It has been too long since my last post, but I hope that I have some good stories to make up for it. Saturday, September 18, was Chile’s bicentennial, and we had an entire week off classes. My friend Simon and I decided to travel north to the Atacama Desert—the driest desert in the world. Before heading all the way north, we celebrated Independence Day in the heart of Chile: its capital, Santiago.
We took an overnight bus from Valdivia to Santiago and arrived at about 8 a.m. on the morning of the 18th. When we got into town, I had my first full-on view of the cordillera of the Andes. They are breathtaking—when not obscured by Santiago’s serious smog.
We took one of Santiago’s modern buses from the terminal to the heart of the city. I was able to pay by swiping a refillable card; this is infinitely easier than constantly having to have correct change—which is what the buses in Valdivia require.
The city was eerily quiet, because all of the shops and stores were closed for a day or two on either side of the 18th. While walking nowhere in particular, we stumbled upon a military ceremony and watched from a distance with the audio engineer. When the carabineros (Chilean police) tried to kick us out, he vouched for us, but we eventually had to move anyway.
From here, we followed the general flow of people and ended up standing on the side of a street that was packed with people. We soon found out that President Piñera would be riding by, so we waited and watched a drum corps perform while detachments of soldiers marched in unison. While we were waiting, a carabinero walked over and told us he had to search our bags. He looked only in the very top and then seemed to lose interest. Not only could I have had a number of explosive devices buried in the bottom of my pack that he never looked at, but I also watched him for the rest of our wait and noticed that he did not “check” a single Chilean. Profiling is more interesting when you’re the one being profiled.
After watching Piñera ride by on his big, black horses, we headed to a hostel to drop off our packs. We stayed in a hostel that was right on the Plaza de Armas. On the sixth floor of the building, it had a wonderful view overlooking the entire plaza, with the Andes in the background and Cerro Santa Lucía to the east.
When we descended from our hostel, we found that the Plaza de Armas had been barricaded and many Chileans were standing behind the gates, apparently wishing they could get in. We decided to take advantage of this and see what we had unintentionally sneaked into.
People seemed to be gathering in front of the bell tower, so we headed over there. An orchestra and a choir of young people were all gathered in front of the onlookers, and we heard over the loudspeaker that Sebastián Piñera, President of Chile; Evo Morales, President of Bolivia; and Alan García, President of Peru, were all in attendance. Soon, the choir and orchestra started up, and I sang along to Chile’s national anthem with a crowdful of Chileans (I made a point out of learning it before I left). It was an incredible experience, and I felt lucky to help Chile celebrate their 200th birthday.
They continued to sing other songs, but I did not know any more of them. People were dancing the cueca, Chile’s national dance; talking; and just generally enjoying themselves.
Simon and I decided to head to the fonda in Parque Bernardo O’Higgins. A fonda is basically like a big fair, and as far as I understand it, they take place only on Independence Day. When I told this story later to other Chileans, they were surprised that we went to Parque O’Higgins. Some even thought it was dangerous; apparently, this is where the Chileans go. It is not touristy. I feel that this adds legitimacy to our going there; I am more interested in understanding how the Chileans live than being a tourist.
At the fonda, which was about a 30-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, various shops selling everything from shish kabobs and more “pura carne” (meat) to cheap trinkets lined the sidewalks. Simon and I had empanadas and anticuchos (Chilean for shish kabobs) and decided to sit down for a while. We each grabbed a terremoto (literally, “earthquake”), which is, apparently, the official drink of the bicentennial. They consist of white wine with ice cream added in. They are enjoyable, but too sweet to drink too many (which is probably not a bad thing).
After talking with a few Chileans, who all—surprisingly—approached us, we walked out of the park. Kite flying is incredibly popular here; there were kites all over as we left. According to some statistics that I have read, there were something like 50,000 people there that day.
We had a cheap dinner at a cafeteria in the Plaza de Armas, where a flustered older British couple came in and struggled to order beers. The Chilean cashiers were disinclined to help them, so we told them the word “cerveza” and recommended Escudo over Cristal.
After dinner, we went out to experience the nightlife of the 18th. We headed to the Bellavista neighborhood and found the Patio Bellavista, which is a very nice open-air patio with many different shops, boutiques, and restaurants that all smack of swankiness.
We decided to find somewhere a little cheaper to grab a beer, and as we were walking down the street, a man started yelling at us in English. We tried to ignore him, but he was persistent. Finally, we walked over and sat down with him, at his insistence. His name was Gonzalo, and he bought us a beer and started to tell us about his life. He had lived in Miami for 10 years, and his English was perfect and almost unaccented.
He made a few off-color comments, but we ignored them, since we were three guys, sitting around and drinking beer. After a while, it came out that the reason he was back in Chile was because he had been convicted of grand theft auto with a firearm and deported. A felon had just bought us a beer.
He told us about his four children and how he liked his sons more, but soon he started talking about wanting to find us some ladies, although his word of choice was not so tactful. He actually managed to get a Chilean and a German to sit with us and talk for a while, but when he became convinced that they were boring, he started to say very offensive things. As the Chileans say, he was a huevón. Simon and I left with the girls.
They showed us somewhere to dance, but then went back to their hostel. Neither of us felt like dancing, so we started walking around Barrio Bellavista. After shaking a creepy guy who kept talking to us, we ran into a group of students doing a pub crawl and went with them to their next stop. They got us in with a wristband, but we were actually carded at the door. This was probably only the third or fourth time I’ve ever been carded in Chile (and it only occurs when you go dancing at clubs—never when you are merely buying alcohol).
We talked with the international crowd for a while, but then headed back to the hostel to call it a night. We walked all the way back, and I never felt in danger, although we did run into a group of unruly, young Chileans. Back at our hostel, I took one last look over the Plaza de Armas, which was lit up beautifully in the chilly night air.
Stay tuned for hitchhiking through the Atacama Desert and our adventures in San Pedro de Atacama, an “oasis” (read: slightly less dry) in the middle of the desert.