Day 01: Half the World Away

Day 01: 17 May 2014

The first continent outside of Europe I visited was Africa, in May 2000, when I went to Morocco for five days. This is unusual, as I’d imagine most Brits would go to North America first, or possibly (due to relatives, or sport) Oceania.
Apart from Antarctica, as of today I’ve now set foot in all of them, as i‘ve finally made it to South America.

First impressions of Santiago were not favourable. The bus in from the airport came straight down the main road and terminated not far from my hostel, by the metro stop of Los Heros. All along the way were derelict buildings, run-down side-streets, and the feeling that these suburbs weren’t really looked after or maintained. Graffiti was everywhere, tags more than street art, and nothing seemed to be clean. In fact, the whole journey looked how I would have imagined Detroit to look, had I not been there.

This feeling about the city continued when I went for an explore (my hostel didn’t ‘open’ until 11am, so I had a couple of hours to kill). Spent a bit of time walking around the maze of staircases that is Cerro Santa Lucia, a 19th century landscaped park on a hill in the centre of Santiago that offers great views of the city below. If you’re a fan of skyscrapers, partially-derelict buildings, and mist/fog patches that is. It was still relatively early so the sun hadn’t yet had a chance to burn away the morning mist, which was a bit of a shame as in the distance could be seen the faint outline of distant mountains –giving the impression that Santiago, like Mostar in Bosnia, is built in a crater surrounded by hills.
It being early, when I was walking up the road, nothing seemed to be open; a few people were cleaning the streets and behind the gates to a few buildings/driveways but it kind of felt this was merely sweeping over the cracks. There were quite a few people out and about, but many of them were the sort of people you’d go out that early to avoid. I also noticed a relatively large number of dogs roaming free; not ‘wild’, not in packs, but just, well, ‘there’. Not sure if any of them were owned or not, none of them were aggressive, but they were all ‘free’.

By the time I started to head towards the hostel, there was beginning to be much more life around. I wandered through one of the main squares only to be confronted with an evangelical samba band (endless drumming, occasional shouts of ‘Jesus’) and, on the edge of the square, the setting-up of a conservative rally (banners proclaiming ‘No to Abortion’ and ‘No to Homosexual Marriage’). I took a few pictures of status and then meandered on.
(On the way back to the hostel this afternoon, I walked past either the start or the end of a Gay Pride march. This, coupled with finding out on Twitter that today was the “international day against homophobia and transphobia”, explains both the march and this earlier anti- demonstration that was being set up.)

The hostel was pretty easy to find, down one of the side streets off the main road, a little walk out of the city centre. Again, the area didn’t feel particularly warming – a little unkempt, definitely without a tourist feel – but the hostel itself was fine; quite small (it actually feels like it used to be a large house), but friendly staff and a reasonably open casual vibe.

After a couple of hours of settling in, I went for a further exploration around the city. This partly involved searching for food, as although I’d eaten a lot yesterday and on the plane, I was starting to feel hungry, and was solved by passing by a small shop selling empanadas. These are like the Chilean equivalent of a pasty, and can be filled with all manner of things – although when you don’t speak Spanish, and the descriptions are merely names like ‘Mexicana’, ‘Italiano’, etc, it is very much pot luck. (there are some words I do recognise, so avoided the cheese one!). Truth be told, they’re not exactly exciting, but they fill a spot and at $700 they’re cheaper than the equivalent at Greggs back home, so….

In the centre of the city, I managed to discover the main shopping streets. These were absolutely crowded, and not just with people shopping either; street musicians, artists, more evangelicals – this was considerably more lively than I’d found so far. It then suddenly came to me what the city reminded me of; dodgy-looking suburbs, relatively narrow shopping streets with a slightly ‘dark’ feel (where the buildings cast grey shadows in the air and make everything feel ‘closed in’), people who don’t smile … it felt like the North of England used to be, something like Liverpool or Manchester circa 1983.

My search for food ended at a local minimart – a packet of crisps and a packet of chocolate biscuits. The hostel has a kitchen I can use to cook stuff, but maybe that’s tomorrow’s job. It sounds silly, but this is one of the things that I’m hoping travel gets me to do – improve my self-confidence enough to socialise and do things in the kitchen rather than always eating out (even if eating out involves street food). It’s also about self-confidence to go into supermarkets in other languages and do ‘normal things’ like that. Sometimes it’s the small things I have trouble with.

Don’t know how long I’ll be in Santiago for; I have a couple of places to visit within the city, and I’m undecided whether a trip to Valparaiso (two hours coach away) is best served as a day trip or an overnight stay. But this hostel seems fine so far so I’m not desperate to leave.

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