Saturday, 1 February 2014

Days 309 to 315: Santiago and Valparaiso

In 2010, Chile was hit by the sixth biggest earthquake ever recorded, at an incredible 8.8 on the Richter Scale. The scale is logarithmic so between each full digit is a difference of ten times, so to put this earthquake into perspective, it was 63 times bigger than the one that flattened Haiti in the same year, over 300 times bigger the one in New Zealand in 2011, and about 800,000 times bigger than Britain's devastating earthquake of 2013, which knocked over some teacups. This was an earthquake on a cataclysmic scale, an earthquake so big it permanently shortened the length of a day by 1.26 microseconds. Yet only around 500 or so people died: consider that the Haitian one killed around 200,000 and you'll realise that this is a remarkably low number. Santiago was about a hundred miles from the epicentre: buildings collapsed, fires started, the entire city was displaced by 24 centimetres. But four years later, visiting the city, I would barely know it had ever happened. Santiago was not devastated by one of the biggest ever earthquakes, it simply had its hair badly ruffled. A quick check in the mirror, a quick readjustment, and it was back to work.

This gives a glimpse into the city we visited for a day before going to Easter Island, and five days upon returning. It is modern, well-built, and ready for the world to be turned upside-down. Stroll around casually and thoughts of earthquakes never enter your mind. It's only upon closer inspection that the cracks show. Many of the grand old important buildings of the city, all in the centre, look a little too polished, obviously recently repaired and restored. Many other old buildings are simply facades, uninhabited, dilapidated, and in some case virtually only rubble behind the front, like a Hollywood set.

In truth, I should stress, I never fully established whether some of these were simply the result of lack of maintenance rather than the victim of earthquakes. Perhaps a bit of both. Santiago is no stranger to earthquakes and some of its older buildings aren't designed to withstand them. If an earthquake hits every decade, eventually the enthusiasm wanes for constant repairs. Perhaps this explains why some of the areas around the centre, although hugely charming in their European-style architecture, were virtual ghost towns. Empty buildings and empty streets. It is in the modern districts beyond the centre that much of Santiago's life takes place.

On a normal visit to Santiago, it is doubtful that we'd have seen this aspect to the city, but on this occasion we had guides: Allan and Claudia, who we'd met in San Pedro de Atacama during the floating salty pond tour, and had a very enjoyable dinner with afterwards. They were Santiago residents, and were keen to show us more than just the tourist centre. We were happy to be shown.

We were plucked from our hostel near the centre at 11 at night, almost immediately upon arrival back from Easter Island, and whisked to a fancy restaurant on the outskirts of the city, on the fringe of an attractive, modern park (Bicentennial Park). With us was a friend of Allan's called Pavlo, whose father was apparently the designer of the park. Allan is an architect, and Pavlo grinned that his father was one of Allan's heroes. The fancy restaurant too was clearly a considered piece of architecture, being a series of powerful roof beams supported by massive boulders, with lots of glass. We sat outside, ordered a Pisco Sour, and gazed into the darkness of the park, at the far end of which is South America's tallest building, the nearly-completed 300-metre tall Gran Torre Santiago (done by the same guy behind the Petronas Towers, incidentally).

(photo taken a couple of days later: Santiago clearly isn't so light at midnight.)

It was almost 1am by the time we'd finished blowing our entire daily budget on one meal (the meal, I should say, wasn't prohibitively expensive, just our daily budget is unrealistically tight). The restaurant was closing so we headed to Allan's apartment. Whereby we got really, really drunk.

The latter stages of the night, about 5am-ish, are pretty vague in my head. The next thing I really know is that I woke in our hostel room about noon, feeling terrible. Memories of pisco, wine and even a whisky (Allan had some Glenfiddich) came flooding back with a wave of nausea. I checked my email - there was one from Allan: see you guys at 4! Oh God.

With only a banana for lunch, we both made it to his for 4pm, but I can't say I was in fine fighting form. Which is a shame, as it was a terrific mini-tour of the city Allan showed us. As I say, he's an architect, and so he showed us a mixture of old and new Santiago, but with the focus very much on the new. We saw areas I'd never have stumbled upon in five days as tourist, such as suburbs, the business district, and various well-sculpted parks. The buildings and architecture reminded me of a modern Asian city, all stylish glass and steel. The streets were clean and leafy. Santiago is modern, slick and hi-tech, when viewed through this lens; it is up-and-coming, and in many respects is already there. Chile is aiming to be a fully developed nation by 2020 and there is no doubt that many parts of Santiago are way ahead of the curve.

We headed towards the city centre, and to an art gallery after that, in a grand - although necessarily very refurbished - Parisian-style building dating from around the late 19th Century. Inside was a Bauhaus exhibition. I can conclude that I have absolutely no idea what the hell Bauhaus is about. Outside was perhaps more my cultural level: a man dressed as Amy Winehouse singing an Amy Winehouse song. Danielle at first thought it was a real woman; I was not fooled for a moment. You don't get to 35 years of age without being able to accurately spot a man. According to Allan, the performance was for the Chilean version of X-Factor; a camera crew were filming proceedings so perhaps my bedraggled face has appeared on national TV, if you happened to be watching closely. It's for the best that we then went for a bite to eat and, importantly, a beer.

The mini-tour concluded back where we began the previous night: Bicentennial Park. A long, thin rectangle, it has mountains on one side, modern high-rises on the other, and is an oasis of calm.  Flamingos are clustered in a pond. Allan explained that many evenings after work he would come to sit, have a beer and a small picnic. Perhaps we might do so on Tuesday, he suggested, little knowing the ordeal this would put myself and Danielle through.

Monday and most of Tuesday we had to ourselves, pottering about the centre and areas near our hostel. Danielle went on the walking tour and came back with a wealth of information; I'm a little sick of walking tours (too many people) and also needed to catch up with writing and a whole ton of future logistics. In an ideal world, I'd have a secretary to record all my thoughts and a PA to plan every aspect of these travels; in reality, it's something I've got to manage on a slow and battered laptop, so sometimes I need to take a day out of the travels to do so. Thus, if Danielle was to ever write, she could tell you all about how Santiago's flag was apparently chosen (a man pretended it was the real thing and it simply caught on), that their banknotes are printed in Australia, and all kinds of other interesting titbits. I can only report that the wifi in our hostel was mostly good, with occasional bad patches.

On Tuesday evening, we met with Allan and Claudia, and a few other friends, for a picnic in Bicentennial Park. Eventually. A combination of Google Maps and my unthinking trust in it almost spoiled the plan. Google told me to take the 113 or 113e bus for about 45 minutes, by which time I would be virtually there. We did so, only to find ourselves going the exact opposite way along a motorway, entirely out of Santiago in some other district, called very mundanely Cuidad de Satelite - "Satellite City". Tourists do not go there.

This picture belies our real, foul mood. With no clue as to where we were and with no way to contact Allan and Claudia to let them know we weren't standing them up, we were annoyed and anxious. Nobody in the area, including taxi drivers, had ever heard of Bicentennial Park. Our only option was to get back on the 113 and back into the centre, whereby we flagged down a taxi driver, who also had never heard of the park. We got there eventually by telling him "drive towards the really, really big tower and we'll figure it out from there." Thank God for big towers is all I can say. We made it just an hour late, missing the sunset but having a very enjoyable and relaxed evening nonetheless. My three beers, sitting with me for almost two hours on the 113, tasted very good.

No doubt, meeting Allan and Claudia changed and enhanced our experience of Santiago from "aimless tourists" to "tourists who've been shown around." Santiago is definitely the most modern city we've yet seen in South America. A visible combination of European and American influences, with repeat interruptions from earthquakes, it is a city with a wide appeal, rather than the cult appeal of, say, La Paz. Danielle gave it the highest honour by saying she'd be delighted if our future daughter decided to study there for a year (she often ponders such things). No mention of our future son - I expect he'll be strung out on drugs (the sad cost if we decide to settle down in Glasgow, I remind Danielle).

It's perhaps an insight into the Santiagan and Chilean mindset that one of their most popular cocktails is called the terremotto - the earthquake. A blend of cheap sweet wine, fernet and pineapple ice-cream, it is a potent combination, the name of which I believe comes from the unsteadiness caused after drinking a few. We'd heard about the terremotto soon after arriving in Chile and had been keen to try some, and in Iquique had met with an invitation to do so. Over the breakfast table in our ghastly prison-style hotel, Danielle had befriended a woman, Miriam, and her daughter, Marly, plus Miriam's grandson and Marly's young nephew, Vicente. They only spoke Spanish so I won't pretend my conversation with them was in-depth, but Danielle's Spanish is good and she got on well with them. They lived in Santiago and invited us to meet up with them while there. So, on our final evening in Santiago we did so, for terremottos and traditional plates of meat, plus less traditional takeaway pizza.

We met at an absolutely terrific no-nonsense tavern near the bus station, with hearty waiters and wooden furniture, and a mixed clientele ranging from dignified elderly gents to swooning young couples. A couple of hours passed quickly, over a shared litre (plus?) of terremotto, plus a lot of meat. Marly had brought her boyfriend, who had lived in Canada and had excellent English, which rescued me from Spanish oblivion. We drank, ate, then moved onto Miriam's apartment, about 14 floors up a tower block, and drank some more. For some reason they made us wear funny hats.

And that was Santiago. Tired and hungover, we made our way a couple of hours south, to Valparaiso the following morning. I can summarise Valparaiso no better than the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's quote, which I've stolen from the Lonely Planet - "Valparaiso, how absurd you are... you haven't combed your hair, you've never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you." The core is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and makes for a delightful, if sometimes very steep, stroll. Quirky and colourful, it's a bit like the loveliest shanty town ever. It's one for the photos, I think.

Valparaiso would have kept us happy for days, but we only had time for 1.5. 1.5 days in Valparaiso, 24 days in Chile: it's not enough. We've seen loads but we barely saw anything. Like Peru, like Bolivia, Chile seems like only a preview - it has at least a couple of months of adventure in it. These couple of months will have to wait, because as we left Valpairso, we left Chile. Hello Argentina.

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