Today, I have been in Chile for three weeks. Before my trip, I read four books on Chilean culture, the country’s fascinating history, and their formidable collection of chilenismos—slang particular to the country and often indecipherable even to other Spanish speakers, but I can confidently say that nothing I read prepared me for life in South America.
I want to give the reader a brief background of Chile and of me. A recent study found that the number one symbol Americans associate with Chile is the Mexican sombrero, but Chile is very distinct from its Latin American neighbors—and especially from the flamboyant Caribbean nations. It is often described as an island because of its crazy geography. In the north of the country lies the driest desert in the world: the Atacama, where some locations have never recorded rain since scientists started taking measurements in the early 1900s. The imposing Cordillera de los Andes forms the eastern border with Argentina. The Pacific Ocean crashes against the shores of the western border, and the southern extremity of the country breaks into islands and archipelagos, before terminating in Patagonia and Chilean Antarctica. I spend so much time describing the geography, because to understand the Chileans, you must understand their geography.
Much like their geography, Chileans as a whole can seem contradictory at times. Chile is developing rapidly, so it presents many different faces at the same time. Parts of the country are very poor, but other parts are very sophisticated; the country as a whole is eager to show off its newfound wealth. Some economists have described Chile’s economy as the star of Latin America; despite this, Chile is not a cheap country, and the salaries are low.
The Chileans as a whole are exceptionally friendly and interested in the United States. Of course, there are bad eggs who try to cheat gringos, but generally, they enjoy telling you about their country, listening to what you think of their country, and learning about the U.S.
I want to discuss the Chilean dialect, because it is so striking. Any comparison of Spanish dialects will name the Chilean dialect as one of the most difficult to understand—if not the most difficult. Other Spanish speakers often say that Chileans speak very quickly. They aspirate almost all /s/ sounds and neglect d’s at the end of words. (For Spanish speakers: “Más o menos” becomes “mah o menoh.” Furthermore, “pescado” becomes “pes-cow.”) Voseo is also very common in the spoken language, but the verb’s final s is, of course, dropped. It often sounds like they are mumbling through an entire sentence. When combined with an overwhelming number of chilenismos that are unique to Chile, this erects quite a language barrier. Worth nothing is the fact that movies made in Chile often receive subtitles when they go to other Spanish-speaking countries.
This is the country I have chosen. Every Chilean I meet asks me why I chose Chile, so I have been thinking about that a lot. I still don’t have a concrete answer, but the incredible natural beauty of Chile was one of the main attractions. I love the outdoors, and Chile has world-class hiking, fishing, and skiing against a backdrop ranging from the bone-dry Valley of the Moon in the north to the Mediterranean climate near the center to the lush forests and volcanoes of the south to the austerely beautiful mountains of Patagonia. It is also a very stable Latin American country with a good education system.
I think that the true reason I came to Chile is not anything that I have said. The truth is ephemeral and resists easy categorization. It is something that can only be experienced in a country and never fully communicated.
I will close with a brief background of myself. I am currently a college student Montana State University, but I am living in Valdivia, Chile, and attending the Universidad Austral de Chile this semester. Despite my often unkempt appearance, I am gainfully employed as a columnist for the ASMSU Exponent. I am doing my best to scare my parents out of their wits by alternately growing my hair out and chopping it off, wearing tie-dye and Chacos, and living in South America. Whenever I am not in the wilderness, I want to be. My hobbies include changing my major, oil painting, writing, and listening to Disney songs while not doing my engineering homework. I cannot tell the difference between a six-dollar pair of jeans and a sixty-dollar pair (nor do I care to), but I am hard at work learning to differentiate between a six-dollar six-pack and an eight-dollar one. I like to fish. As a small child, I would tape my fingers together and parade around my house, pretending to be Sharptooth, the Tyrannosaurus Rex from “The Land Before Time.” During these youthful escapades, I wore only my underwear. I miss those days sometimes.
Finally, I don’t take myself too seriously, and neither should you. I have a tendency to ramble. I hope that this column will give you some idea of what living in Chile is like, but I would recommend visiting for yourself.