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Sunday, January 23, 2005

South America recap: Dec 20 (Santiago)

My first stretch of blog-rot since switching over here to blogger at the beginning of November. Been meaning to write up an account of our trip since we got back three weeks ago, but haven't found (initially) the time nor (subsequently) the energy to do it. Time for another resurrection...

Wanted to write up a recap of our trip to South America before the recollections start fading. Though this time we did a better job of keeping a journal, so I'm going to work off those notes, and of course add some links here and there. I'll also try to tie my writeup to the photos we've uploaded to Shutterfly; the whole bunch is here, but I'll break them up and intersperse links to specific photos in my account.

The travels actually started Sat, Dec 19 in Miami. Anj and I got there in the morning, after a red-eye from SFO. We found Anj's parents at the hotel near the airport where they'd spent Friday night, after flying from Detroit the previous day. The four of us spent Saturday driving around--lunch on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, a drive to Key Biscayne, and then to South Beach, where we had an early dinner before driving back to the airport for our flight to Santiago.

We flew in to the airport Sunday morning (Dec 22), over the mountains. After getting through immigration and paying the fees, we got our luggage and found our group--our guide for Santiago, Eugenio, and driver Marcelo, and the couple that completed our tour group, the Smuklers of Santa Monica.

The sun was intense, but the weather was pleasant. My recollection of the drive from the airport into the city center is that it was fast and efficient--a big wide highway into the city, streets mostly devoid of people in the city. Some of my most vivid memories of our family trips to India are of those initial taxi rides from the airport through the length of Calcutta--the chaotic scenes and inching paces of those first-impression rides were nothing like this first impression of Santiago. Though to be fair, the same trip in Calcutta today is nothing like it was in the 80s.

It was interesting also to later read Garcia Marquez's rendering of Miguel Littin's account of his return to Santiago in "Clandestine in Chile", which Anj and I read only later in the trip: "Santiago was a radiant city, its venerable monuments splendidly illuminated, its streets spotlessly clean and orderly....Starting at the historic Central Station, designed by the same Gustave Eiffel who built the tower in Paris, the endless Bernardo O'Higgins Boulevard flowed before our eyes like a river of light."

Since it was the middle of a Sunday afternoon, we didn't see the monuments illuminated, though we did catch glimpses of this over the next couple evenings. The streets did indeed seem orderly and clean, though not spotless. There was a profusion of graffitti, certainly--which probably wasn't there in 1985, when Littin returned to a Santiago under Pinochet's rule, after 12 years in exile.

(Most of the graffitti was typical uninspired scribbled tags, but occasionally we saw something cool this this.)

Eugenio pointed out the Central Station as we turned on to O'Higgins Boulevard, where our hotel was located. Unfortunately I don't remember seeing the Moneda Palace, though Eugenio must have pointed it out to us as well, since at the time I didn't even begin to understand its historical significance. The passage above from "Clandestine in Chile" continues: "All at once, the Moneda Palace loomed into view on my side of the taxi like an unwelcome apparition. The last time I saw it, the building was still a burned-out shell covered with ashes in the aftermath of the coup."

We checked in to our hotel, the Plaza San Francisco (from one SF to another, for me and Anj)--a nice if somewhat stuff hotel, with a great central location that unfort we didn't have much to take advantage of. Even though Anj and I had had two straight nights of red-eye flights, we didn't get to rest right away, since we had a city tour for the afternoon.

The first stop was the Museo Precolombino, a not overly large but extensive enough museum of pre-Columbian art and culture. Eugenio gave us an enthusiastic, informative, and extensive guided tour of the exhibits--art and artifacts of the cultures of Central and South America that thrived prior to the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans: Aztec, Mayan, Incan, Mapuche, and others. (See these photos.)

This was certainly a good way to start the trip, with a primer and reminder of Latin America's pre-Latin culture. But in retrospect the visit to the museum stands out as in contrast to the rest of our itinerary, where it seemed like European cultures had largely supplanted overt signs of those areas' pre-Colombian cultures. In Chile the connection is still perhaps still there, with our guide Eugenio stressing that many Chileans, himself included, are proud of their Mapuche heritage (see the last photo in the link above of Eugenio explaining "Tres Siglos de Plateria Mapuche"). But in the Lake District of Chile, it was the German character of the culture and people that stood out; in Argentina, the synthesis of Spanish and Italian cultures; and in Rio de Janeiro, the synthesis of Portugese and African.

Architecturally as well, what stood out in the cities of Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Rio was the diversity of European styles that were exhibited. Eugenio had pointed this out on O'Higgins Boulevard as on the ride from the airport to the hotel, and it was on display again in Plaza de Armas, Santiago's central square, which we walked to from Museo Precolombino: Spanish, French, Italian, modern. The canonical postcard from Plaza de Armas is the sleek glass skyscraper towering over the ornate Italian-style cathedral. (See these photos of Plaza de Armas.)

After a walk through the cathedral (also named for San Francisco!), we got back on the bus and went to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, with its striking views of the sprawling city surrounded by mountain peaks.

(I recognized Cerro San Cristobal, as well as a couple other parts of the city that we caught glimpses of over those two days, as sites of scenes from "El Gringuito", which I'd seen in November at MCCLA. Related note: Anj noticed this review in the NYTimes last week of "Machuca"--also a Chilean movie set in Santiago, about a young boy's coming-of-age, but
this one is set in 1973. Turns out the director of photography is none other than Miguel Littin! The latest issue of The Nation also had a review.)

From Cerro San Cristobal we drove through a posh neighborhood--palatial homes set in the hills above (north of?) the city--followed a stop at a lapis lazuli shop.

We finally got to rest at the hotel for a few hours. While Anj napped, I turned on the television, figuring that there had to be some futbol on. Sure enough, as I was to find throughout the trip, there's rarely a lack of futbol to watch. I found a few channels worth
then--a Spanish La Liga game on ESPN+ (Sevilla v Real Betis, en vivo), and a Chilean league game on ESPN. Caught the end of a program about the history of the game which preceded the latter on ESPN, with some footage of Eusebio from the '66 Cup.

A nice feature of staying in a hotel in a large city that caters to international (and in particular business) visitors is the selection of news channels. Flipped through CNN International (seemed so much superior to the CNN you get in the US), BBC World, RAI, TV5, .... It reminded me of the turning on the TV when we stayed in a Marriott on Juhu beach in Mumbai. I was amazed at the number of languages you could hear.

I couldn't sleep or even sit still, so I ventured out to check my e-mail. The rates for the computers at the business center in the lobby of the hotel were exorbitant, so I asked the woman working the desk for directions to nearby internet cafes. I walked across O'Higgins Boulevard and through a couple pedestrian-only streets. Though it was Sunday afternoon and perhaps only half of the stores were open, there were still a large number of people out. I walked by some semi-organized performers--a dance troupe--and a number of bookselling stalls, reminding me a bit of Calcutta, before finding an internet/call center, where I got on a computer, wrote some e-mail and made a quick blog entry.

Dinner that evening was at the hotel restaurant--ceviche, beef, wine, our first taste of pisco sour.

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