In November of 1991 my wife Dido won a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool for children with learning problems. Because it was going to be a long trip – about three months in all – and we had been married less than a year we decided that I would go along too. As it happened, Dido required her work with the kids to be recorded and as I had some experience with cameras she appointed me her video cameraman.
When we arrived in the country, Chile had been a democracy about the same length of time that we had been married, so this was a dramatic voyage of discovery in more ways than one. In fact, looking back on that trip now after nearly a quarter of century, I think that Dido and I agree that it remains one of the two or three most remarkable experiences of our time together.
We had decided to keep a written journal of the trip even before we left England, but within a few days of our arrival so many weird and wonderful – not to mention hysterical – things had happened to us that I decided to record the most amusing and surreal in a series of cartoons.
Presented here are those thirty-three pictures – made literally on the hoof; on trains, on buses and even on planes as we traveled the length (there is no breadth) of one the world’s most spectacular, most beautiful and most crazy countries.
These pictures are a humorous and very affectionate record of all aspects of the then new democratic Chile through the eyes of two wide-eyed newly-weds.
In the words of Inti Illimani – “VIVA CHILE”!!
When we arrived at Santiago Airport we were virtually kidnapped by a trolley porter who then took us through the red channel. When we were then searched by fearsome looking Carabineros and I couldn’t find the paperwork for the large video camera in my possession. My explanation that the camera was not new and the property of the Ealing Educational Authority failed to impress the policemen who then separated me from Dido and escorted me – with the camera – to a small room by the side of the customs hall. Once in the room they told me to sit down on a low wooden chair in the corner and to keep the camera on my lap. There was a glass window in the middle of the opposite wall through which I could see a very worried Dido still standing among all our ransacked baggage and suit cases. For about twenty minutes I was left alone with one Carabinero, who stood leaning against the door just staring at me expressionlessly. Then two more policemen entered the room and – ignoring me completely – turned on a TV fixed to a bracket suspended from the low ceiling. There was a football match on and soon all three men were totally engrossed, occasionally shouting at the screen. At first I’d been too frightened by my predicament to take much notice of the game, but as the minutes passed I realised it was an international game and one of the teams was Chile. And then, as fear turned to boredom I began to watch the match too until I finally recognised one of the Chilean players. Without thinking, at the moment I recalled his name I blurted out it out, “Ivan Zamorano!” The three jackbooted Carabineros all instantly turned to look at me with looks of amazement on their faces. Then, one of them who spoke English asked me, “Zamorano! You know him?” “Of course! He plays in Italy for Internazionale” I replied, then added, lying through my teeth, “He’s one of my favourite players. I’m a big fan!” And with that it was as if I had turned on a switch. Next thing I knew, the three men were all smiles and charm personified and I was being escorted back to Dido, with our camera and sent on our way. Who says football is just a game…The first thing you noticed upon arrival in Santiago back in 1991 (I’m sure it’s improved by now) is an all pervading smell from the heavy smog, trapped over the city by the surrounding mountains. The smell was distinct and highly reminiscent of burnt cooking oil. The only way to be outside and escape the smog was to climb the famous Cerro San Cristobal hill that rises some 300 meters above the city. However, the problem with this was that the climb was steep and until one emerged from the polluted air very painful on the lungs. Still, the rewards were both clean air, and once at the top, beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary, stunning views of the Andes rising above the city like a sheer and mighty snow-capped parapet.
There must have been many culprits responsible for Santiago’s poor air quality back then, but I guess the greatest contribution were the hundreds (if not thousands) of small buses speeding about all over town, belching great gobs of black sooty exhaust from their tin chimneys. More daunting than their exhaust though, at least to the newly arrived foreign traveler was negotiating how to use the things. Each minibus had its own peculiar route scrawled on its side in barely legible graffiti-like writing. Then, once one had decided to gamble on a particular vehicle, and waved it down – there didn’t seem to be any official bus-stops – one had to literally leap on before the impatient driver lurched off almost immediately. On several occasions either I or Dido were too slow and ended up being dragged along the curb, holding onto the door rail for dear life.