I spent 2 months in Concepción, Chile, in the summer of 1992, as part of study abroad. I wanted to go far off the beaten path. I wanted to be away from other US college students. And I certainly was. Let me frame it for you a bit… 1992, the dictator Pinochet had relinquished his direct control over the Chilean government a few years earlier, and the Chileans were coming out of a cultural period defined by Fascism, a fascist regime which had been in the business of suppressing collegiate uprisings, disappearing thousands of people, and imposing strict rules which have left an indelible mark on the Chilean social scene, at least as I found it in 1992 compared to the free-wheeling, pre-9/11 devil-may-care US cultural naivete I had come from. Bill Clinton was the front runner for the presidential elections in the US and had attracted the attention of the Generation X by playing saxophone on the campaign trail. Reaganomics were finally coming to a close, and there was a real sense across the globe that finally, the Americans were coming to their senses and turning away from ridiculous Republican-based foreign policies. (Their words, not mine. I just happened to agree with them).
Culture shock set in big time for me, and I felt perhaps the most isolated and alone that even Gen X loner/slacker me had ever felt. But I still tried, and since there were only 2 other gringos in their 20’s in the entire city of Concepción at that time, we tended to draw attention. I paid a visit to the American Institute in Concepción, part of our cultural outreach in sympathetic nations, I guess. There are American Institutes all over the place outside of the US, or at least I was told there were when I went there. Wealthy Chilean school children went to the American Institute for culture classes, part of the ‘outreach’, I guess. I just knew that by my second week there, I was starved for some American culture, so I stopped by to visit the Institute and talk to some of the instructors and students there.
I remember standing in the upstairs hallway waiting for one of the professors who wanted me to talk to their classes, and having a gaggle of Chilean school children come up the stairs together. They saw me standing there, and although my hair is medium brown I was considered by several Chileans as ‘blond’. With my Scotts complexion and height of 6’2″, I stood out head and shoulders, literally, over many of the Chileans. The children stopped together as a unit and stared, perhaps no older than 6 or 7 years old. Then, when one of the adults shepherding them tried to get them to keep walking, they pointed to me directly and said, “He’s a giant!” It made me want to bellow out “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum!” but I guessed that it wouldn’t have the same cultural translation, so instead I just smiled and waved at the children as they passed by, unable to tear their eyes off of me as I said ‘Saludos de los Estados Unidos’ (Greetings from the US) as they walked by. Their guardian adults were all laughing over the reactions, and I was too.
An Extremely Rich Culture
Chile was not what I expected. I had been carrying around stereotypes of 3rd World nations in Latin America, and I landed squarely in a definitely 1st World nation, and one of the richest in the world, but not necessarily in monetary wealth. In Chile, I ran into quite the interesting cultural phenomenon. The people in Concepción, at least, would remark about things in terms of how ‘rich’ they were (¡Qué rico!), but when they used that phrase they were never talking about material goods. They were speaking about experiences. Flavors. Views. Emotional responses. Artwork. Theater. Movies. Anything experiential. Concepción literally conceptualized ‘wealth’ and ‘riches’ as being cultural experiences, not items to possess. Oh sure, being a 1st World developed nation, Chile had their version of consumerism and materialistic importance, but the people as a whole had not given up on the notion that the best things in life weren’t things. Exposure to that attitude has stuck with me quite a bit throughout my adulthood.
A Symphony of Street Sounds
I had been a music major prior to becoming a Spanish major, so I carried with me the notion of listening to the sounds of my environment, intentionally. Different places sound differently, and Concepción was no exception. Like most Latin American cities, Concepción had its official, main Plaza, a public commons area which formed the conceptual heart of the city, if not necessarily always the economic, cultural, or geographical ‘center’ around which the city revolves. The Plaza in Concepción was huge and arranged in a circular pattern of wood and wrought-iron benches around a massive stone fountain. The Plaza was faced by the city’s official (Catholic) Church/Cathedral (much smaller scale than the Cathedral in Seville, Spain, but about the same size as St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC). Government buildings, courthouses, a Community Center/Theater, and movie theaters also ringed the Plaza, most likely paying dearly for the Plaza-front real estate.
On the other side of Concepción was the University. The University’s main gate was the end point for the only street to cut diagonally across the city, named simply ‘El Diagonal’. The Plaza connected to the University Gate where the Diagonal boulevard ended by means of a very busy, bustling street which seemed to form the economic heart of the city, at least in terms of retail businesses and restaurants dependent on foot traffic. I bring this up because I used to catch a bus into Concepción from the Villa San Pedro across the river Bio-Bio, where my host family and I lived. I would often get off the bus at the Plaza instead of the University, and I would walk across the city on that one street… just to hear a veritable Symphony of Street Sounds.
At the Plaza, the sound of traffic was muted because traffic diverts away from the Plaza when it comes to automobiles. The Plaza is really more for pedestrian public. Or it was, 20 years ago. The bells of the cathedral tower would chime and resonate over the sounds of the falling water when the fountain was turned on, and the cooing of pigeons in the park. As well, the shoe-shine men would circle the park looking for businessmen who wanted their shoes shined. They would circle the rows of benches with their shoeshine boxes and brushes, tapping the handle of the brush against the box while they would politely ask anyone who sat still long enough whether or not they wanted their shoes shined. In my mind, the Symphony of Concepción begins with the fading sound of traffic, the tolling of the bell towers, the cooing of pigeons and the fluttering of wings as the shoeshine men tap and call to the public, asking them plaintively “¿Límpialos? ¿Límpialos?” (Meaning “Shine ’em? Shine ’em?”) while falling water provides the background tempo.
If you then start at the fountain and walk away from the church, down to the side street which connects the Plaza with the University, the natural sounds of water stop falling and get replaced by the babble of the crowds. At the edge of the Plaza the lepers would gather, pitiful men and women sitting on the sidewalks with a small paper cup nearby, calling out in singsong misery, begging for the kindness of strangers. “Una monedita, una monedita por favor” is how their chorus goes, slow and lamenting, a visual reminder to be thankful of what you’ve got.
As the beggars and lepers begin to be heard, you immediately will hear a strange chorus of rapid, sustained, and loud clicking sounds as the street vendors walk up and down outside of the bustling street with little plastic children’s toys in their hands, looking like a white plastic stick with two sets of plastic balls attached rigidly to the stick on joints to pivot. They would put five or ten of these little clicker stick toys in their hands and walk around by the edge of the Plaza and the busy street, and they would shake their hands back and forth to make the two strips of hard plastic balls clack together over and over again while they simply announced the price to passersby. “¡Trescientos pesos, solamente trescientos pesos!” (‘300 pesos, only 300 pesos!’ about $1 US at the time). The clattering of the tchotchki salesfolks would emerge in waves of noise and sound punctuated by silences every time they made a sale. Taken together, they sounded like a strange omnipresent set of Urban Cicadas, droning out the poignant cries of the wretched leperous beggars as you walked farther along the street.
Just when the clatter toys and salespeople seemed to rise to ascendency against the growing sound of the street, you would walk up closer to the Keno booth, an official Chilean lottery which ran every 10 or 20 minutes similar to some NYS lottery games. Just before the periodic Keno balls would be broadcast to all of Chile, the salespeople would shout out into the crowd, “¡Keno Keno Keno! Keno. ¡Keno Keno Keno Keno!” They tended to either bark out in patterns of three or patterns of four, which when put together forms the basic foundation of all polyrhythms, a pattern of three against a pattern of four.
The Keno barkers, backed by the clickers, get joined by the rest of the chorus of people advertising all of the restaurants that exist in the upstairs spaces over the little merchant stalls and retain shops. The primary fare didn’t vary much from restaurant to restaurant, more like a string of mom & pop diners all serving pub grub or diner fare, but Chilean style. Barking to attract customers seemed to be the way of things, because every restaurant along the street did it, and eventually I figured out that I got better service and better prices when I became a ‘regular’. Normal cuisine for lunch was either “Bird sandwich with avocado” or “Steakums with avocado”. Or hot dogs. Chileans *love* hotdogs. They call them ‘Completos’ (Completes) and they serve as an excuse to eat tons of condiments. Mayo being one of their favorites. It’s sort of like the ‘Taco Bell’ phenomenon… the food looks like the real deal, or at least takes the name of the real deal, but it’s vastly out of cultural context or anything else recognizeable to the native culture. Hot dogs are Chilean junk food, and they *love* them with a passion that puts the American hot dog to shame. To shame!
By this point the auto traffic has also picked up, so honking horns get added to the chorus of people and city noise, now in full crescendo. The hiss of air brakes from diesel public transit buses joins the fray, and the candy-sellers who hop a ride on buses to offer a plethora of chocolates and caramels and crispies for the inflated price of 300 pesos called out a repeating chorus of “¡Dulces! ¡Chocolates! ¡Dulces! ¡Chocolates!” (‘Sweets! Chocolates!’)whenever they would establish eye contact with a member of the public.
By this point the noise of traffic overwhelms the Symphony, since we are arriving at the point where the Diagonal comes to rest outside of the pedestrian-only University of Concepción campus gates. The traffic fades too as you cross onto the campus, and cars are replaced with the sound of college students, meeting and kissing (everyone kisses everyone else of the opposite gender, sometimes of the same gender, it’s how they greet) and laughing and shushing themselves, the droning sounds of lectures and the movement of people en masse between classes. A peaceful sound, punctuated with livelihood here and there. Bird song returns, and by the time that you pass by the massive Campanile, the sound of academic bells tolls the hour. By the time you reach a small public memorial area designed to allow for large crowds to congregate, you will hear the gentle lapping of the water of the lowest level of this little outdoor forum. Water tinted black among the lowest level of where the crowds would gather, and did gather in the 70’s, when Pinochet came to power and supposedly massacred a group of communist students who had convened there to stage a protest. The water on the lowest level tinted black was a memorial to those fallen idealists, and had the urban legend among the students of being tinted black because it was impossible to remove the blood stains from the concrete.
There, with the fading sound of bells and barely perceptible sound of the lapping water, the Symphony ends at a monument to lasting freedom, surrounded by the bored disinterest of the modern Chilean college students as they shuffle past on their way to classes.
Those were the sounds of Concepción as I knew her. I would get off at the Plaza and walk the length of the city every day, just to hear the Symphony played out, over and over again.
My Host Family
I don’t know whether or not my host mother has survived. We lost touch about 18 years ago when I cut short my stay due to extremely bad financial planning and extremely strong culture shock. I reached out to her once since then via email, but in my enthusiasm I think I ended up with diarrhea of the mouth and just sort of overwhelmed her with TMI, or bad translation attempts when I tried to write in Spanish again after 15 years without practice. We chatted the once and then no further responses. Which is fine, she’s certainly entitled to her life without the briefly associated college exchange student bothering her further. She and her family will probably never realize just how important a role they played in my own development toward adulthood. Which is as it should be, I suppose.
I’ve lit a candle for her. For profesora Marta de las Nieves Contreras Bustamante and her son, Félix. I’m hoping they were not in the city proper when the quake hit, but instead were at home in Villa San Pedro, on the southern shores of the Rio Bio-Bio. That’s assuming Félix is still living out of his mother’s home, and not off in University or studying abroad, or living with his father now. I don’t know whether I’ll ever find out if they survived, but my thoughts are with them, and with all of the Chilean people affected by this earthquake. That house had been built by her father, and it was more than just a room I rented while I was studying abroad… that was my home, too, if only for a short time.
I was only in Concepción a brief time, but it was a formative time. An essential time. It was, and always will be, an experience I can only describe en la manera de Concepción…¡Qué rico! I join with the millions who look to Concepción now with hope that the beauty and richness of the city finds a way to survive in the hearts and minds of the Chilean people once again.