Chile: Things I Don’t Understand

photo by Diegosaurius Rex

I like understanding things. I get a kick out of knowing how life works. I’ve think I’ve made a pretty good job of adapting to Chilean culture but there are some things I just still don’t get. I’m not criticizing; I’m just trying to figure how the world works down here. While we’re at it, if you can explain why we English always think we’re going to win the World Cup or why we’re utterly incapable of having a good time without alcohol, I’d love to hear it.

 But back to Chile. After almost a year of residing in this lovely country, these are the things that still fox me:

1. If you don’t sell it, why not?

‘We don’t do photocopies/sell cigarettes/have bread, don’t insist’ says the massive sign in the window. If so many people are annoying you by coming in to ask, why not just do whatever it is and make some cash?

 2. How can anyone afford to get sick?

Everyone talks about the scandalous cost of getting sick in the U.S. but it’s no better here. If you’ve got ‘public’ health insurance, you still have to pay to go and see the doctor. If they don’t know what’s wrong with you and they order tests, those have to be paid for too. Even a simple vaccination needs a prescription and contraceptive pills don’t come cheap. In fact nothing is. I used to earn four times more in England that I do here but I paid less at the chemist and visits to the doctor and the hospital were free. I have absolutely no idea how the average family affords it.

3. How do you go to the bank if you have a job?

Going to the bank in Chile is like going to the deli anywhere else only less fun. A little machine spits out a number and then you look up in horror to see that you’ve got 354 and they’re serving number 12. I once waited 3 hours to pay a cheque in at a bank in the city centre. 3 hours. Who gets a lunch break that long?

4. Does low blood pressure exist in this country?

Watching a Chilean eat salad is a scary business. In the time it takes to explain the finer points of the uses of the subjunctive in Spanish, they’ll all the while be drowning their lettuce in salt as if trying to deal with an aggressive invasion of slugs. If lunchtimes in the canteen are anything to go by, Chilean families must get through kilos and kilos of the stuff. The nation’s blood pressure must surely be through the roof. It’s not just salt either. In some cafes and restaurants, coffee, tea and juice come laden with sugar. They don’t ask they just bring it that way; thick enough to stand you spoon in and sweet enough to make your teeth just give up and fall right out of your mouth. Frankly, how is anyone still alive?

5. Would you like a dildo with that?

It makes me smile but I don’t get it. Across the road from work is a chemist/sex shop. The connection has been eluding me all year. You nip to the pharmacy for some cough syrup for the kids and while you’re there you pick up the latest issue of ‘Big Jugs’. Is it genius or is it weird? You decide.

6. Why are men proud that they can’t cook?

In English class today, four men answered the question ‘When was the last time you cooked a meal?’ Two of them had to ask me how to say ‘nunca’. Never. They had never cooked a meal in their lives. One of them was 22, the other 37. Student number 3 cooked sometime last month and the other one eventually remembered that he had rustled up some sausages during a camping trip last year. If all the women in the world were wiped out tomorrow, along with all the fast food joints, would they still be proud of being utterly incapable of sustaining themselves?

 7. Why is the unemployment rate not zero?

Go into any large shop and there will be 57 people behind the counter, 56 of whom will be talking to their mum on the phone. The person who eventually puts down their magazine to serve you will not be able to help you. In the supermarket, there will 5 security guards to every 1 cashier and a queue long enough to mean that you’ll have eaten all your shopping by the time you get to the front. They don’t want you to nick anything but they don’t seem to want you to buy anything either. With this many positions available and a relatively small population, how is anyone unemployed?

Photo by austinevan

8. Why are books expensive and cigarettes and alcohol so cheap?

Learning is evil and wrong but killing yourself is to be encouraged. At least that’s the message the Government’s taxation system seems to be sending. Books are obscenely expensive here and yet booze and fags are cheap as chips. An English copy of the Lonely Planet ‘Guide to South America’ costs the equivalent of £35 in Santiago yet about £15 on Amazon. A new hardback novel will set you back about £25 and this in a country where many earn less than £200 a month.

9. Why so much bureaucracy?

Is no one to be trusted? And if so, why not? Am I naïve in my belief that the Chileans are an honest up-standing bunch? Here it’s not enough to have a document translated and stamped by a foreign embassy. It must then be checked and stamped by the Ministry of the Exterior and further perused for months by a bevy of fact-checkers. Saying you went to university just doesn’t pass muster here. Your degree certificate must be stamped within an inch of its life and even then it’ll be met with a raised eyebrow of suspicion. Why is nobody as good as their word?

10. Why does everyone walk so slowly and why does it annoy me so much?

Chileans will tell you that everyone is in a hurry in Santiago. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the way back from lunch with my colleagues, I used to walk as slowly as I possibly could without actually stopping but it was impossible to keep pace. I would stop every few yards to find them way behind. I know it’s rude but in the end I gave up. It’s just not in my DNA to dawdle. I need momentum to stop myself from just falling over. Here people stop for a chat at the top of the escalators on the Metro during rush hour, walk four abreast holding hands and all the time in the firm believe that they are busy cosmopolitan people with jobs to get to. A woman the other day was walking so slowly she must have got to work just in time to turn round and go back. Why are they so slow and why am I always in such a rush, even when I’m not?

Answers on a postcard please or your comments below.



Filed under blog, chile, Santiago de Chile, Travel articles

8 responses to “Chile: Things I Don’t Understand

  1. Nelson

    l know the answer for number 8.
    It’s military governtment time. burning books was not as fashionable as before, so, we need a good way to keep people away from culture (a very reasonable idea for a dictatorship) so in order to do so, and not ban everything, let’s put a little(not so) tax on culture (books and records mostly), genious if you ask me, but last time l checked, the dictatorship ended about 20 years ago and the tax is still there… way to go chilean democracy.

    And about number 10, indeed everyone it’s in a hurry, but all, at the same time( meaning rush hours) so they ended up moving always slow first to enjoy the “empty” streets, and second because when everyone wanna walk faster, the streets awe way too overcrowded to do it (l do manage to walk really fast, but l look like Jack Nicholson on “As Good as it gets” fucking weird)

  2. Neil

    Number 5 just seems very practical to me.

  3. Joris

    Heads one, Natasha! I especially detest nr 7 and nr 10 , every day more 😦

  4. Paula Coutinho

    I just got back from (trying to) walk in av. Providencia at 1pm – 2pm, and it’s a good thing I don’t have a gun. Why people have to be so slow? Why they think they’re the only ones in the sidewalk, so they occupy the whole space and you can’t surpass? And my friends always ask me if I’m on a hurry for something when I’m just walking in my normal pace!!! Maybe it’s the cheap cigarrete’s fault…
    And I have another one: 11) Why you can’t drink beer in a rock concert, but it’s no problem if people are smoking cigarretes or marijuana????

  5. We’ll win the world cup because we’re clearly the best team, Rooney’s world class, Gerrard and Lampard have finally worked out how to play in the same team and I’m drunk.

  6. Hanna

    First of all – thanks Natasha for this great article – made me think and smile at the same time !!
    About no. 10: it’s surely not genetic ;o)
    having short chilean legs but being raised in germany I find myself facing this problem every day. I tried a couple of times walking that slow but it just made me think about the actuall action of walking and while staring at my moving feets and wondering how it works I ended up stumbling over them and …. So yeah no point in trying any more. All I have to learn now is to stop getting upset about that cultural behavior. A possible explanation for that slow walking could be that they and the other persons don’t mind being a bit late for an appointment. ;o)

    • youngnatasha

      Or they’re late because they walk so darn slowly?! I’ve never thought so much about the action of walking since I actually learnt how to do it..

      I should have a number 11 too.

      Why do people say yes when they mean no? E.g.
      ‘Excuse me, do you know where such and such a street is?

      And then they send you in completely the wrong direction because they have absolutely no idea where it is.


    Thanks for your insight into Chilean culture.
    I arrived here 5 years ago, a refugee from the culture of Guatemala and Honduras. Hopefully, before Christmas I will depart Chile, never to return.
    Two things have cemented my decision.
    1. The U.S. Dollar Exchange rate has dropped from 620 pesos per dollar to almost 400. Since my pension comes in the dollar amount, my spend ing power has greatly diminished.
    2. In Chile, Spanish is not the native idiom. Chilean Spanish is a dialect more akin to >that of Valencia, Spain. The other day I entered a restaurant-cafe and asked “hay Cristal?”. The waiter replied “no tenemos pescado”. This is only one of a dozen examples I can recite. In Central America and in Spain, I am understood completely. I have been speaking Spanish exclusively for 10 years. In Chile even my adopted mother-in-law does not understand me. I attended an advanced Spanish class in Madrid last summer. It restored my confidence in my sanity. I was informed that my command of Spanish is quite good.

    Banking in Chile is another of my pet peeves but that will take another blog. Getting a bank account can be a daunting process. I am now a permanent resident of Chile so I have a RUT. I am a permanent resident of Guatemala and of Honduras. The word “tramite” is one with which I am quite familiar.
    Now my plan is to relocate to Panama (where my tongue is understood), or Ecuador or Charleston, S.C. To investigate my choices open the home page to My final choice is India, but they have no provision for permanent residency. Thanks. tom

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