The first Chilean I met on my adventure was Nelson. He sat next to me on the eleven hour flight from Auckland to Santiago and we began talking to each other over ‘dinner’ when he asked me if I was American.

Nelson was a distinguished looking gentleman with a designer shirt, a prominent nose and carefully combed, receding hair. A former Chilean Ambassador, Nelson had represented his country in Ecuador, Egypt and Jordan. During his posting to Egypt he met Hosni Mubarak, the recently ousted dictator, and his time in Jordan coincided with the first Gulf War. This meant that Nelson “had the privilege” of serving as the consul to Iraq during the headline dominating conflict. In this role the Chilean president sent him to Baghdad to negotiate on behalf of more than 30 Chilean engineers who had been taken hostage. At the time, no planes were flying into Baghdad so he had to drive almost 700km through a volatile war zone.

Now Nelson spends his time teaching international relations at the University of Chile’s Law Faculty.

I’m sure he had many more interesting stories to tell but sitting next me, all Nelson wanted to do was practice his English and unfortunately, his English was unable to accommodate his tales. All I wanted to do was practice my Spanish. So we had an interesting bilingual conversation about Australia and Chile; he asked me questions in English and I responded as best I could in my broken Spanish.

When Nelson asked where I was going to be staying in Santiago, I told him that I would be living with friends in Quilicura. His response was less than encouraging. Quilicura, he told me was a dangerous comuna (district), located on the outskirts of the city and with poor access to public transport.

“Make sure you don’t wear an expensive watch or do anything to attract attention,” he warned me in a serious tone.

On the other hand, Nelson unashamedly told me that his comuna, Vitacura, is one of the richest neighbourhoods in Santiago. The tone of his voice suggested it was the kind of neighbourhood that a respected former diplomat and law lecturer would be happy to call home.

After the meal, Nelson had a surprisingly long nap. When he woke, he turned to me and said sincerely: “I think you should speak to your friends and convince them to move. Yes that’s what I think you should do. Quilicura’s not a good place,” he explained. “Especially not for an Australian like you.”

Closer to our destination, I struck up a conversation with another Chilean who had lived in Brisbane for close to 30 years. A little unsettled by Nelson’s grim warnings, I asked him if he knew anything about Quilicura and whether he thought it was a dangerous place.

“Oh no,” he assured me. “It’s not that bad. I mean its seven years since I’ve been in Chile but I don’t think it could have changed that much in that time. It’s really not that bad.

“My sister used to live there,” he explained.

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