Curiosities of the city centre: Santiago

Walking Santiago, like walking in any city, is a discovery of the curiosities specific to that place. Mirimi, my guardian angel tour guide, accompanies me on a couple of different days, where we wander for hours….

One day we meet at GAM: Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral -Centro de las artes, la cultura y las personas (“The Gabriela Mistral Cultural Centre- Centre for the arts, culture and people”). This centre is an imposing structure, shielded by what looks like a copper facade, sheets of burnt metal overlaid one on the other providing a warm, yet industrial feel. This space has lived through several reincarnations. For example, it was a government building during the dictatorship, its penultimate incarnation being a convention centre, before arson destroyed large portions of the building in 2005. Now, it is a place for young people, art, conventions. It is free, open and democratic. Gabriela Mistral was a writer/poet- the first Latin American to be awarded a Nobel prize- who worked in the area of children’s education. It makes sense that this space for young people carries her name.

I arrive before Mirimi does, and as I wait, I notice the sounds of K-Pop coming from a back corner of the centre. Hearing K-Pop blaring in a city in South America, of course I am curious, so I allow my ears and my feet to guide me to the source. I end up at the back of the building, where I discover groups of young people who have congregated in pockets, playing music and dancing. I sit behind the glass and watch three people on the other side, dancing to music and watching themselves dance in the reflection on the glass. They do not see me watching, or at least if they do, they do not acknowledge it with eye contact. I focus in on one young guy, a brilliant dancer, moving with such a fierce look of concentration, he is defiant and strong, a double espresso, no milk, no sugar.  He is in the flow, you can tell. Mirimi appears and together we stroll to another spot nearby where there are several young people breakdancing. We sit down, watch and listen. My heart picks up the pace of the music. I love breakdancing! I mean, I can’t breakdance (imagine that…) but I love watching it, I love the music. Hiphop is urban poetry, democratic, artful, skilful, rhythmic. The body defies gravity seamlessly, jumping, spinning in ecstatic, funky lines of movement. I am excited sitting there watching their expression. I am happy that this space exists.

There is an element of nostalgia, as it also takes me back to my tween years in Mount Isa ~1984/5 ~quite possibly the most unlikely place you might imagine when thinking about hiphop! Those were the days when breakdance made its way across time and space, from places in the ghettos of New York, places that we were only to discover as adults, to a place in the backwaters of Northern Queensland. If ever there was evidence of something having universal appeal, it is the fact that in Mount Isa, during that time, young people got together in groups to breakdance to music that was new, exciting, political. Well, perhaps we weren’t engaging so much with the politics of it, it was something fresh, and in that freshness lay its’ appeal. There were even breakdancing competitions, held at the Mount Isa Civic Centre. Rob, if you are reading this, remember that? I remember how my cousins (Jesus Javier and Jose) had a breakdancing group and we would go and watch them practice. They were older and my brother and I idolised them. Jesus is now a very successful engineer and Jose is in the police force~ both of them are grown men, married with children, I wonder if they ever remember those days……

Wandering on, the curiosities continue to manifest. On the street, my eyes are drawn to everyday objects- traffic lights, shop signs…. Zebra crossings mean something in Santiago ~cars stop. In fact, I feel that there is a great respect for the pedestrian here. I notice that the traffic lights are different. You have the seconds counting down, but as it gets closer to zero, the little person begins walking faster and faster, until it is running. It is clearly a warning so that people don’t get splattered on the road. When I look at the little green person running, I see myself, running faster and faster as time runs out.

Another curiosity are the “Cafe con piernas” – “Cafe with legs”. These are coffee shops where you have women in (very) short skirts serving coffees to (leering) men. There are also “Schops con piernas”~ the same, but where you can buy beer.  Mirimi takes me into a cafe con piernas that we see on the paseo ahumada, which is a main shopping street (pedestrian). I am a little hesitant, but when I see that there is another woman in there, I say ok. The woman who serves us is beautiful, she is wearing a very short, red, minidress and high heels. The coffee is awful, but I guess one does not go into such a place for a good coffee. Mirimi says that this one is quite tame, there are other ones with more flesh on offer. Of course I am aware that in other places there are bars where people go to get served by topless women, but somehow, the fact that this is a cafe shocks me. There is a tension between the location and what happens at the location. Sitting at a coffee shop is something I do almost every day in Australia, I go there to talk, sit, read, and drink a nice coffee. It is a profoundly safe space. I see how the sexualisation of women has penetrated even this, the most benign of public spaces. I want to know why this woman is working here, what is her motivation. I feel guilty when I ask her if I can take her photo as she works, because in my own way, I am also objectifying her, making her into another story….Mirimi tells me about another curious concept- “el viudo de verano” ~ the summer widow ~ the concept of the man who is left alone when his partner goes on summer vacation with the kids- he is left alone, and, as Mirimi points out, he is left to his own devices… into that what you will.

Our walk continues, through a couple of churches. The cathedral of Santiago in the Plaza de Armas was the setting for a rather disturbing event that took place around ten years ago. One day in this place, a priest was delivering his sermon when a deranged man stormed the pulpit and sliced open the priest’s throat in front of the congregation. As Mirimi recounts the story, I am horrified imagining the scene, my mind visualises it easily ~ I am an aficionada of horror movies…. There is a priest now, delivering a sermon, and as I walk around, I listen to his words, his sermon centres around hope and new beginnings. I never go into churches in Australia as it seems to be something that I only do when I travel. Away from home, the church becomes something historical, disconnected from me and my catholic upbringing. I am able to look with a more objective gaze (perhaps). For me, churches are places of deep silence~the high ceilings and dim lighting beg me to immerse into another space…. In the churches I visit, I see plaques, placed at the feet of certain saints. The plaques are there to give thanks for desires/wishes/hopes granted to the believer by the saint…..

We wind up at Plaza Moneda, by a statue of Salvador Allende. This is the site where there was a coup in 1973 and Salvador Allende, holed up in his office, supposedly committed suicide in lieu of being captured. I say supposedly because there has always been the doubt that this is what happened, because the possibility exists that he was killed by another bullet. Certainly, the notion of him shooting himself feeds into the “death before dishonour” discourse, which I find ridiculous and ego-centric. Nobody wants to imagine that someone who was considered to be a national hero, might have been just a man, made of flesh and blood, shitting himself at the prospect of death. These stories of coups mean nothing to me, nor does Salvador Allende’s heroic image. And I say this only because I cannot help but ask myself: who knows what really happened? who was to blame? It seems so simplistic to talk about politics and government in terms of “good” guys and “bad” guys, the eternal struggle between good and evil…..It is so biblical. Perhaps my detachment is simply due to the fact that I am not from here and in that respect, this cannot mean anything to me. Maybe I don’t think that his death was any more significant or tragic than the death of a homeless person on the street, or a child in a hospital. It is worth questioning why we elevate some people to the status of “hero”, while we charge others with being “criminal”.

There is only one place, one moment, that holds my attention in this plaza. It is when we walk past a doorway that has the number “80” next to it. This is the doorway through which Salvador Allende’s body was brought out. It is a door that remained closed for exactly thirty years, until, in 2003, it was reopened. Listening to Mirimi recount the ceremony of the reopening of the door was emotional in its simplicity and solemnity. I realise that this ceremony must have had a great impact on the people of this country.

Around the other side, is the largest flag I think I have ever seen in my life. We dub it the “mega bandera” and we stand by waiting for the flag to unfurl in the breeze, so we can see just how big it is. I am as moved by this flag, as I am by the Australian flag, that is to say, I am absolutely unmoved. But the presence of what is surely the Guinness Book of Records’ largest flag in the world impresses me, even if I am unimpressed by what it stands for. A man comes up to us and asks us to take his photo in front of the flag, we oblige him and engage in a short conversation. He is Chileno, from somewhere in the South. He asks me where I am from, no doubt picking up on my strange accent. Mirimi tells him that she is Venezuelan but has lived in Chile for the past 12 years. He lets this information slide past, but when I tell him that I am Australian/Spanish or Spanish/Australian, his reaction is different. He tells me that he is so very impressed to meet someone like me, and that coming where I come from I must be a person of “alta cultura”, “high culture”. I almost burst out laughing in his face when he says this. I ask him why. He begins by telling me that I am so lucky to be from a country like Australia, to speak English, that I must be well-travelled and know a lot of things. Bizarrely, his compliments irritate me. Well, now that I think about it, it is not so bizarre. I guess I can attribute the irritation to feeling guilty, because as much as it makes me sick to say it, he is right. I am lucky to have been born where I was born and to have access to more than one language, and the fact that I get to enjoy the benefits of that while others don’t is incredibly unjust. And I don’t like to be made aware of it. I remember an Australian at a restaurant in Indonesia getting angry with the waiter for not being able to speak English well enough…. The violence of this scene echoes across time, feeding my guilt.

The final curiosity that I will mention here was a drink called the “fanschop”- beer with orange fanta. Yes, you read correctly. Mirimi takes me to a famous sandwich shop called Lomitz, where we order up sandwiches and where I bravely order this drink, which, quite frankly, I think will taste disgusting. The combination of soft drink and different alcoholic beverages is something we see all over the place. Of course, in Australia, we have the shandy, beer + lemonade, typically a drink your grandma will order. In Spain, this same drink is called a “clara” and is enjoyed by a wider section of society. Also, in Spain you have the “Tinto de Verano” or “Sangria”- red wine+soft drink, or the “Calimocho”, which is red wine+coke. But orange fanta and beer? Questionable. Well, as usual, I surprise myself at how quickly I will judge something before I have all the information. It is actually quite nice, and I drink it right down to the last drop. I have been off alcohol for more than a year now, so this is rare for me, and it is not that I would go out of my way to keep drinking “fanschop”, but I will say that it was quite refreshing. Lomitz is an institution in Santiago, my sandwich was amazing, I finished every last bit of that too….

2 thoughts

  1. Querida Cate: me dio nostalgia saber de ti, por Javiera supe que ahora estas en España. Te envio un gran abrazo y una fanshop jajajaja. He leido de tu viaje a Chile y me encanto nuevamente acordarme de los momentos que pasamos juntas.

    cuidate mucho.



    • Holaaaaa! Perdona que e tardado tanto en responder, e estado desconectada después de acabar el camino 😦 te voy a mandar un whatsapp ahora mismo!! besos!


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