Wandering in America del Sur

Travel time: July 2005 - March 2006  |  by Allison Webb

I´m not stupid, I just can´t speak Spanish!

Ah, the life of an ex-pat, the endless stream of complete and utter confusion rendering the simplest things impossible! They say that there are several stages to culture shock, the first being a completely magical, mystical look at the country with rose coloured glasses followed by the pendulum swing to the other side where things are not as good as at home. After that there is some coming to terms with the place and an equilibrium. Well, I still haven´t decided where I am on the spectrum, but I know that I definitely am not in Kansas anymore.

It starts in the morning as my eyes adjust to the light - sun already up because we start work late here - 9am being early and many staff strolling in closer to 9:30-10am! The first thing that seems out of whack are the palm trees, stretching forth into the sky - a definite telltale sign that this is not Vancouver.

Next is the battle of the hot water. Who will win today? First try with the gas and matches and sometimes, if I am very lucky, there is hot water on the first try, but often, like today, it was the second or third - first being punctuated by icy coldness fit for no man. When at last there is hot water, it is of the scalding variety and seemingly no attempt to move the faucet can cool things down to a reasonable temperature. Your only choice is to jump in and hold your breath! Apparently there is a fine line here in Chile between pleasure and pain!

Emerging fully red, you dress immediately because it is cold in the apartment as there is no heating. In fact, you are reluctant to get out of bed where it is warm and getting up at 8am is much preferable to 7am when it is still very cold - maybe that´s why work starts so late!

You run out the door, first checking that the gas is off after your shower and that you have locked, double locked and triple locked your door. After that you walk through the maze of sleeping dogs and torn up streets and railway lines which represent Vina del Mar and Valparaiso in the new century, however, right now they only represent a big mess and mean that the train is not functioning which takes you to yet another adventure, the microbus.

Now every microbus should be ranked from bad to ugly based on the number of dents and sheer insanity of the drivers. And although it´s about 10km between Vina del Mar where I live and Valparaiso where I work, my commuting time varies daily based on the craziness of the driver, usually about 5 minutes! For only about $.75 Cdn you can take a ride on the wild side, but be warned - do NOT get on any microbus where you can not sit down. I did this one night and nearly lost my life and my groceries too as we careened dangerously around corners at speeds rivalling those of an Indy Race car driver. The experience is somewhat terrifying, but since everyone is doing it, it can´t be all bad.

Trying to figure out the microbus routes is another challenge since there isn´t exactly any type of bus route map since they are all independently owned and operated! So, you just jump on and if you guess wrong, you get off as soon as you have realised your mistake and walk back in the right direction in the dark which also gives you an opportunity to discover new neighbourhoods! A trip to a new place is a leap of faith and you sit glued to the window seat glancing out in hopes of actually going in the right direction and making it there in one piece.

And then there is rush hour, only in Chile would it be at 7pm M - Thursday and on Friday at 6pm! Very civilized! So, to beat the crowds just leave work at 6 and you are guaranteed to be home pronto. Of course, getting there is just half of the fun, the real challenge is getting off the bus since they don´t actually stop, they just slow down. Warning to the women: do not wear high heel shoes as they will inhibit your ability to jump! And of course, trying to tell the driver where to stop is almost impossible since you can´t speak Spanish so you just pray that someone else is getting off where you are or you get off with someone else at the closest stop and walk back!

Finally safely ensconced at work after avoiding stepping on the curled up dogs on the steps of the office, you decide after all of that excitement that you need a coffee to keep going, but you realise that not only is there no Starbucks, but that there are no coffee places anywhere. The sight of a take out paper cup seeming completely exotic, you sink to the law of the traveller everywhere, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and spoon your instant Nescafe into your cup and add hot water from the kettle! Ah, caffeine or something like that! Remember you just have to believe!

And then there is there is the spectacular view of the port and the ocean and the houses of Valparaiso spilling forth from the hillsides, threatening to topple down with their explosion of colours, their little hideaway treasures beckoning, but you must work!

An early lunch here is at 1pm and you, not being yet accustomed to the time change and cultural shift, have eaten at your desk at 12 noon while all the others are wandering out to have their 3 course meal for 1 1/2 - 2 hours at 1 or 2pm. No wonder people stay here ´til 7pm! Not wanting to be completely left out, you wander in the narrow maze of streets, up hill and dale and soak up the sun and atmosphere which is Valparaiso - old buildings mixed with new. A proliferation of banks and restaurants and government buildings and magazine kiosks on every corner. Every step a new discovery.

Until you decide to browse in a store where the unsuspecting clerk babbles to you in rapid Spanish and catches you completely unaware and unable to say anything and they look back at you like you are stupid! And inside you are thinking, "I´m not stupid, I just can´t speak Spanish and I have absolutely no clue what you just said to me!" It is even worse in the supermarket where everyone seems to adopt me as their new best friend, no matter which aisle I am roaming in, there is always a man or a woman who either wants to tell me which rice is the best or ask my opinion about the vegetables! Once again I just slink away and leave them standing there thinking that I am just plain rude!

But the good thing is the people - always friendly, forever helpful and always ready to celebrate a birthday, or anniversary or going away or new baby or any other excuse and they are spoiled me on my birthday with roses, lunch, cake and presents as can be seen below. Gracias todos!

Stay tuned for more faux pas in the grocery store and highlights of a Spanish challenged speaker in a new land ...

Birthday boy and girl!

Birthday boy and girl!

Happy Colleagues celebrating our birthdays! Those Chileans take their cakes seriously and it´s a good thing!

Happy Colleagues celebrating our birthdays! Those Chileans take their cakes seriously and it´s a good thing!

Getting ready to blow out our candle, Alex and Allison - only one day apart!

Getting ready to blow out our candle, Alex and Allison - only one day apart!

© Allison Webb, 2005
You are here : Overview The Americas Chile I´m not stupid, I just can´t speak Spanish!
The trip
My trip through Peru before heading to Chile to work for 6 months and then travels afterward in South America
Start of journey: Jul 05, 2005
Duration: 8 months
End of journey: Mar 02, 2006
Travelled countries: Peru
The Author
Allison Webb is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 19 years.