Ken and Teri Pulvino

We love to receive input from our subscribers. Last week we heard from Brad in Paraguay. This week we are hearing from a subscriber in Chiloe, Chile, Teri Graf-Pulvino, who makes a very good point in connection with our recent post about the cost of living in South America.

Teri and her husband, Ken, run a geotourism business in Chiloe. In fact, check out the web page and if you decide to look around Chile, you might like to reserve a room at their place and arrange to chat with them. Theirs is a good example of an expat business and we think you will find their area interesting. Here is Terri’s response to our article about cost of living, and we quote:

“You need to calculate the cost of frustration and waste of time required to live in countries with low levels of customer service and expectations of service. I am back in the states… and having one hell of a time using my online banking!!  It was a problem when I was in country and now worse!
Hope you are well!!

We can certainly sense Teri’s frustration, and she is right. We’ve all felt it, one way or another. And we always wonder, “Why?!”

Since then she sent a follow-up email: Yes…  but once you understand that, life can be great as long as expectations are lowered accordingly…  we have gringo friends who have been there five years. They love it  . . . . . . . . . .to be able to get way away from civilization and be self sustaining…

We think Terri has pointed out an aspect of life here that is worth considering. For example, if I go to the post office to mail a letter, do I walk up to a machine and buy some stamps and drop it in a box? No! It couldn’t be that easy. Please don’t ask how come because I don’t know. But here is how it goes.

I go in, look around for the paper roll of numbers on the wall, take a number and take my seat until my number is called, then take my turn at the window to mail my letter. The clerk will put a stamp on it if that’s all I need and I’ll be on my way. If I want it registered or something, it takes longer. My guess, in a town smaller than Buenos Aires I might just be the next in line when I walk in. But not where I live.

But in small towns you can have another set of frustrations. I lived in Bariloche, Argentina, at one time. In Buenos Aires they are progressive enough not many businesses close for “siesta.” Bariloche, a small town in Argentina, is quite another matter. Along about 1:00 p.m. the grill work starts going up over the windows and everybody goes home. They will open again around 4:00. But, if you planned to eat lunch downtown, and didn’t eat before 2:00, you will go hungry until the restaurants reopen at 8:00.

Add to that when you pay your electric bill, you go in, take a number, and wait to be called to the window–and pay your bill. So it’s very difficult to get all errands run in one day–unless you also go home and come back at 4:00.

Right now I have papers to mail to the U.S. I went to the post office to mail my envelope. I got my number off of the roll and took my seat and waited. My number was 66. When they called the next number it was 23. That meant I would have to wait for 43 other people to go to the window. So what did I do? I came home with my envelope and plan to go back Monday and be there when the door opens at 10:00 a.m. In fact I’ll be earlier because there may be a line outside the door and I want to be first.

Teri is expressing frustration that many of us feel at times. There are many frustrations in the way people do things and, like she says, customer service leaves something to be desired.

You learn ways to do things faster here. For example, the Argentinians don’t even eat supper until 8 or 9. At midnight you will still see people at tables in many restaurants with waiters serving meals. Consequently they also rise late. I have learned to be at the grocery store when they open at 8:00–that is if I need something from there. Usually I buy from small vendors but some things are available only at the large French supermarket. If I go at 8:00 a.m., most of Buenos Aires is just getting  up, so I can pick up what I need and be out quickly, usually without even a line. If I go after everyone is up and out, it will be a very long line and a very long wait. Now . . . if you are pregnant, or aged, the law in Argentina allows you to go to the front of the line. There is a lot of respect in South America for mamas-to-be and the elderly. Which happens to be one of the things I admire about these countries. But I can save a great deal of time by getting there first. Since the post office doesn’t open until 10:00, I don’t know yet how well this strategy will work there, but I made the decision to try instead of waiting.

The idea of customer service is lacking in the culture for the most part–except among the small vendors. There are two sides even to this coin.

For example, if I called the restaurant on the corner and asked them to bring me a cup of coffee, they would deliver it to my door in minutes with a smile and no extra charge. I do tip but it is not required. I don’t call them just for coffee, but I could. My vegetable venders are the same. I buy a lot of carrots because I juice them. I call and soon here they come down the sidewalk, carrying bags of carrots. When I stop in at other times to pick up a few items they always tell me if I need anything to “llamada” (call on the telephone).

But the Internet provider, the large stores, utilities, etc., aren’t worried about your time or convenience. I have been at the grocery store when they had no change. I could either just leave the money I had–way too much–or leave the groceries. To this American that is inexcusable. But that is the supermercado for you. Doesn’t happen a lot but it does happen. We settled it by adding a few things that I didn’t intend to buy–to my cart.

One Argentinian businessman, relocated to Miami, warned me, “People in South America do not have the same business outlook that you do in the U.S. Here you Americans think in terms of keeping your customer for years and making a profit on them for a long time if you keep them happy. You take a long-term view. In South America the question is ‘What can I get from  you right now?’” with no concept of future business. And it can involve cheating you.

BUT . . . it also varies with country. In Argentina the immigration process seems to me very efficient (if some lawyer doesn’t mislead you and cause you to spend years and thousands because he gave you the wrong information–which is why we recommend one particular lawyer if you are interested in Argentina.) But in Uruguay you cannot imagine the frustration with immigration, and it can take you YEARS. In Chile things seem to work better than elsewhere. Except you can sense Teri’s frustration with her banking experience! And we remind you, she’s talking about Chile!

From what I hear, Paraguay is pretty efficient in the immigration process as well.

But then even different newcomers look at it differently. My daughter, for years a marketing manager in Washington D.C., is not critical at all. She says, “Mom, I think they have the right idea.” She thinks we should all be more laid back and not worry about things as much as we do.

While we see so many things here that we like, and write about it all the time for you, we also agree with Teri about giving you a balanced view of what life is like in South America. So if you decide to move down here with us, and we  hope that you do, prepare to develop a lot of patience because you will need it.

Teri has sounded fair warning.


See Teri and Ken’s website HERE. It will also give you an idea of what that part of Chile is like. We think you’ll be impressed by the incredible beauty there.

Teri Graf Pulvino
ToMarket, LLC
Geotourism Journeys
Don’t be a mere tourist be a GEOTOURIST!