KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We are getting quite used to flying into new countries, but this marks the beginning of a whole new continent for us. It was pretty exciting, but a little daunting too. By starting out in Chile instead of working our way through Central America and into Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, we were travelling further south than we had ever travelled before. It’s surprising what challenges this presents, apart from those that can be easily anticipated. I will start by giving you some details about the geography of Chile that will set the stage for some of the interesting things we have learned in our three short weeks here.
You are no doubt aware that Chile is a long, narrow country. To put it in perspective, Chile is over 4300 km long, about the same distance that we drove from Victoria to Montreal this past fall. And yet it averages around 200 km wide, far less than the distance from Edmonton to Calgary or from Ottawa to Montreal. It’s the longest country, north to south, in the world. When we flew into Santiago, we were already further south than the tip of South Africa, and very near the bottom of continental Australia. There’s really very little land further south than we are now.
Another interesting fact is that the west coast of South America is mostly east of the east coast of North America. Put another way, Santiago is east of New York City. That seems strange to us because we usually think of the continents of North and South America as sitting one above the other. Now this presents an interesting situation when time zones are factored into the equation. When we booked our flights to Santiago, we learned that even though it was an eight-hour flight, there was an additional three-hour time change. As Mexico City was on Central Time, this appeared to put us way east of the Maritime Provinces, somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean. That didn’t seem right, somehow.
Then we looked at our return booking for the middle of May. The departure time and the arrival time were eight hours apart, about the duration of the flight. What happened to the time change? To us, it seemed that we would be arriving back in Mexico only five hours after leaving Chile, if the time change was factored in. We were convinced that the travel agency had made a mistake when calculating our departure and arrival times. Sure enough, about a week after we arrived, we received an email from TD Travel asking us to call in and confirm a change they were making to the timings of our return flight. We were smug or what? When we called, we learned that they were only changing the departure and arrival times by half an hour at each end. There was still only an eight-hour difference in the times.
This was bugging Anil to no end. How could this be? He was pretty sure that the Daylight Savings Time adjustments were the key, but he had to puzzle it out for a while before it became clear. Eventually, he realized that the old maxim ‘Spring Forward, Fall Back’, the way we change our clocks to achieve more daylight outside of office hours, was the answer. We figured that while North Americans were ‘Springing Forward and Falling Back’, the South Americans were ‘Springing Back and Falling Forward’. The image of Chileans falling on their faces was too funny for words. However, this does explain why there is a three-hour time difference in January. North Americans are not on daylight savings time, but South Americans are. When the reverse is true, there is only a one-hour time difference between Mexico and Chile.
Now, if you know Anil, you’ll know that he wasn’t completely satisfied with this explanation. The solution that we came up with didn’t really take into account the differences in seasons between North and South America. When it’s spring in the north, it’s fall in the south. Seems simple, but it’s hard to get your head around thinking of January and February as the hot summer months, and fall starting around the end of March. When he puzzled over this some more, he realized that everyone in the Americas actually ‘Springs Forward’ and ‘Falls Back’. It’s just that when Canadians are ‘Springing’, Chileans are ‘Falling’. Too funny, or are we just getting giddy from all the warmth and sunshine here in January!
EDITOR’S NOTE: All this talk of falling and springing. I just wish the stock market would spring back after falling so far!
All this craziness about time differences aside, we chose to fly into Santiago just after midnight because there was a considerable saving with a night flight. We had heard from several people that there are inexpensive flights from Canada and the US to South America, but that once you are south of the States, the options are much fewer and the costs far higher. It was even suggested to us that we should look at flying back north in order to get an affordable flight south. More craziness.
We looked at all the permutations and combinations on the internet but ruled out flying back to Toronto to get a flight to Santiago for a couple of reasons. First, the maximum time that you could extend the trip was three months (we wanted to be in South America for at least four months) and the second was that we had left our car in storage in Denver, so Toronto didn’t make a lot of sense either. In the end, we opted to fly on Aeromexico, for what seemed like an exorbitant fare, but we had limited our options by coming to Mexico for two months first; who knew.
We booked a hotel for our first two nights in Santiago and arranged to have a taxi meet us at the airport. We don’t usually do this, but then we don’t usually arrange to fly into a new city in the middle of the night either. All worked well, and the taxi driver even spoke a little English. We set about the next morning arranging to rent an apartment for a month. We’d read that this was a great option for affordable accommodation in Santiago. We arranged this through an agency called ContactChile. The agency fee is steep, especially if you are only renting for one month, but we felt it was worth it because they have English-speaking agents, they search their databases for suitable accommodation, they draw up the contracts with the landlord in Spanish, and they hold the damage deposit in their account to make sure it is refunded if everything is satisfactory when you leave.
We chose a beautiful one-bedroom apartment in the heart of Providencia, an upscale neighbourhood between the business district and the heart of the city. We probably could have found something in a more bohemian part of the city, but it was too hot to try scheduling appointments with landlords and dragging ourselves around. This place has everything we needed, in a very new building, with all the amenities. We especially liked the fact that there is a coin laundry in the building so we don’t have to drag our dirty clothes to a public facility and sit and wait for ages. The computer room with wireless is just next door and I usually choose to use the internet rather than the exercise equipment while waiting for the clothes to dry.
I included a photo of the pool that I took from our balcony. What I didn’t show is the great scenery around the pool. No, I’m not talking of the Andes in the background, but the bikini-clad young women who spend the afternoons sunning themselves on the pool deck. Thank goodness Anil doesn’t wear glasses yet or he would see that a few of them take their tops off when they are tanning their backs. The pool is small and rather cold, but it doesn’t deter the children who come with their parents in the late afternoon. There aren’t too many children in the building; there seem to be a lot of university students staying here. I’ve spoken to a few of the women in the computer room and they are from other parts of Chile. They must be from well-to-do families because they are staying in this beautiful building, they all have laptops and they are students, not young working-women.
Now that all the business details of finding a place to stay were taken care of, we decided to head into the center of the city to get a sense of the place. Now old hands at metro stations, we purchased a ‘Bip!’ card, a stored-value card for the metro and the city buses. It’s called a ‘Beep’ card because there’s a ‘beep’ sound when you swipe it against the entrance gate. I can’t seem to quit calling it a ‘Bip’ card, though in Spanish ‘I’ is pronounced ‘EE’. The Santiago metro system is state of the art, and speaking of art, several of the stations have beautiful paintings hung on the walls of the platforms. I’m happy to report that they don’t seem to be attacked by vandals, though the rest of the city has more than its share of graffiti.
It seems that every city in Latin America has a central square called ‘Plaza de Armas’. Santiago is no different. It was here we headed on our first Saturday night in the capital. It’s a huge open area with a treed park on one side, colonial buildings facing the square on all sides, and a terrace café on the east side. Anil made a mental note for us to return for a drink once we were done wandering through the plaza and down the main pedestrian street that branches off towards the river. It was early evening when we arrived and most of the stores were closed or closing and the street hawkers were arriving with their pirated movies and sunglasses. There were vendors selling toys for children, drinks for the thirsty and all the other usual suspects. It was a busy scene, and we loved it.
We had a tour of the district and headed back to the café on the plaza. As we walked towards the entrance, I saw a couple of tables with very pale folk speaking English. I’m not normally drawn to sit near other foreigners, but for some reason today was different. Perhaps it was because we have heard so little English spoken since arriving. For whatever reason, we asked the waiter to seat us beside the other tourists. I did make a mental note that none of them were smoking. It seems the outdoor cafes are where all the smokers congregate, as even here, smoking is now discouraged indoors. As we were studying the menu, a man at the next table leaned over and greeted us in a warm and friendly manner. It was great to be able to communicate. He and his wife are from Australia and they have purchased a condo in Santiago. This is one of their favorite places to sit in the evenings and have a light meal and a drink.
We had each ordered a cold beer, but Chris and Jennifer suggested we try the popular Chilean drink known as a ‘pisco sour’. We had never even heard of it before. It’s a drink made from local brandy mixed with lemons, sugar and the white of an egg. Jennifer told us that we were in the right place for a great pisco sour, and that one waiter in particular, made the best of the lot. By chance his name is the Spanish equivalent of David, an easy name for me to remember. Chris is a very talkative guy. As you know, I’m no slouch, and before you knew it, we were fast friends. They were interested in the fact that we had rented an apartment, as they only use their condo two months of the year and have considered renting it out during the other months.
After whiling away the evening, getting to know each other, they kindly invited us back to their place to see their building and to have a coffee. The building is only three years old and is very like ours. We think that, perhaps, they were constructed by the same builder. While we were chatting, Chris suddenly yelped that he had lost a large filling in his tooth. On the way to their place, Chris had pointed out a good medical clinic nearby, in case we were ever in need of medical attention. Chris slipped out to the clinic while we were visiting with Jennifer and came back a short time later with the great news that they had a dentist on call and that she would see him within the hour. Chris went off to the clinic and Jennifer walked us back to the main street to catch a taxi home, it was after 10:00pm and the metro was closed for the night.
Before leaving, Jennifer told us that while they were only in Santiago for another week, they were planning on visiting the Cemetarios General on Monday, and asked if we would be interested in joining them. I had read about this large cemetery in my guidebook and wanted to see the large monument to the people who were executed during the military coup in 1973. We made plans to meet up with them on Monday. As we settled into bed that night, we couldn’t help thinking about what an eventful day it had been. We had found a great place to stay, at a very affordable price and met some almost local people who could give us tons of advice about living in Santiago and touring Chile.
We’ve come to learn that Sundays are very quiet, family-oriented days in traditional Catholic countries and we slowed our pace accordingly. We went for a long walk through Providencia to try and get to know the residential neighbourhood a little better. There are an amazing number of large trees here and the mix of older homes and new apartment buildings are all beautifully landscaped. I was still trying to get used to the idea that we were in South America, I had to keep pinching myself to remember that I wasn’t walking through the neighbourhoods of Victoria back in Canada. Santiago at this time of year really seems like a cross between Vancouver and Victoria, there are mountains in the distance, but no ocean nearby.
On Monday, we met with Jennifer and Chris, as planned and set off for the cemetery. I had wanted to visit a cemetery in Mexico as we had arrived just days after the annual Day of the Dead there, and the monuments that I could see from the road, were all freshly decorated with huge floral banners and photos, ribbons and assorted memorabilia. Anil wasn’t very interested and I can’t say I blame him, coming from a culture that cremates their dead and scatters the ashes. Cemeteries are just plain creepy to him. I used to feel that way as a child, but now I enjoy them for what I can learn about different cultures and for the historical information you see on the headstones. Anil was willing to come to this one in Santiago because of the monument to the ‘Disappeared”.
A little history lesson, in case you aren’t old enough to remember the events in Chile in 1973. Back in 1958, socialist Salvador Allende headed a leftist coalition and they began to promote a radical program that included the nationalization of banks, insurance and the mines, as well as the expropriation of large land holdings for redistribution to the landless. It wasn’t until 1970 that he came to power in one of the closest elections in Chile’s history. He won only thirty-six percent of the vote, but the Christian Democrats joined forces with him and thus he became the first democratically elected Marxist president in the world. Things went from bad to worse, and I won’t go into great detail here. When the army’s commander, General Prats resigned, an obscure General Augusto Pinochet, whom both Prats and Allende believed to be a loyal supporter of the constitution, replaced him.
On September 11, 1973 (can you believe that September 11th was already an infamous day, long before 2001) Pinochet began a brutal coup d’etat. Allende died of an apparent suicide and tens of thousands of leftists and their sympathizers were imprisoned and brutally tortured. The detainees came from all walks of life; from peasants to the students at the universities. Hundreds of thousands fled the country. The cemetery we were about to visit was the place where some of the three thousand people who were executed were buried in numbered graves. The relatives of those executed were left in limbo as to the fate of their loved ones. They began to call the lost ones, ‘The Disappeared’. Pinochet’s regime lasted for seventeen years, with support from much of the wealthy elite and those who stood to lose everything under a Marxist government. In 1988, Pinochet tried to extend his presidency to 1997, by holding another plebiscite, but he was rejected by the voters. Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 by a Spanish judge who was investigating the atrocities following the coup in 1973. Following his arrest, President Bill Clinton released files that proved that the US government was secretly granting aid to undermine Allende and support a military overthrow.
Pinochet fought extradition and died before being brought to justice. He was never held to account for the arrest and torture of over 35,000 citizens, as well as those executed during his dictatorship. I can’t say I remember this all happening at the time. I was travelling and living in the Sudan in September 1973. While the coup probably made news worldwide at the time, I was not following world politics with any keen interest. I returned to Canada in November 1973 and met Anil shortly afterwards. Over the intervening years, I have heard about Allende and Pinochet and we have seen the remarkable film Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. It is a film I have never forgotten, and one that I regret not watching before coming to Chile. I must see it again when the opportunity presents itself.
We stopped at the gates to the cemetery in order for Jennifer to buy some flowers to leave on the graves. I noted that she picked three bunches of flowers well past their prime. I remember thinking that this was very thoughtful of her. She was planning to leave the flowers on graves in the full sun; they would last only a day or two at best. However, by choosing the ones that were noticeably wilted, she was helping the flower-seller earn a profit on flowers he would have had to otherwise throw away. This was just the first of many gestures I would see Jennifer and Chris make during the few days we were together. I bought a bundle of flowers as well.
Jennifer led us into the cemetery and along a path to the extreme far end. It was here that she showed us the monument to the victims of the coup. It is a large stone wall with the names of the dead, the dates that they died, and their ages. It’s heartbreaking to see how many of them were in their early twenties, the same age I was in 1973. Jennifer pointed out the name of Charles Horman, the young man whose disappearance is featured in the film Missing. Chris drew our attention to the four or five names that have since been covered up with white cement. Apparently, these are names of people who were thought to be lost, but there was some deceit involved. I didn’t quite understand what Chris meant. It seems that the removal of the names has caused quite a bit of controversy.
It was very moving to stand before this wall and see all the names recorded. I was touched by the numbers of small personal mementos left by the families, at the foot of the stone wall. There was a photo of a young man with a note below it simply stating ‘Where are you Ernesto?’ I couldn’t imagine the grief that his parents must feel, not knowing what became of him, even after all these years. Jennifer was very upset, even though she makes a visit to the cemetery each year when she comes to Santiago. We each placed some of our flowers here and then we moved on to the huge wall of graves that marks the western edge of the cemetery. Chris explained that the dictatorship built the wall in great haste and placed many of the victims there. They marked the graves with numbers, and fortunately for the families, kept careful records. They did not disclose the information for many, many years, but a least when eventually forced to, the families were able to determine the resting place of their loved ones.
As we walked along looking at the wall, we came upon a grave that was decorated with elaborate offerings, flowers, flags, a banner and even an old guitar. This was grave of the beloved Victor Jara, a popular singer and ardent supporter of Allende. Chris explained that he was swept up in the first days of the coup, and taken with thousands of others to the National Stadium. This was the site of beatings, torture and even executions. Jennifer choked back tears as she told me that Jara had tried to comfort the other detainees by playing and singing for them, but that the guards broke his fingers to stop him. He was eventually executed and till today, people remember him and come to honour his memory here. Jennifer and Chris are each a couple of years younger that Anil and me, so they were still in University when the coup took place. Chris told us that Victor Jara’s wife had come to their University and spoke to the students about what was happening in Chile and about the loss of her husband. For this reason, visiting Jara’s grave is extremely important to them both.
Next we turned into the rows of graves in the ground. Jennifer explained that this was where the poorest of the people were buried. The ground is rocky and very dry and the few flowers that are planted here struggle to survive. There is evidence of the love of the families here as well, photos, flags, notes of love and notes of remembrance. As we walked through this area, in the heat of the mid-day sun, we noticed that some graves had small awnings over them to shield visitors when they come to sit and pray. Chris called our attention to the snow-covered Andes looming off to the east. This was our first glimpse of the tallest of the range, and we will never forget where we were when we first saw them.
When we reached the end of this section of the cemetery, we came to a series of huge brick structures. They reminded me of the walls at home where the cremated remains of the deceased are interred. Only here, the entire coffin in placed into the wall, and the names are written on the wall once the opening is sealed. This makes sense to me now that I think of it, the vast majority of Chileans are Catholic, and do not believe in cremation. We walked along and I studied the names and noted the ages. In this area, there was the more normal range of ages to be seen in a cemetery. Most were people who had been able to live a long life and die at an old age. As always, there were some infants included among the elderly.
Chris and Jennifer led us into a park-like setting beyond the brick buildings and it was here that we began to see the large family crypts built by the upper classes. Many of these date back to the 19th century. These contained the graves of several members of each family and some were incredibly elaborate. Many looked like small versions of great stately homes; others were built like small churches, painted white with steeples high above them. I had never seen anything like them anywhere. One was even built to resemble an Aztec temple. Chris and Jennifer visited the graves of three more notable people. The first was Violetta Parra, a beloved folklorist and musician, the second Gladys Marin Mille, the former leader of the Community Party in Chile and finally, the grave of Salvador Allende. Chris translated the words inscribed on the monument to Allende. They were taken from his last words, part of a radio address he made just before the attacks on the government palace.
“May you go forward in the knowledge that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open once again, along which free citizens will march in order to build a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”
I was a very moving end to our morning in the Cemetarios General. I am very grateful that we were able to make the visit with our new friends. While it would have been an interesting place to visit on our own, their touching respect for those buried there and the information they shared about the troubling times in Chile’s history, made it all the more moving and memorable.
It was now early afternoon and we were all hungry. It was time for Jennifer and Chris to teach us even more about Chile. They led us into a neighbourhood of Santiago called Barrio Paris/Londres. It is not far from their condo and it is here that they have discovered a favorite place to eat their mid-day meal. I was more than a little surprised to find the district referred to as ‘Barrio’ and I had always imagined that ‘barrio’ was the Spanish word for ‘slum’. Not so in Chile. The two main streets in this neighbourhood, just off the main thoroughfare called Ave. O’Higgins (Alameda), are called, wait for this, Paris and Londres (London). The streets are each lined with stone buildings of grand design, although many have now been converted into restaurants and guesthouses. We turned into one with a rather ‘homey’ interior, and Jennifer and Chris were greeted by the host as old friends.
Jennifer explained to us that restaurants in Chile are required to provide an affordable lunch for workers; I believe she said this was a law. Restaurants have what is called the Menu del Dia, or menu of the day, a set lunch. It usually consists of a salad, a main course and drink, although it can include a dessert and coffee as well. The more extensive set lunches are more expensive, naturally. This humble place provided the basic set lunch but we were surprised to learn that the ‘drink’ could be a soft drink, a beer or even a glass of wine. Bread and butter are usually served as part of the meal as well. These set lunches average around $5 to $6, the ones in the trendier parts of town are often around $9 or $10.
We asked Jennifer to order for us when we found the owner rattled off the choices so fast, we had absolutely no idea what she said.
We ended up having a lovely fresh salad and then a bowl of hearty soup, filled with huge chunks of meat, potato, corn and squash. It was delicious. I have taken a photo so you can see for yourself how appetizing it looked when it arrived at our table. At the end of this wonderful meal, we were tired and ready for an afternoon siesta. Most of the workers have to return to their offices, but we made plans to meet again a couple of days later, in order to be introduced to another great barrio, and then we went straight back to our cozy beds.
Before I settle down for a nap, I should mention that I was glad that Jennifer told us that waiters in Chile usually have to survive on the tips they earn. They are not paid a salary. For this reason, a 10% tip is the minimum one should leave and perhaps at least double that for great service. I later noticed that some restaurants add a 10% service charge to the bill to ensure that the waiters are not overlooked. I find the service here is very courteous and in view of the value for money for the meals we’ve eaten, we are only too happy to double the standard gratuity.
We met Jennifer and Chris again as planned and they took us to Barrio Bellavista to show us the neighbourhood there and to visit their favorite artisan, a friend who specializes in lapis lazuli jewellery. Unfortunately, he was out of town but we walked along the street where his shop is located and admired the lapis in the other shop windows. It was then that we learned that Chile and Afghanistan are the two countries with the largest deposits of lapis lazuli, a dark blue semi-precious stone. Jennifer pointed out that most of the pure blue stone has already been mined in Chile and deposits found now have a great deal of white material mixed in with the blue.
We walked through the leafy streets of Barrio Bellavista to the foot of the Cerro (Hill) San Cristobal. The home of the famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda is now a museum, but we decided to give it a miss. We were interested in the funicular ‘railway’ that runs up the hill and decided we would return on another day to take in the view from the peak. It’s amazing how hungry one gets with all the sightseeing, but we were fortunate once again to have the Australians lead us to another great restaurant. This time we went for the more extensive set menu and were blown away by the generous offerings there.
We started off with a ‘pisco sour’. It is often served with a dash of chili on top. Next came the salad, main course, glass of red wine, dessert and cappuccino coffee. Anil was over the moon with his portion of Sheppard’s pie and then bread pudding for dessert. I chose a lighter main course and melon for dessert, but needless to say, we were both almost comatose from the calories. When it was time to pay for the bill, we were shocked to full wakefulness by the price. The four of us were able to feast on this fantastic meal for under $25.
It’s a good thing that we had some walking to do after such a heavy meal. Chris offered to help us determine if we could use our mobile phone is Chile. It was exactly the same Nokia model as Chris owns, but we purchased ours in India and he bought his in Chile. We were able to use our phone in Asia, but not in North America. We were hoping that it would work in South America, but we needed someone who speaks some Spanish to translate for us at the mobile phone company. Chris knew exactly where to take us, but the news was disappointing. It wasn’t worth buying a phone for the short time we were in Chile, but in the end, Chris offered to let us use their extra phone and we could leave it behind when we were done travelling in Chile and Argentina. It works in both countries. That was extremely generous and trusting of him.
We had a great couple of days with our new friends, and we were really happy to have met them just before they were due to return to home. We made plans to travel to their small town in New South Wales when we visit Australia in the fall. They live in an out-of-the-way place called Lightning Ridge, a town of less than 3,000 people. The region is famous for its opals. I think it would be great to get out of the main cities in Australia and see some of the rural districts, and have the opportunity to see Jennifer and Chris again.
With this busy first week in Santiago over, we settled down into a quiet routine relaxing in our apartment and going for long walks in the afternoons, doing a little sightseeing and watching movies each and every evening. We managed to convince a local DVD rental shop to trust us even though we didn’t have local identification. They have a great selection of English movies; all the latest new releases and we hope to catch up on all the films we have missed over the last two years. I have to confess that we even resorted to buying a few pirated movies from police-harassed vendors near the Plaza Armas. Everyone seems to know where to go to buy the movies, so it doesn’t seem that the police make too concerted an effort to stop the sale of the films.
As much as we have enjoyed going out for the Menu del Dia on several occasions, we are really enjoying having a kitchen of our own and making light meals ourselves. In Chile, lunch is usually the main meal of the day and this suits us just fine. On days that we are out and about, we stop in for a set lunch and eat something in the evening before settling in for Movie Night. It’s great to slow down the pace of life on the road and not have to go far afield each and every day. Sundays here are extremely quiet, the shops are closed and even the street vendors have a day to themselves. We like to go for Sunday walks when the traffic is very light and we can really take in all the beautiful trees and landscaping in our Providencia neighbourhood. No, we don’t live in a barrio, but there are still several more to explore.