Major Culture Shock

November 28, 2005
Day 61

Today I wanted to leave Sajama and the only bus out of town left at 6:30 in the morning. I got up really early and waited in the freezing cold with the other tourists and a bunch of locals for the microbus to arrive. Finally it showed up, we packed about twenty adults into the van intended for ten, and took off. Luckily for me, I only had to ride the bus to the border nearby, whereas everyone else would be stuck on it for hours.

I got to the border at about 7:30, but it didn't open until 8:00. There was already a bus waiting to cross, so I tried to get on it, but it was full. I had to wait until the next bus arrived. Finally, one showed up at 9:30. The driver was very hesitant when I asked him if I could ride. There were no seats left, but I agreed to sit on the floor. The conditions didn't matter to me; I just didn't want to wait at the border all day.

After getting my exit stamp on my passport, we left the Bolivian side of the border. It was easily ten miles to the Chilean side, whereas the crossing from Peru to Bolivia was more like 100 yards. I felt like a refugee stowed away on the floor of the back of the bus when we made the crossing. Finally, at around 10:30, we entered Chile and were on our way to Arica.

Arica is only about 75 miles from Sajama, but it might as well be on the other side of the Earth. Sajama sits at 4200 meters above sea level. Arica is at 0. Sajama is very hot all day and freezing at night. Arica is warm during the day and slightly cool at night. Sajama has no electricity or running water, and is a very poor place in general. Arica might as well be Beverly Hills by comparison. Sajama's population is 100% native and everyone wears traditional clothes. Arica doesn't appear to have any native population, and there are even a lot of people of pure European descent.

The other major difference here is that Chile is an hour ahead of Bolivia right now because Chile has daylight savings time, but Bolivia doesn't. The conversion was very strange for me because I went straight west, yet it became an hour later. What's even stranger is that I can travel literally ten minutes north into Peru and it will be two hours earlier. When I started my trip, I was just a few hundred miles up the coast and I was in the same timezone as at home. Now, I'm three hours ahead.

I can handle most of the differences pretty easily. It feels like I'm in California, which isn't too hard for me to adjust to. The only difference that is going to be tough to get used to is the sticker shock. Everything is very expensive here. My room last night was $1.25; my room tonight is $13.50! The good thing about the prices is that the exchange rate is so strange, I usually can't figure out how much stuff costs. One US dollar is equal to 540 or so Chilean pesos. When I paid 7000 pesos for my hotel room, I actually had no idea how much it was.

After I had gotten over the initial shock of how different it is here, I saw a familiar sign a few blocks from my hotel: It was the golden arches of McDonald's! My biggest food craving could finally be taken care of. As soon as saw how close I was, I skipped all the way there thinking about the Big Mac I was about to eat. The menu said that that a meal cost $4200, but I didn't know or care how much it was. The food was exactly the same as in the US. The only difference was that the drink was smaller and there were no free refills. It tasted great, but half an hour later, it felt like I had a rock in my stomach. I probably hadn't eaten that many calories at one time since I left. Not eating fast food has made me thinner and healthier. Maybe I should stay away from it even when it's available.

After my fast food meal, I walked to the oceanfront. Seeing the ocean, and just being at sea level, for the first time in a month and a half was a great feeling. Not only can I now breath freely, but I feel like an Olympic athlete because I'm getting so much oxygen. The coast is beautifully aligned with palm trees, a yacht club, several fishing boats, and a lighthouse. Chile is very different from Bolivia, but I think I'll get used to it.

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4 thoughts on “Major Culture Shock

  1. johnsen

    Dan, there seems to currently be a lot of discussion (on NPR at least) about the issue of illegal immigration into the US from Mexico. I was curious if illegal immigration was also a big issue in Chile. From your description, it sounds like quite an economic disparity between Bolivia and Chile, so I imagine that there might be lots of people trying to cross into Chile to get better jobs. Or does the mountainous border tend to keep that from happening?

    On a different topic, did you "Super Size" your order at McD's?

  2. Dan Perry Post author

    Hi Paul. I'm not really sure how much illegal immigration there is between the countries, but you are right about the extreme economic differences. Mexico is actually very rich compared to Bolivia, so the difference might even be bigger between Chile and Bolivia than the US and Mexico. The border did seem more tightly controlled than the border between Peru and Bolivia. The "no man's land" between the countries was huge, and all of our luggage was sent through an x-ray machine and randomly searched. Chile actually took a lot of the costal land from Bolivia over 100 years ago, so there might still be a little tension between the countries in that regard, too.

    And as far as my value meal at McDonald's, no I did not super size it. There was already too much food for me. I've learned to eat a lot less food since starting my trip instead of suffing my face with as much as will fit in it.

  3. Mike


    I understand that Chile the country is actually not the primary exporter of the popular american dish Chile. I was wondering if that is true, and if so, how do the chileans feel about it.

    on another note... i couldn't believe you walked 17 miles the other day. I have decided that I am going to try to walk 17 miles. however right now it is very cold and I will probably freeze doing that so I will walk only 2 or 3 miles for a few weeks util it warms up a little. Then I will go for a 17 mile walk. I sound stupid.

  4. Dan Perry Post author

    Actually, Mike, I Chile doesn't export chile, but it does make a mean chile for Chileans. In fact, I eat chile every day here for breakfast lunch and dinner.

    I haven't walked 17 miles in a day since then, but I think I need to now that I eat so much chile.

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