Saturday, February 25, 2017

Santiago in Santiago

The Santiago Free Walking Tour meets in the Plaza de Armas every morning. As we have become such fans of these tours where the guides really work for their income every day, that's where we found ourselves this morning. (Thankfully, the Santiago subway system is pretty easy to navigate.)

Naturally, as one of the participants identified himself from Canada, we drew him into conversation. He's from Toronto? He works at TIFF? He's close with a friend of mine who also works at TIFF. Small world! That's how we met the man Santiago in Santiago, Chile. Not only did he provide good company on the tour and some recommendations on where to eat in Santiago, we swapped contacts so that we can connect back home, as well.

The main square of Santiago, Plaza de Armas is busy at all hours with assorted vendors, street performers, and Chileans looking for a place to sit and take in their city. Through the tour, we made our way through these crowds to observe the statues at either corner or the square. The first commemorates the Spanish conquest of Chile, and the formation of this country.

For the bulk of Santiago's history, this statue stood alone as the preeminent memorial in the square. Not surprisingly, this didn't sit very well with the native populations that had lived here before the Spaniards arrived. Recently, the city sought to balance this one-sided view into history by installing a statue commemorating the native populations on the opposing corner.

Intended to show the balance of Chilean history, this statue ultimately aggravated the issue. The native groups lobbying for recognition claim that this statue fails to represent any one of the populations that predated the Spanish; in trying to represent all of them, it represents none of them.

Our tour guide Leon was very knowledgeable about the city and introduced us to various interesting elements of Santiago. Key to his tour were two story-lines: politics, and the city's shadowy side.

The story of Allende - the first and thus far only freely elected Marxist president - and the violent shift of power from Allende to Pinochet continues to impact Chilean society today. (For his part, Pinochet is one of the very few military dictators who continues to have supporters even now, long after his reign is over.) Allende campaigned on a promise to abolish the feudal-like system that continued to exist in Chile as recently as the mid-twentieth century. Once in power, he took steps to implement this vision within the constraints of the existing constitution and legislation. Not only did this cultivate opposition from the right-leaning elements of society, it also bred antagonisms within Allende's own party, among those who felt rebellion was the only sure way to implement Marxist socialism. The growing chasm among members of Allende's own party and his policies left him vulnerable. When Pinochet decided to seize power, he did so with significant support from Chileans - largely the financial elite and wealthy classes, though also the middle class who opposed what they perceived as Allende's attacks on their opportunities to move up in the world. Pinochet countered Allende's efforts and privatised every industry - healthcare, water supply, mining, transportation - and changed the constitution to support the increased concentration of power and wealth at the top. Pinochet maintained support through his 17-year reign such that he was never really removed from power. He "retired" from the presidency to a senatorial position, and his followers continue to yield significant influence today. This ongoing support challenges the current government's efforts to open up the economy and opportunities to spread Chilean wealth more broadly among its citizens.

While political battles continue, the violence in politics is no longer (or not currently) a facet of Chile's political sphere. The changing of the guard is a ceremonial affair meant to entertain, which it did.

Leaving the polished buildings around the presidential palace, Leon showed us an uninspiring coffee shop a street or two over.

Cafe Haiti, set among banking offices, political power houses, and museums, provides the men of Santiago (and women, should they please) an opportunity to get coffee, served by a scantily clad server. A "Hooters" for coffee, if you will. This unusual business model hints at the real "coffee with legs" in Santiago, where the women aren't scantily clad - they wear nothing at all. And the coffee is merely a cover for prostitution. Mindy and I stumbled upon one of these shops on our own. The photo generated quite the stir from the person sitting outside the door, so forgive me for not taking another one for clarity.

Continuing on the tour, we walked by the source of most of Chile's drinking water:

Leon assured us that the water is muddy from the silt picked up in the Andes, but in terms of bacteria, the water is very clean. Also, Santiago has very high water purification standards. (Mindy and I pretty much stuck to bottled water, nonetheless.)

Santiago is rife with parks, which themselves have statues throughout them. Many of these are not meaningful; in an effort to beautify their parks, the city of Santiago purchased a number of statues from artists in Europe and scattered them about. The parks are beautiful!

The German gift of a fountain to commemorate Chile bicentennial does have meaning. Even after its declaration as a country, the south of Chile largely remained wild - the home of native populations who repelled initial efforts to colonize this region. Chile sought support from German immigrants to settle and "improve the Chilean race". (Leon is dark-skinned, and so pointed out with humour that this effort to lighten Chilean's complexion was not entirely successful.)

At the end of the walking tour, we found our luxurious lodgings for the night - Quiral Boutique Hotel. Set in the upscale Providencia neighbourhood in Santiago, Quiral is a beautiful hotel with the friendliest staff - highly unusual for us, we ultimately stayed there three nights!

We only had a moment to drop our bags at Quiral before Gabriela arrived to pick us up for the afternoon. Gabriela is the Chilean-born mother of our (mostly Mindy's) friend Patrick, who generously offered to show us around Santiago where she lives. It was wonderful to have this sense of familiarity after a week of traveling. The kind and wonderful Gabriela picked us up at Quiral and took us back to her apartment at first. She offered us her spare bedroom if we needed it, and assured us that she was available anytime if we needed anything. (Had Quiral not been as nice, we might have taken her up on the bedroom option!)

Gabriela then took us to meet her sister in-law Maria Teresa, who lives in a beautiful house in a residential neighbourhood. Maria Teresa's late husband loved banana trees, and so she keeps some growing in her yard!

Maria Teresa treated us to coffee and the flan (sweet milk and egg pudding) that seems to be a common Chilean dessert.

It was far too early for dinner - Chileans have dinner starting around 9pm or so - so we went out for a late lunch (it was around 6pm). Gabriela generously treated us to traditional Chilean humitas (a sweet corn dish) on the condition that we treat her when she comes to Ajax in the fall. Absolutely!

Before settling in for the evening at Quiral, we went out for a short run.

Those street signs caught my attention!

Our run finished at the beautiful Aviation fountain park, where couples seem to all congregate to bask in the coloured lights. It's such a pretty setting; we saw two couples taking wedding photos!

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