Motels, Saunas and other “Traveler Bewares”

And you thought you knew your native language!

Western Motel in Pink

Image by Jeep Novak! via Flickr

There are plenty of surprises to be discovered on the road, and one that can have funny (or downright weird) consequences is when we discover that the language we grew up with doesn’t quite work the same way in another region or culture.

Take a motel, for example—a “motor hotel” along the highway…A no-frills and inexpensive place to sleep and get back on the road to your real destination the next day—right?
Well, could be… unless you’re in Chile…
Back when I was teaching in an exchange program, one of my students blushed crimson as she told us that a friend had come to visit and that they had gone out looking for a place for him to stay. They hopped in a cab and asked the driver to recommend a motel and then asked him to wait while they went in.  “We won’t be long,” they told him.  He agreed, but “he gave us a very strange look,” she said. I’m sure the guy waited more out of amusement than for the additional fare.

They scurried back out 3 minutes later muttering about what a weird place it was. “They rent by the HOUR!” they exclaimed. (They were young, and gringos, and still had so much to learn). The driver laughed and explained that here in Chile, a motel is a place for couples to “get away” for a few hours… like at lunch time… or after a few drinks…if you catch my drift. Apparently they didn’t… and in case you didn’t either, I’ll save you a potential bit of red-faced embarrassment. In Chile, you go to a motel to have sex. If you want to sleep, look for a hotel; you want to sleep cheap, look for a hostel or residencial!

Traveler’s Tip: Some seasoned travelers suggest taking advantage of this room by the hour deal to grab a quick nap and shower while on the road because “they’re clean, discreet, and much cheaper than paying full fare in a hotel.”

But that’s an old story. I just heard a new one… At dinner the other night a German friend was telling about going to a sauna when she first arrived in Santiago. Everyone else at the table snickered as she began. She explained with relish how she had found a listing in the paper for a sauna near her office and decided to go at lunchtime one day.

“It seemed strange that it was on the 4th floor, but I went up. It also seemed strange that you had to ring the bell to enter, but hey, it’s a new country, they do things differently here, right?” She goes on, “So a woman opens the door and asked if I was there to apply…”

The others at the table are about to split their sides, and I still have no clue what’s coming.

“I said no, I just wanted to use the sauna. The woman looked at me very strangely and said ‘But the sauna is only for men!’ she tells me, so I asked if she knew where I could find a sauna for women around there, and she slammed the door in my face!”

By this point the entire table was cracking up, and I was still bewildered… (Jeeze, you’d think I’d know these things by now!) What was so funny about a sauna? So she explained…

Here in Chile a sauna is a burdel, a brothel, a house of prostitution….OOOOOOhhhhh!

If you want a real sauna, you look for “baños turcos” (Turkish bath).

I’m going to add these two words—motel and sauna—to the glossary because even though they aren’t Chilenismos, and this usage may not even be unique to Chile, they still make for a good heads-up and word to the wise for all English-speaking newcomers!


16 responses to “Motels, Saunas and other “Traveler Bewares”

  1. Hola Margaret! Una vez de vacaciones en Usa, nos daba verguenza pasar a un Motel , porque no sabíamos cuanto rato teníamos que estar y porque andábamos llenos de maletas , después de un rato pensándolo y sin mayores opciones ,pues teníamos que cuidar nuestros dollarcillos , optamos por el motel. Nos quedamos 5 días y a un muy buen precio.Andabamos con la “maldad” del Chileno en la mente…..Lo que son las diferencias entre Motel y Motel, idiosincracias totalmente diferentes , muy bueno tu blog….salu2….

  2. Hola Nano-
    Ah! Buen punto! Nunca se me ocurrió que podría pasar verguenza al revés! Pero claro pues–alguien sugiere que te quedes en un buen motel y qué otra cosa vas a imaginar!
    Esto es lo que me gusta de este blog- que se genera conversación que ayuda ver las cosas de los diferentes ángulos!
    Gracias por tu aporte!

  3. Hola
    veamos… En Chile hay dos tipos de Motel y dos tipos de Sauna:
    El motel de turismo, que usualmente son cabañas y luego el motel parejero. La gracia radica en saber cual es cual…. Normalmente un Motel en Pucón es de turismo, pero los de Santiago no.
    En el caso de las saunas, esto empezó en los años “antiguos” cuando en el cuerpo de avisos clasificados de los diarios se publicitaban “saunas”. Obviamente todos sabían a que se refería la cosa. Nuevamente…. todos saben cual sauna es asi y cual es asa… Sauna Mund por ejemplo es del tipo spa, pero las del Caracol Bandera (existe todavia???) es casa de huifas.
    Es como cuando uno dice weon o huevón. La misma palabra… dos significados diferentes. uno sabe… uno cacha Chile poh, cachai??

  4. ahhh y una historia mas:
    dos amigos fueron a un motel a DORMIR. no los dejaron entrar, ya que solo era para parejas heterosexuales. Trataron de explicarle a la persona a cargo que no eran pareja y que venian a dormir. La persona les pidió que se retiraran. Finalmente lograron ser aceptados, pero….. en habitaciones separadas! Habías escuchado esta historia Margaret??? Le paso a un buen amigo tuyo!

  5. Hola Juan- ¡Sipo! Justamente–aquí estamos intentando cachar a Chile… y pucha que cuesta a veces pues… y esto es lo que nos pone en situaciones divertidas! Lo rico y lo entretenido de intentar navigar y entender a otra cultura!
    Como tu dices “todos saben”… excepto ese “todos” no incluye los novatos recién llegados que faltan la iniciación cultural pues!
    A propósito, hoy busqué “sauna + Chile” en internet y parece que ahora son o elegantitos o gay, pero “mis fuentes” en esas cosas me dicen que en los diarios aún anuncian los de tiempos antiguos!
    Y qué bueno saber que si me canso en el camino andando por Pucón puedo entrar a un motel sin tener que esconder el patente del auto jajaja!

  6. interestingly sauna is sometimes used in Scotland as a synonym for massage parlour, which of course concentrate on providing a rather special form of relief …

    To confuse matters some saunas are just saunas – one has to instinctively know …

  7. Ah! So it’s not so Chilean after all then! And I thought about mentioning “salones de masaje” along with this too, but don’t have any good stories to tell and figured it would just be way too obvious… I mean if someone can’t figure THAT out… well… I guess they just need to get out more then!

  8. Juan- Pasó a unos amigos MIOS?? haha!! No lo había escuchado… pero puedo imaginar!!
    Oye, escríbame a contacto y me cuentas!! (off the record, of course!)

  9. Loved this piece! So true. I had fun remembering how I uncovered this living here.

  10. Hi Liz- Thanks- and yes– I think we all have “fond” memories of how we have stumbled and fumbled our way through the cultural maze!

  11. We once checked out a place in Lima that was cheap, wifi enabled and relatively clean. But something really seemed a bit off so Dan started researching it and found out it was a matadero (slaughterhouse) aka motel/brothel. I put my foot down…even if the wifi worked and it was cheap I wasn’t staying there for a week!

    That said, we did stay in a brothel for a night in Kazakhstan out of sheer desperation and fatigue. The attendant reassured me that she cleaned the sheets after every client. We pulled out our sleep sacks and put in our earplugs and collapsed. Here’s the full story:

    Saunas, massage parlors, hair salons all take on different meanings in different places. I remember when we were in Beijing we were told that hair salons with pink awning were brothels. And, we once went to a place in Siem Reap, Cambodia called Saigon Cafe thinking it was a Vietnamese coffee joint when it was actually a brothel. The women were so confused when we walked up as a couple and asked for coffee. Ah, good memories.

  12. Hi Audrey- hair salons and coffee shops too? Wow! The things one has to (and gets to!) learn on the road! Thanks for the heads up!
    And I love your brothel by the hour story!

  13. Hey, amiga…not only are those motels little love nests, the one I checked out here in Argentina also provides for maximal discretion: the curved driveway is lined by 2-meter high hedge…the clerk takes the money through a small window that allows very little view of the clients, and the car is then parked in a closed garage with a door leading into the room!

  14. É isso aí pessoal vivendo e aprendendo, estou pensando ir visitar o Chile, mas pelo que eu li tenho que aprender um pouco de tudo sobre o país costumes cultura e todos esses clichés, alguma sugestão?
    Quando viajo vou sempre só, preciso de pouco como é de prever, qualquer buraco tá óptimo, não sou de luxos e normalmente vou por (3 a 6 meses), assim posso conhecer o país, as pessoas, os costumes, a cultura, e desde então posso dizer que também sou chileno, como sou português,brasileiro, europeu, africano…, mas vou contar uma passagem minha do ano de 1997, numa viagem ao Mali, pedi ao recepcionista do hotel que me entregasse no quarto dois dos melhores chocolates que tivesse, é meu hábito antes de dormir comer um ou dois chocolates, dizem que faz bem ao coração e a outras coisas que agora não conto, qual não é o meu espanto quando entro no quarto encontro dois rapazes negros em trajes menores sentados à minha espera, pensei em tudo menos no que realmente eles ali estavam a fazer, explicaram-se em perfeito inglês, chamei o recepcionista e disse-lhe que não era esse chocolate que eu queria, pois era uma homem com ( H ) grande, ainda sou sem menosprezo pelos (gay), cada um é o que é e devemos respeitar as escolhas de cada um ponto final.
    Isto só para dizer que quando forem ao Mali não peçam o melhor chocolate, senão já sabem o que têm que comer.

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