Daily Archives: Friday, March 13, 2009

Greetings from Chile!

So you’re driving along the winding roads of Chile’s Coastal Mountains near Lago Rapel and come upon this scene… What goes through your mind… Safety issues? Joy ride? Dumb move? Having fun? It’s all relative… culturally relative, that is.

Matt Wilson: On the Road

Greetings from Chile! Photo by Matt Wilson

My friend, photographer Matt Wilson, sent this picture around this morning, calling it “Only in Chile.”  It’s not, of course. I’m sure scenes like this can be found in many places around the world, but it made me stop and wonder… These guys are clearly having a great time, and I have to admit, riding around backwards in a car jacked up on the back of a flatbed truck does seem like a fun and larky,  once-in-a-lifetime-thing-to-remember kind of thing to do… but then I get this “oh my god you can’t be serious” voice in my head shouting “Danger Will Robinson!”  (True, I don’t always listen to this voice, but it’s there).

And that controlling little voice has been nagging at me all day. I’ve been thinking about this picture and asking myself,  “What is it about this scene?” “What do these guys think about what they’re doing?”  “What do the other drivers on the road think about what they’re doing?” Clearly they’re having a great time, so why do I get this weird feeling about it?

It’s very much a cultural thing, and it’s all tied up with conceptions of “common sense,” of right and wrong, and just plain dumb. Somehow we “know” what we can-can’t, should-shouldn’t, could-couldn’t, must-mustn’t, ought or ought not to do in any given circumstance. We’ve been taught directly and indirectly throughout the course of an entire lifetime to think that something is or is not a good idea. And then there are the things where the jury is still out. And in Chile, the jury seems to be out quite a bit.

Responsibility is an issue that keeps coming to mind. The truck is winding its way through the sinuous roads of central Chile’s Coastal Mountains (near Lago Rapel), where  the hills are steep and visibility is limited. If there were an accident and these guys got hurt, who would be to blame? Who would take responsibility? Or to state it bluntly (and gringoesquely), who could they sue? The answer is probably no one.  They take responsibility for themselves. They’ve chosen to trust the driver and put their faith in the straps that fasten the car to the truck and ride who knows how many miles through the hills. They know what can happen, but they’ve tossed their proverbial caution to the wind. They’re just along for the ride.

The truth is, I’m not even sure there are laws against this kind of thing in Chile. And if there are, who knows if they would ever be enforced. It’s very common to see people of all ages riding in the back of trucks and vans–often with no doors or gates to protect them from sliding off or out, and until fairly recently, it was common to see people hanging off the sides of overstuffed city buses during rush hour.  Beats walking, I suppose.

Of course the news is full of tragedies, and everyone clucks their tongues and recites “what a shame,” until the next time around. But in the end, people, adult people, make their decisions and abide by their consequences. No one has forced them into that car, and if they get hurt as a result, who is to blame but themselves? (Of course it’s an altogether different story when bad decisions affect third-party innocents, but then that’s an entierly different post).

So where am I going with this? Once again the concept of cultural relativity comes up. (OK- yes, in the spirit of full disclosure, I AM an anthropologist). The culture we grow up in frames our ways of thinking for our entire lifetime. It instills that controlling voice in our heads that guides us through our lives and even tells us what to think about what other people are doing.

My little voice looks at these guys and tells me “don’t do that”… but then there’s that other voice (probably the one that convinced me to move to Chile in the first place), that says, what the hell, go for it! Have fun!  Enjoy life! We all have to go sometime, so why not enjoy the ride in the meantime?

Why not indeed.