Along the Muddy Mapocho
Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
27Trip End Aug 2006
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Felipe, one of my host brothers, ironically groaned aloud that Santiago was "like a European city," before cracking up at the seeming absurdity of the comment. After all, this is South America, and the most distant corner of the world, at that. How could this place ever hope to be a Paris of the southern hemisphere, or even another Buenos Aires?
But that is the Chilean aspiration, the reason why everyone of even moderate wealth seems to employ a maid, or why the city so neatly divides into rich and poor. Many Chileans are obsessed with television, and with the glamorous images it projects. Almost every room in this house, in fact, has a television (a total of six), and the family routinely pays for pay-per-view soccer matches
But there are reminders that this city, like every other city in the world, has some work to do. And that stretches even beyond the stark socioeconomic divides. Walk across the Mapocho River, which runs the length of the city, an odor settles around you like that of rotten garbage. On windy days, it can be subtle, but the smell is still there. Industrial and household sewage run straight into the river, unfiltered, gallons upon gallons of them every day, not to mention the waste dumped in by the copper mines upstream.
Underground, the subway runs on time, fast, and has barely a scratch on it. On the surface streets, however, chaos seems to reign. There are publicly owned buses, clean and new, which run along the major streets, but most of the public transportation comes from the micros, old yellow buses which tear down the avenues, slamming on the brakes at each stop, spewing out plumes of smoke.
But all of this seems to mix together to make Santiago what it is. It has hints of America and Europe, but also of Mexico and Peru. After the Pinochet dictatorship, it seems to be searching for an identity-well, the whole country is, to be truthful, but that's a longer subject. And it seems to be looking beyond its economic potency, which was the great excuse for Pinochet's actions and also an easy cop-out in the search for defining characteristics (Fun fact: the tallest building in the country is in central Santiago, and is shaped like a cellular phone, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Telefonica_building_in_Santiago_Chile.jpg)
Chile, after all, has produced a few famous artists-Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral and Violeta Parra are the easy answers-but the canon of Chilean culture is nowhere near as extensive as in many of the other countries of South America
What did I do this week? That's probably what you're wondering. Much of it was spent in a Contemporary Chile course, offered by CIEE, the host program. Though it offers a few kernels of information about the country we're living in, I assume it is really just a chance for the teachers to see how well we can hear, read and write spanish. It's going fine. If you read what was above, you can see it has given me plenty to ramble about.
But there have been some interesting excursions into the city. We visited La Moneda, the presidential palace where president Salvador Allende committed suicide in 1973, while being bombed by his own Air Force, under the command of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Of course, it was entirely reconstructed (some parts remodeled over and over). The building has a large plaza on either side. At the corner of one is a statue of Allende. It was installed within the last five years and was designed by a conservative artist. The contentious fellow that he was, he has enemies in power even today. The statue sits on top of an air vent, which runs to a bunker beneath that Pinochet had constructed (though it has since been transformed into an art museum), and therefore is completely hollow, and allows air to escape from various parts
Another stop was one of Pablo Neruda's three houses, which was built to have the look and feel of a boat. Oddly enough, Neruda was afraid of the sea, and usually became seasick when on a boat. Nonetheless, aging maps of the sea hang on the walls, and on his writing desk sat an astrolabe and a compass-"to guide him through the sea of language," if you will). In one room, the floor is tilted and bumpy ("undulating" is perhaps the better word), making it difficult to walk quickly across without becoming a little wobbly, as if on the deck of a boat. But every room is lined with the gifts and trinkets Neruda collected during his life, from dolls to china to furniture and paintings. Though not huge, the house has three bars. It's the materialization of the poet's personality, which I guess is what anyone's house should be. He just did a heck of a job.
Sunday, I wandered the city with friends, starting in Quinta Normal, at the park. There, we walked through the natural history museum, whose most famous exhibit is of a mummified 8 or 9 year-old boy. After a strong drink of chicha, the child was put into ceremonial dress and left alone on the summit of Cerro El Plomo. 500 years later, in the mid-1950s, the boy was found encased in ice, still seated with his nose to his knees.
Later, we went to Cerro (hill) Santa Lucia, on which was built an old castle. Fountains, gardens and a fantastic view of the city lure tourists there, but climbing all of the stairs to the top is certainly worth it. It acts as an escape from the city that surrounds it.
Those are the highlights, anyhow. More next week, when I hope to spend the weekend in the Lake District, south of the city.