Hola from Viña del Mar, Chile once again. My time here is flying by and I am certain that this experience will be wrapping up sooner than I would like. In this excerpt of my study abroad adventure, I want to give an experience in Chilean culture by sharing some of my experiences with the food, language and artistic expressions of Chile, specifically in the coastal cities of Valparaíso (pronounced val-par-eye-so) and Viña del Mar (pronounced be-nyuh del-mar) where I am currently living.
I must confess that Chilean food has been a surprise for me. The typical foods here are not what someone might expect from a Latin American country. I had anticipated eating a lot of beans and enjoying some spicy food; however, I have learned that Chileans do not enjoy an excessively spicy palette. Chileans confess that their food is, in fact, a little on the bland side. I will not argue this point. Many times, I have found myself wishing I had some hot sauce to give my meal a little kick. This, however, does not make Chilean food bad, it is simply different from my expectations. I have enjoyed the majority of the food I have tried thus far in Chile. My host mother loves to make me traditional Chilean dishes so that I can experience the cuisine of her country.
I have sampled a variety of dishes in the month I have been in Chile. My first experience with a typical dish, Ensalada Chilena, is worth mentioning. At the beginning of my time here in Chile, I was in Santiago for a few days. On one of these days, I visited a place called Mercado Central, where I ordered fried fish and what I thought would be a traditional lettuce salad that one might order in the U.S. When my plate came there was a traditional salad on my plate, but it was not what I was expecting. There, sitting beside my perfectly fried fish, was a heaping pile of fresh onions and tomatoes. I am not a huge fan of tomatoes, but trying this traditional dish was a great experience and I learned that I should not order the Ensalada Chilena again.
Chileans are bread connoisseurs; they eat a grand variety and are one of the top consumers of bread in the world. Most Chileans enjoy what is called an “once” (pronounced on-say) instead of a dinner meal. The once consists of bread, deli meat, cheese and other small food items. Tea is also a staple at the table during once. Chile has a large European influence and their once is a small reflection of this influence. While onces are typically small meals served around 8 p.m., lunch is a grand affair where one must be prepared to eat a large amount of food. Chilean’s typically eat lunch between 1:30 and 2 p.m. in the afternoon. This meal consists of multiple courses at times and can leave one feeling in need of a nap. However, the “siesta” or nap that many Latin American countries indulge in is not a custom here.
Completos and empanadas are traditional foods that can be found on street corners. Completos are basically a hot dog heaped with avocado, tomato, mayonnaise, lettuce and sometimes onions, with ketchup and mustard optional. Completos are very difficult to eat and I demonstrated this fact while eating mine. However, no one visits Chile without eating an empanada. Empanadas are fried or baked pockets of dough with fillings of many different types. Chile is rich with a variety of traditional dishes that any visitor must take time to sit down and enjoy. One can learn a lot about a culture by simply sitting down and eating a traditional meal. When traveling, do not look for the closest fast food chain restaurant, go to a trustworthy local establishment and try something new. Do not be afraid to ask what the food contains or what the waiter recommends.
Another important aspect of Chilean culture is the language. Many people have said that the way Spanish is spoken in Chile is some of the hardest Spanish to understand in the Spanish-speaking world. When I first heard this I thought to myself, “Great. Why did I have to choose a country where I will have the hardest time understanding what the locals are saying?” After living in Chile for a month, I can say with confidence that Chilean Spanish is very difficult to understand, for multiple reasons. However, I am grateful to have the opportunity to learn so that I will better understand the Spanish from countries who speak more clearly.
Chilean Spanish is difficult for the untrained ear to understand for four main reasons. The first reason is common to many Spanish-speaking countries, that is, that the language is spoken very rapidly and it is hard to catch every word. Second, Chileans often aspirate or do not pronounce the “s” at the end of words. This may not sound very bad, but it actually makes listening very difficult. Third, Chileans also omit the “d” in words that end in “-dad.” This often compounds the difficulty in listening. Finally, the most unique feature of Chilean Spanish that makes understanding difficult is the “Chilenismos” that they use.
Chilenismos are words that only Chileans use that are very specific to their culture. While walking the streets anywhere in Chile it is possible to hear words like “¿cach’ai?” to ask if someone understands what has been said or “bakan” to say that something is good. The phrases “sí po” and “no po” or just “po” are used to finish almost every sentence within casual conversation in Chilean Spanish and are something similar to a verbal pause. I am currently sitting in a café below my apartment and have just finished eating a lovely slice of lemon meringue pie with a hot cup of Earl Grey tea. While sitting here I have heard conversations going on around me where these phrases were used frequently. I have enjoyed listening and trying to figure out the intricacies of Chilean Spanish.
Finally, one of the more beautiful aspects of Chilean culture in Valparaíso is the street art on the many walls that make up the city. At first glance, passersby would say that Valparaíso has gone lax in their control of graffiti around the city, however just the opposite is true. The authorities in Valparaíso decided to capitalize on the artistic abilities of its citizens when dealing with the street art. They decided that instead of trying to prevent people from painting graffiti all over the city that they would allow artists to express themselves on the walls. This was a great decision because it has made Valparaíso a very colorful and beautifully artistic city. Artists are now able to gain permission to paint certain areas of the city. Generally, other artists do not paint over someone else’s work out of respect for the other artist and their work. After a few years, the wall will be painted over and a new artist may come paint a new piece of art.
The authorities and citizens of Valparaíso have done a very honorable thing in allowing their street artists to express themselves. This change made what could have been a menace into a beautiful work of art. The beauty of Valparaíso and its historical significance as a major port city in South America have earned the city the title of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. One could spend days walking the streets of Valparaíso enjoying historical sights and viewing the artistic expressions of its inhabitants.
I hope this article has evoked a bit of curiosity and maybe a little bit of hunger for something tasty. One of the most exciting parts of traveling abroad is being able to learn about the cultures and customs of the country visited. Chile is simply overflowing with culture. I am so excited to be able to share the Chilean culture with my readers. The Chilean experience is most likely as new and exciting for you as it is for me. The time has come for me to get back to my homework. Alas, I have found that homework is homework no matter where one goes in the world and I need to keep up my GPA!
Chao for now!
Ashley Stickel, of Madison County, is senior student studying Spanish at The Ohio State University, expecting to graduate in December. She is currently studying abroad in Valparaîso, Chile, where she is attending a local university and interning for a community organization.