In my opinion, Chile is one of the Latin American countries that has the least cultural contact with the United States. I, for one, before I came to Chile, knew very little about beyond the basic political history I had learned in my Latin American politics class. So, whenever people asked me how Chile compared to what I expected it to be, I never really had an answer for them. On the one hand, I think it can be a positive to go to a country without expectations, because it makes you more open to whatever experiences happen to come your way. However, I think there is value in spreading cultural knowledge. It is for this reason that I would like to give you a glimpse of Chilean culture.
As you may (or may not) know, Chile is a major producer of wine. In fact, it is not uncommon to find Chilean wine in American grocery stores. I like to think of Chile as the South American version of California. Geographically, it´s very similar to California, in that it´s very long, it lies at about an equivalent latitude, and it borders the Pacific Coast. It is not surprising, then, that both places have similar crops—including grapes to make wine. (which are grown very differently than grapes grown for eating…. But that´s a story for another day.)
Anyway, most Chilean wine grapes are grown in the central valley of Chile, which, luckily for wine-lovers studying abroad in Santiago, lies within a few hours of the capital. It is a tradition in this region to have a festival at the end of the wine grape-growing season every year to celebrate the harvest. This festival is called Vendimia. It usually takes place in March or April (which is Chilean autumn), and the festival season lasts several weeks, as it takes place each week in a different town that produces wine. Since this festival represents a Chilean tradition, naturally the Tufts abroad program made sure that we attended.
In the van on the way there, I really had no idea what I was in for… so I asked the assistant program director what exactly we were going to do upon our arrival at the festival. Well, she told me there would be food and artisanship and wine…. Nothing I hadn´t experienced before in Chile. But then, she mentioned that there would be a pisada de uvas…. Could this be what I thought it was? Ever since I had seen people on TV squashing fruit with their feet, it had been a life goal of mine to do it for myself. Little did I know when I got up this morning, that today would be the day that I realized that dream.
When we arrived at the festival, I was only mildly interested in everything it had to offer. It definitely wasn´t the first time I had seen Chilean wool sweaters or beautiful leather belts or shampoos made from honey (which are all lovely, but no longer novel). Although I was tempted by the chocolate-covered strawberries. Of course, a few glasses of delicious Chilean left me in a good mood so that I was able to get my mind off the impending grape-squishing long enough to enjoy my lunch (of fish and French fries…. Guess what, French fries are not as United Statesian as we like to believe.)
But as 3:30 approached, I made sure to stay close to the stage, already equipped with big barrels of grapes, ready for the squishing. And when they asked for volunteers to come squish grapes, I was the first one with my hand in the air. Since this was a festival, we were really just squishing grapes with our feet to continue the tradition and have fun…. I´m pretty sure they aren´t going to use those grapes to make wine (just in case you were worried about whether or not I washed my feet first). I practically ran to the stage before squeezing my feet into a barrel with another girl from the program.
Before I say anything else, Yes, squishing grapes with my feet was just as fun as I had always imagined it to be. However, it was a little less messy and a little more tiring than expected. I was out of breath after less than two minutes of feet stomping. Sadly, we didn´t fill our pitcher as fast as the other team, but even that couldn´t dampen my spirits.
Just when I thought the day couldn´t get any better, they started playing Cueca music! Cueca, for those of you who don´t know (most likely almost everyone) is the national dance of Chile. I learned how to do it in my dance class last semester, and I just barely managed not to completely embarrass myself when I attempted to do it at the festival this afternoon. But hey, if I´m trying to get the most out of my abroad experience, how can I justify not dancing the national dance at a wine harvest festival???
Now I love dancing, but the cueca is not one my best. For one thing, the music makes it really difficult to find the beat. Nonetheless, I really like for two main reasons:
1) Technically, the cueca tells a little story. The idea is that a man is trying to woo a woman, and she continues to run away from him. When the cueca is done well, this story is very clear. For this reason, it also leaves some room for some improvisation and personal flair, which makes it a lot more fun.
2) I love to watch older couples do the cueca—you know, couples that have been married for 40 years. Because when they do the cueca, I feel like they get this twinkle in their eye like I imagine they had on their first date. It´s cute.
So… long story short, after a full day of eating Chilean food, drinking Chilean wine, squishing grapes with my feet, and dancing the national dance, the only thing that could complete my Chilean experience was chocolate-covered strawberries on a stick. Granted, I´m not sure how “Chilean” it is, but it did make for a great finish to the day.
Now this was just a glimpse into Chilean traditions… but at least now you´ll have something to talk about should you ever meet a Chilean on the street :)