Santiago Surprise

One of the biggest surprises of the trip was how much we enjoyed Santiago. All of the travel guides invariably compare it to Buenos Aires. They talk about how much more cultural Buenos Aires is and how Santiago is just another big city. But after spending two months in Buenos Aires, here is my assessment: Buenos Aires doesn’t have any more “real”culture than any other big city. I know this is about Santiago, but I’m getting there. Buenos Aires does place a great deal of importance on its tango heritage. And yes, there are some places where this is still authentic. But mostly it is a show for tourists. Every other restaurant has a tango show. There are tango dancers in the streets dancing and posing for photos for tips. And if we’re talking about the Bohemian culture that is highly visible around the city, well, that’s not anything that is unique to Buenos Aires. My point is that people seem to think that Santiago has no culture and is therefore not worth visiting. We almost skipped it ourselves. But I’m glad we didn’t, because if you take the time to look, there are loads of interesting historical places that give you a very good feel for the country as a whole. Oh yeah, and the city is amazingly clean and gorgeous.

One of my biggest complaints about Buenos Aires was how dirty it was. Santiago definitely has a smog problem due to its location, but it is cleaner than any city of five million people has any right to be. There are pristine parks everywhere you look. The park that runs down the middle of one of the main streets makes walking downtown a pleasure rather than a chore.

O’Higgins park is a vast open space where families go to have picnics, pedal boats around the small lake, go to the amusement park, or relax in the well-tended gardens. The two hills in Santiago house parks as well. There is the smaller but absolutely charming Santa Lucia Hill with its fountains, small squares, statues, and lovely landscaping.

300 meters above Santiago is Cerro San Cristobal or Parque Metropolitano, a huge park that contains a zoo, botanical gardens, swimming pools, and at the very top, a 22 meter high statue of the Virgin Mary which can be seen from all over the city.

Besides the parks, there are numerous walk-streets for convenient shopping, tons of ethnic restaurants, a plethora of exquisite churches and cathedrals, and many art and history museums that tell of the cultural complexities of the city. We were only going to stay in Santiago for a week, but we liked it so much that we ended up extending our stay…twice.

It was Good Friday when we went out for the first time to explore the city; everything was shut down. It was eerie, almost post-apocalyptic—no people, no cars. A city of five million people and no one was out except for the tourists. It stayed like that through Easter Sunday. It was as if all of the residents of the city were in hibernation for the long weekend.

We were hungry for lunch on Easter Sunday, but, as previously mentioned, everything was closed. Everything that is except for the North American fast food chains. We hadn’t seen fast food in a while, and I started to agree with the sign outside of the Kentucky Fried Chicken that strongly implied that I needed a crispy chicken sandwich.

We furtively ducked inside and I walked up to the young guy at the counter. I started to place my order, but I wasn’t sure if he was paying attention. He seemed to be in a sort of trance, staring off into space, perhaps having some sort of visual hallucination. I pressed on anyway, trying to catch his eye. When I got to the part about Pepsi, he noticeably snapped back into focus, typed in the order, and handed me a ticket. As I stood waiting for my order to come up, the woman next to me became increasingly fascinated by the big cardboard buckets that they put the chicken in. “Do they put the chicken in there?” she asked me in Spanish.

“I think so,” I replied, which is my standard answer when I’m not sure if I understood the question so that I can’t be held responsible if the answer is wrong.

Not satisfied, she asked the girl behind the counter who answered in the affirmative. The lady shook her head as if to communicate, “Chicken in buckets! What’ll they think of next?”

My number was called and I looked at the tray with two sandwiches, one fry, and one drink. Sigh. “Um, dos combos?” I asked the girl behind the counter. “Dos papas fritas y dos bebidas?”

The girl looked at me blankly and blinked a few times. She took the receipt, squinting her eyes at it. Then very slowly, as if she was walking through deep water, she moved toward the manager and showed her the receipt. While the conference about my order took place, I looked around and realized that everyone was moving in slow-motion. I rubbed my eyes thinking that maybe I was the one who was hallucinating now, but no. We decided that perhaps the slow-motion people were the only people that they could get to work on Easter.

On Monday everything changed. Like the inhabitants of a disturbed hornets’ nest the city was suddenly swarming with people and cars. All of the stores and restaurants opened and the city was back to normal. It was almost like experiencing two completely different cities, and we were lucky to be able to see Santiago in its contrasting states of being.

Because we kept extending our stay, there wasn’t any sense of urgency to go and see all of the sights. After exploring the city over the weekend, we took Tuesday and Wednesday off to read, write, and generally be immobile. Thursday was going to be museum day.

As we walked toward the center of town, we noticed that there were blockades going up on the streets and police officers were everywhere. When we got to the main square, the museum was closed. What was going on? We walked by the library and it was covered with banners: all museum and library personnel were on strike that day. So everything that we were going to visit that day was closed. Of course, had we ventured out the two days before that, we would have seen that this was going to take place. We literally missed all of the signs. Agoraphobic tourists are always the last to know.

As we walked down the main street looking for something to do, a man started trotting after us and yelling, “Do you speak English? Where are you from?”

It seems that the favorite way to extort money from tourists is to pretend to be interested in them to get them talking and then hit them with information about whatever cause they are pushing. This guy was no exception. He wanted to know all about us—where we were from, where we had been, where we were going. During all of this his wife walked up.

“Honey, they’re gringos!” he said excitedly by way of introducing us.

We had been wondering why no one ever mistook us for locals.

“It’s your eyes,” he confided to Adam.

I knew we would have blended in perfectly if it wasn’t for that.

As soon as his wife walked up, the push for money began. I’m not sure exactly what they were raising money for, but she was trying to convince me to buy a little photocopied poem that she “wrote.” Ha. Nice try, sweetheart. Two other people had tried to sell me that same poem. Once they saw that we weren’t going to part with any cash, they quickly lost interest in us and went off to solicit someone else. As we were leaving, the woman did give us a good piece of advice. “They’re protesting down there,” she said. “Be careful of the police.”

So we walked down as close as we dared to the protest. We stood at what seemed to be a safe distance and watched the police spray a crowd of protesters with fire hoses. We were very careful not to get caught up in anything where we could be mistaken for protesters. Adam hadn’t brought his passport along, and I could just imagine him wet, tear gassed, and ID-less in a Chilean jail. “Don’t worry,” he assured me, “I’ll just show them my eyes.”

After the commotion died down, we walked over to Santa Lucia Hill to see if we could get a better view of what might happen next. As we were signing our names on the registry, we heard an enormous bang like the shot from a cannon. We stopped and looked at each other with eyes wide; were they shooting at the protesters? The woman behind the desk saw what we were thinking and said, “No, no. It’s only that it’s 12:00.” Apparently Santiago has a time cannon that goes off at noon that we were unaware of. Convinced that the city wasn’t about to descend into chaos and relieved that we didn’t have to make a run for the US embassy, we climbed up the hill to see if anything else was going to happen. The large group of protesters had seemingly split up and gone off to smaller protests in other parts of the city. With our plans spoiled and no excitement on the horizon, we went back to the apartment and made cream cheese and chocolate truffles. Did I mention that I love Chilean grocery stores?

We finally did get to go to the National Museum of History, which was small, but quite well done. There was a bit on the Pre-Columbian era, but most of the museum focused on the conquest and finally the independence of Chile. The final exhibit was on 20th century Chile, and ended with a broken pair of eyeglasses that belonged to Salvador Allende that someone had picked up at the time of the coup. The lone pair of glasses in the stark white case made a powerful final statement.

What impressed me most about Santiago was how relaxed it made us feel. We lounged in our downtown apartment, strolled the streets, browsed the museums, and ambled around the parks. The people were incredibly friendly and fiercely proud of their country and they offered plenty of advice to make sure that we would come away feeling good about Chile. I’ll have nothing but good memories of Santiago and only one unanswered question: Why would they paint a mural of Emmanuel Lewis in the park?

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