Day 03: La Ciudad de los Muertos

Monday 19 May 2014

I’ve decided that the more time I spend here, the stranger this city gets. Or at least, the stranger the Chilean culture seems to get. Not that that’s a bad thing; rather it makes the place just develop in a sense of ‘charm’.

It being Monday, the museums are closed – something Chile has in common with continental Europe. Not that there were many I wanted to do anyway, only another Pinochet-related museum near my hostel actually that I didn’t even know existed until two days ago. Well I suppose that gives me something to do tomorrow morning.
I’ve been pondering how I should spend my time in Chile over the last couple of days, but I think I’ve hit upon a solution. Tomorrow lunchtime I shall leave and take the 2 hour bus to the coastal city of Valparaiso. I’ll stay there two nights (effectively one full day) and then take a mid-morning bus up to the town of La Serena, about 7 hours Norh. It’s a nice town apparently, but also close to the interesting Elqui valley, of which more when I get there.

Today, however, was spent doing two walking tours, operated by the same company (Tours4Tips; indeed Carlos, the tour guide for the first one, helped out Antonia do the second one). They covered many aspects of the city, although each was different; the morning tour went into the Northern edges of the city centre, through the many markets that give life to the poorer neigbourhoods of the city, and ended in the Cemetario General. The afternoon tour went South and concentrated more on the buildings, the history, and the politics of the city and the country. (The connection is Salvador Allende, worked in the city, is buried in the cemetery).

The Cemetario General deserves a bit of a mention. It covers an area of approximately 117 football pitches, and is home to maybe 2 million dead bodies. (One imagines that this would therefore be Ground Zero in any imminent zombie apocalypse). Unlike in Britain, where bodies are buried in the ground, here they’re not so much buried as ‘filed’; the majority of bodies being placed in vaults in grid-like patterns along each ‘aisle’ (imagine walking down a corridor with a huge filing cabinet six levels high on either side. That). As the bodies decompose, new bodies can be added; families oft buy a ‘vault’ and use it for everyone. (it is possible to ‘rent’ a vault for 3 years, after which any remains are removed to unmarked graves and the vault reused. This is useful for poorer families who can only afford a short-term memorial, although obviously the idea is that within those 3 years, they’ll have saved up enough money to buy it outright).
If one of these vaults doesn’t appeal then you an, at a large price, have a mausoleum – a much larger, chapel-like, edifice. Institutions (anyone from the Army to a local community group) can have their own mausoleums – think of these like private vaults contained within ornate buildings, rather than just on the aisles. Alternatively, very rich families and individuals can get their own (some are a little more ornate than others – somewhere within the cemetery for instance is an Egyptian pyramid and a small replica of Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral). Many presidents for instance have such complexes as their final resting place, including Salvador Allende, but not, interestingly, Augusto Pinochet (the T, like that drunk by uncouth Brits, is not silent).
Sometimes people look to some of these graves for inspiration and hope – it’s not uncommon to see a memorial covered with plaques and flowers as people have ‘found their own saints’ that they can request help from.

I mentioned a couple of entries ago about the large numbers of dogs lurking around. It seems that this is something welcomed by the local population; in the old days when Santiago was much smaller, people thought nothing of letting their dogs roam free (rather than walking them on a lead), as community was much ‘closer knit’ and people knew each other (and therefore each other’s dogs). However obviously dogs will be dogs, and before long the city had a lot more dogs than it used to,
But the citizens are very fond of their dogs, and even if no-one technically ‘owns; the dogs, the local community all look after them, feed them, fuss them, etc. And while it’s true there does seem to be a large population of dogs in the city, they’re all pretty tame, pretty clever, and get looked after well (they’re pretty healthy as a rule, well-fed, and even sometimes get knitted jumpers in winter).

Both tours ended with a sample of alcohol the first being a local cocktail called an ‘earthquake’ (Chileans are quite proud of their earthquakes but literally don’t get out of bed for anything below a 7 on the Richter Scale. Being inside buildings is generally safer in Santiago anyway due to the construction techniques), consisting of grenadine, white wine, and pineapple ice cream (!). The second was a combination of red wine and strawberries that tasted a bit like Sangria.

Have now successfully cooked in the hostel for the last two nights; not sure it’s any cheaper than grabbing an empanada from the street stalls, but it’s considerably healthier. Probably.

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