Hello!

This blog came to an end in December 2009, while I was still doing my PhD fieldwork and living in Chile. I shut this site down some time after that, so it hasn’t been available for some time.

Six years later, and I’ve decided to make it visible again. But I won’t be updating it any more.

Instead, come visit me on my new site: Dispatches from The Wrong Side

Thanks for dropping by! m

 

I am on holiday. An actual, proper, holiday.

Not a trip to see relatives that involves traveling the length and breadth of the entire country five times in three weeks. Not a day off to see the city on the day no-one I know is presenting at a conference. Not an exhausted and guilt ridden afternoon out from field work, where you finally go visit that great big tourist attraction in the center of town everyone assumes you’ve already seen 6 months ago, because you’re obviously just here on permanent vacation for a year, right?

No, I am finally on an actual proper holiday for three weeks, and have refused to do any work whatsoever. Bring on the cocktails, the enormous meals, the frivolous shopping trips and the trashy trashy novels! Hurray!!

Its also great to see my friend Carly, whose house I Paraguay I am spending these weeks lounging about it. Given that both of us are stranded in this part of the world together over the festive season, we made a plan a few months back to spend Christmas and New Year together. Its wonderful to finally have someone to talk about my work with, who knows my project well and is great at giving both insight and encouragement. Carly also has the knack when it comes to persuading me I really do need to buy myself a very expensive pair of gorgeous 6 inch high heels to show off my new bright red pedicure. I’ll be taking a splash of Paraguayan va-va-voom back to Germanic Santiago with me after all.

Carly is doing fieldwork in Ciudad del Este, on the border of Brazil and Argentina, and has a wonderfully homey apartment here that’s a lovely relief after my somewhat spartan rented room in Chile. We decided to spend the week of Christmas here and the New Year on a beach in Brazil. The original plan had been to spend the whole time on the beach, but we eventually decided it would be more fun to take advantage of her apartment to cook an enormous and extravagant christmas dinner, and of course indulge in the most glitzy, tacky, over the top christmas tree we could muster. Although I really can’t get used to the idea of a summer christmas being “really” christmas, the sheer quantity of glittery bling we have smothered this apartment in helps get us half the way there. I’m a particular fan of the neon pink “present” tree ornaments, that have holograms of kittens in santa hats on them. Carly is more enamored of the shiny plastic champagne bottles ornaments, that are testing the strength of our poor bedraggled plastic christmas tree to the limit. (It was the last one left in the discount store on christmas eve, and it looks it.) We’ll be finding glitter in our hair for months to come.

I’ve never been to Paraguay before, so its been great to get to know it through Carly, whose detailed knowledge and experience of the city is testament to her skills as an ethnographer. After the subdued urban chic of Santiago, Ciudad del Este reminds me a lot more of my experiences in Peru or Bolivia, but not so much it feels familiar. For a start, the heat and humidity are overwhelming, as are the intense colours: the thick vegetation that smothers the city in lush greens; the rich red earth that seems to be seeping out of every crack in the pavement, sticking to your clothes and skin to follow you into the house. Plus Carly has the most fantastically bright yellow VW beetle that has a habit of breaking down in odd places, adding its own rather inconvenient splash of sunshine yellow to the landscape.

Paraguay is one of the few countries in South America where the entire population are bilingual in both Spanish and the indigenous language, Guaraní. Everyone from the president to the kids on the street speak both languages, code switching back and forth between them all the time. While other countries like Bolivia have large proportions of the population who are bilingual, its always the case that Spanish is the dominant language of power and elitism. That just everyone here is bilingual is remarkable. Not to mention that most people in Cuidad del Este are also fluent in Portuguese, because of the constant movement over the border to Brazil, and many also have some Arabic and/or Chinese because of the very large populations of migrants who have become permanent and prominent parts of the city. Talking to one of Carly’s friends last night, who speaks Guaraní, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese and a little German and Italian, I felt really very ashamed of my ungainly Spanish.

There is always something quiet fascinating about border towns though, not only in the kind of linguistic and economic fluency they require of people who constantly juggle 4 different exchange rates and 7 different languages in their head. But also the very particular sense of space and movement they provoke.

Not long after I arrived we took a shopping trip to stock up on ingredients for our Christmas dinner. 40 degree heat be damned: we were cooking roast duck with prunes and red cabbage, roast potatoes and carrots, English christmas pudding with rum butter and English christmas cake with all the usual decorations. This involved heading out from our house in Paraguay mid morning, stopping off in Argentina for wines and some lunch, a visit to the super market in Brazil to get a frozen duck, almonds to make marzipan and some high-heeled Havanahs, eventually making it back home just around 5ish for tea. The whole afternoon involved two time zones, two languages, 4 currencies and nearly 3 pages worth of stamps in my passport.

Sometimes its not so easy. Saturday was a particularly hot day, so we decided to head to a shopping mall on the Brazil side of the border to hang out in the air conditioning and look for white clothes for new year. The road to the bridge that crosses the river-border between Brazil and Paraguay was chocked with traffic, and once we were trapped in there was no possible way of getting out. We sat there in the non-airconditioned bug for nearly 2 hours, in temperatures in the low 40s. It was so slow we had the engine off most of the time, lurching 2 meters forward in a tiny spurt of activity every ten minutes or so.

Once we finally got over the border and into Brazil, the poor bug collapsed at a traffic light, something ominous having happened to the clutch that caused the pedal to suddenly fall off mid-motion.

Two hot and bothered gringas in high heeled flip flops pushing a bright yellow Beetle down the road is probably not a typical Brazilian sight. But I’m happy to say its one that caused several guys on motor bikes to screech to a halt beside us and offer assistance. Sometimes a macho culture has its advantages. The only good thing is that we didn’t break down on the bridge itself, or in that impenetrable traffic jam. But then there is the complication of trying to arrange getting a mechanic from one side of a border to connect with a broken car on the other side, all without arousing the suspicion of twitchy border guards hot on the look out for car smuggling.

Hopefully the bug will be resurrected in time to take us to the Brazilian bus station tonight. We have a 16 hour bus journey booked to take us to Florianópolis in southern Brazil, where we’ll be spending the new year on a beach. I’ve never in my life had a beach holiday, and I’m not entirely sure what one is actually supposed to do. But I have a few James Bond novels and some recipes for rum cocktails, so I’m sure I’ll be able to figure something out. In fact, I think this holiday m’larky could be something I may develop a knack for.

All in all, this appears to have been a good week for paedophiles. As long, that is, as they can call themselves artists.

First we have the case of Roman Polanski who apparently should be forgiven for drugging and raping a teenage girl because he’s had a really tough life and makes really nice movies. My facebook wall has been covered with reposts of this article from Salon.com, which reminds us that, yes, he might make great movies, but he’s still a rapist.

But hot on its heels we have another hang-over case from the 70s, that of the photographs of pre-pubescent Brooke Shields. In case you haven’t heard about this one yet, it goes something like this:

Back in 1975, Brooke Shields’s mother gave the aptly named photographer Garry Gross permission to take pictures of her ten year old daughter naked in a bath, in full make-up and with her tiny child’s body covered in oil. The photos were used in many different contexts since then, some more obviously straight off kiddy-porn than others, because Shield’s mother had signed away all rights to the photos in exchange for $450.

In 1981, when Shields was 16, she tried to sue Gross to get control of the images, and stop them being distributed – but was unsuccessful. (Why she also didn’t sue her own pimp of a mother I have no idea…) Gross later sold the rights to the photos to American artist Richard Prince, who re-contextualised them as ‘Art’ under the title Spiritual America.

As Art, they are now part of a new exhibit opening at the Tate this week called Pop Life. But in the latest twist, the police have just ordered the image of Brooke Shields to be removed because it counts as obscenity under laws against child pornography.

Now I know at this point its expected that we all throw our hands up in the air and start spouting something clichéd about censorship and freedom and blah blah blah. But I’m finding it very difficult to not support someone, anyone, taking a stand to say that no, these images should not be displayed.

First on the general principle that child porn is wrong. The judge in Shield’s court case who ruled that the photos are not sexualised, and just show “a prepubescent girl posing innocently in her bath”, must have been either incredibly naive or on the receiving end of a good bribe.

But secondly on the fact that a particular individual, no matter what her subsequent choice of career, has been and continues to be exploited through the these images. That Richard Prince knew her objection to their distribution, and decided that this warranted him publicising them further, demonstrates a rather revolting misogyny on his part. Yeah, it makes a good story and its really, like, edgy, y’know? But some cynical wank repeating half hearted clichés about America’s obsession with sex and fame (and I realise that with that sentence I’ve probably granting his $151,000 art work more depth than it deserves – maybe he really did just want to show a naked child) isn’t a good enough reason to hurt the victims of child porn.

The photos should not have been taken in the first place. They should not have continued to be distributed after the 16 year old was old enough to made it very clear she didn’t want them to be. That she’s no longer a child doesn’t make it any different – just as it makes no difference that Roman Polanski’s 13 year old victim has managed to survive her rape and make a life for herself, and no longer wants him to be prosecuted because it would cause her and her family further harm.

I’m disappointed that it took a bunch of Met officers walking into the Tate to point out that taking photos of naked ten year old girls is wrong, and am preparing to be drowned out by the cynical, condescending cry that “Its art!” and therefore all ok. Just us its sad that it was considered all ok to allow Roman Polanski to carry on having a successful and rich life making art after he admitted drugging and raping a 13 year old child.

But its funny how these things get taken up and turned around. Last week as Polanski was making headlines across Europe and the US, Chile was gripped by quiet another story. That of a 14 year old girl who was kidnapped while walking home from the cinema with her boyfriend, violently raped and beaten, then dumped by a canal. When her father went the next morning to try and collect a prescription for the morning-after-pill that the doctor had given him, he went from pharmacy to pharmacy across Santiago only to discover that none of them actually stocked it. As time ran out for him to get it before it was too late (abortion is illegal in Chile under all circumstances), he eventually had to take his traumatised daughter to the emergency room in the hospital.

The case has caused outrage in Chile, with all the major newspapers and the candidates for the upcoming presidential election condemning the pharmacies for not stocking the pill (which has been legally available for women aged 14 and over without their parents permission since 2006). Many have pointed out that its useless it being legal, if its not available.

In the context of other news, its refreshing to know that rape of children can still cause outrage and a compassionate debate about its consequences.

Chile has the nastiest, meanest looking riot cop vans I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Big hulking blocks of dark green metal with barred up blacked out windows, always lurking round the most innocent looking street corners on sunny afternoons.

I’m doing fieldwork on a university campus at the moment, a twenty minute bus ride from my apartment. Jumping off at the stop a short block away from the university this morning, I noticed again that there were two large riot vans parked in the drive through McDonalds nearby. I have been trying to work out what this signifies. Do the Santiago police really like Big Macs? Is there not enough parking space at the cop shop? Is McDonalds perceived to be in need of two van loads of riot cops to protect it? Or maybe its McDs itself that’s considered subversive, and we the public are being protected from its revolting pseudo food by the boys in riot gear? One of my many daily mysteries.

Sometime this afternoon, during a rather boring class I was observing, we were disturbed by the sound of crowds of voices and loud sharp cracks outside the window. The guys sulking at the back of the class jumped up to peer out the window – but the window was closed and we went back to work. Let out half an hour later, I followed the shouting and smell of burning to the other side of campus – where one of those huge hulking riot vans was squatting in the street close up to the spiky iron perimeter railings of the campus. The water cannon was aimed at a crowd of protesting students and onlookers (but not at the burning trash cans, sadly, which would perhaps have been more useful).

Things progressed, and eventually the armoured-up cops marched back to their riot vans, while the cat calls and wolf whistles of the crowd rained down on them: punctuated with a few farewell rocks and bottles.

A classic moment – the black clad figure, face masked by a red and black scarf, runs forward with arm pulled back to sling his rock at the retreating cops. The Bansky pose, if you will, iconic whether he holds a rock or a flaming bottle or a bunch of flowers.

Except in mid hurl he slipped on the wet pavement and landed on his arse, and the entire crowd of protesters and onlookers burst into giggles.

Poor guy. He did manage to jump up again and land a good thonk with his rock afterwards, bless him. I guess his pride took a bit of a battering too. But he has given me something to remember and laugh about whenever I come across those scary scary machines in the future.

Check out this video:

But then watch this one for a longer interview with Maxine Johnson, the woman dragged out. Its worth watching to the end to hear her opinions on the healthcare debate.

I’m a huge fan of the documentary maker Louis Theroux, as his work often has a very ethnographic flavour to it. While he famously choices “weird” and often highly distasteful subject matters, he shares with ethnography the attempt to empathise with his subjects, that make his films more than voyeurism. Rather than encouraging the viewer to point and judge, his seems to be trying to understand the world in the way his subject understands it – even if he doesn’t agree. And that, ultimately, is what anthropology is about.

I’ve been watching his documentaries again recently and trying to use them as ways of thinking about doing ethnography – as a kind of foil perhaps. Given that I think so highly of them as a form of (very popular) communication and education, what do they have in common with ethnography, and what are they lacking? Given that in a documentary you see what in ethnography would be both the data gathering (fieldword) and the presentation (publication of a final work) stages at once, watching them provides some food for thought on both how to relate to subjects in order to find out something about them, and how then to present what you’ve learnt to a wider audience.

(All this in in the context of the fact that I’m reading the fantastic book “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” right now, which is a bit like ethnography bootcamp. Its full of insightful but sternly phrased instructions on what one must and must not do as an ethnographer, most of which I had never even thought about before. Its seriously whipping my ass.)

I’m starting with Louis’ documentary on African hunting holidays, which I think is one of his weakest films, while paradoxically one of the most interesting subjects. While there was a lot of good stuff in there, I was left with the feeling that it was too complicated a subject for him to handle. That in this case Louis’ own view point made him unable to explore the issue from a different – and ultimately more interesting – angle.

The 45 min long documentary follows Louis as he spends a weekend on various South African ranches where wild animals have been bred in order to be hunted by US tourists. We see him talk to a couple of hunters from Ohio, as well as various South Africans involved in the business. Louis is obviously highly distressed throughout the entire process. He can’t get over the fact that the animals are being killed, and when at one point he tried to bring himself to join in and shoot something himself, he backs out at the last moment.

The impression Louis seems to want to make with this documentary is that there is something really fucked up about shooting wild animals for sport, when the animal is practically domesticated and you are shooting it point blank with a very powerful gun. The problem is that this is really not that insightful a point. Most people viewing this film probably already share the same opinion, so we are not really learning much that is new. What I wanted to learn more about was why, then, do these US guys (and girls) want to do it? While Louis keeps asking them, he never gets closer to an explanation other than that it just feels amazing. At which point I read into the situation my own interpretation – that there is something about that adrenalin rush we see in their faces after they “make a kill”. That its not so much about a sense of skill (because there is barely any involved), as a sense of power.

But I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, because its never asked or explored.

Other more fundamental questions were raised though, that seem only unintentionally to have come up. And by ‘unintentionally’, I’m refering to the moment when one of the ranch owners gets really pissed off and starts telling Louis he’s asking all the wrong questions. While Louis keeps going on and on about how pretty the animals are, the owner points out that they would kill him if he got too close. Louis says isn’t it sad they have to die, and the owner replies that Louis doesn’t think its sad that cows and chickens die in far worse circumstances. Louis asks in a sad voice whether the owner likes animals, and the guy finally explodes that his country is “fucked”.

His land used to have orange trees and cattle, but that’s all gone. This is all the sells. The animals they are standing looking at were on the verge of extinction, and thanks to his work raising them for hunting they’ve been saved.

As the program ends Louis is still getting weepy about the pretty animals, but I’m left with more sympathy for the owners of the ranches who he has spent most of the program trying to run down. I might possibly be able to understand why someone would want to shoot an animal for sport. But I think I would find that person revolting. I think I can understand why someone would want to turn their failing agricultural business into a successful tourist industry, by switching from breeding domestic animals to wild ones and throwing in a hotel. And I don’t really have Louis moral repugnance to that.

Which then throws up the entirely unintended question of, why does Louis Theroux have such an issue with the whole set up? What image of the urban liberal is he projecting, that he can’t look at an animal without seeing Bambi?

So if this were an ethnography with the luxury of being able to spend one or two years doing fieldwork on this topic, rather than a 45 min documentary based on 3 days of research – I guess I’d start with the following:

    There ought to be more attention to context. What are the bigger social conditions in South Africa that have made farming so unprofitable, and tourism so attractive?
    How come he only ever talks to the owners of the ranches? Who are all those (black) guys we see working doing the driving and beating and skinning and hauling… What do they have to say?
    So those US hunters – what’s with them? So much of the kill seemed to be focused on getting a good photography. They kept using the word “trophy” without anyone asking anything about what that meant. How come its mostly men (and young men, given that the older ones all said they “grew out of it”)? Asking some deeper questions than “don’t you think its mean” might help get a little more insight.
    In this case – and this isn’t usually the case – Louis couldn’t get over his own issues enough to listen to the people he was studying. What is that saying about Louis’ own conceptualisation of animals?

I don’t think this was Louis Theroux’s best work, but it did get me interested in this topic. Next up to watch – plastic surgery!

I had the most amazing steak and kidney pie I’ve ever eaten last night. Here in Chile, of all places!

I’m a tad embarrassed about where I went, though. For the last month I’ve been walking past this very tacky looking “English Pub” near my house called The Phone Box Pub. Of course, it has a big red phone box on the patio, just like you can’t find in England. Plus an exciting range of revolting bitters, just like those I tried for so many years to avoid back home. Every day I roll my eyes at it, in the condescending way that people who live abroad for a long time like to.

So its quiet amazing that I ended up there last night, given my own snobbishness. Even more so given that I absolutely hate going to bars or restaurants on my own in the evening, something that’s a bit of a draw back if you spend a lot of time travelling on your own. I don’t mind eating lunch or other innocuous meals on my own in public. Though given that lunch is the main meal of the day here, I’ve been getting some very odd looks for sitting on my own reading a book or writing notes over my sandwich and coffee. I’ve become something of an amusing quirk in the little street of coffee shops I spend most of my time hanging out in. I’m usually the only person there on their own. Still, I would usually rather go hungry, or sit on my own in my hotel room with something depressingly portable like a cold sandwich and a cuppa soup, than sit alone in a restaurant at night.

But I’ve had an ongoing cold for three weeks now, and its really been wearing me down. I am not a good cook at the best of times, and living with someone else’s (very tiny) kitchen, I tend to resort to the most basic of meals. I’ve been subsisting on toast and omelets and egg sandwiches and iceberg lettuce salads and fruit, usually followed by those addictive little pots of vanilla “flan” and packets of bitter-orange chocodonut cookies.

I think some part of my brain snapped last night and craved great big chunks of meat. I was in that place and ordering the steak and kidney pie before the rest of my brain had time to work out what was going on.

And meat I got. Its taking me a while to work out how to order meals here. Like I said, lunch is the only really large meal. Breakfast is quite small, the evening meal rarely more than a light snack or a sandwich. And then there is this odd (but delightful) meal called “Once” which consists of tea, cake, and light sandwiches, eaten around 6 or 7. Yes – they have elevensis at 7. Go figure.

The few times I’ve tried to eat a larger meal in the evening – including last night – I’ve been thrown off by how the meal arrives. Namely, wysiwyg. So for example, I went out with some friends my first week here, and I ordered the prawns.

What I got was a bowl of prawns. But just a big bowl of prawns. Unadorned with bits of lettuce, or some kind of carbohydrate, or anything in fact – other than more prawns.

The next time I went out I tried to pre-empt a protein overload by ordering a side of roast potatoes with my steak. What I got that time were two large bowls – one filled with potatoes and the other with chunks of steak. Which were lovely. But a bit heavy.

For my steak and kidney pie event, I was curious if the “English” pub would produce a meal based on the English grammar of food serving – i.e., meat plus carbs plus some small veg based component on the side. Nope. I got a big bowl of meat, covered in a thin pie crust. With complimentary ketchup. And still I think it was the best steak and kidney pie I’ve ever eaten!

So ok, why was it the best steak and kidney pie I’ve ever had? Well, not because of the pie-ness of it. The crust was basically an large circle of empanada dough stretched over the top of the dish. But the inside… oh my. It was amazing. None of that gloopy, commerical-gravey tasting sauce you would usually expect (and which I usually have no overpowering objection to – steak and kidney pie is one of my favourite British foods). It was insanely rich in flavour, had huge great big chunks of really amazing meat in it.

And – I began to suspect – actual kidney! I don’t think I have ever had a steak and kidney pie that actually had kidney in it before! I’m strictly a non-offal-eating kind of girl. But this thing was just amazing. I even managed to get over the texture of the chunks of kidney – the flavour was just so incredible!

So there you go. The secret to the best steak and kidney pie in the world is to use kidneys. And probably better steak than will ever be available anywhere in the world other than Argentina and Chile. Plus, one has to get over one’s “I’m-not-going-in-to-that-tourist-trap-and-anyway-I-hate-English-beer” snobbery.