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Thursday, December 07, 2006

NOW THAT I'M HOME

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!

Monday, December 04, 2006

HOMEWARD BOUND

SUNDAY, Dec 3/06

Our last day, and I'm soaking up the moments, keeping them for memory. I feel sad we are leaving. We have been made to feel so very much part of the family here. We have stayed pretty much at home today, resting up for the long trip home. This morning we stopped in to have a look at the Catholic Cemetary which is on the road near the General Cementario. It's like a big fortress with a high stone wall around it. Inside are incredible tombs, some dating back to the 1800's, and a lot of fancy statuary. There is big chapel inside and a Mass was being performed. The church was full of people and on the streets and inside there were crowds buying flowers (for here and the General Cementary). We bought grandma and Cecilia huge bouquet of orange and yellow lilies and white and blue roses, then went home to spend a quiet day visiting. Cecilia had prepared a delicious steak and vegetable plate for our last special lunch.

At the moment in Santiago there is much rejoicing at the emminent death of the old Pinochet who was taken to the hospital in serious condition this morning, and supposedly is to have a heart surgery any time now (which likely he won't survive). Too bad we'll miss all the joyful street demonstartaions when he finally kicks to the bucket.

"Are you excited to leave?" Cecilia asked
"No. I was excited when I was coming here. I am sad to leave," I replied.

But our time is up. And even the beauitufl Lose Andes came out to say goodbye. It's the clearest we've seen Aconagua since we got here! What a lovely send-off!

Cecilia's brother Enrique came with his car to drive us to the airport along with his lovely wife Marisol. She brought us each a present and we were very touched. Then we all (except Grandma who stayed home to look after gato) got in the car and we headed off for the airport. I have to admit there were tears when we left. We will never forget this wonderful holiday, the generosity and kindess that was shown us and we are forever grateful. "Come back soon and next time stay a longer time," Cecilia said. We certainly will!

LATER

We are in Toronto now, Monday Dec 4, after a very good flight from Santiago. No bumps or scary bits this time, and actually it was quite restful. Doing a bit of sightseeing around Toronto and homeward bound tomorrow. I'll post another blog when I return with recaps of thoughts and things I might have forgotten.
You can be sure, as soon as I can, I'll head back down to Chile!

ADVENTURES IN CHILE: A DAY TRIP TO VALPARAISO

SATURDAY, December 2/06

Today we caught a bus for a daytrip to Valparaiso on the coast. Only 1000 pesos return ($10) on a very nice airconditioned TourCan bus, one of many which run frequently between Santiago and the Coast towns. The hour and half trip heads west through the lush green countryside and coastal hills to the seacoast. Valparaiso (nicknamed La Perla Del Pacifico = the Pearl of the Pacific) is the second most important port in Chile, with a population 260,000. It's considred one of the most uniqure cities in Chile and certainly one of the most unusual. It was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003. It could be described as Latin America's San Francisco because most of the city is built on the many 'cerros' (hills) that surround the harbour. The flat city centre, which we found rather shabby and in places run-down, didn't have the grand old buildings that Santiago has and what were there seemed mostly neglected with little restoration evident. Where the city has its charm is on the ceroos.

The hills are so steep you must take an ascensor (funi cular elevator) that creks at 40 degree angles up the hillside. On these cerros, with their labyrinthine roads, houses build on stilts, one on top of the other it seems, some of them new, others crumbling mansion, all of them painted vibrant colours. And then there's the stunning panoramic vistas down across the city rooftops, the scoop of the wide harbour with its navel ships and freighters, and the vast Pacific beyond.

The town has a unique faded grandeur and on some of the cerros, a bohemian charm. (In the lower town, we noticed the many criss-crossed electrical wires , the crumbling pavements, the narrows streets many of which are dirty and run-down. Obviously they lack the constant cleaning crews that sweep the streets clean in Santiago). Some of the cerros house the countries poorest shanty towns, houses made of corrogated tin, many of them ramshackle and ready to cave in. Apparantly petty crime is common in Valparaiso. And here we saw some unsavory characters lurking, felt a bit unnerved at times, which we never did in Santiago. (Perhaps because it's a seaport?)

In the distant past, the city was the first port of call for ships coming round Cape Horn and became a commerical centre and hub of Chile's banking industry. In 1906 a major earhtquake destroyed many of the downtown buildings so only a few of the impressive 19th C. architecture remains. Once the Panama Canal opened, Valparaiso suffered an economic decline and it didn't recover til after WW II. It's still an important port and the navy's presence is an important factor in the city's economy. (Note: don't get caught photographing the naval ships down at the harbour or you may end up in a Chilean prison!) In recent years, Pinochet decided to move the seat of Chile's govenrment to Valparaiso and had a new presidential palace built on property his own family owned. Apparantly the government is (or will be) now moved back to it's original site in Santiago. ***note: the following day, Pinochet was taken to the hospital in serious condition. Aged 90, he is not expected to survive. Before we left there Sunday there were already crowds gathering downtown by the Presidential Palace, waiting to cheer the moment of his death. As yet unpunished for his crimes against the people of Chile, perhaps he'll end up finding the Golden Gates locked when he arrives!)

Patrick and I wanted mostly to see the third house of Pablo Neruda. So we took an ascendor from Espirito Santo up Cerro Bellavista where the house, La Sebastiana, is located. The colourful hodge-podge of houses provided a lot of Kodak moments. We found our way through the maze of narrow lanes to a beauitufl blue and yellow building which we first supposed was the Poet's house. It turned out to be a rather interesting cafe and boutique mall where I did a little more shopping. Then we were directed to where La Sebastiana is located farther up the h ill.

You definitely need a good pair of legs and feet to transverse the cobble and cement byways of the cerros, mostly all uphill by road or steps. People here are very courteous and helpful so in no time we got directed to the right road up the hill. At one point we stopped at a kiosk to buy water and the kindly gold gent who ran the shop brought us out a couple of chairs to sit on under a shadey tree so we could rest awhile before proceeding on our way. The radio was playing a song that Sumalao often plays at the Latin Quarter and I know it was one of Anibal's favorites. So the brief time we spent there on that corner on cerro Bellavista was quite memorable.

Just up the hill a little way farther we located the house. Pablo Neruda didn't spend as much time at La Sebastiana as he did at his other two houses, but he always went there for New Years to watch the annual fireworks from his lookout. The house, which was built by an Italian carpenter named Sebastian (for whom it was named) who Neruda said was a 'poet with wood', like the other houses follows his style of the eccentric layout and the ship motif. The first floor was owned and occupied by two of his friends and the ceiling murals and beautiful stone mosaics were done by the woman, who was an artist. In the lobby are two paintings by Neruda's second wife, w ho was an artist twenty years his senior.

The house of Neruda starts from the second floor, ascending several floors up to the top room which was his study and lookout, with a broad specatacular view of the whole harbour and ocean. Each room in the house is full of the usual trinkets and beauitufl knick knacks he loved to collect and there are some lovely stainedg lass windows. Visitors are given booklets (in your own languat) to read describing the history of each room and the furnishings and objects, and you can wander around at will. No photos of the rooms are allowed but photos of the many vistas are permitted. One of my biggest thrills in this house, as in the others, was to stand by Neruda's desk and look around at what he could see from there when he was writing. In all three houses it was a magnificent view. And surrounding him are all the objects he loved including his books and manuscripts.

After our tour, we tried phoning my friend Hector who was to have arrived in Valparaiso the day before, but he wasn't home, so we decided to walk down the hill back to the city centre. The roads are at such an incline it's dizzying and difficult to walk without feeling like you are tilting forward and falling down and by the end our legs were shaking. (Amazingly, no still muscles the next day!)

We walked along the harbour looking for a cafe and eventually found a funky little diner where we had quite an interesting meal. I wanted fish, and ordered an dish called Chupa, which was a very thick seafood chowder with lots of cheese in it, and a Chilean salad and papas fritas. Patrick had beef dishes. We were both stuff afterwards and by then it was time to head back to the bus depot for the trip back to Santiago.

The ride back was very scenic. We pased by acres and acres of vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards. The valleys between the green hills of the coast and Santiago are stunningly beautiful.

Once we got back we headed for the supermarket where we had accidently left a bag of groceries the night before. Amazingly, they had recorded in a big log book, all the items left behind by customers, and we were told to get the stuff we'd forgotten from the shelves and it was given back to us. No exctra charge. Would Safeway ever do that? We were so impressed.

This is our last night in Santiago. By this time tomorrow we'll be homeward bound. I'm sorry to leave, but know even the best of times must come to an end.

NEXT: HOMEWARD BOUND

Saturday, December 02, 2006

ADVENTURES IN CHILE: Cementario General, The City of the Dead

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 1/06

Christmas music is playing in the malls and there is a festive spirit in the air. It seems odd, in this hot summery weather to see the Christmas decorations up.

We went to the Artisan Market in Banquadano this morning for some last minute gift shopping. Then to Cafe Cecilias for lunch. We took pictures of the crewÑ Cecilia, Mommy, Marisol and Leonardo. Then Cecilia took us for a tour of the Cementario General, a sprawling mtropolis of graes -- really, a city of the dead. La Ciudad de los Muertos. Hundreds and thousands of tombs, some incredibly ornate, mausoleums dating ack tothe early years of Santiago, rows and rows of wals of tomb about 2X2, graves of the poor marked with their plain metal crosses and the ordinary man{s simple grve with modest stones decorated with flowers, artificial and real. Some like mini condos for the dead or aprtment blocks. Quite an incredible sight. Here is the final resting place of political figures and Chilean folk heroes and musicians.

As we entered the cemetary there is a high wall engraved with the thousands of those missing and presumed dead from the 1973 military junta and another triple height long wall containing the tombs of those killed and spcaes for those unidentified dead. A very moving sight in memory of those who were murdered during the military regime of Pinochet. It is called Memorial del Detenido Desparecido y del Ejecileto Politico and was opened in 1994.

We visited the graves of Violetta Parra, a beloved Chilean singer´; the impressive monument and tomb of Salvatore Allende; the mordern metallic engraved sculputre marking the grave of Glady Marin, leader of the Communist Party of Chile who died recently, and far back by the graves of the poor and working class, the simple square red painted 2X2 tomb of the famous folk singer Victor Jara, one of those incarcerated in the stadium along with all the thousands of others that had been rounded up during the junta. When he refused to stop playing his songs for the detainees the soldiers smashed his hands and beat him to death.

It was interesting to note the group of young people, some who wouldnt have even been born in Sept 1973 who had come to pay homage to these national heros. How many thousands of those dead or missing were just the same age as these young men and women, because a great many of them were students.

After this interesting tour, Cecilia had to return to work, so Patrick and I went shopping to a big supermarket in Las Condes to buy some special goodies for Cecilia and grandma. They have been so generous and kind to us and refuse to let us treat them. So we loaded up on groceries that we know they like.

When we got back home Cecilia´s oldest son, Carlos was there so we were privileged to meet him. Cecilia was upset with us for buying her those treats but we insisted we wanted to reciprocate for her generosity. We are going to miss our little ´family´here I am invited Ceciia to come and stay with me a few days if she decides to come to Canada next summer. I told her we´d get into mischief!

NEXT: A TRIP TO VALPARAISO AND THE POET´S #3 HOUSE