The bus slowly plows its way through the suburban barrios of Santiago. It is a large city, home to over 5 millions Chileans, a third of the country’s total population. The friendly lady next to me chats about her job and her family. I listen to her without too much effort, a sign that I have been in South America for one month now, and acquired an ear for the continent’s version of Spanish.
Santiago is worlds apart from the rest of the country. In the Atacama desert, life is not that different from third-world Bolivia on the other side of the border. In sharp contrast, Santiago is the continent’s most modern metropolitan city. In fact, jetlagged Americans who just landed would be forgiven for thinking they never left home. On closer inspection, there are a few Spanish colonial buildings scattered throughout the city center – certainly more than can be found in the USA – some dating as far back as the 16th century. But they are few and far between and stand out conspicuously in the midst of modern office buildings. Not only did they withstand several earthquakes, they also survived the modernization of one South America’s most buoyant economies. In the financial center, skyscrapers reach high into the sky, outdone only by the Andes mountains that flank the city.
Santiago also boasts a diverse population. When I trekked the Inca trail, one member of our small group was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Chilean hailing from Santiago. Here I can walk through el centro, the city’s historic center, and blend in with the locals. In Peru and Bolivia, where I stood out like a sore thumb with my blue eyes, people forever asked me if I was from Brazil. So I’m glad to have found a genuine Brazilian in the Youth Hostel where I am staying. I have been observing her with great curiosity, trying to figure out what we have in common. I think it has something to do with speaking Spanish with a foreign accent.