THURSDAY, Dec. 7/06
I've landed, with the usual 'thud' and cultural shock that follows every trip away to exotic destinations. First, the weather. After enjoying the glorious sunshine (30+) of Chile and Argentina, almost forgetting it was actually December, and nearly Christmas -- reminded of it only because of the Christmas decorations and music in the malls of Santiago and Mendoza,-- it was somewhat of a shocker to arrive in Toronto to -3 and snow flurries. (I was grateful that the weatherman cleared the snow away in Vancouver for my arrival and the temperature here was a balmy 5 C)
In Toronto, Patrick and I bundled up and went about town in spite of the climate change, braving the weather like Arctic explorers. The first 'hint' we'd landed in another culture was when a woman emerged from the metro station cussing aloud to no-one in particular. I always notice, when I return to Canada from abroad, the potty-mouths of the people here. It's quite astounding that the "F" word has become common usage in our language. Second reality shock: seeing people actually lying on the sidewalks in that freezing weather. Well...here we are back in the affluent land of Canada surrounded by beggars and homeless folk. We had just come from a country where there is extreme poverty, but frankly it wasn't 'in you face' like it is here. Yes, there are homeless (lots of them) in Santiago. I know because my friend Cecilia feeds the few who 'live' on the park benches near her cafe, and every Christmas Eve she opens up her cafe to cook meals for the poor street people. I also know that in the '70's before the junta, she and Anibal worked in the shanty towns with the poor. And I saw for myself some of the corragated tin shacks and hovels where the poorest of the poor live on the outskirts of Santiago and in Valparaiso. But Chile is a country that has gone through great struggles over the past years and is overcoming them. This is Canada, an affluent land with a supposed democratic government. A country where the rich keep getting richer and there are more and more poor and homeless and desperate people on the streets. (Just saw a TV program on the news last night about this very situation. It's appalling and disgusting what is happening here in my beautiful city, and elsewhere across the country.)
In reflecting on my Chilean travels, we were so impressed with the dignified, courteous manner of the Chileans. There were no obviously 'angry' or distrubed people in the throngs we passed daily. Never once did we feel threatened though people would actually stop us sometimes and reminds us to carry our back-packs in front to avoid thefts. Once a woman even pulled her car up to a stop and called out to us. People CARE about others in Chile.
In all our rides on the metros I was almost always offered a seat. And the crowds getting on the off the train cars were courteous and patient - no pushing and shoving, everyone acting in an orderly fashion. In spite of the poverty, no obvious beggars and spare changers that you get every few feet when you walk the main streets of Vancouver. Only once did we see anything that was distrubing: and that was the night we went late to Baquedano metro station. There was an odd character standing on the corner with a plastic bag over his head (obviously a mentally ill person), and shortly after this weird sight, a guy came off a bus doing karate kicks. The last night in Santiago, again at this metro station, we saw a man lying on the curb (probably drunk). Honestly, that was the only time we encountered this sort of thing which is so common here on our streets. (In Valparaiso, a sea port, which is a little scruffy and run-down in the port area, we did feel a bit wary but nothing actually happened to provoke this.) In general people were very helpful and friendly. There were many acts of kindness and generosity, especially from our gracious hosts, Cecilia and Mommy and their family members who were kind enough to fetch and deliver us to the airport. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality. And my lasting impressions of this beautiful country are all the most pleasant.
There were tears when we had to say goodbye. "Next time stay two or three months!" Cecilia said. Actually we do plan to return, and we will stay longer. She suggested that when we come again she'll travel to the south of Chile with us. That's really something to look forward to!