May 09

Thoughts on Chile

by in Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

If you’re in South America and ask other travelers what they think about Chile, you’ll hear two different things over and over: Chileans speak fast and everything is much more expensive.  I guess it’s not surprising then that those were pretty much the first two things we noticed when crossing the border from Bolivia into San Pedro de Atacama.

Language

The language, I knew, would sort itself out in time.  They speak Spanish there, like pretty much everywhere else we’d been, they just hurry all their words together.  In previous border crossings, I noticed the weird phenomenon where, on one side, I understood almost everything said to me and on the other, practically nothing.  My Spanish usually isn’t good enough to pick up the reasons why; it could be the speed, the accent, or the slang.  The tiny improvements I gain in comprehension over the next week are too small to notice as they happen, but after seven days or so, I’m usually doing alright again.

I never got to that point in Chile.  We were in and out of the country too fast.

(Interesting note about Chilean English:  We were told that Chileans learn “American English,” rather than “British English.”  Not that there’s a huge amount of difference between the two, but sometimes you notice the changes.  Flat for apartment, that sort of thing.  You would think that learning American English would somehow make their Spanish easier to understand, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be wrong.)

Sticker Shock

The sticker shock in Chile was harder for us to deal with.  Coming from Bolivia, we were used to paying, oh, about $20-25 a night for a nice private room.  Our first place in San Pedro ran us $42 and we had to live with a shared bathroom.  (They even charged us for towels, $2 a piece!)  The hotel reception guy saw our hesitation and asked if we were coming from Bolivia.  We nodded and he said, “Yeah, tourists from Bolivia always want lower prices.  It’s just more expensive here.”

Later on, in La Serena, I wandered into a music store and looked around at the prices.  Figuring the Twilight sensation would be a good place to do a price comparison, I checked out what it would cost to buy a book, a DVD, and a Blu-Ray disc of the first in series.  Roughly: 10,000 pesos for the DVD, 13,000 for the (trade paperback) book, and 22,000 for the Blu-Ray.  That’s $21.25 (DVD), $27.65 (Book), and $46.80 (Blu-ray). Not everything costs more than it does in the US, but media certainly does.

It would have been easy enough for us to stick to our $100/day budget if we were only concerned with food and lodging, but we had two other big expenses to consider: Excursions and transportation.  I haven’t look over the budget too closely, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Chile was the first country that broke our budget.  In that respect, it was a good thing we got out of there so quickly.

Giant Dogs

It’s an odd thing, but both Oksana and I noticed that the street dogs were quite different than those in the other countries we’d visited.  For one, they were huge.  I don’t just mean they were fat – none of them were, but all of them looked well-fed – they were larger breeds.  Some of them would have been very intimidating if they were constantly on the hunt for food scraps like they were in Bolivia.  But all the dogs we saw were content to lounge around in the shade.  Could be because food came easily to them, could be because it was just too hot for them in the Atacama Desert.

Hot Dogs

Speaking of “dogs,” Chile has a hot dog fetish.  Like empanadas in Argentina, you can get a hot dog in Chile just about anywhere.  And they come absolutely loaded down with toppings.  Seriously, with a completo you get far more guacamole by weight than you do pork byproducts.  Heck, you probably get more mayo.

Expats

In the smaller towns in Chile it was easy to see that there were far more expatriates living among the locals.  In San Pedro de Atacama, quite a few hippy-types set up “shop” on the street corners – you know the type: Dreadlocked with a Rastafarian hat, unwashed and baggy clothes, shaggy beards sitting patiently in front of a blanket covered with beaded necklaces, bracelets, and hand-carved rings.

But San Pedro was also surprising in that it had a seemingly large French population, more than a few of which had set up shop as hostel or tour agency owners.  We even ran into a few casual travelers who appeared to have taken part-time jobs handing out brochures and fliers on the street.

The infrastructure in Chile is undoubtedly better than that of Peru or Bolivia, so I could understand why more foreigners would want to settle there.  Perhaps it’s also easier to get work visas in Chile, too.  Then again, for all I know, it could be that Chile is just so expensive that they all ran out of money and are stuck there…

Internet

While the internet was never actually that hard to find in Bolivia, the service we had to deal with was terrible (Think: Twitter is okay, but opening any website with a photo is a study in patience.)  In Chile, we once again returned to “reasonable” service.  Wi-fi hotspots were plentiful, some were open, and most hostels and hotels had decent enough coverage that you could upload a picture or 30 to Facebook.

We also noticed far, far more locals carrying around laptops and working on them in local cafes.  Without exception, these laptops were bulky behemoths with 17” screens and full-size keyboards.  I guess the netbook revolution hasn’t reached there yet.

Smoking Laws

Chile is fast becoming very progressive on smoking laws.  I don’t know if the laws being passed are by municipalities, provinces, or at the federal level, but we noticed many establishments – hotels and hostels as well as restaurants – with smoking bans in place.  At our hostel in San Pedro de Atacama, the clerk was happy to hear that we were Americans, because, as he said it, “I hate having to tell the Europeans that they can only smoke in the outdoor smoking shelter!”

Reverse Culture Shock

Before long, I realized that all the notes I was jotting down about Chile were in many ways the opposite of the ones I’d been writing down about Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.  Whereas before I was thinking, “This country is different from the US because…” now I found myself going, “Wow, Chile is a lot like the US because…”

Some examples:

Instead of the roads being rocky and dangerous, they were wide, straight, and paved smooth.  Bus service was once again excellent (and expensive.)

Right at the border crossing, the ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwiches went from a roll sliced in half with one cold-cut slice of ham and one slice of cheese, to a buttered English muffin with ham and cheese melted together on a hot grill. Huge difference!

Receipts were handed over after almost every transaction, from the supermarket on down to some of the bus station kiosks.

Rather than hundreds of corner shops selling the same “conveniences” of soda and candy bars, or entire city blocks devoted to vendors of one type (i.e., the “shoe store block,” or “the muffler block,” or “locksmith block,” or even local vegetable markets, where 14 different mom & pop shops compete for your business side by side), Chile seemed to be moving toward the big corporation model.  Think Napa Auto Parts and Safeway and JC Penny (though I didn’t see any of those brands.)

For the first time, we started to see US corporations (other than fast food franchises) appear on the streets.  I can still remember the first modern Shell gas station we passed in Chile, complete with self-service credit card swipes.

(Conversely, we started to see some US products disappear almost entirely.  Whereas we used to see Chips Ahoy, Twix, and Snickers bars in every roadside kiosk, in Chile they were nowhere to be found.  Instead, there were plentiful domestic substitutes – another sign of a stronger economy.)

Public bathrooms in Chile are, more often than not, both clean and free.  And even when you have to pay for them, as in the Antofagasta bus station, the gatekeeper logged your purchase into a computer, gave you a printed receipt, and only then electronically unlocked the turnstile!

Refrigerated food was once again refrigerated!  I’d become so used to Diet Cokes coming out of a cold case only lukewarm that I’d forgotten what it was like to drink one cold!  Bless Chile for setting their refrigerators on “cold” instead of a hair’s breadth below room temp!  I enjoy my soda more when the bottles properly condensate all over your hand on a hot summer day.

Sprinklers.  Sprinklers!  Could there be a better indication of a decent utility infrastructure than automatic sprinklers spraying excess water around solely for the purposes of growing grass where it normally wouldn’t grow?

After spending almost a month, each, in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, traveling through Chile was almost like going home.  For those planning a trip to South America, it might be a good idea to consider it your first stop.  Not only will it ease you into the inevitable cultural shock, the sticker shock won’t seem so bad coming from the US!

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Postcard Valet is a travel blog and video podcast by Arlo and Oksana Midgett. They just returned to Juneau, Alaska, after almost three full years of travel and living abroad. Many of their stories, photos, and videos have yet to be shared...

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