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7 Things You'll Miss as a First-Time Traveler to Chile

by Anne Hoffman Apr 2, 2014
1. Most people don’t want to talk to you about the dictatorship.

I quickly learned that among certain groups of Chileans I was to observe the same decorum I learned from my mom’s Southern, WASPy brood — limit small talk to inoffensive topics like shopping and the weather. The dictatorship is another vortex of awkward messiness you probably shouldn’t enter into, unless you’re hanging with some real subversives, in which case knowledge of Pinochet will win you the coolness lottery.

In Chile there’s a certain hesitancy, a reticence even, to talk about what happened between the years of 1973 and 1991. People are all too eager to discuss the delincuencia that plagues Santiago and Valparaíso today and deliberate over its possible causes. In some voices you can hear a real nostalgia for Pinochet and his mano duro, or firm hand.

Some women will tell you that because their husbands were always home by six thanks to the military imposed curfew, the dictatorship is a time they miss, even long for. Others take a different view, attributing a rising rate of street crime and violence to Pinochet’s neoliberal economic model and the desperation it has created (Chile has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world). But no matter what, in most cases, this is a topic you have to work up to.

2. Delicate conversation topics should be avoided.

Do I wish I’d known this when I first lived there in 2007. I had an embarrassing woman problem and naively went to my host mother with it. She was mortified. We engaged in a circuitous cycle of, well, you’re a dirty gringa who sleeps in her clothes (guilty, I find it comforting), to, oh god I hope you don’t have an actual infection and then, my favorite, we shouldn’t even be talking about this, I have never experienced anything like this, my daughter-in-law is coming over for Sunday dinner, she’s the one who you should actually be talking to.

Another host mother, one far more progressive, later explained to me that during her generation, it was common for mothers to skip the subject of menstruation altogether, leaving their teenage daughters more than a little confused.

3. Older Chilean women are referred to as tía, or aunt.

Chileans and Swedes marry often because so many Chileans were exiled to Sweden during the dictatorship. And I’ve heard it really throws off the Swedes who are asked to call their Chilean mother-in-law “aunt.”

The term could come off as oddly incestuous, but it’s actually very sweet. When I went back to Chile, I lived with an older widow and it was delightful to instinctively call her tía. It forged a closeness between us — almost as though she were my long lost family.

4. Hipsters! Hipsters everywhere!

Okay, not everywhere. But something that shocked me upon my return to Chile in 2013 was the preponderance of San Francisco-style teashops, DIY house shows, and record label collectives. Check out Dënver, Gepe, Javiera Mena, and my favorite, Fakuta.

5. Protests are not cool places to, like, meet cute boys and soak up the radical vibe.

I lived in Chile in 2007, just when protests around education were starting to gear up. I naively jumped into a demonstration against rising tuition costs, which, to my credit, was happening right on my campus. But the protestors were blocking traffic on a road that connects Valparaíso to ritzy beach towns along the Pacific, and the police, ever efficient, decided to spray some faux tear gas — mostly lemon juice and water. Of course, no one dispersed, but I was afraid. This wasn’t something I’d really experienced before. I looked for an exit, but the only way out was uphill. Then came the hateful gas, the stuff that can make you double over, and I ran, blindly, into a canister of it.

But once it happened, after I’d washed my face and found safety, it was as though I got initiated into a secret club. A teacher of mine took me to her house where she let my friends and I shower and offered never-ending cups of tea. She told us that back in the ’80s, during the first wave of protests after the coup, she and her friends would suck on lemons and try to withstand the gas for as long as they could.

I realized that I was, in fact, a sheltered little innocent of a gringa, but that I was starting to grow up, in this country so far away from my own.

6. Chileanisms like the verb cachar (to catch on), the expression me tinca, and calling babies the very phonetic, Quechua-derived guagua (wah-wah) are indispensable.

Chilenismos are real and extremely confusing if you’re new to the place and/or to speaking Spanish. In Santiago, if you hang with a fairly young crowd, ¿cachai? will be every fourth utterance. Literally translating to “do you catch it?” I like to think of it as the Chilean version of, “y’know what I mean?”

Me tinca means “I would enjoy…” or “I’m in the mood to…” My most common phrase in Chile was, Me tinca tomar café. I’m in the mood to drink coffee. Which brings me to…

7. There is real coffee in Chile.

But you have to search it out. There are a few Australian-style cafes popping up in both Valpo and Santiago, but you’re going to pay extra for that flat white, just as Chileans do.

Now that I’ve been back to Chile twice as a journalist, I find it best to bring a pound of ground coffee beans, a drip cone, and some filters. My host families are always a little fascinated, and I usually end up leaving the whole operation with them. Which they deeply appreciate.

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