At some point on the thirty-six hour trip from GDA to Santiago de Chile, it ocurred to me that this was the furthest south I’d ever been. I knew in my head that Chile was not going to be much like Mexico, but it didn’t really sink in until the door of the plane opened up: it was cold. I had been cold at various moments in Mexico, but not really: a kind of nominal cold that came of not being actively hot. I hadn’t seen my breath for almost a year. This was the kind of cold that inhibits the dexterity of my fingers, tempts me to wear socks in bed and turns mealtimes from a pleasure into tactical warmings. I shivered from the airport all the way to my first hostel and into bed. “It’s only going to get worse,” warned a sympathetic Chilean at breakfast the next day. “Tomorrow it’s going to go down to fifteen degrees.”
I booked three nights at first, to adjust, and look for work. Most of the days were taken with finding hostels, armed with a CV translated into Spanish and my most charming smile, and asking if I could man the reception in exchange for a free stay. In the meantime, I was getting used to Chile’s money, language, and culture. Currency was the first concern: there are headspinning quantites of zeroes flying around. After three or four weeks in Mexico, I found that I stopped having to convert pesos into pounds, so I live in hope that the same will happen here fairly soon. However, twenty is an easier number to work with than 780, and things are not made easier by the shopping system, which is gratuitously complex. You start by getting the items you want to buy, which you then present to someone behind a counter in exchange for a ticket, which you take to another counter where you pay and get a receipt, and are reunited with your shopping upon presenting said receipt to a counter which may or may not be the first one.
Chilean Spanish, sadly for me, lives up to its reputation. Little phrases and mannerisms that two weeks ago marked me as someone who belonged, now mark me out as someone who doesn’t. Feria, for one of dozens of possible examples, means “cash” in Mexico. Here it apparently means “supermarket”, and now the lady who works in the kitchen smiles at me with more than a hint of suspicion and speaks to me in individual syllables, enunciating as though to a toddler. (I am reminded of one of the teachers in the school I worked in in Honduras, who was well-meaning but unable to separate not knowing Spanish from having an otherwise capable brain, and would show me how to do things like hand over money in exchange for using the photocopier, or rub out pencil marks with a rubber.) A friend who learned Spanish here while I was there assured me that it’s great once it clicks, but I wonder if two months will be enough, especially given the amount of English I speak at work. In terms of language, my progress in Mexico was so formative that I suspect I do just now speak Mexican, and, unless I end up spending serious amounts of time in another specific dialect, other Spanishes will simply feel foreign. I find that doesn’t bother me too much.
After three days, I found a place that let me help out on their extension project for a while. This turned out to mean digging holes for foundations in what used to be a store room. Someone would crack the concrete and clear maybe thirty square centimetres, and my job was to sink that square seventy centimetres straight down. I had a crowbar and a pair of gloves. I used my hand as a bucket, scooping big handfuls of earth out of the holes, and the gloves had so many holes in them the dirt stained the skin on my fingertips so that there was no shifting it. Soap, washing powder and hot water faded it, but for days afterwards I was left with blackened cuticles. I went for lunch on the first day and was presented, as in all Chilean restaurants, with a white bread roll. The restaurant had been recommended to me as a good place to get traditional Chilean food, but was a little higher-end than I’d anticipated. I was conscious of the very white tablecloth. I was too hungry to wait for my order to arrive, so I went straight for the roll, hoping no-one was watching me put chunks of bread into my mouth with my dead man’s fingernails.
It was an experience. In the evenings, half-way between staff and guest, I hung out on the internet and emailed other hostels. Pretty soon I found Hostel Dominica, from where I am writing this entry. They taught me how to check people in and out and where to buy the bread from breakfast, and I do the night shift four times a week and get to stay here for free. I enjoy the car-park attendent who sits just outside the gate and whistles like a songbird to let people know there’s space. I’ve never heard anyone whistle like that before. He sits out there, as far as I can tell, every hour it’s light, and every time a car rolls by, off he goes. Wobbling the notes like Whitney Houston.
I also enjoy talking to the people who pass through. A fair few have bought in unreservedly to the backpacker identity of boho clothes and a lifestyle hooked around alcohol, casual sex and cheap drugs. Which is fine with me, as long as they recognise that’s not the only way to do it. I prefer talking to the solo travellers, like Jean-Yves, the half French half French-Canadian emerald dealer, a polyglot entrepreneur who unconsciously dropped bits of French and Portuguese into our Spanish-and-English conversation. He told me stories about multiple bankruptcys, hunting for stones in the Amazon in northern Brazil, and getting his suitcase with $10,000USD-worth of emeralds getting stolen on the metro just after he landed in Santiago. Or Daniel, a softly-spoken, highly intelligent Icelander who is travelling very slowly around the world for “twelve or fifteen years.” I asked him what he was going to do after that, and he said probably become a teacher. I think he should probably become President of Planet Earth, but I don’t think they’d let him, and he wouldn’t enjoy himself if they did. He’d do a good job though.
The dogs that roam every street in the city aren’t so much stray as communal – almost all of them are sleek specimens, fed, watered and patted by pedestrians and stall-owners. At least, they are compared to the stray dogs of Mexico and Honduras, who looked more like childrens’ drawings of dogs that had the misfortune to hobble off the page and into real life. They seem to me to embody the difference between Chile and the other Latin American countries I’ve been to: a lot cleaner, and less dangerous. My next move is out of big cities, even if I haven’t decided exactly where yet. I suspect there will be less dogs. It’s a privileged position to be in, even if I am now paying increasing attention to the calendar to see how long until I get home. The aim, I have found, is to get to a point where I enjoy the thought of staying and of leaving, equally.