“The Avocado Republic of Chile, because it’s too Cold to Grow Bananas” is Chile’s ultimate tour guide. Laugh-out-loud funny and insightful. American writer, Walker Rowe, sick of the pollution and noise in Santiago moves to the country for peace and quiet. What he did not know is when you move to the country, you exchange one set of problems for another. Click through the arrows to read.
14 October 2014.
It’s peaceful here in Curacaví in the morning when I wake. The only noise are birds singing; the only sound, the absence of sound. The village below is blanketed in mist, further adding to a sense of serenity. I have no TV, and my screaming kids are grown now, off at college, presumably screaming there.
Today I was shaken out of bed by a 5.4 tremor that in any other country would be called an “earthquake.” Chileans would call that one a “strong seismic event.” If it had been less than 5.0, they would give it no thought at all. Only when it reaches 6.0 does it cause concern.
Because this house is built on a hillside, it sits atop poles. Those are called “palifitos.”
This morning’s tremor caused my cabin to sway back and forth atop those poles, like a pogo stick. If I had put a glass of water in the window, it would have been tossed outside.
Apartments and houses in Chile built on level terrain are built with reinforced concrete, which is concrete poured over rebar steel.
Because the houses are built with reinforced concrete, there is no insulation in the walls. There is no space for insulation and no place to locate air ducts for central air, since it is built to withstand an earthquake and not for comfort. You cannot even hang a picture on the wall, without an electric drill. All of this solid concrete is freezing in the winter, as it is a very good conductor of cold. In fact, it is cold all year long here, unless your house faces to the north, which in the Southern Hemisphere is where the winter sun points. In summer, the sun is almost overhead, but not far enough to cast light on those people shivering in the shade.
But Chileans do not shiver in the shade; they tolerate it and shrug off the cold. Chilean people say, “We have a Mediterranean climate.” So they question the need for heat and air conditioning.
In the USA and Europe, is it 20°C (70°F) year round as the houses there are well-insulated and have central heat. Few people here have central heat. Instead in winter, the school children wear jackets in class and people bundle up at home. Only modern office buildings in Santiago have heat and air conditioning. My apartment in the city has central heat, of sorts. Hot water circulates through pipes in the ceiling and floors, creating ambient heat. There are few forced-air systems here, which is what they use in the USA.
It is freezing here in central Chile for perhaps 5 months out of 12. In Chile, the irony is it is colder indoors in winter than outside. What makes this worse is people leave the door open. Why do they do that? Some shops, like small pharmacies and wine shops, do not even have doors. It can be 4°C (40°F) and the patrons are standing all around bundled up in jackets.
It’s like living in a ruka (tee-pee).
I try to avoid seeing my in-laws when it is cold, because they leave the door open. Our housekeeper, who comes once per week, throws open all the doors to air out the house, regardless of the weather. So I shut my office door and sulk. I do not go to my favorite inn on the beach at Algarobbo in the winter anymore, because in the restaurant there in winter, they leave the door open.
I worked for a year in The Bank of Chile on their computer systems. Our floor had no heat, while the floor above us, had heat, because clients went there. Citibank owns 30% of the Bank of Chile, so you would think they might adopt an American attitude toward keeping the place warm. My feet froze solid as we worked in the chilly, concrete, albeit earthquake-proof refrigerator.
One week a computer programmer flew down from Mexico City to train us on some new software. He rented classroom space in a nice building that had a modern heater hanging from the ceiling. I thought: finally my frozen feet would thaw out. The class was warm throughout the morning but as lunch time approached my boss reached up and turned off the heat. “What are you doing?” He said if it is was warm in here then when we went outside on the street we would all be cold again. No kidding, but why prolong the misery?
They way one heats one’s house here is in my view extremely dangerous. The gas company vehicles drive around ringing their bell, like the ice cream truck, announcing their presence as they ferry canisters of natural gas through the neighborhoods. Lots of these are not vans or trucks but bicycle-powered carts. If you are out of gas, you exchange an empty one for a full one. If you have a problem then someone called a gasfiter comes and helps you attached the regulator to the tank and check for leaks.
In the USA, you are not even allowed to bring these potential bombs indoors. Here people sleep with them. I am afraid to do that, because they could be emitting carbon monoxide, which kills. Plus it could explode.
Among the best ways to heat your house is to buy a state-of-the-art Japanese Toyotomi kerosene stove. It has a small tank for kerosene (parafina) and on-board computer to light and extinguish the flame based upon the thermostat setting. It’s not supposed to emit carbon monoxide, if you have it serviced each year. But if you do not do that then presumably its filter will clog and you will die in your sleep.
When I asked Chileans about this, they say, “Don’t worry about that. Our houses are not air tight anyway.” That is not much assurance, but sort of true. Because my apartment in Santiago has been jolted about so many times by earthquakes, I cannot shut the doors and windows tight. So it’s like living in a ruka.
(4) Readers Comments
April 24, 2017
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April 06, 2017
Judging a creative writing contest is to pretend authority and, even m
Anita! I know someone who wants to work in Chile but as electrician. D
I really enjoyed this story. It made me think about my own predisposit
Thank you, Scott.
I have been living in Santiago for about one year and I can confirm th