Scenes from Sept. 18

25 September 2007
11:00 AM

Chilean cowboys on horseback
Chilean cowboys, called huasos, ride on horseback carrying the Chilean flag, which bears a striking resemblance to the Texas flag.

The signs went up in the Lider supermarket: The 18th is here at last! That same day I saw a folklore band in traditional huaso dress singing on a street corner downtown. Kites had already started to appear in the skies. The Chilean national holiday centered on September 18 was in the air. The only peculiar detail was the date. It was August 18, not September.

Call it holiday creep. Chile’s national celebration, known simply as the Dieciocho, had slipped into August, much like Christmas into the pre-Thanksgiving slot. Perhaps the creep could be attributed to this year’s XXL rendition. Since Sept. 18 falls on a Tuesday, the government passed a resolution making Monday a holiday as well. Sept. 19 is, naturally, a day off as well, so many schools and workers decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle of working Thursday or Friday either. That’s the kind of thinking that got a holiday turned into a week of holidays. The Fourth of July has a lot to learn.

During the Dieciocho days there is a cultural explosion where you can’t turn around without encountering one of the typical elements of Chilean culture. There are cueca dances, flying kites, cowboys in costume, chicha, rodeos, giant barbeques, fireworks, parades, and empanadas. I tried to make the most of what will most likely be my last Dieciocho in Chile. Here are a few snapshots from my week.

Rows of kites for sale

As the spring winds rush off the Andes, kids everywhere take to the skies to fly their kites. I went to Parque O’Higgens to get in on the action. I picked a good place—there were literally hundreds of kites in the air—but my kite skills were found wanting. I bought the the kite of my dreams, a Chilean flag, and quickly found out that I should have saved my dream kite for a time when I knew how not to destroy it. Most kites are just a sheet of tissue paper stretched across two wooden sticks, but you’d be amazed how well they fly. I mean, you’d be amazed if you weren’t watching me. My Chilean kite made its maiden flight, which lasted 8 glorious seconds, and ended in a crack of despair. One of the passers-by helpfully offered, “You know, the wind is blowing that way.”

I bought my second kite for another dollar. The salesman, a kite maker who says he produces about 2,500 kites during the Dieciocho, gave me some tips. I was able to get this one flying, but my brief flirtation with success was short lived. I felt the line go slack as the wind took Number Two to the kite graveyard in the sky. Roy tried to chase it down as it fell, but it landed inside the gate of a nearby amusement park.

Kite number three benefited from my recently acquired skills; I didn’t crash it immediately. It did not benefit, however, from much wind. In what can only be described as an unfortunately afternoon lull, I tried for 45 minutes to loft the kite in the non-existent wind. Boring. Suddenly, a breeze arrived and I tossed my kite into the air. Seconds later it was 50 feet up. I was looking good, spooling out string when the kite dipped and pulling the string taut when it circled upward. I was like a kite fly-fisherman, an artisan of wind and string, a master of—POP. What happened? Hey, that kid cut my line with his—illegal!—glass string. Stupid kid. Now I’ve got to get my kite back and—hey, what’s going on with that group of kids? The ones with the branches who are circling around that falling kite over? Wait a second, that’s my kite! No, hey, wait, you can’t just take that! Oh. I guess they did. So day one ended with my kite getting cut, Kite Runner style, and then scavenged by the roving gang of kite killers. I coulda been a contender.

Two horses push calf against wall

I went to my second rodeo over the Dieciocho, which is to say I had my second session of complete confusion. Pairs of cowboys on horseback take turns slamming a calf against the wall. The announcer gives the scoring on the fly. “One good point. … Three good points … One bad point … zero points.” Meanwhile I just think Man, that cow does not look like it’s having a good time. I imagine the cows getting together afterwards: “Hey, my ribs are killing me. Anyone else feel that?”

Pitcher of chicha

Chicha is a lightly alcoholic drink (between 1% to 3%). In Chile’s it’s usually made from grapes or apples. Drinking chicha while eating empanandas is part of the typical Dieciocho cuisine, so I went to a recommended corner store to buy some. You bring your own bottles for them to fill, which made me feel like I was making a clandestine moonshine purchase.

Inti-Illimani, a popular Chilean folklore group, sings a Bolivian tune that goes like this:

Señora chichera
Véndeme chichita
Si no tiene chicha
Cualquiera cosita


Miss chicha lady
Sell me some chicha
If you don’t have chicha,
Whatever else you got

It’s catchy, but since I don’t have the song, you’re going to have to trust me on this one. Anyway, I wanted to sing the song at the corner chicha store, but (a) I can’t sing, and (b) that would be extra strange. The chicha was great, though.

Empanadas on baking sheet

One of the main reasons for buying chicha was to drink it with empanadas. Chileans are crazy for their empanadas, which are like Hot Pockets on steroids, and they eat millions over the Dieciocho. According to a news report Chileans eat an average of five empanadas apiece during the holiday. I don’t understand the craze. These things are available in stores everywhere all year round; why are they so special to the Dieciocho?

In any event, if you’re going to have a Dieciocho, you have to have empanadas. I organized a gringo empanada factory and got a recipe for the dough and beef filling. We started working at 1:30pm, and by 2:00pm my slave-driver management style, compounded with the six pounds of onions that we were chopping, had everyone in tears. In addition to the standard beef filling my housemate Natalie made a chicken filling and Michelle made an apple-pie-style dessert filling. I miscalculated the amount of time it would take to chill the beef filling in the fridge which meant we didn’t eat until 10:00pm. Our empanadas got compliments from four Chileans, though, so while our timing could use some work, the recipe was a success.

Horse-drawn stagecoach

We saw a show where riders told the history of Chile on horseback, from the native Mapuche people through the arrival of conquistadors and the development of modern Chile. The show couldn’t have had a better backdrop. As we watched, the Andes lay lie giants on the horizon. My favorite part was where they got the horses to dance cueca, the typical Chilean dance


At the Dieciocho days came to a close we went to some friends’ apartment to watch a parade and fireworks. The top of the building offered a fantastic view, and the show a great end to my last Dieciocho in Chile.