Thinking about my time in Northern Chile, in Copiapó, a few decades ago… led me to realize how much of that experience has aspects relatable to a lot of what’s going on these days… around here and around the world. Here’s an interesting sociological observation…
Back then, there wasn’t much to do except work. With no TV and only one radio station, it felt very much cut-off from the rest of the world. There was exactly one magazine kiosk that got anything in English, and everything was always, at best, a couple of days behind. But a 2-day-old New York Times was better than nothing, and I’d read every word of it. Most days looked like this: You’d be up early, get to work… work until lunch… which could turn into a 3-hour break if you threw errands and a siesta in there… and then back to work, till about 7pm. Then an hour or two of socializing, and then dinner… then sleep, and back to it next day.
It was about an 8-hour work day… 8:30am to 1pm, 3:30pm to 7pm… and the socializing to which I refer was often not more than wandering the streets and running into people and chatting. A feature of every single city, town, village in Latin America is what’s called the “Plaza de Armas” — a central plaza, usually located near the heart. Any place that has at least two sets of parallel roads will have the middle of that tic-tac-toe, and that is the de-facto Plaza de Armas. Often, it’s much bigger… 2 or 3 sets of streets ending at the square from all sides. A 3×3 block of grass, trees, paths, benches, statues. And the hub of outdoor social activity.
I lived a block away from the Plaza, so I was there often… and it was great. Lots of people milling around, kids kicking soccer balls around. It was also a commercial area… some artisans selling their work, and the permiter around the plaza on all sides — that was the “downtown”, if that’s the right word… populated with government offices, businesses of all sorts; the typical eclectic collection of one-off mom-and-pop shops, including two thirds of the entire town’s restaurants.
But right around that time is when things began to change.
Some Latin-American satellite TV company began offering service in Santiago… and quickly, people were asking… if Santiago can get satellite TV, surely it must be possible in Copiapó, which is actually 800km closer to the equator… right? Of course, and don’t call me Shirley.
It was a big deal when the TVs showed up. A handful of people got them, and crowds would gather in the street to peer through these peoples’ living room windows to check it out… and those windows to the world offered a very impressive view. For example, recall a show called Miami Vice… two cool cops, Ferraris, fast women, alligators, flamingos, everything in pastel shades of pink and blue… wet streets, slicked-back hair. The whole package was pretty impactful around here; imagine how it looked to people who’d never neither seen nor imagined any of that. And the commercials. Sensory overload. And an emerging attitude and understanding that the world has a lot more to offer, and why can’t we here have all that… stuff.
And then one day, a SuperStore/Costco sort of place showed up. They bought up a huge parcel of land and built a warehouse-sized shopping experience, with aisles and tall shelves. Very quickly, that became the Plaza de Armas; that’s where you’d go to socialize and be seen. And, of course, you can’t go to a shopping destination without at least the illusion of shopping, and that’s what it was… people walking up and down the aisles, filling their monster-sized shopping carts with crap they didn’t need, and in many cases, probably didn’t understand… all while running into other people. You’d hear snippets of conversation like, “Oh hey Pablo! You’re here too, yeah awesome, hey check this thing out, it’s a carbon-monoxide fire flood detector emergency light, cool eh, yeah, ok nice seeing you”.
Pablo didn’t need that device, nor pretty-much anything else in that basket. Pablo was a labourer, his wife was a housewife, and they lived in a modest home… and could never afford any of that stuff. So after an hour of socializing and filling the cart, when it was time to go home for dinner… Pablo and his wife, where-and-when no one was looking, would just ditch the cart and go home. And from there emerged a job that I don’t believe exists in many places: the “restock-the-shelves-from-abandoned-carts” gig, popular only in cultures where something so jarring is imposed, that it actually shifts the underlying fabric of society.
Once the cat was out of the bag, that society changed, and never looked back… and it could be argued, not for the better. Not for the better because it didn’t happen organically. It didn’t slowly grow to that; it was self-imposed, and it was weird… and some things that used to exist in the past, to a great extent, vanished. But also, arguably, for the better. A consolidated place to shop, a bit of free-market capitalism to keep prices fair. Progress, change, sometimes not evil, sometimes necessary, sometimes good.
I’ve spoken before about the radical lifestyle changes we’re all getting used to… and will quickly point out the obvious; today’s changes are not by choice. We’re not copying the behaviour that some other culture 30 years ahead of us is providing us as an example that we may wish to emulate. This has all been jammed down our throats. If we could snap our fingers and Restore to our Saved Game from 6 months ago, we all would.
I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind; to some extent, this current new-normal will provide some great insight for when things are ready to go back to the old normal. We’ll have the luxury of going back to our old ways, with the insight gained by having imposed upon us a whole new set of ways of doing things. I’m optimistic about the emergence back to the “new” old-normal… because it’ll ideally encapsulate the best of both worlds.