In the heart of Santiago, Chile, a huge fish market spans an entire city block. Since 1872, fish vendors at Mercado Central have been selling their bounty from waters touching Chile’s long coastline. When I stepped inside, I was shoulder-to-shoulder with families crowding the narrow aisles between rows of stalls and rows of huge bags of ice. They were buying silvery sea bass, eels, swordfish, glistening octopus tentacles, sea urchins, and mussels the size of avocados. In the center and around the periphery of the enormous building are restaurants, with families and fishmongers at nearly every table. I picked a café simply because it had my last name in it – Rincon Marino – and the waiter seated us upstairs. Across from our table sat a boy and his father. I could see that the dad was prompting his son to talk to us. The boy grinned and said, “Hello! My name is Jorge!” I smiled back at him, “Hi, I’m Martha. How old are you?” While we talked, the proud dad took a zillion photos and selfies with his son talking to an American using the English he was learning in school. Jorge taught me some Spanish phrases, too. When they left, he air-kissed my cheek and said, “I love you” then sped down the stairs. When the waiter asked what I wanted for lunch, I pointed to what Jorge had eaten, and got a steaming fish stew of squid, clams, and mussels.
Perhaps it’s the high fish consumption here in Santiago, but I saw hardly any obesity. Maybe, too, it’s the popularity of sidewalk street vendors selling kabobs of watermelon and grapes, cups of cut-up fruit, slices of melon. The sidewalks are packed any time of the day with people using their legs for transportation, even on shopping trips when they fill their 2-wheeled carts with purchases most Americans would feel they need a car to lug home. Or maybe it’s attitude. The Chileans I met laughed and smiled a lot, lingered over lunch and dinner for hours, and sang and whistled driving a taxi, sweeping the street, walking to the bus stop. Could be they don’t need to feed a hunger that is for something other than food. Whatever the magic combination, people here in Santiago seem to be happy and healthy.