Wednesday, November 5, 2008


They say men are the ones who refuse to ask for directions. Call me a man, but I do, too. For me, it comes down to good old-fashioned pride: I want to think I know where I'm going and want everyone else to think so, too. I don't want to be the typical gringa who zig-zags around with a map in her hand and poorly disguised befuddlement creasing her forehead. I want to feel local, which is why I beam all day long if a Chilean asks me for directions and I know what to say.

Sometimes, though, I have to crack. Every time I venture to one of downtown Santiago's two large commercial movie theaters, for example, I wind up wandering in confused circles and inevitably am forced to ask someone to restore my bearings to me. On one such occasion, I ducked into a pharmacy to plead for help. I was sure I was within a block of the theater but didn't know which direction to turn. The directions would be simple enough, right?

Wrong. After describing in elaborate detail how I should go about walking half a block, the woman behind the counter repeated her dissertation just to make sure it was clear. Apparently, it wasn’t – at least not for her coworker, who proceeded to give me his own version. I walked out of the pharmacy more clueless than when I’d entered and took a wild guess as to which way to go.

The distances were a bit greater when V. and I went camping recently in Valle del Elqui, a clear-skied pisco-producing area several hours north of Santiago. With its winding, unpaved hillside roads, Valle del Elqui is not a good place to get lost. Luckily, V. enjoys talking to strangers and was more than happy to request directions from drivers, motorcyclists, and pedestrians – and a guy who had just peed on a wall and hadn’t yet managed to zip up his fly. As diverse as these good Samaritans were, most of them had one thing in common: They gave unnecessarily long explanations, which they then repeated.

I can understand why someone would do this for me, obvious gringa that I am. V., however, doesn’t have a particularly foreign look and has lived in Chile for so long that his accent is virtually imperceptible to those who don’t hold extended conversations with him. Could it be that Chileans just love giving directions?

I’m inclined to think so. Although I don’t agree with everything that appears in Chile travel guides, I’ve found one thing to be true, at least in my experience: Chileans like helping foreigners. They like telling you where to visit and which traditional foods to try. They like telling you where you can find a good deal. And they like telling you how to get there.

From what I’ve seen, they like supplying each other with useful information, too. Some disgruntled Santiago residents might object to this last statement, claiming the people who elbow past them on the street or don’t give up their seat on the Metro are anything but helpful. I’m talking about a different type of helpful, though: the type that involves sharing knowledge. Do they get an ego boost from it like I do when someone asks me for directions? Do they believe in some kind of information karma? Or is this pure, good-natured kindness?

Whatever the reason for Chileans’ informative effusiveness, I find their directions completely impossible to follow. I appreciate the effort, though.


Sara said...

Haven't you noticed that Chileans will RARELY tell you if they don't know where something is? They will just make it up! That took some getting used to!

I am also very proud of the fact that I have an internal map of Santiago in my head. I don't get ripped off by taxi drivers anymore!

Leigh said...

hm, maybe we should ask chileans how to get to made-up addresses and see what they say.

i've definitely met my share of sneaky cab drivers, but i think a lot of them genuinely don't know their way around the entire city. i's huge!