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Across Andes by Frog I should explain the nonsensical title of my journal, 'Across Andes by Frog' - it is a sort of homage to an episode of the drolly funny 1970s British TV series "Ripping Yarns" by Michael Palin & Terry Jones.

Santiago, Route 68 and all that!

CHILE | Tuesday, 29 October 2013 | Views [985]

Chile: la Parte Uno

My initial impression of Santiago, as I enter the central region by taxi, is not especially favourable - grimy, dirty, old faded buildings, a place where compulsive graffiti escribitors seem to be in their element. Packs of mangy-looking stray dogs roam the streets, I was informed later that there are upwards of 350,000 scattered throughout Santiago (mucho perros!). As we drive down Gral MacKenna, we pass Mercado Central, this area is in an olfactory sense, very much on the nose 24/7, which is not surprising as it is the location of the city's central fish markets!

I find my driver somewhat disconcerting. The white-haired old guy, Miguel, looks unnervingly like Pinochet and is possessed of the barest modicum of English. I ask him tourist-type questions, he stares blankly, uncomprehending. Occasionally he latches on to a recognisable word or two in English, but this only prompts him to launch into a further flurry of rapidly spoken Spanish. At this we both sigh quizzically. I wave an imprecise finger in the air and say inquiringly "hotel, si?", he echoes my si and he drives on in silence. When we arrive at my hotel in Ismael Valdez Vergara, the linguistically challenged driver gives me his mobile number (I thought, what good is this?!? ... better if he gave me his interpreter's phone number).

Once inside the hotel, the language problems exacerbate rather than diminish. No one who works here speaks anything like remotely passable English. In time I come to rely on other guests, Brazilians and Uruguayans in particular, with a reasonable amount of English to translate for me to the staff. Asking simple questions soon becomes burdensome, eg, "where do I buy bottled water"? (having been sensibly warned to give the local tap water a wide berth). Eventually I managed to get out the word 'aqua' which is close to the Spanish 'agua' but I think the receptionist was too confused by my early burst of too-fast English to comprehend. At this point in the trip, my neophyte Spanish was way too rudimentary to grasp the generic term, let alone the distinction between agua con gas and agua sin gas. My question confuses the apprehensive woman at reception, after some hesitant, uncomfortable moments, she responds by phoning a friend. Her phone friend, with a little better English, soon latches on to what I'm after and asks me to hand the phone back to the reception person, to whom she explains precisely what I want. Newly enlightened, the hotel woman quickly gives me directions to the nearby supermercado, one problem solved. While I have this at least partially Anglophone woman on the phone I venture a second question: "Where can I find casa de cambio". She struggles initially with this one too, my undoubtedly unorthodox pronunciation not helping, but eventually she comprehends and asks me to hand the phone back to the receptionist again. After they talk, the receptionist hands the phone back to me and the caller advises me that the woman I am with now can exchange money. Phew! Its been hard work just to get to find out that the person who can't understand me is the person who can help me get what I want! Fortunately and a little surprisingly, the reception woman is happy to exchange $40 Australian for 20,000 Chilean pesos which is very fair - to me! (on my later attempts to exchange Australian dollars for nuevo sols in Peru, I find myself decidedly on the wrong end of the deal!).

After settling my belongings in the room I wander out for a bit of a reconnoitre of Santiago. I get about 25 metres from my hotel in Ismael Valdez Vergara and I run into my first South American protest event in Parque Forestal (the first of many such observed people demos on my trip). All the protestors are decked out in blue or orange T-shirts, all blowing unrestrainedly on shrill whistles with the accompaniment of the usual cacophonous musical instruments. As far as I could work out from the banners, they were protesting against the low salaries of trabajadores (roughly translated, hard-working employees), a common complain as worker salaries are generally quite low in the country in the light of 30%-plus inflation affecting the economy. I could see that this was a serious protest by the workers, but one trait I noted each time I happened upon such displays of 'people power' in South America is that the participants seem to be having a good time all the same!

The next morning on the street, given my overwhelming lack of Spanish and zero local know-how, I am bemused that several people ask me directions(!) (I think, I hardly look like a local, surely not?). “Recoleta Mercado this way?” an elderly Chilean man inquires. I give reassuring credence to his half-question, half-statement, beckoning in the direction he is heading, 'si'! Now, obviously I’m not sure where it is, but I’m trying to be helpful and I’m at least not giving him an altogether false lead (although later in Buenos Aires I almost certainly did!), as I know that the Recoleta, a main cross-road, is down that way somewhere, so hopefully and logically the markets with its name is also somewhere near the road called Recoleta (although this does not always follow in Chile as I come to discover).

I was told to be ready at 8:30 to be picked up by the CTS Tourismo bus for a day tour to Valparaiso, some 115-120km west of Santiago on the Pacific coast. It is much nearer to 9:30 when the bus finally arrives (my first lesson in South America that punctuality applies to me rather than to my transporters!). Adrian, the tour guide is refreshingly bilingual and very proficient in English. When we get out of the <em>municipalidad</em> onto Route 68 I meet some chatty, senior American tourists at a servicio in the Curacavi Valley, and it is a relief to have a fluent conversation in English after the frustrating experience of trying to communicate in Spanglish on the previous day. The rest of our Valparaiso group are Brazilian tourists with minimal if any English (one is OK), but they seem a nice bunch of women.

In the bus the guide Adrian reveals that Chile is numerically divided into administrative regions, number 1, number 2, and so on. The problem with this neat categorisation is that number 3 was skipped over and never assigned to any region. Adrian's explanation for this illogical anomaly is that Chileans aren't good at maths (I decide this is one of those self-deprecating national jokes, kind of like the equivalent of an Irish joke told by the Irish against themselves).

As we head down Route 68 for the Pacific Coast, massive advertising billboards announcing the upcoming Chilean elections blot the landscape. These unsubtle messages are of course positive reinforcement to the voters of the merits of candidates and their parties. One element of this political advertising that you wouldn't see in Australia is that the prominent female candidates running for presidential office are identified on the mega-billboards solely by their nombres (first names). Michelle (the former president) and Evelyn (the right-wing challenger), are presumably well enough known politicians to make a connection with the electorate on the basis of a single name. Their parties’ respective spin doctors and marketeers would be only too aware of the advantages of establishing familiarity and therefore trust. Using the first name of the candidate projects a more intimate, friendly connection, they appear more accessible to (and for) the masses (in the Americas context, Evita's mononomenic identity comes immediately to mind). While we are traversing the countryside, Adrian informs the group of Chile's peculiar "obsessive-compulsive disorder" with the tuber - Chile produces some 3,800 species of potatoes (who'd have thought there was that many or that much point of difference!). Apparently, Chile and Peru vie with each other as potato producers, each asserts that IT produces the most varieties in the world of the humble spud!

Upon approaching Valparaiso, we by-pass it and head for Vina Del Mar, a coastal resort town about 9km up the road. VDM as the locals call it, is equipped with a big casino, as you'd expect of a tourist town keen to encourage well-heeled visitors to part with their disposable holiday income. We visited the unusual Quinta Vergara Amphitheater and the recently earthquake-damaged Palacios Vergara (both in Parque Quinta Vergara). The idiosyncratically-designed Amphitheatre annually hosts the largest International Song Festival in South America, which draws the like of international performers such as Elton John, Morrissey, Julio Iglesias and Sting. It is a differently-interesting construction, very airy (decidedly open air in fact!), based on the Ancient Greek model, with its most distinctive feature, the multiple vertical poles “suspended from the air”. I think if I was sitting directly under the seemingly-insecure hanging steel poles, I would find my attention somewhat distracted from the concert! Afterwards, we have an excellent seafood lunch at Delicias del Mar lashed down with liberal servings of Cristal (the local cerveza). This restaurant has more than the odd quirky touch. The foyer entrance resembles a bric-a-brac and curios shop, being packed with various stuffed animals, display cabinets of old coins, knickknacks and wooden mastheads carved in the shape of topless maidens. Inside the restaurant, the contents of the walls divulge the owner’s serious Marilyn Monroe obsession with a myriad of photos, prints, clocks and other decorative features representing the iconic Marilyn.

In Vina del Mar we also see its famous clock made out of flowers (Reloj de Flores). This much-photographed, unusual, organic timepiece was a gift to Chile from Switzerland to celebrate the 1962 Football World Cup in Chile. Also in this resort town, at Museo Fonck, we see the Chilean mainland’s only moai, a gigantic stone statue from Easter Island (Easter Island is so far from the American continent I'm not sure a lot of people automatically get its connection to Chile).

The port city of Valparaiso alone makes the visit to the west coast worthwhile. It's a very interesting place, especially its own distinctive domestic architectural style, a hotchpotch of different-coloured and sized houses, many with brightly painted murals on their walls (the guide, Adrian describes this as “good graffiti” as opposed to the malo type of graffiti consisting of erratic and indecipherable doodling which infests many parts of Valparaiso). Intriguingly, you will find very ordinary and humble dwellings (even ones which are little better than rundown shacks) right next to structures which are diametrically the opposite, very grand and ornate buildings. On the hill of Cerro Alegre we view various examples of unusual Valparaiso buildings, such as Palacio Baburizza, a large, imposing art nouveau building incorporating a distinctive "witches' hat" style of vaulted roofing (now a fine arts museum). Also on Cerro Alegre in the Croatian sector, is the 1861-built Casa Antoncich which survived major earthquakes in 1906, 1985 and 2010.

Topographically, Valparaiso is marked by very steep hills surrounding the docks and shoreline. As a consequence, funiculars or ascensores (cable cars on sloping rail tracks) are the principal mode of transport for residents in the hills to descend to Plaza Sotomayor and the city centro. There are some 26 ascensores servicing Valparaiso. It was novel and fun to drop down to sea-level on one of these funicular contraptions, the journey takes only a few seconds and costs a nominal sum, about 10 Chilean pesos (virtually nothing given the value of the Chilean peso!). The city centre, Plaza Sotomayor, includes the Chilean naval headquarters (Armada de Chile building), the large monument to naval hero Arturo Prat in the middle, and Cafe Melbourne on the other side, it's sign promising “Melbourne café-style food and coffee” (is this in some sense distinctive from food and coffee in other Australian cities, I ask?) but its name will probably entice some curiosity from tourists from Victoria). Beyond the plaza is the docks (Prat Wharf), always coursing with shipping activity. The docklands house a handicrafts markets where I buy my Valparaiso souvenir.

I observe that Adrian, our helpful guide, has this methodology when conducting his tour talks where he’ll try to tailor the information to suit the interests of the particular national group of tourists he is leading. He mentions to me in passing that he regularly has Australians on his tours, so I was able to enhance his repertoire of anecdotes by telling him about a little-known Australia/Valparaiso connection, Australia’s third prime minister, Chris Watson (first Labor Party PM, youngest-ever PM) was born right here in Valparaiso. Adrian is wrapped on hearing this, immediately googles it to confirm the information, and is not even disappointed to find that Watson, far from being ancestrally Chilean, was the son of Scottish migrants on a stopover on route to Australia. With genuine relish he enthused that he would store this snippet up to use when he takes his next group of Aussies (I said don’t be surprised if none of them know this, it's not well-known even in Australia!)

That night back in the capital, I have dinner at a Peruvian-style restaurant, of which there are quite a few in Santiago. I order lomo de pollo and taste the popular South American bebidas, Inca Cola, a sickly, gold coloured and vapid tasting concoction. I’ve no understanding as to the reason for this drink’s mass popularity in Latin America. I am amused to observe one of the diners in the restaurant, a Chilean guy, with his family. As they're about to start tucking into their evening meal, he pulls out his transistor and starts happily playing its noisy music. Interestingly, no one (including the staff) objects to his providing his own musical entertainment, even though its staticky sounds are competing with the restaurant's background mood music. But I remind myself, this is South America, people take a more relaxed, laissez faire attitude to such matters.

The moai at VDM

The moai at VDM

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