Thursday, January 15, 2009

The South American Experience: Santiago, Chile

[NOTE: This is the final installment of my verbose travelogue, which took less than one year to finish. It covers our time in Santiago, Chile. Previously, Montevideo, Uruguay; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Puerto Iguazu, Argentina; and Valparaiso, Chile were discussed. Thank you for feigning interest in our remarkable tale.]

February 14, 2008
Valparaiso, Chile

Matt and I enjoyed one final breakfast at the Robinson Crusoe Inn before our second taxi ride in Valparaiso, which was much shorter and much more relaxed than the first. We secured two adjoining seats at the front of the bus, and proceeded toward Santiago in a timely manner. A teenaged male across the isle took an interest in our Americanness, and we struck up a conversation.

The youth was headed to Santiago to visit his cousin, with whom he would attend a World Wrestling Entertainment event. His English was very good, but I found myself speaking deliberately and avoiding contractions, making sure I was easy to comprehend. Noting his personal music player, he or I steered the conversation toward music.

(The recap is nearly at an end, so I'll take this opportunity to sandwich some music-related loose ends into the story.

First off, If I lived in South America for 50 years, I still could never ascertain when a hit song was on the radio or on music television. I watched a handful of music videos during our hotel room downtime, and they all sounded bad and looked worse. One possible exception was broadcast many times during our two weeks -- the song seemed okay, but the video felt too "Californication" to be enjoyed.

Unfortunately, when you don't speak Spanish, the language will push your subconscious toward the only songs you know that have Spanish lyrics. For me, that meant the following songs shared a near constant rotation in my head:

Cancion Del Mariachi (Morena De Mi Corazon) - Los Lobos with Antonio Banderas, as featured on the Desperado soundtrack

Mirando De Lado - Kinky, as featured on a Morning Becomes Eclectic compilation

Don't Cry for Me, Argentina - the Madonna song I'm pretty sure I never heard all the way through, from the goddamn Evita film that I'm sure I never watched.

The lesson, of course, is that I need to learn Spanish.)

My new teen friend talked enthusiastically about Dream Theater, a band that is basically American Rush. Although I now avoid DT's overwhelming brand of progressive rock, I immediately saw something of myself in the child. After all, I once owned DT's 1992 "Images and Words" cassette, thanks to the mostly-misleading yet then-amazing single "Pull Me Under". We continued to discuss bands, and he listed more hard rock preferences like Guns N' Roses and a DT sound-alike Stradivarius (who is, I can confirm from a brief pull off the young man's mp3 player, a cross between Mannheim Steamroller and Styx, and should be avoided). Shockingly, he betrayed his age by disliking Led Zeppelin, calling their music "boring" with the exception of "Stairway to Heaven". Ironically Of course, for most Americans, "Stairway" is now the most boring song in the Led Zep catalogue, overplayed on classic rock radio and made insufferable post-"Wayne's World" deluge.

I suggested he find himself some Queens of the Stone Age immediately, and also recommended Sleater-Kinney, Rage Against the Machine, Arcade Fire, and visiting Portland if he ever makes the trek to the US. Rock on, little friend, wherever you are. (Probably Chile, where I left you.)

From the bus depot, a taxi was required to reach our Holiday Inn Express further inside the city, in the upscale Providencia area. After check-in, Matt and I found and rode the very clean subway to Cerro San Lucia, a park near the center of Santiago's action. We passed fountains and statues and young couples making out on the way to the summit, where we were underwhelmed by the hazy Santiago panorama.

We left the park and continued to walk around that part of the city. In a large city square, a man soliciting donations to a local school talked to us briefly about the upcoming US presidential election. He might have been wearing eyeliner. Matt gave him some coin. We moved on, passing many more young, adoring couples, street vendors selling flowers and terribly tacky gifts, even a pair of dogs that seemed to be in the spirit of the Hallmark holiday.

Our previously purchased subway tickets were no longer working, thanks to increased rush hour fares, a practice that I assume is very easy to figure out if you are fluent in Spanish, yet a minor mindfuck if you are not. We bought new tickets, which came with a free piece of candy, and headed back toward our hotel's neighborhood.

Matt and I are simple Americans with certain Pavlovian urges. For two weeks, we'd been immersed in the Spanish language. The result? We hadn't learned a word or phrase, but we were incredibly hungry for tacos. When we passed Pub-Licity, a casual dining concept with a Mexican-looking menu, we abandoned our standards and ordered "El Mexicano", which appeared to include both tacos and taquitos. It was a mistake.

Back at the hotel, I ran up Matt's cell phone bill with a Valentine's Day call home. I never paid him back, but remain appreciative.

February 15, 2008
Santiago, Chile

We rose at 7 a.m. Matt had made arrangements to meet a man named Martin, who would take us on an kayaking excursion down the river, toward penguins and other exciting sights. A lame, cold, Holiday Inn Express breakfast fueled us before we walked outside, directions and map in hand, to meet our destiny.

Our appointment with Martin was at 9. We stumbled around the city until 9:30, unable to make any sense of the directions Martin wrote, coming close to the mythical address several times only to see our hopes evaporate. Matt was irate. He would become more irate later that day, after he checked his email account, and read a new message from Martin. The email was an Martin's apology. He forgot our appointment, and was therefore not at the rendezvous point at 9 a.m. Even if we'd managed to locate our destination that morning, Martin would not have been there to meet us. Matt swore a particularly gruesome vengeance against Martin that evening.

Down but not out, we regrouped at the hotel and set out for Cerro San Cristobal, a large park centered around a gigantic hill/tiny mountain that bracketed downtown's north side. We walked to the park entrance, purchased two one-way tram tickets, and rode to the summit.

A plaque announced that Pope John Paul II said Mass here a while back. A large statue of the Virgin Mary looked over the city, as did many telecommunications spires. Nice work, parks department! Lookin' good!

Matt and I elected to hike down Cerro San Cristobal rather than take the funicular down with the German tourists. The trail was long and winding, steep in spots, but easy overall.

It dropped us at the base of the park, a zoo in the trendy Bellavista neighborhood. It was early afternoon. The nightclubs were empty, as were most of the bars, but a few restaurants were active. We chose the busiest one, and sat outside, shaded from the bright sun.

The restaurant served traditional Chilean food. Seeking retribution for the previous evening's "Mexican" food disaster, we both enjoyed Escudo beer and studied the menu carefully. Matt picked the conger eel stew. Proud to venture into the exotic, I chose a complicated-sounding dish featuring beef and spices. It turned out to be potroast. The roast was overdone, and the primary spice was garlic; still, it could have been worse -- I could have gotten the conger eel. In fairness to the restaurant, there were many other dishes on other patrons' tables that looked awesome. Were it socially acceptable to flag a waitress, point at a neighbor's food, then point to my mouth, lunch would have been a more satisfying.

We'd already walked a good distance prior to lunch. The walk back to the hotel was not scenic, and seemed insultingly long, due to the influence of beer and the sun. We stayed in our room until sunset.

Several good restaurants appeared after a search. One looked especially fancy, advertising itself as Australian and featuring a female lounge singer. By the time we'd gathered an impression of the place, we were sick of her voice, and headed down the block. Tirimisu, a casual Italian restaurant, ushered us past the busy patio and seated us immediately. Matt had a calzone, I had a pizza. Both were excellent, as was our wine, our first ever bottle of Carmenere, and our 9th bottle consumed in a fortnight. Our final, tenth bottle -- a small cabernet sauvignon -- was purchased at the hotel lobby that night, at Matt's insistence.

February 16, 2008
Santiago, Chile

Out of steam, Matt and I needed to waste the morning, pack, and get to the airport well ahead of our 11:25 p.m. flight. We walked a mile or so to a gigantic mall, and stepped into only three shops: North Face, Penguin Clothing, and a bookshop, where I looked at books with pretty pictures of Valparaiso. It was a forgettable day.
The reason we don't have any quotes for this place is because it's ordinary as hell. I'm not saying it's the worst city in the world, there is just nothing to do. Everything fun is outside the city. Sure, the city is clean -- very clean for its size -- but that makes it even more uninteresting. My motto for Santiago: "Santiago. Whatever."
The subway, spectacularly clean though it may be, does not connect to the international airport. A taxi dropped us there at 5:30 p.m., which gave us plenty of time to fill out paperwork and pass through checkpoints. I consumed my first ever meal at Ruby Tuesday. We boarded a flight alongside a billion retirees, one of whom took the middle seat between myself and Matt. Unlike the flight south, I was able to sleep a bit this time.

Matt didn't want a traditional breakfast, and was wooed by the Chinese food offerings of the Dallas Fort Worth airport's food court. I accompanied him through the execution of the bad idea, and soon we both laid in an abandoned gate, quiet and queasy, upset about the freak snowstorm in Kansas City that cancelled our return flight, knowing we'd now have to fly into Wichita without our luggage, rent a car, and drive 2.5 hours to Lawrence, stopping only for at gas stations for drinks and a Journey CD. It was an annoying homecoming only made sweeter by seeing girlfriend's newly banged face cut hair and eating her freshly baked scones. Matt, unaffected by both of Kim's charms, had to back his own car out of my garage and head back to Wichita, like a sucker.

[End of vacation]

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