Following a necessary and eventful escape from a WWOOFing experience on a farm in Central Chile, my friends Zoe, Jackson, and I made our way to the capital of Santiago. We spent the better part of the last two weeks working at a phenomenal hostel, Castillo Surfista, in exchange for room and board. This last stint has given me a lot to think about in terms of international development and travelers and traveling psychology, especially after being given an opportunity to see the workings of a hostel from a more stable position. Mostly, however, it was a relaxing few weeks that changed my opinions about Santiago immensely, reaffirmed my absolute love for sports and soccer in particular, and gave us a good bridge before an upcoming month on the road.
Working in a hostel and being constantly exposed to travelers made me notice a few common themes and also reflect upon my own motives and desires to be on the move. Many of the guests stopping through this hostel, a small establishment named Castillo Surfista founded by a surfer from California and housed in the gorgeous neighborhood of Providencia, were like myself in the sense that their time in South America will be six months or greater. Everyone has their blanket introduction of two minutes to tell upon meeting other travelers: who you are, where you’re from, where you’ve just come from, and what lies ahead. Reaching past this surface level of information can take some effort, especially when people are coming and going, are tired from constant travel, and have developed a predictable routine following months of being on the move. Getting to know these people on a more intimate basis often reveals extremely interesting stories, memories, and advice, because it takes a certain type of transiency and adventure to tackle months of travel anywhere, especially outside of Western Europe and the United States. It is invigorating to be speaking new languages, having fun in a group where people are often the only representatives of their given homeland, and exploring strange places with good people. I have nothing but gratitude for Jon at Castillo Surfista for taking us in and providing us some semblance of rationality and normalcy following our time on the farm, and look forward to returning in the future.
My first visits to Santiago were fairly underwhelming, but after learning about more areas and spots to hit working reception at Castillo Surfista and exploring them ourselves, I have grown very fond of the city of nearly eight million. Much of the city is residential, quiet, and filled with wide, tree-lined streets and the occasional view of the Andes when the smog isn’t too bad. The city does have the worst levels of smog in the Western Hemisphere after Los Angeles due to the inversion effects that are a result of its location in between 19,000 foot peaks on one side and the ocean on the other. This smog, unlike that of L.A., however, doesn’t feel prohibitive or overly dirty, but sight can often be restricted. It was great to walk all around the city during the day, exploring museums and the bustle of a really large city, which was often followed by some of the city’s raucous nightlife. There are parks everywhere and neighborhoods that are very hip and modern, and wouldn’t be out of place in Portland or Denver. The city has a remarkably small feel given its population, in most places other than the city center and unfortunately the mall. In a place that feels like a cross between a poor man’s Barcelona and and larger version of Denver, the mall was always packed with people, especially when it’s time to get ice cream, which in Chile appears to be 9-5, seven days a week. Overall, especially compared to Ecuador, Peru, and even more rural parts of Chile, it does not feel as if I’m in South America.
The level of modernity and infrastructural development has given me a lot to think about in terms of what Santiago means and what it represents. Along with Brazil, Chile is considered as one of, if not the most advanced country on the continent. It is the only South American country in the 40-member Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international recognized marker of economic modernity. It is one of the primary producers and exporters of copper in the world, and boasts fairly clean and efficient transportation and public health services. Culturally, it resembles Spain with a Latin American flair, albeit on a somewhat reduced level. Viniculture is on par with any of the other major wine producers in the world, although what the cuisine has to offer in terms of varied produce and fresh seafood is offset by an overall lack of creativity and flavor underneath a pile of meat, cheese, and mayonnaise (although I must say that Chileans know how to make a sandwich – especially when they must be eaten with a fork and a knife, doused in hot sauce). Chile is also a major tourist destination, attracting international visitors for its stunning natural beauty as well as upper-middle classes from Brazil and Argentina. The country is praised as a model for the region as a result of its solid economic growth, a freely elected and relatively uncorrupt government headed by a female president only twenty years removed from the oppression of the Pinochet military dictatorship, and international participation in forums such as the World Bank and WHO. Chile has declared a stated goal to be widely considered as a first-world country by 2020.
What the glittering skyscrapers of Santiago mask is the stunning level of inequality that has endured despite economic growth. The middle class has certainly expanded in the last two decades, but the copper boom and subsequent international investment that poured in following Pinochet’s exit have resulted in the promulgation of an already elite upper class that has existed since the days of hacienda models of agriculture, ranching, and mining that date to the Spanish colonial presence that lasted until the early 1800s. Living in Santiago enforced a stark phenomenon that has struck me everywhere in this country where normal cars one would expect to see in South America (old pickups and beat-up sedans) are followed on the road by extremely expensive rides, all manners of Audis, BMWs, and Porsches alike. While Chilean society does appear to sport a middle class with a voice, especially through university students that continue to maintain political activity following massive protests in 2011 headed by 23-year old Camila Vallejo, I have often been struck by the feeling that people here are either very wealthy or fairly poor. Many upper class students attend college in the United States, and prohibitively high tuition rates only further social inequality.
With all this being said, I can only wonder about concepts of “development” and “modernity”. Why are such economic advances welcomed and sought after by governments? I would rephrase “development” as higher levels of “capitalism”, because while the last two decades have seen an increase in income for the average Chilean, they also seem to have brought many of the social problems that affect “Western” countries related to sedentary, isolated office work. A government that seeks to raise the standard of living for a majority of citizens while degrading the lives of marginalized populations is not upholding it’s end of the social contract, yet this approach seems to be the most common approach towards public and economic policy today. “Development” needs to be a subjective measure of overall quality life, rather than a blanket term referring to economic wealth. Especially in the wake of unrest in Missouri and the tragedies of Paris, peace and prosperity will only be reached through compassion and love at every turn.