Long holiday offers time to mingle

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Sept. 28, 2004 -- On Sept. 18, 1810, the small South American nation of Chile declared its independence from its original European colonist, Spain. Last week I did my part to help Chileans commemorate the 194th anniversary of that date.

With a day-and-a-half-long declared national holiday (plus a weekend), Antofagastinos celebrated their nation's birthday with parties all over town: at the local rodeo, at a fair-like gathering called a ramada, and in private homes.

No matter the location, the activities were the same. Lots and lots of food, especially barbecued meat; pisco sour, an alcoholic drink native to Chile made from grapes that tastes kind of like a margarita; Chilean flags (which, by law, every house has to fly for the five days around independence day lest they be fined); traditional dress; and the cueca, the national dance of Chile, which Chileans describe as the symbolization of a beautiful courtship and the gringos describe as "kind of slow."

With the long break from work, I had a lot of time to see the sights. I went to the rodeo, which is similar to American rodeo, with some interesting twists. The main event of the rodeo here involves two men on horseback working as a team to corral a running bull between them, and then force it to run headlong into a padded portion of the wall of the round ring. Points are awarded, but I could never figure out how the scoring was governed.

I also got to spend time with some Chileans about my age. Because I'm still sharing a bedroom with my two host brothers, I do a lot of work out of the house, especially at a local coffee shop. Over the last two months I have gotten to know a few of the staffers, and last weekend they invited me to a home barbecue.

Their hospitality, as usual here, was fantastic. The barbecue was a lot like what I would do with my own friends back in the States. No, they don't do fireworks here, and the fact that even the 20-somethings dance the cueca at their parties was kind of surprising, but the food and drinks were the same, the music was familiar (though they have an unfortunate affinity for American '80s music), and the discussions touched on the same topics, like sports, politics, music and gossip. My Spanish is improving, and one of the guys -- Claudio -- speaks some English, so I was able to get a lot out of the conversations, even though they were almost all in Spanish.

Despite being an outsider in the decidedly insider activity of celebrating the Chilean independence day, I didn't feel that out of place. I felt especially comfortable talking with the young Chileans.

Reflecting a bit, I think that the more I travel and the more I meet people all over the world, the more I realize that it really doesn't matter what language you speak, because people everywhere are all saying pretty much the same thing.

Justin Cox is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and is spending six months teaching English in Chile.

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