Nation of the Overweight?

It was a bit of a squeeze the other night on the metro – as it is always is on the red line – when a family hopped on. Mama was rotund, Papa was large, oldest daughter was fat (and about 12 and dressed like a stripper), middle daughter was very large and there was a boy of about four who was extremely obese. You could argue that maybe their size was a genetic thing, but when I watched them all sit down and stuff their faces with McDonald’s I think we can safely say that perhaps their diet just isn’t flash hot. The boy than had an extreme tantrum for some lollies, which his mother embarrasingly gave to him. I sympathised with her in this moment – the whole train was watching and the easiest way to make him be quiet was to give in to his demands. I felt very sad because I could see the parents loved their children, with the father guarding them all protectively. They got off when I did to change to the yellow line, and they took the lift instead of the escalator.

I know people eat for different reasons. Nearly all of us have beccome accustomed to feeling too full, and we eat more than we need to – when we don’t need to. Our eating habits have changed so drastically over the last hundred years that its almost unrecognizeable (must read: The Gift of Good Land by Wendell Berry). Chile today is one of the most at-risk countries in Latin America, with the national Ministry of Health stating that 22.4 percent of children overweight and 22 percent of adults obese. Dr. Juan Carlos Prieto, from the Clinical Hospital at University of Chile, blames the ridiculous amount of bread that Chileans have become accustomed to eating – some six to eight servings a day – and one of the highest rates in the world.

Bread certainly is a staple item here. Everyone I know consumes it for both breakfast and dinner, usually with eggs, avocado or tomato. It’s delivered fresh to our local corner stores twice a day and it’s preservative-free so if you don’t eat it when you buy it goes all crusty and stringy.

In my opinion the cause of the dietary shift is the stratopheric rise of the supermarket. I trace the changing diet of Chile here an academic essay for Massey University, in which I detail how these hypermarkets have replaced shopping in local markets, or ferias, for the majority. I can see the appeal of supermarkets – your not forced to cook around seasonal ingredients, you can buy ready-made foods, you can buy cheaper in bulk, you can buy everything you need in one go … When you don’t have much money (or time) the supermarket is an excellent place to stock up on what you need to feel full, especially when buying pasta is sometimes alot cheaper than buying fresh vegetables.  Note: the bread is not preservative free!

I have spent alot of time introducing readers to the people that I know in Recoleta. All of them are overweight. I’ve also talked time and again about the issue of education. The connection is obvious: 35.5% of low-income earners are overweight compared to 18.5% in Chile’s highest income bracket, with obesity twice as high for those with little education (Chile National Population Health Survey 2004).

In 2010, President Sebastián Piñera began a national programme to target the weight epidemic by increasing physical education in schools and a programme to refer obese children to nutritionists. However, given my own experience with a nutritionist in a reputable public hospital here, this is obviously not enough. Education is the root of the issue – people are just not being exposed to new information in the lower-income brackets, and they then do not have the means or tools to implement any changes.

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Getting Philosophical About Santiago

Who was it that said, “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing?”

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I will tell you. It was Socrates, the man I would have tried to marry if I had been born over two thousand years ago.  The Greek philosopher may not have been a looker (so they say) but he whipped the young people of Athens into such a frenzy that he was found guilty of disturbing the peace and forced to swallow poison. Nice*

The reason that I bring him up is that I often mull over deep, existential questions when I’m travelling on Santiago’s (excellent) metro system.  The commute to Nunoa is like a lesson in “How to Enjoy Life as a Sardine” because at rush hour its impossible to do much else but use the little grey cells of the brain. You don’t even need to hold on to anything because men very kindly squish themselves so deeply into your behind that its impossible to move. Or run away.

My academic background is in social anthropology. I just love people. When I meet a person I take in everything about them, from how they speak to how they dress, and I store this information away, to be put together at a later time.  I see their stories in front of me like I see their eyeballs – unique but also formulaic, and thus predictable to a degree.

Emphasis on the “to a degree.” It’s really quite impossible to make generalizations, especially when all the information you take in enters via several filters, whether they be filters of the senses, beliefs or of your own life experiences. This causes a difficulty in objectivity. That is why this blog is about my experiences in Chile, and not about any grand general statements about its people.

I was walking to my English class today when I saw an elderly gentleman sitting on a fold-away chair, out on his doorstep, in the street. He was alone and wasn’t do anything special, just sitting and watching, at that moment, me walk by.  Later, as I tried to escape appendages on the metro, I considered him again and I was struck by a thought: in nearly every country I have been to, I have witnessed similar behavior!

When I stayed with the adopted family of my uncle in Rural Gujarat, India, I would assist the aging patriarch to his porch each morning and there he would sit, until lunchtime. After lunch, back out he would go until the evening, when the whole family would soujourn to the living room and share the immensely bonding experience of Indian soap-watching.  He did absolutely nothing the whole time … that I could tell. Maybe he was seeing something that I just could not.

In England, my own grandparents would dust their sunroom with glee as spring approached, and summer was spent doing something similar, albeit with a healthy barrier of glass between them and nature.

In the north of New Zealand, we live outside come rain or sunshine, and I would argue that Sitting on the Deck is a national pastime.

In all these instances it’s plain to see that we human beings are united in our desire to enjoy the outside world, which seemingly increases with importance as we age.

What I love about its occurence in Recoleta is that it is an action without prejudice. We don’t have the best streets – hahaha (excuse the laugh).  In case you are wondering why I chuckled I will paint you a clearer picture. Santiago in general doesn’t have good roads (except the highways) and even the nicer areas flood after a drop of rain. Here in Recoleta its almost impossible to use a pushchair thanks to the broken footpaths, the roads are filled with potholes, and there’s always a dog every few metres that kindly offers you a present when you walk by. There’s rubbish everywhere, perhaps because people leave their rubbish bags outside and the dogs rip into them. Worst of all, when it’s warm, it gets stinky.

If it sounds like I can’t write a much worse description of the place I call my home, let me pause here and tell you one thing. On a sunny day, this smelly pot-holey barrio becomes heaven.  Maybe I say that because I love observing cities and their inhabitants, but the truth is it really is magnificent when the sun is shining.  Every house is unique, no one style employed in design, and the extravagant paint work bursts forth like an explosion under the sunlight. Every house and apartment keeps plants that have the power to transform even the most mundane of dwellings, and what you can find on the roadside is surprising. By my house there is a line of aloe vera plants. Nearby there are cacti with such aggresive spikes that they jut out into the road and dare you to walk by (seriously, they are so spikey you have to actually step off the footpath and walk around them – I’m surprised no-one has been seriously injured there). There are flowers of every description that bloom over fences and brighten doorways, and there are plum trees so laden that they drop their heavy purple fruit onto your head as you walk underneath.  I remember months ago we were walking home from taking the recycling (Recoleta recycles – woop!) and I saw a very elderly couple with thinning white hair out in the street and trimming the trees. It struck me how happy they were, how they were laughing and joking like teenagers while taking the time to care for the street. The moment really touched me.

So to return to the eternal question: what makes us human?  I have no idea but I want to say that the answer could be found in the way we always try to re-connect with the outside world, especially as we age. But the anthropologist in me hesistates to say anything and I leave you here with another tidbit from my past lover, Socrates: “true wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life ourselves and the world around us.”

* If you can, have a read of Plato’s Apology, which details Socrates’ trial. The man could debate.

Title by Socrates