When it comes to being a cracker-ass gringo, there’s no one better at it than me. Pale, awkward and painfully clumsy, Chilean heads never fail to turn wherever I go in Santiago. Despite this, my good friend Rodrigo decided it would be a great idea to show me his hometown of San Bernardo to teach me about authentic Chilean “huaso” (cowboy) culture during the town’s annual “Abril Cuecas Mil” festival, during which – get this – one thousand Cuecas are performed non-stop over 36 hours.
What is a Cueca, you ask? Cueca is Chile’s national folk dance, which has origins from both Spanish and African traditions. It’s a type of courtship dance; men and women step synchronously while twirling pañuelos (handkerchiefs). To be honest, it looks utterly ridiculous. That is, until you try it and realize that it’s a lot of fun. Having a few Terremotos, a potent Chilean cocktail, doesn’t hurt either.
Rodrigo’s tour began with a visit to Maestranza, an abandoned train repair site on the outskirts of the San Bernardo. With more glass on the floor than dirt, it’s an eerie wasteland that holds twisted beauty. High-vaulted concrete arches laden with graffiti interlock with decaying beams of wood and steel. Refuse abounds from the squatters, paintball players and delinquents who pass through.
After, he took me through San Bernardo’s Parque Chena, where we hiked to the top of one of this area’s many cerros (hills) to get a better look at the city and the faint outline of Santiago off in the distance. It was cloudy that day, so there wasn’t much to see. Like every other Chilean city, the top of the hill is adorned with a statue of the virgin Mary.
After a few hours of hiking I felt like a zombie. I hadn’t been sleeping well lately and could barely keep my eyes awake. When we got back into town, I beat my body into submission with an energy drink and we headed into the thick crowd of Cueca enthusiasts. Music was blaring from a stage in the city square where a rotating lineup of band members ensured that the dancing wouldn’t cease until the magic number. “Cueca 397!” the singer shouted. They had a long way to go.
Rodrigo was eager to teach me, but my lack of coordination and prior dance experience made me apprehensive. I feebly followed his lead, but had a hard time feeling the rhythm. An astute instructor, he decided to take a different approach- liquor. That day I discovered something: after two Terremotos I transform into a dancing MACHINE.
Sweet liquid courage coursing through my veins, I attempted my first Cueca with Rodrigo’s friend Carolina. We started the paseo, in which the man escorts the woman to and fro along the dance floor. We parted ways and faced eachother, clapping our hands to the rhythm of the music.
When the lyrics began, it was time for the inicio vuelta, or beginning turn. At this point I was too concentrated on my steps to think about how silly I looked twirling a handkerchief overhead. Midway through I was completely lost. My eyes spied other pairs, looking for familiar steps so I could find my place, but to me nothing resembled what I was taught. As the song came to a close, I tried my best to finish as if I knew what the hell I was doing.
She told me I did well, but I knew she was just being nice. Doing anything remotely recognizable as Cueca was a sufficient victory for me. I continued to dance through the night. I’d like to say I improved, but I think I got worse as the alcohol faded. Note to self: drink more next time.
Special thanks to Rodrigo and his friends for being so hospitable. I’m already looking forward to las Fiestas Patrias, an important week celebrating Chilean patrimony, when I’ll have many more opportunities to practice.
Until then, I guess I’ll just have to have my own festivals. Keep an eye out in Santiago for the drunken American twirling a handkerchief and dancing with a stoplight.