Friday, 19 December 2008

Santiago Dreaming

As a travel writer, I'm a firm believer in keeping a detailed daily diary of my impressions while on the road. The result is often a lively piece of writing that evokes the feeling of actually being there that day.

As an example, here's a (suitably edited) extract that I wrote at the end of a warm November day in the Chilean capital, Santiago...


In the Barrio Bellavista district of Santiago, Chile, near the foot of the Cerro San Cristobal mountain, lies La Chascona.

This was once the home of Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, and is now a museum devoted to his memory. The street it’s on is a tiny cul-de-sac lined with colourful houses, a peaceful backwater under the midday sun.

As we wait within a small courtyard for the next English language tour, we overhear an elderly American lady saying to a Chilean: “Everything is growing here. In the States everything is closing down and I don’t like it. But here everything is growing. Maybe it’s the new frontier.”

And it’s true, there is a subtle but palpable energy to the city, and signs of prosperity are everywhere; it’s not that hard to imagine yourself in Europe.

Our guide to the house is Gonzalo, a small energetic man with a splendid moustache. La Chascona, we discover, is actually a collection of rooms of varied shape, set at different levels of the hillside and separated by areas of vegetation.

But the interior of the rooms is the most interesting facet of La Chascona. The poet collected many things, including bottles, ship’s figureheads, Toby mugs, paperweights, ashtrays, dolls, and representations of horses, watermelons and fertility gods. He also loved the sea, and a had a room built with a sloping floor to remind him of life under sail.

Sadly, much of his fascinating collection was smashed by right-wing thugs connected with the 1973 coup, venting their rage at Neruda’s hard-left politics. Slowly though, the foundation which manages the house has been able to either repair items, or repopulate it with those of Neruda’s belongings which escaped damage.

Neruda was a highly creative and intelligent man. He was also somewhat unconventional, walking through his home in the garb of a sea captain, and sometimes even a nun. I suggest the adjective eccentrico to Gonzalo, and he agrees with a smile: “Si... or maybe loco.”

Lunch is at El 125, a nearby bar. Here we discover the secret of a big cheap meal in Chile: ignore the printed menu and check out the lunch special, usually on a blackboard near the door. For a mere 3900 pesos (AUD 10) we have a pisco sour, a cold roast beef and capsicum entree, a choice of beef or fish, and a glass of wine. My steak comes a lo pobre (literally “poor man’s steak), with fried onions and two eggs.

I ask for it muy echo (well done), but it arrives rare. This is no problem; the waitress presents a side plate, I place the steak on it, and she takes it away for further immolation. I much prefer this to the Australian method of removing the entire plate while your companion eats on; at least I can continue with my eggs. I actually ended up with a completely new steak, and a better cut at that.

When the bill comes out, she makes a point of asking if we wanted to add the tip to the credit card or pay it in cash, which undermines our first waitress’ advice that tipping is not compulsory. But we’re happy to tip after the steak resolution.

A few minutes later in the street, slightly intoxicated, I realise I’ve left my camera bag at the restaurant, and dash back at high speed to retrieve it. It’s still under the table, thank god - smiles all round.

Later in the afternoon we suddenly notice the Andes as the smog dissipates, and go out to take photos. We end up at a table outside a pub on the corner of Dardignac and Pio Nono, where the evening’s festivities have started with a curtain raiser of socialising, drinking, and general good humour.

Latin people use their public spaces so well, and it’s extremely pleasant sitting among the good-natured after-work crowd.

A waiter appears and we order cervezas (beer), to which he responds “Chico?” (“Small?”) As I’m pondering this, he disappears, returning with two half-litre steins of the amber fluid. He obviously feels that these two large gringos had not got that way by consuming chico amounts of anything.

To dilute the alcohol, Narrelle orders a completos, the Chilean hot dog with its sausage, onions and mustardy mayonnaise. It costs just 500 pesos (AUD 1.25), but you get what you pay for: a cold sausage in a stale roll does not a gourmet treat make. Still, it’s washed down nicely by the beer.