21 Sep 2011

Chilenidad

National holidays offer a condensed and exaggerated version of a country's self-perception, and given that I only spend a limited amount of time in Chile, I was grateful to be able to witness its fiestas patrias. Before you ask: No, the plural is not a sign of my poor Spanish skills, but testimony to the fact that Chile indeed has two consecutive national days: The first one, el dieciocho, marks independence from the Spanish crown, 201 years ago on September 18, whereas the following day is officially known as the Día de las Glorias del Ejército.

Now, in a country which has lived under a military dictatorship for 17 years, you would think that the public sees its former oppressors with a bit of apprehension, to say the least. And you would be wrong, for the armed forces are very much present during the annual celebrations. When I arrived at the city park in which the fiesta de la chilenidad was held on a sunny spring Sunday, I was handed a schedule of events packed with various army presentations, from historical battle reenactments to demonstrations by paratroopers and special assault forces. Being used to two countries in which the armed forces are usually told to stay camouflaged, seeing the troops show off clearly marked a change. Benefiting from an enthused crowd, roaming recruiters even handed me a glossy enlistment brochure (I did not qualify, and not just on nationality grounds).

Thus shocked and awed, I was relieved to find that chilenidad was not limited to goose-stepping. Another important dieciocho tradition, also frequently celebrated out in the countryside by families, are lavish barbeque feasts. At the venue I visited, the air was think with woodsmoke, as copious amounts of beef and pork were roasted over fire, often entire animal halves rotisserie-style or on a spear. I was thrilled to parttake, and enthusiastic asadores were proudly explaining the various cuts and preparation styles to me. Stuffed, it took serious effort to stumble over to the sweets vendors, where the piles of hand-made alfajores con manjar prove just too hard to resist.

Unsurprisingly, between the meat, sugar and a treacherous concoction called terremoto, I was in a bit of the daze by the time I struggled past the petting zoo with exotic animals such as peacocks, llamas and alpacas, circled around the rodeo arena, gazed at the countless Chilean-flag kites in the skies and eventually decided to head home for a nap - which turned out to last until the next morning. Rumor has it, indeed, that it is this feeling of merry satiety, rather than the army's countless glories, which explains why September 19 is another day off. Viva!

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12 Sep 2011

Island Life

There were drinks with little umbrellas in them, sipped poolside in the late afternoon. But it is not just the boozy mai tais that make island life so enjoyable and relaxing. Spending a week in the tropical sunshine of the Hawaiian archipelago allowed me to take in a bit of an easy lifestyle away from it all.

Though initially, it felt anything but. Stepping out on the white sands of Waikiki beach, I was surrounded by hoards of sunseekers (from "mainland" USA) fighting over the best lounge chairs and throngs of sun-avoiders (from Japan) excitedly snapping pictures of their own absurdity. The bizzare spectacle was framed by rows of towering hotels (appropriately called Bettenburgen in German) and a grandiose shopping mall, where Polynesian girls in straw skirts and coconut bras shook their hips to lure the crowds into nearby stores. Surley, this was not what I had flown 12 hours from Canada (and another 12 from Chile) for?

Seeing a sea turtle stare right into my face the moment I put my head under water the next morning, I knew that it was not. With my body still on east coast time, I had woken before sunrise, packed my freshly acquired snorkeling gear (the Hawaiian version of a corner shop has everything you need for a beach vacation) and headed out to a protected cove. A mere half hour drive from Honolulu, this was an entirely different picture, starring but a few locals, lots of colorful reef fish, and said turtle. Floating in the warm ocean waters amidst these fascinating creatures, I started to understand what people mean when they talk about the natural wonders of the islands.

Already taken by the rural corners of busy Oahu, I was truly inspired once I got to Kauai, dubbed "the garden island" and the place chosen by my friends for us to unwind. Life, they confirmed upon welcoming me to their apartment, took a very leisurely course here. Instead of shopping malls, dance shows and tour buses, Kauai has miles of pristine beaches, scenic peaks and stunning valleys. Originating in one of the world's wettest spots, high up in the hills, several rivers irrigate fertile volcanic soils to create a lush, tropical environment. Fruit usually only found in Dole cans in Canada grow on trees, fragrant flowers line the roads and wild chicken (a pest, technically) roam peacefully. Hiking, diving and sailing through this wonderland while leaving cell phone and wifi hotspots far behind, I really felt away from it all. Far faster than I had anticipated, I got used to ten hours or more of sleep each night, followed by a refreshing morning swim in the ocean. This was island life at its best.

And yet, the very fact that I swam in the ocean spoke to the point that clearly, I was not an islander: The locals, you see, never just seemed to "go in". No, they body-boarded. Long-boarded. Stand-up paddled. Young and old, dudes and gals, even one guy's little dog, they surfed. Riding the waves, I was told, is a state of mind - one this freshwater cowboy was determined to adopt. Despite trying evening after evening, when the swell came in, it was not until the last afternoon that I finally managed to ride the crest of a wave. Yet once I did, the feeling was so exhilarating, so pleasurable, so fulfilling that I could not help but laugh out loud (once I've spat out all the salt water, that is). Barely washed up on shore, I was back in for more. And then more still. No wonder so many surfers die in treacherous currents each year - once you're on that rider's high, you just can't stop!

Returning to the mainland reality, I am left not just with a bag of Hawaiian macadamia nuts and a bit of a tan, but also with a scarred forearm from that one last wave with which the Pacific spat me back on shore. You win this one, mighty ocean. But rest assured: I will be back for more.

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