Culture Shock: My first 24 hours in Santiago

The past 24 hours have been a blur!


I arrive in Santiago, Chile with my Dad. He’s an airline pilot, so we both get free airfare as long as we fly standby (“flying standby”, means that we can only get on the flight at the last minute, if there are seats available. It’s not for the easily flustered traveler, or anyone trying to make a tight deadline).


We hit our first language barrier pretty much as soon as we leave the airport and have to rent a car. The man tries his best to explain to us the intricacies of the rental agreement in very slow and clear Spanish, but…Spanish, nonetheless. My Dad speaks English with a Spanish accent, as though that will somehow help, and he keeps using different English words as though it’s just a matter of finding the right word in the wrong language. I frantically flip through a Spanish phrasebook and try to interpret as much as possible.


The Chevy Spark, Actual Size
The Chevy Spark, Actual Size

We finally get everything sorted out and are introduced to the tiniest car I have ever seen. I’m pretty sure they don’t even sell these things in the U.S.

The issue then becomes how to get my ridiculously large suitcase into this itty, bitty car.


Feeling prematurely victorious as solving our latest issue, we hop in the front seat and get ready to take off. That’s when my Dad notices.

It’s a manual car.

My Dad has driven stick before, but not recently enough for me to have witnessed (and I’m 22). I’ll give him credit though, he shifts pretty smoothly into gear and we spend the rest of the day navigating Providencia, the metropolitan area of Santiago.

Me standing next to "Sparky", the chevy spark
Me standing next to “Sparky”

12-1:45ish pm

I’m from the Washington D.C. area, and I thought drivers there were aggressive, but drivers in Providencia make D.C. drivers seem as timid as kittens. And the pedestrians are absolutely fearless! They run out in front of your car and…I don’t know…pray that they don’t get hit? I guess it works, but to me, they look suicidal!


Finally, we make it to our hotel and almost successfully communicate with the Spanish-speaking receptionist (Quasi-victory!). It seems like things will go smoothly from here, until…


As the sun began to set, my Dad and I both notice the temperature dropping. I suddenly remember something I read in a guidebook; “very few places in Chile have central heating…”


A moment later, this idea is confirmed, when a hotel employee arrives at our door with an electric heater.


After a long and much needed nap, I wake up to some lovely music wafting up to the 17th floor hotel room. A string trio, composed of, what appears to be, a violin, guitar and cello, are playing at the entrance to the metro and the sound is breathtaking. I stand out on the balcony and enjoy the concert while watching the lively city below. I think this is going to be a great 10 weeks.


My Dad and I ask the concierge, “¿Adónde se va para comer comida típica?” (Translation: “Where would you go for local specialties?” We’re getting so much better already!)

Assuming we know more Spanish than we do, he starts speaking excitedly and rapidly about the local cuisine. Our vacant stares probably clue him in that we aren’t as fluent as we we’re pretending to be. He gets a piece of paper out and starts drawing a map.

A few lines in, he realizes he’s better off speaking Spanish.

We pick up “una cuadra” (one block), “la derecha” (the right) and the name of the restaurant, “Liguria”.

We finally thank him, smiling and nodding, but feeling like our mission to find this place is near impossible.

After a minute or two of walking around and enjoying the cool, night air, my Dad points out a sign on the side of a window that reads “Liguria”. He starts shouting, “Liguria! Liguria!” A man taking a smoking break outside laughs at us a little and says, “is good”.


My Dad and I having a nice outdoor lunch at Liguria
My Dad and I having a nice outdoor lunch at Liguria

Once inside, we find two seats at the bar, and the language barrier appears again, this time in the form of a menu. The “menu decoder” in my phrasebook is entirely useless, as most of the meals described in it are Mexican or Spanish. I’ll probably need an entire new dictionary just for Chilean food.

As we explain to the bartender that we need more time, the man sitting next to us asks in a distinctively British Accent if we speak English.

“YES!!!” I have to hold myself back from attacking this complete stranger with an enormous hug. He kindly translates the menu for us and tells us that we’re lucky to have found this place on our first night. Apparently it has some of the best Chilean food in town! (Ironic considering “Liguria” is actually the name of a coastal region in Italy)

The man is a British Archeologist, teaching as a guest lecturer at the Universidad de Chile. He’s been to Chile many times before, but spent most of his time in the south, studying the Mapuche. We spend the whole night talking to this guy. He even teaches me a Mapuche greeting, “Mari mari”, and I suddenly realize…

anyone I meet here that speaks English is going to be my best friend.


My Dad wakes me up with some fresh squeezed jugo de frambuesa (raspberry juice) and asks “¿Lista para día número dos?” (ready for day number two?)


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