Fall Becomes Winter in Chile

Santiago-chile-downtown-night-lights

You only know a city if you've seen it change.

Cities change like any living organism. For the change to be welcome and invigorating — and not jarring — it needs to happen at a pace that allows you to witness and process it and yet through it all still feel like most of what's around you is familiar.

This is what is happening to me in Santiago. Most things feel the same. The same panhandlers in the same places. Same metro stops, same doormen, same American 80's music played at the supermarket. There are churrascos, empanadas, sopaipillas, jugos naturales. The mountains still envelop the city on a clear day.

But there is just enough change that I cannot forget this is a city with a pulse in a part of the world with four seasons. When I arrived in November I lived in shorts and sandals and sat at my desk shirtless. A good Saturday would be ice cream in Plaza de Armas in the sun, followed by lying around Parque Santa Lucia watching the stray dogs wander about, and perhaps a McPollo at McDonald's before las once. Campaign ads for Frei and Piñera and Marco covered the streets. My go-to lunch placed served a good menú ejecutivo for 2,200 pesos.

Now the shorts are gone and sweatpants in. It's too cold to sit outside for long periods of time. Many dogs, even the homeless ones, wear sweaters, which is cute. Piñera is president. The lunch place has raised their price to 2,600 pesos so I've found a new joint. McDonald's is now advertising the Big Mac not the McPollo.

The "Earthquake of February 27th" doesn't dominate the news, and the cars no longer have spray painted patriotic messages of "¡Fuerza Chile!" as was the case in the weeks after the quake. Chile's spot in the international news scene came and went in about a week's time. It's back to being that long skinny country in South America that makes wine.

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I still learn new things about this culture almost every day.

I learn about maids / cleaning ladies. Everybody has maids. Even poor college kids. The maid comes once or twice a week for a full day even if your tiny apartment could be cleaned in two hours. She cooks and washes your clothes. My gym has two full-time maids who clean and clean and clean the same floor over and over. A combination of cheap labor and culture? I hear it's this way throughout Latin America.

I learn about how small this country is. 16 million people in total! I feel like every other person I talk to knows the President personally.

I learn that general low trust among the people manifests in different ways. Every house is behind a gate or fence. Nobody moves to the center of the train on the subway. Landlords prefer to rent to foreigners.

I learn that Chile is both modern and advanced (the most competitive economy in the region) but also backwards. It has the lowest percentage of women in the workforce of any Latin America country — 48%. Abortion remains illegal. As says the guidebook cliche for virtually every country in the world: "It's a fascinating contrast of old and new."

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I'm sitting in a hotel room in La Serena on a mini-vacation, in norte chico, about 5.5 hours north of Santiago. Tyler Cowen told me before I left that he was in La Serena 20 years ago and it was a very nice town. It's true. I'm now experiencing a weird kind of flash-forward nostalgia, envisioning the day when I tell someone that I visited La Serena 20 years ago and that it was a very nice town.

I leave Chile at the end of July and I'm already getting wistful.

6 Responses to Fall Becomes Winter in Chile

  1. Ross Hudgens says:

    The first sentence is a great point, better detailed by the narrative of the rest of the post.

    I moved to San Francisco two months ago and already feel a sense of “knowing”, but something about that one sentence makes me smile and feel excited about the minimum of 10 months to come.

    Just came into the blog recently – love it. Cheers.

  2. Tomas says:

    Glad to hear you’ve enjoyed our country!

    I’d strongly recommend going east from la serena to Valle del elqui. It’s beautiful pisco country.

  3. glen_beck_is_funny says:

    You only know a city if you’ve seen it change.
    Best sentence I’ve read this month, by far.

  4. jay says:

    Have you been to the La Serena zoo? OK, it’s quite crappy compared to an American zoo but they have Andean condors and they let the llamas out to graze frequently.

  5. Rachel says:

    If you make to Uruguay in the next month and a half, I´d love to meet up. I´m from NC but I´ve spent the last year here in Montevideo and traveling around to Argentina/Uruguay. I´ve always wanted to go to Chile, but I´m just not going to make it this time around.

    Do you find Chilean Spanish hard to understand? We get a channel on the TV here but for me it is one of the hardest accents to catch. Of course, others say exactly the same about BA/Uruguayan Spanish….

  6. Maria Segura says:

    If you go to Santiago, Chile, stay in Downtown Bellas Artes. It´s a great neighborhood with shops, cafes, and crazy people walking around. You will have fun. Check it out: link to rentapartmentsantiago.cl

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