02 December 2012

Santiago: street art, Pablo Neruda and culture shock

Inca ruins at Tipon from the plane out of Cusco

After about 10 hours’ travelling – mostly sitting around in airports – I arrived here in Santiago, Chile close to midnight on Saturday 24 November, to be greeted by the smiling face of Father Chris, a Catholic priest I met earlier this year when he came to Cusco with The Giving Lens team of photographers. Chris had very kindly offered me a place to stay if I was ever down this way and I am delighted to be able to take him up on his offer.

Chris is American but has lived here in Santiago for almost two years, working in one of the poorer inner-city parishes. I am staying at the house he shares with three other priests of his order, two of his fellow Americans and a Peruvian. Although I’m sure it must be a little strange for them to share their space with a woman – and a non-religious woman at that! – they have been very hospitable, and this morning I had a lovely long chat to Father Rob, who has lived in Santiago 40 years, about the work he does here.

When Chris returned from his Sunday morning responsibilities at the parish church, he brought with him a couple of friends, a father and son from Arizona who are here giving 8-year-old Thomas the chance to learn Spanish by fully immersing him in the local culture for a couple of months. We all headed out sightseeing together, first for some Chorrillanas: a local dish which is really just a combination of chips, some fried sausage, pork and onions, topped with a couple of fried eggs. The portions are big so we adults shared that, while Thomas had a couple of pieces of pizza. After a day of mostly airline food the previous day – and I must say LAN’s food is probably the poorest of any airline I’ve flown with – it was delicious!

From there we wandered the streets a little, which for me was my first time soaking up a little of the feel of Santiago. It is a huge city of 7 million people, and so much more sophisticated and modern than Cusco, so I was definitely feeling a little wide-eyed and culture-shocked as I glanced around at the skyscrapers, the motorways, the modern cars, the café culture and outdoor restaurants, the glitzy shops and the underground metro system.


One of the things I most enjoyed was the street art adorning the walls of buildings on almost every street. The paintings are huge, vibrant and creative, and I loved the character they gave to some otherwise bland buildings. There is graffiti too, of course, which is ugly, but the street art was very impressive.


Outside Neruda's house
We were in the Bohemian suburb of Bellavista where next we visited La Chascona, one of Pablo Neruda’s three houses. I confess to being almost totally ignorant about Chile and knew nothing of this Nobel-Prize-winning poet and local hero so Chris gave me a quick history lesson before the tour guide filled us in on some extra facts, figures and interesting snippets as we toured this quirky abode Neruda shared with partner/wife number three, Matilde.

Neruda loved the sea so the house, which he designed, is in many ways modelled on a ship’s interior, with portholes, a ship’s figurine from England, a bar, lanterns, and various bits and pieces sourced from ships. Nevada was also an eclectic collector, so there are collections of glassware from Portugal, of blue and white dinnerware from England, of gifts given to him during his time working in the Chilean Foreign Service from such diverse countries as India, Vietnam and China, as well as some magnificent artworks gifted to him by his fellow creatives.

After that we drove up nearby Cerro San Cristόbal for some stunning views of the city. Until recently you could ascend the mountain using a much more direct method, by funicular, but that is not currently operating, for reasons no one seems to know. The top of the mountain is graced by a 14-metre (46-foot) white statue of the Virgin Mary, dating from 1908, as well as a small but beautiful church, and the whole of the area was full of locals enjoying the lovely Sunday weather.



It was hot so Chris suggested we try a local specialty, a drink called mote con huesillo, which is a refreshing, nourishing and filling combination of wheat, dried peaches and tea, almost a meal in itself.

Our day out was a fascinating glimpse of this interesting city and I was looking forward to exploring further when I returned to Santiago for a week after my side trip to Argentina, which started the next day.