It’s been a busy few weeks. My dear friend (and fellow anthropologist) Kathleen Skoczen and her son Alex were just here for 3 weeks (I also had the Annual Wines of Chile Awards thrown into the middle for good measure). We crammed a lot into their time here and I’ll be updating the blog with stories and pictures as time permits. She’s written a couple of guest posts, and as soon as I have some pics to go with them, I’ll put those up too.
But let’s start with her two hands-down major impressions: Chile is not a third-world country (contrary what Chileans will insist on telling you) and Chile is the dog paradise of the world (again, despite what Chileans say).
I’m not sure what she expected exactly, but this wasn’t it. Her main point of reference for Latin America is the Dominican Republic, where she has worked on various issues related to health and/or tourism since the mid-80s. She started by building latrines there in the Peace Corps and it has been her key anthropological field site since grad school in the 90s. When I was helping her line up a place to stay before she arrived, she kept saying “as long as there are no bedbugs or fleas, I’ll be just fine.” It turns out she wasn’t kidding. She’s got horror stories about her usual living conditions in the DR, where’s she’s flung scorpions out of her baby’s crib and battled spider infestations that give me the heebie-jeebies even now 18 years later. Fortunately, Santiago has few bugs to speak of, and the apartment she rented on the corner of Merced and MacIver in downtown Santiago turned out to be ideal (well, except for the noise, of course).
Chile is not a Third World Country!
People kept apologizing to her for this “third world country,” and she kept asking me why. “Have Chileans ever SEEN a third world country?” she wondered. Sure, there’s poverty in Chile, there’s no denying that, but we certainly don’t have the wide-spread abject poverty that she has seen in the DR, Mexico, Ecuador, and Africa.
I made a point of showing her a bit of all sides—not the La Dehesa tour that Chileans tend to want to give visitors (honestly, if someone comes from the other side of the world to visit, DON’T take them to La Dehesa unless you live there. We’ve seen it before. Show them something they haven’t seen!).
We pretty much crossed Santiago by car, foot, subway, and bike (ok, I’ll fess, she biked all over town by herself). She saw a pretty wide range of neighborhoods, north, south, east, and west. We ate in restaurants from Las Condes to Plaza Yungay to Chinese in La Florida abajo (or is it Puente Alto at that point?). She was glad her apartment was downtown because it made a great starting point for any possible destination and gave her a sense of the pulse of the city.
We also wandered the hills of Valparaíso, tested the chilly waters of Concón (too cold), explored the shoreline and tide pools of Zapallar, and spent a day meandering through the Cajón de Maipo all the way to the steamy pools of Termas Colina. She and her son spent a week in San Pedro de Atacama, and we spent her final weekend with friends of ours in Corinto, in the heart of Maule. We took the Ramal—Chile’s only surviving local train—to the coast at Constitución, and then strolled along the riverbank up the hills and through the markets and plazas, and then spent the next day (her last) in Pencahue at a trilla a yegua suelta—a traditional wheat threshing, where horses are made to run over the stalks of wheat to separate the wheat from the shaft—an anthropologist’s delight.
She saw a lot. But she didn’t see much of anything she could associate with her concept of Third World.
The rambly wooden houses that line the train tracks pulling in to Concepción are very humble , but as far as we could tell they all had floors and doors and dry roofs. She turned to me and joked, “So this is Chile’s idea of poverty? This is nothing!” And I know she is right. Chileans tend to regard themselves as Europe’s poor cousins instead of Latin America’s wealthy siblings…and that in itself bears some real reflection.
Chile, the Dog Paradise of the World
Like so many other visitors to Chile, Kathleen and Alex got a big kick out of the ubiquitous Chilean street dogs. These were not the mangy, ill-tempered mutts they’re used to seeing in the Dominican Republic: no, Chile’s quiltros are rather good-natured and healthy looking pooches deep-snoozin’ on busy downtown street corners as pedestrians just step over or around them.
Chile has no leash laws. No, wait a minute… It does too! They just aren’t enforced! On their first day they were amazed to see two carabineros (police officers) standing by a lounging rover who rolled onto his back, yawned, and stretched a paw up to them as if to say, “scratch my belly please.”
She laughed at a pair of dogs going at it in the street in front of a bus stop as half a dozen people stood by unphased. And she couldn’t believe it when we told her of seeing traffic stop in all four directions as a pack of dogs followed nature’s urgings in the middle of an intersection. She cracked up and said, “Well no wonder they sleep all day!”
These observations are in no way intended to undermine the need for people to take more responsibility for their pets, but again, to put things into perspective. Just because a dog is on the street does not mean it is unfed and homeless. Most of the dogs running around the busy streets have full, shiny coats, show little sign of hunger, seldom bark, and always responded with tail-wagging joy every time Alex stopped to pet them and scratch behind their ears. Kathleen insists that he was absolutely unable to pass a single dog without stopping to play for a moment. And certainly the sight of a strapping 6’4” (1.95 m) tall blond gringo kid playing with all the dogs in town gave the Chileans who saw him pause for a smile. The dogs certainly loved it!
For more dog-related posts, see:
I’ll add pictures to this post soon, and now that things have calmed down a bit (vacation season in Chile!) I’ll be able to update more frequently. Stay tuned. Lots of good stuff coming!