Savouring Santiago

Unlike Buenos Aires, I had no expectations of Santiago – it had never made an appearance on my “must see” list. I never really bothered to find out that much about the place. My bad, because this city is fantastic. Less hectic than BA, and potentially even more beautiful, Santiago had me at hello.

Around seven of us moved from the Mendoza hostel en masse through the Andes and to Santiago, where we holed up in a hostel called La Princessa Insolente (The Insolent Princess – don’t you just love the name!). We ended up exploring most of the city on foot via some free walking tours run by the Spicy Chile company and our smiling guide Rocio was amazing.

The first day we tok a long walk around the newer parts of the city, with Rocio pointing out everything from the stately facades of the official buildings, to the bustling arcades to the coffee houses. These coffee houses are aptly termed café con piernas, or “coffee with legs” because the waitresses, well they have legs. Long, long legs made to look even longer by the length of their short, short skirts.

Rocio pointed out two for us, one looked like a relatively classy establishment where suited businessmen were served by impeccably groomed waitresses, who – if it weren’t for the short skirts – would have passed for air hostesses. I wouldn’t have minded a coffee there.

The second place, just doors down, looked dodgy. Black plastic shielded the windows, a tacky neon sign blazed over the doorway and thumping latino pop boomed out into the street. It looked every bit to me like a strip club. Rocio went out of her way to assure us it was just another café con piernas, just more downmarket. I wondered just how much more downmarket – or more to the point, how much shorter were the skirts? No matter, I never got to see inside that place. Neither did A.

Our tour took us through some leafy parks where we were all struck by the number of couples there and their very public displays of affection. Rocio laughed it off and explained that in Chile – and especially in Santiago where property prices are so high – it is not uncommon for people to live with their parents until their late 20s and even into their 30s. So when you have a sweetheart and you want to spend some time together, and you don’t have you’re own space, you head down to the park. Rocio explained that for the exact same reason Santiago also has a booming industry in motels that rent rooms by the hour…

The next day – after a night on the Piscolas (cola and Pisco) – we were back to meet Rocio for another tour. This one took us through one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, Barrio Brasil. This area was at one point one of the most prestigious addresses in town. Not so anymore. As we walked Rocio narrated the stories of abandonned schools, hotels left for squatters and churches that have sat – literally – in ruins for decades. But it is getting better. New investment has started to trickle in, and woven among the tumble-down house and non-descript streets are some enchanted laneways and courtyards, complete with beautifully restored colonial houses and cobbled streets.

It was also on this tour that Rocio began to talk in more depth about Chile’s past, specifically the Pinochet regime. Though she herself was but a toddler when the region was voted out, you could tell how much this period had affected her, and all Chileans. The stories of brutality at that time are legendary. One that stuck in my mind was the story of the folk singer Victor Jara, a vocal opponent of Pinochet who penned many songs against the regime. Eventually the military took him prisoner, and tortured him and mutilated his hands. Then in a perverse moment, the torturers handed him a guitar and told him to play. He was  executed shortly after.

Our tour ended, appropriately, at the Museo de la Memoria, built to memorialise the Pinochet years, to make sure they are never ever forgotten. The exhibition begins, roughly with the 1973 coup that overthrew the socialist president Allende. One particularly moving inclusion is the audio-recording of Allende’s last ever speech, delivered via a radio broadcast as bullets and missiles rained down on the presidential palace where he was staying. It was beyond powerful, made even more so by knowing that after addressing the nation he shot himself in the head, rather than let himself be captured by the mutinous military.

The exhibit moved on to the years of Pinochet and the state’s forceful and barbaric suppression of any dissent. In one room there was a film playing, a subtitled documentary of sorts, in which people who were taken for dissidents told of their ordeal. Their ordeals were horrific. Beatings, electrocutions – you name it – they endured it, and hearing the survivors themselves describe what was done, how it felt, in their own words, just made it all the more real. I had to leave that room after a little while, to have a quiet moment to myself.

That was the first time I cried in the museum. The second time was while I was watching the footage of the 1989 referendum, when the people voted against giving Pinochet another 10 years in power. The relief and joy on the faces of the people in those days was plain to see. The cheering, the laughing, the tears, it was just so beautiful to watch.

Though extremely confronting, the story was told elegantly. I spent quite a while walking through the museum and considering the strength of the people to endure those years. I don’t know that a “happy ending” is the right way to describe what has hapenned since, but Chile today has clearly emerged from its dark past.

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