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Hola from Arica, Chile

Orginally emailed out as a travel update from Marianne in Dec, 2009

Hi everyone,

As I sit here in the walled patio courtyard of the house I’m renting in Arica, Chile, I can hear a “clang,clang,clang” of a bell as the garbage truck trundles down a nearby street. Soon I will have to get up and put the garbage out, unlocking two thick doors and a big wrought iron gate to do so.

The bell sounds like one of those old fashioned hand bells used outside school houses to call the kids back inside. It works really well because you can tell exactly how far away the truck is, unlike more modern sirens, and the sound doesn’t grate on your nerves either. It’s almost musical.

I can hear tiny birds cheep and twitter from their cages next door and somewhere on a nearby rooftop a dove coos like its suffering a terrible heartbreak. The neighborhood dogs have started up their hourly yapping.

And now the neighbor just put on Bon Jovi. I hear a lot of Bryan Adams here too. And the newest single by Michale Buble, surprsingly enough. Mostly I hear cumbia pop music and sometimes salsa tunes blasting from inside the houses on this street. Sometimes people laughing late at night at the talk shows on TV. In this neighborhood they seem to blast the music between 1 and 4, when they are having lunch. Lunch takes a long time here.

Through the arched gaps between the tops of the cement walls and the peak of the patio roof I can see patches of cloudless blue sky, and a ribbon of sunlight is slowly moving its way across the tiled floor like a white laser. My fig tree and blue hydrangea are growing like crazy out here, loving the daily blast of direct sunlight for a few minutes each day.

The patio roof provides just the right amount of shady cover to make this space the most comfortable place in the whole house for working on my laptop in the day. Really this space is supposed to be used for laundry, and there is a big stone sink and clothes lines hung between the walls, but I use it more like a back yard deck. Inside the house it’s surprisingly dark and there isn’t much air flow at this time of day. It’s another hot day, plus 33, and I’m already looking forward to the breeze that crops up late every afternoon, bringing relief from the blazing heat.

In case you didn’t know I had returned to South America soon after Michelle and Michael had their baby, surprise! I returned to Chile Nov. 7.

With perseverance and a stroke of luck, I landed a house to rent here, at long last. There is nothing available here at the moment since it’s summer and all the rich Bolivians have flocked to the beach for their summer vacation.

In case you’re wondering why I’m in Chile again, I came back to be with my boyfriend, Henry. Sadly things didn’t work out. I broke up with Henry the other week. But I’ve decided to stay in Arica for the time being anyway, since I’m set up here and have settled into doing the writing I have wanted to do for months, but never managed to find time to do while constantly on the road, having new adventures. Arica is an inexpensive place to live, and conveniently located close to Bolivia and Peru, places I want to visit in the near future. Plus, I’ve always wanted to see Chile, so I hope to venture south in the coming months too.

I like Arica more than I expected. It’s not a dazzling and exciting city for tourists, but it’s very comfortable to live here. It’s quiet and orderly. The internet connections are good and predictable, the roads safe to drive (and walk across), there is a good health care system and you can trust the police will help you not make things worse, and there are all the comforts of western civilization if you look for them (e.g. cappucino machines, modern appliances with warrantees, and movies in English). There’s a nice long beach and enough to do to keep me busy.Plus, the food is pretty good too. No good bookstores, though, I’m afraid.

I’m told that ‘s a holdover from the Pinochet book burning times when having art or books deemed leftist (and even having these things in the first place could get you that label, no matter what the subject matter) and could cost you your life. They reassure me that all ‘the troubles’ are well in the past and that things have been stable for over 15 or so years.  In fact, Chile did very well through the recent crisis, improving its place in the world. People here seem to really like the currentpresidenta, Michelle Bachelet, and credit her for the recently improved standing of Chile. But they can’t re-elect her as her terms are up.

For the last month an election has been in full swing, with banners and posters and supporters waving flags on major street corners. They are the only ones smiling at everybody. (People here don’t smile often on the streets, not unless joking around with family and friends.) The leading candidates are Frei (who has been president before, and is running a Christian faith bsed platform of no change) or Piñera (a billionaire right wing businessmas who owns LAN airlines, has a Harvard degree and a large stake in the Cola Cola football soccer team, who is promising change and more jobs). Piñera won, squeaked in on Sunday, but not by enough to avoid a second round of voting. The vote got split by a surprising upstart, a young congressman Marco Enríquez-Ominami 36 years old and a film maker. He is funny, smart, and controversial, with a ton of energy and charisma. He wants change and is talking about issues others aren’t like abortion and gay marriage. He’s a real live spark, a surprise in the mix for conservative Chile. He said to reporters “yes I have tried marijuana. And I will continue to try it.” Wonder what will happen next. They don’t seem to like change much here.

It’s a very beaurocratic country, and while not nearly as corrupt as its neighbors, the amount of paperwork and delays in processing it all can by just as frustrating. I had to go make three trips to the rental office for my house, and one trip to a notary public to get my payment of rent official endorsed and everything in place. I can’t get internet service in my name because I don’t have a RUT – the equivalent of a SIN number- and they won’t budge. There is nowhere on the form to deal with a foreigner like me, and that was that. But the effort paid off. I really like having a house with internet 24/7 and TV and a kitchen of my own.

I’m really happy to have a place of my own, but I have to admit that at first glance, it looks like I’ve rented my own private gated prison. Like all the houses along the streets here, the perimeter of the property is fenced and blocked from view.

There’s only one way in. No back alley or back door.  When you unlock the imposing gate, it swings open into a big covered carport area, with white tiled floor. This takes the place of a front yard. Barred windows in the livingroom and one of the bedrooms face out onto this tiled area, but it’s not for the view. There isn’t one to speak of. The windows are just for light and ventilation. At least snatches of blue sky can be seen through the two foot gap near the top of the flat roof where there is no plywood blocking the view of passersby.

Inside the door into the living quarters it is spacious and nice. Feels new. There is clean, uncracked blue tile flooring throughout the place, and creamy pale yellow paint on the cement walls.

The first thing you see when you walk inside the living quarters is a big long living room, with ample room for my dining table for 6, a long hallway, two bathrooms and three bedrooms in this house, two of them really roomy and large with built in closet organizers. Bedrooms, the bathroom and the kitchen all have windows looking onto the patio. A tiny kitchen with a gas stove is in the middle of the house, and its window and a door open onto the small walled courtyard patio.

This house is more than enough room for two people, let alone one. I almost feel guilty. I think it’s a steal of a deal for just $309 CDN a month.

Outside the house, I see people on the streets, but they don’t have the neighbor mentality like in Canada. They don’t hang out outside the house and aren’t friendly to strangers. You might greet your neighbor, but you don’t talk much to them. They avert their eyes as they walk past other people’s homes. The kids aren’t friendly either. They don’t speak to you unless spoken to, and then it’s cautiously. The people in the market where I go every morning to buy fresh bread and fruit are starting to warm up to me now. They say hellos, smile and practice the few words in English that they know.

Here it’s a clan culture, your social circle is your family, your boyfriend/girlfriend and the people you grew up with or went to school with.  They don’t seem to hang out with work colleagues much. If you do happen to make a friend, you soon become friends with the whole family. It’s nice, actually.

Chileans seem to like foreigners, and while quite reserved, they will strike up conversations with me sometimes. Every fifth cab driver here seems to have a relative in Toronto. If they do talk to me, it’s because they are genuinely interested, not because they are trying to sell me something. There is very little hawking stuff with a barage of words on street corners, and no haggling in the markets. Things have a fixed price. It’s a nice change from other countries nearby.I feel safe here, even at night when alone, which is also a nice change from other countries down here in South America.

Despite the beaurocracy here, some things are really efficiently run, like the pharmacies. You take a ticket when you walk in, and then are free to browse around and when it’s your turn, pick up your medication and pay for your things all at once. There are always about 8 pharmacists on at a time, like in a supermarket, and you get fast service. Plus, you can recharge your cell phone by telling them your number and it takes just seconds to top up your minutes to whatever amount you want. No fussing with buying cards with predetermined amounts or dialing long numbers to add credit to your account.

I really like the  Entel cell phone company  because they won’t cut you off if you run out of minutes while talking. It just keeps track and the next time you recharge, you pay it off. You get a polite text message telling you you went over, and informing you how much you need to pay the next time you recharge. Very civilized.

The other thing that Arican’s have down to a fine art is efficient car pooling and good & cheap public transit. There are 3 options for getting around the city. You can climb on board a rattletrap compact old ‘microbus’ that costs about 50 cents and takes a long time to get anywhere you’d want to go as it meanders up and down smaller streets in the ‘barrios‘ (neighborhoods) eventually getting to the major streets downtown.

Or you can take a ‘collectivo‘ which is a taxi with a numbered sign on top, and major destinations on its route listed. It’s faster and only a few cents more than a micro bus. These taxis circle whichever barrio is listed on their taxi, following efficient routes that hit all the most popular stops and streets. They stop and pick up people all along the route and drop them off anywhere else on the route, charging a pitance (less than a buck, flat rate, anywhere in the city). So in this way you wind up car pooling with total strangers without having to have involved conversations about routes or how to share the costs. Works extremely well. Best of all, you rarely have to wait more than 5  minutes for one collectivo.There are a ton of them driving around seemingly at all hours.

And If you see a collective that’s empty of passengers, or a Radio Taxi company car, you can ask to be taken directly to your destination, just like a regular taxi, and pay only $3 flat rate for a one-way trip anywhere in the city.

The pace of life is relaxed here. Shops don’t open until about 10:30 a.m. and then they shut again at 1:00 until 4:30 or 5:00. Then they stay open until 11 or midnight. Here the ‘tarde‘ (afternoon) lasts from1 until midnight. It’s not ‘noche‘ (night) until after midnight, even though the sun goes down at 7:30 p.m.. The bares and discotecas don’t open until midnight and stay open all night long.

More than the nightlife, or the inexpensive lifestyle, it’s the beach is what draws people here. A naturally sandy beach goes on for miles and miles down the coast. Dark aquamarine waves curl and pummel the sand. There is a confluence of 3 currents here, the Humboldt, the niña and the niño and a subtropical climate. The sea fog that cloaks Lima, Peru and most places further up the coast, in perpetual grey, burns off here by noon every day, leaving big blue skies in its wake.

Arica is famous in surfing circles for its waves,with big impressive waves crashing into the beach or rocky outcroppings along the beach. Only three parts of the beach have water without rip tides where it’s safe to swim. I run past the beach more than sit on it… I’ve started jogging again, and it feels great. Have to go early in the day or at sunset to escape the worst of the day’s heat.

Hordes of people flock to the beach every evening (usually the beach gets busy after 5, not before, since it’s too hot). People of all ages go, not just the young. They wade in the waves, body surf, splash around, play football (soccer), walk around, stare off into the sunset, smooch with their sweeties, and laugh a lot. The beach nearest my house, Chinchorro, is the most developed, with a huge playground complex, bathrooms with showers, and a performance area with bleachers. We saw dance competitions there the other day, and cheerleading finals the other night.

The big waves here make it a challenge to swim. Or even stay upright sometimes. But if you keep still in the water, you can see small fish flip out of the water a few feet away and dolphins further out. I hear that the dolphins,  swim along with the kite surfers the next beach over. There are loads of birds of course, and shellfish and tons of sea creatures on the rocky outcroppings.

When you get hungry or thirsty you don’t have to move; food and drink comes to you.  People walk past all the time selling things. You can buy sweet pastries, candied apples, occasionally empanadas, and pop.

Of course, as in any beach resort place, there are restaurants lining the road next to the beach, with outdoor patios and all sorts of food and drinks. I’m slowly working my way through all the things on the menus that  I’ve never tried before.

They have wonderful gelato ice cream here, with exciting flavours like manjar chips (think creamy caramal – made with condensed milk), and fruity whipped affairs like maracuya (a sour citrus fruit), chirimoya (a silky smooth heavenly fruit from Peru that looks like globes of lichee nuts inside a green leathery smooth artichoke), and lucuma fruit  (think tangerine).

They go in big for sandwiches here. The most popular topping for chicken, sliced beef steak (churasco) or hamburgers is palta (tastes and looks exactly like avocado), not cheese. A combination of palta, tomato and mayonaise is called ‘italiano’. With a fried egg and fries stuffed right inside the bun it’s called ‘completo’.

I really like a sandwich called the ‘chacarero’, sliced beef topped with a generous layer of julienned cooked cold green beans, slabs of tomato, palta, mayo, cheese and a zingy spicy hot BBQ sauce called ‘Chilean Aji’. The churasco is similar, with green beans replaces by french fries (stuffed right inside the bun).One chacaero or churasco is big enough to feed two hungry people.

The empanadas here are really different than Ecuador. They are baked dough turnovers (not deep fried), filled with a stew-like fillings. Thecarne empanadas have  ground beef with onions, a chunk of hard boiled egg, a few raisins and a black olive in a bit of gravy. The pasteles de choclo are a tasty variation on this, with the same sort of thick dough baked into a round savory tart, filled with the same ground beef mixture as the empanadas, but topped with a generous portion of creamed corn. You can get it sweet (icing sugar mixed into the corn) or savory (plain creamed corn with a bit of salt). They are substantial, and one is a big snack, two is enough for a meal (and they only cost about a $1.25 CDN each).

Occasionally my friends and I go out to sip oncaipariñas (like mohitos without the mint), picso sours or mango sours. Pisco is really popular here. So is beer. They sell huge (and cheap) bottles of it. It’s more common than wine. I don’t know why wine isn’t more popular. It’s super good and super cheap too. A litre of Clos, or bottle of Concha y Toro or Santa Rita or other brands you can find on Canadian liquor store shelves for around $15.00 cost only $1500 to $2000 pesos($3.00 to $4.00) here.

I’m making friends slowly and steadily. Through my Spanish teacher, Emily (who is originally fromEngland) I’m meeting other people. I hang out quite a bit with Emily, her fiance Rodrigo and his daughter, Ignaxia. And I’m meeting other expats too through Emily. We went for lunch yesterday at the house of a Dutch couple who have just moved herefrom Nigeria. They are taking spanish lessons fromEmily too. Their house is huge, and the only place I’ve seen in Arica with a real yard with trees and grass and a garden. And a swimming pool. They asked me to housesit to keep their dog company while they go to Peru later this month. Oh, what a hardship.

And I have been befriended by a man who delivered my furniture. He helped move Henry out. Then he invited me for lunch with his family, so I met his wife and family and the spouses of their grown children. This has turned up a surprisingly good connection for me, since the husband of the oldest daughter is the lead scuba diving instructor at a local diving centre. He spent a year in Halifax while in the Chilean navy and loves Canada. Plus, he speaks more English than most of the people here. We decided to swap services –  I will help him fix the English on the scuba diving school’s website (the web designer used google translate and it doesn’t make any sense at all) and will also supply him with photos for the website using my professional camera, in exchange for diving lessons. What a stroke of luck, really. I have always wanted to learn to scuba dive, but always found the lessons prohibitively expensive. The water is warm here, and teeming with sea life. I can’t wait.

Well bye for now and hope you enjoy the photos I’ve posted.



2 comments to Hola from Arica, Chile

  • Geoff Davis

    Hi Marianne

    I’m coming to Santiago in January for the wedding of a friend. I’m then staying for another week and want to go to somewhere on the coast where I can do some diving. Whilst searching around, I’ve found your blog and wondered if you could mail me with the website for the Dive School in Aribica that you mention here.

    Many thanks


  • Hi Geoff, The company was called Manco Copac. I don`t think they have an active website from the quick search I did, but you may have better luck sourcing one out. The man who runs the classes is named Cesar and he`s a good, well trained, certified and experienced instructor so you would be in good hands if you can line something up with them (assuming they are still in business). Please tell Cesar I say hi if you meet him.

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