On our return trip from Argentina, we had a long layover in Santiago, Chile. We’ve connected through that airport several times before but I had never actually been into the city, leaving Chile out of my reach beyond the windows of the international departures terminal. On this trip Lorena suggested we visit the city.

We only had time for a quick jaunt into the city center. It’s probably not fair for me to compare it with Argentina. The only comparable city there is Buenos Aires, where I spent an equally brief layover nine years ago on my very first visit to South America. That being said, what I saw of Santiago was surprisingly orderly (and a bit militarized). I did not fear for my life or the lives of pedestrians while riding in the taxis. Perhaps the Chileans have a touch of laid-back Pacific Coast attitude.

Speaking of pedestrians, some of the downtown pedestrian signals are whimsically animated.

Animated crosswalk signal

So Santiago is not so mysterious to me anymore. Unfortunately we were really, really tired at the end of a long trip. We did see the Plaza de Armas, the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago, the Palacio de la Moneda, and Cerro Santa Lucia.

Oh yeah, and the girls are prettier in Argentina. Sorry, chilenas.

The world according to the airport gift shop

During layovers I make a little game of learning about a place only from what I see in its airport gift shops. It shows me more of a caricature of the place, but I wonder, a caricature from whose point of view? Is the caricature drawn by the travelers or the locals? In other words, do the Chileans want to sell us penguin and moai chotchkies or is that just how we want to think of them?

A moai model stands guard over shelves of stuffed penguins and flamingos in an airport gift shop.
A moai model stood guard over shelves of stuffed penguins and flamingos in one of the airport gift shops.
An airport gift shop displays copper yerba mate tea sets in its window.
The airport gift shop also displayed copper mates in its window.

Notes on travel

I’ve always maintained that the human brain is not meant for modern international travel. On Monday morning, for example, at about eleven o’clock I was shopping with my wife and sister-in-law in sultry Córdoba, Argentina. Twenty-four hours later, my wife and I were 9,000 miles away at home in our apartment in freezing Iowa. The abrupt change in scenery made two weeks in South America seem like a receding dream.

In between we were sealed up in jet planes and airports. Sometimes I wonder if the we ever leave the ground. Maybe it’s elaborate hoax, like a machine blows some fake clouds around the plane while some people shake it for nine hours. Then they let us out and tell us we’re in another airport. Meanwhile, they rearrange the signs and shops in the airport, and re-cast the local population with new actors.

Actually, they don’t have to rearrange much in the airport. We had layovers in Santiago, Chile, and even though we were quarter of a world away from home, we could still eat at Dunkin Donuts, Ruby Tuesday, or Starbucks. Yuck. I mean, what a waste to fly all that way to eat food I could eat at the Coralville Mall.

Speaking of wasting money: during our return layover in Santiago we were sitting across from a young American woman in an Oregon State sweatshirt complaining to a stranger about her trip to Chile. She couldn’t understand why Chileans were so proud of their polluted, impoverished country. She couldn’t understand why they couldn’t just pull themselves together and clean up the trash in their city. She couldn’t understand why they didn’t think being like us would be better.

She wasted her money on that trip. Is it really that hard to imagine that other people don’t share your exact same outlook? Is it just as hard to find what we have in common with people in other countries? What’s the point of traveling all that way if you don’t want to learn something?

Ugly Americans aside, our flights and layovers went smoothly without delays or incident. Mostly. The descent into Córdoba was rocky, like I thought the plane was going to shake apart. I nearly got sick—well, I was sick but I didn’t throw up. I haven’t been so sick on a plane in a long time.

Which reminded me: on trans-Andean flights, the safety orientations should include tips on survival cannibalism in case the plane crashes on a mountainside. Like which parts are the richest in fat and protein and not just empty carbs.

Córdoba’s airport is small for such a big city, and it was  overwhelmed with Christmas travelers. Besides the long line at the passport control, there was barely enough room for all the people in the international baggage claim waiting to bring their stuff through customs. About a dozen people from our flight were missing bags; an equal number of unclaimed bags waited by the conveyor belt.

We lucked out and recovered all of our bags filled with Christmas gifts. Because we brought Christmas stockings, we also brought hooked weights to hang them on. The customs agent was intrigued and asked Lore a lot of questions. I didn’t pay much attention, for a couple of reasons. I was having trouble following the conversation in Spanish. And for a women who spends much of her day bending over looking through people’s luggage she sure was showing a lot of cleavage. We had arrived in Argentina.

On the way home, the airline agents wouldn’t let us gate-check our carry-on luggage for the flight back to Santiago. It was a small plane and our carry-ons are at the upper end of the size limit. On the way to Argentina they were fine but flying back the to United States we couldn’t gate check them. Which defeats the purpose of bring a carry-on, right? That pretty much settles it: I’m going back to using my little L.L. Bean rucksack as a carry-on. As I’m fond of reminding Lore, I once traveled to the U.K. for a week with only what I could fit in that little bag. But those were simpler days.

Getting home

We are continuing the obstacle course to home. Everything was smooth to Miami, thought I didn’t sleep well on the plane. It was very hot and dry. Miami International Airport was impossibly cold. The air conditioning was going full tilt even though it was only about 75 degrees out.

My brief love affair with Delta is over after the inscrutable delays at the check-in counter. We cleared customs in Miami at about 6:30 a.m. and hung out with my parents until about 11:00 a.m., then we headed over to the Delta counter for our 1:00 p.m. flight. We got our boarding passes at the self-check in kiosk in about ten minutes and then, bam, we got to the end of a nearly immobile baggage drop queue. Whatever time we saved with the self check-in was lost on this line. We ended up going through the slightly less slow curbside check-in, just to drop off our bags. After a long wait at the security control we got to our gate twenty minutes before departure. A short mechanical delay gave us some breathing space and a bathroom break. Otherwise, the flight to Minneapolis has been okay. It is 36 degrees Fahrenheit in Minneapolis. It was 36 degrees Celsius in Córdoba.

I keep thinking about how lucky we were not to travel through Santiago, Chile, even though that was our preference for a connection and we tried really hard to book a connecting flight there. If we had, our flight might have been canceled or changed after the earthquake there.

One more short flight to Moline, then a hour’s drive to Iowa City. Starting from the time we checked out of the hotel on Monday morning, this will be a 36-hour trip home. We are tired.


We arrived in Córdoba early in the morning. Going through customs, my dad missed the agent’s signal to move his bags down for inspection. Instead, he reloaded his bags on his cart after they emerged from the x-ray machine. When the agent found out we were visitors, he just let us pass. My dad has been having a lot of good chuckles about these little “Innocents Abroad” moments.

Lore’s family picked us up at the airport, and then we had breakfast at our hotel. If this was a movie I would be anxious about our parents meeting, but I don’t feel this way. Despite the language barrier, and the bottleneck of conversation as interpretation is funneled through Lore, everyone gets on as well as I expected they would.

We are staying at the Hotel ACA (owned by the Automobile Club of Argentina), which is nice, across from the park, and near downtown. Taxis are inexpensive, less than 10 pesos (Ar$10.00 or about US$2.50) to El Centro. Even though the time is only three hours different from Iowa all the travel has made it hard to get a handle on the time of day. We mostly slept after getting in, then changed some money downtown, then slept some more.

We had picada Friday evening with Lore’s family at their home, which means we ate from plates of cheese, meats, breads, and olives. Argentinians stay up late, so we left well after midnight and slept some more.

Early Saturday morning Lore woke me up, thinking I was somehow shaking the bed. It felt like a gentle rocking and steady rocking as if riding a train, but it lasted for a good minute or so. I’ve been through a few earthquakes before and this would be the longest and strongest. There was no damage to Córdoba but it was a disaster in Chile and is almost the only thing on the news.

I walked around Parque Sarmiento, across from the hotel, Saturday morning. It was warmer than Friday. In the afternoon we visited Lore’s grandmother and aunt. The live in cute old lady house with beautiful antique furniture. Lore’s aunt has a treadle sewing machine, which she uses to make dresses. We have one at work, but it is a museum artifact.

The big event this weekend was the party with Lore’s family and friends to celebrate last summer’s wedding. I’ve met many of Lore’s friends and relatives before, but not all of them. Several said they recognized me from Facebook. Good old Facebook.

I wrote about Argentinian wedding receptions last time; it’s not worth repeating at length, but as always there was lots of:

  1. Meat
  2. Dancing late into the night

My parents were good sports. They stayed up for the whole thing, until it ended at about 4 a.m.

This Sunday is a day of sleeping late and of long naps. “Your culture is killing us,” my dad joked to Lore. After two late nights he was wondering if Argentinians ever slept, but was relieved to hear that Lore’s family was asleep most of the day too.

We went for dinner at Paseo del Buen Pastor. The city seems to be upgrading the busier pedestrian areas to make them more accessible, replacing the high curbs with gently graded gutters and bollards. It was indeed busy; the students who populate the neighborhood were all over the place. Power went out during dinner but then came back on.

Santiago de Chile

Arid mountains and a blue sky seen across a airport tarmac from inside the terminal.
Arid mountains and a blue sky seen across a airport tarmac from inside the terminal.

Layovers in the airport don’t count as visits, so I can’t say I’ve been to Chile. Can you learn anything about a country from airport terminal gift shops?

Like Argentina, the local edition of Maxim features models with bare bottoms on the front cover. A good start. The moai of Rapa Nui figure prominently in the shop displays, followed closely by penguins. There are wine shops with many, many wines.

A photo book of Chile shows lots of beautiful desert and mountain landscapes. Official maps depict outlandish claims to Antarctic territories. A book of Chilean recipes indicates a varied diet of fruit, vegetables, meats, seafoods, and legumes.

From the window of the terminal I can see that Santiago is surrounded by mountains, a landscape much like southern California. I can also see the Holiday Inn and a billboard of Don Francisco selling cellular phone service.