At any rate, I'm in Chile.
Chile is a great many things. It's long and thin, with the Andes looming down upon it on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other side. There are deserts up the top, and the glacial, volcanic tip of the earth on other end. In the middle, are mining towns and tourist towns and big cities that withstand earthquakes, and indigenous people that withstand centuries of every invading force imaginable (seriously, the Mapuche are badass). Chile is the last country in South America that I'm visiting before I return to Australia, and it's also the country where my parents, and their parents, and their parents' parents were born. Needless to say, it's been interesting to be in Chile.
Whilst growing up (for lack of a better description), I had a strange relationship with my heritage. One one hand, I was proud of it, was proud to have a family history steeped in a culture more interesting (in my opinion, at least) than that of white Australia, that I got to eat far more interesting food on the weekends with my hoards of rowdy aunts, uncles and cousins. My parents told me of how their parents had packed up their families and all their worldly posessions to come across the seas to a strange country in order to escape a very rude dictatorship, and to give their kids a chance at a better a life. They told me this and I'd feel epic buckets of love for my grandparents. On the other hand however, I took pride in how well my folks had then assimilated, at their flawless English. I was pleased that they have Aussie friends, and that they sent us to a school with a broad spectrum of pals and a good education instead of occasional gangster delusions. I take that back. That's incredibly snobby and a gross generalisation, so allow me to explain.
I suppose it's a result of my folks speaking with irritation at their fellow Chilenos in Australia who only associated with each other, only speaking Spanish. I suppose it's the result of so many of the distant relations we have sending their kids to school in places that are conducive to wannabe gangstas driving horrid hotted up cars. I suppose it's my love of the skinny nerd whiteboy. But into my teens it became clearer and clearer that I (and my brother, for that matter) stuck out at gatherings of extended family that we rarely saw. Not only because of the things I would wear and my hair, but because my lack of any skill in speaking Spanish and my complete inability to remember the names of anyone I'd met in the family.
I tell you what, it's a strange headspace to be in. On one hand, I'd wear my Australian-ness and well-assimilated family as a badge of pride, but on the other hand I longed to spak Spanish and occasionally inwardly shook my first at my folks for not continuing to teach me when I was a kid. I was almost pleased with how much I stood out at family gatherings, yet was also pleased with my not-overly-Australian accent and my hatred of Vegemite. My eyes swell up when I watch someone dance traditional Chilean dances, and I get choked up at ANZAC Day services.
So. With all of that in mind, it's been interesting as hell to actually be in South America. My first run-in with Extreme Emotion was one afternoon in Cusco. Walking through the Plaza de Armas I saw one of the many parades/dances that occurred during the most festive of months for Peru. It was the beginning of June, so I hadn't really seen any properly at that stage. I saw the men and women dancing in their traditional Andean dress and I couldn't help but burst into tears. Of course, I was feverish, had just thrown up, and hadn't eaten in about two days (I was on my way to the doctor), so that may have been it.
I know I've mentioned in my previous (sporadic) blog posts written whilst I've been over here that I feel like this is exactly where I'm supposed to be at this exact moment. It's true, and I'm going to have to reiterate it. In a bus bumping and flying over the rocky terrain of Bolivia, chatting to a kid on my way to the Argentine border, swimming in an Amazonian lake, watching a football game in La Plata, down a mine in Potosi ... everywhere, I've found myself constantly having moments in which I can scarcely believe what I'm doing, and where it is that I'm doing it. At the risk of sounding cheesy as fuck, I'm a hell of a long ways from home yet equally, I feel incredibly close to it.
I'vemet a grand old big chunk of my family over the past few weeks. It was fascinating. The brothers and sisters of my grandparents, some of their kids, and in turn some of their kids. Tia Lucy, whom my mum and her siblings always speak of so warmly, lovingly, proved to be an absolute blast. This tiny tiny lady declared "I'm the oldest!" as she burst in the door and gave me a big hug. She then demanded to know who looked more like my grandpa, her or their brother, Manolo. The day was full of loud Chilenos talking over each other constantly, with a gigantic paella too big for the table feeding us all. Frankly, it reminded me of a weekend get together back home. My mum's cousin's husband (I don't know what on earth that makes him to me) played the piano and everyone sat around and sang me a traditional folk song about a woollen beanie. I videoed it, a little choked up, thinking, "Mum will SHIT BRICKS when she sees this". My broken, grammatically feeble yet vastly improved Spanish served me well, with glowing reports soon getting back to my parents through the grapevine of relatives.
It again served me well when I journeyed an hour or so south to Rancagua, to meet a portion of my dad's family. I admit that at one point on the train journey I wished I was back at the hostel, warm in bed, with no pressure to be on show for two days, "representing the Australian offspring". As soon as my dad's cousin began showing me around however, I felt otherwise. I saw the street, the house where my dad had grown up. I saw the mechanic in which the men of the family had worked. I saw the ice cream shop where a young Panchin would buy snacks. Holy jeezum crow Batman, that shit is priceless.
I had no idea I'd feel this way when I got to Chile, and to South America as a whole. That's not to say that I've spent the entire time being sentimental. I'll have you know that there have been myriad ways in which I've shown my badassery. But at the most curious of moments, I'll feel really in touch with my South American side. Like crawling through a mine in Potosi, barely being able to breathe. Like standing under Iguazu Falls. Seeing some tango in Buenos Aires. Like being on this horrid, horrid bus on my way out of Uyuni, Bolivia, and I happening to look out the window after literally getting air during one bump in the road and I seeing pretty much every star, ever. During that same horrid bus, I happened to find myself chatting to a little girl travelling with her even younger brother (seated on the floor amongst the boxes and bags of shit knows what) from Uyuni to some other town. She asked how I'd liked the salt flats. I said they were amazing. She looked pleased, and assured me that they're much, much better during the summer months.
Throughout my trip here, I've been struck by how proud South Americans are of their countries. I mean, I'm a proud Aussie I guess, but this is different. Maybe it's a result of having been through many years hardship over the years (when I told a local artist in Valdivia the year my parents came to Australia he shook his head sadly and replied, "Mm. I went to Paris"). My Tio Juan spent HOURS proudly explaining the history of this building, of this statue, of that park, during our tour of Santiago. Every cab driver I met in Bolivia genuinely wanted to know what I thought of his country, his town. That little girl seemed chuffed as hell when I said I loved the salt flats. I met so many Peruvians that were incredibly proud to still speak Quechua. I guess if your heritage and your history is that interesting, it'd be hard not to be. And it appears that upon seeing it for myself after all of this time, I am too.
|In front of the house where my dad grew up.|