Fall Becomes Winter in Chile

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You only know a city if you've seen it change.

Cities change like any living organism. For the change to be welcome and invigorating — and not jarring — it needs to happen at a pace that allows you to witness and process it and yet through it all still feel like most of what's around you is familiar.

This is what is happening to me in Santiago. Most things feel the same. The same panhandlers in the same places. Same metro stops, same doormen, same American 80's music played at the supermarket. There are churrascos, empanadas, sopaipillas, jugos naturales. The mountains still envelop the city on a clear day.

But there is just enough change that I cannot forget this is a city with a pulse in a part of the world with four seasons. When I arrived in November I lived in shorts and sandals and sat at my desk shirtless. A good Saturday would be ice cream in Plaza de Armas in the sun, followed by lying around Parque Santa Lucia watching the stray dogs wander about, and perhaps a McPollo at McDonald's before las once. Campaign ads for Frei and Piñera and Marco covered the streets. My go-to lunch placed served a good menú ejecutivo for 2,200 pesos.

Now the shorts are gone and sweatpants in. It's too cold to sit outside for long periods of time. Many dogs, even the homeless ones, wear sweaters, which is cute. Piñera is president. The lunch place has raised their price to 2,600 pesos so I've found a new joint. McDonald's is now advertising the Big Mac not the McPollo.

The "Earthquake of February 27th" doesn't dominate the news, and the cars no longer have spray painted patriotic messages of "¡Fuerza Chile!" as was the case in the weeks after the quake. Chile's spot in the international news scene came and went in about a week's time. It's back to being that long skinny country in South America that makes wine.

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I still learn new things about this culture almost every day.

I learn about maids / cleaning ladies. Everybody has maids. Even poor college kids. The maid comes once or twice a week for a full day even if your tiny apartment could be cleaned in two hours. She cooks and washes your clothes. My gym has two full-time maids who clean and clean and clean the same floor over and over. A combination of cheap labor and culture? I hear it's this way throughout Latin America.

I learn about how small this country is. 16 million people in total! I feel like every other person I talk to knows the President personally.

I learn that general low trust among the people manifests in different ways. Every house is behind a gate or fence. Nobody moves to the center of the train on the subway. Landlords prefer to rent to foreigners.

I learn that Chile is both modern and advanced (the most competitive economy in the region) but also backwards. It has the lowest percentage of women in the workforce of any Latin America country — 48%. Abortion remains illegal. As says the guidebook cliche for virtually every country in the world: "It's a fascinating contrast of old and new."

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I'm sitting in a hotel room in La Serena on a mini-vacation, in norte chico, about 5.5 hours north of Santiago. Tyler Cowen told me before I left that he was in La Serena 20 years ago and it was a very nice town. It's true. I'm now experiencing a weird kind of flash-forward nostalgia, envisioning the day when I tell someone that I visited La Serena 20 years ago and that it was a very nice town.

I leave Chile at the end of July and I'm already getting wistful.

The Atacama Desert

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Last week I spent five nights in the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile. It is beautiful, remote, relaxing, and very much worth visiting during a trip to the southern cone.

Atacama is the driest desert in the world. In some parts, there has been no recorded rainfall since recording began. It looks and feels like a bigger, grander, sandier version of the Grand Canyon and Utah canyons, though grander only by a bit.

The town of San Pedro was erected in the middle of the desert to service tourists. It's not as cheesy a town as it could be, and does a nice job providing basic infrastructure and tours to see the desert, canyons, and sand mountains. The food in San Pedro was surprisingly good. There were many excellent menús to choose from — the set, three course meals is how you eat well and cheaply in Chile (and all of Latin America).

There are three main tours to do in Atacama. Two involve early wake-ups (4 and 6 AM, respectively) which ruled them out for us. That left an afternoon hiking tour through a moon-like landscape followed by a view of the sun setting behind mountains way out in the distance. We watched it perched on a top of a rock formation. Beautiful. The rest of the time we lounged around the hotel pool and enjoyed the still, dry desert air.

The most annoying part of San Pedro is the stray dogs. They sleep by day, and wander the streets by night. They bark and growl and make so much noise that they keep you up at night, even if your hotel is far away. Mostly, it's rape. Male dogs pinning female dogs and trying to have their way. Yelps and barks ensue. I know: I saw this happen more than once up-close. Why don't poor countries more aggressively neuter dogs?

My friend Steve Dodson visited Chile for a couple weeks and we went up there together. After our epic swing through Argentina last summer, a reunion was in order. We had a blast. We chatted for several hours each day, sometimes shooting the shit, sometimes discussing a set topic around which there was structure. About a fourth of the time we discussed relationships (generally), a fourth on business / entrepreneurship / finance, a fourth blogging / information diet, and a fourth other stuff. Thanks to our conversations I must issue a retroactive and prospective hat tip to Steve for helping me think through a handful of blog posts.

I recommend visiting the Atacama Desert on your trip to Chile. A good southern cone trip would involve visiting B.A., Valparaiso, Atacama, Iguazu Falls, and Patagonia if you have time / money. Don't forget little Uruguay, too.

This Week’s Newsweek

There are four articles of note in the latest Newsweek magazine.

1. I wrote a brief personal piece on Chile. I mention other natural disasters that preceded Chile and conclude:

The anonymity then of death tolls, my lack of proximity, and the fact that I wasn't sending or receiving "Are you OK?" e-mails made it easy to think in broad, analytical strokes. But now I'm thinking about people, places, and details. I'm trying to track down friends I haven't heard from, and I'm afraid of what I might find out. I have images of driving on roads and bridges that are now destroyed. When I saw footage of looters ravaging supermarkets during other disasters, I blindly condemned them; I thought, how could this be all right? Now I'm deeply conflicted watching interviews with old Chilean women emerging from broken supermarkets, dodging tear gas, and shrieking into the camera, "I don't have water, I don't have food—what do you expect me to do?" The lessons I'm learning are not necessarily intellectual or academic; they are about empathy.

A few days after the quake, I ate dinner at my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, just down the street from my apartment. For the first time, my usual waiter initiated a conversation with me. He asked how I was doing and how I was feeling in light of all that had happened. Normally he doesn't bother trying to decipher the broken Spanish of a gringo. But the bond of our shared experience—for the moment, anyway—transcended language barriers. We all know the clichés: common challenges unite uncommon people; humanity knows no borders, etc., etc. But those maxims really do come to life when life itself is at its most tenuous.

2. Jacob Weisberg takes Obama to task for his vague "it's not the size of government that matters, but whether it works" mantra. Size matters.

3. Robert Samuelson wonders when Millennials will wake up and smell the coffee about the dismal economic situation they are inheriting. Will there be a generational revolt against the Baby Boomers who left us holding the bill? I'm thinking of Buckley's Boomsday.

4. The cover piece is about why bad teachers need to be fired from schools. Aka: Teachers unions are as selfish and reckless as ever. Kind of old news by now….

Pick up the issue at newsstands everywhere!

Update from Chile

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Folks, we will return to regular programming here soon, and I want to talk at some point about the Chile situation more broadly, but let me quickly address some issues as the day-to-day developments unfold:

1. I want to stress the vast differences in conditions that exist right now within the country. If you walked down Av. Providencia in Santiago you would be hard-pressed to see that anything had happened. There's utter normalcy. To be sure, some sidewalks are portioned off with caution tape, some buildings have visible damage, and my local supermarket is essentially empty. But on the whole I view Santiago as more or less back to normal. I am totally safe and have access to food, water, internet, power, etc.

2. What are you seeing on TV are images of Concepción, the largest city near the epicenter. It's about 350 miles south of Santiago. The situation in Concepción is deteriorating. Citizens have taken up arms to protect themselves and their stores from looters. My understanding is that most people still do not have access to water, food, power, etc. The Army is running the city, certain constitutional guarantees have been suspended, and as of yesterday there was an 8 PM to 12 noon curfew in place. Yesterday I was in a cafe eating a churrasco and all of us sitting there were watching footage from Concepción and thinking, "Is that a different country?"

3. In the view of several commentators here the government deployed military assets too late. Tanks began rolling into Concepción late Sunday night, nearly 48 hours after the first quake. By the time troops had arrived, chaos had already gripped the city. The government also stupidly advised citizens near the coast to return home after the quake; fortunately the people knew better as a tsunami came shortly thereafter and caused more damage. There have been other complaints about government's ineptitude. This will be clearer in time.

4. The damage and loss of life will not rival the situation in Haiti. Not even close. I have had some awkward conversations with people who are uncertain about how they should think about Chile vis-a-vis Haiti. Haiti is worse and needs more help. That said, most of us don't volunteer or give to charity based on greatest need — we do so for selfish reasons. I have spent no time personally trying to help Haiti. I have donated no money. I have, by contrast, both invested a lot of time in the Chile situation and donated money to relief efforts. I have obvious emotional interests in Chile.

5. Chile does need help. It is now asking for international aid and receiving it. It's up to each person to decide if and how they want to help. If you want to donate money specifically to Chile relief, I recommend this reputable organization. If you speak Spanish I would also recommend Un Techo Para Chile.

6. The best news coverage is in Spanish. Try La Tercera.

7. I appeared by video Skype on the CBS Early Show yesterday morning and talked Chile for a minute or so. Embed below.

Experiencing the 8.8 Earthquake in Chile

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This is a blow-by-blow dispatch of my Saturday. In subsequent posts I will offer a more analytical take on everything. Photos are from this incredible set of images on Boston.com of devastation in Chile.

At 1:45 AM on Saturday, February 27th, I slunk into bed. It had been a loud night. My neighbors had hosted a raucous birthday party which called for several renditions of Feliz Cumpleaños and various dance songs. Despite the noise, I actually enjoyed the festive atmosphere. Before turning out the light I read Isabel Allende's latest book, My Invented Country, a memoir about her growing up in Chile and eventually re-settling in California. She discusses the similarities of the two places. I read until 2:20 AM and then turned off the light and fell fast asleep with my windows open and the summer Santiago air breezing over me.

At 3:34 AM I awoke to my entire apartment shaking violently. My bed creaked and I heard a vase of flowers in my kitchen fall over. I did not mentally process or consciously think of anything, not even "earthquake," but I had an instinct to walk over to my desk and grab my laptop. [I'm not what it says that my first thought was to protect my laptop, but there you go.] Propped up on a stand I feared it would fall over the desk and break, and indeed it was going to do so shortly had I not grabbed it. I stood clutching my laptop. A sliding French style door that separates my living room / desk area from bedroom moved and hit me, so I backed up and leaned against the wall for support. The shaking continued for a bit more time and then stopped and everything was silent and dark. The power had gone out in my building so all white noise and power lights: gone. I heard no screams or sounds or anything. Just total black silence.

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I put my laptop on the floor and got back into bed. The utter silence and stillness made it easy to fall asleep, and I suspect I was snoring away by 4 AM. Not long after, I awoke to shaking. This time it felt even more intense though technically reports show it was *only* a 6.3 size quake. My bed really rocked and seconds later I heard sirens outside. My power was still out. This is when I started getting scared.

After the second major aftershock ended, there was a joyous albeit brief stretch of stillness, and I heard my neighbor say, Gracias por Dios, Gracias por Dios. Then it started again. My bed gently rolled back and forth seemingly without stop, like I was in a boat on an ocean. I convinced myself my mind was playing tricks on me. Seriously. I pulled the sheets over me and tried to go back to sleep. But the sirens were non-stop.

I gave up on sleep and waited for my power to come back on. By 8 AM my power was on but internet down. I watched the local news reports about the earthquake. CNN was broadcasting exclusively Chile quake coverage. I realized this was going to be an international news story and that I needed to communicate my status to friends and family.

At 9 AM I walked out of my building in Providencia with my laptop searching for a free wi-fi signal. There was rubble and broken glass on every street but I did not see any major building damage. In an alleyway behind my street I found a free "dlink" network with a weak but working signal. My inbox showed a dozen "Are you OK?" notes — I would receive about 200 of those emails throughout the course of the day. I fired off some "Yes I'm fine" emails and then posted my first tweet of the day: "Friends, thanks for all your notes. I am safe in Santiago. It was a terrifying night. I am happy to be alive. More updates later."

Throughout the day I used Twitter to post updates. There are few English language people in Chile posting updates, including official journalists. The BBC has always been understaffed in Latin America. The New York Times' coverage was and continues to be astonishingly bad (they're still filing from Rio de Janeiro). LA Times is filing from Bogota. As a result, my tweets got picked up by lots of media outlets who asked if I could comment on the on-the-ground situation. I did interviews with the AP, BBC, and a live video interview with CNN in the afternoon. My main goal in the interviews was to dilute some of the usual media hysteria over natural disasters: most of the country has power, I said, most of the telecom is working, there is no looting, etc.

In the late afternoon, I walked around my neighborhood a bit more. The sky was a gray haze from a supposed chemical fire that had started downtown. Nevertheless, I was amazed at the tranquility of Santiago. Public buses full of people passed by. Cars drove calmly. People chatting on the streets. I ate dinner at my favorite local restaurant and it was full of people. Much of the rubble and glass I had seen earlier had already been picked up. The scene was such a contrast from the images on TV. I know what I saw was a million times better than what the scene is like more north in Santiago, or especially in Concepción and along the coast. Still it's a reminder that it's hard to generalize about a situation in an entire country, let alone in one city.

I went to bed at 9 PM having not slept since 4 AM. I wondered whether my bed would start to shake. It didn't. All was calm. I fell into a dreamless sleep.

I was woken at around 8:25 AM Sunday morning to another vigorous aftershock. According to one count, the 67th aftershock since the first nearly 24 hours earlier.

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