The vast majority of my time in South America has been spent in Santiago, Chile’s capital city. Santiago dominates Chile in a way that no city in the United States does. Eight million (or so) of the 18 million (give or take) Chileans live in the Santiago metro area. The city was founded in 1541 but there isn’t a lot of architecture surviving from that time. Recall, the earth moves here.
I’ve enjoyed my time here despite not really being a city guy. I find cities a lot easier to take when they give in and act like a city. That is, there is good public transportation and ample distribution of food sellers. A lot of American cities, because they grew up from small towns and we tend to revere the small town more than most countries, try to retain that small town feel by making everyone drive and having isolated shopping areas. That works great if the city is sufficiently small but, past a certain point, you need to transition to city life. In my opinion, way too many cities in the United States are past that point and either can’t or won’t recognize it.
Speaking of driving, I have driven in Santiago a fair amount and it’s fine. It’s no worse than driving in Washington D.C. Which is to say, it’s hell. But it’s a normal type of driving hell: a lot of traffic that moves slower than you’d like. However, drivers obey the rules, stay in their lanes and, generally, don’t drive too fast or slow. It isn’t like Buenos Aires, is what I mean, where the drivers are insane and if you told me it was a legal requirement to drop acid before getting behind the wheel, I’d believe you.
With that said, clearly the way to get around Santiago is by metro (subway) and bus. These cover the city pretty well. The very poor aren’t well served because, well, that seems to be the way the world works, and the very rich aren’t well served because they don’t want our kind there. This left a few students with an odd problem. At first they seemed lucky because their homestay was in a rich household. Their homestay families had cars and used them for their primary transportation. But, of course, the students didn’t have a car and so they faced long (30 minutes) walks to a metro station or bus stop.
I used the metro every day to go to work. I had about a 15 minute walk to the station, an 8-15 minute ride and then another 10 minute walk. I found the metro to be excellent. Despite constant warnings that I’d be robbed if I didn’t hug my possessions to my body, no one ever gave me any problem at all on the train. Chileans like less personal space than we, Americans from the United States, do so they get more people on a train. A few times, especially at Tobalaba, I wound up picked up by a mob of people and surfed my way onto a train I would never have considered trying to board in New York or DC.
I’d love to tell you the character of Santiago but, like any place this big, it doesn’t have one character. I don’t know how big a city can be and have a single character but Santiago is clearly well above that line. Emphasizing this point is that there is no explicit Santiago city government. The city is divided into 37 communes, each with its own government. If you think this makes for smooth and efficient city operations, you’re wrong. There is a lot to love about Santiago and Chile and a lot of words one could use to describe them. Smooth and efficient government (or anything, really) are not among them.
Each commune has it’s own character and, in this, Santiago is like any large city. I’ve been to 25 of the 37 communes but spent most of my time in Santiago (work) and Providencia (home). Santiago is the old city center and, itself, varies considerably combining government, business and academics along with living space. Providencia is a pretty typical middle/upper middle class residential area. There is business, to be sure, but it’s the sort of business you’d expect to find intermixed with a lot of residential space.
An aside: I’m obviously basing the above paragraphs, and the entire post, on my own experiences. Providencia alone has a population of 120,000 and covers several square miles. The point is, I’m generalizing considerably.
Santiago (city) stretches up into the pre-cordillera and the richest folks in town live near, or on, the mountains with the population growing steadily poorer as the land gets lower and closer to the coast. Soon after the coup, Pinochet moved the poor out of the richer parts of town and into their own slums. They had been squatting, more or less, in the nice parts of town. Pinochet is thus credited by some with “ending poverty” because, you know, if you can’t see them…
Aside again: this was told to me by one colleague in particular and backed up by a few others I talked to. Pinochet isn’t exactly popular here, very much not overall, but it is possible to find people still quite willing to back up his regime as necessary and good for Chile. These folks tend to be older and richer. Some estimates put support for Pinochet around 15-20% which, while not huge, is pretty high for such a regime.
Whereas the streets of Santiago run smoothly and according to clear rules, the sidewalks do not. Most walkers in Santiago walk very slowly by my standards and there is no convention of walking on the right or left. There is also no convention against moving three or four abreast or simply stopping as a group and blocking the way. When friends or colleagues greet one another or say farewell, they hug and share bezos (kisses on the cheek). This is clearly more important than keeping the flow of traffic open.
If you know me, you know that this sort of thing really annoys me. I spend much of my time between home and work wishing everyone would get the hell out of my way and then feeling guilty that I feel that way. After all, I do believe ensuring your friends know you’re love and your colleagues your respect is more important than getting to work five seconds earlier. There is a clear focus on family and friends in a way we don’t seem to have in the United States. The reason businesses close here on Sunday and holidays is that people spend their time with those friends and family. This deprives business of customers and the business owners themselves are keen on their own friends and family. It all reminded me of growing up when many fewer businesses were open on Sundays and holidays.
I’m rambling. Here are pictures.
La Vega Central
Sage advice along the Rio Mapocho
Colombia Cafe and grading
Concha y Toro
Hey, buddy, need a lift?
On the walk to San Cristobal
View from Costanera
Believe it or not, this is the common area outside one of my classrooms.
An 80s cover band outside Salvador station on a Friday night.
Museo Artes Bellos
View from my roof
A couple of dogs in Parque Bicentennial
My neighbor’s cat.
I’m sure there is a reason to sell LED bulbs from a van but I haven’t yet uncovered it.
Looking west from Santa Lucia market
Plaza de Aviacion
A favorite dog who lives between me and Manuel Montt
The view from my window as fall started.
Outside the national library.
Igelsia San Agustin. The church was one of a very few buildings to survive the 1647 earthquake and witnessed a miracle. The crown of thorns that had been on Christ’s head slipped down around his neck (you can kind of see it) despite being far too small to do so. I accidently went to mass here. When I arrived at noon on Tuesday there were a lot of people entering and I thought, “Hey, a big tourist spot!” I sat in front of the miracle and then, all of a sudden, mass started. I was raised right so I did my best to follow along but I slipped out when they passed the hat.
Street market near Mercado Central.
Looking toward Cerro Provinica over the Rio Mapocho
Cerro Plomo was visible in the distance along the right but didn’t make it to the photo.
A year ago May I spent four hours in this park, on the bench to the left of the lightpost, waiting for my hotel to let me checkin. Less than half a mile from my current apartment.
The handpan guy. The metro stations have areas for performers who have to get permission to use them. With that little bit of a barrier, the quality of performers is actually pretty high. In my opinion, this guy is the best.
The walk home.
No idea what this is but I’ve seen it every few days for months and I like it.
A little nature on the walk home.