Chile Travel Diary

26 June 2010

I am staying at La Casa Roja hostel in Santiago. I took a little walk around the neighbourhood. To be honest, it’s quite run down – lots of graffiti, crumbling buildings and general urban decay. This is most likely a story of poverty rather than neglect. Just a few blocks from the hostel, I saw a man ‘sleeping rough’ on a bench. These are the real homeless and I wince to think of people like him outdoors at night when temperatures are sub-zero.

Tomorrow, after the football, I will take a walk downtown (fortunately we are close). I will probably head for the Arts & Culture Museum, and take it from there. It is my favourite part of any trip – discovering a new city, soaking up the urban delights, practicing a kind of cultural osmosis. I far prefer this slow, partial approach – getting intimate with my local surroundings – rather than rushing around with a ‘must-see, must-do’ tourist checklist.

27 June 2010

I took a walk downtown and discovered a castle – Santa Lucia. It’s on a little hill and has fantastic views of Santiago, including the backdrop of ice-capped mountains. Many photos later, I walked on to the Art Gallery. There were a few unusual sculptures, but not many paintings that grabbed me. The exception was a portrait of a Chinese coal miner. They also had lots of historical photos from the late 1800s, which gave some insight into a bygone, pre-Fordian era. The best one was of a group of kids, each with a different expression on their faces.

After the gallery, I walked to the main city square. By then, the sun was setting and I arrived just in time to witness a religious procession – a few hundred people, most with candles, some with banners of the Virgin Mary, and some in religious robes. The priests leading the march were swinging incense, and somewhere in the middle was an altar with a statue of Jesus. Then bells tolled and hymns played over the speakers of a van set up for the purpose. Everyone joined in singing, including spectators. Quite touching really, even though the religious practices themselves hold no meaning for me anymore.

The cathedral itself is on the square, so I went in and drifted a while in its reverential ambience. The square is also the place for street artists and buskers. Before leaving the square, I went over to listen to a singer who had drawn a bit of a crowd (Precila Guzman; I bought here CD to remember the moment). Some of the people were watching, but most – young and old – were spontaneously dancing. I was almost moved to tears, to see such natural joy, such celebration of life. It is one of the things I love about Latin culture. Music moves them, literally.

05 July 2010

I am staying for a few days in Valdivia with Manfred Max-Neef (“barefoot economist” and author of Human Scale Development). It took us 10 hours to drive from Santiago – very picturesque, especially with the Andes. The city is right on the sea, with a massive river going through it, and the university (of which Manfred was President a few years ago) is on an island.

Valdivia was the site of the worst earthquakes in recorded history in the 1960s (much worse than the one they had in Chile earlier this year, which was bad enough). As a result of all the subsidence (about 3 metres), a lot of the city became a wetland. This attracted all kinds of birdlife, including the rare black-necked swan. Unfortunately, due to pollution, they all died or relocated to other parts. Now, as I look out the window from Manfred’s study, there are 2 garden sculptures of these swans, which he keeps in memory of their brief period of abundance.

We took a brief drive around the campus, which is beautiful; lots of trees. Unfortunately, it is raining, so we can’t go for a walk in the Botanical Gardens. Apparently, a big storm is coming. The office here has a view over the river.

I am once again struck by how local and immediate life is. Collecting experiences is all well and good, but what we are doing now, in this moment, how we are feeling, who we love and are loved by – only these things keep us content and motivated. In a sense, we have to keep on creating the means of our own happiness, as if life is a river in which we always must have an oar in the water if we don’t want to be swept away.

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