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Fire in Valparaiso

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Valparaiso, the city I lived in the last year was burning last month. News of this fire was overshadowed by the crisis in Crimea in any bigger news outlet, so i had to resort to trying to read Chilenean newspapers on the web and bugging my friends who still live there. Seeing pictures of the destruction makes my heart ache.

It is estimated that around 3000 houses were destroyed, leaving 10.000 people without a home, shortly before the Chilean winter. Most affected were (as usual) the poor of the city. Chile does not have an extensive social security system as it is a strong follower of neo-liberalism. Valparaiso especially is lacking affordable housing, leaving a lot of the poorer population to illegally built houses in the ravines between the hills.

These houses do not only lack access to clean water and electricity (though often electricity is intercepted from the power lines) but are mostly built out of wood. They are not only fire traps, but also in danger of landslides due to the steep terrain.

The cause of the fire is thought to be a bird flying into a power line in the wood area above the city, but the fire spread rapidly through the ravines aided by strong winds.

Immediately after the fire public discussions turned to the ravines and the danger the illegal dwellings pose. The tragedy is blamed on the authorities letting "anyone" people built "anywhere" they want to. The fact that many of these people, who are now living in shelters or tents while the ravines are being cleaned up had been waiting for housing or housing vouchers for years is ignored.

As a municipal senator of the city put it: "We cannot just evict people, we need to find alternatives for them to live in."

Whether the fire is going to lead to a social change in a city where the students took to the streets last year for month to try and stop privatisation of education is questionable.


Fortunately people in Valpo do not wait for the government. As I have described before there is a strong sense of community in the city, best described by my friend who still was in Valpo at the time of the fire:

Thank you for checking in on us! We are all perfectly fine -- but the sad truth is that Valparaiso is not fine at all. This has been a devastating fire, and at times the city feels like a post-apocalyptic movie or something. It still goes as of today though it has reached the upper most part (mostly brushland).

It is a terribly SAD scene but at the same time, totally beautiful and inspiring the way the portenos have come together. I can't describe it. In the midst of so much heartbreaking sadness, there is such unity and selflessness. It's very heartwarming, and necessary in times like these to elevate the soul a bit by sights like this.

We went yesterday to donate a lot of things (some of your leftover stuff too, hehe) to the efforts. There are 'albergues' all over, for the thousands of displaced people to live as the disaster is contained, assessed, etc. We gave food, clothing, hygiene items, etc. Today Sam and I went to help out in another part of Valpo, by carrying things to shelters, donating cleaning products, etc. Most of the shelters have SO much stuff and are well installed for so little time having passed. Again, the organization and help available is just so impressive. There are even places receiving displaced pets and street animals. Equally as heartbreaking and lovely.

I know Valpo will recuperate. But it is so tremendously sad to think of the sheer quantity of people affected by this, that are now homeless....children, pregnant women, the poorest families, elderly people that have maybe never left the hills in years....

Shannons blog post about the fire and the aftermath


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Yesterday were elections in Chile. Results can be found here.
In the last weeks running up to the election the garbage collectors were on strike. Summer has arrived as well. The town has become dirty and smelly. In the afternoon it is usually windy. Which means there is a very real danger of being hit by garbage while wading through it. I tried to sell some of my clothes on the street and spent most of the time picking up the garbage which was blown on them. When I had filled a shopping bag I gave up. I keep telling myself I sympathize with their cause, I really do.

I do not sympathize with the riot cars and water cannons which had been standing on Anibal Pinto the last 3 days before the elections. They are anticipating a return of the student protests which had been going on on and off this winter. Four of the leaders of the student movement have been voted into parliament.

It is not completely over, though. Bachelet did only get 46% of the votes which means there will be a second round of elections in which Bachelet has to compete with her runner up Matthai. Interesting fact about the two candidates: Bachelets father was tortured to death during Pinochet, while Matthais was head of the Military academy. Matthais slogan is: Protecting Chile.

I just hope the garbage collectors will not wait until the 15th of December to stop their strike.

Community spirit

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In my new neighbourhood there is a printed out sign hanging on many houses, which reads:

Cuidado la casa de mi vecino.

I guard my neighbours house

It has been said that the experience under Pinochet and the embrace of a market based ideology
has led to a social coldness in Chilean society. I can not speak for the overall political climate, only for my own experiences.

I spent a lot of time selling bread and knitwear on the street. There was a community spirit among us street vendors, we would watch each other stands while one person went on coffee runs. Goods and even money was left open on the street and we would warn each other of the police, who sometimes felt they had to show their authority by chasing us away.
Even when sitting next to another lady selling knitwear, rather than seeing me as competition we would exchange recipes and she even randomly gave me a ball of wool as a present.

One afternoon the local homeless drunk person begged a pedestrian a little bit to aggressively, who lightly pushed him. Unfortunately due to his intoxication the homeless man lost balance and fell over. His head landed with a big clonk on the sidewalk. Immediately all the street vendors around sprang into action, berating the guy who had pushed him and checking if he was ok. They tried to call an ambulance, but the homeless man was protesting. In the end they helped sit him up and he saw his chance for "borrowing" a cigarette.
Pedestrians walking by and seeing him sitting on the ground stopped to ask if everything was ok, in the end he retired to a bench to smoke his ciggy in peace.

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