Chile - Arica - Life in the "Hood"
May 29, 2007
|Time sure flies doesn't it...can you believe I've been living in Arica for just over 3 months already! I've been enjoying my time here, it's been a while since I've had the opportunity to get to know a new place as an actual resident instead of just a backpacker!
Unfortunately, I've been leading a pretty boring life these past 3 months, spending the majority of my time sitting in front of my laptop working on the book instead of having fun. Oh well, a necessary evil, and I figured if I save the fun stuff for when the book is finished, the book might actually get written in my lifetime! Thankfully the book is starting to take shape, but I still have much to do and many months to go. Had I known how much work it would be to write a bloody book, I would've declined the offer!
I like Arica very much. It's an interesting combination of cosmopolitan and quaint. On the weekends, the beaches are full of kids, sunbathers, surfer dudes, kite flyers, and group after group of men of all ages kicking around a soccer ball. There's actually a whistle that blows at noon every day, which seems so wonderfully old fashioned. The population is around 200,000...small enough to be calm and relaxed, but large enough to have all the conveniences I could want or need. It has a nice downtown district with lots of pedestrian streets, shops, restaurants, etc, and an abundance of local markets that run together in this amazing labyrinth of interconnected buildings. There's a large military and police presence here because we're so close to the borders of Peru and Bolivia, and we are a major port city, but it also gives Arica the reputation of being one of the safest cities in Chile. However I must admit, it was a little unsettling seeing a group of army tanks out doing maneuvers on the streets the other day.
It's been nice playing "homeowner" again, even though technically it's not MY house. After months on the road, it's great to be unpacked and not living out of a backpack, but the thing I've probably enjoyed the most is being able to cook again. Might not sound like much to you, but to someone who's been living off of restaurant cuisine for almost 4 years, the opportunity to prepare meals that DON'T include rice on the plate has been downright heavenly!
Now, despite being borderline reclusive and spending the majority of my time inside the house, I have gotten to know my quirky neighborhood quite well.
As is typical of South America, everything here is associated with sound (read: noise). Most houses in my neighborhood have fences with locking gates. When people come to visit, they stand outside the locked gate and loudly shout "allo", or tap on the gate. How anyone actually knows which "allo" or gate tapping is for them and not for someone else is anyone's guess! I still haven't figured out that system.
Now, my house has just a flimsy stick fence and no gate. If someone comes to see me, they have to do this strange thing called "knocking on my door". What a concept huh? Of course as soon as they knock on the door, they run back to the street and wait from the spot where a gate would normally be. Oh well, at least I don't have to wonder all the time which "allo" might be directed at me!
Unfortunately, there are many knocks on my door throughout the day, most of the time from someone wanting to sell me a new religion or phone system. The constant door knocking is quite a distraction from book writing so, as rude as it may sound, I no longer answer the door unless I'm expecting someone.
Every street vendor (of which there are many) has a unique call. The man selling newspapers has a distinct sound, so does the knife sharpener dude, and every other vendor that cruises my street. Then there are the vehicles that also cruise the street advertising parties, sales promotions, you name it...all have their particular slogan and sales pitch belting out of large speakers.
My favorite is the gas bottle delivery truck. Gas is used for stoves and water heaters here, but the houses don't have underground gas lines or in-house storage tanks, so everyone just buys a big bottle of gas, sort of like a jumbo version of what you'd use for your propane barbecue. Gas bottle delivery trucks drive up and down the streets all day, loudly banging on a bottle as they drive by. People who need a bottle go outside when they hear the truck coming. It's actually a pretty efficient system when you think about it. I used to find the banging quite annoying, but strangely enough I got used to it...and the funny thing is, you wouldn't believe how hard I listened for that banging when I needed a new bottle of gas!!
Ariqueños - as the people of Arica are called - love their dogs. Thankfully, unlike a lot of other places, the majority of dogs here are well cared for and not the mangy half-starved street dogs that usually scrounge the streets of Latin America in abundance. However, well cared for as they may be, the dogs in my "hood" bark constantly...every time they hear any kind of noise like a vehicle, person, cat, other dog, and sometimes apparently just for the hell of it! I can always tell when a vendor is in the neighborhood because the dogs start barking. Miraculously, they don't bark much at night unless they really do hear something, so thankfully I mostly sleep in peace.
The roads of my street are narrow, no more than the size of a very small back lane in most North America cities. There's room for one vehicle, yet it's 2-way traffic. People's homes are sort of angle parked off the road, creating a wedge in front where people park their vehicle if they have one. So added to the noise of the street vendors, door knockers and dogs barking, is the sound of vehicles pulling in, backing up, pulling in, backing up, pulling in, backing up, etc. as they try to maneuver their vehicle into their teeny tiny fenced parking space.
When I first arrived to Arica in February it was still summertime. For the first 2 months I had clear blue skies every day, and nothing but lots of heat and sunshine. Seasons have recently changed, and down here in the Southern Hemisphere it's now wintertime. Living on the edge of a desert has its advantages, it never gets "cold" here, but still the temperatures have dropped and I've been chased from shorts and flip flops into trousers, socks and shoes! And apparently I really AM living in one of the driest spots on the planet as I haven't seen a drop of rain since I arrived.
There are a couple of decent supermarkets in my neighborhood. Not huge, but adequate. In addition to buying groceries, people can pay their house bills at the checkouts, which causes long and tedious queues. No one else seems to mind, so I try to wait patiently. I was almost looking forward to when my first set of house bills came in so that I, too, could be responsible for causing a long queue at the checkout!
The price of house utilities and groceries is pretty cheap. I pay around US$120/month for ALL house utilities (incl. water, power, gas, phone, internet, cable). For groceries, I can buy a nice breast of chicken (the size of which I've never seen anything quite so huge before in my life!) for just over $2 and I can probably eat off of it for a week! I can buy very nice beef tenderloin for $5/kilo. Grapes and most fruit are less than $1/kilo. A very nice wine will set you back a couple dollars a bottle. However...imported products are very expensive...for example, I paid $4 for a tiny jar of peanut butter!
I think I've experienced 4 earthquakes so far. Hey, more than 50 volcanoes run the length of this country, it's not called Earthquake Alley for nothing! The first couple were just mild tremors, I wasn't even sure what it was really, but the bed on which I was reclining to write was vibrating, and I was the only one on it at the time. The last one was definitely a mini-quake that had me jumping out of bed in the middle of the night wondering what the hell was going on! Thankfully they don't last long.
I have a Peruvian roommate named Esther. She's the former cleaning lady, cook and girlfriend of the house owner. We got off to a rough start when some of my stuff disappeared just after I moved in. But then Esther had a falling out with her girlfriend (the one who I suspect was stealing my stuff), and strangely enough nothing else has gone missing since. We've gotten to know each other better over the months and it's been a very good cross-cultural experience for both of us (really proves how blessed is the life of those from a developed country!).
My 90 days in Chile were up last week, so I "did lunch" in Peru in order to renew my visitors visa. I realized that it was the first time I've been in a vehicle for 3 months! Yes, there are tons of buses and vehicles here in Arica, but I need the exercise and I like to walk, and it was pretty weird realizing I hadn't been doing anything but walking for 3 months.
Anyway, that's pretty much it for "Life in my Hood". I've been enjoying my time in Arica...BUT...the house owner has decided to return to Chile much sooner than expected. Like June instead of December! Apparently the Universe doesn't want me to live in one place for more than a few months at a time. But that's okay, she's provided me with other opportunities! So stay tuned as changes are in the air...