This is my first trip to South America. The closest I have been to here is Costa Rica, and I am pleased to say that the machismo of Central America is apparently absent in this city at least, if not in the country. Most people seem happy and fairly upbeat. There is some construction occurring around the city, but not over-the-top, as in China these days or in Thailand before the Asian crash.
I missed out on a trip to the Andes because I forgot that I had gone back over the date line, and booked for the wrong day, but you can™t escape the dramatic alpine backdrop to the city. Well actually you could miss it for much of the day. By peering intently through the smog, one can often just make out the snow covered peaks, then the sky clears and the mountain range pops into view for a while. It is an interesting sensation to stand at ground level, look up to a nine or ten story building a hundred metres away, and still be able to see a thin ridgeline of mountains over the top of the building.
Everyone has been helpful, as in most countries, it is not too hard to find someone with at least a bit of English language, and it seems most people under 30 have at least a basic grasp of greetings etc. With a bit of sign language and effort, it is possible to get directions or help to decide on a menu.
I think it is a really good sign about the people that they obviously love and care for dogs. Dogs have always been important in my life, and it is clear that dog owners respond well to my pleasure at seeing their dogs. Actually a lot of dogs are without apparent owners. It is hard to say if there are owners somewhere, or if they are really street animals, even when they are obviously getting fed and some care, such as a shop owner breaking up a cardboard box so they do not have to sleep on a cold footpath.
It is fascinating that these dogs have learnt to use the pedestrian crossings. They trot up to the gutter at the lights, stop, look around at the people, and move across the street when the throng moves forwards.
Yesterday I observed a small dog that was stuck on a median strip, and was a bit frightened. A young man, probably mid 20™s, tapped his thigh and said something encouraging. The dog sat by his side, looking up to him, and waited. When the light changed, the man gave an instruction and both completed their crossing, going different ways when they reached the other footpath. Clearly a population that cares for animals is capable of caring for each other and good government.
Although this is clearly a time of prosperity for Chile, evidence of its traumatic and changeable political history is everywhere, in the form of the paramilitary police force, political graffiti and street protests. There are more police here than pretty much any other city I have visited, all wearing Kevlar. The president™s residence must have had 30 police around it, a heavily armoured police truck, and all public buildings have a high presence.
Chile seems to have moved beyond its history, and the emphasis now is on cultural development. It has a thriving film industry, and the availability of fusion food reflects the many different people and countries that are present here.
Food, another one of my major interests, along with dogs, has been delightful. Last night™s dinner included the following: pumpkin ginger and honey soup, baked camembert with a blueberry reduction, excellent stuffed mushrooms, served with a stuffed potato that had the most perfect texture (a little more cooking it would have collapsed, but it needed no less), some grilled vegetables and salad. Oh, and an exquisite Caipirinha with just the right balance of alcohol, raw brown sugar and lime. Chile grows a lot of fruit, and it is plentiful and cheap.
There is excellent seafood to be found, and the fish consumÃ© and white fleshed fish I have eaten here were excellent. Meat here does come in ridiculously big lumps, but this is just preparation for the next stop, which is Argentina.
Having missed out on the mountains, I did get to the largest winery in Chile, Concha Y Toro. They are not organic at this vineyard, but evidently they own the largest certified organic winery in Chile and last year they bought Fetzner, the famous bio-dynamic winery in California.
It seems that Chile sits somewhere between its more underdeveloped neighbours and the west, and its star is rising. I believe its prosperity is largely based on very exploitative and destructive mining, principally copper. It is reported that the mines are poorly managed and cause pollution. Other resources, such as fishing, are also likely overexploited.
Chile does have one thing in common with the many less developed countries I have visited in Asia and the Pacific, which is the lack of safety awareness. Beware footpaths with great holes and missing manhole covers, bicycles on footpaths and other hazards. Australians, Americans and Europeans have had safety driven into us for many decades, and we have rules about these things. Amputees are evident on the street, where they beg, and most do not have prostheses “ they are a reminder of the consequence of not thinking about safety.
Other slight annoyances include things such as the TV screens in airports not changing when the flight time changes, or screens with conflicting messages, and screens that unaccountably flick over to an announcement (something silly such as advertising that this is where you can find out about flight arrivals and departures) at such a rapid rate that it is difficult to locate your flight and read the details before the next rollover. In fact, given the police presence and security awareness, the airport seemed to be rather unpoliced. There were actually rubbish bins around in the airport and you are permitted to carry water onto the plane, even for international flights.
These are small things, and I retain my own tight safety awareness to compensate for the lack of official concern. In fact we have almost certainly overdone aspects of safety in the west, as we have slid into the nanny state over the last few decades. I look forward to returning to Chile another time, to get further afield from Santiago, up into the Andes, down to Patagonia and the ice flows, and up to the exceptionally dry deserts in the north.