Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fieldwork vs. Real Life

Now that I’m approaching the goals that I set for myself as part of my fieldwork experience, I find myself starting to think more about what is going to happen when I return to Calgary to begin writing my thesis. Of course, I need to remind myself that there is still plenty of work to be done here, but as the decorations go up in the shopping centres and the temperature plummets in the northern hemisphere my thoughts turn to winter, teaching commitments, data analysis and deadlines. I caught myself today, wondering what it was going to be like to return to my ‘real life’ after this sojourn in Chile.
What does that mean - my ‘real life’? Does that imply that what I’m doing here is not real life? That I’m just playing, or wasting time? Taking this view suggests that my time here is some sort of anomaly and that once I come back to Canada, it will be ‘business as usual’ with no excitement or adventure. And heaven knows, I love excitement and adventure (didn’t you read my facebook quiz results?).
Perhaps it would be better described as my ‘regular’ life? But then, what is my ‘regular’ life? I’ve been through so many changes in the last several years- leaving a career, returning to university, buying a house, gaining a nieces and nephews (congrats Shani and Jeff on the arrival of little Logan!), deciding to go to grad school, getting married, that I don’t think my life (or anyone else’s for that matter) could be considered ‘regular’. My life is unique, just as anyone’s is, and I don’t consider it to be ‘regular’. Not to mention, suggesting that my life in Calgary is ‘regular’ implies that this experience in Chile is just an interlude, an interruption to be taken in isolation and not integrated into a regular (read: boring) existence. The problem with this approach is that if I continue to keep thinking this way I will not be able to fully appreciate the experiences that I have when I travel or take on an extraordinary challenge, such as this.
So, in keeping with my life philosophy (which is more of a theoretical construct that I try to live and breath daily, to varying degrees of success), I have decided to consider this my ‘real’ life, as well as all of the challenges that I undertake in Calgary or any other place. My ‘real’ life is what is going on around me, with me, to me, and instigated by me, RIGHT NOW. Life (regular or otherwise) does not happen when you reach the next milestone. It will not happen when I return to Calgary, when I publish my first paper, when I defend my thesis, when I get that amazing job I’ve always dreamed of (*wink). It is happening to me as I write this, sitting in the garden of an amazing family who has helped me so much here in Temuco, Chile (thank you Marcela, Adrian and Beatriz!).
When I think of my life in this way, I am not only more proud of myself when I consider the challenges that I have faced head on, sought out and risen to, but I am also more proud of my friends and family who are also facing challenges of their own and succeeding every day! So everyone raise a glass (whether filled with Chilean Malbec or Canadian rye) and toast ‘real life’ and all the amazing things that come with it!
The back garden in Temuco

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On sharing armrests and Feminism

I know I’ve complained about this before, but after the 10-hour bus ride between Santiago and Temuco I just feel the need to bring it up one more time. Why is it that when a man sits down in some sort of public space that he feels the god-given right to use both armrests (regardless of whether or not one is already occupied) and spread his legs as wide as possible so as not to crowd the family jewels? I paid the same amount for my space on that bus as did the man beside me, but somehow he felt entitled to take up as much room as necessary so as to be as completely relaxed and comfortable as one might be on a public bus for 10 hours. Now, if this was an isolated incident I might not feel the need to rant about it but the fact of the matter is that this is so common in EVERY place in the world that I have had the privilege of visiting that there must be something to it.
It’s not only buses, but airplanes and movie theatres as well. I’ve even observed men crowding their wives/girlfriends/daughters/mothers out of comfortable sitting space with little regard for her having to slouch down in her seat because of the random man sitting on the other side of her. I don’t think it takes a feminist to see that this is just unfair. Why do women have to sit quietly and take up as little space as possible so that the men around them, strangers or kin, can be more comfortable for the duration of the journey or event? Of course, I believe that this is a symptom of a more generalized inequality between the genders with men feeling a sense of authority over all public space and the domination of this space being a message to women about who is really in charge, but even if you don’t agree with me on this you must be able to see the injustice.
Why then, don’t I just force my arm onto the armrest and physically take the space myself? A decent question; somehow I just can’t bring myself to do it! I don’t know if it’s my Canadian politeness or if on some level I understand that a bigger human being just needs more space (although, I have had the opportunity to sit beside more diminutive men who still take up as much room as a 250 pound brute). Usually, I sulk for a while and the depending on the length of the journey I slowly start to take back a little space, one centimetre at a time. The thing I need to get over is instinctively removing my arm from the armrest when a man sits down next to me. Perhaps, if I have already claimed the space the battle will be set before it begins.
This may seem like a small matter but I can’t help but believe it is symbolic of women’s ongoing fight for equality. Chant with me:
Hey, hey! Ho, ho!
Armrest hogging has got to go!
What do we want? Leg- room!
When do we want it? Now!

Monday, November 8, 2010

On the difference between being a tourist and a researcher in a foreign country

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what has been eating at me for the past week and with the help of friends, I think I’ve come to a pretty obvious answer: homesickness. Now, I have done a few trips lasting more than a month (although 2 months has previously been my limit) and I always figured that my eagerness to come home in the end had more to do with living out of a suitcase or constantly being a guest in someone else’s home. But now, at just over a month in Chile, I realize that it's starting to sink in how out of my element I really am.
Emotionally, I have been swinging back and forth between jubilation and near euphoria every time I successfully complete another interview (9/15 done, by the way), and utter defeat and desolation. I worry that I have no idea what I am doing and question daily my decision to conduct fieldwork in another country and in a foreign language, of which I only had a tenuous grasp in the first place. Today, I resorted to cracking a bottle of red at 5 pm, which I considered an acceptable time to start drinking alone in my apartment, and sending forlorn and desperate facebook messages to friends.
The role of researcher, rather than tourist, means that I have forsaken the tried and true ways to meet people while travelling. Being alone, I’m not all that keen on hitting up the bars or taking the metro after 10 pm to attend cultural or social events in far flung regions of the city. This has meant that I spend a lot of time alone: sending emails, travelling to and from interviews, walking uninvited into government and NGO offices and in transit to and from the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty good at spending time alone, and when in Calgary I actually tend to be more of an introvert, at least when it comes to unwinding after a long day. But there is something different about this forced exile.
Oh, I meet people, here and there: waiting at the bus stop- they like to warn me about how dangerous Santiago is for a single woman travelling alone and try to scare me into not leaving my apartment; eating ice cream in the park- these are generally crazy people or people asking for money; at the Spanish school where I’m taking some private lessons- they are often travelling in groups and not really interesting in meeting other foreigners. Not to mention, the purpose of my visit here is not to go out drinking into all hours of the night with random backpackers.
Perhaps the most trying aspect is that I feel like I’m floating around, with no measure of what I should be accomplishing and when. How am I supposed to know if I’m doing ok if I have no point of comparison? After an afternoon of contemplation on this matter (when I was supposed to be writing an abstract for a conference), I have come to the conclusion that what this is, is an opportunity for personal growth; if I can only measure my satisfaction in my own work by measuring it against that of someone else, than I have failed at the ultimate objective.  I only need to be satisfied that I have approached this challenge with my best effort given the resources that I have, and with an open mind to be able to absorb what it is I need from my time in Chile.
Really, if I say I'm doing a good job, then I am. So there.
The museum calls this a sculpture of a 'cocalero' or someone chewing coca leaves, but I thought it looked a lot like someone taking a crap. I just thought I'd throw it in here for some comic relief since this blog was a bit heavier than the last few!

Monday, November 1, 2010

No hablo español...

It’s beginning to dawn on me that all the things I had worried about undermining my credibility as a researcher in a foreign country: language, inexperience, cultural ignorance, complete naivety, are actually the characteristics that appear to be opening more doors that I had anticipated. First, not understanding the protocol allows me to march into any office I think might be useful to me or approach any person who I think might have contacts to share with me. Second, my tenuous grasp on the language combined with my Canadian efficiency means that rather than beating around the bush and colouring my speech with niceties I just steamroller on and ask directly for what it is I am looking for. Third, also a result of my Spanish language proficiency, sometimes I can’t tell if people are making fun of me, offended, excited or just annoyed so I have no choice but to be persistent and apologetic at the same time. 
View from my balcony in Santiago
Perhaps it’s just that these qualities make me somewhat endearing in a bumbling, non-threatening kind of way but I’d like to think that it’s more that people can see the value of my project and are genuinely interested in talking to me. Maybe I’ve overstepped my boundaries a couple of times but I can claim ignorance (really!) here and while I’m certain the fact that I’m a novice is evident, I hope that people can tell I am trying my hardest to be honest, open, genuine and polite. Whatever it is I’m doing, it has managed to get me half way through my interviews in four different cities in Chile and I’ve only been here a month!
I had the chance this past week to travel south to the city of Temuco, where I stayed with a very generous family who connected me with many interesting and helpful people. One of whom is the head of the Social Work program at the University Autonoma and who happened to conduct a study last year on Mapuche Women’s Leadership. (What luck!) There is nothing like the validation that comes from an academic telling you that your project is important because the existing literature on Mapuche women is sadly lacking and an invitation to share your finished thesis with their university library. At least, I think that’s what she said. The truth is that she spoke the fastest of all the people I have met so far and despite my asking several times for her to slow down it seemed to be impossible for her! At any rate, I’m going to assume the best, keep my chin up and roll with the positivity!
 There is something comfortable and familiar about Chile. The area around Temuco feels a lot like the interior of B.C. with lush vegetation, lakes and mountains. I was fortunate to spend one day in Villarica, a playground of the rich (from what I hear) in the summer months. There is something tranquil, welcoming and moderately commercial about this lovely town; think Canmore but with the climate of Penticton. And on my last day in Temuco, my host family was gracious enough to teach me how to make empanadas pinos- with a stuffing of beef, onion, spices and the requisite piece of boiled egg and an olive. A lovely and successful trip all around- here’s hoping the next two weeks can be as productive as the last!
 Watch me make empanadas with Marcela, Adrian and Beatriz in Temuco!