Santiago: I love you

"I love you"

“I love you”

This is a fantastic city to walk around in. Avenida Vitacura is an arterial road feeding into the centre of Santiago, so on one of the days that I am left to my own devices, I join Vitacura around the corner from Javiera’s house and start wandering. Well, truthfully, it begins as wandering then morphs into something more purposeful as the day progresses. It is a hot, sunny day. Crisp, blue skies. Los Andes are to my right. Today I feel like walking with music, so I put my headphones on and listen to a mix I made for one of Claire’s parties. It is the right fit as I start along this busy road that gradually shifts from suburban to city as I move.

At the beginning of my walk, I am very conscious of how I move, basically I am taking care to not trip over… This clumsiness is a natural part of the beginning of the day~ up until an hour ago I was asleep in my bed, jet lag still hovering somewhere overhead. The fogginess, a side effect of time travel, clouds the precision of my movements. To counter this, I have adopted a strict anti jet lag regime incorporating (a) staying awake as long as the sun is up, (b) taking a sleeping pill to sleep through the night and (c) drinking about a litre of coffee to wake myself up. In this way I try to keep in time with the sun’s lines across the sky.

It takes some time to pick up the rhythm and get to the point where my consciousness extends out from the micro-processes of successfully putting one foot in front of the other, to the point where I can begin seamlessly incorporating other senses, becoming a being that walks. This morning is the first morning I have chosen to block out the traffic sounds with music. This is usual for me, I do this every day in Brisbane. Walking, driving, riding my scooter around the cityscape, writing…. My headphones create an invisible bubble, and I sit comfortably inside, the music pulsing not just in my ears, but all around me. Music penetrates my thoughts, driving the tone up, down and around corners. It gives the monkey mind a structure to climb on. A space to build certain realities that I inhabit as I walk through space. In her book, Rebecca Solnit speaks at length about the links between walking and thinking~ in the same way, with music at the steering wheel driving the rhythm of my thoughts, I find my own thinking being pushed along by movement.

As the street soundscape disappears, and is replaced by alien sounds, my eyes have to pick up the slack, becoming increasingly wary of cars, buses, traffic lights, strange people. In Brisbane, more often than not, my movements are driven by the automatic pilot of habit and safety, so I never worry about these things. How many times did I ride my scooter to uni and arrive not really recalling the journey itself? Now, it is a conscious effort to bring the other senses into play, so I can be in the moment as well as enjoy my walk safely.

I walk past a couple of men. From behind the safety of my sunglasses I see their lips move, I know that they are saying something to me. At this moment, I am grateful for the dense sonic space that separates us, I don’t want to hear what they are saying. I imagine that it is something pitched at me from man to woman. You know what I mean. And here, a thought congeals out of nothing, bubbles up, floating in front of my eyes and through it I see something complicated, something perhaps that I am loathe to see. I see how I inhabit a detached space as I walk. This is how I inhabit my daily public life, and how I suspect many of us inhabit our collective public lives. Present, but not really. Moving shadows. I move through the world when I move through public spaces, but I generally choose to not be a part of this world.

I do not trust men in public spaces when I walk. Would you like to know why?  It is the sum of the thousands of occasions, mostly in countries like Spain and Italy, and now in South America, where I have had to listen to men direct themselves at me, hissing sexual comments under their breath as I walk past, or standing with other males, shouting out, making my sex the punchline to their joke. Even masturbating in front of me. In what reality are these acts not acts of sexual violence against women? They are violent because each of these episodes has become entrenched in my body, in my mind. They are unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. They are very difficult to wash away. There was the time on the beach in the south of Spain, a man standing hidden (but not from me) as I lay on the beach reading; there was the time when I was in a phone booth in Seville, a man in blue overalls standing outside the door, blocking me from leaving; there was the time in Barcelona near my local cinema, a man leaning on the hood of a car as I walked past; there was the time in Firenze near Piazza Independeza walking home one night after work, a drunk man; there was the time in Brisbane at that park near Wickham Terrace, a man seated on the grass nearby. Each of these episodes feeds into the belief subliminally instilled in all of us, as women in what is fundamentally still a patriarchy, that we do not have the right to inhabit public space as free individuals. Somehow, by walking on the street, we are proclaiming ourselves as sexually accessible, as objects. Solnit draws attention to the phrases “streetwalker”, “women of the street”, and “women of the town”- all references to prostitutes. In a reality of few truths, it seems to me that one truth is that controlling women’s access to public space is a good way of making sure they stay at home, that they remain pure, “good girls”, available to one man.

Do guys who shout things to women as they walk down the street realise the true impact of their actions? Probably not. If I were to engage a man like this in conversation about their attitudes towards women and the ways they might be contributing to the subtle (and not so subtle!) objectification of women ~their own sisters and mothers~ would I be wasting my breath? Maybe. What am I saying? Probably.  I detest this mindlessness, but I will not allow it to build walls around me and stop me from moving. Rather, I will walk defiantly wherever the fuck I want to and thank god for Bose noise-cancelling headphones.

After some time, I find myself walking through a park. It is long, stretching for at least a kilometre alongside the river that winds its way through Santiago ~ el rio Mapocho. This is a very energetic river, rushing brown torrents of water move along briskly, finding their way down from the tops of the mountains where, not so long ago, they were frozen sheets of ice. Somehow, I feel this iciness rise up to meet me through the sheer energy of the water’s movement. It invigorates me, fuels my footsteps.

There is a bridge to my right. It cuts a high, clean arch over the river. It is this simple line that draws me to it. I look to the map, the bridge connects this side of town with another barrio called Bellavista that I have been meaning to go back to, to check out the street art. I turn right onto the bridge, take a few steps and realise that this is no ordinary bridge. Suddenly, my mind flashes back to the secret santa party on my first day. The sisters were talking about this bridge ~the “love” bridge~ and somehow, I have stumbled across it….

Gloriously and garishly graffitied with lovers’ declarations of romantic love, this bridge stands as an evolving work of art. As I move up to the highest point of the arch, I see more and more padlocks, marked with people’s names and messages of love, attached to the bridge. I’ve seen other bridges like this in Paris and Berlin. What do the padlocks mean? It is a fine line between a padlock and a ball and chain. Throw the key into the river. Forever. This word scares me. It scares me because I see forever as a prison. But forever can mean evolution. Commitment to travelling together. Community. Somewhere along the line my computer chip must have short circuited and I forgot this….. The possibility of choice. Even if there’s a padlock on a bridge somewhere, I can choose. So, why be afraid? I ponder the phrase “I love you” ~ it begins to take a different shape…..

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