It is perhaps good that I have been remiss in writing much of our travels in South America thus far, because it is only since we arrived in Argentina yesterday that I am able to speak of the differences between it and what we have seen in Chile.
It is almost as if we have traversed three continents in our travels, instead of just two countries. We first wanted to come to South America — to Argentina specifically — because we had heard that it was the “perfect European honeymoon, at half the cost” (or twice the length, as we are doing). Everyone told us that the architecture, the culture, and the people would seem strangely European as well, but with the added advantages of massive steaks and tango dancing. What more could one ask? Nada.
Arriving in Santiago to 33° weather, we certainly felt that we were somewhere very different. Santiago is a lovely city, with colours bursting from the trees and plants that line its almost exclusively one-way streets, beautiful homes and gardens, and kind people who help point lost turistas like us in the right direction. It is very clean and feels safe, despite the high walls and security gates that front every property.
We stayed in the delightful, modern neighbourhood of Providencia, in a beautiful B&B run by Chileans who had lived for years in New Zealand and Australia, and who were willing to speak to us for hours with pride about their country’s history, politics, food and drink (which is fantastic). Their wines are very cheap at about $5 a bottle and top-notch, especially a new variety of grape we have discovered called Carménère, which was originally from France but has since disappeared there only to flourish in the temperate climate of Chile’s central valley. And the bread. Oh, the bread. It is shaped like a French roll, with the crustiness of a baguette, and is so delicious that it is consumed at every meal, with jams, fruits, cheeses, meats, and butter, or simply on its own. Everybody in Chile eats it, and so the government regulates its contents, legislating added vitamins to ensure that it is healthy.
But it is not Europe, something we only discovered after a day or two when we realized what it was that had been in the back of our minds and could put it into words. In fact, we found, putting aside the weather and all the associated effects of living life outside more, that it was very much like Toronto. It was jarring to be in a place so foreign to us and yet in many ways so familiar. Part of being a tourist and adopting, as many scholars have called it, the “tourist gaze,” is constantly comparing how the things we see are similar to and different from home. As tourists, we adopt a position of ignorance by necessity, simultaneously resenting and hiding behind our feeling of being outsiders. Most tourists want to live “as the locals do,” and spend a few days living a life that is not theirs, but it is always difficult to overcome differences in language or customs and really understand. We of course were no different, and in seeking to understand we could not help but try to find the gaps between our assumptions of the country and the reality.
Most surprising was that we did not find as many gaps as we had thought we would. The people, though they have the darker, almost Mediterranean, colouring of South Americans, dress similarly to Canadians. They were quite modest in their dress, in fact, with most wearing suits and pants despite the heat, instead of sundresses like mine. The contrast immediately upon reaching Mendoza made this even more plain, as all the mendocinos look like fashion models. Santiago, in contrast, is a working city, and a city to live in, much like Toronto. There were no siestas, as we had expected, and we were surprised not to find many restaurants at all open after 10:00, at what we had been told was the time everyone just started to eat. On our last evening, in fact, we had to retreat to a bar that plied us with several varieties of pisco sour, because we couldn’t find another open kitchen. (This was not all bad.)
On our third day in the city, we took a bike tour in the afternoon heat, called “Parks and Politics,” led by a travelling American from Colorado (younger than we are) who had lived in the city but three months. Not exactly what we had expected, but he was knowledgeable enough and, unsurprisingly, spoke English that we could understand. It seems many Chileans don’t speak it at all, so he had managed to secure the job easily.
The tour involved battling rush-hour traffic (at Christmas) through the downtown core, and I will mention that Toronto bikers should come to Santiago if they want to see what a city that has no bike lanes feels like. (Incidentally, the suburbs and neighbourhoods outside of the central area all have dedicated bike paths, but in the city proper we were on our own with only our large bicycles, bells, and evident tourist status to shield us from the simultaneous aggression and creative response to red lights of Santiago’s drivers.) Again, it was much more American than European. The buildings, many of which had been rebuilt after each of the earthquakes in Chile’s history, stood firm but looked modern, with a few exceptions (the national library, some government buildings, universities) which were in a slightly crumbling colonial style.
Our guide explained that the drivers would be kind to us because they would see that we were tourists and would simply be glad that we were there and not in Argentina. I felt that this was likely a more honest statement than we would get from a native, and a telling one too. We did not know what to expect from Chile before we came, and when we told people about our trip, they would mostly only comment on Argentina and all its charms. It seems that Chile has only recently become a destination for those who enjoy world-class travel. In the 20 or so years since it secured its democracy again after years of military dictatorship, it has made great — and oft-unremarked — strides. It has a booming economy, buoyed by copper exports (recall the famous miners) but also fabulous produce and wine and specialty crops like jojoba beans, which are apparantly much used by NASA as well as in skin creams. (I can’t speculate as to why.) And Chile is now a country with an immigrant population, which is presenting a host of new problems and some national reflection that had never occurred before. The influx of Peruvians has apparently sparked a wave of protests that labour is being ‘stolen’ from native Chileans, one that is quite familiar to us in North America and Europe. The city of 7 million, surrounded on all sides by stunning mountain ranges, and already home to 45% of Chile’s population, will have to determine how to grow yet more as it becomes a more attractive place to live.
I suspect in some ways that Chile’s relationship with Argentina mirrors that of Canada and the US: part admiration, part resentment of its history as a greater world power, and a small part humourous derision – of the vast amounts of food (not a problem for us), of its famed Mendozan wineries being owned by Chilean companies, and of its people being poorer generally, thus explaining how Argentina came to be “cheap” compared with Chile (we got the double meaning of the word). Perhaps they are small victories secured to compensate for a history of being looked down upon by visiting Argentinians, or ignored entirely, or perhaps we will discover some of them to have merit.
We shall see.
Note: Please excuse any strange formatting, small fonts, and the lack of pictures. All to be rectified once I find a browser that cooperates with me.