Nichol and Matt go to Chile!

Archive for March, 2012

Musings from the Supermercado

It’s been two days since the earthquake, and things are feeling a little more stable. Stable enough in fact, that we thought we’d write a little something about groceries. Specifically, some of the more…different…aspects of grocery shopping here, compared to back home.

First off, in such a beautiful, farm-rich country, it seems odd that the ‘supermercados’ seem to have very little selection (and spotty availability) when it comes to produce. The best selection that we’ve come across has been at the Lider about a 5 minute walk away (or 10, if the Chilenos are out, they only seem to be in a hurry if there’s a train to catch, and then they’re ruthless…but that will be for another time). In the produce department, we’ve learned that just because we see something one day, there are no guarantees that it will be there 24 hours later. This rule even seems to apply to the most ‘basic’ of ingredients like tomatoes, lemons, apples, even broccoli and bananas! The only produce that they never seem to run out of (lucky for Nichol) is avocados, and (lucky for nobody) bagged lettuce (which proceeds to go bad overnight in our fridge).

When we are lucky enough to find what we’re looking for, the process of buying said ingredients is slightly different than what we’re used to. It seems as though Chilenos love to make everything into a process, even when not dealing with bureaucracy. Case in point, one does not simply put their produce into a bag and bring it to the till to be weighed upon check-out. No, you place the produce (and baked goods, if you’re in the bakery) into the appropriate plastic bag (making sure to triple knot it…or else they’ll glare whilst doing it for you) and proceed to take it to the nearest available scale, where, eventually a disgruntled employee will weigh each bag, print out a bar-coded tag and stick it to the sack. Oh, and don’t even think about not bagging something (even a single piece of fruit), that will only earn you sincere exasperation as they proceed to do it for you.

Now for the deli. Remember in 1989 when you took a number to get your sliced ham? Well those days are back! Except this time, there are six employees having a good ‘ol time chit-chatting behind the counter, and don’t even think about approaching until you’ve taken a number (even if there’s no line; see previous post). Thus far the process seems to be worth it if we’re looking for pork products (top-notch) or chicken, but the beef here leaves something to be desired. Enjoy your Alberta beef folks, it’s a treat!

Most of the other aspects of the stores are pretty Westernized, albeit it with understandably far fewer choices for any given product, and the complete lack of fresh milk and quality cheese. Here, milk comes in tetrapacks that take years to expire (and is a pale shade of grey), but oddly there seems to be an entire aisle dedicated to yoghurt (you can even buy it in a 1kg sack!). After the yoghurt, perhaps the best stocked aisle pertains to booze, especially wine and pisco derivatives. We know it’s common outside of Canada, but we still find it strange to have a liquor department in the grocery store (or convenience store for that matter). Oh well, at least we don’t have to make an extra stop. 🙂

With all of the necessities in hand, it’s time to head to the till. Here the process is quick and efficient. Ha, we just got you didn’t we? No, in a similar vein, the cashiers run the items through without too much urgency and usually ask if you want to pay in ‘cuotas’ (installments) if you’re using a credit card. Luckily, a bag-person is present at every till; however, as we recently found out, they are not paid an hourly wage. Instead, they pay the grocery store ~500 CLP a shift (about $1 CAD), and work for tips. We’re not sure what the going rate typically is, but based on what we’ve observed we generally tip about 300 CLP. Unfortunately, even here the addiction to plastic bags is evident (e.g., a double-bagged mango, itself in the produce bag) and the tips do not guarantee effective bagging (evidenced by the bottle of rum on the carton of eggs…double-bagged). Seriously, we’ve gone through more plastic bags since being here than we would have in a year back home!

With authentic tomato sauce!

On a lighter note, there’s all sorts of fun products that we’ve come across. One example is the par-baked pizza crusts, complete with ‘tomato sauce’ (denoted by the still dry, red-tinged area…they’re not big on pizza sauce here…), but it works well enough as a base. Canned fruit in cream is another interesting one…our favourite is “Svelty” (no one is getting svelty with 25% MF cream…). A final example that we came across today is the package of par-cooked chow mein noodles, which were actually quite good for tonight’s stir-fry. The Asian noodles, made in Peru, serve as a great example of cross-cultural confusion as evidenced by the cooking instructions on the back, which we’ll sign off by directly quoting (we’re not making this up):

  1. To place to the fire containing a litre of water, to the boiling of this, to introduce vermicelli in her.
  2. To boil during 5 minutes, to retire of the fire.
  3. To Slip them a atrainer with cold water, being ready so that you prepare it to your pleasure.

Chow mein noodles, producto Peruviano.

Kind of poetic isn’t it? Good night everybody 🙂


Terremoto Redux

So much for ‘fun, exciting’ stage; tonight plate tectonics definitely took a spin into ‘this isn’t fun anymore’ territory.

At about 18:30 local time, we experienced the dregs of a pretty significant earthquake (7.2 magnitude) that struck near the coast a little more than 200km from Santiago. Nichol was quietly reading in the bedroom when things started going sideways. Matt, visiting the loo, was in a slightly more precarious position. Anyway, it didn’t take long before we realized that this was indeed another earthquake, although with a much different feel than yesterday morning’s.

This time the movement was completely side-to-side, which made for a nerve-wracking experience as our bodies were telling us that we were the ones moving, yet clearly it was everything else (i.e., the hanging lamp in the kitchen, the floor, the pictures, etc.) that swayed to some rhythm that was only unbeknownst to us. The effect was not violent, but we felt it was significant enough to warrant taking shelter beneath our table. So there we waited it out for the 60 or so seconds before things settled down. Since then there seems to be a steady occurrence of sirens around the city, but there are no signs of significant damage. Let’s hope that the communities closer to the epicentre are similarly unscathed.

Tomorrow’s task: an earthquake kit.

Hasta (hopefully) luego!


Stop Plate Tectonics!

Send coffee!

We ran out of our supply of Saltspring Island beans, so we’re now in need of some decent new ones as well as a new grinder. The beans (in theory, but this is Santiago after all) should be easy enough to find; there are plenty of independent cafes around, but the grinder still eludes us. It shouldn’t be this hard, but we’ve checked both major department stores as well as several smaller shops, but no luck yet.

This morning we set out to rectify this problem by trying to find a supposedly huge mall, ‘Parque Arauco’, in Las Condes. The mall is said to have an ice-skating rink (real ice, not that weird fake ice stuff) and is about as close as you can get to West Edmonton Mall in Santiago. The only problem is that it is well off the metro line (we think it’s to keep the riff-raff out), so we had about 1.5 km to walk from the station. This story ends pretty abruptly (for you anyway…) since, upon leaving the metro station, we turned left when we should have turned right; the rest is an ugly story that nobody wants to hear. Oh well, on the bright side, we did get a good 10km (ish) constitutional in, and have since learned that, in a city full of them, parks should not be used as landmarks.

In a more interesting development, last night we experienced our first earthquake! Not only was this our first Santiago quake, it was the only significant one that either one of us have ever experienced. Matt was woken up mere moments before it hit by a street-sweeper outside, and before long there was a gentle vibration shaking the bed and walls. It took about 5 seconds before it was clear that it was an earthquake, and another 5 seconds or so before Nichol woke up.

N – ‘Is this an earthquake?’

M – ‘I think so.’

N – ‘Huh. Why did you wake me up for this, and what’s your problem?!’

M – ‘I didn’t wake you up, and I dunno…it’s a freakin’ earthquake?!’

That’s about when it stopped, with Matt falling back asleep fairly quickly as Nichol stayed up googling for any reports. We found out this morning that it was a magnitude 5.1, with an epicentre 45-50 km away. It was a strange experience, but probably won’t be the last while we’re here. Luckily, the shaking remained in the ‘fun, exciting’ stage and didn’t cross into the ‘let’s get under something heavy’ stage. The whole thing lasted less than 30 seconds, and hopefully any future events won’t be much more serious.


Anyway, tonight is hockey night in Santiago (complete with Mango Pisco Sours and home-made pizza…Chileans aren’t great at pizza, but that’s another post). First up is watching the Canucks vs. the Avalanche online, followed by listening to game #2 of the WHL playoff series between Kamloops and our Victoria Royals. Go teams!


IDs and Empanadas

Happy Equinox!

For those of you up in the Northern Hemisphere: congratulations, you’re over the winter hump. Summer is just around the corner. We have officially entered Fall down here, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it with the persistent 30+ degree weather. To be fair, we’ve definitely noticed the days getting incrementally shorter, and the evenings are cooling off very quickly after the sun goes down. Still, there’s something unholy about seeing leaves dropping in March, but we’re sure that the cooler, wetter June weather will be even stranger. Wait, perhaps not, considering where we’re from (we like to call it ‘Junuary’).

Today, at long last, we finally got our Chilean ID cards! Huzzah! Last Friday, as per the instructions on our provisional paper copies, we’d gone to pick the up the cards. The gentleman behind the glass tried to tell us that they were still being made, quickly realizing that his Spanish was falling on no estamos comprendiendo ears. Smartly, and to his credit, he started pointing at our Canadian passports and asked if we spoke French. Nichol took the reins from there (she’s retained a little more French since high-school…) and got the message through. Apparently he has family in Montreal, so when we came back to pick our cards up this morning, we smiled and said ‘Anytime!’ when he told us that he wants to come to Canada with us. It was nice to share a laugh (instead of being laughed at) in three languages.

Following that success up, we headed to the university to finish getting a bank account, but, as all things in Chile are turning out, this takes more time than it has a right to. All our paperwork is in order, and it doesn’t look like it will be a problem, but we still need to wait for them to call tomorrow so we can come back to finalize the account. Patience is a true virtue when it comes to getting anything official done down here. Oh well, afterwards we had a nice walk around some of the unexplored parts of campus, followed by a lovely lunch on some shady grass before Matt got back to his studies. Empanadas from a tiny little stand were on order, since Matt’s supervisor has been raving about them since day one. He has a right to rave, as they were amazing enough to warrant a planned weekly empanada lunch date. There are five varieties to choose from; today’s introduction was pollo y espinaca, muy rico!

Chilean-home-made chicken and spinach empanada. Add an ice-cold pop and a shaded grassy knoll? Perfecto!


Venture La Vega

Hi All,

This weekend saw us embark on an adventurous St. Patrick’s day afternoon followed by another lazy-ish Sunday (we’re kinda coming to love these things). Upon waking up Saturday morning, we came up with two plans: 1) to finally ascend Cerro San Cristobal or 2) investigate what sounds like the largest market in town, La Vega. We elected to check out the market, as it is apparently where the locals go, and we were encouraged by various online photos of market-cats sitting on produce. Cat-butt watermelon? Who could pass that up?!

Nichol dipping her fingers into one of the many fountains in Santiago Central.

Rather than take the metro directly to the market, we elected to take it to Plaza de Armas and explore a little more of Santiago Central by walking from there. We’re glad that we did as it was a nice walk through the busy streets, passing by small Mom-and-Pop stores selling everything imaginable. Every so often we would come across a stone-work fountain, or little parks that dotted the scenery between the hodge-podge of modern steel and glass buildings, or centuries old cathedrals. The juxtaposition of new and old in central Santiago continues to bewilder us each time we’re in the area.

As we approached the bridge crossing Rio Mapocho, things got a little seedy. A block consisting almost exclusively of lingerie stores and what assuredly was a large strip-club, replete with ‘questionable’ clientele and the requisite music thump-thumping its way into the streets (it was noon…), welcomed us into the neighbourhood harbouring La Vega. Among the growing crowds, we crossed two busy thoroughfares, dodging dogs, cars and people before turning down a side-street that led to one of the market entrances.

We’re not yet sure exactly what we experienced, but it was not what was expected. The side street quickly deteriorated into some sort of bizarro-flea-market (would anyone like to purchase a Teflon-stripped frying pan, mis-matched used shoes, bits of string, or unidentifiable fruit? …and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). We quickly realized that we were the only gringos around as we shuffled along the narrow sidewalk, covered by locals selling all of the aforementioned goods. We avoided a few more cars and taxis as we crossed the street to enter the covered area of the market. Soon enough, we were met by what we suspect are all the missing Santaguinos that have seemed to disappear every weekend. It was a literal wall of people, squeezed between food venders selling vats of uncovered olives, pickles and soft cheeses; flies were common, and smells weren’t pretty. The little old lady asking people to feel her green peppers as she thrusted them at passing market-goers and the severed pig-head squinting happily over freshly butchered carne were just two of the sights that we could make out between the mass of people.

We quickly felt overwhelmed and out of place as we shuffled down the buzzing market corridor, which looked to go on forever with no respite from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. It should be noted, importantly, that at no point did we feel unsafe or threatened, but after about 15 minutes of sensory overload we opted to slink out a side-exit, intending to return with a better idea of what La Vega entails. Unfortunately, this side-exit led to an even more ‘local’ alleyway, with a small stream of…something? flowing down the centre of the alley towards the original street that we had entered from. We eventually found our way back across the bridge to re-enter Santiago Central and decided to have a walk around the more touristy Mercado Central, which was noticeably busier than our previous visit. Again, our experience at La Vega was not a negative one. We’ve since discovered that the market is split roughly into 3 sections and we shall return, but will be much more prepared for the intensity of such an bona fide marketplace.

Returning to Providencia, we opted for lunch at the California Cantina in hopes of finding some Guinness in honour of St. Paddy’s Day. No such luck, but we each had a couple ‘Schopps’ (pints) of a dark local ‘Kunstmann’ brew. Along with our meals, it capped off a pleasant afternoon of exploring some of the older parts of the city. Hopefully as our Spanish improves we can begin investigating some of the smaller establishments that line the streets; the most enticing aromas seem to waft from them.

This morning we made ourselves a South-American inspired gringo-breakfast, before heading out in search of a replacement coffee grinder. As expected, we didn’t find one. Oh well, the search continues…


BBQ spiced quinoa with grilled tomatoes and bacon, topped by poached eggs, cheese and cilantro. It made our tummies smile.