(Santiago, Chile to The Lakes, Argentina)
“It was as if I had been travelling in a tunnel for months and had just popped out of the other end, at the far side of the earth, in a place that was maddeningly familiar.”
So said Paul Theroux on arriving in Argentina, after his epic train journey from Boston 40 years ago. Not that the Argentines and Chileans like to be compared to each other (unless it is to say that you absolutely, definitely, categorically prefer their country to the other…), but my feelings on arriving in Santiago, Chile, weren’t far off.
In Santiago the local neighbourhood became my neighbourhood. Full of character, with cobbled streets, an old tramline, multi-coloured warehouses and homes.
Had normality resumed? Morning runs (proof that muscle memory and the effects of altitude aren’t just myths?), my own cooking (no rice!), kids running through fountains in the park on a hot Sunday afternoon, and a bottle of wine at a chichi pavement café in the evening sunshine.
And then there were my canine friends. The Englishman and his dog has nothing on Chile (and Argentina too, it turns out). The burgeoning population of stray dogs have been a sad sight to me since I arrived in Mexico back in October, but the residents of Santiago are such dog lovers that they feed, shelter – even clothe (yes, you read that right)– the strays. The local pound had to be shut down a few years back… Having said that, I nearly lost a flip flop to yet another pair of mating dogs during an open-air concert a few days later (don’t ask), so I’m not altogether won round by this doggy charity.
Now adopting dogs is one thing – but what happens when they adopt you? Looking at it from Buster’s point of view though, he probably thought I was the stray, not the other way round… (Funny that even when you try to be alone, someone/thing always intervenes. In the Rockies I diligently kept all food outside my tent for fear of a (real) bear hug in the middle of the night. In Argentina’s Lake District, I was more worried about my new “friend” breaking in and going for my porridge oats…)
Back to Chile though, and my “normality” was given a kick in the teeth when I visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. Because, even in (my) living memory, things were not always so normal. September 11th had a significance for millions of Chileans long before the date became etched in the mind of the rest of the world. On that day, in 1973, a military junta led by General Pinochet and (allegedly, possibly…) supported by the CIA threw out the (first ever democratically elected) Marxist government and took charge.
They didn’t just walk in either. Well, actually, they did. But then once everyone had already put their hands up and said “yes, ok, maybe you can do better, let’s give you a chance”, they still sent some war planes over and bombed the hell out of the seat of government. What, they didn’t need an office? Apparently not. Symbolic gestures for the sake of the tabloids aren’t a new thing, it turns out.
Many of you will know all about this already, so I won’t go into the full history (again – consult Google/Wikipedia!). But my own knowledge was shaky to say the least, and I am grateful to the many Chileans for filling me in on the blanks that still remained, even after spending a chilling two hours in the museum learning too much (though probably not enough) about the 17 years of dictatorship, torture, and disappearances under Pinochet’s rule.
Now in the interests of balance, it is generally accepted that the country was in a right old mess before the coup. But on the other hand Allende’s (unwelcome) taxing of the huge copper industry was also funding free primary and secondary education – a novel idea at the time, and a legacy that remains to this day. There are so many shades of grey though, even my tour guide was worried about speaking her mind. It is still an enormously divided country – it seems that you are either on the left or the right, there is no centre ground. There are some clear wrongs and clear rights, but no-one seems to have yet worked out which side was best. I suspect this is because the answer is: Neither. Imagine the problems the writers of the history curriculum have keeping everyone happy?!
End of the lesson for now though.
And on to Valparaiso, notable for its steep hills, colourful port, ancient wooden funiculars, street art of all varieties (painters, dancers, and surprisingly decent musicians for once) and sea food. Not so sure about range of unidentifiable molluscs floating in my lunchtime soup though.
“Valpo” is also notable for its no-go areas. Including the thriving, bustling market with its huge population of cats (taking refuge from the dogs?), and kindly stall holders – who dolled out free personal security advice along with free bunches of parsley. I was more grateful for the latter.
I wasn’t sorry to leave though – it was the first time on my trip that a bus driver has been rude and unhelpful, and the first time I have been made to feel guilty by baggage handlers in the bus station (look, I know it’s a heavy bag, but I am considerably smaller and lighter than any of you and I can still manage it, right?).
Time to move on. And probably time to consider some lonesome travel again too – after one too many “mauled by a bear/slept on a cactus” stories from a 50-something Canadian in one hostel, Justin Bieber on repeat in another (did I miss the moment when this became acceptable taste in music?), and the sheets being whipped off my bed by some drunken Irishmen in yet another (I’m not proud of my 1am outburst, they were only trying to persuade me to go dancing with them after all, and I only have myself to blame for the two-day wine hangover I was suffering…). On the other hand, I was also lulled to sleep by another Irishman reciting Shakespeare sonnets from his top bunk that same night, so sometimes I just have to take the rough with the smooth!
Somewhere back there I mentioned wine though . And so to my discovery of Carmenere – the grape exclusive to Chile after the disease wiped it out from Europe – and now my new favourite. Luckily Concho y Toro (makers of the delightful cheap’n’cheerful Casillero del Diablo) didn’t disappoint. The fact that they were also happy for us to take a stroll amongst their vines, eating as many juicy, sweet grapes as we liked, notched them even further up on my “favourites” list.
Just across the mountains, and across another border into Argentina, Mendoza is the other famous wine (and hangover) producing region of South America. Harvest was in action, and I watched the high-tech de-stemmer with its high-tech sweepers (ripped up cardboard boxes) working away whilst nursing a glass of half-fermented, milky Chardonnay. Can’t necessarily recommend it, but it would have been rude to refuse…
But having marvelled at the dramatic, rugged mountains between Santiago and Mendoza, with their folds of pinks, greys, and yellows, passing Aconcagua (highest mountain in the Americas) and choosing the worst possible moment to go to the loo (learning point: look out for the hairpin bends next time…), it was time to continue on my relentless march south.
This time the boredom of the pampas was relieved not only by spotting the odd herd of wild horses (or not wild? Difficult to tell in such vast empty spaces), but also by – wait for it – Bus Bingo! Finally, some family fun for all – a welcome change from the usual violent/full volume movie screenings. I actually did reasonably well, even without the Two Fat Ladies. However the final victor was my neighbour across the aisle. I would have suggested we share his prize – a jolly nice looking bottle of wine – but then his companion decided to bring out some cream cheese and crackers as an accompaniment. And the sight of his 8 inch “pocket knife” (no, no euphemism – it was alarming enough as it was) glinting in the sunshine a few feet away swiftly made me rethink. I went back to my book.
Finally to the Lake District. Which, in these parts, bears more resemblance to the European Alps than Cumbria. I even camped in a tiny hamlet called Colonia Suiza. And who said the Swiss never tried to build an empire? Chalets, lakes, forests, mountains – and chocolate. Disappointingly the “best chocolate in Argentina” still had more of a hint of Hershey than Lindt, but I still believed it was my duty as a tourist to try it out. And to finish it. Every. Last. Crumb.
Being in Argentina, it has also been my duty to eat meat. Lots of it. The best beef empanadas since Mexico (from a little road-side stall near Mount Aconcagua, in case you’re passing by), an enormous juicy rib-eye in Bariloche, and an authentic “asado” (Argentinian BBQ) experience in my campsite. I was invited to join some friendly bus drivers who also appeared to be masters of the embers, sweeping them from the pile of burning wood to keep the meat at just the right temperature to cook the… Well, the chewiest bit of beef I’ve ever eaten actually. Still, it gave me a chance to practise the “3 S”s (Spanish, Spanglish and Sign language) with varying degrees of success, for which I thank them.
The next day, having sworn to give my stomach a break, I was persuaded to try a Curanto. For those not in the know (anyone?), this is an Argentinian/Chilean feast of medieval proportions. Beef, pork, chicken, chorizo, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, squashes, apples, all piled high on burning hot stones, covered with a layer of young leaves and branches, then a few hessian sacks with heaps of soil thrown on top. After a couple of hours, the anticipation is palpable. The smell of hot earth, a couple of spades lying idly by… And then the big reveal, with onlookers applauding as the chefs carefully removed each element with their asbestos fingers. I dutifully accompanied my feast with a locally brewed raspberry beer (well if it’s alright for the Belgians…). I know a few people who would have been in heaven, even during the meat-coma aftermath. I suspect they know who they are too. I, however, was more excited by the carrot I finally managed to eat for my dinner.
Aside from all of the eating, the Lake District also saw me cycling and hiking in bright sunshine. Passing dogs probably raised an eyebrow as they heard me muttering “come on little engine” to my legs (yup) as I cranked down the gears going up the gravelly hills, imagining all of that dulce de leche petrol sloshing through my bloodstream… Worth it for the incredible views of the same, endless lake going on and on. And on. Around peninsulas, up fjords like oil paintings (question: is a fjord still a fjord once it is inland?), towards the hazy mountains on the horizon.
Then the next day I spent dodging rain showers, grinning inexplicably at nothing but the fun of being the only solitary soul on a pebble beach, the pine trees howling at each other behind me in the wind, the squalls whipping up spray from the lake and throwing it into my face, and kelpies dancing across the water…
Well, it was Paddy’s Day – spirits and madness infect us all (!)
Or maybe it was just that I’d finally decided to go cold turkey on the wine.
The chills of Patagonia next though – we’ll see how long that one lasts.