Sightseeing in Santiago

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Flag of Chile  , Región Metropolitana,
Friday, January 14, 2011

Today, we crammed in as much Santiago sightseeing as the heat would allow.  After picking up my passport at the embassy, we headed towards the Bellavista, a Bohemian neighborhood home to artists, intellectuals, and cafes that turn into discos at night.  Bellavista's most famous resident was Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet and Communist politician.  Neruda's house - called La Chascona - is one of three that he owned, with the others located in Valpo and Isla Negro, by the sea.
Neruda loved the ocean and built the house to resemble a ship, with sloping lines, low ceilings and a shallow stone pond in the courtyard outside the dining room.  He lived in the house with his mistress, and eventually third wife, Matilda, also naming it after her.  La Chascona roughly translates to "messy hair," which was how Matilda typically wore it. 

Her famous portrait, painted by Diego Rivera, hangs in the house.  In it, Rivera expressed the duality of her initial public persona as Neruda's friend, and her true role as his lover.  One fun fact is that on the right side of her head, her hair swirls into the shape of Neruda's profile.  Other signs of the couple's life together appear throughout the house, my favorite being the decorative window bars shaped in the couple's monogram, the letters P and M combined, which also looked like mountains over the sea.

Neruda's sometimes wacky collection of tchotchkes and furnishings reflects both his extensive travels and his unique taste.  Particularly interesting were Russian Matryoshka dolls, a pair of men's dress shoes that measured about two feet long, and an old TV that was missing a screen but full of silverware.

It's fun to imagine how many other curious objects used to sit in the house.  The current collection is incomplete because the house was raided by members of the Chilean military coup in 1973.  The soldiers flooded the house with Neruda's own water features, burned all of his books and, of course, stole the best stuff.  Only 25% of the house's original collection survives, supplemented with objects from his other two houses.

While I really enjoyed walking around the property, the tour could've been more informative.  It gave little information on Neruda's activities as a Communist or a poet, and omitted interesting facts I turned up through the most basic research.  For example, Neruda was a social superstar who threw parties that lasted as long as a week.  That's the kind of stuff I like to hear about!  I also hated that we weren't allowed to take pictures.

Leaving the Neruda house, we searched for a place to have lunch.  The Dublin pub offered an inexpensive prix fixe lunch next to a courtyard of small shops, so we decided to give it a try.  Unfortunately, they were out of the oriental salad appetizer we wanted, so we had an egg roll instead.  To quote Patti: "That was pretty good for Chinese food in an Irish pub in Chile."  The main course was beef with couscous.  The beef was fatty with a good amount of gristle; however, my pineapple juice and dessert of honeydew melon were delightfully refreshing.

After lunch, we walked around the little shopping courtyard next to the pub.  Lots of silly souvenirs were for sale, like ugly toys and stupid trinkets with the word "Chile" painted on them, but there was also some beautiful copper and lapis lazuli jewelry, hand-woven wool clothing, and a shop full of wooden objects decorated with real pressed flowers and fruit.  I fell in love with the coasters there and carefully put together a set of six that included bright pink and purple flowers, a strawberry next to a slice of lemon, and a simple green leaf, only to get to the checkout and realize that I'd misheard the woman, and they cost 26,000 pesos (about $50) and not 2,600 ($5) as I'd thought.  Sadness!  They were adorable, but who has $50 to spend on coasters?  Not me. 

In the afternoon, we hopped on the subway and visited the Museo de Arte Precolombino, which was full of sculptures and artifacts from indigenous Latin American groups as far back as 4,000 years ago, up until the arrival of the Spanish.  The exhibits included English descriptions, although they were considerably shortened version of the Spanish originals.  Photography was allowed (my kind of museum!) so here are a few of my favorite pieces.




After the museum, we wandered the historic Plaza de Armas.  Museums and a church lined the plaza, where street musicians played and lots of people just relaxed, chatted and took in the scene.

A ten or fifteen minute walk brought us to Cerro Santa Lucia, a beautiful park on a hill decorated with fountains and views of the city.  A castle-like entrance led to one side of the hill, while further down, a yellow and white building and a huge fountain provided a shady and cool place to relax.  On the other side of the hill, a uniformed woman sitting at a card table asked us to sign in with our name, phone number and nationality.  No idea why.  Anyone want to venture a guess?

Across the street from the park entrance with the guard, or check-in lady, or whatever she was, we found a giant complex of stalls selling clothing, purses, jewelry, souvenirs, etc.  We spent a lot of time in here, because Patti needed a purse and I needed a skirt to go with some of the tops I'd brought.  Neither of us wanted to spend much, but we wanted cute stuff that didn't fall apart.  Just as we were about to give up, Patti found a cute striped hobo bag with aqua and gray stripes, and I found a dress/skirt/top depending on how I wear it that's canary yellow with a blue and white design.  We were both thrilled with our purchases.

After spending all day in the city, I have to say that overall, it seemed very clean and safe.  There was no litter anywhere...I'm not sure if people just don't do it, or if there are extremely vigilant street cleaners. 

There are stray dogs EVERYWHERE.  On average, I’d see maybe five or six per block, walking through the markets, sleeping on the sidewalks, etc.  Patti says there are no real animal shelters here because pets aren't considered members of the family, the way they are in the U.S.  Since they're seen as animals, it's not considered to be a big deal if they're out on the streets.  Around Nico and Lore’s neighborhood, which is more residential, lots of people have pet dogs, but they're mostly kept outside in the yard all day, where they bark at each other constantly.  I've seen Irish Setters, Goldens, Daschunds, Aierdales, German Shepherds, Poodles and more.  Of course, there are exceptions to every generalization.  Nico and Lore's dog, Dori, is definitely an adored member of the household.

Other things I noticed around the city are-
1) The mullet is alive and well here, as is the Crocs trend.

2) At any given time, over half the people in my line of sight were wearing jeans.  In the 85 to 90 degree heat and full sun.

3) Unlike Asia and Europe, the language of tourism is not in fact English.  It´s Spanish.  Thank god for Patti´s near-fluent language skills or we´d really be in trouble trying to get around or communicate with anyone.

 4) It´s not rude to stare at foreigners here.  And I don´t mean a double take.  I mean wide-eyed, open-mouthed, drooling stares that remain unbroken when I smile widely and wave back.  Hilarious!  They have tons of American TV down here, so it´s not like they´ve never seen white people.  At the same time, the population of the city seems incredibly homogenous.  I looked around on the subway today and realized that every single person in our car had dark brown hair and very tan skin.  Ah well, at least here they ask for my permission to take a picture of me.  In Vietnam, they´d slyly snap it when I wasn´t looking, or do the old my-friend-is-pretending-to-take-a-picture-of-me-with-this-monument-but-at-the-last -second-he´s-going-to-turn-the-camera-on-you trick.  I hate that one!

5) You can't flush toilet paper in most of the buildings here.  Same as in Greece, it goes in a little trash can next to the toilet.  Yuck :(
6) Number five becomes irrelevant given the fact that every bathroom I went into today (including the one in our restaurant) lacked toilet paper and soap.  Now, this was not a problem for me, because I'd packed pocket packs of tissues and a bottle of hand sanitizer in my purse.  But, when you consider that most of the population is walking around without the benefit of either of those things, including the people serving us food in restaurants, well, I'll just stop there...
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Elise on

I can't believe you went to Pablo Neruda's house! Que chevere! And that you saw Airedales. You must take pictures next time :)

Katie C on

This entry sounds so much like you! Especially the last part

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