I recently shared how I could not wait to leave Peru, how much I struggled to enjoy that country and all the challenges it posed. Never before had I been challenged so deeply, on so many levels – challenged physically, challenged with respect to my riding ability, challenged with respect to the poverty, chaos and filth I saw… So imagine my surprise when within days of arriving in Chile, I found myself missing Peru!
Crossing from the USA into Mexico, we were astounded at the stark and immediate difference between the wealth in the USA and the poverty in Mexico. It was bizarre how “a line in the sand” separated those who had plenty and those living in poverty. Crossing from Peru into Chile, we had the exact opposite experience, this time crossing from poverty to abundance and wealth…and surprisingly, it did not feel good.
Chile is the 4th wealthiest country in Latin America, by GDP and its wealth was immediately on display. Immaculate roads, luxury cars and large shopping malls full of people pushing trollies laden with luxury and demanding kids. I vividly recall the unexpected sadness I felt as I observed it all again for the first time after so many months’ travel through the poorer countries in the Americas. Strangely my sadness was for the rich kids and parents, as opposed to the poor…
Overland travel challenges you, educates you, touches you… changes you through the things you come to understand. Paul and I have reflected a great deal on the stark contrasts we’ve seen between countries “rich” and “poor.” We’ve come to believe that wealth is less a measure of your financial means and more a measure of your way of life and sense of community and belonging.
The contrast between Chile and Peru was obvious on so many levels, beyond the obvious wealth. I couldn’t help but think that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was on display. In Peru we observed people trying to meet their most basic needs: food, money and socialising. Vendors competed fervently and children worked on the streets. Peruvian life was basic. It was ’out there on the streets’ both in terms of eking out a living and socialising. In Chile people were driving luxury cars and expensive bikes like Harley Davidsons and living in beautiful homes. In Peru people walked the sidewalks selling empanadas. In Chile people were out running or tending to immaculately manicured lawns.
To try and understand the stark differences between Peru and Chile I did some research and was surprised to learn that Peru is the 5th wealthiest country in Latin America with a GDP not far off that of Chile. More research and reflection have led me to believe that it’s leadership that accounts for the stark differences between these two countries. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet has built a strong economy through foreign trade and strong financial institutions. Her tax reforms have addressed inequality and improved access to education and health care. Chile’s infrastructure is second-to-none. Peru’s leader, Ollanta Humala was arrested last year on charges of money laundering and corruption involving the state controlled oil company, Petrobras. I rest my case…
Chilean people have been extremely friendly, curious and generous. Whilst stationary at a red traffic light we’ve often had people call to us from other vehicles – asking where we’re from, wishing us well and taking oh so many photos! Fuel stations and parking lots have similarly been places that have drawn a curious crowd around our bikes and our journey. In La Serena we were graciously hosted by Pamela, who has been avidly following our journey via FaceBook for the past year. To finally meet her and stay with her in her home felt like meeting an old friend. Pamela is a beautiful soul. She’s like a “bottle of champagne all shook up”, and introducing us to her friends the Chilean hospitality was evident all ‘round. After a long day’s riding to get to La Serena, Paul had an early night but I couldn’t resist the invitation from Pamela to join her and Magaly for a ladies’ night out. It’s been a while since I sang karaoke and got home at 2am, but boy was that a fun night! Chilean warmth is not limited to the ladies. At the BMW dealership I was laughingly told about the “Chilean way of greeting“ when I extended my hand for a handshake, only to be kissed on the cheek! Julio, our shipping agent showcased incredible generosity in all that he did to help us in Santiago, arranging both the servicing and the shipping of our bikes. He simply could not do enough for us to help and he said “it’s only being human…”
On a drier note, we were astounded to learn about children living in the Atacama Desert who have never seen the rain! It is known as ‘the driest place on earth’ and also one of the most hauntingly beautiful places we’ve ever seen. It’s aptly been compared to Mars and the moon. The skies in Northern Chile are generally considered the best in the world for astronomy and we had great fun exploring and learning more. We had a few very late nights, attending lectures, star gazing until the early hours and we’re now more familiar with the Southern Hemisphere skies. The history of astronomy has been fascinating and we’ve learned more about the Chilean observatories such as the VLT (very large telescope), ALMA (an International astronomy facility near San Pedro de Atacama), ELT (extra large telescope) and Mamalluca Observatory. We were told that 60% of the world’s telescopes are in the Atacama and we experienced the night skies through a few. We camped in the desert for nearly a week and loved being away from light pollution and able to enjoy the magnificent skies each night.
The Atacama Desert was fascinating and beautiful on so many levels. We ended up staying much longer than planned. Exploring the night skies, salt flats, geysers, hot springs, salt lakes, sand dunes, geoglyphs, sculptures, volcanoes and volcanic lakes. The riding was challenging as it involved long desolate stretches, large distances between places with no fuel and we needed to plan our travel, fuel and water supplies carefully as a result. We saw some of ‘the world’s oldest mummies’ in the Atacama. They are strange, alien-looking creatures which we were told had long heads and slanted eyes due to the ancient practice of binding babies’ heads. I’m still convinced that they’re aliens though…hahaha…and an article that was published last week about the ‘alien mummy found in the Atacama Desert’ means I now have the proof! Hahaha
The food in Chile has not been great and another reason I have missed Peru. Chile is the second largest consumer of bread and most meals seem to be “a sandwich of sorts”. By contrast, the wine has been amazing, simply the best!
There’s one thing I have absolutely hated about Chile…and that’s the smoke. Despite Chileans being beautiful and body conscious it seems that almost everyone smokes! I have really struggled with the incessant challenge of second hand smoke everywhere. The statistics are staggering – nearly 40% of adult Chileans smoke, so it shouldn’t be surprising that 40% of teenagers also smoke! It is not unusual to see an adult light up a cigarette, despite the fact that he/she is dining/driving with young kids. I have really struggled with this.
It has been strange to be in a country where people talk about their ‘Peruvian maids.’ The wealth in Chile and poverty in Peru has given me reason for much reflection and a Buddhist saying about poverty and wealth comes to mind. It goes something like this: “The poor suffer because they have no money and the rich suffer because they fear losing it.” We were walking in the historical centre of Santiago today and as I was taking photos a Chilean man came up to me with a dire warning. He told me to be extremely careful, saying there are Peruvian thieves who will target me. He did not say ‘thieves’, he specifically said ‘Peruvian thieves.’ I was taken aback and offended and I couldn’t help but think about the suffering that Buddha had referred to…