Santiago

Two days in, and I’m nursing my first hangover on the road. That wasn’t my intention, but when a Chilean says he can get you into a discoteca for free, and you’re with a group that includes Brazilians, Australians, Argentineans, and Americans, you go and you don’t ask questions. That’s in the manual.

The first 48 hours have been a blur. Today, I’m taking a maintenance day, recounting my adventures while recuperating. And I already need to do laundry.

Santiago is a city. While that might be obvious, I felt the need to put it here because any ideas of South America being some undeveloped part of the world were put to rest when I looked out the window of the plane and saw an urban sprawl of skyscrapers, factories, and roads.

Those last two items–combined with being beset on all sides by mountains–give Santiago a distinctive feature in the winter: Smog. There is a cloud of air pollution hovering over the city at all times. From ground level, it makes the sky hazy. From Cerro San Cristobal in the heart of Santiago, it blocks what would otherwise be an impressive panoramic view of the city, and adds to the general brown shade that already exists thanks to the leafless trees (I imagine the city looks very different the rest of the year).

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Cerro means hill, which I deduced quickly despite my limited Spanish. I hiked to the top of this hill on Day 1, shortly after arriving and learning my room was not yet ready. The top features a large statue of the Virgin Mary, standing over the city much in the same way Christ the Redeemer towers over Rio. A row of pews sits below the statue, shaded by trees and lined with greenery. It’s a pretty setting for a church.

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After taking the hard way to the top, I took the easy way down. The hill is connected to street level via the funicular, a sort of hybrid elevator/tram. Walking back through Bellavista, I was looking for a place to grab lunch when a waitress came out of a restaurant carrying this:

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That delicious monstrosity served as enough food to get me through the rest of the day. And the beer was tasty. I also rediscovered the meaning of the phrase “sin gas” (used to denote non-sparkling water; brings back memories of Brazil).

Much like Day 1, Day 2 involved a lot of walking. I walked from where I’m staying in Providencia, down the Alameda (the main drag in Santiago, so to speak) to the Plaza de Armas. It felt a little like Main Plaza in San Antonio. On one side is the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral. On another is the National History Museum. The square itself contains trees, fountains, and many statues of historical figures.

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My lack of Spanish knowledge has been offset so far by the helpfulness of the locals. For lunch on Day 2, I wandered into the Mercado Central, a fish market that comprises a city block. Narrow corridors lined with fish vendors run parallel to the walls. Heading toward the middle, it opens up into a large space primarily containing the tables of one restaurant, spaced just enough to create walkways for shoppers and waiters alike.

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Here, the lack of Spanish made things interesting. There were tons of eateries with men and women whose job was to aggressively pursue and funnel customers to their establishments. No one spoke any English. I could only say, “No,” which was not always enough to turn them away. It was almost overwhelming. So I sat down at the one place that wasn’t competing for my attention.

I ended up at what might have been the smallest restaurant in the entire market; little more than a lunch counter with tables in the passageway. I passed the place two or three times, and every time, the tables were full. The only Spanish phrase I knew was Que me recomienda? (“What would you recommend?)

The lady taking my order was patient, and the other men sitting at the counter helped as much as they could. Eventually, I received my paila mariscal, a piping-hot seafood stew with fresh-squeezed lemon and served with bread. And I ate well. I meant to take a picture, but I was hungry, and having gone through the ordeal to get the food, I didn’t have the patience to grab my camera.

I stopped at the Museo de Bellas Artes–the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts. Like the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., the museum was divided into a contemporary art side and a more classical art side. Contemporary artists apparently have free reign; the bottom floor contained a set of rotating screens displaying what I thought might be the video from The Ring, set to creepy ambient noise. The classical side was undergoing maintenance. A number of displays were empty, and the sculptures supposed to be in them were instead on the main floor.

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Finally, I made my way home. It was a long day spent on my feet. Naturally, the best way to relax was drinking pisco sours, dancing to Chilean club music with new friends, and eating Mexican street tacos which tasted surprisingly good (this coming from a guy who lived in Texas for eight years).

It’s as good as any start I could have hoped for.

 

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