Satellite infrared image of greater Santiago  -  yellow is hot
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Todo el Amor Que Te Hace Falta

Santiago

We arrive in Santiago after a three hour flight from Lima. What a change from Peru: modern roads and, more important, people that obey traffic signs and signals, people that don’t drive with their horns, and that don’t treat pedestrians as a national sport. Slowly, I am formulating a new international economic rule: the wealth of a country is inversely proportional to the noise produced by its drivers.

Here, in Santiago, we are domiciled in an apartment on the 14th floor of a downtown apartment building. I begin to have stomach problems; something I ate in Lima isn’t setting so well. The ceviche? It is hot and the apartment is not air-conditioned. I get grouchy. Frustratingly, Trish, as always, has no problem. We negotiate a ventiladora (fan) from the landlord and this helps some, but I’m thinking: We paid HOW MUCH to come here and sweat? Yet we flow—which means traveling is a bitch, but keep on trekkin’.  The problem with Santiago in the winter is that it makes you think you’re in Chicago in the summer, weather being roughly reversed here below the equator.

There are no obviously poor people here; the cars are new, though small; the roads are modern and the drivers reasonably polite—more so than in Boston anyway. If people didn’t insist on speaking Spanish, one would not know one was in Latin America. Perhaps the Chileans are doing something right.

All except for their coffee which, like the Peruvians’, consists of a cup of hot milk into which you spoon … Nescafe—no, it has not disappeared from the earth, it just went south—from an ornately decorated tin permanently stationed on each café table. Café con leche becomes leche con café. While this is not as bad as it sounds, it is nearly so. Yet this is not something they have to drink because they cannot afford real coffee; it is something they like. I suppose it is one of those ratios: as light beer is to regular beer, as cigarettes are to cigars, as creamer is to cream: the pseudo versions begin as a convenience or an economy, but then take on a life of their own and have their own admirers who rather prefer them to the genuine.

As usual we walk a lot.  Though for me it’s a little bit iffy due to my digestive system.  Nevertheless we manage to look around some, and Tricia quite a good deal. One day we walked to the park at a time when there was a big political rally. I believe the dictator had given over power some years previously but I am not aware whether leftists or rightists are in power at the moment. In any case, it was obvious that this was a leftist rally complete with speakers, political signs, patriotic music, and all the other accoutrements of political propaganda. It was quite interesting to watch. I had a fleeting thought at one point which was that, considering history, I hope they don’t realize we’re from the US; perhaps we could pass ourselves off as Canadians. 

The city is quite modern compared to Lima, but at the same time it didn’t have the charm. It did look more like Chicago. That is a somewhat crass observation because I’m sure people would much prefer to live in the more modern Santiago, and have some money, then live in Lima, where the colonial part of the city, the part with the grand buildings, is only a small jewel—and one needing polish at that—completely surrounded by the Barrios of poverty and misery which make up the bulk of Lima.. 

Nevertheless, after a few days with me grouchy and lying sweating on the bed most of the time in Santiago while Trish was out exploring and procuring, she indulges me once again and we decide to move on for a little breather north, up the coast. We rent a car and I get back into stick shifting after lo these many years, since this is all that is available here. Hey, you never forget, just like riding a bike. I began to feel better as we left.

 

Vamanos! a la Playa

We drive to La Serena, a beach town on the Pacific coast about 300km northwest of Santiago. The highway is ultra modern and the drive lovely. We found out later that the highway was brand new and had just opened that week after many years of construction.

The small round hills erupting spasmodically from the plain through which we travel are gorgeous. They are covered with a very long, lush, though vividly golden grass—this is semi-desert, like southern California—and they are dotted here and there with bright green bushes (small trees?). Think of breast-like hills of cornflakes dressed with parsley.

Chile is a narrow sliver of a country—so narrow and so long that on road maps it is invariably split into a north piece and a south piece that are displayed side-by-side. Ruta Cinco (Route Five) is now Chile’s main north-south camino. Even I can’t get lost on this piece of concrete. But now things begin to happen that remind us where we are and how thin is the veneer of modernity.

We are driving on a glass-smooth, four lane divided highway going, like everyone else, about 120kph. At one place along the highway, with no town visible whatsoever, dozens of people are standing on the shoulder and they are all waving little white flags. After translating a few signs we figure out that the message is: “buy your homemade candy here”. We continue. Forty miles further on, and still going 120kph, I startle to see a bunch of (wild?) burros crossing the highway—in my lane! With a reaction time that belies my 66+ years—I think the stick shifting had gotten me revved up—I manage not to kill them—or us. There is a fence of sorts along the highway but it is one of those suggestive, Latin sort of fences that the burros didn’t even slow down for. We continue. Another 100 miles north we come across another portable bazaar on the shoulder from another town consisting of 15 or 20 vendors with more flags standing along the shoulder. Goat cheese is this region’s specialty. Fifty miles more, still zipping along at 120kph, we see another shoulder bazaar. What is it this time? Young men are holding something heavy up. It’s red. It seems to be—yes it is—it’s the goat, the whole goat, neatly butchered, with the rib cage cut, flattened and turned out for display.

I think to myself, after we pass, that when we come back, going south, this could be like a progressive dinner with the sweet at the end.

 

La Serena is a beach town of 150,000 souls that is not on the beach. The founding fathers were ranchers, not bathers, and they firmly placed the town square a mile or two inland and built out from there. In one direction, the west, they, in the process of growing, and quite by accident, ran into the Pacific ocean. This area has now been developed for tourists and ever since, the Argentines, who have money, come in search of inexpensive vacations. Everything in Latin America is cheaper than it is in Argentina it seems. For miles along this Pacific beach, to accommodate the Argentines, the Chileans have built new condos. They are all constructed of fairly ugly but architectural-looking, unpainted concrete planes forming cantilevers and buttresses, in the style of le Corbusier, whose designs seem to have more stark rectilinear surfaces than strictly necessary for structural integrity.

Having no reservations, and arriving in the town itself at about five in the afternoon, we walk around and find a hostel with a vacancy, just in order to have a place to sleep before evening. In the morning, after a nearly sleepless night, we admit that the room we are in is dark, gloomy and damp and the pillows are like logs. I don’t like making a fuss, but after a brief conversation with the hostelry—me in the room, Trish on the front lines—we make the switch to a three-star hotel a few blocks away. Old-nice, sixty bucks a night for a small suite, including breakfast and pillows that have a little give to them. Now I’m feeling better.

Our new residence is a block from the town square, a very pretty quadra of tile walks, old statues and older trees. This place is busy from six in the morning till two the next morning: sidewalk vendors, entertainers, helados (ice cream—very big here), one night even saw a fellow who was a fire-breather who just managed not to incinerate the encircling and highly entertained crowd, or even to singe his own eyebrows.

The food here, as in the rest of the country—one should really say in Latin America—is remarkably, consistently bad. Breakfast, with fruit, cornflakes and scrambled eggs, has gradually become our favorite meal; it is amazingly difficult—culinarily—to screw up breakfast. One night we found a decent Chinese restaurant and that was a nice change. I don’t mean that the food here is prepared poorly, it’s just that the selection seems so limited and everything is so highly salted and flavored. The focus is almost entirely on the meat, and the vegetables are few and far between. Salads are not usually served with a meal and, when available, at extra cost, it will probably be ensalada mixta, that is, a variety of cold vegetables with a vinaigrette sauce. Lettuce? Well maybe.

This food business is a mystery that intrigues me while it annoys me. Perhaps it is simply the gaucho gastronomy where the aim was to convert the tough, stringy, rather tasteless beef into something that would fill you up and get you back to work fast. So you ground it up, you spiced it, smoked it, grilled it and sauced it, and there you are.

Pan (bread) expands the culinary mystery; while they do have Pan Bimbo, the Latin American equivalent of Wonder bread, they also seem to have all the breads for which Europe is famous: baguettes, round crusty loaves of many types and sizes with their tops slashed and browned. Some have a milk or egg wash that makes them glisten. They’re all here, beautifully piled up in the bins of the Panaderias (bakeries) that are all over Latin America’s cities. But these beauties just don’t taste right. When you break them in two the crust isn’t crisp and flaky, and the interior, instead of being nice and cottony-stringy with a pleasant little elastic resistance when you pull it apart, is kind of mealy and snaps in two like a carrot. While adequately salted—of course—the taste nevertheless is bland.  Why?  Is it the raw materials?  The technique?  The recipes?  I want to know.  Tricia’s reaction to this diatribe is that I have merely become an old grouch—undoubtedly true—but I notice she doesn’t like the food much either.

 

We begin our trek back to Santiago; tomorrow we leave for Buenos Aires.  It is uneventful, and that is not a bad quality when one is on the move.  When we reach Santiago we do a quick search for a good hotel in which to spend our last night here and find one in a nice district.  We unload our luggage and check in.  A lovely place, and air-conditioned.  I am beat and it is not long before I’m in bed and asleep.  Tomorrow we head for the airport, and a new adventure.