In the armpit of the Andes

This Thursday I will leave Santiago, which has been my home for four months. I have mixed feelings about the leaving and about the writing, and I have been grappling with how honest to be about my time here. These four months have not been my happiest – I got some bad news right when I got here, and have been struggling to get over it (I don’t want to talk about it) – but by no means have they been miserable. I met super people, learnt interesting things, went to great places. I had to pinch myself on a daily basis – here I was, living and working in a city 8 000km from home, using the Metro every day, Spanish all around me. All of it foreign and fabulous.

santiago chile

Beer was the theme in Santiago

On the other hand, I became withdrawn, worked too much, fell back into a shy existence, not brave enough to be entirely outgoing. I was suspicious of people and their intentions – and often proven right. I got homesick and for the first time, I was lonely. “Here me heart have no bass.” My sister had her son, and I’m sure that didn’t help. I cannot wait to get home to squeeze that little guy. My own flesh and blood! Bizarre. Beautiful.

I will add that there were many happy moments, chance encounters that became friendships. I have kickass flatmates who are generous to a fault.

Kickass flatmates: Javier, Virginia and Jorge

Kickass flatmates: Javier, Virginia and Jorge

When planning this year, I knew I’d have to settle down for a few months, get a job and save some money before I could continue on. I figured it would be somewhere in Chile. When I got to Santiago on 4 April, I immediately got very good vibes. Luiz from Brazil, a wonderful Couchsurfer, made me feel so at home and after Lollapalooza let me stay in his flat for another week while I looked for work and a more permanent place to live. Both of which I found within 12 hours of deciding to stay.

Luiz's one bathroom was out of order so he made this sign in all the languages of the people staying him for Lollapalooza. Class act.

Luiz’s one bathroom was out of order so he made this sign in all the languages of the people staying with him for Lollapalooza (four girls in total). Class act.

Lollapalooza. Oh man. I had been waiting 20 years to see Pearl Jam live. There was a lot of pressure on the night. So much so that when they broke into Present Tense, I wept. I didn’t stop crying for the rest of the set. It was emotional and religious and heartbreaking. Overwhelming. It was also an intensely private experience that I am still struggling to put into words. What can I say? It was Pearl fucking Jam. The best touring band in the world. Black was so emotionally wrought and I sincerely appreciate that Eddie Vedder is not too jaded to exhibit raw and imposing vulnerability. I felt equally raw and vulnerable after the event, quiet and sad and happy and speechless. Even as I write this now, four months later, I am blinking through the tears. It was a rough night. But one of the highlights of my life.

Gary Clark Jr

Gary Clark Jr

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Lollapalooza was hella big and busy. There were so, so many people. I take issue with the fact that they didn’t sell alcohol. I had no intention of getting drunk but a beer in the sun as I swung to the blues of Gary Clark Jr on the second day would have been rather lovely. They also didn’t let you take bottles in, nor let you take a bottle with you if you bought a soda, so you couldn’t for instance buy three and go to the stages and avoid the food and drink kiosks. Greedy bastards are greedy.

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The second day was lovelier in general because the Pearl Jam pressure was gone. I definitely enjoyed myself more. Best set of the weekend goes to the Foals, who got me off my ass and dancing on the grass way at the back. Those guys are amazeballs. Queens of the Stone Age were unbelievably badass and Ginger Elvis is definitely The Man. The sexy singalong to Make it Witchu was more than I ever thought I’d get. I also watched Perfect Circle which was as strange as I would expect from Maynard James Keenan, surprised myself by rocking out to DeadMau5, thought the Black Keys are overrated (still do, sorry guys).

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And then it was time to find a job. I struck it incredibly lucky with the editor job at I Love Chile, where I worked with journalism students, interns and pro writers. I Love Chile is an English language news website and print magazine down here in Santiago. It’s run by a USAmerican, Dan Brewington, and by a Paul Urmston, who has been in Chile for years and years. Both men married Chilenas and they are down here spreading the good word about Chile. I like these guys a lot. If I had stayed longer I am sure we would have become great friends. Heck, we are great friends.

My job at I Love Chile was challenging at times, but it was gratifying to feel useful and productive again! It also sent me skiing and dining at a fancy hotel, so I am definitely not complaining.

The Orange crew

The Orange crew

I also taught some English classes – deep-end deluxe! I ended up really bonding with the intermediate class, they were full of advice on where to go next, curious as to when I plan to have children (etc.) and delightfully interested in South Africa. I’ve probably said this before elsewhere, but it’s funny how much more you learn about where you’re from when you’re not there.

I found a job and an apartment pretty much simultaneously: I conducted my interview with Dan via Skype in the flat that I had come to view. Living in Barrio Brazil with Javier, Virginia and Marco – and occasionally Jorge, the flat owner – was a good decision. Many expats and other gringo types in Santiago daren’t even set foot in this part of old Santiago, favouring the cleaner, more sanitized areas of Las Condes, but that isn’t how I roll. The Barrio is where the real Chileans live, families and children and working people. And Peruvians and Bolivians and artists and boys with long hair and earrings and girls with short hair and tattoos. I do prefer the alternative.

Scenes from my window here.

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What can I tell you about Santiago? It’s really big. A lot of people live here. Chile’s split personality manifests itself here. A massively consumerist culture has depressed the people. Money drives everything, people work very long hours. Not that much smiling, nor much of that famous Latin American hospitality – at least, not among strangers. Once you find yourself in more intimate settings – a party, a bar, someone’s home – then people are warm and open and welcoming, but out in the streets it’s as ratty as the race gets and colder than Cape Town’s cliquey City Bowl. I enjoyed the buzz at first; it was a big change from the pace of the preceding months.

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But, the smog. Santiago is covered in a blanket of pollution (from industry, cars) for about 340 days a year – assuming it rains on the other 26 – and it’s a very thick blanket. The smog ruins photographs. It ruins moods. It’s frustrating to know that the mythical Andes, covered in snow during this time of the year, is all around you, but you can’t see the cordillera because the smog covers everything, obscures beauty, puts a damper on the day. On mine, anyway.

It’s not like Santiago is more polluted than every other place in the world, it’s just that, due to its geographic location, the smog can’t go anywhere. The lack of wind traps the pollution in this valley. In Cape Town, for example, our pollution is blown away and over the ocean. Out of sight, out of mind. I think everyone should live in or visit Santiago once, or a place like it. All tangible evidence of the volume of shit that the industrialized world sends into the atmosphere is found right here.

Smog sunsets are the best, though

Smog sunsets are the best, though

Chile is an incredibly complex, interesting, strange, bipolar place. It is bursting at the seams with foreign investment (mining is gargantuan), is the USA’s only real friend on the continent. It was under the extremely violent and oppressive military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet for 15 years. Pinochet supported Thatcher when the British took the Falklands – I’d prefer it if we refer to it as the Malvinas, my Argentinian friends will agree – by providing intelligence about the Argentinian air force.

The thing is, Chile is economically robust because of the systems put in place by that dictatorship. And in the 1988 referendum, Pinochet was voted out by a narrow margin – only 56% of the population wanted him gone. Pinochet and his regime and his changes still carry a lot of support today.

Taken at the marijuana march

Taken at the marijuana march

The country has the fourth-highest rate of obesity in the world, more than 20% of the population suffers from depression, abortion (therapeutic or otherwise) is illegal, there is a nasty war going on down south with the indigenous Mapuches, who are being strangled under a terrorism law as they fight for land rights (sound familiar?), corporations and consumption uber alles, shops, malls, everywhere. Then again, the HIV infection prevalence is at a steady 0.4% of the adult population.

It was particularly interesting to be here in an election year. Former president Michelle Bachelet is probably going to win – her only real opposition is the daughter of Pinochet’s right-hand general, Evelyn Matthei who was only nominated after a series of embarrassing fuck ups and fuck outs in the right-wing coalition. The independents are cool but they don’t stand a chance. Bachelet is going to win by a landslide.

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It’s an election year, and there were protests here almost every other week in June and July. I went to two: one student protest (read my article) and one pro-marijuana legalization-of-growth-for-personal-use march (read my article), both of which ended in teargas. And I accidentally walked into another one on my way home one day. Barrio Brazil is a protest hotspot, and they closed Metro Republica right behind me as I walked out. Outside, fires were burning in the streets, masked kids were kicking down doors, vandalizing and breaking stuff. A sea of people were heading my way down the Alameda (big main street that runs through the city), and I got out of there as quickly as I could. Girls in school uniforms with small backpacks, giggling and carrying rocks. That was a pretty tense couple of minutes as I jogged the 12 blocks home.

The students are protesting because higher education here is the most expensive in the world. And high-profit universities are poor in terms of quality. There is massive corruption within the tertiary education system, with government kickbacks being common knowledge. The system is engineered to maintain the socio-economic status quo.

Went to a fashion event and there were these male models and they looked like wax models. Nice venue

Went to a fashion event and there were these male models and they looked like wax models. Nice venue

At the same time there definitely is an air of opportunity here, as exhibited by the amount of English speaking expats I met. And the Argentinians and Peruvians and Bolivians and Venezuelans who flock here. Politically stable, it’s a favoured study destination for Europeans and USAmericans. It is particularly popular with Republican and/or conservative types from the USA. Despite all this, I have to respect a country where the kids protest because they want more school and I see that as a sign of a healthy, engaged society.

Despite the country’s apparent economic health, wealth is very concentrated in Chile. The top 10% of the population enjoys a 42.77% income share. Chile’s GINI coefficient, which “measures the extent to which the distribution of income or consumption expenditure among individuals households within an economy deviates from a perfectly equal distribution,” is 52.06; 0 indicates perfect equality, and 100 indicates perfect inequality. I got my info here.

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From Cerro Santa Lucia

This makes Chile the 17th least equal society in the world. For comparison, South Africa’s score is 63.14 (fourth most unequal country in the world!) and Sweden is the most equal society with a coefficient of 25.

But if you think that’s crazy, check this out: Four Chilean families own 47% of the assets in Santiago’s stock exchange. Andronico Luksic, Anacleto Angelini, Eduardo Matte and current president Sebastián Piñera – disaffectionately known as “the CEO of Chile”, together made up 12.49% of the country’s GDP in 2008.

I kind of feel sorry for Piñera. People do not like him. He sat down at Obama’s desk in the Oval Office a few months ago and became the laughing stock of the world and the source of excruciating embarrassment for the Chileans. Short and silly looking he may be, but his personal wealth amounts to US$2.4-billion. Interesting write up about him and the others here.

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It’s all very intriguing, and now I know far more than I really want to about economics. But, as my friend Alex rightly pointed out, it’s important to know this stuff. It informs global policy. It really puts your experience of a country into context.

Socially, there seems to be enough disposable income to go around. Bars and restaurants are always brimming out onto the streets, every night. Shopping is huge here. I have my own opinions as to whether this signals happiness, or desperation. I oscillate on that every day – much like the way I can’t decide what I want in my own life. Torn jeans, dreadlocks and freedom, or high heels, city apartment and a well-paying job. I really can’t decide. It sucks that we have to choose.

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Back to Santiago. Bottle stores are more numerous than metro stops and they stay open until 3, 4 in the morning. My former-student activist vegetarian Chileno friend Ricardo says the Chilean people refuse to walk more than two blocks to get to a botilleria. I didn’t see much public drunkenness outside the party districts, and I really sympathise with my fellow Capetonians who are being subjected to prohibition-era laws down there in the Mother City. Sorry dudes. Not cool.

I saw lots of fantastic music here in Santiago. One night Nelson and I accidentally walked into the best jazz bar I’ve ever been in – Thelonius. Reminded me of the early days of university in Observatory, when Ian, Lindy, Mark and I would go listen to Kesivan Naidoo and Buddy Wells play at the Armchair. Thelonius is a gem and I went many times, if you like jazz you will love it here. I’m talking the serious jazz stuff, not touristy salsa fusions.

And lots of impromptu music, too

And lots of impromptu music, too

But I did make it to salsa, too, thanks to a jazz pianist who invited me to go check out his other band. The Santiago All Stars were fun. I can’t salsa to save my life. There is just no pattern, no steps, and it makes no sense at all. Also caught a cumbia band Sonora Barón with Nikki and Ricardo in Barrio Brazil one night, very spontaneous, they were sharp and slick and it was a real party, incredibly well supported. The club everyone goes to is called Bar Constitucion. Two dance floors – progressive, noisy, shite house on one floor and cool, commercial ’90s grooves on the other. You know which one I prefer.

The building in the back there is the Gran Torre Santiago, currently the tallest building in LAtin America at 300 metres. Argentina is apparently building a taller one, obvio.

The building in the back there is the Gran Torre Santiago, currently the tallest building in LAtin America at 300 metres. Argentina is apparently building a taller one, obvio.


14 thoughts on “In the armpit of the Andes

  1. Pingback: Scenes from a window | cape/caracas

  2. Nee man, Ingrid. Hoekom skryf jy so goed? Ek moet nou werk doen hier by good ol’ New Media, maar ek kan nie ophou lees nie. Alles van die beste met jou avontuur vorentoe.

  3. All I remember from Santiago is the smog and the constant chatter of the dudes trying to get you to come into their particular bar/club.

  4. Again, love reading about your adventures (I was curious when I saw you’d ‘settled’ to work, but now it all makes sense). Thanks for being so informative, observant and honest. Makes me feel like I have been there, without taking away from your personal experience. Onwards and upwards. Travel safe lady! x

  5. Pingback: Seen in Santiago | cape/caracas

  6. Pingback: Atacama: Copiapó, Bahia Inglesa and Caldera | cape/caracas

  7. Pingback: On planning: whistle-stop Peru | cape/caracas

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