A few more than six feet under

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
1
6
27
Trip End Aug 2006


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Flag of Chile  ,
Monday, March 27, 2006

Where to begin? I guess that when you don't update weekly, too many experiences accumulate and you have to pick and choose. By the way, photos are up on the earlier entries.

The weekend, perhaps, is the best place to start. On Saturday, CIEE took us to El Teniente, the largest copper mine in the world. Unlike it's rivals in the US, El Teniente is not an open pit. Rather, it's a vast series of shafts that have turned a massive mountain into an anthill.
Many of the tunnels are large enough for large vehicles to drive through. The main elevator can handle almost 300 people. 4,500 men work in the mine. To make working conditions safer, many of the hammers that tear through the mountain in search of ore are run from a small room by remote control. Miners sit in lazy-boys with a joystick, staring a computer monitors and breathing clean air. Codelco, the national copper company, hopes to move this to a control room two hours away, in Rancagua, where most of the miners live. Sometimes, it seems, better working conditions also mean more productivity, as the miners won't have to bus in two hours every day.

Mines, of course, are fascinating: The massive amount of human labor used to move so much earth, the ingenious machinery used, the confusing chemistry poured on the heaps of mined ore to extract the minerals. It's mind-boggling. The motley group of gringo students who descended into the mine, headlamps, gas masks and helmets in tow, was something of a travesty.
Fun as it was, I felt like a joke when we had to confront real miners, the ones who makes their daily living in the darkness, doing oftentimes monotonous work in 8-hour shifts. They gave us a look that spoke a thousand words. But El Teniente offers tours, we were nothing new. The mine is one of Chile's great accomplishments. Codelco, many say, is the most important ministry in the government, because so the country's economy survives on copper prices and copper production. It's what's helped to make Santiago a (sometimes) first-world city.

Beside, on top of ... I'm not sure where they city sits relative the mine, but it's name is Sewell-for the president of the American copper company that opened the mine. It's passed through the hands of Anaconda, Kennecot and others (in a way, i guess, tying me to its history), before being nationalized in the latter half of this century, before Pinochet. The houses are built in an american style (stuccoed), on the high, dry side of a mountain. The city is often referred to as a "city of stairs" because of the steeps it clings to, and because it's so difficult to get around.

But the city, gorgeous and interesting as it clearly is, nearly died when the government moved the miners to Rancagua. It's slowly being restored, and it's inhabitants are petitioning to have it named a World Heritage Site. A tall task for a city that's just another dead mining town. I'd hate to see it turn into a tourist trap, though. After all, my home town often feels like one come summer time-forever yearning for it's lost past as a Wild West mining town.

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On Sunday, I went to the General Cemetery in Recoleta, a northern barrio of the town. It's so huge, it makes up a large part of the neighborhood. Most families have interred their families here in tombs (often ornate) or mausoleums. Most of the country's ex-presidents are buried here. The most famous tomb is that of Salvador Allende, only built after the fall of Pinochet in the early 90s. The design confuses me. Allende was a socialist after all, and his tomb doesn't carry a cross. Rather, it consists of four vertical white marble pillars placed in a pattern like a set of crosshairs pointing at the sky. Sadly, I cannot find a more tactful way to describe the tomb of a man who, in some ways, is an unattractive Chilean version of John F. Kennedy. That's to say, many Chileans ask "what if?" What would Allende have accomplished, as the first democratically elected socialist president in the world, if he hadn't been overthrown, if he hadn't committed suicide while under attack from his own country's forces?
Maybe the recently elected Michelle Bachelet, the first woman elected to the presidency in the western hemisphere-and a socialist-holds some of the answers. Of course, she's not as militant as Allende was. After all, he was willing to risk making the country's elite see their living standards lowered to drastically increase social services. That's also what got him overthrown. What good, some might say, did that do?

Anyway, the cemetery is a confusing labyrinth of tombs in which I got lost more than a few times. The important burials often sit in crossroads or in the middle of the cemetery's main pathways. Allende's sits roughly in the middle, though not in a terribly prominent part. Within meters of the front gates, however, is that of Diego Portales, a 19th-century conservative government minister and entrepreneur. He helped to frame one of the country's early constitutions, and was assassinated. During the Pinochet dictatorship, he was looked back on almost as a saint. Chile's got some things to work through, just like the US. I wonder where they'll bury Pinochet.
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Next weekend, it's off to Puerto Montt and the South. If I haven't responded to your questions before, I'll try and do it here:

How's the food? It's a lot like Ecuador's. Lots of rice. Not alot of seasoning. Usually, it'll fill you up, though. The usual dinner is a piece of meat, bread (lots of it), some wine and a salad (lettuce and tomatoes, with oil, a little vinegar and salt as dressing). It aint' too tasty, but it does. In Valparaiso, the "city's famous plate" was called chorillana: grilled skirt steak and carmelized onions atop a bed of french fries. Are they really french? Are the American? I doubt they're Chilean, but so be it.

The water does go the other way when it spirals down the toilet, but I don't remember in which direction that is.

I have made a few Chilean friends, though it's difficult-they're quite shy. A girl bought me a cup of coffee after class last week. I went to a friend of hers' birthday party and failed miserably at dancing salsa (it's not in my blood). I'll tell you more when I have more.

Here's the final course selection:
1) Jesus: Distinct perspectives (Taught by a Priest at La Catolica. Only required reading: The Da Vinci Code or The Word by Irving Wallace)
2)The Image of the City in Latin American Literature (taught by an interesting professor at La Chile who sweats profusely-that's to say, he's very, very nervous)
3)Quechua Language and Culture (Probably a blow off class, but fun anyhow)
4)Latin American Winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature (The teacher is a well-known poet in literary circles, who is often interesting to listen to. But he's getting on in years, and it makes him grumpier with each passing day. Half of the class is made up of foreign students, but he often excludes us from conversations on the two Chilean writers-Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda-because he doesn't find our opinions on them valid. He also chastises us for not understanding spanish better, when the real problem is he mumbles and covers his mouth with two nervously wrung hands in an auditorium-sized class. And he's ugly. Take that Fidel Sepúlveda.)
5)Social and Historical Perspectives of Chile (Taught by a director of my interchange program. All gringos and program members, but probably the most fun and interesting of my classes.)

That was a little long, I know, but I'll make it up to you next time.
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Comments

gandg
gandg on

What a trip!
One of us was very interested in your trip to the copper mine. I could have gone to a copper mine at Cerro de Pasco, Peru, out of school. The money wasn't good enough, so I went to work in the oil business. (That's something I didn't know!) Love the pictures.

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