Letting it Out

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The last half is interesting enough, though it's probably just a rant. In case, you know, you wanted to know.

In a sense, this weekend was meant to be a quiet precursor to next weekend, when I'll be going to Buenos Aires. And it lived up to that expectation

Friday night and Saturday morning blended together during a birthday barbecue for one of the guys on the program, known for being charismatic and something of a hard partier. The barbecue, which began around 2 p.m. (I didn't arrive until 6), lasted until nearly 1 a.m., when it moved out of his backyard and to a bar a few blocks away. His host mother was getting tired and irritated, and had begun to complain to her biological son, a 16 year-old boy with a shaggy, frayed mullet and a wild, caustic attitude. Despite that, every Chilean is a momma's boy, and he soon started angrily demanding we all leave.

Spend an afternoon in Santiago, and you'll see that the youth's fashion sense blends European and American influences, forcing it to combine different eras and trends of hairstyles, clothing and mannerisms. Strangely enough, the combination looks like something out of a Bon Jovi music video: Shaggy hair cut into a rock and roll mullet, tight jeans, Converse All-Stars and aviator sunglasses-not to mention their strange tendency to walk around with an air of aloofness and false toughness, as if they were too cool even for themselves.

I knew the party would last into the wee hours of the morning (it ended at an Irish Pub), and that no one else I knew would have the discipline to wake up the next morning. I arranged a trip to the Concha y Toro Vineyard for Saturday at noon anyway.

Concha y Toro is Chile's largest exporter of wine, producing over half of the volume of wine sent abroad. Last year, Wine Spectator magazine ranked one of C&T's wines as 4th best in the world (Don Melchor, Cabernet Sauvignon). It's tours, as you might expect, were catered to a foreign audience-offered in English and Spanish, with two wine samples and a trip down into the "Casillero del Diablo," the founder's original cellar. In the must darkness, the tour guide dimmed the lights and a recorded voice boomed out over foreboding classically music and a droning growl. The British voice rambled on about the cellar's history in a "ghost-story" manner, and when it described certain parts of the dank room, light bulbs in each of those areas would light up. The hidden "chamber of the devil" (which is actually a side chamber) was waited off to the side of the main room, down a narrow hall, behind an iron grate. The lights in the nook were all red, and at the end, an outline of a devil was projected onto the wall. For a world-class vineyard, it often had a very "haunted-house" atmosphere. To tell you the truth, it felt a little patronizing.

The grounds are beautiful though, and the vineyard was easy enough to get to: only five minutes by taxi from the southern terminus of the Metro. And it was then that I realized how, even if you only get five minutes out of the city, the environment becomes one-hundred-fold more pleasant and peaceful, and the scenery ten times as spectacular. Pirque, the small town beside the vineyard was peaceful, if tourist-oriented, and the pace of life languorous. I began to wish I had a car-though, if I had one, I'd rapidly change my mind-so that I could commute to school from those peaceful outlying areas.

Sunday, I went with CIEE to Cajon del Maipo, a river canyon that leads up toward the steep, dry Andes southeast of town. The whole valley is filled with kitschy, expensive towns, much like those close to Denver, that serve as weekend escapes for Santiago's wealthy. The bus stopped at a place called the Waterfall of Souls (Cáscada de las Animas), a privately-owned "nature preserve." It was pretty, and the waterfall relatively impressive, though anyone who has lived or traveled in the western US has seen many sights like it. The mountain views were spectacular. In a sense, the area around Santiago has a climate much like Tucson, Arizona's, but the mountains are a whole heck of a lot taller. The cacti even look like Saguaros.

"Private Nature Reserve" translates to "Tourist-trap for environmentally conscious," here in Chile, and we were led on a 30-minute nature tour, stopping at various trees, which were quickly described, nodded at, and forgotten. The trail up to the waterfalls, and once it got steep had railings along the side. The base camp had cabins, hot tubs and a nice restaurant, catered by very earthy women dressed like gypsies. It was certainly another step away from cooking hot dogs over a campfire in the rain, back in Chiloé. But the nature walk and the food weren't what I had come to Cajon del Maipo for.


The real purpose of the trip up the canyon was a workshop. Strategically placed in the dead center of the semester, the workshop was meant to give all of us in the program, gathered together, the chance to voice and to sort out our issues with Chilean culture and Santiago life. And believe me, there were more than a few.

My complaints about life here in Chile can be rationalized, for the most part, and I would prefer to reflect on them and why they clash with my American sentiments and upbringing than whine. That doesn't mean they aren't irritating. I'll list a few.

Chile prides itself in being a developed Latin American country, clean and relatively safe. Still, the universities, public offices and businesses are run with a tangled bureaucracy, often meant more to employ people than to be efficient.

Here in Santiago, no one trusts one another. Half of the cashiers in this country are hidden behind bulletproof glass. Often, if you wish to buy something, you must pay for it at the cashier and carry a receipt to the person behind the counter before actually receiving the product.

If you're standing in line for something, you'd better start pushing. Get on the Metro during rush hours, and you'll find everyone riding stopped in front of the doors, though the aisles between them are practically empty-everyone's afraid that if they wander too far, they won't be able to push their way out when the stop comes. While standing in the middle of a car, with enough room to stretch and swing my elbows, I've seen people get caught in the closing doors. In a sense, it's quite comical.

A big issue was our Chilean host families' selective stinginess. My family once lectured me for turning up the water heat too high, by 5 degrees, thereby using too much gas. They leave the TV on all day, though, even if no one is watching. A friend was told not to charge his cell phone until the battery ran out, not for the battery's health, but because the electricity was expensive.

Chileans also have a certain inability to directly criticize or reprove anyone. In both of the above occasions, it took our host parents five minutes to get to the point-money-often using other excuses as a cover ("why, you'd have to add cold water to get the temperature right ..."). I say this, however, noting that not two hours ago my host father, somewhat angrily, told me that I needed to eat when I was hungry, that they'd told me I could scrounge up whatever food I wanted. "Don't make a problem," I think he said. Without telling me what had happened, I'm left here wondering what the cause of the lecture was, and what, exactly I was doing wrong. An hour later, we ate dinner.

What else did people talk about? Here's a selection: the coldness/shyness of Chileans (especially girls, sadly), nasty bus drivers, omnipresent Catholicism, machismo culture, Anti-Americanism.

We also talked about Chilean stereotypes of Americans, and how they played into our interactions. Americans are supposed to be honest, direct and friendly, but also obstinate, proud and rich. I've often had perfectly middle-class-looking people walk toward me on the street, and miraculously watched as their countenance transformed and they begged me for money.

The cultural explanations for the differences I have with Chileans are extensive and varied. Americans always look to the future; Chileans live in the present. Chileans are predominantly Catholic; Americans are largely Protestant (a factor in our differing work ethics). America is the premier world power; Chile often feels isolated at the end of the world. Americans are obsessed with personal space; Chileans are not. Chileans are also slowly crawling out of Pinochet's dictatorship. They may have elected an agnostic female president, but they still tend to shy away from strong personal expression.

With simple changes in mindset, I've found that most of these obstacles can either be overcome or rationalized. It's frustrating, though. Life in Chile is relatively calm, yes, though I often feel terribly out of place here (as much for being in Santiago, a massive city, as in a foreign country). Confronting these issues, I assume is part of the acculturation process too. As I've said before, I came to Chile to assure myself that living abroad is something I want to do when I'm older. All I have to figure out now is how to live in two cultures and societies at the same time, without feeling permanently out-of-place.
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