africamuse's travels

Mental Snapshots:
Recollections of life in Chile

created: 16 November 1999
last updated: 29 March 2000

How strange life is.

One minute you can be happily muddling along; following a career path that you enjoy immensely, but have not planned terribly carefully; acquiring possessions, even an apartment, on the way; living the way you always have and assume you always will.... Then, SUDDENLY, life can change, and you can abruptly find yourself living in a completely different place; meeting different people; earning your living in a different way; eating different foods - even speaking a different language!

This is what happened to me. My life changed so completely - I found myself in love; living in Chile; speaking Spanish; working as an English teacher. Even small things - I changed from a night-time bathing person to a morning-time showering person; cut my hair (from fairly long to VERY short); started eating Japanese and Mexican and all manner of new foods; bought my first business suit (at age 27!); changed my recreation habits, and so much more.

Now I am no longer in Chile. My life 'cycle' has swung around once more. Not full circle, though, for now I am in Ireland .... but that's another story.

There are some things about my life in Chile that I miss intensely. Just four days ago, I was watching a movie where two characters greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek, and I suddenly felt a sharp pang! Oh, how I miss meeting a friend on the street and greeting him or her with a kiss! How I miss welcoming people into my home with a kiss! How I even miss my suegro standing up to kiss me hello! True, I did find this practice irritating at times - especially at large parties when one could not leave before touring the room and perfunctorily kissing near-strangers. But it did add a special warmth to any meeting with those one cares about.

I've been away from Chile for exactly ten weeks. It seems that this is the time that nostalgia sets in - I have a thousand snapshot memories, special moments that will always whisper "Chile" in my head. Some of them are supremely Chilean, others are "africamusean", but strongly associated with my life in Chile.

Here are a few of them:

  • My first experience of snow falling around me, on me, at Portillo. It was one of many magical moments.

  • An incredible sense of belonging and community and achievement with my first level Spanish class - the first people of my own that I met in Chile.

  • Riding home on a bus, only to have a group of musicians enter and start performing - I was perhaps more used to buskers, street vendors and even beggars (of which there are fewer in Chile than in South Africa) than my North American friends, but this bus performance was memorable.

  • Long conversations, in bad Spanish, with friendly taxi-drivers. I loved catching a taxi because I knew I was almost certain to get a non-judgmental and enthusiastic audience for my Spanish practice.

  • Never actually getting to the national park (Rio de los Cipreses) near Rancagua - we tried three times. We did, however, get as far as the gates (once), and if the drive there was anything to go by, it would have been absolutely beautiful.

  • Being nuzzled by a llama in ViŮa del Mar.

  • Smog, smog, smog - hanging like a blanket over Santiago during most of the winter months and covering our otherwise spectacular view of the Andes with a brown haze.

  • Birthday parties, with cakes and candles and expensive presents, for adults. Adult birthdays are treated rather casually in South Africa, with small presents and cards and a drink after work being all one would expect except from your closest family and friends. In contrast, birthdays in Chile are important affairs, with sit down dinners and a defnite procedure to be followed Ė no-one leaves until the candles are blown out.

  • Pesebres at Christmas time - while Christmas trees were to be seen, they were far outnumbered by these nativity scenes.

  • Late, late nights. I am definitely not a night person, and the most difficult adjustment I had to make, even more difficult than the language, was the late nights. There were lots of formal or semi-formal dinner parties where one wouldnít start eating till 10:30 at the earliest, and not finish before the early hours of the morning. Iím afraid I may have gained quite a reputation for being unsociable, as I struggled with these hours.

  • Late, lazy Sunday breakfasts at Au Bon Pain ... bagels and cream cheese ... mmmmmm.

  • Being absolutely terrified of the telephone. Communicating in halting Spanish with a fast-talking stranger, without the benefits of facial expressions and gestures (and, let's be honest, sometimes just looking downright pitiful and relying on the patience and kindness of the person with whom I was communicating), was immensely difficult. In fact, I found it humiliating. By contrast, the few Spanish telephone conversation fragments I had with friends (Iím thinking of Javier as an example here) were very rewarding and confidence-building.

  • Long car drives into the countryside - including one never to be forgotten drive on 26 December 1998. We had planned to go to the thermals waters and national park near Rancagua (this was our first attempt) but decided, shortly before the turn off, to see how far we could go. Approximately 800 km later, we ended up in cold, rainy Villarica in our shorts and t-shirts, bought a toothbrush and booked into a hotel. The next morning we had a couple hours in this beautiful area, saw the Auracarias (incredible), didn't see the famous volcano (it was covered by cloud and mist), and drove back again.

  • Those damn electronic clocks that just give the year and nothing else - like we could forget it's 1999!

  • The incredible kindness and acceptance shown by Robertoís family and friends - my ways were very different, but they were consistently tolerant and generous to me.

  • Hot sake and Japanese food - I canít abide fish or any seafood, and had therefore never entered a Japanese restaurant. I found that they have some delicious non-seafood dishes. Gyutataki is my favourite.

  • The elevators in dilapidated but beautiful Valparaiso.

  • Discovering one of my callings (Iíve become convinced that I have many) as an English teacher - I found it to be a very satisfying and rewarding experience, and I think I am surprisingly good at it.

  • Aggressive traffic, multi-lane roads which change directions at different times of day, micros competing for passengers - I thought that driving on the right-hand-side would be my main difficulty, but instead found that the way people drove there was so different to what I was used to that, I am ashamed to say, I just opted out of it all together and didnít drive.

  • Kennedy street - one of the most important streets in Santiago ;).

  • Drinking red wine with Roberto, in sunshine or moonlight, on the balcony of our apartment.

  • Multi-national gatherings of friends - the international community in Chile is very diverse and surprisingly cohesive. I would imagine that the differences between Canadians and Belgians and South Africans and British and Australians and French and Polish and New Zealanders and Germans are as great as between any one of those groups and Chileans. But, somehow, our foreigness became a binding characteristic and we met in numerous educational, social and work-related spheres.

  • Hordes of amateur jugglers, unicyclists and acrobats performing every Sunday evening in the park.

  • Margaritas and golpeados....oh, and pisco sours, of course.

  • Power cuts. Because Chileís main energy source is hydroelectricity, and because its power storage facilities leave a great deal to be desired, the recent drought has played havoc with consumable energy. For months at a time, all households and businesses in Santiago and certain other parts of Chile underwent scheduled power cuts. Different areas were allocated times for power cuts, and the luckiest had midday cuts. Morning cuts were pretty horrible, night time cuts were the worst. Just about everyone was affected Ė this created quite an air of solidarity, to be most strongly experienced in restaurants. A restaurant meal would very likely be interrupted by a sudden blackout, followed (or, sometimes, preceded) by waiters bringing masses of candles to be placed on tables, stairs, bars, etc. Most Chilean cooking is done on gas, but some items would need electric appliances, and patrons would be warned to order these early, or not at all, if it was almost time for a cut. A spirit of camaraderie prevailed, and the only problem we had was once when we could not use a credit card to pay for our meal, as the machine was electric. Luckily, it was only about 15 minutes till the cut was scheduled to end, and we were urged to enjoy a cup of coffee until we could pay (hey, it was either that or wash dishes ...).

  • That yummy mango yoghurt in the little glass pots - can't remember the brand....

  • Conformism in dress, especially in winter when everybody wears almost the same clothes.

  • Watching TV and movies with Spanish subtitles - a great way to pick up vocbulary. Hey, I even watched a movie with Spanish subtitles and an Italian audiotrack once - that was educational!

Useful Books from

Chile and Easter Island
Lonely Planet
Guide to Chile and Easter Island

Latin American Spanish Phrasebook
Lonely Planet
Latin American Spanish Phrasebook

Lonely Planet: Santiago de Chile
Lonely Planet:
Santiago de Chile

Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile
Travels in a Thin Country:
A Journey Through Chile

Chile in Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture
Chile in Focus:
A Guide to the People,
Politics and Culture

The Chilean Kitchen: Authentic, Homestyle Foods, Regional Wines and Culinary Traditions of Chile
The Chilean Kitchen:
Authentic, Homestyle Foods,
Regional Wines and Culinary
Traditions of Chile

Pablo Neruda's Veinte Poemas de Amor Y Una Cancion Desesperada
Pablo Neruda's
Veinte Poemas de Amor Y Una Cancion Desesperada,
with the English translations
(Twenty Poems of Love and a Desperate Song)

Pablo Neruda's Separate Rose
Pablo Neruda's Separate Rose,
with English translations

Why Women Protest: Women's Movements in Chile
Why Women Protest:
Women's Movements in Chile

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