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.

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