Two Solitudes

From the editor: This post originally appeared in 2005

Twice in the past month I’ve done what most Argentines have never done in their lives – crossed the border into Chile. It’s too tempting! I can actually see the mountains of Chile from my desk here, as the sun sets over Nahuel Huapi Lake and settles beneath the Pacific. The clouds skim the Patagonian borderland, 50 km to the west as the crow flies.
“The problem with Chile is all those Chileans,” says Rudi, an Argentine friend, with tongue only slightly in cheek.
“Why would you ever go to Chile?” Fede from Buenos Aires asks me.
Marina tells me to let her know when I’ve made it back from Chile, as if it’s a question of survival, not just a trip next door.
These two nations share one of the longest borders in the world yet are worlds apart in psyche. They share the same language, the same mountain range, the same isolation at the end of the world, even the same Spanish-owned telecommunications system. Both make wonderful empanadas and great wine. But besides the notorious love child born to the hideous former Argentine president Carlos Menem and Chile’s former Miss Universe, these “trans-Andean” neighbours live two solitudes.
Argentines and Chileans are like Siamese twins on the waiting list for a separation. They are forced together, but look in separate directions. They have to get along because of geographical destiny, but they have two very different brains, even independent hearts.
Chile is a very American country, facing west into the Pacific, and with its hopes directed north to the consumers of North America and Asia who buy Chilean wood, fruit, salmon, wine and minerals. A heralded model of an emerging capitalist economy, it seems almost anything there is for sale to foreigners. Hipsters want to connect to Los Angeles and Bogotá. English-language pop music from the 80s is where it’s at. La Ley, the most successful Chile rock band of the past ten years, is another export success, having sold millions in Mexico, Colombia and the US, but is shunned in Chile, perhaps because of their success.
Argentina, of course, is deeply rooted in Europe. Residents really only care about what happens in Madrid, Rome and Paris. They have traditionally been suspicious of foreign ownership and are only now reluctantly accepting the economic benefits of exportation. Their artists, musicians, writers and chefs are deeply Argentine and no one here expects them to be understood in the rest of Latin America. If they sell out a concert in Barcelona, though, it will be a proud moment.
As for me, I headed back to my favourite little town in Chile’s Lake District, Pucón. It’s just across the border. In fact, you can see Argentina from the top of the volcano in Pucón. During my first visit to Patagonia in 1997, I spent a few glorious months kayaking the nearby rivers and living in Pucón. I’ve returned often and hold this special place close to my heart.
I left Bariloche last Wednesday morning and was in Chile by lunch. I meant to come for the weekend but stayed for a week. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been struck with Pucón-itis. It seems every time I visit this little resort town, nestled beneath a smoking volcano on a wide lake and surrounded by ancient forests, I stay longer than planned. I met Max here for a few days of R and R, a break in his incredibly busy ski season. We soaked in the natural hot springs, hiked up to monkey puzzle trees, hung out at quiet cafes, drank pisco sours and ate lots of salmon. It was lovely.
We stayed with our friend Carolina, a Chilean married to an American. She and Max mimicked each others’ accents and taunted each other about their nation’s inherent perfection. It’s all fun and games. When I meet a Chilean and the truth comes out that I am married to an Argentine, their eyes widen at my courage. They tease me about my Argentine accent and imagine my husband an ego-centric europhile. But when I tell them that Chile was my first love they nod in acceptance. There is much to learn in this!
Max is the rare Chile-loving Argentine, and has spent more time west of the Andes than anyone else I know here. He loves the prolific fruit stands, the humility of the people and of course the gorgeous lakes and rivers. He’ll stick to tradition and make it clear that Argentines are better looking, better football players, more affectionate and make a better asado, but Chile has its perks for him too. It’s more organized and the people are more polite. It’s more Canadian.
Back home now, many people here are surprised when I tell them I’ve just returned from a week in Chile. They think Chileans are strange – backward, unhip, boring. It’s true, Chileans are a bit boring. Like Canadians they shun excess, reject outward displays of passion and success, and drive in a relatively organized and respectful fashion. The buses sound an alarm if the driver hits 100 km/h. People obey signs and let pedestrians cross. Back over here on the Argentine side of the Andes, driving and walking are as dangerous as running a Class IV rapid – it’s about being chic, aggressive, passionate, opinionated and breaking the speed limits.
While in just a week I picked up Chilean slang full of nativo Mapuche words like cachay and titinka, I was relieved this time to take the bondi back across the frontera into the world of boludos. My passport has at least a dozen stamps from the little border post at the end of the lake. I will continue to visit Pucón always, but I will come back to Bariloche to be at home.


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