First stop in South America was Santiago. I’d decided to forgo the laptop and just depend on my smartphone, one more way to be minimal. Just took an extra 16GB hard disk for my camera. I also gave myself an upgrade from the usual hostels to airbnb accommodations through the trip except La Paz but more about that as I write about those places. I booked a tiny room with Esteban and Arturo in Santiago Centro.
The plane manoeuvered itself through mountains and clouds to land on a rainy winter’s day, the Andes looming surreal as we touched down. They grew larger and intimidating as my shuttle went towards the city.
Slums on the outskirts, crumbling buildings, magnificent presidential palace, old world edifices, Santiago is a wonderful city. It could be in Europe but it is a remnant of colonialism and then the after effects of Western imperial interference.
My first morning I walked to the Bio Bio flea market. I had assumed it started early but it was closed. So I took the 206 bus back to the city not knowing that buses in Santiago don’t take coins. The bus driver gave me a free ride to Santa Rosa and a wee lecture on getting a bus card. My host Arturo advised me to take the metro instead. I have been on the London, Paris, Berlin and Shanghai metros, I have done Singapore and Hong Kong but I give my gold medal to the Santiago Metro. Smooth travel, spacious stations, super security, signage, lots of art. It was a pleasure. No one stopped me taking photos or filming, a complete contrast to India where even a minor activity requires paying obeisance to self important overseers first.
The Centro Cultural de la Moneda is a small arts space in Santiago Centro, just below the Palais de la Moneda. Free entry, small and immensely interesting exhibitions, crafts shops and a cafe. This is a place worth visiting. I love art galleries and museums so I spent a lot of time here at the exhibition Grandes Maestros Del Arte Popular De Iberoamerica Coleccion Fomento Cultural Banamex-the great folk masters of Iberoamerica. Folk art from across South America reminded me of Madhubani and Warli art, Tapa cloth, various Pacific and indigenous weaves, sculptures and pottery. There was Christian art, lots of reference to death, mermaids, and tree like installations that I did not understand but assume are about Catholicism.
Santa Lucia is like Mount Eden in Auckland except that it has lovely old structures and easy steps. There were lovey-dovey cuddling couples kissing endlessly in every nook and cranny. All other visitors, from skater bois to grown men everyone loved their selfie stick. There is a great artisan market on the other side of the road.
A little further up the road still in Santiago Centro (Alameda # 20) I discovered the best pizza ever at Pizzeria Bella Italia. I was careful to mostly eat vegetariano as they say in Español and there was quite a choice.
Chile must be the rare non-Western country that has a poet for a national icon. I searched and searched for English translations of Pablo Neruda’s poems but did not find any. It was at the Fondo De Cultura Economica in Santiago Centro that I found a an entire shelf dedicated to poets but no Neruda. Instead I bought a book of poems by Oscar Hahn for a young Colombian boy I am mentoring.
The place I was most interested in visiting was the Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos, the museum of memory and human rights.
A modern structure on a very European looking street this building holds the stories and memories of the toppling of Salvador Allende and the cruel regime of Augusto Pinochet that was supported by Western ‘democracies’. This is a permanent exhibition. There are posters of the victims, torture instruments are on display, there is a section called El dolor de los niños, the pain of the children, all reminding me of the Stasi Museum in Berlin. I alternated between being very angry to tearful and then saluting the spirit of the Chileans for bringing back democracy. History is made by the people and while democracy and liberty are not perfect concepts they are worth fighting for. Even a ‘state of democracy’ is not static but a work in progress that should still have at it’s base and as it’s aim human betterment and independence, where social hierarchy and religious hegemony are disrupted constantly-not for the purpose of unrest but for mobility and hence freedom. And there are other exhibitions that look at other countries, their struggle for human rights. There was a photo exhibition on the complexity of the ‘war on drugs’ in Colombia called Violentology. A quote from another exhibition called Los Durmientes El Exilio Imaginado (The Railway Ties/The Imaginary Exile) by Enrique Ramirez said “Time as experienced through memory is not linear but rather a kind of pileup of events that become linked, tangled, blended together.” There is an audio-visual archive in the top floor that stores from across the world material related to this period of Chilean history. The librarian told me his memories of Pinochet’s return to Chile and his frustration that he never stood trial. We chatted via broken English and Español about democracy, refugees, migration and what not and would have gone on. Random conversations with strangers are most often the delights of low brow travel. But one has to go to the next destination. It was time to say ciao to Santiago.