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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reports From the New Window (and Unexpected Cultural Commentary)

My bedroom window faces a house situated "across the street" (these phrases mean nothing in's pure alleyways, terrifying staircases and precipitous streets) but up the hill a little further. I've spent the majority of my first week in the new house settling in, working, and gazing lovingly at the seafoam green walls and the plants in my windowsill. During my frequent PonderGazeFests, I noticed a couple boys hanging out on the balcony of this house, stringing what looked like wire from their balcony to some unknown location in the distance. 

The next day, the boys were back at it. Except this time, I noticed that the wire was in fact a string, which was attached to a kite. Which they were flying.

And then an hour late, still flying a kite.

And then for the next seven hours...still flying a kite.

Sheesh, I thought. Flying a kite is fun but not THAT fun.

Or is it? I must make mention of the last time I flew a kite. It was this summer in Tennessee. My mother suggested we take the kite with us on the boat, so we could fly it as we cruised the lake. Cool, I said, more in an effort to please her. Who flies kites, anyway? I'm not against activities that are deemed "childish" by any means -- I spend a large part of my life trying to consciously incorporate play and childlike wonder into my days -- but a kite? Pssh.

Once we got going on the boat, out came the kite -- a bizarre purple octopus with plenty of tentacles to put on display in the airborne mating ritual. I stood toward the back, tasked with  getting it waytheheckupthere. The wispy, purple octopus that had lain quiet and neatly folded in its packaging only moments before was now a wild animal, tormented and struggling and whipping against the gusts and curls and updrafts as it fought its way higher.

I let out more string. I watched it fly higher. I let out more string. Higher still. And then came the point when I realized...holy crap, this is THRILLING.

I never wanted to stop flying that kite. I don't know WHY flying a kite is so fun. But there is something entrancing, mesmerizing and otherwise holy about the endeavor.

Some of the thoughts that crossed my mind as Octokite roamed free: Oh my god, look at how high it is! This is so cool! Wow, it's beautiful. It's a dancing octopus in the sky. LOOK, IT'S EVEN HIGHER NOW!! This string is really tight, I wonder how high I can get it. What if it goes into outer space? What is the Octokite seeing up there? When it comes down, will it have PTSD? Can you use a kite more than once? Why is this so goddamn fun? SERIOUSLY LOOK HOW HIGH UP THIS THING IS.

Look at that freakin' kite!

We took turns holding Octokite as it struggled to free itself from our grip. We held fast. It continued following us as we zoomed across the lake. Finally, we reeled it in, and the unwavering black smile of the octopus was still there, a silent witness to the joys and secrets of the stratospheric experience, tentacles weathered but accounted for.

So, back to the boys across the street. They've been flying kites everyday, for hours each day, without fail. Even as I reflected upon my newfound-but-forgotten appreciation for kite-flying, I continue to ask myself -- What the hell with so much kite flying?

I mentioned the borderline obsessive past time of the Chilean youth to my boyfriend the other day. He responded casually--as though it were common knowledge, come on, you gringa--that September is Kite Month in Chile. Everyone flies kites, or volantines, during September. It's classically breezy in September! Come on. Go fly a kite. Or volantin in this case.

September also coincides with another important tradition in Chile -- the fiestas patrias, or patriotic holidays. Two important events occurs during September, apart from the historically-perfect kite flying weather: the anniversary of the famous coup of September 11th, 1973, in which former socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown (giving way to the Pinochet regime), and September 18th, Independence Day (Chile broke from Spain on this day in 1810).

Between the breezes, the political history and the patriotism, the month of September is burbling with activity. Most Americans are familiar with stores decorating well in advance for the 4th of July, or Christmas, or Fall In General or what have you, but our celebrations tend to be limited to observing the day itself, and then perhaps additional celebrations the following weekend once work has ended for the week.

Not here. Daily operations came to a grinding halt at 7pm on Tuesday, September 17th. The majority of the city has been closed since. It's Saturday, September 21st, as a reminder -- that's four days of public quiet, shuttered storefronts and very minimal pedestrians on the streets of Valparaiso. That's some serious reverence.

But that's not all. The public rest might have started on Tuesday at 7pm, but the celebrating started at the beginning of the month. There has been an unusual (almost worrying, really) amount  of asado scents wafting in the breeze, frequent gatherings overheard from neighbors, more dissonance than usual in public spaces, a huge amount of patriotic decorations littering the steeets, and plenty of excuses to get really drunk and really full.

Wait -- did you think that was all? Not only does September herald important political and patriotic observances, it also means SPRING IS COMING! It's the societal thaw; September is here, winter is over, let's get this crap started right by celebrating for a full month.

Jorge and I were wandering the streets on the 18th, discovering new areas and views near our new neighborhood, and we crossed an uncountable number of asados taking place on the sidewalks. It's probably not a surprise to anyone that during our walk we decided to go home and have our own asado because, like, we totally can do that whenever we want now, and as we headed back to the Homestead, we crossed what appeared to be a very heated kite-flying competition. It made us stop in our tracks -- the kites were so, so, so high, just tiny squares of Chilean-flag decorated paper. One climbed higher, the other dipped sharply, then the first one lost its lead while the second soared upward on a fierce gust. Grown men hooted and hollered in the streets -- one grandpa exited his house, wearing white socks in the gritty Valpo streets, carrying a grandbaby in his arms as he cheered on the unseen kite-fliers.

A poor representation of the kite excitement.
The dog watches the spectacle, unamused.

As a foreign observer/peripheral participant in these happenings, I must say that I admire the dedication to patriotic celebrations. It's no secret here that the Pinochet dictatorship left an indelible mark on Chilean history and society. What the older generations lived through - and those that are still around to talk about it -- betray the fact that the wound is still there, healing but still aching. 40 years have passed since the coup, but this is a tender scar on the surface of daily life.. Conversations about living through the dictatorship with those of my parent's age is always fascinating, educational and extremely sad. 

The volantines, at least to my wandering and dreamy eye, serve as a potent and visible reminder of the freedoms post-Pinochet. The citizens are able to soar free, at least compared to prior times, and there is now far more energy, far more breathless hopefulness, than in recent history. Just as children and grown men crowd around to see how high the kite might go, who might win, will the cord break, will it get caught in a tree, will the octopus suffer PTSD, I feel that Chileans are able to turn that breathless, hopeful eye toward the future when before that was only a wild, and potentially dangerous, fantasy. Armed with memory, respect and forward motion, Chile is a symbolic volantin that has the potential to soar high, higher than what was believed even 30 or 40 years ago. 

Once again, I must remind you readers that I am by no means a political expert, nor an apt judge of economic/governmental/cultural conditions. I'm just a writer living in Valpo, inhaling culture and sights and experiences and exhaling personal perspective. 

And beyond that, I'm sincerely curious to know how long it will be before these boys get sick of flying these kites everyday for multiple hours (seriously, don't they go to school or something?!). 

My beloved Valpo! You're so picturesque n' stuff. 

Read more about the Chilean 9/11 Anniversary here: Chile's 9/11: Survivors recall horrors of Pinochet coup, 40 years on

An article highlighting the various current-day opinions on Pinochet's reign: Chile still split over Gen Augusto Pinochet legacy

1 comment:

  1. Forty years ago at a field day for Amateur Radio in June one of our antenna was a wire with a kite on the end of it. While it was up in the air and hooked to our radios it worked like gangbusters. Sometimes things are not as they seem!!