Sunday, June 14, 2009

First impressions after a week

I’ve now been in Chile for just over a week. In just a short time, I’ve managed to make friends with Chilean university students, talk to a few micro-entrepreneurs, mingle with successful Duke Law graduates that reside in Santiago, and explore parts of Santiago and its different comunas.

It's clear that Santiago is neither European nor entirely South American. I feel like I'll have a better metric for comparison after visiting Buenos Aires, which is known as the Paris of South America. I can't pinpoint the mixture yet. Santiago is unlike any city I've visited.

Here are some brief observations:

The People:
I’ve found Chileans to be very friendly. Fortunately, our program set us up with intercambios (Chilean university students) during our second night in the city. Our intercambios have been incredibly warm and helpful getting to know us and showing us the city. When I was in Madrid for four months, nearly everyone in our program struggled to make Spanish friends. The situation was quite different, but many of the university students studying English really seem to like spending time with us practicing their English and sharing their culture while giving us a chance to learn and practice our Spanish.

Furthermore, the host families have been incredibly hospitable. It’s clear that the families are genuinely interested in learning about us and helping to show us Chilean culture and history. This is a stark contrast to my program in Spain, where many of the families or señoras had hosted students for years and seemed to care more about the income then helping to create a meaningful and educational experience. For instance, last night, Karna’s host family invited us over to watch a Chilean movie and enjoy delicious food. My host mother has told me to invite my friends over so that they can see a different lifestyle since I’m the only DukeEngage student living in a house instead of an apartment.

Chilean Slang:
Before coming to Chile, I was warned that Chilean Spanish is at times another language. At times, it’s slightly frustrating when I’m left completely behind in a conversation between Chileans as they drop letters and sounds from words and use modismos that I’ve never heard. Chilean Spanish is an adjustment after listening to Castellano in Spain for a semester. I’m learning the slang and pronunciation, but I’m hesitant to pick up too many words since no one will know what I’m saying back at school.

Poverty vs. Wealth:
The families that many of us live with are considered middle class to upper middle class. Most of the micro-entrepreneurs that we work with are in the second quintile above extreme poverty. These people, according to AE, have the ability to improve their livelihood through micro-entrepreneurship. As a result, the people in this quintile can hire people in the lowest quintile and help them progress. At the Duke alumni party, we met very affluent Chileans. It’s very costly to study in the U.S., so all of the Duke Law graduates were born into wealthy families. The house we visited was beautiful and decorated with numerous pieces of art. It felt like I was in a nice housing development in Scottsdale, Arizona instead of a suburb of Santiago. The wide spectrum in wealth is a reality here in Santiago, like it is in most countries. I think Chile has had a fairly strong middle class that was influential during the Allende and Pinochet years. However, here there seems to be a wide gap between the middle class and the wealthy that is a bit blurrier in the U.S.

The speed of life:
Life in Chile is way slower paced than in the U.S. The difference manifests itself at work, where some days can be slow and full of waiting. Additionally, my host mom was telling me about the lack of efficiency at one of the factories she works at. As a social worker, she tries to help people with their problems, which also include helping managers make their workers more efficient. She said that a majority of the workers required supervision to stay on task and it’s difficult to create gains in efficiency.

The 30-minute rule is another sign of the slower pace of life. In the U.S., most people try to get to meetings within five minutes of the decided time. It’s important to not arrive too early and waste time, while it’d be rude to arrive late. This leaves a small window. Here, however, the punctuality window is much larger.

For the most part, I enjoy the slower pace of life. It’s refreshing, especially after a semester at Duke, where I feel like I’m always running from place to place or trying to tick of boxes on a to-do list. Slowing down enables me to appreciate every minute, whether it’s stopping to watch people in a metro station or having time to wander around. The slower pace is mainly frustrating at work, where it’s more difficult to sit back and wait for things to come to me, rather than actively seeking them out.

The Cold:
Few apartments and houses in Santiago seem to have central heating. My office at work is FREEZING. We have one heater to share between several rooms. Our lunch break is glorious because we can step out into the relative warmth of the day. Some days, I sit in my office in four layers of clothing with a hat on. I think it’s worse than waiting in line for a basketball game, where I’m usually hibernating in a warm sleeping bag. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a sub-zero sleeping back to Chile.

I’m curious to know how much more energy is saved or used by using gas or electric heaters instead of central heating. To a certain extent, the system makes sense. For only a few months during the year, you throw several blankets on your bed and use portable heaters in rooms that you’re using. The system is certainly less wasteful than central heating in the states, where every room in a house is warmed even if it isn’t being used.


  1. Nice entry! Gives me a good idea of life in Santiago.

  2. I'm a Duke junior, and I've been in Buenos Aires for most of this summer and writing my own blog, and I don't know if Karna has mentioned this to you yet, but I will be coming to visit Chile in about a week. I've really enjoyed reading your blog and keeping up with all of your adventures in Chile.

    Buenos Aires is similar in some ways and different in others. I believe the subte problem is probably just as bad as in Santiago, judging by how you've described it. The pollution is also pretty rough, but probably not quite as extreme as it sounds like it is in Chile.

    One difference is in the pace of life in Chile vs. Argentina. While people are more relaxed in the provinces of Argentina, Buenos Aires is a big city pretty much like any other. There is no ciesta at lunchtime, and people are more or less on time to important events like appointments. That being said, people will arrive drastically late to social events and service in restaurants does take a long time so be prepared to wait 5 minutes just to get the menus (which you often have to share).

    But, in response to your comment, is Buenos Aires the Paris of the Americas? Well I certainly hope not. It is similar to Paris in the sense that there are tons of cafes lining all the streets and there is plenty of nightlife and theater shows and stuff like that. There is also a great deal of European influence, particularly Italian, in Argentina. However, the city is much dirtier, much more crowded, and much more chaotic than I picture Paris (I've never been there). Perhaps you can judge for yourself when you're here this weekend!

    By the way, you'll be able to use your castellano once again when you come to Argentina! They don't use the vosotros in place of usted but they the vos form in place of tu, with all the vos conjugations (distinct from vosotros cojugations).