A Culture Shock of Something Familiar

– December 2013 CHILE –

Chile–the 37th most wealthy country in the world–was recently given ‘high income’ status. After having traveled developing countries for ten months, arriving here brings on quite a shock. Our last ninety days were spend in Bolivia, the poorest of south-American countries, and it enchanted us. We have fallen for the people’s wit and intellect, the country’s unspoiled nature and love for delicate foods. However, this opinion was born from comparing it to Peru where the majority of the people are coarse and pushy and where projects that get started are generally left unfinished (result: horrific looking structures and unappealing towns). Perhaps we stayed too long, driving around in circles for nearly seven months. Maybe the terrifying experience of having to smuggle our car out of the country has left us with an unfavorable opinion of Peru. Which ever it is, Bolivia seemed infinitely more pleasant than the former.

By rolling sixty kilometers down the constant Andean slope, we dropped from the cold windy Altiplano of Bolivia into the warm desert oasis of San Pedro De Atacama (pop. 5,000) in Northern Chile. Our aim is to sleep for under $10 per person, per night and the choice of budget hotels or hostels are slim to non-existent in Chile. We were tired from camping in the harsh climate ‘up there’ and chose a pleasant campsite just out of town.

These camp sites are like the ones my parents took us to as children, typically in the south of France. There are barbecue pits and trees for shade, a swimming pool and basic showers spewing a sad trickle of cold water.

We hide here for three nights, making two trips to town for time on the internet and groceries. There is no way we’re going to eat ‘out’ in this place–an average meal cost about fifteen dollars where in Bolivia you’d spend only two.

We are in culture shock. Arriving at a place where customs and prices are almost the same as in the United States or Europe, we are not sure what to do. The camp grounds fill up with local families on Friday night, arriving in flashy new cars with blasting stereo systems, everybody wearing expensive branded clothing. We feel oddly out of place with our run-down gear, stained and plain wardrobe, wild hairdo’s and filthy old Toyota. So we find a place far removed from all this bustle to calm down, ease in to our new surroundings and undoubtedly get stared at by the teenage kids that are having a blast playing tag.

We feel strangely uncomfortable with the confrontation of a culture that is closer to our own.

What do they see and what do they expect of us? Are Chileans similar to the other Latin-Americans but for their appearance and wealth? Do we stand out among locals who dress and act the same as our own countrymen? Even their skin is sometimes fairer than our own having been outdoors so much. In their features they look European. It has taken us so long to blend in with the underprivileged Latin-Americans, that we’re not sure what to do.

Nearly sixty percent of Chileans are of European descent versus three percent indigenous. In Bolivia 62 percent was indigenous and 25-30 percent considered mestizo (Spanish mixed with indigenous). The contrast is immense.

The Pinochet regime of 1973– 1988 was greatly supported by the corporate-minded U.S. government. The ‘Caravan of Death’ killed at lest 3,000 people (1,000 are still missing) but businesses has flourished. Within years Chile turned into a successful capitalist country, elbowing its way onto the map of modern commerce. Today the people benefit, but not all. The groups opposed to the practices of Pinochet were pushed into groups struck with poverty that can still be distinguished in this society. The gap between rich and poor is greater here than anywhere else we’ve been. When asking a farmer or shop-holder what they thought of Pinochet’s regime, they fall quiet or speak badly of him. The wealthy are more likely to express support as he brought them money and opportunity. Literacy rates in Chile are over 95 percent against a South-American average of 81 percent.

Chilean Tourists in Nice Clothes. Much of this is ´Thanks To´ Pinochet

Chileans in nice clothes. Much of this is ´thanks to´ Pinochet

The men are more considerate and gentle (I get cat called much less and am addressed with dama (lady) instead of chica, mamita, seno or gringa). If the men want to chat, it is truly just a conversation and not an excuse to stare at my breasts, grab my butt or ask me on a date. The women exhibit financial and emotional independence. Children are born of mothers much older than fifteen and all get to attend school. Single teenage moms are all too common in the rest of Latin-America but we have not seen them here.

We see locals leaving personal items like telephones out, and are astounded by the risk they take. Everywhere else we’ve traveled these things would disappear in seconds. Everything left unguarded is commonwealth. This is just the way the Latin-American mind works and you adjust to it. But in Chile things are different and before long we start leaving the car unlocked when walking off for a minute, and we keep our sleeping gear in the tent all day (before we would pack everything back up in the locked truck). Someone came over with a bunch of keys to see if it was ours. We are astounded by these humane gestures even though it is what we were used to ‘at home’.

Poverty in the Streets of Bolivia

Poverty in the streets of Desaguadero, Bolivia

Heads no longer turn everywhere we go and I’ve stopped feeling the stare, typically coming from old ladies, burning on my back. A drunk group of men approached us on the camping and offered two beers. We anticipated them to harass us for hours, trying to come up with a reason why we should give them money, but all they wanted was to share their joy. A supermarket attendant wanted to impress us by practicing her English and walked all over the store to help find what we were looking for.

We on the other had, have grown rather blunt in our effort to adjust to the cultural conditions of Peru an Bolivia. We have slowly developed the same course manners we dislike about the country’s populous. When I walk into a shop, I never smile but directly ask the price of an item I’m interested in. Then, with a short jerk of my chin in the direction of the product, I’ll say “give me a half kilo,” instead of ‘may I have’ or ‘could you give me a half kilo please’.

David will formally shake hands with all men he encounters but then quickly and unwillingly dive into a testosterone-driven game of ‘I have something you want and you should pay me for it’. The men laugh where women may not. It is an insincere act of pleasantry played out while I keep a ‘proper’ distance all women should adhere to. Halas I still don’t understand what for, because the second David looks away the other man’s eyes eat me up from a distance. Oh, if I ever dared look into his eyes or make conversation, he would become quite upset and look at me with shock and disregard.

Now we see people respond to our carefully adopted ways with an expression of insult and sadness.

Little Girl Playing with a Kitten in Bolivia

Little girl playing with a kitten in Bolivia

In shops and cafes the personnel actually care about service and they smile. At one camp site the caretaker offered a discount as an excuse for a loud party over-night that had not even started yet. We couldn’t stop talking about all this for weeks. We’d gotten so used to arguing over price for everything. At the market to buy a couple of apples, any hotel room, gasoline even; all had to be argued over tiresomely because prices are not fixed for white people, but flexible. In Peru prices were made up on the spot and not uncommonly tripled from what any local would pay. Then the whole song-and-dance would commence to haggle our way down to any price close to acceptable. It’s a fun cultural experience for a while, and after the first months I got pretty good at it. But now that it is no longer necessary we realize how it was wearing us down.

There was no way we could ever integrate in previously visited countries, however hard we tried. We were discriminated throughout Latin-America and now we’ve gotten to Chile, we can sort of ‘fit in’ and relax a little. We can go to the gas station and buy fuel at a regulated price(!). We still arrive at a place to sleep and immediately go into price discussions and I bust on the market lady for the price of her tomatoes.

It takes a while to understand that prices here are non-negotiable, that we can walk in to a cafe, sit down and order instead of standing at the counter first to verify we will not be ripped off for a cup of coffee. It’s a re-adjustment we are eager to make.

Mountain Town in Bolivia with Old Cars

Mountain town in Bolivia where every other car is a Toyota Landcruiser

There are as many stray dogs here as anywhere but these are calm and look fat to us. Dogs are less aggressive here and we are no longer forced to walk around with stones or a stick to fight them off.
Trash has always been a part of our surroundings in Latin-America, and we had unwillingly accepted it, but Chile is almost clear of rubbish.

All men, women and children have more leisure time. I can hear them laugh aloud–something I haven’t heard in a long time. The cackling and unembarrassed laughs of women make me feel happy. I am grateful they have the space to enjoy themselves.

A Street Carnaval in San Pedro de Atacama to Celebrate Virgen del Carmen

A street Carnival in San Pedro De Atacama to celebrate Virgen Del Carmen

I’m sure we’re going to miss quite a number of things from the ‘poorer’ countries. I shall long for the cheap street food cooked up by old ladies on every street corner, being able to eat out for five dollars and get a very fancy meal. Mules and horses in the street, bicycle carts for transportation.

Finally we ease in to the groove of San Pedro and settle on a camping in town with other travelers and locals. We make friends quickly and can let our hair down. We’re feeling safe and comfortable for the first time in a long while.


Categories: South America

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