16 hours in Santiago

Santiago, Chile. December 21, 2012.

At 7 in the morning my body didn’t really care what is said about air travel being easier if you cross fewer time zones. The 15 hours and 40 minutes of quoted time between Las Vegas, Nevada and Santiago, Chile were taking their toll. Just 4 hours ahead of Las Vegas, Santiago is still 5,596 miles, a 3 hours 20 minute layover, and the distraction of TSA lines away. I hit the snooze alarm. Three times. Then I woke enough to turn off the alarm. And slept.

Three hours, a shower, and three cups of Chilean coffee later we headed down the stairs of our conveniently located hotel (over the top of the central bus station) and into the Santiago subway system. First stop: central Santiago.

Here’s the old stuff. The cathedral, statues, older buildings, sidewalk restaurants, buskers, beggars, pedestrian walkways with newer buildings on the periphery and main streets ending oddly, abruptly, into open, empty spaces. Being in old Santiago helps me understand why Mexico City is such a jewel. The difference in number of splendid buildings, prominent public monuments, small green areas, delightful restaurants and just a look of more care and attention to detail is almost stunning. Not to say there aren’t aspects here in Santiago which are charming . . . an old firehouse turned into a store, rows and rows of men bent over chessboards, small flourishes imbedded in architecture.

Pablo Neruda’s home is different. Born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto he left nearly as many homes as names. It’s difficult to tell from only four Central and South American home-museums (Pablo Neruda’s in Santiago, Frieda Kahlo’s in Mexico City, Diego Rivera’s birth-home in Guanajuato, Benito Juarez’s Oaxaca home) but they seem treated differently here. In two of Victor Hugo’s homes (Paris and St. Peter Port, Guernsey) and President Grant’s home (Galena, Illinois) there is more of a roped-off sense of museum. And, of course, Washington’s Mount Vernon (or Martha’s, actually) is treated with the reverence of a deity’s manse.

Neruda’s home is different in that Latin American sense. Ranged on a steep hillside, built in the ‘50s and largely unchanged, it’s small, intimate and fully accessible. Here is his living room, here the dining room. The kitchen is here, his bedroom there, and the bathroom, fully open to survey, is here. His Nobel Prize is in this cabinet, his favorite wine glasses and photos are scattered among the souvenirs and accumulation of a lifetime. No real sign of replicas here, this is the stuff of his life. A little worn, a little frayed, still meaning to get around to having that fixed. Less of a shrine and more a feeling that we are waiting for the old poet to return so we can rise to clumsily introduce ourselves not as intruders and maybe not as guests, but visitors honored to be invited into his home.

Out on the street it still feels like morning. The small tiendas have set wobbly metal tables and dented chairs on the sidewalks. Large bottles of cold beer, a couple of glasses, and time to watch the world go by, as it does, slowly.

Lunch follows elsewhere. Just as simple but enough to eat. Plain, honest food served well and at a fair price. Time for a nap to shake off the residue of jet lag.

Coming out of the subway, we find students from the university next door to our hotel are in the streets mounting a protest. We make our way upstairs to our hotel (which is, in its entirety, on the third floor and gives us a box seat for what unfolds). Busloads of riot police arrive and take positions. A huge and lumbering water cannon truck lurches around the corner and careens towards the students. The homeless are doused. The packs of large, feral dogs erupt in frantic barking. One dog is hit head on by a stream of water from the cannon. He flips over and over and rises to bark and charge the water only to be knocked back again and charge again. The cannons cut the legs out from under the protestors. Police with shields and batons charge. The students let loose with rocks, bricks and balloons of paint. The battle is short, brutal, and finally wears down as skirmishes break out up and down the boulevard. Finally, even the dogs tire, and the energy is gone. Now for that nap.

Back on the subway, up to a square. There’s a ballet corps dancing in the street, strewing newspaper, giving their all. Tall, lithe women leap, everyone falls down with legs in the air, then leaping again and again under the bright Santiago sun. The dancers sweep gracefully, sweating now, but lovely, poised and enchantingly alive. They finish. They bow. They salute the crowd. They invite us to the theater for the night’s performance—the last of the season and it’s free. A glass of wine, cool down from the sun, and into the theater for a delightful modern dance performance.

Out on the street, we walk uphill to the area of old buildings where the old residents and old businesses have been pushed out by progress. Gutted, rehabbed, gussied up and turned into the newest outposts for Dolce & Gabbana, Nike, Gucci and a host of other boutiques full of the same things you find at all the other outposts across the world. One more glamorous setting of sameness. But the bands are good and the food is good enough. Santiago has a middle class willing to emerge and show itself.

It’s well past midnight now as we walk back downhill to the square. The subway has closed, so we cross the street. Amid the crowd crossing is a young man who turns, walks backward while assessing me, then turns and walks on. We find where the taxis pull to the side to pick up passengers. I flag a cab and lean in through the front passenger window to see if he knows our hotel (it’s obscure and some distance away).

Wham! There’s a whack to the back of my head and a fierce tug on my daypack. I roll my arms forward to lock the bag in place and jerk straight up, hitting my head on the top of the cab’s door. I wheel to throw a punch, but Chris has beaten me to the fray and is swinging her purse like a gaucho’s bola. It’s the same young man as before who now turns tail and runs into traffic, nearly clipped by a bus and a taxi, but landing on the center island out of reach. A small chain holding my medallion was snapped, but not taken, my daypack intact, Chris’s purse no worse, the punch more glancing than damaging . . . just an urban street skirmish. We get into the taxi, sink back, hold hands and laugh.

It’s been a hell of a fun 16 hour day.

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