Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Santiago: A Unique Hybrid of Sorts

We're at the Gold Coast of Australia, a mere three blocks from the beach in a beautiful rented home, ready for Christmas. But I am determined to plug away at this blog and record each part of our journey. So back to Santiago my mind returns before we left there for Australia on December 4:


We've been here three different times over the past seven weeks, for almost a week each time. We stayed in a different part of the city each time and got to know some of the city quite well - or at least well enough to feel comfortable and at home.

Santiago is interesting. Parts it are very Latin American and other parts feel like any big American city. 

The Latin American part is filled with food markets, fruit stands on the street, student protests, men in red pants (a look by the way, that Chilean men can actually pull off), fried street food, and Italianos and Completos (hot dogs with mayo, tomatoes and then either avocado or sauerkraut). 

And no South American country would be complete without the dogs that roam free.

The dog that hung out at one of our playgrounds.

The recent history of the country (and by recent I mean within my lifetime) is also very Latin American in that it includes a messed up economy, a coup, a brutal military dictatorship, and a variety of human rights abuses.

I quite enjoy learning about the recent history of a country. It frequently explains so much about why a country is like it is today. In Chile's case, it also explains why the country is so different from its neighbours and their less than stable economies.

In 1970 Chile elected a Marxist president, Salvador Allende. Imagine the rumblings that rolled through Washington at that time given war on communism with the cold war and Vietnam War. Of course, the Americans weren't going to stand by and do nothing. With a wee bit of masterminding and intervention, General Augusto Pinochet grabbed power on September 11, 1973 -- or as Chileans call it, "the other 9-11". There ended Allende's rule and life (suicide in the Presidential Palace). What ensued was the capture, and then murder or torture of the regime's enemies and leftist supporters. Horrible things happened to ensure that the left was tramped down.

To this point it's just another Latin American country, but then Pinochet takes a much different approach by following a very neo-conservative approach with the economics of the country. Not surprising given the American support to his regime. Under Allende, the country's economy suffered - the reforms he introduced combined with the American intervention had disastrous consequences.  Pinochet turned around the economy and drove the Chilean economy rapidly along a path not dissimilar to the US and Britain. For those of you who care, he followed Milton Friedman form the Chicago School of Economics - the same man and school of thought that heavily influence both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Whether you agree with those policies or not, they have led to a stable country that isn't suffering from 40% inflation (Argentina), or using the US dollar (Ecuador), or is suffering a severe recession (Brazil).

By 1990 when the country held elections that ousted Pinochet from the Presidency (how the elections came about under this dictator is another story), it was doing well economically, but over 3,000 people had been killed under the dictatorship and many more tortured. 

Do the ends justify the means? 

In Chile, that depends on who you talk to. Today, the country remains quite divided on this issue and we never found any one person who spoke of both the good and the bad of Pinochet impartially.

The Chileans we met who had been born in exile and had relatives killed or tortured, think Allende was quite fantastic and have nothing good to say about Pinochet. Even when they speak of his economic reforms and strong economy, there was no warm glow emanating from them, and they are quick to point out that the divide between rich and poor is the largest in the world (my Google search revealed this to be true if you look at one of the popular indicators of such things, though I forget which one).

Those who benefited from Pinochet's economic reforms think he did rather well and how lucky they are to have such a strong economy today thanks to him. I will say, to the tourist, and perhaps even to the public at large, this voice is quite muted. One of our tour guides was born shortly before the coup. His dad was a military general. He thinks people should just forget the past and move on.

The victims of Pinochet have had a strong influence. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights does a tremendous job of documenting the coup and the abuses of the Pinochet regime. But it is silent on the economic reforms and their impact upon the country.

As a complete, but interesting aside, I have always pronounced Pinochet with a "sh" sound for the ch, and ending with an "ay" sound -- like you would a French name - and it is a French name, from Brittany. Of course, I used this pronunciation because our broadcasters did so. But then in Chile, we heard the ch pronounced more like a "ch" sound like in Chile, but a bit softer than how we would normally say it. As for the "et" ending, we heard the t pronounced ever so slightly. Of course, I Googled this exact question and found an article that settles nothing about the pronunciation. Not having the pronunciation of your President's surname pinned down screams Latin America to me.

But it is because of Pinochet that there is a part of Santiago (and perhaps elsewhere in Chile we never visited) that is very American in its feel.

The one mall we went to could have been in just about any American suburb. It was a bit depressing to find Johnny Rockets, Applebee's, Tony Roma's, kitchen shops with everything in English, Adidas, and a variety of other American products and shops. There's some Spanish, but not nearly as much as I thought there'd be.

Cyclists are all over the streets. And not just the ones on old rickety bikes. There appeared to be a large number of commuters with all the cycling gear and helmets, In our final apartment I looked out on the wide boulevard with a cycling lane down the middle covered with large leafy trees providing ample shade, and thought I could be in just about any American city.

Walking around one of the more well-off neighbourhoods I felt very much like I could be in an American city. The space, cafes, the shops - all of it could be transplanted to certain American cities and nothing would look out of sorts - except for the Spanish maybe.

But of course, Chile is not the rest of Latin America, nor is it America. It has its own unique look and feel.

First of all, you can't help but notice the giant Andes to the east. These mountains are close. Sorry friends in Calgary, I know you think you're close to the Rockies, and compared to other large cities you are, but Santiago seems to be right at the base of the Andes.

View from one of our apartments.

But not only do they loom large, they impact the city and the country in a variety of ways.

They bring earthquakes. The advice we heard, that Eamon repeated over and over, likely in an effort to remain calm, was to not panic during any earthquake unless the locals panicked. We felt a few earthquakes, but they were either small, or not terribly close. Though the seismic engineers are kept busy making sure buildings are built safely, I was glad to leave unscathed. Big earthquakes are roughly every five years and the last one was 2010.

The Andes have also helped create a Mediterranean-like climate with hot summers and mild winters, leading to terrific produce and great wines -- all of which were quite fantastic.

A whole market stall dedicated to avocados and gift wrap.

Love these tomato crates

Also, being a long coastal country gives gives plenty of seafood options to the diet. The cold Humboldt current with a large upwelling (where the nutrient-rich deep water moves to the ocean surface and replaces the warmer nutrient-depleted water) is the most productive marine ecosystem in the world and supports the world's largest fisheries. As a consequence, Santiago has a mighty fine fish market despite being an hour from the coast.

As an aside, el niño that we all celebrate in western Canada that gives us a milder winter, significantly affects fish abundance and distribution that can lead to stock crashes - which of course, negatively impacts the Chilean fishing industry. 

Mayonnaise is serious business. There's no Miracle Whip or Hellmans. Every restaurant, and every family cook has his own recipe. Families pass down, and never share their mayo recipe outside of their own family. The government tried to crack down on street vendors making their own mayo for safety reasons. Didn't work - this is Latin America after all. The people revolted and homemade mayo remains everywhere. When we get home, I'm definitely going to ditch the Hellman's and find my own recipe. So much better!

Mayo appears on most food carts, and usually more than one kind/flavour appears on each cart. The hotdogs also make liberal use of the delicious sauce. Our favourites were Don Ernesto's. We preferred the Italiano with mayo, tomatoes and avocado.

The parks are glorious with lots of shade and lots of space. There's also a fair amount of adult work out equipment alongside the kid's playground. We've seen the exercise equipment elsewhere in South America, but here it's all integrated with the playground, and used. Even I used them! 

If the thought of travelling to South America makes you nervous and you fear you may not return alive, chances are good that you'll have a great trip and return home safely. But, if you're still worried, check out Chile. You'll have moments where you'll feel quite comfortable and in familiar surroundings, but still experience a place so different from our home. Plus, you'll turn home having had a terrific trip, and undoubtedly, keen to return.


  1. Have a wonderful Adventure Christmas! Wishing you holiday joy!

  2. Merry Christmas, Tracy (one day 'early'). I prefer my hot dogs with tomatoes and mayo - now I know where I need to go.