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November 06, 2004

Country Hopping

I haven't written too much about the personalities of the countries I'm visiting, and what it feels like to be moving from one culture to the next, yet staying in the same region.

I feel that I've definitely seen different sides of South America. Peru is more poor, more indigenous, with stronger ties to older traditions in dress, language, food, and music. Yet, it has a fairly decent middle-class population as well, as evidenced by my homestay family in Cusco. There's a strong colonial heritage as well, especially seen in the buildings in places like Arequipa.

Bolivia, unfortunately, kind of blurs together with Peru for me. I was only there for 9 days, and three of that on the Salar tour, where I got a good sense of Bolivia's natural landscape but not of its people. Copacabana and Isla del Sol were quite touristy and also felt like an extension of Peru, and I had so little time in La Paz, and it's such a big city, that I don't have many lingering impressions except that the traffic is crazy! The neighborhood where I stayed had very few traffic lights, and every intersection was complete chaos.

When I first got to Chile, I was slightly underwhelmed. I didn't see anyone in San Pedro who seemed to be just going about a normal day--everyone was working in the tourist industry or was visiting from somewhere else. Antofagasta, as well, was okay, but seemed kind of gritty--and expensive--I was still adjusting to Chile's higher prices.

Finally, in La Serena, I started to get a better sense of Chile. I arrived on Saturday night, and Sunday was election day. Everything was closed, so there wasn't much to do but wander the city. There were lots of people out, despite the fact that there was hardly anywhere to go besides the polls, and it felt very European--an attractive, mid-sized, fairly prosperous city lifted straight out of Spain! The people in Chile are much lighter-skinned than people further north, and almost all are of European descent. The country is much more westernized--in La Serena I encountered my first shopping mall and supermarket--I was transfixed, after so much time with so little choice! The house where I was staying had a kitchen I could use, and I enjoyed making myself breakfast and lunch for a few days--a nice change of pace from eating out all the time.

Maria, the namesake of Maria Casa, where I was staying, started telling me that Bush wasn't so bad, but her 30-something son jumped in and sad "Bush is the devil! He even likened him to Hitler, which I suggested migh tbe a tad extreme, but he was off and running. It was interesting to be in Chile during both our and their elections.

In Valparaiso, I've been struck by how similar to San Francisco it seems, but of course it is different--old-looking, ragged buildings are piled on the hills, revealing the city's poorer population. The port takes up the whole waterfront, and there's hardly anywhere you can enjoy the water up close (I guess they leave that to Viņa del Mar, the cushy resort town just to the north). Funny that I travel all this way and the city I'm most smitten with is the one most like home.

In all, I'm really glad that I decided to visit just vastly different countries--it's given me a more complete picture. Unfortuantely, I'm going to have to forego spending much time in Santiago in order to travel all the way south to Tierra del Fuego.

Posted by Amy on November 6, 2004 08:48 AM
Category: General South America
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