Thursday, January 27, 2011

Conceptions and misconceptions

"Guess what? I'm going to be on the news!"

I felt this was a surprising statement, seeing as I'd only been left to my own devices for about 10 minutes at the stop for the tour bus I was taking around Santiago. The fact neither of my friends showed any great astonishment was either a reflection on my ability to cause enough trouble to hit the headlines in a very short amount of time or an insiders knowledge of Chilean reporters love of Gringos.

'Gringo', incidentally, is a Spanish term for 'foreigner' and, as an accurate description, is of course not insulting. In exactly the same way that 'gaijin' isn't in Japanese. Yes. >.>

My appearance on channel 11's news that night, however, was not for any nefarious dealings in the Chilean capitol but rather due to a roving reporter looking for visitors' views on the city. While slightly taken aback to have a camera suddenly focussed on me, I happily waxed lyrical about how great I'd found Santiago and how I'd recommend this clean, blooming city to everyone back home.

It was true too. Santiago is blooming, both in its glass tower high rises, the swaths of flowers in their summer glory and the people; a surprising number of which seemed to be pregnant. Chile's money comes primarily from copper which appears to have suffered less in the current economic down turn that other commodities. The previous president, Michelle Bachelet, was also allegedly careful with funds, putting aside a pillow for difficult times that had clearly paid dividends now. If it wasn't for the palm trees (some of which were actually disguised cell phone signal transmitters) and the mountainous backdrop, I could have convinced myself I was in any exceptionally wealthy western capital city.

I attempted to convey my enjoyment to the reporter without sounding flat-out astonished. Possibly I failed. Before coming here, my previous knowledge of South America was ... um ... the presence of a bunch of telescopes, the fact that Santiago could be full of smog, that a friend had spent a summer building ovens in rural Peru and an Oxfam alpaca another friend has adopted on my behalf as a birthday gift. I therefore naturally concluded that ALL of South America consisted of oven-less huts where people rode around on alpacas which appeared as two giant eyes in the fog filled landscape.

The fact that I had six friends all living in Chile for the last few years had not over ridden these assertions. They were observational astronomers; obviously they knew nothing. Also, they probably spent all their time at the telescopes. Which they reached via mountain-climbing alpacas. Yes.

I'd like to point out that NONE OF THEM had expressly told me I was wrong.

Santiago's impressive facade had therefore been rather unexpected. Nor was this attractiveness only skin-deep. Only last year, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake had hit the region, causing my friend's apartment on the 23rd floor to swing by over 1m and the roof-top pool spew its contents over the side of the building (apparently an intentional design, since it's preferable to having the weight of the displaced water elsewhere on the structure). The visible damage to the neighbourhood though, was a few tiny cracks in the plaster work and a single pane of cracked glass in an area packed with transparent buildings. The market downtown had taken more of a battering, but it was being replaced with something stronger and better. This infrastructure was for keeps.

All of this I had been admiring from my tour bus which was one of the ones that zoom around London. No really; it was a expatriated London bus, in the traditional brilliant red. The only difference was the enthusiasm for passengers to sit on the open top deck; a position rather better suited to the Santiago summer. From my view point, I could see the alpacas were sadly lacking from the paved streets, although I did see a mobile information booth attached to a Segway which was rather pleasing. The smog turned out to be more factual than the camelids, but only occurs in winter when the mountains trap the air over the city.

I had disembarked my British ride just outside ESO: the European Southern Observatory campus. Currently, I was just after lunch, but the following day I would be giving a talk. The buildings were decked with photographs of the telescopes they ran. I thought that possibly, like the smog, their presence was a fact I had not made up about South America. Then I saw a large photograph of an instrument not in existence and decided to group them in the same class an alpacas for now.

'Gaijin' translates to 'foreigner' in Japanese and, likewise, is not technically insulting, but the way it emphasises your difference leaves the point rather clear when liberally used.

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