Towards the end of our day in Santiago, the three of us returned to the apartment of Rodrigo’s friend to unwind a bit before heading back to the boys’ house in El Tabo, a small seaside town about an hour and a half west of the capital city. It was here that I’d be delving into the vacation that I ended up having, a more in depth sort of trip where I’d learn more about Chilean culture than I otherwise would have, and I found several things that surprised me.
It all started back in that apartment. We returned there from the Bohemian neighborhood, which was the last spot on our Santiago tour, and the guys figured we’d enjoy some once (pronounced “on-seh,” as in “eleven” in Spanish) and relaxation before getting in the car for the long trip back. I had no idea what once was exactly, but I’d soon find out not only this little slice of Chilean culture, but others as well.
In Chile, “tomando la once,” or “tale the eleven” is a unusual part of their everyday diet. Where I had expected the food in Chile to be different than here in the United States, it wasn’t, but the meals Chileans take daily are decidedly different. Once is clearly related to afternoon tea time enjoyed in other countries, but not exactly the same. The meal/snack is taken somewhere between lunch and dinner, though often much later than 4 p.m.
I partook in my first once that first evening in Santiago, and all of the onces I had almost always consisted of the same thing. First of all, Chileans are as big on bread as Italians, so that item is always present (not only at once, but at every meal). Then there’s some sort of ham and some sort of cheese, sometimes a bruschetta-like topping with tomatoes, onions and cilantro, butter, an occasional sweet, and usually tea or coffee.
The snack can happen anywhere between 5 and 9 p.m., and it’s supposed to tide you over before a light, late evening dinner. Sometimes, though, there just wasn’t enough room for any dinner!
Animitas is something we here in the U.S. are familiar with, but they aren’t as much a part of our general culture as they are in Chile. Animitas are roadside memorials, more like shrines, to people who’ve died in car accidents, and by other usually violent means. This was another cultural lesson about Chile I’d learned that first night, as we passed an elaborate one along the ride from Santiago to El Tabo.
Though in the U.S. roadside memorials have become more and more common lately as a way for family members to grieve their loved ones, but in Chile the tradition is much more religious-based. Whereas the ones here may contain photos, balloons or flowers, the ones in Chile look more like religious shrines, with statues, candles and crosses surrounding the shrine, and the custom is common enough that many of them looked like they were prefabricated, and similar in appearance to dog houses.
Jorge talked about them in the car that night, and he explained how it was customary for travelers to stop and leave bottles of water at these animitas so the souls of the dead can watch over them to have a safe journey. The one we had passed that night was at the site of a bus crash, where many people had died, and sure enough there were plenty of water bottles lining the thing to back up what Jorge had said.
The last cultural item I discovered about Chile was a sad one. Even before I had come, Jorge had told me that there was one thing above all else that I would notice during my stay in Chile and that was that I was going to see plenty of dogs. He wasn’t kidding! From the biggest cities to the most remote towns, there were homeless dogs everywhere. For me, the scene was shockingly sad every time I saw one, though Chileans never seemed to blink an eye at these meek, sad creatures.
Many of the dogs are malnourished, dirty and often have skin diseases caused by these conditions. These dogs peddle around looking for scraps of food or even just some loving. Usually I’m afraid of dogs, but the ones in Chile were so timid there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. timid timid in photos, balloons or flowers, the ones in Chile are more common as a way for family members to grieve their loved ones, bI promised Jorge that when I got back I would write a piece on this terrible cultural condition, and it deserves a whole piece unto itself, so stay tuned for that.
Well these are just a few things I learned about Chilean culture during my two-week stay in the country. I always find culture fascinating and it was interesting to learn and experience such things in a foreign country. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Chilean culture as much as I have. Stay tuned for more of “Ah Chile.”
In the meantime, check out these other pieces in the series so far:
Ah Chile: An Introduction
Ah Chile: A Day in Santiago