In one week I’ve gone from terror to love for this city, and have yet only experienced a small part.
Before my horrendous accounts, I thought you might enjoy a few tidbits that I’ve picked up along the way so you can get a true grasp of the city from a gringo’s point of view:
1. When ordering water you must specify whether you would prefer ‘sin gas’ or ‘con gas’ as if it was ever natural for water to be carbonated
2. People sweep their lawns…even if they’re only sweeping the loose dirt off the hard dirt below
3. If students ask you to dance the Macarena with them for a project, do it. They might just be joking with you, but you’ll have fun doing it.
4. Kiwi doesn’t actually grow like you think it does…the actual thing is frequently double the size it is in the US and looks like it’s ugly older brother
5. Burping isn’t funny, it’s gross…and while spitting may not be completely acceptable back home it’s disgusting here and got me close to a fight in the park
6. Even half way around the world, and almost obnoxiously, you can find a 40ft Kendall Jenner seductively selling you a jacket from a highway billboard.
Now rewind to before I even set foot in the city…
I heard leading up to the trip that Chilean Spanish was uniquely challenging. It’s rapid, slurred, and full of shortened and –some would argue- made up words. Having anticipated this I fit Chilean cinema and vocab into my studying schedule three months prior, what I hadn’t anticipated was for the barrage to start in Toronto, at Air Canada gate E77.
Over the fourteen-hour flight I fell uncomfortably in and out of sleep, and promptly whisked myself past customs and into a throng of taxi drivers upon arrival. I was ‘the man they were looking for,’ or as they like to put it ‘un gringo cansado’ who they could easily mold into a paying customer.
That morning at nine forty-five, approximately thirty minutes after I had landed, my boss Peter had conveniently arranged to meet me at the Le Fournil café located in the airport less than one hundred steps to the right of the taxi drivers. ‘Easy,’ I had thought from my seat in the terminal at Lambert St Louis airport twenty hours earlier, ‘How could I screw this up.’
Surprise! I screwed it up.
Upon landing the only wifi my phone had the gumption to join was morbidly slow and I couldn’t communicate with Peter. ‘Le Fournil, outside the customs door’ is what I was left with…and after an exchange in broken Spanish with the nice lady working the NUTZ 4 NUTS stand outside I was on a bus and heading for what I thought was the correct Le Fournil. I realized my mistake only once I had left the grounds of the airport and spent two inwardly panicked hours riding around the city before returning. I got back around noon, relieved that my salvation was only a few steps away. I walked into Le Fournil, smelly & sticky, only to realize that Peter had left. My only option was to buy a taxi.
Even my travel nightmare and business training aside this week proved to be a whirlwind. Santiago seems to be a world split between American and European influences. Santaginos drive on the right side of the road but drive Citroens and Renaults. They love mayo so much that they have incorporated it into their own signature hotdog recipe, which alongside tomato and avocado, they deem it a completo italiano but try their hardest not to spill the heaping contents onto their European styled outfits.
Chile of course has its own identity, and one that’s easily combed out. By easily combed out I mean that on many days you can literally see it marching around the city. What I mean of course is that as a product of forty years of political limbo Chileans have woken up and began to make strong, mostly peaceful demands of their government.
The afternoon I arrived I decided to take my first bicycle tour with Joaquin, one of our many experienced guides.
Unfortunately for him, none of his guiding ability could have prepared him for a pot legalization protest large enoug
to make Colorado nervous. A crowd of all ages, most likely four kilometres long and two city blocks deep, and dense enough to force our group of seven blocks off our route, had assembled in Parque Forestal to state their requests more bluntly than they could alone. The scope of the toke was such that I saw more than one arm-sized joint being passed passed around the crowd.
This may not seem like a supremely valuable reason to assemble, but it is that capacity to assemble that is so important in the country. Just three days later I witnessed another protest, this time over the lackluster quality and facilities of the Chilean education system. From kindergarten to college billions in state invest seems to run through the cracks and thousands of students congregated to alert the bureaucracy. The protest escalated slowly through the morning until it peaked near the University of Chile where Los Carabineros deemed it necessary to pour tear gas over the crowd. From two blocks away I was affected by the same gas for the first time in my life…just another check on my bucket list I guess.
Many reading this from The States may take away a tone of sarcastic alarm but in reality I, and you too if you choose to visit, are perfectly safe here. It’s a beautiful city full of European architecture and endless neighborhoods of stunning art. It’s diverse as well, less than three blocks up Loreto from the La Bicicleta Verde office one can of course encounter Chilean and Peruvian restaurants, but not without passing Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, and Italian eateries as well.
Sometimes I look out the window and believe I might actually be in the Spanish neighborhoods of Seattle or Portland.
Bikes are as big a presence on the street here as cafes are on the sidewalk. BUT then I spot a Rojo, one of the famous quiltros, (the slang for stray dog of which there are many) and remember I’m definitely no where in the US, as he happily trots over to me to say good morning and receive a few pats on my way to the office. As soon as I say goodbye he’s off to capitalize on generous handouts in the open air market only three blocks away before his long day of relaxing in the park with his friends and following his bestie Karla on one the many biking tours routes he memorized.