Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Culture Shock

As a somewhat experienced traveler, I try not to be shocked as I pass into new cultures. When I go to a new country, I'm expecting things to be different from what I'm used to. What happens to me though, is that I get jarred by passing into places that are more familiar, which sometimes happens unexpectedly.

After leaving Machu Picchu, heading further and further into Bolivia in October, the Western World got more and more distant. It's not a place where people can jump in in English when your Spanish fails you. While it's certainly a country colonized by the Spanish, the indigenous influence is very strong. Aymara women stroll past businessmen on the streets of central La Paz in their billowing skirts and bowler hats, and soon it quits seeming unusual.
Traffic and high-rise buildings have definitely made it there, but the streets are filled with 30-year-old Dodge mini-buses that were never seen on American streets, and the hillsides are covered with unfinished brick and tiled-roof houses accessed by narrow stairways, rather than spacious suburbs. Most foreign to me was that the city has yet to have been touched by multinational retailers, at least in the day-to-day street-level business.
They may be selling Adidas and Sony (or more likely Adidas and Sony knock-offs), but they're selling them in small shops and street stands, not Footlocker or Best Buy. People still eat at family-run restaurants, and you're more likely to find a "witch" selling dried llama fetuses than a McDonald's.

Leaving the capital and heading into the altiplano desert, I receded further and further from civilization, to the point where it would have taken several days to return to a two-story building or a paved road. I slept in a village where on the edge of town were numerous open graves with mummies that had been sitting undisturbed for 600 years or more.
And then, further on, even the dead were distant. I've never felt so in-the-middle-of-nowhere in my life.

Finally, I was dropped off at the border crossing, no more than a building with a lonely guard. I'd had to get my passport stamped days earlier in the last real town. There wasn't even a road crossing into Chile, really, just some tire tracks in the sand that the bus I boarded followed.

We drove through the absolute desolation of a desert where nothing grows, where no one lives, and then quite suddenly, we pulled onto a perfectly smooth, asphalt-paved highway, with painted stripes, reflectors, guard rails, road signs--indistinguishable from a US highway, something I hadn't seen since my parents had driven me to the Columbus airport more than three months earlier. I'd traveled so far into the 3rd world (though it would be difficult to call that part of Bolivia even developing) that I'd come right out the back side.

There was no real road going from Chile into Bolivia, only this path I'd taken that isn't used for any sort of trade, just passing off a few crazy back-packers a day. The highway I suddenly found myself on, though, was the road from Chile to Argentina, only a few miles the other direction. People driving between those two nearly 1st-world countries probably wouldn't even notice that there was a path to a third country connecting to their highway.

It was jarring, as was having to pay $2.00 instead of $.25 for a glass of orange juice in San Pedro, the little oasis town in the Atacama desert in sight of the high mountains of Bolivia. The 24-hour bus I took from there to Santiago sailed comfortably down smooth roads that didn't break into rubble every few miles, as I'd become accustomed.

When I arrived in Santiago, I almost immediately walked past a supermarket, and I suddenly felt relieved, strangely at home. Foreign as Chile is, in comparison to Bolivia, it seemed completely familiar. Shopping for dinner didn't have to be a learning experience, I could just do it without thinking. This thought-free existence is much of what defines home, I think. I could walk around without feeling like an obvious outsider. I could blend into the crowd and be just another person in the city. While comfortable, that felt more shocking than any of the strangeness I'd encountered making my way through Peru and Bolivia.

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