1. How wealthy is Chile compared to other countries, such as the USA?
Chile is not as wealthy as the USA, but it is still pretty well off. People can afford things like cable TV, cars, and eating at McDonald's. None of these were true in Bolivia. The TV's that did exist there were usually of the black-and-white variety and were connected to a set of rabbit ears. If you ever spotted a car that wasn't owned by the government, there would almost always be a sign on it that said "taxi." McDonald's would be the most expensive restaurant in the country, but it doesn't even exist there. Of course there are still rich and poor people in Chile, as there are in any country, but most of the Chileans I have seen appear to be middle class.
Another interesting question is how wealthy is the USA, really? Obviously, we're much better off than most countries, but looking around for a few minutes would make one believe that every American is a millionaire. Typical Americans drive big, expensive cars, wear designer clothes, drape themselves in gold and diamonds, and eat at trendy restaurants several times per week. They may dress the part of being millionaires, but most of them are so far in debt, they'll never get out. Then people wonder how I was able to save enough money to travel long-term. The equation is simple: Spend less than you make. Americans are so caught up in keeping up with the Joneses that it's no longer possible to tell how well off somebody is just by looking at him or her.
2. How good is the currency conversion?
This seems to be one of the biggest misconceptions of those who travel. People base a country's wealth on the flat value of their currency. This has nothing to do with wealth. For example, the American dollar is worth over 500 times as much as the Chilean peso. Does this mean that everything in Chile costs 1/500 what it costs in the US? Of course not! It's just an exchange rate, and as long as that rate doesn't change, it means nothing.
On the other hand, a change in the conversion rate is what makes an impact economically. For example, in the late 1990's, the euro was worth about 93 US cents. Last year, the rate hit $1.30. The dollar is worth a lot less against the euro than it was several years ago, which means that in countries that use the euro, most things will cost more for Americans nowadays than they did a few years ago, even after taking inflation into account.
So, the rate itself doesn't matter, but the change in the rate does. How has this personally affected my travels? I don't think it mattered too much in Peru or Bolivia, where the currencies haven't moved much in recent years. On the other hand, in Chile and Argentina, recent changes have made a big difference.
In Chile, the dollar was worth over 700 pesos a few years ago, but that country has made some very strong economic gains recently, watering the rate down to about 500:1. The guidebooks haven't even had a chance to adjust to this change yet, so when they say that something costs, for example, $10, it probably costs more like $14. This is, of course, bad news for Americans, and a good reason to rush through the country if you're on a tight budget.
Argentina was super wealthy as recently as 2001. The peso was worth as much as the dollar, and Buenos Aires, the capital of the country, was even more expensive than Paris. Few tourists went there because it was too expensive. However, the country's debts caught up with it, and it suffered an economic collapse late in 2001. Now the peso only costs about 33 cents, which is great news for Americans, who can now eat a huge, juicy Argentinian steak for around $5, but bad news for Argentinians, who rarely can afford to travel very far from home nowadays.
3. What do your hosts do for a living?
As many of you know, I've done a little bit of couchsurfing on my trip. The concept is simple: If you have a spare room, couch, or floorspace and want to meet people from all over the world, you can host them. If you are traveling and want a free place to crash, you can stay with a host. Ideally, you'll both host and surf at some point in your life. Although I haven't surfed anyone's couches lately because of the sparse population of Patagonia, I have become a big advocate of the program and plan to use it more when I head back north.
The people I've stayed with so far have been great people who happen to like to travel. I've stayed with a psychologist, an ESL teacher, and a lawyer-to-be. Some members of the website who volunteer their places are still in high school; others are in their 60's. Some have traveled all over the world; others haven't had the opportunity yet, but love hearing their guests' stories. Some have regular jobs during the week and would prefer to do their hosting on weekends; others are retired or have flexible working hours and would love to host people anytime. It's really a wide mixture of people from all walks of life. If you really want to find out what kind of people are on the site, just go there and search for people in your area. Maybe you'll even find someone you already know!
4. Looking for more details on Christmas there? How does it compare to here(US)?
Sadly, I don't have much of an answer for this question. I spent Christmas in Puerto Varas, which is in southern Chile, but the only way I would've known that it was Christmas was because the casino wasn't quite as packed as usual that day. Maybe it was because my hostel was run by the Gestapo, or maybe just because Christmas falls in the middle of summer here, but there were no wreaths, carolers, mistletoes, or even Christmas trees to be found anywhere. Walking around the hostel, the only shininess I saw was the stainless steel spread all over the kitchen. The only decorations around were the signs telling people what they should and shouldn't do. The only present I got was being forced to move to an expensive single room on Christmas Eve because somebody else booked the dorm that day. I'm not sure if it was the same in all of Chile, or just the strict German community that I spent it in, but Christmas crept up to, and ran away from us this year without ever making its presence known.
5. How much people are involved in politics?
In Chile, people seem to be more involved with politics than in the US, but I think it's just because they have to be. Anyone over 18 can register to vote in Chile, but once they do, they are forced to vote in every election. This makes people get involved in politics, but it also makes them vote because it's the law, not because they want to.
The current presidential election in Chile is somewhat of an extreme example of this. Nobody got the absolute majority required to become president in the first election, so a runoff was needed. The runoff election will be held January 15, 2006, which happens to fall in the middle of most Chileans' vacation time. They are required by law to return to the location where they originally registered to vote, so a lot of Chileans are mad that they have to come home early. At the same time, at least they are involved in the electoral process.
On a side note, it looks like Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet will win over her opponent, billionaire businessman SebastiÃ¡n PiÃ±era. She will be Chile's first elected female president, only the second one in South America. PiÃ±era is a right wing candidate who wants to run the country like a business, something he has been very successful at. He has a large following amongst the younger crowd who believe that he will do a better job at moving the country forward economically. Still Bachelet is somewhat of a national hero who was tortured back in the 1970's for her family's political views. Her party is also part of the Coalition of Parties for Democracy, which has won every election since democracy was restored to the country.
6. How much releigion is in Politics? (i.e. stuff like evolution vs. Intelligent Design etc)
Religion is always a factor in politics, at least everywhere I've ever traveled. However, it doesn't seem to be as big a deal in South America as in the US. Maybe it's because 90% of the people here are Catholic (meaning that there isn't much difference of opinion concerning religious issues), or maybe just because of the poor economic situation affecting most countries here, but religion clearly sits on the back burner. Intelligent Design hasn't even been mentioned anywhere that I've been.
I still wonder why religion was a factor at all in the last presidential election in the United States. With issues like Intelligent Design, how much influence can the president have anyway? The states themselves, not the president, decide their educational curriculum, and when there is controversy, it's settled in the court system, not by the president.
7. How about a beer update? What new have you tried? Liked it ?
The only new beer I've had lately has been Quilmes, in Argentina. It's available everywhere here, but why is beyond me. Not only is it watered down, but it's also responsible for many hangovers. Trust me, an Irishman told me. He said it's possible to drink Heineken, another widely available beer, all night and not get a hangover the next day, yet a few bottles of Quilmes will induce headaches for days to come. So far, I've taken his advice and stuck to the Heineken. I've barely even touched Quilmes.
8. Keep up with Packers?
No, they're in the Super Bowl this year, right?