chilean experience would magically transform into something cohesive. Turns out I actually have to write the words down for them to reflect any sort of anything I've experienced. Fancy that. And so, here we are, slightly over 2 years since my initial arrival to Chile and what is there to be said? It no longer seems appropriate to characterize this blog as a What Happens When You Travel Abroad sort of piece. The truth is, now I just live here, and the gamut of emotions and uncertainties I once pinpointed on my awkwardness as a foreigner in a strange land I currently blame on my mid 20s, geographical context aside.

Just under a year ago, a coworker of mine at the time uttered something I'll never forget. We were discussing the occasional strangeness of the lives we lived, and that from time to time we forgot we were the ones who had opted to to have them this way. He said, " I want to escape a lot and run away, but then I remember I already am away." The look on his face when he said it was a mix of perplexity and resolve, a contradictory combination matched only by the confusion of the realization itself. It's a peculiar sentiment in which to be encased, a bit of simultaneous contentment and longing as though there's something else out there to find even when you're smack in the middle of the something you once sought.

In the meanwhile, I'll at least be writing about it...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Caira Goes to Chile But You`d Never Know It...

stay tuned...there`s an entry coming...i can feel it.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Other Hemisphere: Quick Thoughts on Time Spent Upside

Not only did I recently leave Chile, but I also came back: A feat several of my fellow gringos regarded with skepticism. Not because they´re knockin´this country (maybe some of them are) but because a person´s home is their home. It´s like no matter how well-starred the hotel, you´re always going to prefer your own bed. But here´s the funny thing- I was happy to come back. I wanted to come back. I was even a touch hesitant about leaving. Granted, I was estatic to see my family and friends and use honey mustard, but absent was the euphoria and sheer delight I assumed awaited me at Atlanta International Airport. Really, de-boarding the plane was just like all the other times I´ve exited an aircraft. Anti-climatic. Remember the days when people who loved you were allowed to wait at the gate? I had to take a shuttle from the airport to the hotel before I could get a hug. And the whole ride there, I talked incessantly at (not to) the Jamaican driver in hopes of dazzling him/someone/anyone with my¨I live abroad¨thing. He didn´t care. 24 hours earlier, when I´d taken the bus from my house in Santiago to the airport, I´d encountered something else apart from an apothetic chauffer. Sadness. Not the overwhelming kind, but a subtle, taste-in-the-mouth type. Even though I knew I was headed somewhere familiar, I felt the distinct wistfulness of change- an acute awareness of the passage of time and my inability to fully recover the exactness of my old life. I also knew that I was returning to Chile, thus greatening the distance between what used to be and what now is-(particularly in light of my recent decision to stay an additional year).

And then something strange happened.

You´d think that if you lived in a country for 23 years, 7 months away is hardly substancial to really shake up your habits. Wrong. Not only did I charge into the men´s bathroom on three separate occasions- (M is for Mujeres!)- I ordered coca-lights, showed up 20 minutes late for everything, and forgot that sweatpants does not an ensemble make if you´re looking to garner a few self-esteem lifting catcalls on the streets. Whoopsie.

Anyway, I´m back now, plugging away and enjoying the effortlessness with which a make-up-free face and t-shirt draws more attention than a Bellavista churro stand after midnight. Am I crazy for staying another year away from home? We´ll see.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Rude in Translation

Just the other day I was minding my own business in the teacher´s lounge when a Chilean professor-(Name Withheld)- came up behind me and announced, rather loudly, for me to get off the computer. ¨I´m sorry, what?¨I inquired politely, thinking I´d misunderstood. ¨Yes, you leave the computer now because I need to use it.¨ Taken aback by the bluntness of such a request, I gathered my belongings and moved to a nearby table, scowling all the way. Nevermind that I was as equally entitled to Gmail browsing as she was, but the unapologetic matter of factness in her deliverly left me with no option but to simply get up and move because she had said so. Now please thank you.

Fast forward a few days later to lunchtime and an order of delicious Chinese food. There I was, quietly consuming my meal when another Chilean employee- (Name Withheld)- marches up to the table, and in a fake whisper states that the odor of my food is disturbing the other working professors. I feigned confusion to buy some time against my urge to disturb her smirk with soy sauce. Moments later she returned with a bottle of disenfectant spray, which, for the record was far more odorous and irritating than any spring roll could ever hope to be. And where were the poor, disrupted professors during all this? Well, the one I presume that told on me was passively surfing the internet in the corner while two others, whom, coincidentally, happen to be close friends of mine, were snorting to themselves at their desks because the same thing had happened to them the day before.

You see, it`s not so much the occurence of these two events that bothers me, but the way in which they were addressed. Computers are full, you need to borrow one for a sec? Not a problem. Don´t want professors eating in the professor´s room? Fine. But when you´re used to dealing with professionals who use ¨Please¨ the way you learned to in grammar school, it`s a touch obnoxious to adjust to English speakers who think it`s a command.

Suddenly, phrases like ¨Will you help me?¨or¨Do you have a lighter?¨are orders, not questions. A friend of mine got an email from a non-native English speaker asking for some help with her resume, but instead of peppering the request with pleases and thank yous, the woman had opted for the following: ¨Since you and I are ¨friends,¨ you will do this for me.¨ Apparently, someone missed her class on air quotes and underlying sarcasm.

And then there was the Fork Incident.

I`ve been with my Chilean host family now for roughly 5 months and have yet to encounter any kind of drastic problem. In fact, I can pinpoint only one bleep on the radar of co-habitacion and of all the things in all the world for it to be about, it had to do with 3 forks. Or rather, the absence of such. I`d borrowed a few for lunch, (the lunch that I am not allowed to eat in the teacher´s lounge) and had exceeded my time limit for using them. That, and my host mother had noticed there were remnants of an additional fork--this one plastic--in her aji sauce. Really the latter was the cause of her furrowed brow, as she assumed I had not only broken a plastic fork, but sprinkled the pieces into the sauce so as to endanger her family's delicate esophagus'.  When I told her that actually, no, it was not I who treated her homeade condiment so carelessly, she made an odd face and re-stated her declaration with all the certainty one has when responding to ¨What is your name?¨ And so there I was, middle of the afternoon, arguing with a 65 year old Chilean woman half my size about a recyclable untensil. ¨How did I get here?¨I wondered. And then later at work--  after receiving an email from my boss demanding that all the gringos ¨Confirm her PLEASE on our understanding of her message because still there is much not knowing--¨What the hell do I sound like when I try to speak proper Spanish?¨

And these days I'm only asking this: Would you rather be offensive in translation or just lost?

To this day, the only kind of aji kept in the refridgerator is from a bottle.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Caira Goes to Another City.

I recently got back from a trip to Argentina, and mid-air during the return flight, I decided firmly on three things, each pertaining to why I now preferred Buenos Aires to Santiago.
1.) The men are more attractive.
2.) Everything is cheaper.
3.) The meat tastes better.
And so it went that I chanted these three new facts, (as well as several others) over and over in my tired head for the duration of the flight and well into the next morning. Forget that I´d been there for just 72 hours—I knew in those three days that this city I´d discovered was infinitely better than the one I´d been residing in for over four months. I couldn´t wait to book another ticket to go back and further explore the place I knew would eventually become one in which i resided. I envisioned myself living comfortably in one of the apartment buildings I´d seen near our hostel, and laboring professionally in one of the swank offices I´d seen near our hostel, and swilling cocktails at one of the tango bars that I´d seen, um, near our hostel. And with that final glorious vision of myself dancing the night away with a handsome stranger floating above my head, I ran snack into the profound and disappointing realization that I knew absolutely nothing about Buenos Aires. I knew it was in Argentina. And I could definitely find it on a map. Oh and I knew how to a take a taxi from the hostel to just about anywhere near the hostel. With a sad sigh I hung my head and accepted this new sense of deflation Of course I´d noticed the people were better looking. There were sixteen million of them to choose from, nearly triple the options available here in ol´Santiago. Buenos Aires trumphs through ratios alone. And it´s not like I kept a tally of all the ones I didn´t find enticing, (though there were plenty.) Then of course there were the lower prices I found so delightful, but without a moment´s attention as to how those prices originated (hello currency collapse!) and where they would be heading in the future. I just wanted to live there because it was exciting and different and it meant I didn´t have to come back and be a semi-adult in a city that was already familiar to me. A city that had seen me cry and sweat and grasp for understanding. A city where I had to sleep and work and budget my finances and ask for directions. A city, essentially, that I´d shed of its original plastic wrapping to get a real sense of it beneath the shiny facade of the box it came in. Now, instead of An Adventure in South America!, I was living in A Real Experience. One that wasn´t always particularly forgiving or kind, but one I´d legitimately sunk my teeth into and found satisfying pleasure in its hybrid of sweet and bitter tastes. I hadn´t even ridden the metro in Buenos Aires! We opted for cabs the whole weekend because ¨hey, we were on vacation.¨

So, here I am, stable and situated and, as of present, sans an Argentinian plane ticket. I´m sure I´ll go back, but the urgency to escape has lessened considerably in light of my exposed delusions—(well, in light of most of them. The meat is still better regardless of how close it was to my hostel.)