My first outing in Santiago happens the day after I arrive. Javiera, her partner J.F, and Maria Ester take me for a wander around a barrio called Bellas Artes. After we pick up Maria Ester from her apartment, we head off down the street and towards a massive fish market, which we go into. I could be in any fish market, except here there are types of seafood that I have never seen before. My senses are assaulted by smells, sights, noises, and the slipperiness of the floor. I’m still feeling very much like I am “fresh off the boat”, an alien ~big eyes and mouth agape~ but with Brisbane stuck to me still, it is impossible to not ooze “tourist”. I have to embrace it, so I get out my camera and start taking photos of whatever takes my fancy. Piles of gleaming fish and molluscs sing to my eyes as the fishmongers shout out, asking us what we want to buy. I try to keep my mouth shut as my eyes dart about, absorbing. Soon, the eyes start a conversation with the stomach and hunger begins to descend. Mmmmmmmmmmmm. Here comes my favourite part. Lunchtime. We haphazardly choose a restaurant in the market, walk in and take a seat.
Over empanadas, ceviche and icy cold diet cokes, we chat. It is amusing to observe that our waiter pumps the music up so loud that we can barely hear each other ~it is a rather brassy reggaeton jackhammering out of the speakers~ it is at this moment that my body begins to atomically align with the notion of having landed in South America. As soon as the volume goes up, another waiter, a woman, comes along and turns it down. This decibel warfare continues throughout our whole meal. Table-to-table vendors appear selling all manner of objects, Maria Ester buys a lighter for her gas stove that costs a couple of dollars. The power goes out at least three times, we are left in the dark, but it doesn’t matter, the conversation keeps rolling along, in time with the blackouts.
Bellies full, we continue our walk. Maria Ester may be a psychologist by day, but get her out on the pavement and she turns into a fully fledged tour guide. As we walk, she talks about a type of tree called the “Platano Oriental”, which is not native to Chile but that has been planted all over Santiago. She says this tree is a source of irritation to many people who suffer from allergies, but I guess from the perspective of decision-makers, it has typically become a case of “no pasa nada” (it’s all good~don’t worry about it!).
We are now walking in “El Parque Forestal” a long, rambling park. People are lounging about under the sneeze trees, or ‘paseando’, the same way we are. I stop for a few minutes to listen to an evangelist who is on a loudspeaker praising Jesus. He is a 21st century missionary preaching to the assortment of urban savages who have gathered in this place. He is talking about the dangers of drugs ~one of my favourite topics. The hysterical pitch of his ranting attracts my attention. Ironically, there is a fellow under a tree nearby who appears to be passed out, possibly from having taken too many drugs, however a more likely explanation for his stupor is that it is Sunday afternoon and, just like us, he has probably just had lunch. The evangelist sees me standing there, listening. Clearly sensing the need to dramatise the proceedings for his audience of (now) one, he walks over to where the passed out man is and continues his sermon, pointing feverishly at the poor soul, who by now is beginning to wake up “…like this man! He has succumbed to drugs! May he find the light of Jesus! Praise God!!!”. The man is now sitting up, rubbing his eyes, confused. It is hilarious, but not for the evangelist’s sleepy victim. I find this scene ridiculous, but it is true that I admire his conviction to stand up and embrace his beliefs so publicly. But what am I saying? I find this public display invasive, arrogant. I am confused, just like the guy on the grass. What is the point of having a voice if you don’t use it? The evangelist, so benevolent, helps the confused man to his feet and guides him to another tree, inviting him to sit and listen, but he just walks away, uninterested. I take a cue from this~ people should be allowed to say what they want, I have a choice to listen. We move on.
We come across a Botero in front of the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (“MAC”) – I believe it is simply titled “Caballo” (horse). I love the round plumpness of Botero and am stunned to see one right here in front of me, on public display. And that is something very important about Santiago. There is A LOT of art here on display. The street kind and the museum kind. Inside MAC there is a Marcel Duchamp exhibition, we decide to go in. This fellow used to hang out with Man Ray and even had some dealings with Salvador Dali. There are some really interesting pieces, but my eyes get stuck to an unusual chess set that he constructed using what look like silver casts of amputated fingers. Chess is a major theme throughout the exhibition ~I think of my brother and his interest in chess and how he would probably like to see this. There are also a lot of old black and white photos of Duchamp and his friends and their partners. Here they are on holidays in Cadaques… Here they are in Marbella….These people appeared to live an incredibly charmed life, no starving artists here… I look at the photos and I am suddenly standing on the other side of the camera, in another place, at another time. A mute, invisible time traveller. I watch their faces and speculate on the expressions in their eyes…. We walk into another room that houses some work by a German artist whose name escapes me right now. They are textured, desert-like images made using sand from the Atacama desert in the north of Chile. This piques my attention, and my love of desert landscapes. The work picks me up out of Duchamp’s black and white privileged past, and projects me forward in time, spitting me out in the near future, when I visit this area. In less than a month’s time. I see my sunburned feet moving across dry rusty brown landscapes by day and my eyes moving across starry landscapes by night……
Maria Ester leaves us and Javiera, J.F and I decide to walk up “El Cerro de San Cristobal”, so I can see Santiago from a height. A cerro is a hill. They are all over the place, which makes sense given where I am. The entry point to the cerro starts in a barrio called Bellavista, as we walk from the car, I start to notice some fantastic street art and make a mental note to come back and do some proper wandering with the camera. It takes us a little over an hour and a half to walk to the top. It is not a very arduous walk, and as the afternoon gives way to the early evening, I find myself enjoying the paseo. Lots of people are out on their bikes, or running. There are families pushing prams. Couples holding hands as they stroll. We play a game where we listen to snippets of people’s conversations as they walk past us, down the hill. We take the snippets and imagine the whole conversation. We amuse ourselves adding flesh to the bones of the stories that emerge from the soundbites that we hear.
I begin to see Santiago from another perspective as we wind our way upwards around the cerro. At a given moment, the conversation dies away and I concentrate on my feet as I walk. I give thanks to them, and the fact that they are ok and able to transport me on this trip. The temperature begins to drop and the cool air motivates me to pick up the pace a little. When we get to the top, we drink “mote con huesillos” ~ a very sweet, syrupy drink made from what appears to be some sort of grain (mote- i must remember to look that up) and whole peaches (huesillo). People are watching the beautiful sunset, and, adding to my out of body experience, there is a vendor playing Julio Iglesias very loudly out of ancient speakers- the sound cracking under the weight of time and the vendor’s apparent obsession with this warbling Spanish dinosaur. Although this unwelcome blast from the past is an assault on everybody’s ears, nothing can take away the delight of looking at Santiago from above. Glittering lights emerging, it is almost as if we were looking down on a galaxy of stars…….
We walk down the cerro, it is dark and we take a short cut, which causes us to momentarily become lost…. so, by the time we get to the bottom, we are starving ~ Javiera and JF take me to a restaurant called ‘Galindo’. I eat ‘humitas’- it is like a polenta cake but made from grated corn- absolutely delicious. This basically finishes me off. I have tried to stay awake all day, despite my thoroughly displaced biorhythms, and I’ve managed it, but now, all of a sudden, I feel like a soldier coming home from the war. Sensory stimulation, walking, food= time for bed. I cannot wait for the next day to emerge…..