Having grown up in an urban area, Philadelphia, PA that is, I would not define Santiago as an especially outstanding city by any measure. The city layout, day-to-day activity, and the daily routines of its residents, are hardly distinct from those of many American cities and citizens. When the air is clear of the smog which often plagues the city, there are beautiful views of the mountains that surround Santiago, a view that from some perspectives is punctuated by the sleek and elegant, glass Costanera skyscraper in the city center. For the most part however, the city is not especially glamorous, thrilling, or unusual. People send their children off to school in the mornings, travel to and from their 9 to 5s via public transit or personal vehicles, they walk their dogs around the neighborhood in the evenings, and end the day, return to one of the many mid-sized concrete apartment buildings that account for a large portion of cities physical structures. On the weekends, like in most cities, you will find many people out at restaurants and enjoying the nightlife. But on Monday, it’s back to the routine.
Despite the many similarities that I observed in Chileans’ daily routines and in the layout of the city of Santiago, I still found myself on many occasions, excited simply at the prospect of being in a new place that was unfamiliar to me. This is the beautiful thing about traveling; that even the simplest structures, the everyday behaviors of the people, and typically mundane errands become an adventure of intrigue and unfamiliarity. Whether one is traveling for the first time to a world-renowned site or visiting a relatively basic destination, the factor of unfamiliarity that is present in either experience has the power to make the experience much more exciting.
In Santiago it was often the subtle behavioral norms of people, as seen through my alien lens, that provided the extra intrigue to my experience. One can read about cultural norms and behavior in a book or travel brochure, but I found witnessing them daily in person to be much more exciting. I often found myself on the crowded bus rides, and as if I were a toddler again, observing how strangers interacted with one another with more interest that any native adult would possess. I listened closely to conversations that the members of my host family had with each other, and because I did not always understand all of the verbal discussion, I would come to realize how much communication relies on inflection and body language to convey ideas and sentiments. Additionally, I found myself in humorous, and sometimes embarrassing situations, when trying to carry out every-day interactions with sales clerks and restaurant waiters and waitresses. While strolling through the city and surrounding neighborhoods, I found mind occupied with assessing different traffic patterns; observing the more aggressive driving tendencies and pondering the fewer law enforcement traffic stops, as compared to in the States. When my mind drifted from this, I would catch myself assessing how people dressed to temper to the Chilean winter. And when I was not fully immersed in observing the subtle differences ever-present in new environment around me, I would become aware of city residents who were instead immersed in observing me: A young man dressed in business apparel (for my work), who at 6'2" was usually taller than everyone around me, and as an African American, with a skin complexion darker than most except the occasional Haitian immigrants who sparsely populate the city.
The beautiful thing about traveling is it compels one to observe the subtle things of everyday life. As a result, I often find myself leaving such situations with a greater appreciation and admiration for parts of the world around me: appreciation that the buses in my city have heat in the wintertime, or, admiration for the foreigners in my city who have bothered to learn English so well. Beyond this, I generally leave such experiences with a reminder of the complexity of the world in which we operate. I leave more inclined to question what I consider normal and to consider the reasons behind other peoples’ ways of believing, communicating, or acting. As in my last blog, I leave reconsidering ideas of need, privilege, and development. Regardless of whether or not I come around to agree or enjoy these other ways of believing, communicating, or acting, I seldom walk away with less respect and understanding. I look forward to future travels: that is, future opportunities to feel like a kid again.