After spending a year in Santiago de Chile, Natasha Young reveals what she learned from this thin slither of a country
Having been brought up in miniscule England, I always used to prepare for any journey longer than 30 minutes as if it were an Arctic voyage. I'd consult maps, pack skis and prepare a lunch.
Manchester to London takes two and a half hours by train. In English terms, this is very far away indeed. In Chile, you're nearly there. You can start packing away your bits and pieces and put your coat on.
Mendoza in Argentina is a mere hop, skip and a jump across the Andes from Santiago and takes seven hours. Travel may never be the same again.
Right and left are not the same. Democratically elected governments should not be confused with military dictatorships. A military coup is not, as one student tried to argue, simply a change of government. Voting matters. Resistance matters. Some scars never heal.
British friends may moan about it, but it's fabulous. In Britain, most shop assistants actually care about trying to help you find what you need. There's usually a friendly smile, pride in knowing something about what's being sold and often a welcome amount of honesty, "Haddock? Ooh, I wouldn't if I were you lovey, have the cod instead."
The Chileans should come to Britain and show us how it's done. It may be a long, straggly country at the end of the world, famous for wine and not much else, but by God they know how to run a bus service.
Long distance coaches in Chile are cheap, plentiful, comfortable and punctual. You can watch a selection of terrible straight to video films to pass the time and there's even a man to hand you a wee pillow and a blanket when you're feeling sleepy and wake you up with a carton of juice in the morning.
I hang my head in shame at the thought of any Chilean who has been to Britain and jumped on National Express, Megabus or British Rail, in the mistaken belief that it might be a good idea.
Moving to the other side of the world (or even a new city) is a scary business. But the truth is, I've always met new people I like, wherever I've gone in the world. If your old friends are good eggs, they'll always be there for you, whatever you decide to do with your life and wherever you go. Meanwhile, new friends are just waiting to be met.
Hardly a day seemed to go by in Manchester when it didn't rain. Rain stops play, spoils barbecues and outdoor music festivals and ruins your hair. But it also makes the countryside beautifully green (the south of Chile doesn't look that lovely without a little help), clears away the smog and stops mosquitoes. And would all those Manchester bands you like have learnt to play the guitar if it had been sunny outside? I think not.
It took me a really long time to learn this, but in Chile 'yes' often means 'hell, no'.
To a waitress: "Is this white wine (that I just watched you take out of a cupboard) cold?"
To Chilean friends: "So I'll meet you at 10pm. You'll be there on time, won't you?"
To any bureaucrat: "Is this absolutely necessary?"
To a stranger on the street: "Excuse me, do you know where Calle Biarritz is?"
To someone hurrying onto a bus: "Is this the airport bus?"
Pay peanuts and you will get monkeys. Slip a bloke 40 quid in the street to sort out your internet connection and cable for the rest of the year and there's an odds on chance you might have a few problems with it.
Buy super cheap shower gel and it will extract all the oil from your skin until you feel like you are made entirely from wafer biscuits. Take the cheap bus in Bolivia and you will be squeezed into a mini van next to a vomiting toddler and a man who smells of cheese.
When you've not got time to chill a bottle of white, red wine does the job. I even grew to like it. To be fair, paying buttons for a classy red that would cost a fortune at home is a sure fire way to get a taste for the stuff.
I've always loved dogs, but working in a Chilean dog shelter confirmed it. Few things make me happier than stroking the ears of a wet nosed mutt with a wagging tail.
Natasha Young is a writer, currently living in Barcelona where she works for Metropolitan magazine. After spending a year in Santiago de Chile, she now speaks a strange mix of Spanish and Chilean (they’re two VERY different languages) and craves cazuela de ave. For a mixture of published articles, travel blogs and musings from Chile, England and Barcelona check out her website here.
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