The wooden, electrically-powered gateway closes firmly behind my silver compact car as I leave an upper-class residential community. Heading towards a local coffee shop, I edge onto the extremely narrow road, barely wide enough for the allotted two lanes of traffic. I’m extra cautious, unrealistically hoping that I can negate the danger created from 95% of the cars and trucks which whiz by at much faster speeds than the legal limit of 50 kilometers per hour.
They are seemingly oblivious to a fact I haven’t yet been able to come to terms with in my three weeks in South America: the underprivileged are little more than a meter away from the street, arguably the most dangerous place in all of Santiago.
Although Chile is one of the wealthiest and most stable countries in South America, it’s still a developing country. And many have an extremely low quality of life. In what is roughly the equivalent of suburbs of Santiago, the poor construct their homes from unfinished wooden boards and large sections of tin. It’s more like the shanties of South Africa than the government-provided housing of New York City or the tiny, community apartments of Miami.
The land on which the low-income families squat- for the government technically owns it- is typically area between fenced-in farm land and gated residential complexes. In many cases, it’s only a thin strip of dirt. It’s where a sidewalk would be, if there was reliable infrastructure in the country. In the traditional South American style, all of the homes have some type of fence in front of their doors, but that does little to protect against the amazingly aggressive driving culture.
The motto of diving in Chile is seemingly: drive like you stole it, or don’t bother. That, or: the only person that matters is yourself. Not only is the norm to blatantly ignore what little traffic laws there are, even the fundamentals like which lane to drive in and when to stop, but travelers park wherever they want, including in the middle of the traffic lane. This would be dangerous anyways, but it makes me nauseated to know that people live a handful of decimeters away.
And, in the classic Latin American way, the community always buzzes with people. But since there isn’t another place to go, the locals are forced to amble through streets, very commonly remaining there to chat with friends and neighbors. So on top of avoiding the concentrating on avoiding an automobile accident, I had to be constantly aware of the pedestrians who confidently meander through the street regardless of surrounding traffic. Also weaving in and out of traffic is an innumerable amount of street dogs and cats. There is no animal control in Chile, so the half-starved, half-wild animals cannot be controlled. Perhaps most terrifying of all, they do not fear cars; completely caked with dust and grime, the dogs charge unabashedly at whomever they choose, giving divers yet another reason to unpredictably turn or slam on their breaks.
Yet what stands out most to me is those who are so recklessly endangering the lives of the hundreds who live in shanties, not to mention the thousands of other drivers on the road, are society’s elite. They can actually afford a car, the gas (which is roughly three times more expensive than in the U.S.) and the maintenance. Unlike in developed countries, the poor in Chile aren’t unable to afford vehicles. There isn’t much of a middle class to speak of in Chile, which makes the difference between wealth and poverty all the more stark in an already class-emphasized society.
So far, I still drive with American caution. I’m not trying to claim perfection- I’ve done my fair share of blurring the speed limit line in the U.S. Unfortunately, driving what is considered too slow and too cautiously is almost as dangers as Chilean driving- when I allow a few cars worth of space between myself and the next car, other drivers target me as a nuisance and act accordingly, whipping around bends faster than their usual fast.
I want to be cautious, especially in an effort to keep children and parents of the shanty community safe, but adhering to my personal safety boundaries is out of the question. It’s a catch-22. But I must reject my hesitation to forgo the traffic practices of the U.S. and literally go with the flow. It takes flexibility to master cultural differences, like road rules, but that’s what sets the traveler apart from the tourist.