Notes from the Street: Manuel & The Taxi Pirata

“Never trust a Chilean!”

Not quite what I had expected Manuel to say after telling him how much I loved living in Chile. What on Earth, I wondered, had caused such as explosive statement?

“They will be the first to talk about you behind your back.  They are lazy and will think nothing of taking you for a ride.  Trust me … NEVER TRUST A CHILEAN!”

Ironically, Manuel works in the profession that has the biggest reputation for ripping off people. He is a taxi driver, and works the day shift for a company that has an office near to where I live. The cars are not official and they do not use a meter, and as such offer cheaper fares than your regular black and yellow official taxi.

I seem to be the only gringa in Santiago that has rarely had a problem in a Santiago taxi. I actually love taking them. The majority of my Spanish vocabulary has come courtesy of taxistas, who all seem to have a burning interest in what I am doing here. I enjoy talking to them, but I do suppose I am biased because Luis is also a taxi driver.

Manuel has to be my all time favorite driver. Middle-aged and short with perfectly smooth black hair and a pair of black sunglasses permanently attached to his face, he is always the epitome of pleasantness. He hails from the north, near to Chiquicamata, and for many years worked in the mines. He came to Santiago in search of different work opportunities, and it is here that he met his wife, who is from Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

When I got in the car with him this time, the first thing he says is how exhausted he is.

“I just cannot keep up with how much my family eats. Every time I make money it goes on food and then -” he snaps his fingers, “it is gone! All day every day I am working and all I have to show for it is food that is always disappearing. I love my family but ahhh how I remember the days when I could relax!”

“Don’t you have time to relax now?” I ask him.

“I like a beer but I am a family man. And I work seven days a week, all day every day. But I cannot afford all the things my family needs! My body is so stressed that I cannot sleep. All the time I am twitching – stress controls my life!”

It is easy to sympathize with Manuel. Santiago seems to run off of the hours put in working. While some say Santaguinos do not work very hard (and let’s be honest, have you ever had customer service here?!), many of them seem to have much longer work hours than I am used to in NZ. In service based jobs, the wages are generally very low and Santiago is not a cheap city to live in. Hence why extended family members tend to live together and why teenagers don’t leave home straight away. Before I went to work, we lived solely off of Luis’ wages and we did alright, if that meant that we could afford food. But it was impossible to do anything else, like save, buy things Emilio or the house needed, do something recreational, leave the city or pay off debts. And when our calefon broke, we could not afford to buy a new one (and I was even working then) so we went without hot water for THREE MONTHS!!! Do you know how irritating it is in the cold to boil water for a bath (our kettle broke at the same time!). We took it to be fixed but no-one had any idea what was wrong with it. Luckily, Luis fiddled about with it one day and it magically worked. “The Mysterious Incident of the Calefon” – we never did find out the reason.

So when Manuel told me his difficulties, I got it. Chile is a lot cheaper for food than NZ but the little things add up quickly when you don’t earn much. I like Manuel because he is like a breath of fresh air. His views are honest – sometimes quirky and profound – but always honest. Although I wonder if he includes himself as one of the Chileans to be “wary of.”

“Just trust me Helen.  Things are very different in Chile to Norway.”

“Nueva Zelanda.”

“Yes. Nueva Zelanda. And what is the weather like in Norway?”

* Giggle*  I have given up correcting him. I am just happy that he understands my Spanish and that I (mostly) understand him! Manuel is a lovely, trustworthy man who provided me endless support when Emilio was hospitalized a few months back. The whole street rallied around us then. But that is a story for another day. I shall sign off here and brave the ice berg that is my bathroom before finally hitting the hay. If you encounter a silver car in Recoleta with a happy guy wearing sunglasses you may just be lucky enough to be travelling with Manuel – say hi, listen to his stories and tip him well!

Notes from the Street: Santiago’s Children

For Santiago’s Children

When the smog hangs like a blanket in the sky, it can be hard to remember days of blue. You breathe it in, sucking it deep into your lungs to send it swimming through your veins, day after day, until the moment comes when you cannot remember how fresh air is supposed to be. Instead it just lingers there above you, always reaching you but not always seen, a heavy cloud of grey that taints a place that could almost be perfect.

That is how I see Santiago.   I call this city my home and I don’t want to leave, but it is not always wonderful. I am not burdened by this “grass is always greener on the other side” complex so I almost never compare Chile to my birth country. This does not make me blind to recognizing the issues at hand, however I try to view what happening here in its own context. Chile is not New Zealand. Santiago is not Chile. Santaguino’s are a whole different type of person to those in the far north. Even within Santiago there are multiple levels of experiences occurring. Many expats (and locals) recognize that there is a societal tier structure known as ‘class’ existing here, but it is difficult for them to understand what they have not lived. And vice versa. We all only know what we come to know, after all.

This is not going to be a post on how classism is flourishing in Santiago. I do not want to start a conversation about a topic that can be so very, very polarising. Every time we talk about people in terms of what they have, we create boundaries. Some boundaries are healthy, like when I tell Emilio to stop putting his hand in the toilet. Others become more like barriers, that instead of protecting you, rise up and block out the sun just like Santiago’s dirty smog. But it is the sun that gives us life. So what are we denying ourselves when we allow society to label us and then we turn around and judge others with those labels?

I am a New Zealander. When I lived there, the nation was divided into factions like everywhere else, and we only really came over weepy under the flag when the All Blacks won the rugby. But when we are overseas, we band together as “the kiwis” and wax lyrical about vegemite, walking barefoot (across scorching tarmac) and exaggerate our “she’ll be right” attitude.   It is similar in Santiago. I have noticed a propensity of locals slamming their country but then change their tune the second an extranjero agrees.  My point is is that the idea of ‘nationhood’ and ‘cultural identity’ are myths, hence why there are numerous social science disciplines out there investigating these concepts at this very moment. What is certain? That we are human. That we feel emotion, bleed when we are cut, breathe. Sometimes “we dream the same dream and want the same things” as well. Every time we define ourselves by our colour, our beliefs, our heritage, our jobs, our schools, or our salaries, we are simply placing more and more labels onto our backs to carry. Or maybe they calcify our hearts, so that when we see someone sleeping on the sidewalk or robbing us to pay for their drug addictions, we shrug our shoulders or scream blue murder … neither of which come close to getting to the heart of the problem and solving it.

Many people will read this post and disagree. Some may even insult me. Some may throw around the “left-wing” label like I am the devil incarnate. All of them will miss the point and are likely always going to. This blog is not for them. Instead it is for the people who can still remember the sun when they look up into Santiago’s smoggy sky.


Maria is eleven. She is slightly chubby with a huge smile and rather wide-set eyes. She has long black hair that is always tied up and she goes to school in Lampa. She lives with twenty extended family members in Recoleta. There are two entrances into where she lives, through the corner shop her uncle runs or via the door opening out into a side street. There are two houses adjacent to one another in front of a concrete yard, and the whole complex has been hurriedly and cheaply built over the years. Sheets have been pulled across the open spaces that peek into the neighbor’s property which also offer protection from the rain. There is the sound of non-stop chatter. Life is shared: doors are always left open, they all contribute to the microcosm of family needs, and every Sunday Maria and her family eat a late lunch outside in the courtyard. The smell of asado, fish or Cazuela drift away into the afternoon wind. Maria cannot read well and she cannot count past twenty with confidence. Before I showed her a picture of a giraffe, she had never heard of one before. She told me that there are two toddlers that live where she does and neither have many toys. They love to draw though, and draw all day long. When Maria came to my house she was amazed at two things: what we had … and what we didn’t have. She’d never seen a tablet before but she couldn’t believe we didn’t watch television. She picked up all of Emilio’s toys in wonder.   Some of his simplest toys she didn’t understand how to use. Everything she touched and marvelled at. But she mostly marvelled at my son. They played very well while I just lingered about. She made him laugh, and he made her laugh. In those moments, it made no difference that neither could speak the same language (Emilio still speaks Baby, after all) nor that their world’s were a little bit different. They were just two children, enjoying a funny moment.

Maria’s auntie deals drugs that is delivered by Colombian’s who race about recklessly on a motorbike. This is not really unusual – the whole street deals drugs. It used to be really bad at one point, so the road became really unsafe. It used to be filled at all hours with slouching figures in baseball caps and ridiculously loud music. Maria’s aunties drove them all away when the new babies were born (the women are strong like that) and now there are only the residents, who are generally pretty quiet (but not always – eek!). Pasta base does rear its ugly head here and you can tell the users because you look into their eyes and see … nothing. Just an empty, empty sea. It breaks my heart.

I like Maria but she is not really my friend. This is not because she is poorer than I am, or because of the dodgy figures in her family. She is not really my friend because she is 11 and I am 28 – almost two decades apart. But I don’t dislike her and I care for her wellbeing as I would anyone else. Same goes for her family, some of whom I am quite friendly with, others whom I do not know. I want for her exactly the same as I want for my son, and that is education. Not because I want him to be able to get a good job one day (a bonus!) but because I want him to learn about the differences in the world and its people. I want him to grow up making mistakes but always being confident in who he is, where he is from and where he is going. Happiness is not something that comes from money but is a decision that you make for yourself. What is the biggest area for concern in Santiago in my opinion, you ask? Education. But education comes from all around us. I am here interacting with people like Maria every day, and every day they are learning about me and my life. Now I want to educate the other people like me, who live in this beautiful city. I want to humanize these people that are on our peripheries and show the world that they are beautiful too. I owe that to her, to my son and to every child in Santiago. I want us to all start clearing away the smog in front of our eyes. Please do it with me.  #queridarecoleta

The Amazing Street Art of Santiago

Beneath the Mapocho River
Bellavista. 3rd eye drawings are very popular with artists here.
Bellavista. This is a tag rather than “art” but I’m including it here because I see it graffittied everywhere
Indigenous art, Recoleta
All art celebrated here in Patronato, Santiago
Chicha store, Recoleta
Corner store, Recoleta
Down a Recoleta street. Interesting because it advertises the work they do inside … but not so sure if they are affiliated with the Ninja Turtles or not.
Vitacura Peace Bear Exhibition, Santiago
Parque Bicentennario, Santiago
Quinta Normal, Santiago
Bellas Artes, Santiago
Barrio Lastarria, Santiago
Plaza de Armas, Santiago
Plaza de las Esculturas, Santiago
Valparaiso creativity
Frutillar theatre, Frutillar