Monthly Archives: March 2009

Matt Harding: Dancing Around the World

Matt Harding, the guy who danced his way (badly) around the world and author of the hoax that was not a hoax.

Matt Harding- Bad Dancer 2009

Matt Harding--Bad Dancer 2008 (NPR)

It’s Sunday morning and I’m listening to NPR (National Public Radio).  I hear a piece on Matt Harding, of Where the Hell is Matt fame. This guy travels the world and puts up videos of himself happily–though badly–dancing on You-Tube.

What does this have to do with Chile, you ask? Not all that much, but he’s been here in Chile, danced on Easter Island (yes, that’s part of Chile), and his project is really cool, so please bear with me!

He’s one of those guys who seems to glide through life on a sense of humor, dumb luck, and a healthy dose of right-time-right-place. He quit his job, slung a backpack over his shoulder, and set out to see the world (literally) in 2003. Somewhere along the line he had the bright idea of doing a dumb dance on camera and posting it to his web site. You Tube lofted him to new heights, a gum company sprung for further travel-dances, and the dream career he never knew he wanted was launched. He’s been traveling, dancing, and uploading videos ever since!

His 2006 video proves he was in Chile (on Easter Island, 2 minutes in). He’s also posted his notes on his trip through the Southern Cone.

All well and good. Fun guy, nice gimmick, found his niche and the way to follow his heart’s desire on someone else’s dime. Cool…

But wait-there’s more!

Matt, it turns out, is a prankster, and he came up with–get this–not a hoax (anyone can do that), but a HOAX of a hoax… Sheer genius.

Spurred on by comments on YouTube that claimed his video was a green screen and Photoshop scam, he decided to come clean. Speaking before a large audience at the December 2008 EG Conference he confessed his sins and revealed all the secrets behind this elaborate viral ad campaign. That he was an actor and afraid to fly. That Photoshop was, indeed, and essential element in his video-making process. That the project was top secret and his sponsors (Buzz!Brain) couldn’t risk hiring loose-lipped actors to dance with him, so they spent $5 million building 100 animatronic puppets (electronic robots). That they had sunk a stripped-down Boeing 727 in a swimming pool to mock up the weightless dancing scene ($17 million). And to eliminate any trace of a doubt in the audience’s mind of what he was up to, the still straight-faced Harding concluded with a pie chart that revealed a budget that included expenditures for robot uprising insurance, animatronic masseuses, hush money, and hair extensions. His audience rolled on the floor!
Man, did those Photoshop conspiracy theorists look dumb then!

But here’s the irony… EG uploaded the video(Matt Harding-Where the Hell is Matt an Elaborate Hoax), Digg picked it up (Matt Harding: Where In The Hell Is Matt? It’s a Hoax), and Jaunted, who had not bothered to read beyond the headlines, put it in their Hoax category (Matt Comes Clean: He Was Faking It All Along and it just spiraled out from there.

The media had fallen for the gag and unwittingly (or dumb-wittedly) played its part in propagating the hoax that was not a hoax and the not-hoax that turned out to be one!

I just discovered a couple more links worth adding. It seems that when Jaunt figured out that it was a joke, they came back with “we were joking too”… But they did an interview with Matt that bears checking out: Matt Harding Tells Jaunted All About His Real Dancing Videos

And in the course of that interview, I came across a spoof of Matt at Funny or Die. It takes a while to download, so be patient. And just for the record… it’s a hoax!

Mechoneo: March Rite of Passage

Sí, llegó marzo… and despite all the problems that March brings with it, it has its upside as well. Fall has always been my favorite season, and in Chile, March IS autumn; there’s not much in terms of colorful falling leaves, but it IS harvest time (uber cool for wine geeks, but we’ll leave that, too, for another day)… AND, it’s back to school time. Ok, so I’m a not-so-closeted nerd at heart. I grew up in the country after nearly 3 months of forced tranquility, I was always VERY glad to go back to school!

Mechones from U. Finis Terrae- Santiago

Mechones from U. Finis Terrae- Santiago

In Chile, March is also the month of mechones and mechoneos… and in Chile, mechoneo, or hazing, is not just a frat rat stunt. First year students at just about every university in the country are subjected to a few days of “fun-spirited” abuse.

I do admit that things seem to be much more subdued than in the past, when it was not uncommon to hear of some poor soul who had died after being forced to chug Clorox or undergoing some other ridiculously absurd thing they were required to do in order to enter the realm of the socially accepted.

I’ve been on the watch for mechones this year and have made a point to ask them what they’ve been subject to. The first pair, 2 shoeless ick-and-gook-covered young women from Universidad Finis Terrae, were very timidly standing a bit too far from the entrance to the Manuel Montt Metro station, not very successfully attempting to appeal to the mercy of passersby to help them out.

Mechones beg for money to buy back their shoes

Shoeless mechones, Santiago de Chile, 2009

I asked what they had to do: “They won’t give our shoes back until we bring back $13,500 pesos and a cigarette.” $13,500?? That’s like $22.50 in USD… Each. That’s a lot of money here, where most people will walk past them feigning oblivion and those willing to help fork over $100 pesos (that means getting 135 people–each–to reach into their pockets!) Mom & Dad more likely.

Two mechones with chicken foot

Mechones with chicken foot, U Mayor, Santiago de Chile

A couple days later I ran into another dirty duo at the Santa Lucía Metro. They were just as covered in crud, but far more into their game. They were playing it up and raking in the change. They, students of Universidad Mayor, were required to return with $8500 each–plus a chicken foot, which they proudly dangled from a string.

I generally see this behavior as harmless bonding behavior–as long as it stays within the boundaries of face painting and flour throwing, without getting into the category of nasty, denigrating, or dangerous. Chilean culture is very much group oriented and sharing initiation experiences provides opportunities for bonding. These students will sit in the same classrooms and share the same curriculum for the next 4 years and struggle through a group thesis for at least another year. They are entering into a social networking system that began long before Facebook and will be a vital part of their careers for the rest of their lives. In a culture that places such great importance on contacts, being part of the group is essential. And that requires a rite of passage: mechoneo.

Llegó Marzo (March is upon us)

Llegó Marzo, literally, March has arrived… or rather, it is upon us.
Llegó Marzo. Two little words imbued with so much cultural significance.

It’s March. And in Chile, March is a rough month. Here in the southern hemisphere it means that summer is over and it’s time to get back to a real world that’s been waiting with a vengeance. Playtime’s over and we must buckle down, tote that barge and lift that bale once again.

Most real work seems to get done in the winter months, between April and August. Things start winding down in September with the arrival of spring and the extended Independence Day holidays. October starts the slippery slide toward the summer homestretch. November: school is wrapping up and the wedding season is on. December means graduations, shopping, holiday parties, and Christmas. January kicks off literally with a bang (fireworks), and let the summer begin. Vacations. Beach time. Travel time. Can’t get much done at work because people are already on mental vacation. February: the world comes to a screeching halt as the city bails and takes its urban hustle-bustle on the road. Mostly to the beach.

And then comes March. Reality kicks in… hard… Back to work, back to school, back to routine. Back to traffic jams, crowded subways and buses and long lines for colectivos.

And back to the bills-in-waiting after months of celebrations. Back to the bank for a loan. The ghost of Christmas (and summer) past stands shoulder to shoulder with the specter of costs to come. And as if back to school expenses weren’t brutal enough (registration, tuition, uniforms, books, schools supplies, etc.), someone got the bright idea that every car registration in the country must be renewed–you guessed it–in March (more lines, more bills). And taxes aren’t far behind.

March. It’s a government plot, I tell ya…
Hear that whip cracking? My theory is that it’s the government’s way of forcing us all back to work after such a long hiatus… Making sure that everyone is up to their necks in debt from the get-go to ensure another year of production!

Anthony Bourdain loves lomitos

Anthony Bourdain: ¡amante del sánguche chileno!

Anthony Bourdain. Love him or hate him, the man’s a rock star for foodies. The rambling TV chef-and-travel-eater just made his first trip to continental Chile (he visited Easter Island last year) and munched his way through Santiago, Valparaíso and Concón on the coast, and traveled south to Puerto Montt. Chiloé was on his list, but bad weather kept him off the island.

Chef caught eating pork and avocado sandwich

"International chef caught eating pork and avocado sandwich"

Anthony Bourdain showed up in Chile a week earlier than expected and came armed with a crew well-trained in the art of keeping the press at bay… as far as I can tell, no one got a personal interview, but he was seen out and about and making the rounds of the local picadas.

Proof of his whereabouts first appeared on the front page of the Sunday “Las Ultimas Noticias” that featured him full cover with the headline: “Pillan a chef mundial comiendo lomito palta en Plaza Italia” (World chef caught eating pork and avocado sandwich in Plaza Italia). Slow news day, I guess. Anyone who has ever seen his show knows that he’s not about fancy-schmancy techno-food and that it was only logical that he would find his way to the local sandwich shops!

He did hold a tightly programmed press conference (that started an hour late) for a handful of carefully selected members of the

Anthony Bourdain preparing for press conference in Chile

Anthony Bourdain preparing for press conference in Chile

local media. I managed to jump through the appropriate hoops and get my name on a press pass. His handlers kept pretty strict control of the situation, but he was relaxed and candid… charming even. I hadn’t expected that…  Just a down-to-earth kinda guy who honestly seems to know how lucky he is to be in his own boots (nicely-worn brown leather cowboy boots, in fact).

“It doesn’t suck to be me,” he says with a smirk, “I’m a lucky cook who gets to travel around this incredible planet and tell stories in an impressionistic and very personal way.”

When asked about what makes his show a success, he replied:

“The fact that I’m either very happy or really miserable… I have the freedom to tell the truth. I don’t lie. Luckily I wrote an obnoxious book before I got to TV, so nobody expects me to be a diplomat. Most food and travel shows have to say that things are great… but they’re not. I have a privilege that I abuse to look at the camera and say “this sucks!” And on my show I can be drunk, curse, say cruel and totally inappropriate things about Sarah Jessica Parker… We have a parental advisory at the beginning of the show… and I’m very proud of that.”


We were asked to submit 2 questions several days ahead of time. The moderator read them in Spanish, and Bourdain responded through a translator:

Anthony Bourdain in Chile3

"It doesn't suck to be me"

What did you like best about Chilean food?

Sea urchins (erizos). They were great. And oysters… the oysters are really good here, they’re tiny and cute.

The best meal I had in Chile was at El Hoyo… it was shockingly, shockingly good. I liked the arrollado. That was a highlight. And prieta (blood sausage)… that was fuckin awesome!!

I’m a lomito fan… lomitos are great… but I have mixed emotions about the completo… I can’t decide if it’s really delicious or a war crime.

Was there any Chilean food that you didn’t like?

Piure. (The expression on his face tells it all… clearly not a big fan of this local shellfish loaded with iodine).

What is your opinion of Chilean food overall?

There’s plenty of tradition here… lots of old technique. And with sea urchins, sandwiches as magnificent as the lomito, and wine this goodI’ve had a lot of good wine hereChile doesn’t have anything to apologize for to anyone.

The fact that Bourdain is fit and lean despite eating just about anything placed in front of him and happily drinking like a fish makes him the envy of any food writer, so what we all really want to know is how the hell he does it!!

Are you one of those guys who only eats when the camera is rolling?

Ha-ha… Nooooo! I love to eat! I do my best to live an unhealthy lifestyle. I take everything my mother told me to do and do just the opposite. But I don’t eat snack food… no Cheetos for me. I don’t eat in front of the TV… And living around food is like growing up with wine… there’s no need to gorge.

And then he adds:

Have you heard that phrase “don’t trust a thin chef” ? Well that’s just the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard in my life. Fat chef? Not workin’ hard enough…

What are your favorite berries? [Weird question, I know, but it’s a berry producer who’s asking…]

Honestly, I don’t care about sweet stuff. I mean, I like fruit… a perfectly ripe peach is a great thing, but I don’t need it. I like savory. I like salty. I like umami. I could live without fruit. But I like figs… and oh yeah! Grapes! I need grapes… in a glass!!

What would you cook for God?  [Another one from left field, but the weirder the question, the better his answer!]

God? You want me to cook for God???? I’m afraid to cook for my wife! Ok. Let’s see… sea urchin with linguini and olive oil… no, wait… boeuf bourguignon … yeah, God loves boeuf bourguignon …no wait… lechón… yeah, I’m sure that God loves pork.

Yeah, I’m a Bourdain fan… gotta love a guy who loves to eat!

Greetings from Chile!

So you’re driving along the winding roads of Chile’s Coastal Mountains near Lago Rapel and come upon this scene… What goes through your mind… Safety issues? Joy ride? Dumb move? Having fun? It’s all relative… culturally relative, that is.

Matt Wilson: On the Road

Greetings from Chile! Photo by Matt Wilson

My friend, photographer Matt Wilson, sent this picture around this morning, calling it “Only in Chile.”  It’s not, of course. I’m sure scenes like this can be found in many places around the world, but it made me stop and wonder… These guys are clearly having a great time, and I have to admit, riding around backwards in a car jacked up on the back of a flatbed truck does seem like a fun and larky,  once-in-a-lifetime-thing-to-remember kind of thing to do… but then I get this “oh my god you can’t be serious” voice in my head shouting “Danger Will Robinson!”  (True, I don’t always listen to this voice, but it’s there).

And that controlling little voice has been nagging at me all day. I’ve been thinking about this picture and asking myself,  “What is it about this scene?” “What do these guys think about what they’re doing?”  “What do the other drivers on the road think about what they’re doing?” Clearly they’re having a great time, so why do I get this weird feeling about it?

It’s very much a cultural thing, and it’s all tied up with conceptions of “common sense,” of right and wrong, and just plain dumb. Somehow we “know” what we can-can’t, should-shouldn’t, could-couldn’t, must-mustn’t, ought or ought not to do in any given circumstance. We’ve been taught directly and indirectly throughout the course of an entire lifetime to think that something is or is not a good idea. And then there are the things where the jury is still out. And in Chile, the jury seems to be out quite a bit.

Responsibility is an issue that keeps coming to mind. The truck is winding its way through the sinuous roads of central Chile’s Coastal Mountains (near Lago Rapel), where  the hills are steep and visibility is limited. If there were an accident and these guys got hurt, who would be to blame? Who would take responsibility? Or to state it bluntly (and gringoesquely), who could they sue? The answer is probably no one.  They take responsibility for themselves. They’ve chosen to trust the driver and put their faith in the straps that fasten the car to the truck and ride who knows how many miles through the hills. They know what can happen, but they’ve tossed their proverbial caution to the wind. They’re just along for the ride.

The truth is, I’m not even sure there are laws against this kind of thing in Chile. And if there are, who knows if they would ever be enforced. It’s very common to see people of all ages riding in the back of trucks and vans–often with no doors or gates to protect them from sliding off or out, and until fairly recently, it was common to see people hanging off the sides of overstuffed city buses during rush hour.  Beats walking, I suppose.

Of course the news is full of tragedies, and everyone clucks their tongues and recites “what a shame,” until the next time around. But in the end, people, adult people, make their decisions and abide by their consequences. No one has forced them into that car, and if they get hurt as a result, who is to blame but themselves? (Of course it’s an altogether different story when bad decisions affect third-party innocents, but then that’s an entierly different post).

So where am I going with this? Once again the concept of cultural relativity comes up. (OK- yes, in the spirit of full disclosure, I AM an anthropologist). The culture we grow up in frames our ways of thinking for our entire lifetime. It instills that controlling voice in our heads that guides us through our lives and even tells us what to think about what other people are doing.

My little voice looks at these guys and tells me “don’t do that”… but then there’s that other voice (probably the one that convinced me to move to Chile in the first place), that says, what the hell, go for it! Have fun!  Enjoy life! We all have to go sometime, so why not enjoy the ride in the meantime?

Why not indeed.

Driving Tips, Chilean Style (Manejar, a la chilena)

The topic is drivingagain… But this time it’s not my opinion, but rather a tongue-in-cheek look at Chilean driving styles written by Chilean journalist Marcela Recabarren and translated from the February 7, 2009 edition of Paula magazine (page 81). It’s always interesting to have some insight into what Chileans think about themselves.

Nuevamente el tema se trata de los modos de conducir de los chilenos, pero esta vez no es opinión mía. Se trata de unas observaciones de la periodista Marcela Recabarren, publicadas en la revista Paula. Ver la versión original en el primer comentario abajo.

Driving behaviors that show just how far we are from living a civilized lifestyle:
1. You’re in a traffic jam and someone signals that they want to change lanes.
Response: speed up so they can’t move in.

2. The driver in front of you lets another car slide in ahead of him.
Response: blow your horn in protest against the jerk that lets others cut ahead.

3. You try to change lanes, but no one lets you in.
Response: swear at the idiots who won’t let you in, although they can’t hear you because your window is rolled up.

4. You see a car with a “Student Driver” sign.
Response: speed past with your foot to the floor so that she understands how to really drive.

5. A pedestrian attempts to cross the street at a crosswalk and no one lets him pass.
Response: stop and let them cross, just to make yourself feel good. The effect will last all day, although you continue to practically run over every other pedestrian you see.

Sage advice about the fine art of napkin use at the Chilean table…

Have you noticed that Chileans seem to have a thing about napkins?

I wish I had a picture of those funky towering napkin cones that are so popular in all Chilean soda fountains and sandwich joints. It’s one of those things that everyone seems to notice when they come to Chile. But truth be told, it’s been a while since I’ve given much thought to the importance of napkins in everyday Chilean life.

There’s nothing like a break in the routine to shine the spotlight on daily quirks. I just spent a couple weeks in Germany, mostly amongst Chileans, and the topic of napkins-or rather their scant availability-came up surprisingly often. “Restaurants are stingy with the napkins” they would tell me. “They’ll only give you one, and sometimes you have to ask.” In fact, at one place, the waiter came out with 3 paper napkins for 5 diners and was promptly sent back for 2 more.

The fact that it was an issue reminded me of my earliest days in Chile, nearly 18 years ago, when I rented a room from an older woman who fed me surprisingly well, although our differing forms of napkin behavior came up at nearly every meal.

Napkins were not considered a necessity where I grew up, but I was taught that when present, a napkin (whether paper or linen) should be spread across the lap, lifted periodically to dab the mouth, and replaced, out of sight, on the lap. During my first meal in Chile, I was surprised to see a neatly folded cocktail napkin (you know, those little 4 x 4 inch jobs) next to my plate. I opened it and placed it on my lap and proceeded to eat. My hostess became flustered–maybe even embarrassed–when she did not see a napkin by my plate and insisted I take another one. I obliged and placed it too on my lap. I figured, okay, so she only has little ones and wants me to take 2 for good coverage. She, on the other hand, could not figure out what I was doing with those napkins and actually got up and handed me another one. When I showed her I already had 2 on my lap, she dropped the subject, but made a mental note to find me a copy of the Manual de Carreño (the Chilean version of  Miss Manners).

Chilean napkin etiquette is amazingly specific.

Rule 1: All meals must be served with napkins:

I don’t think I have ever sat at a Chilean table that did not have a diagonally folded napkin at every place. Breakfast, lunch, onces (that’s afternoon tea) and dinner. Snacks too. They are often cocktail napkins (much cheaper than the larger dinner size) and almost always plain white (also cheaper). I’ve seen on numerous (admittedly informal) occasions a host tear the napkins in half to be sure there were enough to go around. And–I swear–I have even seen neatly folded toilet paper appear beside my plate because that was preferable than going without.

Of course there’s the material-paper or cloth-aspect as well. Let’s face it, cloth napkins sure are nice, but they’re much more bother than paper throw-aways (all that washing and ironing-yes, people iron here). Everyone I know here has cloth napkins at home, although they tend to come out for company, special occasions, or just before payday when the paper napkins have run out. In restaurants, cloth is a must for fine dining, while paper will do otherwise. In fact, my foodie friends use napkin type as a criterion for evaluating restaurants… heaven help the pretentious restaurant that skimps on linens.

Rule 2: Linen napkins go on the lap, paper ones on the table

And then there’s the whole placement during use issue. I bet I could walk through a casual restaurant and pick out the gringos by simply observing their napkin placement behavior. North Americans will have their napkins on their laps; Chileans will have theirs on the table. Ok, so where do Europeans and Asians stand on this point? (This is not a rhetorical question… I’d really like to know!).

As far as I’m concerned, napkins, paper, or otherwise, have 2 functions: spill protection and mouth wiping; but in Chile, paper is a mouth-only proposition. The flip side of this is that the paper types are left on the table-usually discreetly folded and tucked beside the plate-but queasy eaters have been known to lose their appetite at the sight of used napkins piling up on the table.

Side note: Soda fountain napkin cones

No Chilean napkin-use commentary could possibly be complete without at least a mention of the famous soda fountain napkin cone phenomena. Little 3-inch squares of 1-ply plasticky-papery material are swirled high in metal cones and left on the tables so that customers can help themselves to all they need. And they’ll need a lot. Since they have nearly no absorbency quality whatsoever, their only purpose is to scrape stuff off of mouths and fingers. Napkin cones are especially common in sandwich shops where there is goo aplenty and these things pile up on the table very quickly.

(Many thanks to Uwedoble (see comment below) for the picture of the napkin cone:

Gringo Napkin-use Survival Strategy: get your hands on TWO napkins, keep one in your lap to keep YOU happy and another on the table to keep your Chilean friends happy…