Santiago. Wedged between two mountain ranges. Forming the perfect catchment area for all the city’s smog. It really isn’t anything to write home about with its high rise blocks, densely populated squares and belching trucks. It represents a modern city with transport networks that propel it to first world status, but there’s a grimness to the faces that surround us. One can’t help but wonder what had happened to this city, why it exists and why it remains so popular. Over the course of the next couple of days we soon found it.
The city itself was once a thriving Inca settlement. It served as a base for all the failed Inca expeditions southward toward Ushuaia. The Spanish (yet again) came along in search of precious stones. Valdivia, a Spanish conquistador, ransacked the city and claimed it as his own. Santiago (named after the patron saint of Spain) lies between two distinct rivers, which provides a natural barrier to any would be native invaders. However, over the years the rivers ran dry, and left the city vulnerable to attack. One fateful night, while old Valdivia was out conquering other territories up north, the indigenous hosts attacked the city and completely raised the town to the ground. To this day remains a rather strange relationship with the ‘native’ Mapuche people. Often times being the victims of hate crimes. Although there is a movement to give the Mapuche people their dues, and the local chileans seem to leaning toward giving them more space to be. But something tells us that any sense of equality is still a long way off.
From local tribes, attempting to overthrow the colonists, to the earthquakes and endless rainfall, early Santiago never seemed to get a break. This part of the world is on the ‘ring of fire’. The city itself sits on one of the most dangerous grounds on the planet. Unstable tectonic plates result in well over 2000 earthquakes per year (the locals seem to just shrug it off as a mere ruffling of feathers). One such day we got to experience one of those earth moving moments. We were just rubbing sleep from our eyes when our hotel bed (yes – a hotel, Daniel had booked us in at a rather fancy place for my birthday – delightful!) started to rattle ever so slightly. I turned over, thinking it was but a truck below of sorts. Fem was convinced we had just experienced our first earthquake. Lo and behold looking on google, there it was plain as day. A warning message ‘Santiago is currently experiencing an earthquake’, 3.2 on the Richter scale. Not enough to wake a church mouse but still enough to tick such an event off the books.
Rattled awake, it was time to explore what the town had to offer. As usual, we booked ourselves a free trotting tour. Our guide in Buenos Aires was excellent, which gave us high expectations for the next one. Sadly, this one was below average at best. Opting for “it’s complicated to understand, so I won’t bore you with the details” attitude. Well mate, believe it or not, that is exactly why we do your tours! So please bore us with the details. We kinda got the jest of what had happened in this part of the world (like every other part of South America). Three themes were prominent. One: colonisation – which leads to social injustice – which provided the perfect vacuum for… Two: dictatorship – further suppression of basic human rights and further injustice – which lead to resistance and paranoid dictators – which lead to… Three: genocide.
Like almost any other South American country, Chile was no different. However, it did initially take a rather progressive route. Up until the 70s, Chilean society was one of the most stable and democratic societies in the Western Hemisphere, with a solid social structure, integrated by a professional middle class. United the working and middle class overthrew the rather corrupt clientelism elite. This gave way to a rather strong economy during the first half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, due to global economic slowdown, Chile suffered from rather sluggish growth. Fearing the economy would go into complete melt down, a series of monetary policies increased the amount of currency in circulation. Which – surprise, surprise – leads to inflation. A series of strikes led by professional unions and student bodies weakened the socially progressive popular unity party (lead by the then President Salvador Allende). Fearing the country would collapse into complete chaos President Allende sought advice from one of South America’s most notorious dictators, Fidel Castro. Castro gave four famous pieces of advice: convince engineers to stay in Chile, only sell copper for US dollars, avoid extreme revolutionary acts which would give opponents an excuse to wreck the economy, and maintain a proper relationship with the Chilean military. Watching the beady eyes, the mighty U.S of A was not happy with such a state of affairs. Fearing the country would tip in favour of communism and thus, nationalizing all of the U.S owned mines and expel any U.S business, they decided to meddle in foreign political affairs. The CIA (here’s more details) ran a series of operations to influence the local army, and pay local truck drivers to stop delivery of much needed food.
Starving, the military – under a rather watchful eye of Commander-in-Chief of the army, Augusto Pinochet, sponsored by the CIA – staged a coup d’etat took place on September 11, 1973. As fighter jets dropped bombs on the presidential palace, Allende made his famous defiant speech (here’s a recording with english subtitles). Cementing his place in history as one of the most influential presidents of South America. That day marked the start of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. Through international appeal, he was finally overthrown in 2002. 80 000 people lost their lives during this period, while this asshole died peacefully in his home in 2006 at the ripe old age of 91. He was never convicted and – to add further insult to injury – was supported by the British government (he agreed to help Britain during the Falkland war).
Anyway enough with the political rants…
Continuing on from Santiago we decided to spend a few days in the lovely port town of Valparaiso. Situated about an hour from the city, the town used to be one of the biggest ports of South America. Surrounded by over 100 hills, which makes it a bit difficult to traverse by foot.
The crafty Germans who settled here some years ago (a flurry of Europeans flooded the port city as it was an important trade port between the Atlantic and Pacific ocean) came up with an idea to build lifts or ascensors all about the place. Dotted across town there are over 16 different ascensors which make for some interesting jittery rides.
Valparaiso is regarded as a UNESCO site and, as such, a large portion of it is still decked out in classical architecture. Strange seeing this juxtaposed with modern street art. Everywhere you go there is street art to be seen from famous artists around the world. As the city took pride in its heritage they decided that they didn’t want any “graffiti” or tags about and settled rather on politically inclined street art. Rather a spectacle to see (although unlike other street art, this art remained static).
Traveling South America, we’ve been aware of the dangers that come with widespread poverty. We had heard many tales of those who had been mugged or pickpocketed. However, never had we imagined we would ever fall victim to these petty crimes. Especially not in Chile, the ‘safest’ country in South America. Strangely, we had been speaking about not feeling at all unsafe in any of the countries and that people had to be ‘rather stupid’ be targeted the day before. We always remain vigilant and ere of the side of caution whenever we walk about the city. However, unfortunately, as fate would have it (or murphy’s law) one such day came about. While doing another walking tour, learning about the rich history of Valparaiso, an opportunistic teenager decided we were all soft targets (all 16 of us).
A peculiar thing happens whenever you’re life is seemingly in danger. Time slows down at a dramatic pace. We were all gathered around in a circle intently listening to our guide when all of a sudden out of nowhere someone in the group shouted ‘HE HAS A GUN!’ For some unknown reason, none of us seemed to register what was going on. The next thing there was this kid amongst US wielding a gun shouting ‘todo todo todo’ which means everything everything everything. We all remained calm, while the tour guide pleaded in Spanish. The guy made his first round taking cameras off our shoulders. I was last, but I remember clearly looking at this gun and thinking this is fake, this isn’t happening. Quite frankly I was more annoyed than afraid. Fem shouted at me to just hand my camera over (after all – we had insurance for these sorts of situations). I reluctantly gave it over. Feeling cocky, the boy then decided he could take even more stuff and again, decided to make his rounds. At that point, I saw a gap and darted behind a van to leave my wallet and phone (there was no way this child, who was wielding a fake gun, was going to take the rest of my stuff – he had already taken Fem’s wallet and phone – we would be left with nothing). I came back just before he turned to me to shove his hands in my pockets and to check if I was wearing one of those secret belts – luckily I had nothing. Feeling rather smug with himself, he nonchalantly made his way down the street, as if nothing had happened. Immediately our guide got on the phone (she said in Spanish to him please don’t take my phone, I need to call my boss – how he didn’t put two and two together that she would call the police straight away is beyond me – but nonetheless he did) and called the police. Long story short the guy was caught, and all our stuff was returned 45 minutes later.
The scariest experience came when I had to testify in court the next day with the guy right next to me shouting to the judge that I was lying. Anyway he was put away for 60 days waiting for yet another trial. At least we got to experience the criminal justice system first hand – and for free!
Feeling rather spooked by the whole experience we decided to make our way back to Santiago and gather ourselves again. After the whole experience we felt quite lethargic and apathetic toward travelling – almost booking flights home. I had bought us tickets to Easter Island for Fem’s birthday. A much needed retreat from the hustle and bustle of Santiago. A break from the mugging experience and a chance to slow things down a bit and discover the rather mysterious and enigmatic island.