Mel in Chile: The North

September 25, 2013

(Warning: the pictures for this blog post are awesome.)

I ended the last blog post with a picture of the Atacama Desert I took from the plane right before we landed in Antofagasta. During the next five days we (the 13 students in the SIT program) traveled through the driest desert in the world. The purpose of the trip was to bring life to the lectures about the Chilean economy. We were to do this in two ways: three days exploring the copper industry and two days in a small village which in the past two decades has become almost entirely economically dependent on tourism.

The itinerary included two classes at a university in Antofagasta- one explaining the importance of mineral mining that is done in the region for the Chilean economy, and the other one focused on the social and environmental implications of the industry. Other major experiential learning components of the trip involved a two-hour tour of one of the biggest copper mines in the world, and an informal lecture/discussion with an anthropologist in San Pedro de Atacama. The anthropologist is also from an Atacameño community, which is the indigenous group in San Pedro de Atacama.

First up, the two lectures at Universidad Catolica del Norte in Antofagasta and the visit to the Radomiro Tomic mine in Calama:

The lectures were widely different but also complimentary. The first one was on the regional economic development of Antofagasta and the second one was on the economy and human rights. Fear not, this blog will not be a drawn out summary of the lectures. I mention them because they add to the perspective I am gaining about Chile and help to shape my experience here.

The region of Atacama is rich in minerals. There is an immense area including the south of Peru and parts of Bolivia that are lucky enough to be on the fault line of Pacific and South American tectonic plates that endow the countries with a rich variety of minerals. Unfortunately, this also generates what I judge to be modern colonialism.  Foreign investment pours into mineral rich regions like Antofagasta, international companies begin to mine, make unbelievable profits while draining regional resource wealth, and at the same time secure support from the national government . Open and unregulated markets seem to be the unspoken rule for developing countries. Many economists say this generates jobs for the local communities but it hardly seems to be the case for such a highly technological industry like copper mining. I learned that for every million dollars of investment in the copper mining industry in Chile, only one direct job is created.

Another issue is the danger of an export-driven national economy based on natural resources. How far away are we from developing a sustainable substitute for copper? How much longer until the minerals run out? What if the costs associated with mining and refining copper become greater than the market value of this resource?  Who will suffer from these probable future events? Will it be the CEOs of international corporations or the national economy dependent on the mineral? What about the effects on communities who for 100 years have been dependent on jobs related to the mining?

That is for you to ponder (I like to imagine I have thousands of avid readers.)

After the lectures we traveled to Calama and had a free afternoon of shenanigans until the next day when we visited the Radomiro Tomic copper mine. According to the booklet (more like book) the communications department gave the group, “each day the mine extracts 600,000 metric tons of material.” In the Radomiro Tomic mine, and I think throughout the region of the Atacama where most mines operate, only 0.5% of the rock is copper. I will not continue listing facts about the mine because those can be accessed from anywhere. My personal experience in the tour was a very overwhelming one. The number 600,000 metric tons sounds ridiculous when you read it and I do not imagine it produces a specific image in anyone’s mind. After the rock is leached and the copper has been extracted, the rest of the rubble is simply taken to the dumping site. It was at this point that I understood the mountain-like formations a bit further away were rubble.  During the time that we were on the observation site at the mine, they had planned an explosion to the left of where we were standing. We heard the sound, the ground shook, and within minutes the sky was covered in dust. To stand on the edge of  one of the biggest mining sites in the world was nothing but extraordinary and to be honest I do not think my mind will ever fully psychologically process the sheer size of the mining pit. It is bizarre to “see” what it means to extract 600,000 metric tons of rock per day.


The mines

The next most significant part of the trip was our stay in San Pedro de Atacama and the anthropologist, Jimena, who spoke with us about the implications of the recent tourist boom for the indigenous community. A couple of comments about San Pedro de Atacama itself: it looks like a movie set. You walk around and see an “authentic” typical village in the dry highlands of Chile with its dirt roads, adobe walls, and low “houses”, but it’s as if the place is too manicured. The adobe walls and the dirt roads are perfectly rustic. Then you actually notice the people walking around and it is all western tourists. What looked like “houses” are actually hostels (very expensive,) touring agencies that will take you to do 136,455,478 activities you can do in the desert that include everything from sand surfing to star gazing.


San Pedro de Atacama

We met with Jimena in the afternoon. She started with telling the history of the Atacameño people and how things were when she arrived during the period in the 1990s when the tourism boom had just begun. The first comment she made about the change of lifestyle in the village was how tourism had brought some drugs to a place where they had never before been used. She also spoke extensively that national and international travel agencies harvest the profits from tourism. In her view, the normal lifestyle of her indigenous group is being “commoditized” and its “rustic” image sold to western tourists. At the same time, most of the locals have been pushed to the outskirts of the village to make room for the shops, agencies and hostels, which essentially sell their lifestyle.

I stayed half an hour after the discussion was over and everyone had left to talk more with her. Without a doubt, I can say this was one of the greatest conversations I have had.


I went on a hike with a friend through the mountains right outside of San Pedro (not with a touring company)


Later on that day, the entire group took a hike up a mountain in Valle de la Luna to watch the sunset. One of the most beautiful places on Earth

Mel in Chile: Santiago

September 13, 2013

Week #2. I’ve had the chance to walk around the city a lot this past week. In fact, I walked from my house in Providencia to the University which is close to Estación Central. It takes about an hour and fifteen minutes.

In general, I try and walk anywhere that will be within an hour or so and feel comfortable saying I have seen many areas of the city and walked through similar streets several times. Although, I should disclose that I have only been through the “safe” and usually nice areas of Santiago. In other words, all of my comments about the city refer to the middle/upper-middle class regions and are not a full representation of all of Santiago.


The past week and a half I walked around central Santiago confused. The architecture of the buildings seemed almost awkward. Actually, not the architecture of each individual building, rather the collective appearance of several buildings positioned close to each other. When I look one way on Avenida Providencia I see an old building with a structure screaming 18th century Spain which I imagine this to be the case in many Latin American countries. Then I look the other way and see the modern building of “Fundacion Telefónico” which holds various cultural events like theater plays and galleries. Across the street, on Plaza Italia, and I see the overbearing residential skyscraper marking it’s territory on central Santiago.


On the left is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago built in 1748. To the right, stands a perfect example of the many skyscrapers piercing the Santiago sky today.

Sometimes I feel I am in Spain, sometimes London and at other times even Tirana! Tirana, for the few of you who might not know (joking, I know most of you don’t know) is the capital of Albania. This is where I was born, grew up for the first ten years of my life, where most of my family lives and where I have spent many of my summers since migrating to the United States.

All last week, as I found myself in different areas of the city, I thought “What is going on here? Santiago must be confused. Is it colonial? Is it modern? Does it have its own identity? Its own niche?”

I am not suggesting cities, or even the tiniest municipality, is, or needs to be, homogeneous. Santiago is big. Of course it is diverse. I do not expect the architecture of every single part of the city to be identical. I also do not want to reduce an incredibly diverse city of almost seven million inhabitants to one single identity. That is not what I tried to do.

With that said, I still contend Santiago is a special place.

I spent the past week and a half trying to understand how the different structures and diverse architecture tell the story of Santiago.

The colonial architecture obviously comes from the colonial period. Easy. At first glance, the skyscrapers filled with offices of foreign enterprises contend that Chile does enjoy a developed economy, sophisticated financial structure and plenty of foreign investment. These are the buildings that proudly show the international community “Hey, we have made it!”. The modernity is celebrated not only by the elite who benefit from an open and deregulated market, but from also a working class who hope swallow their objections in hope that trickle down economics will eventually…well, trickle down to them.

On the contrary, the buildings are also an uncomfortable symbol  of the seventeen years of military dictatorship that aggressively implemented neoliberal economic  reforms. The reforms made possible  the most stable macro-economy in Latin America, but also created severe inequality in earnings, education, and healthcare to name a few. Consequently, for many, the modernity, the high-rises, and the “booming” economy also represent classicism, racism, and enforcement of prejudices and the further entrenchment of the degrading stereotypes that sustain them. The disrespect of human rights for seventeen consecutive years during the dictatorship which carried out a neoliberal economy and replaced citizens with consumers, and the current systematic neglect of key functions of a democratic government and civil society are oftentimes seen as an unjustifiable sacrifice for macroeconomic success.

But, this isn’t meant to be a history lesson.

So friends, I walked around for a week and a half thinking Santiago was confusing me because of how incredibly diverse the architecture is. As I thought this, I came to a street crossing. The light was red for the vehicles, but that isn’t what’s important. In front of the stopped cars was a man on top of those high unicycles, dressed as a clown, and juggling. He was putting a show for the cars during the few minutes they wait at the red light.

That is when I realized, the city isn’t confused.

It is unbelievably eclectic.

There is a fusion of past and present. The struggles and the victories. Protests on one side of town and celebrations on the other. Business men in suits and students marching in the streets. A musician playing his fiddle in the subway train and a woman dressed as if ready for a fashion show, having an extensive conversation about the current health of her nail-beds. September 11th 2013, the fortieth anniversary of the military coup, will undoubtedly result in riots across the streets (No worries, I will be in the north, and more that safe), then a week later, everyone will celebrate the fiestas patrias with friends, family, barbecues, and late night parties.

But, these “extremes” should not come as any surprise. It sort of runs in the country. Geographically speaking, Chile can make even the most experienced National Geographic photographer go “Huh. I have never seen anything like that before.” There are the Andes, an entire coast line in the Pacific, the world’s driest desert, glaciers, enormous lakes, valleys, rivers, grassland, and finally, the eclectic metropolitan city of Santiago.

Right now, I am on a plane flying north for an excursion with my program. The plane is going over the Atacama desert, the driest and highest desert in the world, and in the background I see the snow capped Andes.

Chile defies geographical norms.


Birds eye view of the mountainous Atacama desert.

Mel in Chile: A Lens

September 3, 2013

It has been exactly a week. The most interesting aspect of “the life of a university student” is that political affiliation is a big part of the identity of public universities. Chile is an incredible place to study political systems as it is the only place in the world where a socialist government was elected democratically and without military intervention. This government was overthrown in a military coup only a few years after it was established. The years of Pinochet’s military dictatorship brought the implementation of strict neoliberal economic reforms and fast privatization of important industries. Many will argue it was precisely this period of free markets and capitalist ventures which brought Chile the macroeconomic “success” it currently enjoys. It is considered one of the most stable economies in Latin America. However this same period of military dictatorship also carries painful memories of vast and blatant human rights abuses the government committed against dissidents. Leaders of socialist parties were assassinated, thousands  of civilians who opposed the neoliberal reforms were tortured as political prisoners, and thousands more would simply disappear; they are called the “desaparecidos”. It is without a doubt that Chile’s “economic miracle” came at heavy price.

The bittersweet taste of “macroeconomic” success is not simply nested in the past. Chile continues to be a country with one of the highest margins of income inequality in South America. Access to health care and higher education (along with other industries) is concentrated in the hands of elites. I imagine many will remember the student led protests in 2011.

I apologize! This was not meant to be a history lesson on Chile’s economic and political evolution. I started the blog with the statement that university life for students in Santiago is very interesting. I have found that the universities in the city have a strong political identity. After only two days in the city, I heard from other Chilean students which universities were rightist and which were leftist. After walking around other campuses in the city, I also began to see the role of politics in the university.

This group of SIT students has come to study politics and economics in Chile at an incredibly special time. September 11th will be the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Chile. My host family, professors, and other students say there are many things that go on around the city. At USACH (my university), as in other universities, there are forums, discussions, panels and other events the university has organized. There are also events that will take place throughout the city. My group will actually be traveling to the North for our first excursion so we will be away from all the activity.

Then on November 17th Chileans will vote for their president.  It will be the first presidential election in which voting is voluntary.

In conclusion, I feel very lucky to be in this program during such a specific time in Chile. I am not simply here taking classes, making friends, and sightseeing. I have the opportunity to “experience” the country through a specific lens. I walk around the metropolitan areas of Santiago and I don’t simply see huge skyscrapers housing foreign companies. I also think about the implications of such economic growth. When I am in the university campus I don’t just see other university students. I think of how their identity as students was formed through the movement, and how they help form the identity of the university.


This is a view of Santiago from the San Cristobal hill. Note the Andes in the background!

It has been incredibly helpful to have this lens. Another student studying abroad in Brazil and writing for the Traveloges for UR mentions how easy it is for study abroad students to be “tourists”. Being a “tourist” is not bad. I am already planning a backpacking trip to Patagonia after the program is over with another friend studying in Valparaiso and I will do as much traveling as I can. That is to say, if you have the opportunity to travel you should take advantage of it. However you should also take advantage of the fact that studying abroad gives students an opportunity to create a lens. It gives students the opportunity to travel not to simply visit places and appreciate their presence in space but to also see what isn’t physically there.

I can feel myself becoming poetic as I sit in the cozy kitchen of Pedro and María on this cold night in Santiago, Chile.

Better to stop now before I start writing of the wisdom of the wind and the courage of the sun or something.

Have a great week everyone 🙂

Mel in Chile: Almost Done Packing

August 26, 2013

Hi all! My name is Mel and I am a junior at the University of Richmond. I was born and grew up in Albania but moved to the US about eleven years ago. As I finish packing my suitcase for tomorrow’s flight, I would like to share with you a bit about myself and my plans for this coming semester.

At UR I am a Business Administration major with a concentration in International Business and an Economics minor. My main interests revolve around socioeconomic rural development in Latin America and human trafficking in the region. This past summer I had the great opportunity to work in the Dominican Republic on micro-finance initiatives focused on Haitian workers in sugar-cane communities. These migrant populations are some of the most vulnerable communities in the Dominican Republic, and hopefully I will be going back next summer to continue working on these issues.

For now, I am moving to Chile’s capital city Santiago for the SIT Political Systems and Economic Development in Chile program. During the next four months, I will join fourteen other students to explore the social, political, and economic dynamics that have shaped Chile since the early 1970s. SIT programs are a fantastic twist on a traditional  study abroad program.  On the SIT program we will live with a host-family in Santiago, take classes at the University of Santiago, go on several academic excursions around Chile to add a practical component to our courses, live for a week with a Mapuche indigenous host family to learn about the situation of indigenous peoples in Chile, and do a one-month independent research project at the end of our program.  This month-long research component is what makes SIT programs especially unique.

I am particularly excited about the opportunity to learn about Mapuche groups and their political participation in the Chilean society. Through our program, we will establish a dialogue with Mapuche leaders to explore how these communities interact with the neoliberal political and economic dynamics that surround them. Our group will also be visiting Chile’s biggest mine, and both experiences will, I hope, allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the marginalization of the indigenous population. Since we have the opportunity to run a one-month independent research project at the end of our program, I am already thinking about exploring in depth these indigenous/mining relationships that shape part of Chile’s rural life.

Blogging about and sharing my experiences with you will be definitely fun! I now need to get some sleep before my long journey tomorrow. I feel as if I have been preparing for this particular program for at least a year, and I honestly cannot describe how much I look forward to settling in Chile! I will surely keep you updated, so come back in a week to read more!

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