Wednesday, September 26, 2007

maestra vida, holding class daily

Two months have passed since I left Chile. As I settle into what still feels temporary, I try to find replacements for the holes and vacancies that remain. Some things are just too disparate: roaming the streets of the Chicago suburbs can’t replicate Barrio Brasil, communal public spaces here don’t really even try to act like the bench-filled Plazas, and since volunteering here will not be possible for some time, I am working on a giant pile of letters to my girls, the act of which relays their laughs or stories only in my head. The suburbs of Chicago are their own entity, and while I am here to enjoy my family for awhile, living within their boundaries and moving among them I am fascinated by the strange mix of behaviors and find myself doing miniature studies of people and places. The thing about the suburbs (it could happen anywhere, but I am here, so it follows to be my example) is that due to their design, one could become incredibly isolated in a very short amount of time. I remember having discussions in Chile about how some Chileans think people from the United States are too individualistic. I’m not sure at what point being individualistic becomes too, becomes extreme, becomes solitary, but I know that the lifestyle of the suburbs could facilitate this extremity, if one is not careful. Especially if one is unemployed and broke: duly noted. I realized it was time to do something. Time to go out. Where? The only place I could think of on a Thursday night: salsa.

If I could describe downtown Naperville in an un-biased manner, I would. But I don’t think I can. It has good schools to be sure, and a picture perfect river-walk, but many will make the argument that its fairytale appearance tricks some members of its population into forgetting or overlooking problems that need attention: international problems, problems in other areas of our country, and problems even within the same neighborhood. Naperville has changed a lot over the years since I moved there as a junior high school student, including the increase in monetary wealth. But the attitude that I carried with me to Frankie’s Blue Room one recent Thursday night was as positive, determined, and bold as I could muster, an almost desperate attempt to find a niche I could occupy despite my personal history in its realms. I imagined my friends in Chile at the same moment, on a Thursday night, slicking on lip gloss and selecting earrings to go with their strappy shirts and jeans. An hour later in Santiago, they would be taking the metro to Bellavista… perhaps buying a sopaipilla on the way… Downtown Naperville should not be confused with the image in one’s head of “downtown.” Naperville does have a large population, over 140,000, but I think it’s rather family oriented, and its nightlife scene thus may suffer a little. Last year Money Magazine named it the #2 Best Place to Live in the United States. Interesting. I think it depends on what your standards are, where your priorities lie. I’m going to narrow it down to Salsa dancing on a Thursday night.

I think my expectations were a little high. Not a surprise really, since I cannot put a leash on my optimism; but this trait can often be difficult to manage and appropriately curb. At least I can say I tried. I’d rather not remember the music, some kind of soft-salsa, or elevator salsa, none of the blazing trumpet solos and definitely no change in tempo. It was in-the-lines salsa, diet salsa, safe salsa. I sipped on a sprite at the edge of the bar, trying to look welcome, open, nice. Every once in awhile some muffles would rise in volume in response to the american football game blinking from the tvs above the dancefloor. I turned to the waitress to get a water, when the man next to me asked me if that was all that I wanted. Even in my peripheral vision I could see signs that he was older than my father. Yes, please, just water. When I was finally asked to dance by a reserved and polite young man, I walked to the dancefloor with a smile: a good song finally fell upon us. A rush of excitement washed over me and I felt my heart carrying the drums. We began dancing, I swayed through the steps as if I had become liquid, passing forward and back, smiling, letting him lead me around in circles. I closed my eyes and remembered Maestra Vida, Bellavista, the live music, dancing until sunrise….. We stopped suddenly. I stood looking at him, my mouth open, then turned to see the guy next to us pick his glasses up off the floor and look at me as if clearly, since I was the blonde, it had been all my fault. I left shortly afterwards, encouraged by the unwelcome attention of a couple of drunk guys who had stumbled in by mistake and were asking me, 2 inches from my face, their necks thicker than my thighs, to clarify what salsa dancing is. Maybe they would be better off watching the football game.

Naperville has one other salsa dance locale, as far as I know. Wednesday and Saturday nights, Esteban’s opens its dancefloor to salseros, with a live band on Saturdays. This time, I had my mom come with me. I didn’t plan on dancing, I felt just scoping the place out for a night might be a more reasonable way to assess the situation. Sitting on the edge of Naperville in a strip mall, across the street from the more diverse suburb of Aurora, Esteban’s is unassuming from the outside. We arrived just before 9pm to avoid the cover charge, and watched the free salsa lessons from our floor-side table. My skepticism wrapped around me, I watched the dancers slowly arrive. Perhaps the recent flop at Frankie’s tainted my view of Esteban’s, but I left that Saturday night quite impressed with the range of dancers that had showed up. All things considered, I’ll give Esteban’s a thumb up, but just one. The music and dancing seemed miles away from the sad travesty of Thursday night at Frankie’s, but the ambiance still felt closed to me. Maybe I had become spoiled, having visited Maestra Vida so many times, but I feel that a good salsa club is one in which people are dancing. Not sitting around watching, but dancing. If not dancing, then people are tapping their feet in anticipation, because the music is just too good to listen to sitting still. I felt like that night Esteban’s seemed like a closed circuit, with small groups staying within their small groups–which really only made me more determined to break my way into some circle somewhere, and soon. More than anything, I think I miss the sense of community that I felt in Santiago, even amidst its rumors of being, in general, a distrustful society.

Maestra Vida is the oldest salsa club in Santiago. Some people make fun of Briana, a friend of mine, and I when we talk about it, because our obvious glee seems to make us hover in the air and we nearly shake upon entering like an addict might before their hallowed substance. Tiny square wooden stools kneel around tiny square wooden tables which hold a single white pillar candle. Inebriated murals cover the walls, each seeming to change every time you look at it. By 2 or 3 in the morning it’s completely full of people, and I pray that they never expand. You learn to lose control in more controlled turns, everyone dances just a little closer, and you have to beg to rest enough to get a glass of water. Maestra Vida is named after a song by Rubén Blades, a singer originally from Panamá. He filled the vacancy left by singer Héctor Lavoe in Willie Colón’s Orchestra in New York in the 70s. “Maestra” means teacher, and “Vida” means life, reminding us some things we can only learn by living them.

The best salsa night depends on three things: the location, the music, and the people. The destinations are vast, spanning from my living room to clubs in cities around Latin America and the world. Then there’s the music, which any salsero has in bundles. But the people, the right mix of energy and skill and patience and fun, that’s something that you can’t fake, and that you can’t force. You never know when everything will align and move forward until you’re in it, until you’re being whipped around by some mystical force and all you see are colors, all you hear are trumpets and even well after you leave at dawn, your feet are still pattering to the drums. I know I can’t replace it; I don’t want to. But months later, I still find myself searching for something that’s even just similar, a taste of the feast of the past.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

OJOS nuevos video released in english

The english version of the first OJOS nuevos video is here to be released. While a more descriptive, lengthy video is being worked on, it won't be finished for quite some time. Meanwhile, we have this piece which introduces the program and showcases many of the girl's photographs. Enjoy! Spanish version coming soon...

OJOS nuevos is a social documentary project that puts cameras in the hand of youth from the hogares in which Voluntarios de la Esperanza works. Photographers Lindy Drew and Christine Mladic started the projects in order to let the participants explore the creativity, enjoyment, and importance of photography. By letting young women be the photographers, they were able to lose themselves in a rewarding activity and tell their story from their own perspectives, capturing what life is like for them in Santiago de Chile. Using digital cameras and computers in the hogares or in local libraries, 16 girls have participated in workshops, each session lasting about five months. They watched slideshows exposing them to international photography, they learned about the history of photography and about cameras that use film, they learned how to protect and hide their cameras in public (the hard way), and they felt the anticipation of waiting for their pictures to come back from the printer. The grand finale to the workshops was to photograph for a day in Valparaíso, a picturesque coastal city about two hours away from Santiago. Lindy and Christine organized the workshops to include slideshows, assignments, editing, and fieldtrips. Some girls preferred to shoot in their neighborhood, others only found interesting subject matter in new surroundings. Some young women would walk right up to strangers and take their portrait, others focused the camera back on themselves. With so much to document and so much to learn from the process of making pictures, the youth soared with the opportunity. OJOS nuevos was first introduced to Hogar San Francisco de Regis with cameras collected by Christine as private donations. She continued the project at Hogar Aldea María Reina afterwards. Lindy Drew brought OJOS nuevos to Hogar Nuestra Señora de la Paz thanks to a donation from Pentax and the

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

San Pedro de Atacama: tourism has two sides

After the melancholy of a Santiago submitting itself to the chill of a rainy winter, San Pedro seemed like a perfect first stop. A fellow volunteer and I had planned a near month long trip which would take us through the north of Chile, across the border into Bolivia, and after passing through Lago Titicaca, bring us to Cusco, Peru just in time for the Inti-Raymi festival at the end of June. San Pedro is a 24-hour bus ride north of the country's capital, and is a tiny pueblo in the middle of the Atacama Desert: the driest desert in the world. We enjoyed deep, blue skies, the kind that make you feel like you could see beyond your universe, the kind that evoke that same feeling of awe as the ocean. I've heard these blue skies are a daily occurrence.

As I learn more about South America, I would like to return with the resources to travel off the main tourist routes with a knowledgeable guide, but for my first time through Bolivia and Peru I decided to see what opportunities arose and play things rather safely. I prefer to travel in a manner that interacts with the local community rather than observes it, but this is difficult if you need to keep the pace fairly quick. Unfortunately we felt pressured by time and money during these travels, but I didn't want to think of it as limited; I looked at these weeks rather as an introduction to places and cultures in which I hope to be immersed again, and soon. I do not like feeling like a tourist. This can be very difficult to avoid when you have pale skin and blond hair, and are traveling through Latin America. While I can surprise people with my language skills, locals still know that I am an extranjera. Sometimes tourists are looked down upon, depending on the behavior of previous tourists who may have made a name for themselves, but in San Pedro tourism has given an enormous boost to the local economy. With all of the sites and natural beauty located just around the town, it's no surprise that this oasis in the desert is the perfect base from which to explore.

In comparison to other small towns in Chile, San Pedro is unique in many respects. First, the use of adobe for walls and buildings seems to make its long history more apparent. If you take out the tall tourists with backpacks, I think the town has a sense of being untouched. I remember standing outside the town on a hill, with the vast, infinite desert expanding all around the tree-lined pueblo, and thinking how different the sense of space felt. In Santiago, sometimes the city seems to go on forever, neighborhood after neighborhood. But here, it was the opposite. Around San Pedro, under an unending sun and hidden in intimidating expanses, are geysers, prehistoric ruins, the 3rd largest salt flat in the world, archaeological wonders, and natural rock formations that create intriguing shapes and shadows. We choose to visit the Valley of the Moon and the Valley of Mars. The Valley of Mars cannot support one bacteria of life, and among its choppy rocks and reddish sand NASA practices their robot which is then used on Mars. We spent more time walking through the Valley of the Moon, El Valle de la Luna, and stayed there to watch the sun set. It looks like you have left earth, and are on an entirely different planet.

The actual sunset is not nearly as impressive as the 10 minutes following. Across from the sun, to the east, you can watch the cordillera become literally a rainbow of color. The mountains and clouds reflect the separated light and turn from yellow to red to blue with such an intensity you forget that this is natural. I walked away from the line of tourists and found my own place in the sand to witness the marvels. I imagined what the town and the area had been like when the Spanish built the church in 1745, and even the thousands of years before the Spanish had arrived. Chile, I learned, has been greatly influenced by immigrants from all over the world. With a recognized indigenous population estimated at nearly 7% of the whole country's population, Chile seems to be a sort of complicated mix of cultures. But rather isolated pueblos with such long histories as San Pedro make me wonder how much the local citizens have been able to retain of their heritage. And how much, in the face of the strong wave of tourism that is flowing through its adobe lined streets, will influence its future.

After discussing options of crossing the border into Bolivia with other travelers in our hostal, my friend and I decided to take a four day tour in a four wheel drive jeep. We booked with a local company, and settled in for one last night in San Pedro.

See fotos from San Pedro de Atacama here.