A third-culture kid (TCK / 3CK) or trans-culture kid is "someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more cultures other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture."


Sunday, May 29, 2011

New Zealand - Beyond Auckland

Outside Auckland, the countryside reminded me mostly of Ontario. While I sat in the back of the car, the road ahead resembled the 401 section between Ottawa and Toronto, with trees, grass and a rare house or two seemed the only distractions. All there really was to see as a passenger was nature in its truest form, as even passing traffic was uncommon. We were fortunate to have a nice sunny day, a welcome change from the South Pacific drizzle we had endured for most of the trip. The weather was enjoyable as it was the beginning of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The climate was similar to Santiago, in other words, warm enough for t-shirts during the daytime. The stretch of road had few rest stops with picnic areas or service centres. Gas stations seemed to be primarily off the main road in villages we passed by bearing local native language names. From time to time, we passed urban areas with familiar names from our Ontario trips, such as the towns of Hamilton and Cambridge. How many countries and regions where the predominant language is English have a Hamilton, Cambridge or Kingston? I guess the settlers started this trend to combat home sickness. After all, it was a long trip back to the British Isles from Down Under. A few minutes south of Cambridge, New Zealand, we approached our first checkpoint: The Waitomo Glowworm Caves.

The glowworms in their natural habitat

After about two and half hours on the holiday road, we arrived in Waitomo. It was an absolutely fantastic natural paradise. The entrance to the caves was on top of a hill, where a modern visitor centre was located. The tickets included a guide, a clause that could not be waived. The park's administration needed to control the number of visitors inside the caves to protect the internal environment. People breathe out carbon dioxide and since there are no plants to transform this gas to oxygen, large groups could potentially endanger the habitat for life forms deep in the darkness. The tour begins with a descent into an intricate network of limestone caves formed over 30 million years. The limestone contained fossilized corals, sea shells, fish skeletons and other marine organisms. Stalactites and stalagmites came into being through water dripping from the ceiling or flowing over the walls leaving behind deposits. These cave decorations take millions of years to form and provide a precious glow when in contact with interior lighting. This area was named The Cathedral. Afterwards, we boarded a small boat for the following part of the visit. While we lined up, the guide explained everyone had to remain quiet and refrain from any photography. We were going to see the glowworms and any noise or camera flash could fatally frighten them. I remember my father telling Brian and I: "I wonder what happens if you fart." After that comment it was difficult for Brian and I to remain quiet but we managed. The glowworms were amazing! They seemed to mimic glowing party strings dangling from the ceiling and illuminated the entire cave.

Afterwards, we headed one hour and a half eastward, to the village of Rotorua, in Bay of Plenty. This region began a transformation into a spa destination in the early 1880s, drawing in visitors from all corners of the island. The settlement sits in the heart of the North Island, meaning it is as easily accessible to New Zealanders in the surrounding urban areas of Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington. The tourism industry is still the largest source of employment in the district, attracting visitors from far and wide interested in the regional geothermal activity, specifically the numerous geysers and bubbling hot mud pools. Visitors can dip their feet only in designated pools where the human body can tolerate the temperature. The bodies of water can get particularly warm, as the water is heated by magma underground. Geysers are springs characterized by intermittent discharges of water ejected several feet up in the air followed shortly after by a light vapour cloud. These are formed through particular hydrogeological conditions which are rare on our planet explaining why this phenomenon does not occur in many places on our wonderful planet. Generally these fields develop near volcanic areas or areas prone to violent earthquakes. Feel free to visit http://www.geonet.org.nz/ where you can see the seismic activity updates to the minute, and it will be easy to see how frequently earthquakes occur in New Zealand. Most of the area was engulfed in an unpleasant yet familiar sulphur smell - resembling the stench of rotten eggs - leading the city to have earned the nicknames of Sulphur City or Rotten-Rua.

Whakarewarewa is a protected area within the city of Rotorua in the Taupo Volcanic Zone in New Zealand. Remnants of the Maori fortress remain when it was first occupied in the 1300. The aboriginal definition of the name means a gathering place for the war parties of Wahiao. The Māori occupied the fortress for several years, never losing it during a battle. They peacefully moved out of the settlement opting to relocate in search of lucrative opportunities in the bigger cities. They had mastered the geothermal activity in their valley using it as a source for heating their homes and cooking their meals. The Pohutu Geyser in the settlement means explosion and can spray up to a height of 30 m. The park itself holds several hundred mud pools and slightly under 10 active geysers to explore. Architectural structures are limited to a typical gate with a triangular top finish leading to a longhouse. The longhouses generally served as a city hall or town assembly where people would gather for community activities. There were no shows or locals wearing the traditional outfits, perhaps due to the time of the season we were visiting. We were disappointed as we thought that there would have been more opportunities in Whakarewarewa to encounter demonstrations of ancient traditions and learning more about the proud heritage of the natives. Nevertheless, the overall natural beauty throughout the North Island gave us a craving for Wellington and the South Island. Unfortunately, we would have to keep that interest in our future trips as we were already scheduled to leave New Zealand to return to our normal lives and routines.

Maman, Brian and I at the gate to Whakarewarewa

Relations between the European settlers and Māori groups had gone through highs and lows. As mentioned in my previous blog entry, it was only until the 20th century where a greater awareness had emerged of a Māori identity. Prior to these years, their identity and culture had taken a back seat in the local way of life. Aboriginal groups struggled to engage the federal government through legal processes in order to protect and increase their standing in a wider New Zealand society. Their efforts were in fact successful to the point they became incorporated into the national image. They migrated from their original settlements toward larger rural townships and cities following the World Wars in search of opportunities for employment. This exodus contributed to the adoption of a more metropolitan culture and a disconnection from their traditional social controls and tribal homelands. Their standards of living and quality of life improved, granting them access to healthcare, income, skilled employment and access to higher education. The Māori participate in all spheres of New Zealand culture and society, leading Western lifestyle and maintaining of their own cultural and social customs that survived the arrival of the Europeans. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

New Zealand - The Bickfords Down Under

New Zealand was the final leg of our Polynesian journey. After yet another lengthy flight - on this occasion across the international date line - we were greeted by a friendly customs officer at Auckland International Airport. The public servant charmed us through his welcoming behaviour, a feeling quite similar to arriving at Pearson airport in Toronto in the early 1990s. Our Canadian counterpart have veered far away from this mindset, preferring a more intrusive and suspecting stance upon welcoming Canadian passport holders into their own country. We proceeded afterwards to the car rental counter where once more the service was friendly, timely and efficient. Before we knew it, we were in the parking lot in front of our rental that would play an integral role for the duration of our trip. We loaded the car with our belongings and assumed our regular positions. My mom and I opened the back doors and settled in while Dad and Brian made their way to the front seats. My father realized he was sitting behind the dashboard and my brother had an unfamiliar steering wheel staring back at him. We shared a good laugh as we noticed our Kiwi friends had adopted British driving standards and regulations. Few countries in the world followed this trend and it was the first time we encountered this curious system. My Dad switched over to his more familiar position, yet this time on the right side, driving us out of the parking lot and into the parkway leading to the city. Before even merging into the motorway, we were warned by an alarming honk and a Mick Dundee-like "You're on the wrong side of the road, mate!". My Dad readjusted his bearings while the rest of us caught our breath, and maneuvered nervously following the local traffic flow toward the city.

Maman, Brian and I at the Auckland Zoo
Our first day in Auckland was primarily a period of adaptation to our new time zone helping counteract serious jet-lag. We checked-in to our hotel situated conveniently nearby the central business district. This city is the business powerhouse driving the national economy, representing approximately one third of the population. It houses the largest concentration of Polynesians, known as Māori, accounting for 20,000 of the 1.3 million inhabitants. Life in the metropolitan area seemed to run smoothly through clean and quiet streets, especially in comparison to other cities I had the privilege to live in. This was particularly useful for us as we wanted to maximize the time we had to see as much as we could. Many of the road and park signs were both in English and Māori. The government of New Zealand had pushed for legislation protecting the local culture and language in the mid 1980s to preserve the rich aboriginal history. We reached Hobson Bay in the afternoon, east of the downtown core, to visit Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World, the brainchild of a famous Kiwi diver and marine explorer bearing the same name. The aquarium is adjacent to the coast and as visitors enter, they descend into the underwater level through escalators. Upon reaching the lower levels, all that separates people from the sea are networks of large glass tubes and domes. People are transported on conveyor belts sliding through the tubes allowing them to watch the animals as they stand still. There were not many places to stop and admire a specific exhibit, but in case the desire to see more of the wildlife was not fulfilled, people were allowed to go through the circuit as many times as they pleased. We did so for about three complete circles as we enjoyed the novelty of the experience.

The city itself portrayed a fine blend between colonial buildings, such as the old government house near Auckland University and modern architectural office towers. Much of the cityscape resembled North American urban centres preserving little structural memory of the aboriginal past and a growing desire to live in suburbia. Even some historic buildings are demolished to pave the way for progress. The Victoria Park Flea Market had a classic exterior facade yet the inside resembled a modern shopping centre. This wonderful place offered many interesting souvenirs for tourists which could not be found elsewhere in the country. One of my favourite memories during our window shopping included a store with all sorts of fun memorabilia. Among these was an unforgettable t-shirt starring a caricature of a sheep smiling and holding his back to the observer while a yellow stream filled a bottle. The caption read as follows: "Australian beer." I figured from that comedic depiction that the Kiwis and the Aussies had some sort of rivalry. We purchased more discrete shirts in a dark blue with "New Zealand" written in large red characters and below, the national flag. Following proper diplomatic fashion, it was better to remain on the fence in regards to international rivalries and buy a decent t-shirt. The store also stocked key chains, figurines, pencil erasers, each with their national emblem the Kiwi bird. This is a symbol of national identity, such as the beaver for Canadians, the bald eagle for Americans, or the condor for many of the Andean people. Even the local MacDonald's restaurants displayed a small yellow Kiwi bird below the iconic golden arches to give the franchise a more local appeal. The menu included a KiwiBurger consisting of the classic beef patty, egg, beetroot, tomato, lettuce, cheese, onions, tomato sauce and mustard on a toasted bun. The ingredients did not entice any of us enough to actually taste one.

In the evening we returned to our hotel. It was a common cultural custom for locals to organize an orientation to welcome their foreign guests. The hotel administration honoured this inviting all new arrivals to partake in a group dinner in their conference room. A spokesperson for the hotel opened the ceremonies in front of an international carnival of cultures, armed with his microphone. He briefly explained his duties with the hotel and spent the remainder of his monologue imparting his knowledge on local customs, traditions and history. My family and I had so far witnessed much of the European - specifically English - heritage throughout the island and far too little to our liking of the aboriginal culture. As we patiently indulged our host and most of us moved on to desert, he proceeded to introduce the evening show: a group of Māori men and women wearing their traditional outfits and their many tattoos. They were going to perform their dances, including the world known haka (ha meaning fire and ka breath). This is a posture dance with vigorous movements, stamping with great might and loud tribal chanting. Some say the haka was intended to bring unison to the Māori warriors on the battlefield and intimidate their rivals. Common facial expressions include widely open eyes and sticking the tongue out as much as possible. Part of the explanation proposed that the warriors would make their opponents feel as if the Māori would eat them alive. I remember one of the entertainers mentioned in his curious accent: "To us, the ugliest man is handsome." This person is blessed with the looks to be potentially the most feared warrior which makes of them the most respected member of the tribe. Variations of this traditional dance are adapted for welcoming guests, summer, winter and in competitions where the All Blacks Rugby before kick-off. They closed the show by asking their audience if anyone had a birthday. Afterwards, they comically announced they would perform the Māori birthday song, which was exactly the same. The audience responded in a friendly laughter.

One Tree Hill, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants

The next days we spent in Auckland provided the opportunity to stand on One Tree Hill, a great place for an outstanding panoramic view of the city and both of its harbours. This hill had served as a strategic fort (locally known as pã) for the Māori to defend against pirate raids, allowing them to control east-west trading. For many years, the hill did in fact only possess one single tree on its highest point and the aboriginals considered it sacred. The tree was eventually chopped down by an English settler, some say in an act of vandalism and others in an attempt to innocently gather firewood. Regardless, the tree was replaced on the summit by an obelisk where Sir John Logan Campbell, the father of Auckland is burried. It symbolizes his admiration for the indigenous people, explaining the bronze Māori warrior placed on the monument. It was erected in 1940 commemorating the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Representatives of the British Crown and Māori leaders agreed on establishing a British Governor, recognizing Māori land ownership and extending them the rights of British subjects. It was officially inaugurated in 1948, as the government respected the aboriginal tradition of not holding celebrations in times of bloodshed. The native presence in the metropolitan area appeared to have been reduced to names of suburbs, primarily showing a dominance of British and European influence. We were determined to make our way out of the city in the days that followed to tour the rest of the northern island in search of the tribal past and their settlements.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tahiti - Closed During the Typhoon

The Pacific Ocean holds isolated islands created over centuries by Mother Nature through volcanic eruptions. Among these is the tropical paradise called Tahiti, our second destination on our Polynesian adventure. The international airport served as our port of entry after a long flight from Hanga Roa. The flight was entertaining as we were accompanied for the second time by the Mambo Kings, our in-flight movie. Tahiti is the administrative centre of the French Outremers territory of the Windward Islands. This archipelago is known for is unique black sand beaches and small yet mountainous landscapes. The first settlers were Polynesian, arriving to the region around 300 AD and their ancient architectural style can be admired throughout the land including in their capital city, Papeete. Approximately 70% of the total population are indigenous and the remaining proportion are Chinese, Europeans or mixed, locally knows as demis. Tahiti was proclaimed French territory in 1880 and as a consequence, the only official language is French. Nevertheless, the native language Reo Tahiti was widely spoken by the majority of the locals. Tahiti is located 4,400 km (2,734.03 mi) south of Hawai'i, 7,900 km (4,908.83 mi) west of Chile and 5,700 km (3,541.82 mi) east of Australia. The island is encircled by a main road circling the high mountains dressed in a dense rainforest on one side and the breathtaking coastline on the other. The weather does not vary much throughout the year and seasons are determined by dry or rainy. The next few days we were spending on the remote island were during the wet season.

Le Truck, Tahitian public transport

As we sat the next morning for breakfast before beginning our action-packed Tahitian vacation, we were greeted by a wet, windy and gray morning. As we slept in our comfortable beds on our first night in Papeete, a tropical storm had settled over the island leading to a major shut down of paradise. Shops, plantations, air traffic, and to our dismay, ferries were all closed. We were scheduled to make our way across to Moorea, only 9 km northwest aboard a colourful boat which had been cancelled until the typhoon would pass. My father did not lose hope and had us running around the island in search of boats, planes or any other form of transportation to get across the bay. Even a simple fishing boat with an ambitious captain could have aided us in our life threatening trek. Money did not seem to hold the same type of motivation as in other places. This was admirable but very counter-productive for us and my father would not give up even after exhausting all options. I am sure if we did not have luggage to take across, he would have given more thought to swimming 9 km to reach Moorea. After several hours of every locals telling us "Be careful, there is a typhoon!", my Dad realized he had to give up. I noticed how hard that was on him, yet the rest of us had long given up, trusting the Tahitian knowledge of the ocean and weather. We were so close yet so far. I remember my Dad signaling to an island off the port telling us that is where we had to go. How frustrating can it be to see your goal with no way to achieve it. Everything happens for a reason, and in that case it certainly worked in our favour. These storms can last a few days and the only news reports we were able to obtain mentioned our Moorea hotel, a quaint place built on stilts, had been washed away into the deep blue sea.

As we were marooned on the island, we decided to make the best out of a bad situation. We had already seen quite a bit of the waterfront during our quest for transportation, where some lovely hotels and shops were closed due to the typhoon. It was not a day to board a cruise ship either and I did not envy anyone teetering somewhere in the ocean with the high winds and waves dictating every movement. Land was definitely the place to be. We found a small grocery store where we were able to buy delicious French style sandwiches, the famous Croc Monsieur¸ which probably tasted amazing due to the fact we had even found it difficult to find an open restaurant. We figured that by having a nice lunch we could kill some time, as we had plenty to spare, but even this proved a difficult feat. Another place that seemed to be one of the few open for business was a movie theatre. None of the local movies were screening (probably not a large film community there) and we had no problem getting tickets for one called Navy Seals. I suppose the age ratings were of little importance as the selection was not exactly plentiful and neither was the audience. The ambience was similar to Cape Fear where a family is watching a movie and the only company they had was Robert De Niro and his cigar. Navy Seals starred Charlie Sheen, the leader of an elite strike force fighting through all sorts of adverse weather conditions to conduct some covert operation in the Middle East. As we watched the movie, we developed an empathy for the heroes as we were stuck on the island due to conditions they were fighting, except for the guns blazing, kodiac speedboats and an enemy to eliminate. The movie had only taken away about an hour and half. Afterwards, we took a ride on the local bus, also known as Le Truck, a clean, respectful and friendly service. We had asked the lady driving the bus how close could she get us to the hotel, and as we were the last passengers to get off, she dropped us at the front door of lobby. People there were very helpful, compassionate and seemed to go out of their way to be nice to others. I suppose many knew one another and this allowed for a friendlier community, rather than the big cities of the world where everyone seems to be rushed or worried about status determining who they can mingle with. This behaviour did not compute among the locals.

On our next morning, still no sign of the bad weather clearing up. Moorea seemed more and more like a lost cause. As we had our continental breakfast, my father was devising a plan for the day. Each time my father seemed to realize Moorea was just not going to happen, there seemed to be more of an absence in his contributions to the topics of discussion accompanied with a certain frustration. He decided we would rent a car to drive around Tahiti. The rental was incredibly useful to make our way to the Botanical Gardens. We thought it would be amazing to see the local nature up close and personal. After all, the land seemed to be extremely tropical, something we did not have back in Chile. As we parked at the entrance to the gardens, we were turned away by a sign posted up announcing the park was closed as well due to the typhoon. We began to wonder if this was just an excuse for people to take an additional day off, blaming everything on the weather. We would have to make our way somewhere else. My mother was an extremely great painter and had the chance to paint marvelous landscapes during our Venezuela posting, so she continued when she had the spare time in Chile. As an artist and a Frenchwoman, there was a specific treasure for her in Tahiti. Our next stop was the Paul Gaugin gallery. As we sat in the car wondering if the gallery would be closed due to the Typhoon as well, Maman must have been imagining the artwork she was about to see. Gaugin was born in Paris, France, in the mid 1800s, and he was known as a leading post-impressionist painter. He had spent several years in French Polynesia, depicting the Tahitian people through his own style. He seemed to be enamoured with the culture and eventually died somewhere in the colonies. The place was actually open to our surprise, but my mom seemed to be disappointed that the pieces in the gallery were all copies from the originals. We were all happy to have found a place open. We also learned the local phrase "Vahini raki raki" which simply put means ugly girl. This was the title of one of Gaugin's paintings.

Maman, Brian and I with some Polynesian architecture in the background

One of the fondest memories I keep of this trip was after the museum, on our drive back to Papeete to complete the full circle, a brief stop on the side of the road. On the right side of the road, we had the drizzly gray coast line with the waves smashing in, and to the left, a cliff with a small hole in the ditch next to the road. This was my father's treasure. When the waves crash in to the coast, they are in fact colliding with a system of holes and caves in the coast. Volcanic rock looks like a piece of Swiss cheese (similar to the cartoon cheeses full of holes) and if the perforations provide appropriate conditions for matter to find a way through, there is an exertion of mist upon exiting through the other side. The force behind each wave created pressure bursts and a drum-like sound which we were able to examine up close. This was The Blow Hole (in upper case letters due to the importance for my Dad). The sprays were in continuous harmony with the ocean tide, something that seemed to excite my father every time. He wanted to document this finding on his camera. He instructed Brian and I to pose around it as living proof the Bickford’s had encountered the glorious Blow Hole. My brother and I had regretfully declined his invitation as we did not want to get sprayed and Maman was clever enough to encourage my Dad to pose instead. As a result, my father still tells the story with a huge smile, remembering the awful salty spray leading to an uncomfortable humid feeling inside his pants delivered by the exiting mist from the blowhole. He always finishes this story with a joyful giggle. Life is all about the special memories and I will never forget how much fun we had even though our plans were all improvised. The blow hole is a story to pass on to future generations.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Easter Island - The Land of Giants

My dream of visiting the land of the Moai came true at the end of 1991. The Bickfords began a Polynesian journey during the Christmas-New Years holidays. Before sharing the tale of our most excellent adventure, I will remain faithful to the structure of my publications by giving you a short background about this tiny dot on the map on the South Pacific. Easter Island - also knows as Rapa Nui or the Navel of the World - is a special Chilean territory annexed in 1888 and is the most remote inhabited island in the world. While we lived in Chile, this island was administrated by the V Region government out of Valparaiso. It appears that as of 2008, the island was negotiating to have its own government. I am not sure how that process is unfolding. Continental Chile is 3,510 km (2,180 mi) to the east and its closest inhabited neighbours live in the Pitcairn Island, only 2,075 km (1,289.35 mi) away. The remaining neighbours are a few uninhabited island such as the famous Robinson Crusoe Island and with its crustaceans and fish. The locals have endured a series of famines, epidemics, civil war, slave raids, colonialism and near deforestation. The island at the time of our visit housed a population of several thousand inhabitants predominantly of native origin. These people were traditionalist and proud of their roots.

The Bickfords at Rano Raraku and the Moai statues in the background

Upon our approach to our first Polynesian destination, we could see outside the window of the plane a mix of small hills and volcanic craters all along the almost barren island. The shortest airport runway I had ever seen was built on an incline in order for planes to land and take off without the need of a larger strip. The island itself was particularly small, covering an approximate area of 163 km2 (or 63.1 square mi). The city of Toronto without taking into consideration the greater metropolitan area, accounts for an area of 630 km2 (243.2 sq mi). In short, getting around the island was not a difficult task even when considering the tough natural terrain. My father had booked us on a tour from Santiago, so a representative was at the airport to greet us and take us to the hotel so we could settle in and leave our suitcases. I cannot recall much about the building or its name, but the guest rooms were very basic. The beds seemed similar to those one would find in a hospital and the walls were painted in a solid unfriendly gray. The windows were small. It was the kind of room that encouraged the guests to spend more time trekking through the local attractions and sights. This was exactly what we did. Our first day was primarily a scouting mission to see what was close to our hotel and the main village of Hanga Roa. We walked down to the airport, looked around the capital city in hopes to find a nice restaurant or a market. We did find a quaint artisan shop displaying many hand carved figurines and other souvenirs for passersby to take away a part of the island with them.

The following few days were dedicated to visiting various places throughout the small island. Our tour guide, a young local, came to pick us up early in the morning and he was equipped with either an amazing knowledge of history or a bunch of crafted fairy tales. I was not too concerned about the narration at the time as all I wanted to see were my Moai buddies that I had read about in school. It did not take long to spot the first ones once we were on our way in the tour van. I remember the excitement when that happened and announcing my finding to everyone accompanying us on our activities. These Moais are statues of human beings carved out of the abundant volcanic rock and can date back to the 1200s A.D. The main production centre the ancient tribes used was located inside a crater called Rano Raraku. The slopes of the dormant volcano are completely covered with finished monuments and others stuck in an eternal work in progress. It is difficult to imagine the tools such an isolated civilization could have used to carve the rough material as, aside from the Moai, no other constructions dated back to that same ancient era. What tools were they using for carving these magnificent giants? Why were they obsessed with creating so many of these replicas of man? What was the purpose of these giants? So many questions with answers lost in history. It is amazing to stand in front of these giants who cannot help explain their existence. Their curiously humongous heads are disproportionate to the size of their bodies and the observer can be left to wonder if this was simply an artistic touch or perhaps people came from a different gene pool from the one we are acquainted with today.

There are around 900 statues of different sizes located around the land and others were taken by foreigners to display throughout the world. When I visited the British Museum in London, England, I saw one on display and this brought back many lovely memories I hold of the Rapa Nui people. One of the tallest Moais we saw on this trip measured about 10 metres (33 ft) and weighted close to 80 tons. With such a sparcely populated island, it was difficult to imagine the ancient people moving these monuments from Rano Raraku to different places around the island. Perhaps they came from a similar gene pool as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Our guide mentioned that ancient people used palm tree trunks as rollers under each statue to move these across the island, a reason why there trees appeared to be close to non-existent throughout the island. This seemed a probable argument. Some of the monument building seemed to have been interrupted, such as the biggest structure that could have measured several times more than the biggest Moai. Some of the monuments also sported a classy pukao, which is an indigenous word for a hat. The pukao was also elaborated using volcanic rock. The giants seem to be attempting to communicate with the locals as most of these faced inland. There is only one set of Moais sitting on a large stone platform called ahu, facing outward toward the ocean. This powerful statement from the volcanic protectors was not explained through ancient legend, or at least no ancestor's version of the story survived the passing generations. The carvings and petroglyphs leave even further enigmas regarding the ancient culture or what event forced the abandonment of the projects.
Brian and I hanging out with a burried Moai

My family and I appreciated the many sights and we were convinced the time we had was sufficient to gather a full perspective on the island's hotspots. Along the rocky coastline, we settled for a quiet afternoon lunch in Anakena. This place was one of the only sandy beaches in the entire island and had two ahus with Moais protecting the access to the ocean. We sat with our tour group on North American-style picnic tables eating a bag lunch under the hot sun. Afterwards, we walked along the beach, also one of the few areas with palm trees, where Brian and I dipped out feet in the refreshing Pacific Ocean. As we enjoyed the cool water, Brian began looking through the sand searching for new items for his rock collection back home. Dad and I followed suit hoping we could find a great treasure for my brother. Maybe we could find a tiny Moai! During our scavenger hunt, Brian stepped on sharp coral cutting his toe and suddenly the ocean began to show some traces of red. Luckily, Maman was around to wash the wound with the salt water and patch it up with a cloth handkerchief. I remember walking next to Brian lending my shoulder for his support and balance. Maman said it was best he did not walk on the foot so the wound would not get dirty. She would be able to clean out his cut back at our hotel. She always traveled with an emergency kit. After Anakena, we would be off to rest at our hotel and continue onward on our Polynesian adventure. Our newly acquainted Moai friends had to remain behind, except for a small wooden one we bought at an artisan market. He currently watches over my parents' basement in Ottawa, Canada.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Terrorism Hits Home

In the early 1990s, as the military began to loosen its grip on the daily life of the Chilean population, leftist groups increase their level of activity. As is the case in several countries around the globe, Americans were often targeted for violence or intimidation. Over the past decades, US foreign policy has met with firm international opposition as the USA is perhaps the most visible power engaged in foreign conflicts. Many believe the Americans should limit their external involvement and desist from engaging in armed conflicts. When such governments take a major international role fostering international friendships become an uphill battle. Leftist movements such as the Movimiento Juvenil Lautaro and the Frente Patriotico Manuel Rodriguez were active in Chile and well known in the local diplomatic circles for their ideologies. These groups had organized strategic hits on US Embassy personnel, American military officers, Chilean politicians and other elements viewed as pro-American or Pinochet. Chilean security forces and their ranks remained unchanged from the Pinochet regime providing a loyal conservative right-wing opposition to the communist guerrilla. Their priorities still included fighting subversives and insurgency in order to demonstrate that the police and army could still enforce order at any cost.

The Chilean Carabineros

Members of the expat community were aware of the potential dangers of the ongoing left right struggle. Everyone eventually heard the horror stories through the grapevine rather than through the evening news. The country’s media was effectively managed in order to avoid spreading panic to their viewers. We were by no means living in a state of civil war but we had to be aware there were potential dangers. Many of the national newspapers, television channels and radio stations had been cleansed of left-wing personalities and were controlled by the upper class elite. These wealthy business entrepreneurs had supported the military government and had no interest in a return to the pre-coup socialist chaos. On rare occasions, we could hear a blast going off near our home followed by a power outage, a chain of events we were easily able to connect as cause and effect. Somehow, no news coverage could be found following these events as to what caused the blast or power failure. Both the MJL and the FPMR would take credit for their successful hits but their statements seemed to be burried deep in the Ministry of Interior. This was a perfect example of controlled access to the media and minor tweaking to freedom of speech ensuring minimal social collateral damage. This reminds me of one of the greatest riddles that used to circulate among my friends: “If a tree falls in middle of nowhere without a single person around to witness it, does it still make any noise?” In other words, if an event does not get media coverage did it just never happen?

Much of the unpublished news my family was able to obtain seemed to originate from the expat circles. I also heard interesting stories when I was older about some of the attacks in Santiago and remember these events in a similar fashion to the Pulp Fiction movie: many stories told in a different order making sense once all of these have been revisited. Among these stories is one my Dad shared with me about an attack on US military personnel as they exited the Embassy grounds. A leftist rebel, armed with an anti-tank rocket launcher waited across the street for the Americans’ vehicle to be in plain sight. Once the freedom fighter had the target locked, he opened fire shooting a rocket that pierced the thick windshield. Inside the vehicle sat two officers looking at the rocket which stared right back at them from the windshield and failed to detonate on impact. My father explained that some armaments require a significant distance between the target and the shooter in order for the explosives on the rocket to arm. In this instance, the weapon would not arm due to the short distance from the target, therefore, no ensuing detonation. Our American neighbours were extremely lucky the terrorist had not calculated an appropriate distance to his target and lived to share the tale of the failed assassination attempt. Others were not blessed with a similar fortune and regardless of their national origin or political allegiance, left families with a difficult wound to heal.

The event that hit closest to home happened during a softball game. The Americans in Santiago used to organize events for their nationals and Canadians were sometimes extended an invitation. This included a weekend amateur softball league comprised of various expat teams, from US Marines to Mormon missionaries, and Canada fielded a team that season. Some of the players were Canadian Embassy staff, others were business people or players’ friends. During my own competitive experience with these types of tournaments, the emphasis for Canadians seemed to be on enjoyment and camaraderie rather than becoming champions. Other teams gauge their aspirations in accordance to their common mentality, as there are always people who prefer winning as a means for having fun. Our Canadians were in action on a weekly basis yet my family and I never went to watch the games. My father did not seem to enjoy playing organized sports at the time either. In a match played on a weekend of November 1990, my family was enjoying a quiet weekend together in our Las Condes home. In the afternoon, a phone call came in for my Dad, which seemed to strike everyone as odd. Generally, my father was free on weekends and emergencies were usually attended by consular officers. He rushed off having been asked to go to a hospital yet he was not quite sure why that was. He knew a colleague, Pierre Alarie was among the people in the hospital and thought everything was quite weird. Pierre had a good level of Spanish to be able to handle any crisis.

Arial view of the American school of Santiago's grounds

My Dad explained later on that a bomb had gone off during the Canadian’s softball game, killing one Canadian player and injuring several Canadians and Americans. Apparently, a bomb had been planted in one of the aluminum bats used at the game. The bomb was intended to detonate during the following game where the US marine team had a game scheduled, but the Team Canada game had gone into extra innings. It appeared that an umpire had made a bad call or something of the sort, and had the Canadians riled up. They all left the bench to argue, except for a Canadian who sat in the bench next to the loaded bat and an American who was on deck warming up. Otherwise, perhaps more people would have died or suffered injuries. Pierre Alarie was hit by debris on the back of the head, Frank Arsenault had his foot injured by shrapnel and an American lost an eye. The Canadian who died was a friend of Pierre who was only visiting Chile trying to find business opportunities and was never meant to be in the game. No terrorist group seemed to take credit for the attack, my Dad thinks because the Canadians were not the targets and as a result, the police never thoroughly investigated the event. I knew the two injured Canadians and I remember this event changed the way I would look at them forever. I remembered both fondly and ran into Pierre while working in Mexico in the early 2000s who praised my father for all his support with the bomb in Santiago. Frank had retired and worked on contract in Guatemala, which I found out also through work and sent him an e-mail. Although I had no political allegiance when I was 9 years-old, I understood human suffering, especially when they were people close to the family.