Coastal Post Online


December 2001

Letter From Chile

By Jim Scanlon

w In 1990, when I left the United States, the airport was hustling and bustling and crowded with stressed, but seemingly happy people. When I got to Chile, where the old military government had just been replaced, the airport crowd was quiet and subdued-soldiers in combat fatigues still stood, or walked slowly about, with machine guns slung over their shoulders. This year the situation was reversed.

In 1991 when I left for Bolivia, George Bush, Colin Powell and "Dick" Cheney were preparing to destroy a former ally, the treacherous Iraqi dictator who turned against us. This year, Bush the younger, Powell and Cheney were bombing Afghanistan, this time to destroy treacherous former allies, who turned against us. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

One of the nice things about traveling is that you are usually forced into contact with other societies where people look different, act differently and have different concerns. I waited on line for about an hour, with a polite, respectable, older gentleman at the SFO. He and his wife were going to their second home in the Dominican Republic and she was waiting with their baggage-they had a lot. I asked him how he liked living in a foreign country. "Oh", he said reassuringly, "It's hardly different from here. We have our own little community and satellite TV, and you never see the local people."

I like Chile. The people are sort of old fashioned, very polite, honest and courteous and always well dressed. When someone walks into the breakfast room at a hotel, they say "buenos dias" and everyone says "buenos dias", everyone acknowledging each other's presence. On leaving a person says "buen provecho" to those still eating and they nod and say thanks. Passengers say "gracias" to the driver of a "colectivo" for stopping, and she or he will say "gracias" for the 200 peso fare, and so forth.

I always pick up the courtesy when I am here and I seem to become less moody, to behave a little better, and become a little more friendly and open. And I know my mother would approve.

It is still quite cold in Punta Arenas, on the Strait of Magellan, not too far from Cape Horn, as the albatross flies. It is as far south as you can get on the South American continent. Across the Strait is the island of Tierra del Fuego and then, the great Southern Ocean and that massive pile of ice called Antarctica. Because of its geographical position and it's isolation, this small part of Patagonia has been called "El fin del mundo", the end of the world. (It now sounds ominous). Last northern spring, I stayed a week in Barrow Alaska, the furthest point north on the North American continent. I suppose now I'll have to find, and visit, the middle point.

Torres del Peine is a huge national park with spectacular scenery a few hours ride to the north which attracts a lot of the "better" kind of tourists. Starting in November you see healthy looking European backpackers and trekkers on the streets. They don't stay long in Punta Arenas which is not a tourist town like Cusco or Anchorage, but still a city unto itself that looks like it might have been uprooted from northern Italy, or the Dalmatian coast, and set down on the edge of the Patagonian steppe.

I met a friendly Canadian trudging along the beach dragging two large rubber tires on a harness. He was conditioning himself for walking on skis across Antarctica with two companions, one a Finn and the other an Australian. I tell him I met an Englishman dragging tires along the same beach last year- maybe the same tires-who was hoping to be the first blind man to walk across Antarctica and did he know what happened to him? "Didn't make it. Frostbite", he tells me. "Good luck!" I tell him.

I think it was 1911 when Knudt Andmunsen led his little group of Norwegians across that mass of ice on skis and Scott and his entire English team perished 11 miles from a base camp. Less than a hundred years ago! My father was 15 and in the Coast Guard before it was called the Coast Guard, World War I hadn't started, and the great European empires were still intact! What a world we live in!

Every afternoon Avenida Bories, the main street, is thronged with hundreds of animated adolescent boys and girls all dressed in blue school uniforms, crowding the sidewalks, laughing and talking, making it hard to get by. Nice looking, clean, neat, polite kids. The boys with neatly cut short hair and ties pulled down from white collars talking loudly and pushing each other, the girls holding hands, or arms, squealing with laughter, kissing when they meet or take leave.

I've been seeing this sort of thing here now for 11 years and it occurred to me this trip that many of the kids I saw 11 years ago are now the young couples I see with their toddlers in restaurants, and in less crowded places. Where do the other disappear to? How does this all take place? How do all of them fit in?

The Chileans worry a lot, and they do it out loud, in the newspapers and on TV. Here in Punta Arenas, their big worries now are not terrorism, which is there, and a concern, but it is almost as if they have to remind themselves of it. They have to remember. It is not in their guts, and on the tips of their tongues so to speak. No hysteria. Their big worries are the price of copper. They are the world's biggest producer and the price is at it's historic low. They worry about terrorism because it is driving the US economy down and that drives theirs down.

They worry about Argentina - Argentina always seems to be falling apart-going bankrupt and dragging their economy down the way the Asian defaults dragged them down in 1987, and the strong dollar - the result of the terrorist attacks in New York and the mess in Argentina-and they worry about crime - and it all seems tied together.

For three days Argentinean truck drivers blocked all truck traffic entering from Chile, claiming Chilean truckers were taking business away from them. This upset everyone in Punta Arenas which is isolated from the rest of Chile by the mountainous, impassable coastline and huge ice fields to the north. Most of their basic necessities are shipped by truck through Argentina. Indignant, worried editorials called for the government

to protest this dangerous violation of treaties that guarantee free trade and transport etc., not seeming to recognize that the government of Argentina was having it's own problems with strikes, slowdowns, and a near insurrection by state governors over the latest "austerity" measures

to satisfy the global financial establishment on Wall Street, perhaps too close to "ground zero".

However, the mess in Argentina persisted so long that everyone seemed to conclude that it wasn't a real crisis, since real crises don't last long and so the stock market went up and the dollar went down, and even the price of copper went up a little so that there is now only crime to worry about.

Crime is a big worry, a legitimate worry. Most people in Chile live in Santiago far to the north, and that's where most of the crimes occur, but locally it seems to have gotten worse. Spray can graffiti made its appearance during the last year and unsightly initials cover many of the beautiful, stately buildings of the city. Graffiti has always been part of the Latin American scene, but this is different and unsightly. The monuments to Fernando Magallanes, judges, ex presidents and governors, even a Christian cross on the hill above town!

A 17 years old student from Liceo San Jose (one of those nice looking kids I see every day) disappeared without a trace after last being seen eating a sandwich and drinking a coke late one weekday night. A friend looked at me and whispered conspiratorially, " drogas!" The reaction to this disappearance is something like the reaction to the disappearance of Polly Klass: read, desperate concern, suspicions.

On Halloween, which is seen by many as a subversive pagan import from the north, 12 young men were treated in the hospital for injuries from fights and assaults during the night , with drunkenness involved in almost all. I wondered what the effect might have been if the number had been 13.

A few days later Caribineros swept through residential areas during the night and the number of arrests made were truly staggering-because the arrestees were staggering.

A few days later, three boys set fire to three trucks destroying two of them and putting their owners out of work with an estimated cost of replacement of $4,000,000 pesos chilenos. At that time the exchange rate of the peso was 705 to $1US or $567,375.89. dollars US.

As an example of why the exchange rate concerns people so much is that a day later the rate dropped to 685 to 1, which would make the damages $583,941.61, a difference of $16,565.72. The strong dollar is great if you are buying pesos, but not the other way around. A few days later the claim for damages had risen to 10 million pesos-a "victim's revenge" kind of damage inflation which American insurance companies, and criminal justice authorities, know all too well.

I get the local daily, "La Prensa Austral" early in the morning before I eat. It's just a short walk to a corner, where, rain or snow or freezing wind or whatever, an old woman sits on a step, or props herself against a wall with her newspapers and her cane. She is all business and is hard to understand because most of her teeth are gone. She wasn't there one Saturday, so, when I say her the next day I asked where she was. She joined her hands together as in prayer and put her cheek on them as if on a pillow and closed her eyes. "El unico dia" (My only day off). I'm told she is 87 and has worked that corner for 40 years. If, on some days I get the paper at 7 AM instead of 8, she tells me with great certainty "You are early!"

The "Prensa Austral" is probably the best newspaper I have ever read: It thoroughly reports local news, business, commercial, sports, the courts, crime, the good and the bad. Just reading the announcements of the cultural events of one day shows what a remarkable city this is! Barbershop quartettes, baroque music ensembles, choirs, chess clubs, school activities and achievements, theater, dance groups, associations for burned children, for the blind, for diabetes, the Croatian Club, the Spanish Club, Fishing Club, it goes on and on.

The biggest event of the year is a fund raiser for "El Nino Impedito", or for retarded, impaired children. Teenagers and moms are forever poking a can of coins for contributions and professional entertainers come from Santiago join the locals for the final event, a musical extravaganza in the municipal gymnasium. This year 58 million pesos were raised, which is a lot of money for a city or about 120,000 no matter what the exchange rate.

What is probably nicer, and more impressive is that every attempt is made to integrate the retarded kids into society. You see them helping out in stores and at a local fashion show smiling girls with "impediments" are walking with the models along the runway before the crowd.

I usually go down to the one long pier in the port when one of the US Research Ice Breakers are in port. In 1990 and 1992 I couldn't get into the port. Around 1995, guards armed with machine guns disappeared and you could get in as long as you looked OK, which I do, and besides I am a reporter accredited to the Coastal Post which is well known here.

Nothing changed this year, despite the "security" fever sweeping the US, and I went on the Nathaniel Palmer and interviewed the Principal Scientist on the latest expedition to study the ecology of the Southern Ocean. The ice conditions this year were never worse ever seen or heard and the ship was stuck in the ice for 21 days.

The captain of the ship "Captain Joe" was very friendly. We had a nice chat in which he admitted he might have been "a little worried" about being stuck in the ice. He promised me a visored Nathaniel Palmer cap if I returned and, of course, I didn't need any encouragement. Two days later I bought a large lemon meringue pie and stuck a small boat I got in a toy store in the middle of it and got a packet of birthday candles that had 21 candles in it and went down to the ship. But "Captain Joe" had just left a few hours before to spend a month in New Orleans.

We ate the pie in my hotel. I left the toy boat with Vladimir, the special pilot for heavy ice to give to Captain Joe. Too bad, but then no trip is perfect.

The Ozone Hole

Oh, I almost forgot. The Antarctic Ozone Hole has behaved itself so far this spring and hasn't moved across the tip of South America. At least not yet. Press releases attributed to US scientists have appeared claiming that the Ozone Hole had stabilized this year and last, implying there was nothing to worry about. Not exactly!

Last year the Ozone Hole remained over the tip of southern South America for a record number of day especially during the month of October, breaking up towards the end of the month. This was the first time in ten years, or so, it had interrupted it's steady increase in intensity, size and duration, and this led to some speculation that the menacing trend was over and the atmosphere might be on it's way to "recovery".

But, as anyone with experience in "recovery" from an addiction to something destructive, it is a process of change that is never ending, not some goal that is achieved at the first sign of improvement.

This year the Ozone Hole is as big as ever, although not a new record in size, and it has not elongated as much as during the last decade. But it is just as depleted and is lasting just as long as the longest - and it may turn out to be the longest. It remains to be seen if it last until the first week in December as it did in 1998 and if it will elongate.

Until the Ozone Hole breaks up over Antarctica it will continue to destroy stratospheric ozone, all of which is created and transferred from the tropics. When it finally breaks up it will have slightly reduced the amount of ozone over the entire southern hemisphere. All things being equal, a little less ozone means a little more of the more energetic, short wavelength ultraviolet rays, the kind that cause damage to organic molecules like plant and animal DNA, cause sunburn, leaf curl and skin cancer. Everything organic in the Southern Hemisphere is affected a little, and human health is just one area.

I spent a few enjoyable afternoons in the home of my friend Dr. Abarca MD, the only Dermatologist in town, eating fresh "centolla" (king crab) and "lomo" (steak). Hopefully we corrected all the typos and got all the verbs to agree in his two papers, the first of which will be published, hopefully in January, "Increase in sunburns and photosensitivity disorders at the edge of the Antarctic ozone hole, 1986-2000.

I also picked up a few interesting reports: "Efectos de la Radiacion Ultravioleta en la XII Region de Chile, Confronting the Fallout from the Ozone Hole. and half nude models on TV and a trip to the penguin colony. But that's for next month.


Coastal Post Home Page