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.


14 responses to “Greetings from Chile!

  1. I would like to stress that when making this photo, my wife was driving and not me.

  2. La Gringa/Margaret

    Ah! Good point!
    Someone just told me about being in a small plane with a young pilot who was hired to photograph vineyards. He would circle over, dip low, and tilt the plane sharply to the side so he could shoot his camera out the driver’s window!

  3. I think part of it is tied to economic development. As a country becomes wealthier and people have more money they start to think about their personal safety a little more. It’s Maslow’s hierachy of needs in action. At the moment, Chile is still developing and Chileans are more concerned with just getting by and ahead. In general, they’re only just reaching the ‘safety needs’ level of the hierachy (although I don’t believe that things are as simplistc as Maslow’s theory I do think it has its basic merits).

    It also takes time for laws and regulations to catch up with development and it’s only really through education that people start to realise that what they’re doing is wrong and dangerous.

    A couple of examples might be the fact that when my mum first started driving in England, having a few drinks and then getting behind the wheel was socially acceptable and barely punishable by the law. Now it’s completely taboo and anti-drink driving laws are strictly enforced. That’s come about through government education and people have learned to understand when a situation is dangerous (seat belts are another example).

    And another example would be to remember those photos of the workers building the Empire State…the guys just sitting on the metal beams with no safety harnesses etc. That’s when the US was still very much in the development phase of its economy (as opposed to its mature phase now). Over the years, laws have been introduced to stop that kind of nonsense…but only when people could actually afford to do things sensibly and properly. At the moment in Chile, it’s still kind of economically unviable to enforce things that we take for granted…things like safety laws, for example. Hopefully over the coming years, there will be government campaigns to improve safety in all aspects of life. Chileans, like everyone, need to be told what they’re doing wrong and why and it must come from some kind of authority and repeated until the message gets through.

    In the meantime, we’ll continue to see things like this:

    And apart from this, we have the overriding Catholic culture in Chile, which is much more one of ‘trust in God’ or blindly fatalistic than we’re used to in mainly Protestant countries (and it’s not necessarily that people believe in god, more that a religious culture has shaped most countries’ psyche over time). People in Latin countries don’t seem to believe as strongly as those from Northern European/American countries that we’re completely in control of our lives and the decisions we make.

  4. La Gringa/Margaret

    Hi Matt-
    First let me say to everyone else that you are not Matt the photographer, but Matt the blogger, and YES! I thought very much of your bathtub transport picture as I wrote this.
    Good observations… never gave the Empire State construction workers a thought (of course that was WAY before OSHA got in on it, probably pre-unions too!!
    Hmmm- the whole religion and responsibility thing… there’s a topic for you! And man do I have some opinions about THAT!!
    Thanks for your very astute comments…

  5. As Matt the photographer and NOT Matt the blogger, let me comment on the laters words.

    Though I agree with most of what he says. Two points worry me. Firstly the photographs he mentions of the workers on the Empire State building in NY, were shown to my photography class as good examples of careful cropping at the ICP in the mid nineties.

    When these photographs (which have made ATHENA millions) are seen in full context, they show that only a few feet below these men is a wide wooden platform. Ensuring that if they were to fall they would not plummet to an horrible death.

    Secondly is the economy of the USA really that “mature”?

    Many of us from the UK feel that the US is a bit like a young child. If you gave a young child $1000 USD in a sweet store the child would spend it all on sweets (candy) If an adult was given the same amount, maybe they would spend $5 USD and invest the rest (preferably not with Madoff)
    The US economy is around 250 years old, the British economy has had several hundred more years to “mature”

    I hasten to add, that neither is doing so great these days. Whereas the Chilean peso is great for me to take on my trip to the UK next week.

    However many thanks to Peg for opening my eyes to a cool Blog by a fellow Brit with an exceptionally cool name.
    P.S. loved those images of the 3D graffiti artist

  6. La Gringa/Margaret

    Hey there Matt-the-photographer-
    Never knew the story behind the Empire State picture! Thanks!
    And yeah, talking about “mature” economies right now seems a bit moot… but I do agree with Matt-the-blogger that there is a chain of priorities that one (or a group) (1) recognizes and then (2) attends to…
    Of course, I’m sure you can find some good ole boys somewhere in the States riding around on the back of a flatbed too, but I bet there’s a trooper just waiting to haul them in for it–and a handful of lawyers waiting to turn the situation into a lawsuit too!

    Back to the economy thing… (and admittedly I’m out of my league here!) You’re saying that the more mature British economy is that much better off than that of the US? (although I suppose that doesn’t take much doing these days!)
    And, by the way… glad to introduce Matt to Matt!!

  7. I have just seen that Matt blogger has a business degree so I’m gonna keep quiet on this one. I was just being a bit of a devils advocate.
    I find any country that has religion as a serious side scares me. As an atheist I find anyone looking for heaven anywhere else but on Earth strange. To be that blindly faithful as to drink and drive or sit in a car on a flatbed whilst being driven round bends on a hill strange.

    I have a name for these people.

    “Animita con piernas”

    Derived from “Cafe con piernas” and “Animita”

    The same name I call the walkers on Ruta 5.

  8. La Gringa/Margaret

    Ok- so we’ll BOTH leave the economy to Matt-the-blogger with a business degree…
    I totally agree on the animita bit… and had forgotten it was you that coined the animita con piernas phrase! (I think I’ve stolen it… glad I can give credit where it’s due!)
    There are an awful lot of animitas waiting to happen in these parts!!
    The whole “fate” thing has really been a thing for me here… the whole of “do it-spend it-drink it-eat it-say it now because we might get hit by a truck tomorrow” philosophy has been an issue for me here… But… is it an issue of faith, or is it an issue of feudalism and remnants of the patron & inquilino system… or both?

  9. wow, glad to have provoked such a discussion 🙂

    Matt…haha, I never knew that about the Emp St photo. Interesting…and funny. Still, I stand behind the idea that the hierachy of needs has its place when describing economies although I do believe that it’s not as clear cut as the model purports…

    And the US economy, although not as old as European economies, is definitely in its mature phase. Low, stable growth (within a regular economic cycle) is the hallmark of this. The current crash is nothing more than the cycle doing what it does best…bringing down what’s gone up too far. This time is worse than usual because we kept finding new ways to inflate the economy but it’s just part of the natural cycle. This is something I love about economics…it’s all so bleeding obvious if you bother to look at the historical data. People have very short memories though and tend to forget the bad times very quickly…

    And for the religion-culture thing…it’s not necessarily that people believe in god or even close. It’s just that it used to be such a strong influence on everything that it’s molded entire cultures.

    The Protestant Reformation and the subsequent success of the northern European countries (economically and socially-systems based on hard work, good deeds and trust) show how religion can have a huge effect on cultures, even if the actual religious part has rather fallen by the wayside.

    Matt-looked at your site…beautiful photos and I will definitely be in touch in a short while as I’m relaunching the agricultural property consulting side of my business and i’ll be needing some pics for my new site…I see you shot for Vina Estampa-my consultant winemaker is enologo de planta there. I was there just a couple of days ago.

    Btw, La Gringa…I really enjoy your posts. Well written and insightful. Good stuff.

  10. La Gringa/Margaret

    Thanks to BOTH Brit-Matts for your insights and discussion!
    And Matt B-for-blogger: I’m a total Matt Wilson photography groupie! Wanna join the fan club?

  11. Hmmm…maybe…

    Where do I sign up 🙂

  12. Always happy to get new fans and potential work.

    I am certainly beat on the economy argument as well. I am going to retire gracefully from this debate.

    Am off to find more examples of South American driving skills.


  13. La Gringa/Margaret

    Always happy to have your shots show up here! Now I’m looking for some good dog shots… Got any?

  14. La Gringa/Margaret

    Always happy to have your shots show up here! Now I’m looking for some good dog shots… Got any?

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