Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Estufa

When you live in an earthquake zone, reliably solid stuff  like walls and roofs and windows are somewhat less reliable than they are in places where the earth doesn't rumble and realign itself every other week.
            Walls develop cracks.  Inspectors and building contractors smile and tell you that the cracks are superficial and happening exactly where they're meant to - along slab lines or down the side of a core - places where the building is designed to flex. Because Chileans build really really solid.
            Structural integrity is a very good thing, but in the day-to-day, non-crisis scheme of things -
            There are air gaps everywhere!
            Doors work their way off plumb, and spaces appear between door and frame.  (Our front door has been sticking pretty good since Wednesday last. Opening it takes a shoulder and a shove.)
            Windows rattle out of alignment and lean tipsily in their frames, and narrow wedges of empty space keep the air circulating in and out.
            Every couple of years you call in a man who spends a couple of days pushing on the glass, whispering to it, and tapping gently at pressure points with a rubber mallet, and you're right and tight again for a month or three  But mostly you shrug your shoulders and be glad that no room is sealed too tight for health or happiness. 
            In winter, it takes bit of remembering.  Winter storms whistle straight through your healthy, happy environment- running up and down the curtains, ruffling furniture, knocking over bottles over the kitchen -
            It makes you feel like a protagonist front and center in a really theatrical surround sound experience, but a winter storm that breaches the walls and comes right in the apartment and cozies up next to you on the sofa is cold.
            The first really cold day of autumn nuzzles its way into your bed in the night and burrows deep into the thermal mass of the cracked concrete walls and  the next thing you know you're sleeping under four feather quilts and wearing hot- water-bottles strapped to your waist under your winter coat. (This isn't an exaggeration. I've a friend on the top floor of a building in El Golf who wears a hot water bottle every year from May to September.)
            Freezing isn't actually mandatory. Most of the apartments built in Santiago in the last half century have radiant heating.* 
            Unfortunately, running radiant heat is extremely expensive. Chile has no natural fuel reserves. Hydro exists only in the south where the rivers are.** Coal, oil and natural gas are imported from overseas, and the prices reflect it.
           Most Santiaguinos spend winter wrapped around their estufa. An estufa is a small portable gas heater that sits on a little wire trolley. You trundle it around your apartment from room to room to work up a nice localized fug, and you are very happy that the local geology has blessed you with natural ventilation that lets the fumes out as fast as they build up.
            The average human being is not overly gifted with foresight. In Autumn we watch the leaves fall and we talk about the cold weather that's coming but hardly anybody remembers to fill their kerosene can in advance of the winter.  On the first really wet, windy morning of the year, the whole city rolls out of bed, winces as warm toe meets icy floor, and lets out a collective damn.  
           Because now you have to queue.
           The kerosene that fuels your estufa is purchased at your local service station. There's snow on the mountains, which would be cause for celebration, but you can't see it because of the low grey mist rolling between the trees and the buildings. A slow rain works steadily down your collar, drip by icy drop. The chill creeps up through the soles of your shoes into your feet. The gas station attendants have to fit filling kerosene cans in between serving the cars that are pouring in (because anyone with a car is torn between filling the kerosene and getting up into the mountains to see the snow in person) and it looks like this -

* Most of them under the floor as per general spec, but in our first apartment here in Santiago, some unsung architectural genius installed the radiant heating network in the ceiling. The only winter we didn't spend in three layers of sweaters and a woolly hat was the year the people downstairs had a sick baby and ran their own heat all day long. They burned whole gas-fields keeping the temperature up to 70, and we walked around in shirtsleeves and bare feet.

** There's a major political kerfuffle right now over a possible huge high-voltage power line that would run 2000 kilometers from Aysen up to Santiago.

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