Part 1: Preparation is overrated
Part two: natural disasters are inevitable; those of the fashion variety are not
Part 3: Look who’s made the news again, this time with its jet-setting ash cloud
Freelance journalist Laura Burgoine writes: In the first and second installments of this blog I self-indulgently ranted about traveling dilemmas I encountered while in Santiago last year. These dilemmas included packing too many shoes and surviving an unexpected but nonetheless epic earthquake. Over a year later I find my latest travel plans back to Santiago, halted by Chile’s volcanic ash cloud, which seems to have mistaken itself for a contestant on The Amazing Race. While I wish I could dispense some kind of practical, yet whimsical, advice on coping with these ‘Acts of God’, unfortunately they are inevitable so I’ll move onto the city itself, like any responsible travel writer should do at some point.
I can’t say I knew too much about Chile before I left home. My decision to move there was made within the space of a month. Like a character on an unrealistic television show I chose my destination in a modern interpretation of spinning a globe and seeing where my finger landed. That’s right, I stumbled across it on Google. There was a list of English language newspapers in alphabetical order; I got as far as C and finding success there decided to roll with it. Discovering the country was a major wine producer and exporter was an added bonus, and a gift that just kept giving.
I organized an internship at a newspaper in Santiago, and without any plans or contacts in Santiago I readily accepted the publisher’s offer to sleep on the office couch for my first night. After almost 20 hours of travel from Melbourne, I arrived at the office, luggage in hand, in the midst of summer. It was boiling hot and so dry outside. The “office” was more like a squatter’s residence, with a somewhat official part in the front (and by that I mean they had a fax machine and some chairs on wheels), a courtyard and then a rusty, tin shed out the back where the reporters worked. The shed door was like that of a barn and didn’t really shut, but was bolted at night to keep the stray cats out. There were a couple of windows up high that were slightly ajar year-round, a tin roof, and the rest was a table and a few wonky chairs.
In summer we had an antiquated water cooler that made so much noise the Wright brothers would deem it dodgy, in winter we had a kerosene heater that gave us all headaches and delirium. It was a sauna in summer and an icebox in winter but it was so much fun. College kids, travelers and local volunteers breezed through the office; there was a constant carousel of people from all over the world, from all different industries and there for all different reasons. The lifestyle was fabulous; we’d start each day at 11am, work until 5pm and then have the nights to go out.
The Santiago nightlife is a lot of fun. Many will say it’s no Buenos Aires or Rio (neither of which I have visited yet, to my detriment) but there’s always great places to eat, drink, or dance, until the early hours. Santiago combines casual European rituals of early cocktails and late dinners, with an Asian-reminiscent buzz of busy streets, buskers galore and people trying to sell anything they can for a quick peso. For absolute madness, in the best possible way, head to the street Pio Nono around Santiago central. Plastic chairs and tables line the street, on both sides, while long-neck beer is sold with plastic cups to the loudly chattering, heavily smoking patrons. It’s the kind of place where you’ll be surrounded by stray dogs and vendors selling their usual crap-on-a-mat. It’s noteworthy to mention you should always keep both hands on your wallet or handbag, as this is the place where Fagin and the artful dodger are immortalized.
For people-watching and fashion-policing Santiago provides great fodder. Both boys and girls legitimately wear bum-bags (or “fanny-packs” as Americans say) and not to be ironic or to make a statement but because, as the ‘80s ad campaign boasted, bum-bags combine practicality with downright cool. Boys rock rats-tails and mullets, while for girls it’s all about wearing clothes two sizes too small.
In terms of basic infrastructure Santiago isn’t overly memorable. However a backdrop of snow-capped mountains against a cityscape of high-rises and modest office buildings makes it somewhat surreal and at times very picturesque.
Like all big cities the traffic is chaotic, though in Santiago cab drivers, and drivers in general, tend to speed up at crossings and unapologetically line up pedestrians like skittles. Buskers and vendors line every main street and stand metres away from the next person selling newspapers, headphones, water bottles, chocolate bars, fruit, vegetables, you name it. People stand in front of cars stopped at red lights and perform acrobatics and tricks for tips, making an everyday experience of walking to work quite entertaining.
Many will advise that a truly Chilean experience involves tucking into a Choriana (a mountainous dish comprising grilled beef, hot chips and onion- in that order), or visiting a vineyard, but if you really want to experience Chile at its unique best you need not venture any further than a local supermarket. It’s here that ‘80s hits and painstakingly slow service are married at last. I’d challenge anyone to find a slower queue in the world than one at a supermarket check-out in Santiago. Every check-out is equipped with one cashier and at least one bag-boy, often two, yet the pace is almost comically slow.
If you want to witness the place where Human Resources died (or never existed) it’s smack bang in the middle of Santiago’s service sector. Restaurants and bars are generally the same; every venue has at least double the amount of staff required yet it still takes half an hour to get a drinks list. When you do though, it’s all about the Pisco Sour, the nation’s signature cocktail (though there is a long-running battle with Peru over who actually owns the creative license to the citrus beverage).
Another striking feature any visitor of Santiago would be familiar with is “palta”, which is Spanish for avocado… on f*cking everything. On a hot dog, on a sandwich, on a hamburger, on a pizza, anywhere you can imagine.
So you’ve heard it here first: Chile is not just earthquakes and inconvenient ash-cloud causing volcanoes, there’s so much more, and that’s without even venturing out of the country’s capital. With no real expectations I found myself in a place like no other, a place worth seeing first-hand.