Sunday, July 24, 2011

Meet Chile

Now that I've been here for a few weeks I thought I'd do a basic welcome-to-Chile post to share what I've learned thus far for those of you who, like me a few weeks ago, know more about the food (chili) and the temperature (chilly), than about this curious country and its people.

Because of its unique (read: phallic) shape, Chile is an incredibly diverse country. Pretty much all that the entire country shares is (relatively) easy access to the ocean, as the country spans South America's west coast. At its widest part, you could still only get about a 5-hr drive away from the ocean before you'd hit the Andes and the Chilean border.

The Northern part of the country is all desert, the Atacama, said to be the driest desert in the world. My second English camp was in a city called Calama, in the heart of this region, where flat, dry stretches of dusty nothingness extend for miles, broken only by purple mountains in all directions on the horizon. Although desolate in comparison to the South, which is typically lauded for its lush beauty, this region has a haunting beauty of its own. My bus ride from Calama to Antofagasta the other night featured one of the most stunning sunsets I've witnessed, with the bright orange rays of the sun behind distant mountains cutting through the endless flat dark of the dessert, only to give way to a vast sky of stars free of urban light pollution. The climate in this region reminds me of my time in North Africa, where the weather was similarly dry and rain infrequent in spite of the relative proximity to the sea. Here in the North, the sun is harsher and towns tend to be grittier and less welcoming. The main industry is mining, and cities are built up around the availability of resources and jobs, meaning that there's a lack of a sense of shared culture, heritage or community.

Central Chile, where Santiago is located, is known for its temperate climate, its almost tropical vegetation, and the taller, skiiable mountains that surround it. Central Chile also hosts much of Chile's wine country (especially its reds--there are some white-producing regions further south as well).

Southern Chile, famous for Patagonia, is a world away from the North in climate and culture (note: as I've not yet visited this region, this summary is based on heresay from Chileans and from other volunteers and not on personal observation). Although the weather is cool (around freezing, although not often below) and ceaselessly rainy/damp for most of the year, the people are are "warmer" than in the north and have a stronger sense of community and culture. The landscape, with wet forests, glaciers, islands and breathtaking sounds, is similar to that of New Zealand.

Chilean culture as I've experienced it thus far is pretty rich. They have good music, good literature, a healthy passion for futbol (and a pretty good record in the recent playoffs! Chi-chi-chi, le-le-le, viva Chile!), and even, as you know if you read my previous post, a national dance.

However, Chilean "cuisine" as I've experienced it thus far is, to use a Chilean slang word, pretty fomé (boring). The basic diet in this country is a hearty portion of (usually red) meat complimented by an equally hearty portion of either rice or potatoes and a big helping of white bread. They don't really believe in flavoring or spicing food with anything except salt or obscene amounts of sugar, and although the tap water is safe to drink in most of the country, they don't indulge, preferring either a tang-like "juice" from a powder or sodas (coke, fanta, or the Chilean Pap or Bilz, which are shockingly neon yellow and red and taste like liquid bubblegum and artifical cherry, respectively. Perhaps to counter all of this sugar, many Chileans carry a toothbrush on their person and will brush their teeth after lunch or snacks.) Fruits and veggies are treated more like garnishes than real foods (as in there might be some carrot slivers in the rice, or an orange slice on a dessert, but nothing like an actual portion), especially in the North where the climate doesn't really support farming. (True story: I spent 45 minutes wandering around Calama looking for ANYWHERE to buy fruit without success...I even found a huge grocery store with no produce section, and when I asked the cashier where I might buy some verduras or frutas she replied with "hmmm...that's tricky..."). When available, salads consist of iceberg lettuce with a few tomato slices and a lemon slice to squeeze in place of dressing.

Luckily, I managed to land in a health-conscious, modern family, and in the last day I've eaten more brown bread, fruits and veggies than I think I've even seen since my arrival. Which should give me a ton of energy for blogs this week! Tune in tomorrow for more thrilling observations...

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