Santiago is an ugly city, and the Mapocho River smells like shit, the air is thick with pollutants, and everything is dirty. The women are much too average and the men are stiff in their suits. I am disappointed.
What luck I had when I went to eat lunch late in the afternoon at the Centro Mercado, which is the local fish market. I was looking for a cheap place to have fish and rice, and I wanted to drink and write for a while in order to rest from the red sun. I did not want to fall into to the steely tourist traps and the book said to find on the edge of the market the less touristy La Paila Dennisse. I walked through and didn´t see it. There were many places and their waiters were flagging me down. It´s a madhouse of trout, squid, octopus, snapper, salmon, haddock, eel - and they all smell as bad as good fish should smell. I loved it, and this what I was looking for. Only Greece offered cheap seafood as good, but I had to find La Paila Dennisse.
I went to see Providencia and Bella Vista, two of the neighborhoods I had been told were good ones to live in. The walk from Las Condes through Providencia through Bella Vista (up Cerro San Cristobal and back down again) to the Centro Mercado was long. In fact, I walked so much that my feet fell off. I didn´t notice it for several blocks when I looked down at the curb and saw my ankles scraping the hard concrete sidewalk. I went back and found them in the possession of a poor student. She gave them back, but I had to buy a poem from her first.
I decided to run for it, and I found the searing sunshine peering through the tin doors and solid silver roof ahead of me. It was hot, and I was day three in the same clothes (Air Canada had yet to deliver my bag), but I would rather take my chances with a portable cart outside that sold hot peanuts for CH$400 than buy a CH$5,000 fish for CH$10,000.
The walking was much faster when I had my feet again. And I went from Providencia to Bella Vista to the top of Cerro San Cristobal where the locked up Virgin Mary stands high and looks over the city of smog so thick that my nostrils swelled and ran off to the poor student for protection. So I had to pay her again for another poem to get my nostrils back, and I tried to take some pictures but they were no good, and I´ll have to go there again when the wind is blowing stronger and there is no bad air hovering above the city. The Virgin Mary, it seemed to me, was destitute in this clouded land. That didn't bother me so much as the fog did, because though I've believed that I could see a world without her, I wasn't prepared for the view to be so murky in her absence.
I walked through three times and did not see it. The right side had fish on ice that you buy for home. The left was the same thing. In front was an arcade or a cheap casino - I think it was a casino. I looked around and saw short, fat, dark-haired men with mustaches that curled down over the edge of their lips like handlebars on a bike. They were holding up menus and running toward me saying, "Aqui, Aqui!" They shouted that over and over again to get me to go here or there. I didn´t understand - "No Etiendo!" Their eyes lit up and they smiled the evil grin of expensive services and they charged harder; "Aqui! AQUI!" The walls closed around me. They got tighter and tighter and I didn´t understand anything they said. I was fucked; I was fucked into spending too much, of getting robbed the wild west way where what you don´t know cannot hurt you.
I was stunned at how disappointing Providencia was. It was supposed to be the middle class neighborhood, and instead it was a series of rows of run-down apartment complexes that had more laundry hanging from the sagging porches than it had cleanly painted walls. I likened it to the first time I saw Macy's in New York City: after all the years of seeing the glamorous Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television, my jaw dropped when, from the heights of the Empire State Building, I saw the peeled paint flaking off the crumbling exterior brick wall of the storied department store. It was a dump, and my disappointment in New York City was sealed, and even though I didn't quite feel the same way going into Providencia, I wasn't prepared for the malaise I'd feel after realizing the one nice neighborhood I considered living in Santiago was no more than a back street alley darkened by neglect and littered with garbage and ruins.
There were some bright spots, however. The fountain between Providencia and Bella Vista was nice, and so was the open air in this same area near the polluted Rio Mapocho. And then there was Bella Vista itself. This area is the known as the party section of Santiago, and I could see it was true because I was there in the dead of the day and all the buildings, except for a few tourist shops, were gated up while their owners and patrons rested for another wild night that had not yet begun. I liked the colorful buildings, and I liked the bustling student atmosphere on the streets. Pablo Neruda, the proud Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, lived under the gentle, quiet trees where the cobblestone streets meet the base of the hill where the Virgin Mary oversees the city.
When I reached the daylight I was nervous. People bombed around everywhere: there were construction workers, kids, school girls in uniform, those stiff men in suits, Bohemians in flowered skirts looking at my bag with wild eyes, and people, just people; they were everywhere and I stepped in line and walked along the sidewalk, outside the Mercado, until I turned left down a wider street. Then I felt the heat beat down on my bald head. My feet ached from miles of walking and all I wanted to do was to sit down in the shade.
I took the funicular to the top of the steep hill. The view should be spectacular, but with the low hanging haze of smog that tortures this city on a regular basis, it was difficult to find good pictures. Also, the mountains of snow that cap the Andes that are the on the eastern rim of the city had mostly dripped into the valley from the warm spring sun. Brown haze and brown hills make for a blend that requires bright white in order for an appealing photo can be taken. The contrasts simply weren't that interesting.
I turned left again and walked past a cart with sausages, tomato, and avocado. It would be easy to order because I could look up in my book the word that described the ingredients. But I wanted to sit. I NEEDED to sit. So I turned left again and went into the madhouse and its shade again.
Which brings me to another point, while there are areas that are nicer than others, it is difficult to tell one end of Santiago from another. All the neighborhoods blend together like the seasons in Scotland do: one can't tell when one season ends and another begins, but when one is standing in the middle of the new season, it feels different. In Santiago, the brown is the same from one block to the next, but the shapes change and this makes walking in this city both pleasant and frustrating. One the one hand, it is nice to stroll along the avenues taking in the slight changes of scenery as if watching life grow from infantality to old age. If one walks enough then there is adolescence, adult-hood, the mid-life crisis, the golden age, and death, and all the minor set-backs and growth periods that everyone experiences throughout life. On the other hand, however, walking from one point to the next leaves one wondering, "when the fuck will I ever get there?" because the buildings may grow from shacks to palaces in the blink of an eye, but they never go from the shantiest shack to the grossest affluence in less than a thousand breaths.
I was immediately hounded by a serious man in a white shirt that was stained from cutting fish. He was firm. His eyebrows were dark and pointed inward toward his nose and he swayed back and forth on his feet as if he was nervous. "Aqui, Aqui," he said, and I relented. The waitress brought me a menu and I ordered octopus with rice. She brought me a beer and I sat back, looked up at the chalkboard menu above me on the wall and read,"La Paila Dennisse."
It was as good of an octopus as I´d had in Greece.
After Bella Vista I headed to the Centro Mercado for my fish. The walk was nice, but hot. I followed a dusty path of tall, green trees and walked past an old government building and the art museum. The dirty river was to my right, and even though I couldn't smell it, I imagined its stench to have vapors capable of causing welts and an immediate vomiting death, so I stayed well left under the cover of the green leaves. Friends have asked me why I don't like the dry heat of the desert, and I've always said that it is because with humidity one knows when it is too hot. Dry air is more comfortable, but the heat is just as dangerous and I personally cannot feel that my body has been exposed to the dry heat until it is too late. I always get sick in the dry heat, so all I could think about was getting to the cool shade and smells of the fish market for lunch. But I was lost, too, both in a world I literally couldn't understand and in a world seemingly without a destination now that I had seen that Santiago was rather bland. The sun was beating through the trees and all the brown buildings looked the same. I asked for directions, was given them, and went on my way. I didn't understand the directions, so a few minutes later, when the first person I asked was well out of sight, I asked another person. Again, I didn't understand, but I walked forward anyway and hoped to recognize the square building I was heading toward. Saliva formed under my tongue and when I spat it out it came out as dust. Pretty soon dirt formed in my gums when the saliva took refuge with the poor student. My bag, which was full with two guidebooks and two cameras - one with an extra zoom lens, was heavy on my shoulder, so I switched it only to find that I had switched shoulders only a few minutes earlier and now both shoulders were sore. But onward I went still in search of food. I asked for directions again and understood nothing. Then I asked again and understood nothing. Finally a man who was going in the same direction as me pointed to the building, and until I stepped inside I was relieved to see the ice packs glowing in the dark building. Then the accosting began, and I still didn't understand. Confusion reigned until luck found what I was looking for. But even then, I still didn't understand what the waitress was telling me. So I ordered my food blindly and got only partly what I expected to get. She brought me more, and I still didn't understand, but I ate it anyway. Then I paid.
Of course, the best was the fish juice drink. There´s nothing better from a lobster than sucking the juices from the claws. This mussel juice and water that she served me was murky in a glass with stuff on the bottom. I drank it slowly, over an hour, to savor the taste of home so far away.
And then I asked Rita, the waitress, how to get to the Plaza de Armas, and she said it in Spanish, rapido, and I understood, and it felt like the start of a miracle.
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