Santiago – first impressions

Central Santiago is a sleek looking modern city with straight roads and glass buildings that reach for the skies. The modern area where I am currently staying; I have realised – has all the charm of a fancy new shiny kitchen where everything works perfectly and smoothly. i.e. none. It is all new, all sanitized, all Starbucky. I could be forgiven for thinking that I have stumbled into some urban theme park. I shouldn’t be surprised as I was expecting this. I knew that Santiago is one of the safest and most affluent cities in South America – and here I am, landing plonk! right in the middle of it all.

Certainly it has more charming parts, parts with character and spunk and personality, and yesterday me and Maria visited a few of these. One that sticks to mind (mainly because it was the first time I saw scenes worthy of taking my camera out!) is a neighbourhood called ‘Barrio Concha y Toro’ – the oldest part of town. The locals are often baffled why gringos; like myself, find such places attractive. It’s short on tourist sites and has a dodgy reputation after dark. Nice! Yet there is a crumbling charm to its run-down fin-de-siecle old town-houses with their wooden shuttered windows, pigeons, and also the slightly sleepy streets are a welcome break from the loco centro. The central square with its cobblestone streets and art deco and beaux arts mansions is the most charming thing I have seen so far. And then there’s the graffiti. Graffitti usually has a reputation for being a nuisance and an ugly blot on the urban landscape and a sign of urban decay. But not here. Here it adds to the charm of the old style buildings, complementing the whole ‘mood’ very well. There’s a certain edginess – a ‘bad boy / naughty child / couldn’t give a damn’ attitude that pervades the place. It kind of reminded me of Havana Vieja. And I felt in my element as I strolled through the narrow streets, camera strap wrapped round tight around my wrist, taking picture after picture, like some urban adventurer on a mission: The urban photographer extraordinaire. There was so much to see and so much to shoot: crumbling buildings, charming wooden doors hanging from their hinges, weird shaped windows overlooking cute little balconies, pigeons aplenty, graffiti wall art and the unpretentious cafe’s that lined the streets. It was early evening, the breeze was swift and cooling and I felt extremely happy – a fish out of water in a foreign land – but feeling safe nonetheless.

We stopped for a drink at an 80’s music bar that Maria used to frequent when she was at college. The bar was called ‘Blondie’ and song after song from the 80’s were being blasted out onto the sidewalk. And then it came on. A song I have not heard for 20 years, probably one of the first songs I was obsessed with, the first single I ever brought, and it was being played in this bar in Santiago!

The song is called ‘You’re the voice’ and it was sung by John Farnham. Here it is – in all its 80’s glory!

The evening was topped off by a bus ride through the centre, a trip on the sweltering but efficient Santiago underground Metro and a little climb up the ‘Cerro Santa Lucia’ – a rocky hill in the middle of the city where at the top you are greeted by a grassy landscaped garden and further up at the top you are led to the Torre Mirador from where you can view the city from up high. Charles Darwin proclaimed the view from here as being “certainly most striking” in 1833 – and today, in the smog-and-skyscraper-filled 21st-century, the view has changed much but the climb is still worth it. At the top your eyes are confronted with a 360 degree vista of the city; a sprawling metropolis strewn over a large area and hemmed in by the mountains that encircle it. It’s a very nice postcard scene of Santiago. Though the urban ant colony of the middle, with its high rises, and 60′ – 70’s style architecture does start to blight the eye when looked at closely.

Finally, as evening drew to a close, we ended up in a charming Sushi streetside cafe/restaurant – run by an enterprising Japanese man – where we  gorged on Sushi rolls, Sashimi, and a bottle of Chilean white.

I’ve not been here long but my initial impressions are that Santiago is a city divided by class. There are great contrasts between those that sit on the upper echelons and those at the bottom. It is more pronounced here and also more important. Social mobility – the ability of people to move upwards or downwards in social status – is less likely here as it is dependent on pre-existing social mores: your family background, your surname, the area you live in – all factor into the equation as do family connections. Nor is the city representative of Chile, no city really is.

Tomorrow I hope to catch the bus (10 hour trip!) down south to Puerto Montt and begin my work at ‘Un Techo Para Chile’ (a roof for Chile) – an organisation that helps the poor build decent homes for themselves. Maybe I’ll get to see a different side to Chile? Lift the veil a little? We shall certainly see.

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