“Jesus, the first chapter before you even got to Easter Island was longer than most people’s whole blogs.”
Okay, fine, Chile, you're getting your own post. I hope it makes your skinny ass happy.
Unless you’re bum-rushing in the back door from Tahiti like some kind of berserker, Santiago, Chile is the doorway to Easter Island.
Santiago is also the world’s southernmost Los Angeles.
Actually this is not literally true, there is a town called Los Angeles in Chile that is south of Santiago, put there just to fuck with my thesis, but I’m not going to dignify that bullshit with an asterisk. Santiago it is.
The desert landscape and plants, the brown hills, the smog, the traffic, Santiago is Los Angeles with 10% more graffiti and 3% less spoken Spanish.
(p.s. - I love you, L.A. And your weird doppelgänger city.)
The amount of graffiti in Santiago is truly impressive, and I spent much of my time there trying to figure out if this was “We have culture and love street art” graffiti or if this was a shitty neighborhood and I needed to walk faster.
I spent my first afternoon in Santiago wandering around and eventually visiting the grocery store so I could stock up on food to bring to Easter Island, thus dodging the island’s famously sky-high prices for food.
I’ve realized, quite accidentally, that going grocery shopping is an excellent way to get the feel for a foreign country. You’re there with regular people who are doing regular people stuff. And you’re gawking at all the weird shit they eat.
The inside of this cavernous supermarket was not that different from what you’d find in America. It was actually dispiriting to realize how thoroughly American companies have dominated the global food chain, as most of the unfamiliar products on display had very familiar company names in the small print on the back.
After being thoroughly shut down by bread section (Ingredient #472: “leche.” Goddamn you, leche!) I decided that spaghetti was going to be my jam on Easter Island. I don’t mean that literally, like I was going to make peanut butter and spaghetti sandwiches, I mean… never mind. I was buying spaghetti. Noodles? Check. Sauce? Where the hell is the sauce? I did a loop of the entire store looking for the squadrons of familiar red jars. Nope. Damn, what do they use for sauce here? Alpaca blood?
On my second lap I found it. They did indeed sell spaghetti sauce, but not in jars. There was plenty of it, but it was only sold in little single-serving packets, like how you might buy salad dressing mix in the US. Shit, how many times am I going to make spaghetti? Two, three, four… I grabbed a packet from each of the different varieties in case any of them were horrible.
Spoiler alert: They were all horrible. Don’t move to Chile if you’re really into Italian food. I did not know there was a rung at the bottom of the ladder of spaghetti sauce quality that’s labeled “You should have just used ketchup.”
By some miracle I found some coconut milk in the “not quite milk” aisle, which featured box after box of things that were neither milk nor vegan milk substitutes. My best guess based on the Spanish I had available to me at the time is that they were all milk with the lactose removed, for the intolerant. The fact that they had 400 varieties of this makes me think Chileans may fall on the “can’t digest milk well” end of the genetic spectrum.
I’d also grabbed some bananas, and after waiting through an epic line to get to the cash register, my bananas broke the entire store. It turns out Chilean grocery stores don’t have scales at the register, so if you buy produce you have to bag it, weigh it, and print out a label sticker that tells the cashier how much banana you’re buying and what it should cost.
The cashier and bagger explained this to me via Spanish and yelling, gesturing that I’d need to go all the way across the massive store back to the produce section to print out a banana sticker. The 293 people in line behind me groaned in unison. I replied, via a mixture of Spanish and English that we’ll call “Seanish,” that this was in no way necessary and that they should just charge me whatever the maximum banana charge is. However much these bananas could possibly weigh, let’s avoid a riot and just charge me that much. This is a very difficult concept to communicate in your 9th best language (after English and French, all the world’s other languages are tied for 9th in my personal skill rankings).
This went back and forth for several minutes, me attempting to just hand the cashier the largest bill I had, saying “FOR BANANAS” and her refusing to break the sacred banana sticker protocol her ancestors had passed down to her. Eventually the saintly bagger just grabbed the bananas, ran across the store, stickered them, and jogged back, allowing the transaction to reach its formal conclusion. I thanked him profusely by way of saying thank you, good evening, good morning, goodbye and all the other Spanish greetings I knew run together in a long string, and I was out on the street with my bananas and packets of sauce, being swarmed by taxi drivers who knew I was not where I was supposed to be, like sharks smelling blood in the water.
On the way back from Easter Island, I had another full day in Santiago. I had intended to use this day to take a trip out to Cajon Del Maipo, a beautiful mountainous area with a picturesque lake outside of the city. But this got all boogered up in a morass of logistics, me having nowhere to leave my luggage while I was on the tour and trying to communicate with a Chilean truck driver through an American booking site while I figured out if I could take a taxi across town to the bus station to leave my bags in a locker, then catch another taxi- you know what, the Cajon is in no way worth all of that. I can just spend the day checking out Santiago and eating food that isn’t watery tomato paste on noodles.
After all, I’d get to check out Santiago’s natural history museum, where they had all the best artifacts the Chileans had stolen from Easter Island, as many of the signs in the museum on Easter Island mournfully indicated.
After sleeping in for the first time on the entire South American trip, I exited my AirBnB, careful to slip past the front desk guy who had given me a “Wait, WTF you don’t live here-” look on my way in as I darted by the night before. I was keen to avoid any unnecessary interactions of this type after checking into an AirBnB my first night in Santiago, and spending an hour trying to ask the girl renting me the apartment where the laundry room was. One thing I’ve learned about travel is that even more than being good at foreign languages, the most important skill is actually being good at being bad at foreign languages. If you’re patient, polite, smile a lot and are good at charades you can get by anywhere.
I hadn’t fully realized this was an actual skill that I had gradually acquired until I tried to interact with this Chilean AirBnB woman, who was absolutely terrible at not sharing a language with me. One of the surprising things I learned before this trip is that as much as Americans get shit for not being well-traveled, there are actually many countries full of people who travel even less than we do. And several of them are in South America.
Granted, it’s 100% my bad for taking my shitty Spanish with me to Chile, but it was still amusing to realize this woman had clearly never interacted with anyone who didn’t speak perfect Spanish before. Her patience was nil and she had no imagination for charades. Oh well. Eventually Google translate came to the rescue and we worked it out by passing my phone back and forth, the way you’d text with someone if there was only one cell phone in the entire world.
Slipping past the front desk clerk and into the street, I blundered into some massive parade that was either about legalizing pot or just contained a shitload of people who happened to be smoking pot. Drums thundered and echoed off the skyscrapers all around us as the police stood by ominously, at the ready. Oh holy shit, is this even a parade? Maybe Santiago’s always like this. Okay, which way was the subway? I weaved my way through the crowd in a daze on up to the subway station.
One of the funny things about dealing with a foreign language is figuring out how high you need to learn to count. When I was in Paris, I thought I was set when 1-10 came back to me from my long-ago French lessons. And I was, at least until I went to get gas and realized I was on pump #11. Merde. In Peru and Bolivia, 1-10 did all right by me, though ten (diez) turns it into a bit of an Abbott and Costello routine when someone asks you how many days (dias) you’re going to spend somewhere. “Diez dias.” “Days?” “Ten?” “Cameron Diaz.” “Who’s on first?” Likewise when you’re not sure if someone is saying “treinta” (thirty) in Spanish or “twenty” in English, which massively complicated getting change back from my Bolivian cab driver.
But generally numbers were my friends until I got to Chile, where everything costs tens and hundreds of thousands of pesos. My numbers definitely don’t go that high. I handed the metro clerk a 5000 peso bill to load onto my new BIP! metro card, and she asked me in Spanish how much I wanted loaded on the card. I froze up for a second and then just made a “let it ride” gesture with my hands, which is the cool way mimes and mutes say “All of it, baby!”
All right, so here I am at the Chilean National Museum of Natural History- oh wait never mind, it’s closed for the entire month. “We tried to tell Google but they don’t speak Spanish.” Ay yai yai, un gato malodoro.
I decided to check out the art museum instead, which was a really cool building full of really mediocre art.
Though this girl was taking it all in stride...
The main attraction seemed to be a painting of the founding of Santiago, which featured a Spanish conquistador being a douche to the local tribes. This was advertised all over the city. The painting wasn’t actually in the museum though, I guess it was in a traveling exhibition of douche art.
One of the reasons I had skipped the Cajon del Maipo tour is that I had just spent the past two weeks hiking nearly nonstop, and I’m trying to learn to slow down and take better care of myself, as evidenced by this luxurious rest day in Santiago.
Did I hike to the highest point in Santiago on my rest day? Of course I did.
San Cristóbal Hill offers a panoramic view of the entire city from its peak, as well as a giant Virgin Mary statue looking down on the town like “Santiago, what are you- *sigh* Whatever.”
There’s a trolley thing that goes from the park at the base of the hill up to the top, and a line for the trolley that reaches all the way to Argentina. I opted to hike up the hill instead, which was an enjoyable few hours. At the top you can buy a frozen bottle of water, which sounds like a great idea until you get one sip in and realize you’re gonna have to wait an hour for the rest of it to melt.
Up top, the view of Santiago stretched as far as the eye can see, which in this case was about twelve feet because Santiago has smog that would make L.A. proud.
The church below the Virgin Mary statue was quite lovely, striking that nice tourist church balance of people sincerely praying and other people stomping in to crassly take photos of everything while chewing Bubble Yum. I split the difference by crassly praying and stomping around reverently.
Virtually all of the vegan restaurants in Santiago are closed on Sundays, and I managed to be there on Sunday both coming and going, which was a neat trick. I did manage to hit a fun vegan burger joint on my first visit, confusing the waitress by ordering two entire meals after not having eaten all day. This is how stereotypes about Americans get formed. That, and all of our other behavior. On my second visit I’d mapped out a master plan to hit the two other restaurants that were open, which was completely screwed by Google Maps being entirely wrong about where the restaurants were actually located.
I had to settle for one of the two, which I had been drawn to by a photo on Yelp that featured a mysterious “safari” sandwich with some tasty-looking onion rings. Sitting down and perusing the menu, I quickly realized everything came with French fries instead, and the waitress didn’t speak any English. Shit, how do you say onion rings in Spanish? I fumbled through every word I knew in Spanish as the waitress giggled, until I finally landed on “Aros de Cebolla”. Woohoo!
I celebrated by pointing at the lemon meringue pie a nearby diner was eating and asking that she bring some of that too. One of the other patrons, clearly pained at having to listen to that long exchange, came over and offered to translate if I needed to order any more food, as I clearly would be, being American and all. Thanks dude.
Leaving for the airport, I called up an Uber. A tiny car drove by right as I walked out of the building, then it screeched to a jarring halt and drove in reverse all the way back up the busy street to where I was standing. I stuffed my bags into the tiny hatchback and climbed in.
My driver had been in Chile for a grand total of four days. He was a refugee from Venezuela’s freefall, a hugely inconvenient tragedy for those of us wanting to tourist to Angel Falls and also to a lesser degree for the people of Venezuela I guess. His family had moved to Venezuela when he was a kid, to escape the chaos of… Syria.
Jesus Christ dude! You suck at finding safe havens.
At least give me 20 minutes to get the hell out of Chile before shit kicks off here, okay? Damn.. . .