Archives For April 2010

My grandpa says this is the best country in the world.  In spite of the politics, the poverty and the seismic and volcanic disruptions, Chile’s excellent climate, its natural beauty, its diverse landscapes and its bountiful food production make the country a wonderful place to live.  He also says that it’s the country of the compadres.  In generations past, I’m told, the compadre was a good friend, perhaps a relative.  A compadre was also something of a godfather figure who looked out for his own and could be counted on to help one get into a good position.  Today, the compadre can be thought of as a well-placed buddy or a good connection.  But in either case, what remains true is that compadres look out for compadres.

In practical terms what this means is that elites on the political scene are difficult to distinguish from elites in the economic world and that interests in both arenas often run parallel.  Consequently, legislation at the political level that runs counter to the interests of the empresarios (entrepreneurs/business owners) is often a great challenge to push through.  The other meaning is that if you’re not a compadre or if you don’t know one, it may be tough to make it. In fact, it’s a general sentiment among average Chileans that this is far from the land of opportunity, and that unless you have a certain last name or a fortunate connection (which some call a pituto), you aren’t likely to do very well.

a group of men in suits sit and stand around a long dining table

The compadres of generations past (see if you can pick out my grandpa)

In a country of 16.6 million people spread over 4300 km from north to south, it’s a small elite who hold the wealth of the nation, in addition to foreign companies that have been allowed access through trade agreements and large scale privatization.  This distribution was made evident during the recent humanitarian effort to raise money for the victims of the massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake that battered much of central and southern Chile.  A telethon was organized days after the disaster, which brought in incredible donations from certain companies and certain families.  The donations were so large as to take the average Chilean aback and revealed in no uncertain way the true sources of wealth in the country.

But beyond the peso, in Chile trust is the currency highly valued and not easily come by.  And this plays into the culture of the compadre, such that merit may simply not be enough to get you that sought-after job.  What has many in the country frustrated is that at the same time, education continues to be a high priority and more and more are being prepared at the highest levels (and at very high personal cost), with an apparent void of opportunities, especially merit-based ones.

However, it is not merely merit-based opportunities that appear to be lacking, but also important information about the shortfalls in Chile’s labour market to inform all those would-be universitarios in whose interest it might be to know what sectors of the economy are in need of qualified people (like this — Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s under-appreciated and perhaps little known labour market information bank).  Let the market allocate people to where there is a need, some may say, and this seems to be the theory behind the excess of post-secondary institutions in Santiago, Chile’s capital and bastion of progress.  The institutions seem to say, the market will find a place for our graduates, so let’s pump out as many as are willing to pay.  And make no mistake, there is a market for higher education: enter Santiago’s 40 universities, the majority of which are private, not to mention the professional institutes and training centres.

But what lies on the other side — a flood of graduates of varying quality in a given field and an unknown job market — is what provokes the disquiet which invariably comes up in conversation with people from the lower and middle classes in any part of the country I’ve visited.  Without a compadre (and badly needed reforms), an education may not carry the expected value and so when speaking with an outsider-Chileno like me, I find that many people have uncles, nieces, cousins or children who have lost the chance to leave or have left Chile in search of greater education and the opportunities that may follow, much as my own parents did in 1981.

Earthquake Redux

April 25, 2010

The sound of a seismic event is unmistakable.  I realize the earthquake has been a recurring theme of this blog, but read on and you’ll realize why.

On the scale of an individual human, the vibration is global, all encompassing.  Everything one can feel, see, touch, and hear is at first vibrating, then shaking, then convulsing, and then ceasing, on a dime.  The occurrence here has become incessantly intermittent, to the point of paranoia.  It shakes often enough to make one think it is when it isn’t (perhaps when a bus passes nearby), but with enough unpredictability to produce a schizophrenia that leaves an entire population with frayed nerves and on edge.

Case in point: on the night of April 4th, I was in Santiago staying at my tia Loreto’s house.  Sleeping arrangements had been made to accommodate me along with my three cousins, and just after 11 the lights were off and the eyelids gained weight.  The first images of sleep had begun to appear when came the vibrations.  At once, eyes open, adrenaline awakened.  One expects it to pass, so staying in bed is the norm.  It vibrates, then it begins to shake, sound emanates from everything.  Soon we feel it begin to subside, we can exhale, but suddenly it gains strength and in an instant, BOOM, we feel the shock portion of the aftershock.

19th century adobe brick house with earthquake damage

Some of the damages to the 19th century adobe brick Urbina family house in Santiago, Chile (not the one from my story)

The house seems to jump, perhaps like a house in a neighbourhood being bombed might, and we all equally jump out of bed and into the hall.  As aftershocks go, it was minor (4.4 magnitude), but the proximity made it seem ominous, with an epicentre a mere 35 km away from Santiago.  Catalina, the youngest of my cousins, complains that she was just falling asleep, while my aunt climbs the stairs to check on us and exclaim that it’s enough already.  The sentiment is popular.  And it doesn’t seem much to ask in a country that was hammered by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and that has been suffering hundreds of aftershocks, including one in mid-March of magnitude 7.3 (0.3 degrees stronger than the quake that struck Haiti).

The feeling, and above all the sound, brings on fear, perhaps panic and a realization of helplessness before the cycles of the planet.  These were my first days back from the north of Chile where, unfortunately, we can expect a large seismic event to hit in the comings months, if what we hear is right.

The Smoking Gun

April 17, 2010

The last time I wrote, it was the sound of my dad’s snoring that urged my pen on (yes, I’ve been writing in my notebook as a start).  Since then I’ve moved to another room, next to my grandparents, and out of range of my dad’s rumbling.  Of course, this only means that I have a new set of sounds to consider.

When I arrived in Isla Negra, I was made aware that both my abuelo and abuela had recently been ill, my grandma worse than Don Leo, and were still recovering.  The illness had left my abuela feeling weak and with little energy, though each day she’s been gaining strength and colour in her face.  My grandpa has been coughing heavily, bringing up the mucus du jour in a way that only the sound can describe (interested in what my grandpa is talking about? click here).  I had assumed that the cough was due to the remnants of a cold, but it persisted.  At the table, out in his workshop, and of course, in bed at night, the coughing (and the mucus) betrayed something deeper.  So finally, I asked my dad.

my grandpa peeling quince

Don Leo hard at work peeling and cutting quince

My grandpa, I learned, had been a smoker for many years, about 35 according to my dad.  I knew that he used to smoke, but I didn’t realize how long, and if today’s Chilean smokers are any indication, he must have smoked his fair tonnage of tar.  In fact, in his sixties, it led Don Leo to a collapsed lung, hospitalization and unfortunately, to what he suffers from today, chronic emphysema.  In the evening before bed, he inhales a drug that loosens the mucus from his lungs, which wells up overnight in coughs and throat clearings and which he must spit into a container.

My grandma’s cough has long since passed, but in any case, hers was a soft patter to abuelo’s bronchial lurch.  In light of such a story, news of a smoking ban ought to be music to the ears, though, when in Santiago, my cousin’s girlfriend tells me that bars that try to impose one inevitably fail.  According to her, in Chile everyone smokes.  That’s not quite right, but it’s tough to blame her when I find out that 49%, or half of Chileans ages 15-29 are smokers.  The latest numbers show that 37.4 % of Chileans age 15 and up are smokers.  Even more concerning are the statistics for youth.  In 2003, smoking levels in the 13-15 years age group were already the highest in the world at 33.9 % and in 2008 showed an increase to 34.2%.

In a country with a history of smoking and with tobacco companies well entrenched, it seems to be the perfect storm of a rapid rise in economic well-being combined with a lack of education on the subject and public health effort.

I can only speak for my own family, but of my parents’ generation, only 4 of 14 are smokers.  I must note, though, that one of them was my loving Tia Pelusa (Ana Isabel) whose death by cancer is very likely to have been related to her smoking.  So I cringe (and cough) when I see many of my cousins and their friends caught up in it and hope that the country, starting with its shining capital, will have the courage to stand up for Chile, stand up to pressure from tobacco companies or business owners, and put an end to smoking in public places (after all, if all bars have to comply, then no bar should be at a disadvantage) and help remove the smog from within its people, if not from above them.

The Latest: Yesterday, Chile’s newly elected President Sebastian Piñera, a right wing billionaire entrepreneur, announced that among the measures to raise funds for reconstruction, infrastructure, and social support in the aftermath of the massive earthquake, the tax on tobacco products would be raised from 60 to 67%.  The move aims to help Chileans suffering from the damage of the quake by targeting an industry that few will leap to defend, and may also result in a decrease in cigarette purchases, which can only help people move away from the harmful habit.

Life’s a snore

April 15, 2010

I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, that I wouldn’t have to get personal, but as I explained in my first post, sound is often intimate.  After I became accustomed to the neighbouring canine alarm systems, another nocturnal sound, far more local and disruptive made itself heard.

my dad and a neighbour's puppy

My dad and a neighbour's pup (aka alarm system upgrade)

In my first week on Chile’s central coast, I committed to helping my dad lose some weight over the next couple of months.  At first, I would simply observe his habits and interject to prevent what appear to be excesses of unnecessary fatty condiments, bread, sugar, and sweets.  Together, we would also monitor his weight.  My argument is that since he is fairly active and does regular and physically demanding work, that a simple shift in eating habits should produce a notable decrease in weight.  “Franco’s Gravity Experiment”, and my dad is on board.

Aside from a few complaints, justifications, or mutterings, the process ought to be rather silent.  The thing is, I’m most interested in a potential secondary effect.  They say — and I’ll refer to my medically educated Tio Sebastian on this — that a state of excess weight can contribute to that curse of the light sleeper, snoring.  So logically, a decrease in weight could also reduce snoring (less fatty tissue to vibrate in the throat, more muscle tone to control the muscles in the area).

Now I’m no saint when it comes to snoring, just ask Malika, but even she says that I’m not really that bad.  The fact is that anyone within earshot is liable to be violently awoken by my dad’s deep sleep growls.  One can imagine then, that sharing a small room with him is not overly conducive to a good night’s sleep either.  To save myself, I’ve moved to another room on the other side of the house, next to my grandparents, but as you’ll hear, their night time noises have a character all their own.

Update: a few weeks on and Franco’s Gravity Experiment has yielded no net change, though I’ve realized that it becomes increasingly tiresome to reprimand a loved one (for both parties) if the original commitment is not taken 100% seriously by both sides…and that I need to get some sleep

The sound of some helpful suggestions has reached my ears and so I’ve enabled the RSS feed for The Sounds Of blog and I’ve made it a couple of steps easier for you to feast your ears on the sounds you’re reading about with one click on YouTube.

Enjoy!

Release the hounds

April 12, 2010

A new sound has invaded my time in Isla Negra.  In this small coastal town, site of one of Pablo Neruda’s homes and where my grandparents have lived for the last 18 years, many people keep dogs as pets, but also as an alarm system.

As in Santiago, but appropriate to its scale, Isla Negra has its population of street dogs: those that roam the roads, paved and dirt alike, in search of a friend or more likely a bite to eat.  Nothing to fear, of course, these fellows are generally more docile than any dog you’ll find behind a fence.

domestic dogs versus street dogs

Domestic dogs / Street dogs

During the day, but most notably at night, the calming song of the ocean is interrupted by the canine alarm system, usually roused by one or more of their drifter counterparts passing in the lane.  Our neighbour here has a multi-level system, ranging from threatening to chihuahian in size and pitch.  And of course, all are activated at once, to maximum effect.

a pekingese dog

High pitch feature of canine alarm system

Luckily, the alert doesn’t last very long and most people are not stirred, which is more than I can say for the unfortunate Chilenos and Chilenas of the country’s coastal regions who fled low-lying areas after Chile’s second tsunami warning in as many weeks, on March 11th.

But beyond my half-serious complaints lies the issue of Chile’s dog population: the city of Santiago alone counts approximately 250,000 street dogs, according to a 2002 survey completed by the University of Chile.  The survey also corresponds with the beginning of the government’s attempt to deal with the issue through the Tenencia Responsable de Mascotas (Responsible Pet Ownership) project.  This, however, has moved at a snail’s limp toward becoming legislation and 8 years later now sits with the national congress.  Chile’s Ministry of Health has stated that dealing with street dogs is among its priorities for the next decade.

Aside from the cost of capturing and euthanising problematic street dogs (though animal rights groups claim that cheap, painful methods are employed), concerns arise from the potential spread of infectious diseases by dogs acting as carriers.  Also, in cases of disaster like the recent quake, regional emergency authorities have been accused of turning immediately to the destruction of animals that have been abandoned.  The question is, with reconstruction and getting people back to work and students back to school the clear priorities, will anyone sound the canine alarm?

Quakin’ all over

April 10, 2010

Since I arrived in Chile and especially since I got to Isla Negra on the central coast, I’ve been surrounded by sounds.  I arrived in Chile on March 7th, one week later than scheduled.  My flight had been postponed due to the movement of the Earth’s crust, no less.  In the early morning of February 27th, Chile suffered a massive earthquake which surged to 8.8 on the Richter scale, many times stronger than the seismic tragedy that struck the people of Haiti in January.

Reports, both personal and official, cite that the ground in central and southern Chile shook for about 2 minutes.  When one considers this quickly, two minutes does not seem very long.  Years ago, I might have been guilty of thinking a similar thought.  When I last visited my family in Chile, no less than 3 tremors sent waves through this part of the planet.  Two were very short, maybe 5 or 6 seconds.  One, however, lasted longer and shook the ground in waves that moved my chair from side to side seemingly without end.  In truth, the “sismo” probably lasted 10 or 15 seconds.  But now I know what it is to feel that an earthquake is never-ending.

What I didn’t remember from last time, but what my grandpa and my Uncle Ignacio made sure I knew about, was the sound, which brings out the true sense of what it means to live through an earthquake.  The amount of noise was incredible, they explained, which is only natural when you consider that every last object, the building you sit in, and everything that surrounds you begins to vibrate with telluric force.

Television in Chile has been broadcasting videos from up and down the country, eye witnesses to the strength of the quake and the panic it incited.  And within 4 days of arriving in Chile, we’d already felt 3 or 4 tremors, ripples of the original giant.

On March 11th, I heard the sound again: the slow and sinuous rumble that made people in the region think that a second earthquake was underway.  A 7.2 on the Richter scale caused many to believe the aftershock was much more.  I’ve thought, at times, about what exactly would be the most compromising position to be in when an earthquake hits.  On the 11th I believe I was in it: on the toilet.

toilet I sat on during a large aftershock

the worst place to be when an earthquake hits (where I was)

As I sat there and spoke to my dad through the door, I felt relieved, knowing at least that I was pretty well done my work and could pull up my pants and jump outside without major incident.  Though the seismic event lasted maybe 20 seconds, I had no clear indication that it was not the beginning of the worst circumstance, but only the rumbling sound and the temporary movement of my throne room.

Halli Galli

April 8, 2010

The night before I flew to Chile, I had some friends over for a Chinese hot pot, a delicious send off prepared and organized by my loving Malika.  We ate until none of us could anymore, then Malika and I cleared the table for a game of Halli Galli, which we’re told means “fun” or “party”, in German.  Halli Galli indeed.

I lost quickly in the first round, but took the opportunity to try out my new portable audio recorder.  I had made what I like to call, “an investment”, and bought a relatively high-quality recorder to take with me to Chile, mainly to document the conversations with my grandparents.  I recorded the rest of the round as the others played — it’s interesting how quickly a microphone disappears and people feel at ease, faster than with a camera, I think.  The game went on, shrieks and giggles, pounding on the table (it’s part of the game) and cheers.

Then I found my headphones and plugged them into the recorder.  What came out was warm, full, crisp and as the recently retired host of CBC Toronto’s morning show has put it, “intimate”.  I was amazed and I instantly sought to share the feeling, passing the headphones to my filmmaker and writer friend Barnett to take the first listen, then on to the others.  The feeling was there, on their faces: surprise and wonder at the richness and perhaps the sudden upwelling of emotion I had also felt at the sound’s touch.

waveform of halli galli audio recording

waveform of Halli Galli audio recording

Maybe he was right, that host of Toronto’s morning show.  The image, the camera, whether still or in motion, seem to carry with them that distance which seems inherent in the act of looking.  But sound enters us, becomes part of us, and involves us in it; the intimacy is real.  I felt it in the moment the sounds of Halli Galli bounced upon my ear drums, but of course, I’d felt it before.

Malika says I’ve found my love in radio.  And she may be right.  She’s got a unique perspective on it all, of course.  She’s been there throughout my trials and errors getting my feet wet in the waves of CKUT, one of Montreal’s community radio stations.  And the feeling has kept me coming back; back to the portable recorders, the volunteer room, the production studio, and onto the air.

The feeling of hearing a good sound, of producing a piece you are excited about is something akin to the feverish bliss of having words flow from your pen in a flurry of language you had not anticipated when you flipped open your notebook.  The glide of the well-inked pen along the paper, the texture of the writer’s canvas itself, even that familiar scent of “blue” that you recognize as you raise the pages to your nose.  Halli Galli and intimacy, all in one.

Take a listen to what we heard that night, here.