Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Chillin' in Chile

Santiago View
Sunday in Santiago began with brilliant sun over the snow-capped Andes that forms an ever-present backdrop to the city and temperatures not much above freezing. Which meant that it was chilly in Chile. It was the last day of our quick weekend trip from Buenos Aires and our small band of seven made the most of it, traveling by van, taxi, funicular, teleferico and feet all over the city that 4.5 million Chilienos call home.

We began with a drive past the modern bunker-like fortress which houses the American Embassy in protective custody, so to speak, along the rushing Rio Mapucho to a residential area of mansions our guide Jorge called the Beverly Hills of Santiago. It was on the side of a hill in southwest Santiago that was above the smog line and offered us incredible views of the city and the Andes mountains beyond. Residents of the neighborhood include the infamous Don Francisco, host of the very popular television show, "Sabados Gigantes," which is viewed by Spanish speakers everywhere. No doubt there are a few retired generals from the Pinochet dictatorship who are living in guilt-free splendor behind locked gates.

Coming down off the mountain of privilege, we drove through a section of the city where the rich used to live. The Portuguese family CousiƱo formerly owned much of this area and built houses and palaces and even the Iglesia San Lazaro in which to worship. For their parties, they constructed a huge pleasure palace that is now the Club Hipico, a beautiful race track, where we watched horses and their jockies work out before the evening races. Many of the houses in the adjoining neighborhood were empty and falling into disrepair, and Jorge told us that during the military junta many people were tortured and killed in them and now they cannot be sold. Next to the neighborhood of ghosts was the University of Santiago where students too young to remember went to school.

Our next stop was the Palacio de la Moneda, the president's palace, which used to be the country's mint ("moneda" means coin). This is where the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Pinochet in 1973 (with help from Kissinger), and Jorge pointed out the window of an office on the second floor where Allende either committed suicide with a rifle given him by Castro, or was killed by invading soldiers. On the walls of the buildings around the Plaza Constitucion you could still see marks made by bullets during the military coup. Since it was Sunday, there were crowds of citizens and tourists walking through the palace under the watchful eye of colorfully dressed CarbiƱeros.

From the seat of Chile´s presidency (currently occupied by a woman, Michelle Bachelet), we passed by the former Congresso Nacionale where hundreds of people died in a fire many years ago, but which today houses a museum, and stopped in the Plaza de Armas. People of the southern cone seem to arise late and even though it was almost noon the plaza was just waking up, with vendors setting up shop, and musicians from an orchestra of soldiers preparing for a band concert. We toured the Museo Historico Nacional which presented the history of the country in images and artifacts very succinctly. Aftewards, we crossed a corner of the plaza and entered the Catedral Metropolitana where the midday mass was just begining. The lavishly decorated church was designed by the same Italian architect who designed the Moneda in the late 18th century. I felt a bit uncomfortable in the role of a tourist in church and tried to concentrate on the liturgy as well as the sights while walking along the aisles.

Our next stop was the Mercado Central, a elaborate wrought-iron palace for vegetables and restaurants that was built by the British. We ate at La Galeon at an upstairs table and my paela, or fish soup, containing a variety of seafood was lip-smacking good. Two strolling musicians sang for us Violetta Parra's magnificent "Gracias a la Vida." After lunch we walked through the Parque Forrestal up to the Palacio de Belles Artes, behind which was a huge black, bloated horse sculpted by the Colombian artist Botero who specializes in over-sized people. From there we journeyed back to the barrio of Bellavista where we´d made a reservation to tour Neruda´s Santiago house which he named La Chascona after his wife´s unruly hair. But we missed our appointed time and the next was too late, for we had a plane to catch in the early evening. I consoled myself by buying a Neruda tee shirt. There is no tragedy that consumption can´t fix.

We strolled from Neruda's house a couple of blocks to the Parque Metropolitano which stretches around the Cerro San Cristobal. There is a large statue of the Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcion on the top and a Jardin Zoologico and the sides of the hill, and there were thousands of Sunday visitors. Jorge hustled us past the long lines waiting for the funicular railway up to the top and said he'd "paid the bribe." (Jorge knows all the tricks of the tourist guide trade). At the top we climbed up to the foot of the statue, where Pope John Paul II once said mass (and his lectionary has become an icon of worship for the visitors), and enjoyed another tremendous view of the city and the signature Andes peaks. Then we boarded the teleferico, an aerial tramway which resembled the cars that travel above the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz Both Nancy and Zita were not at all happy with this form of transportation, but they survived. It carried us high in the air above the park and we could see the entire city and the Sunday pleasure seekers below.

At the end of the ride, we disembarked and walked through a suburban section of Providencia, an upscale neighborhood, and it was so similar to a similar scene in California on a Sunday that it would have been a stroll through the backstreets of Palo Alto. We crossed the river at Parque de los Esculturas which was filled with some incredible sculpture. Santiago is obviously very supportive of public art and even the bridges contain artistic flourishes with no apparent utilitarian purpose. Our walk took us along a lovely landscaped area into Las Condes with its gigantic skyscrapers and passed the huge hole in the ground that will become Latin America´s largest building, 77 stories, when it´s finished in 2009.

After collecting our luggage and ransacking the large wine store next door, our hardy band of vacationers headed toward Santiago's modern airport where I splurged with my last Chilean pesos on a bilingual book of poems by Neruda and a CD of music by the martyred Chilean singer, Victor Jara. After all, as Trey pointed out, the foreign currency often seems like so much Monopoly money.

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