When I decided to move to Santiago everyone told me I was very brave. Obviously this was in part because of the ‘don’t know anyone there and don’t know the language’ aspect. But I think it is also because Santiago, and South America in general is seen to be an intrepid, exotic and perhaps dangerous destination.
It’s the sort of destination lusted over by those travellers that preach about how they ‘want to meet the local people’, but who actually want to take a selfie with the local people and spend the rest of the time drinking in their hostel and congratulating themselves on being more adventurous than other white suburbans.
No traveller is immune to being this type of wanker. Admitedly, I did think Santiago was going to be exotic. Quietly, I did think I was a little braver than my friends who moved to London or Edinburgh.
But Santiago is not a quaint, ‘Indiana Jones’ style destination.
At its core, Santiago is a big city. Which is not to say that’s it’s not beautiful or interesting. But yes, there is a McDonalds on every corner. There are huge terrfying malls where you can queue forty minutes for a changing room. You can spend four hours walking around and only see unattractive corporate buildings. These are the symptoms of being home to over five million people.
For me, things were different, and they were exotic. But not in the way I expected. I wasn’t struck with a huge amount of culture shock. There were familiar things at every turn. But it was the small differences, things I never questioned in New Zealand that made an impact.
The change first was the lack of good coffee. The most reliable cafe in Santiago is Starbucks, which frankly horrifies me.
A week into my trip I met a fellow Wellingtonian, Andy. Together we embarked on a mission to find an acceptable coffee, with mixed results. We found one that was the quality of the Taranaki Street BP and we were jubilant.
But by far the most alarming thing I saw was a coffee art, created not by pouring the milk a certain way, but by dipping a ballpoint pen into the foam and literally ‘drawing’ a pattern.
Another surprise was the attitude to ‘bad weather’
It rarely rains in Santiago and the city isn’t built to handle it. I witnessed a few rainy spells, not downpours, nothing you’d complain about in Wellington. But these showers could half shut down the city.
The sidewalks flooded, university classes were cancelled, parties were postponed a week in advance, because in Chile ‘no one goes out if it rains.’
I would show up at my Spanish classes a few minutes late, only to find almost no one there, due to the affected transport.
A third critical difference is the party culture, starting with the size of shots in alcoholic drinks.
Imagine a New Zealand vodka and coke, then switch the proportions. Basically the drinks are spirits, with a splash of soda, but for a lower price. Originally I thought this was a great cultural upgrade, but after a few rough nights I’m not so sure.
The parties also start much later. I arrived at a club a little after 12 to find I was embarrassingly early. The bulk of the party takes place between two and six am.
Sadly I have never made it through to six am, mainly due to the afor mentioned size of the drinks.
Living in Santiago, I never thought coffee, rain and spirits were going to be some of the most significant changes to my lifestyle. But there were many more surprises in store for me in South America.