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When traveling South America, one hears about the conundrum of Santiago. Take Lonely Planet’s introduction to the Chilean capital:
“Surprise: the Chilean capital is suddenly cool. True, Santiago may never be as glamorous as Rio or as dynamic as Buenos Aires, but now it’s more than a stopoff on the way to Chilean Patagonia or the Atacama.”
Suddenly cool? May never be as glamorous? More than a stopoff? Not the best introduction for getting excited about a city.
In La Serena, Chile, my host had similar, questionable precautions.
“You’re staying in Santibasura for two weeks?” Her not-so-clever word play on “Santi” and basura — Spanish for trash. “No, only stay there for three days. That’s it. I suppose you need to see the capital and the saying goes ‘Santiago is Chile’, but get a bus to Valparaiso and stay there. Santiago is so blah. I should know. I lived there for eight years.”
And how does one live in a city they found so blah for eight years?
The reality is not every city can be the best. Some cities do just suck, but you need the shitty cities to make the better ones great — to make Paris, Paris and Barcelona, Barcelona. You need the horrible public transportation and decentralization of Los Angeles to appreciate the subway in New York.
But traveling is just personal opinion, different people who enjoy different things, and the more I heard about Santiago, the less everything added up. I needed to figure it out for myself.
On the street corner, a white Toyota parks and my couchsurfing host loads my backpack into the trunk as he introduces himself and his wife.
“We thought we’d take you to the local market here in downtown before heading back to our place.”
I nod with the plan.
“So, you’re from California?”
In the car, we go through the courtesy procedures and humdrum questions necessary during first meetings. Throughout the drive, Nicolas’s body shuffles in his seat as he talks quickly, sharing brief glances between Maria and myself. His short hair falls forward resting black on his forehead set above thick eyebrows and scurrying eyes. Dark stubble outlines the onset of his beard.
“Have you ate?”
“We were thinking of getting some lunch inside the market. Is that okay?” Maria’s eyes jump into the rearview mirror as she speaks. Their brown egg roundness reflect on my own then duck away.
“Maria’s been very hungry lately.”
She slaps Nicolas’s chest and his body folds forward theatrically.
Looking over to the still hunched figure, Maria asks, “Hey! It’s such a nice day, what if we just got the food to go and went to the spot?”
A deflated voice leaks from the bend, “And beer.”
She was the Xanax for his anxiety, the frontal lobe for his deviations, the wine calming his caffeine high.
“You can get beer, honey. I’ll get ice cream!”
Curving through a suburban labyrinth on the peripheries of Santiago, the groceries bounce and weave with the movements of the car until Maria parks on the top of a hill and they fall forward.
“Well, here’s the spot! It’s not much, but it’s ours.”
They look at one another in a flash of affection, silent and exclusive to themselves as their thoughts drift together in a passing, synchronized breeze.
Santiago’s concrete mass multiples in the distance as Nicolas spreads a blanket out on the grass. The three of us sit looking over the city drinking beer and eating ice cream. Shades of blue paint the sky; mountains and glass skyscrapers reaching up to the clouds like shimmering bars on a graph. The Andes Mountains, massive above the metropolitan, halts the forever growth of buildings and contains the city like a test tube. Snow on their tips are like finishing touches on the portrait, reminding the concrete world below of a countryside forgotten.
“So, why is this your spot?” I ask leaning back onto my elbows. I perch myself up slightly so I can sip my drink.
Nicolas laughs too loud slapping his hand against his thigh, “Now that’s a story!”
“Let me tell it.” She puts a hand on his shoulder that quiets and calms his eagerness as she continues, “We must have been about fifteen when we met, and we both grew up in this neighborhood, and when we were teenagers, we were both a little crazy.”
Nicolas’s laugh cuts loud into the air again.
“Hey! Let’s just say I had authority issues,” she said.
“Nicolas!” She hits his chest. “I ran away a lot. So, when all that was happening we would always meet here and smoke cigarettes, and we’ve been coming here ever since. It’s not a particularly extravagant park, but there’s a lot here; a lot of us, here.”
“Lots of memories.”
Maria takes her hand into his, and the two of them enter an exclusive lane of thought again. In the chilled, blue sky above us, fleeting memories float like faded photographs in time’s endless progression. Glass buildings shine like white Christmas lights in the day.
They begin whispering to one another and Nicolas, in his quick, enthusiastic fashion, blurts out:
“You’re pregnant!” I raise up fast from my elbows.
She closes her mouth as she laughs and points her spoon at me chuckling a gurgled, “yes.”
“It’s only been a month though, so it’s still new to us, but we’ve been wanting this to happen for a while.”
“God damn that’s exciting! Congratulations!”
With Maria’s hand in his, Nicolas’s smiles is thrilled, but contained, and genuinely, beautifully delighted.
I’m a stranger in a snapshot of their lives; their lives at this time, here, at this park, in their early thirties with their first child on the way.
After the park, we took an elevator to the 22nd floor of an apartment complex where they opened their apartment doors revealing a vast living room in the foreground of the snowy, distant Andes Mountains.
Maria walks out to the balcony and calls her neighbor as Nicolas puts on a record. On the couch, we listen to music, talk, and drank, as Maria finishes off her ice cream and the neighbor walks in.
To me, this is Santiago’s identity.
Sure, it doesn’t not have the beaches of Rio, or the jazz explosion of Harlem, or the history of Rome. In fact, it is quite flavorless. It does lacks a distinct vein, a unique spark, and it isn’t one of my favorite cities.
Santiago’s nothing flashy, nothing in-your-face, nothing filled with exaggerated fervor or outrageous, rather it’s a pleasant, stable, safe sandbox — special and unique for everyone with their own spots and narratives.
Just thirty years ago, this snapshot would be different, marred and polluted by the horrors of Pinochet that’s still very much a part of Santiago’s story. A country where every Chilean knows of someone affected by the dictatorship. The 1973 bombings of the La Moneda Palace, a president committing suicide in the palace during the coup, waves of artists expelled from the country fleeing to Paris.
And as the neighbor laughs boisterously taking a drink from her beer bottle, I think of Santiago and Chile compared to their neighbors: the struggling quality of life in Bolivia, the economic uncertainty of Argentina.
Santiago and Chile offer a lot that other places in South America just can’t — a country and city stable against the onslaught of the worst earthquakes in the world, a country and city with the only trusted police in South America, a country and city with a well-educated population, a country and city that’s probably the most modern in the Latin world. As I look at Maria and the small protrusion of her belly, I think of the snapshot of Santiago that child will see in twenty or thirty years from now.
For what was San Francisco before the 60s brought freedom of expression and sexual acceptance?
This is just Santiago now, and the snapshot will change, and Santiago will find its distinction.
David Hargreaves is homeless. He currently spends his time travelling South America asking strangers online if he can sleep on their couches. He writes, plays music, wanders, gets groceries, drinks, sleeps, and wakes up to do it again, hopefully in a different place, hopefully on a different couch, hoping a good story comes from it. You can tell him what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.