I arrived in Santiago, Chile after an 11-hour overnight flight from New Zealand and just like that my “traveler” status changed. I was no longer traveling for travel’s sake; I was MOVING. And I was FREAKED OUT. After just a few days here I had a revelation: When you’re traveling in a foreign country, many of its negative qualities can be viewed as minor annoyances. For example: Australia is expensive? That’s okay, I’m only here for two weeks. Hanoi is crazy, loud, and crowded? That’s okay, that’s part of its charm. India is dirty? That’s unfortunate, but at least I’m not living on the streets here. But when you MOVE to a foreign country (especially one you’ve never been to before), your eyes are open in a different way. You notice things that would have gone unnoticed before. You are bothered by things that wouldn’t have bothered you as a mere traveler. And you ask questions, lots of them, to find out more about your new home.
During my first few weeks in Chile, I learned some things that I was wasn’t expecting:
1a. Chile is extremely expensive. One of the reasons I chose to live here is because I read about Chile’s strong and stable economy. But what I didn’t know is that it would cost me $8-15 to eat at a restaurant; that a bed in a hostel costs $15/night; that electronics cost more here than in the US and other consumer goods (clothes, shoes, furniture, etc) are on par with US prices; that travel within the country is not cheap, either. Don’t get me wrong… Good deals are out there, but you really have to hunt them down.
1b. You don’t get what you pay for. What do I mean by this? If you’re paying a fair price for something, you expect a quality product or service in return, right? This mostly applies to eating at restaurants, but generally speaking, things cost more than they should. Example: a vegetarian sandwich at a sit-down restaurant costs $7 and this is what you get: a white-bread bun with corn kernels, tomato, palm hearts, onion, lettuce, and maybe cheese or avocado. That’s it! For $7! And it doesn’t even taste good! Wanna eat pizza? Just a basic, 8-inch individual pizza with cheese and tomato sauce costs about $8-10. Seriously? How about those hostels? I only stayed in private rooms because I was traveling with Ryan, but we payed $27-30 night for bare-minimum rooms with a queen bed and shared bathroom (meaning the bathroom was not in our room), maybe a desk or shelving unit, no heat, no wifi in the room. Thirty bucks for THAT.
2. People are not well-paid here. Supposedly, the cost of living in Chile is 34% lower than living in the USA. However, according a 2016 report on numbeo.com that compares the cost of living in Chile to the US, the average monthly disposable salary (after taxes) in Chile is about $840 USD, whereas in the United States it’s $2,750 USD. That is a difference of $1,910 a month! I’m too mathematically deficient to know how to figure out the percentage difference there, but I know that it’s more than 34%. So as hard as Chile is trying to be a capitalist country like the States, they are failing to pay appropriate wages for the level of work being done here.
3. Chile is a first-world country with third-world problems. Or is it a third-world country with first-world problems? Hard to say. But if you talk to any Chilean you will learn about all the issues that this country is facing, from unpopular education policy to corrupt politicians, universities and high schools shut down due to student protests, low voter turnout, racial inequality, a huge socioeconomic gap between the rich and the poor, and the list goes on. Chileans seem to be extremely disenchanted with their current government. Considering their tragic and tumultuous recent history with bad politicians, it’s easy to understand why. The issues I just listed are the big-ticket issues. But there are many more, less important 3rd world issues as well, like street dogs, pollution, buildings with no heat, and tap water that is full of chorine and other heavy metals. I can tell I’ll have much more to say on this topic the longer I live here, as many Chileans like to discuss the current social and political issues that the country is facing. But for now, let’s leave it at this.
4. I can’t tell if Chileans are happy people or not. My first impression of Chileans was at the Plaza de Armas in Santiago. A live band was playing amazing cumbia and salsa music in the square. A large group of people were standing around watching. And that’s just it. They were just standing there… watching. Not moving, not dancing, not even bobbing their heads to the music. I was so confused. I’ve been to South America before. I know how Latinos normally react to cumbia and salsa music and this wasn’t it. I had heard a rumor that Chileans are generally more reserved than their South American neighbors, so I guess this was proof.
Since then I have met many Chileans, all of whom have been very warm, kind, and welcoming. But I still haven’t been able to make a judgement on happiness level. Of course, I realize that you cannot judge if someone is happy based on whether or not they dance in a public square. People can be reserved but still happy. But one question I’m constantly asked by every Chilean that I meet is, “Why Chile?” As an American, when I met foreigners living the USA, I would never think to ask, “Why here?” But it’s often the first question I’m asked when I tell a local that I have moved here… Why Chile?
It’s a very good question. I thought I knew before coming here, but now I realize that I’m still searching for the answer.