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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Travelling in Chile

Most people who know me will be aware of my aversion to travel. This might sound ironic considering my life style but I would beg to differ. I do not usually travel I live in a variety of places. There is a difference. Staying in a place for a few months even, speaking the language more than only in a cursory manner, having a routine and repeatedly going to the same bar/court/whatever, developing acquaintances there are important elements for me of getting to know a place. I feel like a two week visit to a country, residing in a hotel and incapable of communicating with large swaths (if not all) of the population, is a regrettable exercise that I am not a fan of. Yet, here I was going to Chile, my knowledge of Spanish limited to ridiculously few phrases and expressions and I didn’t even have the time nor the money to stay longer than for a bit more than a week. Being a conscientious traveller I did at least organize myself two books by Chilean authors as an introduction to the country, but quite obviously my understanding of the society, its people and the country as such remains rather ludicrous.

Following this theoretical preface I have to admit that I absolutely loved it though. I flew down with an American friend of mine, staying with a French friend who lives there and obviously speaks the language. From a language point of view my stay turned into a crazy potpourri of languages, with Spanish, French, English and sometimes even English intermixed. At times I felt incapable of formulating even a phrase in one language anymore (I sincerely believe that the brain has a hard time adjusting to too many languages intertwining, if you do so too much you end up speaking English with a French grammatical structure and German word choices). The surprise of my trip was the ease with which I could communicate with Chileans (who for the most part simply do not speak English), not that I could say more than a few basic requests and comments but I understood far more than I had expected too (7 years of Latin and fluency in French do some good even in South America I guess).

In general Chileans made an extremely good impression on me. The few more wide-ranging and interesting discussions I had with people (who spoke English or French) were extremely informative and helpful in understanding the country. Even everyday interactions, buying food or asking for directions, led to lengthy (usually rather one-sided) conversations – about what we were doing there, the (then) upcoming match between Germany and Chile, or simply the best way to find the bank across the street.

Santiago de Chile, a city of about 6 million, is in fact not all that jazz. It is at least as interesting as any city of that size, but it’s buildings, its downtown, even its people are just a tad bit too European or Western – business suites, the metro, alcohol-impregnated bar streets, dance parties dominated by bad pop music, an elegant erstwhile artistic barrio (Prenzlauer Berg, Williamsburg, Montmartre…). While globalization hasn’t hit to the same extreme it has in the West the city is not as different as one could expect, differences abound but are more of the nuanced kind than that they are glaringly obvious.

What struck me was the lack of attention I (we) received not only in Santiago but in the country side as well. People were interested once we started talking to them, but for the most part folks didn’t really seem to notice us or care about us being there. We spent one evening in a bar in a very rural area, surrounded by 50-year old, exceedingly wasted farmers who didn’t even flinch at our presence. I did get stared at a few times, especially in mid-sized towns and crappy (down to earth) restaurants, but I had expected more of that quite honestly.

Once you leave Santiago behind the differences to the West become a lot more striking. We drove into the Andes and hiked some in a national park there. In order to get there, we took our (well, my friend’s) trusty VW bus (a bitch to drive, but a sweet car nonetheless) up a dirt road for maybe 45 minutes in the ever dimmer dusk. I was driving along peacefully at 40 k/h when all of a sudden I realized that the pedestrian at the side of the road was actually a guy on a horse. Quite honestly, I never really got used to it, but we saw a lot of those. On the highway the sheer amount of people crossing, biking along, walking on the side, hitchhiking, simply hanging out (ok, maybe not) was quite astounding. Also, the word rural takes on a whole other meaning in some of these areas. When we hiked up El Endrillado we were one of only three groups making it to the top that day, the only foreigners and most definitely the least prepared one.

What else? Incredible dunes on an empty beach (and when I say empty I mean empty, it was just us three on there). Beautiful landscapes in the mountains as well as at the ocean. Valparaiso, a (semi-)picturesque port town built on a variety of hills and boasting (some) beautiful early 20th century houses. Random remnants of boastive fascist/communist architecture interspersed into the cities ensure one never forgets about Pinochet. You smell more weed out in the open and on the street. Why are there so many cops and why do a lot of them wear bullet proof vests? In the same vein why are cop cars equipped as if they could be attacked by a savage mob any minute? Everybody and their momma (seriously) warned us in Valparaiso to watch out and not to get robbed (with knives, even guns), I don’t think anyone even gave us a cross look. Played 2 on 2 against some random kids in Valparaiso, I love this game.

So, after Turkey, my second semi-developing country experience. It was worth it. Next time I need to actually speak the language and stay longer. Travelling just gives one a taste, it’s like an appetizer with no a main dish following. Chile was great though.

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