Interlude at St James

Santiago is a very different city to Lima, more western, more secular, more affluent. No shanty suburbs here, no lethal drivers in barely roadworthy vehicles; but also no suave mestizo urbanites, no sense of heritage and no decent food. In Peru, a western power conquered but never outnumbered a complex ancient culture (the Inca/Quechua  just being the group in charge when the Spanish arrived). Chile was always a marginal land, and though the colonists had protracted conflicts with the indigenous poeple, they seem to just leave each other alone now. The surviving native peoples have their territory outside the cities, while those in Santiago and other large settlements live a largely European life. This means I no longer feel embarassed by being a pallid unstylish tourist, as only my hair marks me out as foreign, and I’m as well dressed as anyone else here (except the Goths – Santiago has a lot of Goths. And mime artists, for some reason; having recently read ‘Guards, Guards’, and secure in the knowledge we won’t be understood, Beloved and I have taken to shouting ‘Learn the Words’ at them). But I’m not interested in spending too long here, as Santiago is just another city, and I’m not a city person. Even the the snow-capped Andes which surround the city are only visible morning and evening, obscured by smog the rest of the time. 

We’re staying on the eleventh floor of a modern hotel, giving panoramic views over the city. The hotel is a cyclinder which rises from inside the empty facade of an eigtheenth century building. The original inside was destroyed in the 1985 earthquake, but the outisde has a preservation order on it. They tell me they’re due another large quake soon, which makes the eleventh floor less appealing. 

I’ve seen the highlights of the city from ground level on a half day tour (I suspect there are only half a day of highlights). The tour visited the central square, which had a higher pigeon to garden ratio than those in Peru; a racecourse which could have been anywhere in England except for the mynah birds; the Santa Lucia park and lookout, which was a pleasant, if steep, green space amongst all the buildings, and the square in front of the Presidential Palace, where our guide pointed out, with a kind of melancholy pride, the repairs made after the gun battle between doomed President Allende and the army under General Pinochet. The wound of Pinochet’s awful reign is still raw, I think.

We did get out of the city, to Valparaiso and Vino del Mar, with a bonus mini vineyard tour en route, much to Beloved’s delight. But the scrub covered hills and vine-filled valleys could have been Spain, and the high-rise condos of the coast could have been the south of France. Alas, from what little I’ve seen, I feel Chile has little to interest me.

I’m not expecting to make another post for a while, as we’re off to Easter Island next, and while I have been surprised at the level of Internet access on the South American mainland, I suspect Easter Island does not have broadband.  

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