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Living in Chile: Learning to Survive

I’ve been living in South America; near Santiago, Chile off and on for almost three years. Usually, I spend six months in the U.S. and six months here.

Santiago, Chile is a city with well over 5 million people. It’s one of the most advanced cities I’ve ever lived in. It’s also one of the cleanest cities I have ever observed. Everywhere you look you can see European influence in the architecture of the buildings and the make up of the city overall. There’s a large German population here but then you have to remember that during World War II, after the fall of the Third Reich, many Germans escaped to South America, most going to Argentina but many finding their way to Chile.

Their influence can be seen everywhere, from the architecture of the buildings, to the styling of the homes.

I’ll tell you now; you must speak at least a bit of Spanish if you plan on exploring the world here. You’ll see many storefront signs in English but this in no way means the proprietors speak any. In fact most people only speak Spanish. I’ve chosen to “learn on the job”. When I first came here I spoke virtually no Spanish but now I can speak what I call “Survival Spanish”, and that is, just enough Spanish to get to where I need to go on any given day. But not to fear, Chileans are all natural teachers and if you don’t know the language expect to get quick lessons from any Chilean you come into contact with.

This is primarily how I’ve learned. When you first get off the plane and come through the customs area be prepared to pay an entry fee. The cost; currently it’s $75 dollars to enter the country but you pay only once and that’ll cover you for the next ten years. They’ll staple a special permit in the back of your passport, and I advise you to never remove it or lose it, or you’ll have to pay again.

Get insurance when you clear customs.

The cost is minimal, about $5 dollars and this will cover you for any medical attention you may need, just like having an HMO in the U.S. but in this case if you actually need medical attention you’ll get it.

Trust me I know, I had to have an emergency operation just a few months ago. I had to have my appendix removed, the insurance I got at the airport made things easier for me and kept the cost down.

You’re no doubt now wondering what the hospitals are like here. You’re probably thinking that you hope you never wind up in a hospital here but I can tell you this much, I would prefer to be operated on by a Chilean doctor than an American one.

The doctors here take the practice of medicine extremely serious, like being an artist taking art to an almost spiritual level, and no they don’t play golf. If you wind up in the hospital for something here, you’ll be in good hands. Again, I know from first hand experience. Here, they’re not concerned about your Medical card and all that red tape crap you would face in the states, here they put the patients’ health first, money matters later.There are all the comforts of the U.S. here. Yes, they have Blockbuster Video on just about every corner. Yes, they do have McDonald’s here, and Burger King, even Kentucky Fried Chicken. On Friday nights in my house it’s usually Domino’s pizza night. I may have a few of my friends over and we just order some pizza and watch a movie on cable TV. This is a service oriented country. They will deliver just about anything to your doorstep. Yes, you can even call that order of Kentucky Fried Chicken in and they’ll bring it to you.

Chileans are a nocturnal people. Once you make a few friends, it’s not uncommon for people to come by your house late at night and stay late. This was something I had to get used to. Fridays are usually the days that you’ll have an unexpected guest. They may just drop over for a cup of tea…………at 11pm and stay till 2am. This is considered normal so if you are not a nightowl, develop the habit.

The political climate is very stable here. You don’t have to worry about any coup attempts, or someone trying to overthrow the government, although the CIA was stupid enough to try that in the 70’s (can’t just leave well enough alone, can they?). Occasionally, in the beach town of Valparaiso you get some students protesting about not having enough ice cubes in the cafeteria for lunch or something but other than that, life is calm.

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Chileans love music, art and movies. Especially art, in fact one section of downtown is devoted to the “starving artist”. There’s a large town square type of area that is populated by all types of artists. It’s called the Plaza de Armas, in downtown Santiago. There you can have your portrait painted or find some of the most enigmatic and original art imaginable. I know, I like to go there to buy new pieces for my home, I love art, what can I say? There’s a guy there who paints masterpieces with nothing but his finger. If you ever go to Santiago, go to the Plaza de Armas to watch him paint something, it will be well worth it just to see his technique.

If you’re downtown and get hungry there’s the world famous Café Colonia. Order a pork sandwich with cheese (“Lomito”); you’ll be glad you did. The place has been in business for over 30 years, a hidden gem of the downtown area. It is a Bavarian styled tea house, with lots of finished wood and quite cozy. Old world charm at its best, with incredibly good food at better than reasonable prices.

It snows in the mountains during winter, perfect for those cozy nights by the fire with your loved one. The winter here is not brutal or too harsh, just wet. The rainy season is bad (May-August), in fact every year some houses are always washed away by flooding, this usually occurs in the poor parts of town, but the locals always pitch in to help rebuild whatever a family may lose. People do look out for each other here.

A three month visa is about $100 dollars US. You can stay visa free for the first 90 days, then after that period you have to leave the country or get the visa. What I’ve done in the past is simply get in my car and take a drive over to Argentina. I cross the border, get an exiting stamp and spend a night in some small rustic town in Argentina. The next day I return to Chile where I’m good for another 90 days visa free. There are visas available allowing you to stay longer but then it gets a bit complicated. Crossing the border may seem like a “pain-in-the-ass” thing to do but this way I avoid going to the visa center where they have incredibly long lines. You get there and you’d swear they’re giving away free Rolling Stones tickets or something. Besides, these little trips allow me to develop contacts in Argentina as well and you can never have too many contacts. Networking is still the name of the game in any country.

Argentina is only a few hours away and the drive is breathtaking through the mountains. Along the way there are numerous roadside cafes where one can get a cake and some coffee or tea and a sandwich which is the standard version of the Chilean “snack”.

Chileans are by nature a curious people. In fact their curiosity borders on just plain nosiness. Expect to be stared at alot wherever you go. Chileans mean no harm by it at all; it’s just how they are. They don’t know that staring is considered rude by American standards. They’re also very accepting of other races and cultures. If you look hard enough you will find Arabs, Asians, and black people. Black people are especially stared at by Chileans but it’s by no means a racial issue. The fact is many Chileans have never seen a black person up close, except for on television. The best thing to do when being stared at is just smile and wave.

Now I want to talk about the one area I have not covered up till now, and that is the local police. The police here are unlike any I have observed in the world. Their uniforms are green – like the military. What I want to focus on is this; if you ever get into any type of trouble, DO NOT TRY TO BRIBE THE COPS! The cops here are very poorly paid, but they do have alot of pride and honor. If you suggest a bribe or even hint at it, you may find yourself in the local jail. The police are poorly paid but from what I have observed these cops have the most integrity I have ever seen. Sure you get corrupt cops wherever you go, and there may be some in the local police here, but overall, these cops are the most honorable and friendly I have ever seen, and I don’t particularly like cops as a whole but these police have my respect.

Simple rules for dealing with cops here: don’t be arrogant. Nothing will get you in trouble faster than arrogance. You can call the embassy all you want but I can tell you now very little will be done if you get hauled in because you were acting out to a cop.

Make eye contact at all times and smile. Be touristy, not smart alecky. If they want to search your car, let them, remember you’re not in Kansas anymore, and your rights in the U.S. don’t apply here. Don’t flaunt the “but-I-am-an-American” crap; it has very little value here. If they ask to see your identification take care not to let money show, or they may feel you are trying to suggest a bribe and then you’ll be in serious trouble.

Be cool and cooperate and you’ll be ok. If anything, most will just let you off with a warning for whatever you’re doing, but this in no way translates as you being above the law. All I am saying is that these cops are not petty, and they’ll let a few indiscretions slide but don’t push it, you don’t have a license to thrill.

Excerpted from “Life In Chile: Learning The Fine Details Of Survival” in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 46.

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