It’s been 18 years already. Sí po, as we say here in Chile. I first set foot on Chilean terra firma on June 6, 1991, 18 years ago today. I didn’t know a soul or have a clue about what I was getting into, but I had enrolled in a 6-week intensive language program at the Instituto Chileno Norteamericano, had a hotel address in my pocket, and a couple years of high school Spanish under my belt. And ganas—a great desire—to know this new country.
I flew in on Ladeco, a Chilean airline that has since merged with LAN Chile, and at some point during the night the pilot’s voice crackled “grbledy-grabldys colocolobrbldysgmp,” which was immediately followed by loud cheering, whistling, and celebratory applause throughout the cabin. ¿Huh? What was that about Coca Cola? Were they offering a free six-pack upon landing?… Clueless! As I would come to understand over the coming days, the Chilean soccer fútbol team Colo Colo had just won the Copa Libertadores tournament, which is (still) a very big deal… As it turns out, knowing this and remembering the exact date is one of those little tidbits that this gringa can proudly trot out at appropriate moments to win friends and influence Chileans…
Chileans like to talk up their solidarity, and even before I left the airport I did, in fact, have proof of such—along with a warning to be more careful in the future. The bus into the city cost $500 pesos. I had traded in my US bucks for Chilean lucas and admired my newly acquired assortment of colorful pesos and oddly shaped coins. I’ve always loved that money from other countries is so much more interesting than that I grew up with; esthetically speaking, US currency, for all its worth (or not), is pretty boring. I sifted through the wrinkly wad of bills that came in blue, green, and two shades of pink and handed a pink one over to a bemused but kindly gentleman behind a glass window. He held up his spread-fingered hand to stop me. He showed me two different bills and pointed to one and very slowly over-pronounced: “kee—nee—EN—tos” and then another saying “sin—ko—MIL.” Don’t speak Spanish? I realized that apparently I didn’t either… I had not noticed that one pink note had an extra zero and he knew it. He could have pocketed the $4,500-peso difference and I would have been none the wiser. (As an aside, the $500-peso note has since been replaced by a bi-metal coin, although pink remains a popular color for paper money because the newish $2000 bill is also pink as is the $5000 note. Hmmm, I wonder who decides such things as the color of money?)
Incidentally, a few days later I would learn that not everyone was quite as solidario—or as honest—as the airport guy when a cab driver tried to “take me for a ride.” He took the proverbial scenic route and planned to charge me about ten times more than he should have, but fortunately the person waiting for me caught on, set him straight, whipped a $1000-peso note out of my hand and into his, scolding “that’s all you get.” (Phew! Saved again!)
Leaving the airport, I took a window seat on the bus, eager to soak in as much as I could as soon as I could. Shortly after we pulled out onto the main road, I spotted an odd little blue structure on the curb that looked like a cement dog house with a candle burning inside. I’d never seen anything like it. It turned out to be the first of the many, many animitas that I would see every day in Chile and the beginning of a lifelong fascination with these little shrines that mark the place where someone has died tragically. Popular belief holds that something of the person’s soul remains on that spot, and people pray to them, ask for favors, and return with flowers, candles, plaques, and a wide assortment of other gifts to give thanks for favors granted.
(See a previous post on Animitas).
As I settled into my hotel room in some long forgotten part of downtown Santiago, I flipped on the “teli” to start tuning my ear and try to discover a bit more about the country and culture. And did I ever. Every single channel was showing soccer fútbol … not just a news blip, not sports in general, but full-blown fútbol, fútbol, fútbol on every channel all day long!
I went out to explore. There was confetti everywhere—it looked like New Year’s in June. And troops of cheering, chanting school kids paraded two-by-two behind their teachers toting school banners, waving Chilean flags, and tossing more confetti they had made themselves. Obviously this fútbol business was one very big deal, and these Colo Colo guys had just become national heroes. It was not long afterward that I began to hear (repeatedly) that Chile had come in 3rd in the 1962 World Cup… (That’s part of the standard information package for all newcomers—ya gotta love a country that celebrates 3rd place for 45 years!)
Ninja Turtles a la Chilena
I’m not sure what I really expected to find in Santiago, but never in my wildest dreams were there any Ninja Turtles involved, so imagine my surprise at coming half way around the world to find a Pizza Hut with larger-than-life Ninjas at the door! MacDonald’s had yet to appear, but Kentucky’s favorite colonel’s famous red and white shack was popular, although it could hardly compete with big green turtles! (For the record, I am talking about the Teenage Mutant variety of Ninja Turtles, and not Chilean carabineros (police) in riot gear–who do look very much the same!)
Other Random Flashbacks:
Gorgeous dark-haired, green-eyed guys, Spanish-speaking redheads, business men in suits and ties eating ice cream cones at 10AM, groups of women wearing identical suits who turned out to be office workers in classy uniforms, the lack of fat people on the subway, the contradiction of seeing palm trees against a backdrop of the snow-topped Andes Mountains, passengers hanging off the sides of the buses whizzing by at rush hour, student-types trying to sell foreigners their poems printed on little pieces of paper…
When I let my memory roll back to those early days… there were so many surprises, so many things that caught my attention and piqued my interest…
I had found in Chile a constant source of amazement.
I wondered about everything. I wanted to know everything… and still do today, 18 years later.
How about you? Do you have stories about your first impressions in Chile? Leave a comment or write a post and we’ll link them here!
Here’s what others have to say about their first impressions:
Clare at Clare Says: First Impressions (of Chile) (arrived in Rancagua, 1996)
Vicki at Futalandia: Chile September 2006- First Impressions (Santiago and Chile’s deep south, 2006)
Lydia at Just Smile and Nod: First Impressions of Chile (Santiago and Valparaíso)
Abby at Abby’s Line: Thoughts on my First Day in Chile (Santiago, January 2007)
Eileen at bearshapedsphere: Pucha I don’t speak Cellphone! (Santiago, April 2004)
Emily at Don’t Call Me Gringa: First Impressions (arrived in Santiago, June 2005)
Sara at La Gringuita Diaries: First Impressions of Chile (August 2006, Concepción)
Emily at Chilemily: First Impressions (July 2001, Viña & Copiapó)
Amanda at Still Life in South America: First Impressions (December 2008, Santiago)
Renée at Patas Arribe: First Impressions (February 2008, Santiago)
Kyle at Kyle Hepp: My First Impressions (1997, Santiago)
Eileen Shea: The Funniest Gringa in Chile (early 1980s, Santiago)