I was hoping that when I moved to Chile, the good people of English Opens Doors would place me in a big city. After living near Chicago and in the heart of Madrid, I realized that this environment is the best fit for me and would certainly offer the greatest access to a foreign culture. If a big city wasn’t on the menu, I wanted the complete opposite: A place where I could be one with Chile’s spectacular nature. A place where I’d retreat to mountaintops on a regular basis; where I’d fill my palms with water from streams and be inspired to start eating lettuce; a place where I could let my beard grow long and scraggly; a place where I’d become Bon Iver.
I live in neither of these places. Instead, I live in Quilicura. While Quilicura is technically in the Santiago Metropolitan Region and is a mere 20 minutes away from downtown by car (which translates to well over an hour by public transit-woohoo!), it is a whole other thing. Thoroughly a suburb, Quilicura also possesses many characteristics of a slum or ghetto*.
When I found out that I’d be living in Quilicura, I sought out as much information as possible about this town on the northwestern outskirts of Santiago. There was not much to be found on The Internet, so I consulted my most trusted Santiagan (Santiagish? Santiaguino? Santiagista?) strangers, and the most common reactions I received were, “It’s not safe,” “It’s very dangerous,” “I’ve never been there, but I’ve seen it on the news,” and, “It’s boring.” (The last of which would seem to contradict the first three. It must be pretty happening to be on the news, right?). I was fretful. I’d been told that Chileans often perceive their country as more dangerous than it truly is, and that the only thing I should really worry about is pickpocketing, but when a near stranger described to me the news coverage he saw of the violent breaking/ entering/hostage/assault situation in Quilicura and expressed genuine concern for my wellbeing, I thought it might be okay to indulge in some worrying.
Despite being thoroughly convinced that the black belt [keychain] I earned in karate class at American Heritage Summer Day Camp** is legit, I have little faith in my abilities to fend off anything other than a light wind. Even if I were better endowed in the bicep department, I feared my methods of self-defense would be N/A here in Chile where I don’t know anyone, would probably have trouble remembering how to call for ayuda (help), and where I cannot for the life of me remember the numbers to call in case of an emergency (and yes, there are THREE distinct emergency numbers for Ambulance, Fire, and Police!).
While after moving here I’m certain that everything I heard about Quilicura is true, I happen to be living in a very nice neighborhood that’s ever so slightly removed from the slums. The neighborhood, Valle Lo Campino, is very boring and reminds me a bit of the area I grew up in in South Florida. Surprisingly, Valle Lo Campino is somehow even less exciting and more uniform than South Florida’s indistinguishable housing developments. All houses are exactly the same layout, color, distance apart. Row after row, cul de sac after sul de sac.
Like all of Santiago, it’s surrounded by hills, one of which boasts big white Hollywood-style letters that spell Valle Lo Campino. The part of the neighborhood that isn’t surrounded by hills is surrounded by a highway which cuts off VLC from greater Quilicura. There is one way into/ out of the neighborhood, and at rush hours the traffic problems cause what should be a 15 minute commute to school to be around 45 minutes. This phenomenon, which we might call a traffic jam in the USA, is here referred to as “taco.”
People are, understandably, so worked up about the excessive amount of unavoidable tacos that they have “No Tacos + Quilicura!” painted on the backs of their cars. “Why are these people so firmly against tacos?” I wondered when I first arrived, as I prepared my bib and stocked up on salsa. I was visibly disappointed when my Chilean family explained their meaning of “taco” and have not quite recovered. My trauma is fueled by the fact that, in order to avoid the morning tacos, we’ve started taking a shortcut through the hills. Coffee is good, but off-roading along a cliff with no guardrail while not wearing a seatbelt in the front seat of a large commercial furgoneta is a surefire way to get yourself going in the morning. If only Folgers could bottle this!
Apart from the slums and the tacos, my main concern about living in Quilicura is that I don’t feel I’m seeing or doing enough. I came to Chile to experience a new culture and found myself right back in the ‘burbs. I get home from work and spend the rest of the afternoon in the house because there is NOTHING TO DO here and time does usually not permit a jaunt downtown during the school week. I spend about 15 hours a day in a 5×8 ft room and I’m contemplating starting my own license plate making business. I’m worried that my time here in Chile will be for naught if I don’t SEE DO GO
*When referring to someone or something that is ghetto, the word is flaite. There’s also a gang-like symbol to go along with it. The more you know…
**Yes, I mentioned a different day camp in an earlier post. I went to a lot of day camps. Ask me about my day camps!