Walk the streets

Santiago, Chile

“Where I see capitalism as a ball and chain to my creative expression, others may see it as a life-saving system through which they can support their families.”

I knew I wouldn’t like Santiago. I heard it was a big city, just like any other city. I’m not a huge fan of concrete jungles, where the trees have been relegated to gaps between highways, and the mountain view is distorted by smog. I only planned to stay here for 2 days but that became 2 weeks due to the bureaucracy and wait times to get my national ID card. Living the city life has been a roller-coaster of mood swings, trying to fit in, and realising I don’t want to.

I have taken this time to walk the streets, absorb the local culture, and learn about the history of Chile. The buildings here, made from thick brick and concrete are reminders of my home in Adelaide, where every window and door is protected by thick security bars. Some homes have historic charm with German influence — a tiled roof and decorative window bars. Other houses could be mistaken for warehouses. Shops have their carparks behind tall fences trimmed with spikes and security cameras, resembling the car dealerships back home. The banks here require you to scan your fingerprints for entry. These common features are a side effect of the high rates of vandalism and theft in this city.

But I do not feel unsafe here. And what I previously considered paranoia, I now feel is warranted awareness. For example — covering the pin pad when using an eftpos machine, or checking over my shoulder regularly when walking the streets, and securing the zips on my backpack. Here, crime isn’t just possible, it’s part of the scenery alongside the street art. The facades of most buildings are painted with graffiti or street art, from small tags by vandals to intricate artworks multi-stories high. Most neighbourhoods are like walking through an art exhibition and I become more appreciative of the subtle references the artists have expressed in their work. Despite the number of cars I see whizzing down the street, traffic jams don’t appear to be common. I’ve put it down to the high number of one-way streets, which also makes crossing the road easier.

Spotted around the city are shanty towns, or “Campamentos”, for the city’s poor populations. Amateur constructions of corrugated tin and plywood are situated across the street from a Porsche mechanic. The contrast of extremes is not lost on me. Though Chile is a developed country, the only one in Latin America, it has a high rate of poverty, arguably as high as 27%. And the income inequality gap is wider than that of the United States.

It’s not all bad here, I can understand why people migrate to the Capital of the richest country in Latin America. There is opportunity here for work, with amenities and services often scarce across the borders. I am told repeatedly that if I want to find a job it is hard to do so outside of Santiago. But the hustle and bustle of a busy city does not look like my version of success. That’s where I came from — people living on top each other, and solitude is hard to find outside of my home. That’s the price we pay to be surrounded by utilities, telecommunications, and public transport. These conveniences and comforts are only worthwhile installing where they can be profitable. As such, the cost of living here is not much different to my home in Adelaide.

My white privilege becomes apparent to me when I consider how Chile appears to me through the lens that Australia has given me, and compare it to the way a Brazilian or Venezuelan might view this adopted home. Where I think the security measures show that this country is unsafe, locals see the razor wire and military presence as a measure of safety. Where I see capitalism as a ball and chain to my creative expression, others may see it as a life-saving system through which they can support their families. But I know this is only the beginning for me — I’m sure I will come to see that Chile is not typical “South America”. On my journey I will see poverty and crime like I’ve never seen before. But I will remain open-minded to the cultural differences, as my goal is to learn about the Earth and all the beings inhabiting it.

~ Sam

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