January 2017. My final month in Ottawa, the city where I was born and raised. I was set to embark on February 10th for my year of exchange, and the only thing between me and Santiago was a school-free month to say farewell to friends and family, pack my bags, and relax a bit before heading off. Seemed like a piece of cake at the time. Oddly enough, January turned out to be one of the more challenging months, mentally and emotionally, that I have experienced in the past few years of my life. I imagine that some of you reading this have gone through that strange and emotionally complex period of time where all you can think of is a date on a plane ticket and what awaits you beyond it, and perhaps those who have will relate to some of what I write about in this blog. However, for those who have not yet gone on exchange, or perhaps are waiting to depart this summer, I hope that this post can help prepare you for what many people (including myself) often overlook about moving abroad; the final moments prior to embarking. Let’s call them the Jumping Off Point.
For some of you, it may be a month or so between finishing exams in December and leaving on exchange in January. For some of you, it may the entire summer between second and third year. Some of you may not experience the Jumping Off Point at all. Nevertheless, there is a period prior to departure where you may start to feel as if you are living in limbo. For me, it was January. While I was still very much living in Canada (believe me, I couldn’t leave the house without wearing five layers), mentally all I could only think about was being in Chile. It was a confusing month. I felt out of place, as if everything I was doing (catching the game with a friend, taking the dog for a walk, helping plan an event) wasn’t leading to anything, since I would be moving to another hemisphere in a few weeks anyways. It was frustrating at times, as I felt like taking this year abroad was just cutting into the progression of my life. I would be leaving friends and family behind, putting aside any school and job opportunities in Canada, and moving to a city (and country) where I would barely know anybody or anything about how things worked. It was a daunting period of time, especially as I had spent my entire life up to that point living in Ottawa. The month went by as a rollercoaster ride of constantly changing outlooks and emotions.
Days went by where I itched to pack my bags and get on a plane, the only thoughts on my mind revolving around what awaited me in Chile. There were also days where you could have woken me up and told me that the exchange had been cancelled, and I would have let out a sigh of relief.
in this post: I will describe why this blog is a thing that is happening
Hello Blog Readers.
Welcome to an experiment. I will start this blog series off by saying that I have never blogged before in my life. I have barely been able to keep a journal going for more than a few weeks. I have always found it basically impossible to write in any sort of reflective manner without sounding a) overly introspective/neurotic, b) like I’m trying too hard to be funny, or c) really annoying. So bear with me on this one.
My name is Isaac, I am a 20-year-old Canadian university student on exchange for the year in Santiago, Chile. I spent my entire life up to this point living in my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario, where I went to elementary, middle and high school and spent the first two years of my university career. Moving to a new school, in a new city, in a new country, in a new continent is what many people would call a “huge life step,” so hopefully it will also provide me with interesting content to write about.
I’ve started this blog for a number of reasons. First off, I was asked by my school to write a few blogs for their website, as a part of an ongoing exchange student blog project. I thought it would be interesting to take that further, and create a page of my own where I could post content more regularly and in multiple forms. Secondly, coming from a large Jewish family, I am already dreading the prospect of having to separately explain how my year was to every individual member of my extended family (whom I love very much of course) upon returning to Canada. I hope that this blog will help to preemptively answer some of the questions I inevitably will receive when I get home in December. Lastly, I’m aiming for this blog to help describe and articulate the whirlwind of excitement, confusion, frustration, and elation that living in a new culture can put you through. Maybe it will help some of you down the road, maybe it will help me by forcing me to reflect on my experiences; who knows!
With that being said, I’ll keep this intro short and sweet! Hasta luego, and I hope to see you all at the next post!
What do fresh pomegranate juice, phone chargers, roses, fleece jackets, and sopaipillas all have in common? The answer: you can purchase all of those things a few blocks from where I live. Great, you’re thinking to yourself. Isaac lives near a BoosterJuice, BestBuy, florist, North Face outlet and sopaipilla restaurant. Nothing too striking about that. But none of these products are being sold in stores, or really any sort of formal location of exchange. They’re all sold on the same street, but you won’t find a place there where you can pay with credit card. And you most certainly will not receive a receipt after purchasing. This particular street block near my apartment is one of many here in Santiago, where confused gringos like myself ogle at the sheer variety of things you can buy on the street. Opportunistic vendors, selling anything from sushi rolls to laundry hampers, create ‘pop-up’ markets around areas with high foot traffic. Metro station exits, busy pedestrian streets and public squares are popular gathering spots. The vendors are loud, they’re quick, they’re possibly in a legal grey area (I’m really not too sure), but most importantly they’re a cheap and convenient source of odd things you forgot you needed. No Stone Unturned is the title of this blog, because when it comes to seeking out value opportunities in Santiago, there are no niches, crooks or crannies that go unused.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that not all commerce in Santiago is undertaken in the informal manner I’ll describe in this blog. You can buy your coffee from a guy with a thermos on the sidewalk, but you can also get a cappuccino in a ritzy café that wouldn’t look out of place in Westboro. Cooking pots can be bought from stalls on busy streets, but can also be found at upscale kitchenware stores in the massive Costanera Shopping Mall (think the Rideau Centre but five times as big, and with five times the brand offerings). It’s not as if consumer products in Santiago aren’t sold in supermarkets, department stores or shopping malls. Many people in the Chilean capital exhibit similar purchasing routines and patterns as consumers in Canada, especially in the wealthier ‘communas’ of the city (dark green on the map). What stands out is how distinct the different approaches to selling the same product can be, striking a contrast between different areas of the city (and sometimes between different parts of the same street). The informal and opportunistic way that many products are sold has really interested me over my time in Chile so far, especially as a Canadian accustomed to neat, orderly shelves in stores with municipal permits framed over the cash register. In Santiago, vendors and consumers stretch from one end of the spectrum to the other, creating a fascinating and diverse mosaic of commerce that I still don’t fully understand six months after arriving.
The first thing that stands out is the opportunism. While Chile is a relatively developed country within Latin America, income inequality is still huge and ever-present. Informal methods of making a living are the only opportunity that many people have to earn and provide for themselves and their families. But the creativity and hustle in seeking out these opportunities is impressive. I am struck by how people can sustain themselves economically through, for example, walking up and down subway cars selling chocolate bars. Or by how creative some vendors can be. I’d point here to the coffee and pastry vendors who set up shop next to the morning queues outside of government service offices. Who said bureaucracy couldn’t create business value? Taking a nap in Parque Forestal is difficult, due to the sound of “HELADO, HELADO FRÍO, HELADO HELADO HELADO” approaching from what seems like every direction (ice cream, cold ice cream, ice cream ice cream ice cream, for my non-Spanish speaking readers). You would be hard pressed to find a spot in Santiago where you can walk for more than two blocks without passing some type of stand, corner store, or person trying to sell you something. And you can find almost anything you need. Walk out of a busy metro station, as I mentioned above, and you’ll find yourself in a fully functioning outdoor department store, just without the whole “we got a permit for this” formality.
It goes beyond household items like jackets, frying pans and bike tires. Street food is everywhere in the Chilean capital, from post-work sopaipilla stands (a personal favourite/addiction) to the guy who sells coffee next to morning lines outside the police station. The lack of brick-and-mortar investment (physical shops and such) mean that these vendors can strategically relocate themselves based on demand. As commuters head home from work, busier street corners become contested hotspots, where the phrase ‘first-mover advantage’ takes on a literal meaning. While we have our reservations about street food in Canada, anyone from high-level government officers to skateboarding teens in Santiago may stop in the city centre to grab a bite off the street. It’s just a part of the environment.
In one of my classes at the Universidad de Chile, an economics professor commented on the fact that these “informal economies” actually contribute greatly to the incomes of many Chileans, and people in Latin America at large. Recent travels to Peru and Bolivia confirmed this, in my eyes. In the Bolivian capital of La Paz, residents buy all of their groceries from individual street vendors at huge, multi-block markets such as the Mercado Rodriguez. In my three days in the city I didn’t come across a single supermarket. Perhaps a lack of opportunities for education and training push many people into working in more informal sectors. In large cities that I have been fortunate to visit, such as Santiago, Lima and Buenos Aires, there is a much lower presence of street vendors in wealthier areas than in the central and poorer areas. The opportunistic and creative tendency of these vendors comes from fierce competition over the few opportunities they have to provide for themselves and their families. So while visitors may appreciate the convenience and affordability of these vendors, it is important to keep in mind the context that has created these informal economies: a lack of opportunities for more formal work.
This blog is intended as an observation, more than anything else, of one of the more striking aspects of day-to-day life that I’ve noticed while living in Chile. As a foreigner who has only been here for half a year, I’m sure that I may have missed some of the nuances and unturned stones of the street-economies in Santiago. But they have definitely been one of the most apparent differences I’ve noticed between life in Canada and Chile. I wonder how much they may change as Chile, and Latin America as a whole, evolve and develop in the 21st century.